In his 1975 novel Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach imagines an early 21st century environmental paradise; a woman led “green” nation carved out of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest after the region secedes from the United States. Spend some time in New Zealand and you’ll begin to wonder if Callenbach’s utopian fantasy was not so much far-fetched as geographically misplaced. 

As I stroll through downtown Auckland on an antipodean winter’s day, the larger than life visage of Helen Clark, the country’s liberal, mountain-climbing prime minister, stares down from billboards and bus shelters. An election is under way during my visit last July and the hot-button issue is genetic engineering. On Auckland streets Green Party campaign billboards directed at the country’s indigenous Maori voters read “GE: Kaua e whakatoi” (roughly “Genetic Engineering: Don’t Play God”). Maori leaders meanwhile warn that tinkering with New Zealand’s DNA will violate deeply held spiritual beliefs. 

That Maori worries about genetic engineering are of concern to the country’s political elite speaks to the changes in New Zealand society over the past two decades. The transformation is apparent the moment I board my Air New Zealand flight. “Kia ora,” chirps the flight attendant, using the Maori phrase for hello. Turning on the evening news in Auckland, I hear the same greeting from the preternaturally perky blonde anchorperson. Readers routinely encounter Maori words and cultural references in their daily newspaper. 

The revival of Maori language is but one sign of the far reaching changes occurring in New Zealand’s social order, fostered in no small part by the woman sitting in the chief justice’s chair, Sian Elias, JSM ’72. An immigrant who married the scion of one of New Zealand’s most storied families, Elias spent much of her career as an attorney battling governments both left and right on behalf of the Maori. In a series of landmark cases, she helped establish the legal framework that has revolutionized relations between European and Maori New Zealanders.

“The respect she has built among Maori as a result of that work is of lasting importance for us all,” said thenPrime Minister Jenny Shipley in 1999, when announcing Elias’s elevation from a  High Court judge to chief justice.

That Elias is the first woman to lead the nation’s courts-and one of the world’s few female chief justices-is not altogether novel in New Zealand. After all, women serve as prime minister, attorney general, and governor-general (the titular head of state who represents Queen Elizabeth II). The matriarchy extends to the leadership of many of New Zealand’s political parties, its capital city, and the country’s largest corporation. Rather more remarkable is that a conservative prime minister tapped one of the country’s leading liberals to shepherd New Zealand’s tradition-bound judiciary into the 21 st century. Imagine if you will, George W Bush replacing Chief Justice William Rehnquist ’52 (AB ’48, AM ’48) with Laurence Tribe.

In the coming years, Elias’s mark on New Zealand society is likely to grow even deeper. She is presiding at a defining historic moment: after 160 years, New Zealand is about to cut the cord that binds its courts to Mother England. It will be the last of the major former British colonies to establish a judiciary entirely on its own. For the better part of two centuries, the Privy Council, a group of mainly British judges sitting in London, has served as the court of final appeal for Kiwis. For decades many New Zealanders have wanted to sever this tie to the so-called Law Lords. But some Maori (along with businesspeople and others) opposed this move, seeing the Council as a more impartial body to mediate their disputes with the country’s Europeans. The Maori opposition to judicial independence relented last year, and in December 2002 the government introduced legislation to establish, at long last, an independent New Zealand Supreme Court as the highest court in the land. Elias will play a pivotal role in shaping the new legal system, which must meld two very different traditions and reconcile age old grievances. 

Maori leaders undoubtedly draw comfort from knowing that Elias will be at the helm of the new court. Four years ago, at Elias’s swearing-in ceremony, a Maori elder opened the proceedings with a karakia, or prayer. Elias donned a Maori feathered cloak over her judicial robes to take the oath of office. “We must respond to the diversity of cultures and interests through the community by ensuring that our procedures, language, and methods are accessible and not alienating,” she told an overflow audience of European and Maori New Zealanders. The courts need to hold on, she explained, “to what is good in the inherited legal tradition we value, while developing a voice that is truly our own.”

New Zealand began to speak-loudly-in its own voice 18 years ago, when this island nation of nearly 4 million declared itself nuclear-free and banned U.S. atomic warships from its harbors, determined to chart its own course independent of America. Roughly the size of California with a landscape of unblemished beaches and pristine snow-packed peaks, New Zealand prides itself on its “clean and green environmental policies and compassionate social welfare system. One of the most serious challenges to Prime Minister Helen Clark, the head of the liberal Labour Party, doesn’t come from the right; it’s from the Green Party, co-led by an organic farmer named Jeanette Fitzsimons. (The main conservative party, meanwhile, has seen its prospects plummet since it replaced its veteran female leader with a less-experienced man.) During last July’s election campaign, controversy swirled around Clark’s intention to lift a moratorium on the release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms. A Green Party television spot depicted a dystopian future if such genetically modified plants and animals are let loose in this land of untouched wilderness. 

The left-leaning politics of the country should not be overstated. The country went through its own version of Thatcherism in the 1980s. The largest party today, Labour, has held power by moving to the center and governing with the support of a small party that is moderately liberal. 

Elias is a poster child for the new New Zealand that is emerging. For ceremonial occasions she dresses comfortably in the full regalia of English magisterial finery-scarlet robes and a shoulder-length horsehair wig-and appears every bit the part of the Right Honorable Dame Sian. (She became a dame, the female equivalent of being knighted, shortly after assuming her current post.) 

Her grand title aside, Elias has earned a reputation as something of a people’s chief justice. She walks to work in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and lunches alongside the cubicle dwellers and bureaucrats who frequent the harborside city’s cafes. “She hasn’t changed a bit,” says Maui Solomon, a leading New Zealand attorney who once served as junior counsel to Elias. “She’ll see you on the street and say, ‘Hi! How are you?’ There are no airs or graces about her. Sian has brought a breath of fresh air to the judiciary.” 

Elias’s youngest son, Ben Fletcher, recalls when his mother hosted a group of visiting chief justices from other British Commonwealth countries. “These people are used to being treated as royalty,” says Fletcher, a 26-year-old lawyer. “Mum trotted them all out to our farm, which is very basic. It was an hour and a half drive on a dirt road, and I think they got the shock of their lives.” 

Accustomed to American judges who often operate at an Olympian remove, I get a bit of a jolt myself upon meeting the chief justice lastJuly, when she casually strolls out of her office for our interview and ushers me into her spacious chambers. “Welcome to New Zealand,” says Elias, wearing a chic knee-length black-and-gray jacket, gold bracelets jangling. At 54, she bears a resemblance to the folk singer Joan Baez and exudes an easygoing warmth. All the same she chooses her words carefully, speaking with a formality befitting the highest judge in the land.

Elias is now a member of New Zealand’s upper crust, but she was born in London to a Welsh mother and an Armenian physician father. She immigrated with her parents to New Zealand as a toddler, attended an Anglican girls’ high school, then enrolled at the University of Auckland, where she received her law degree in 1970. The prospect then of a female chief justice must have seemed remote. The first woman had been admitted to the New Zealand bar in 1897-four years after the country became the first in the world to grant women the vote. But the law remained overwhelmingly a male preserve in 1970. Fewer than 2 percent of New Zealand attorneys were women and it would be another five years until the country saw its first female judge take the bench. 

If London was still swinging and San Francisco grooving at the dawn of the 1970s, Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, remained a relatively staid redoubt of British puritanism. Until 1967, bars shut their doors promptly at 6 p.m. “An Australian model, returning to Sydney after a week in New Zealand, when asked what it was like, replied. ‘I don’t know: It was closed,'” wrote Kiwi historian Keith Sinclair. 

Elias did what countless other young New Zealanders did: she left. She had been accepted into a postgraduate program in the u.K. That plan changed abruptly when she married Hugh Fletcher (MBA ’72) whose family ran what was then one of New Zealand’s most powerful corporations. Fletcher was set to attend Stanford’s Graduate School of Business so Elias submitted a last-minute application to the Law School’s JSM program. “It wasn’t really a choice,” she says. “It was an accident, a very lucky accident.” 

For Elias, her time at Stanford would have a lasting influence. “American jurisprudence is very principle focused. I’ve become a big fan of American jurisprudence,” she says. “I think that’s [given me] a different perspective than many of my colleagues who haven’t had that experience. It helped me to think differently.” 

As significant was the shock of being suddenly transplanted into the political maelstrom of early 1970s America. Bob Paterson, JSM ’72, a classmate and compatriot of Elias, remembers her as a keen observer of the era’s turmoil, if not one who necessarily took to the streets, as he did, to protest the bombing of Cambodia and to march with Cesar Chavez. “Someone like Sian was able to pick the best aspects of the American system and take them back to New Zealand,” says Paterson, now a law professor at the University of British Columbia. “We grew up in a system where law was just rules to be applied.” At Stanford, he says, they learned law could be employed for social change. 

Elias explains: “Going to the States was just much more challenging on a social level. It was the first wave of feminism, and that was eye-opening. It was quite difficult returning to New Zealand in ’72 for that reason.”

Moving back to Auckland, Elias struggled to find work as one of the country’s few female barristers. Under New Zealand’s British-style legal system, barristers depend on solicitors to refer cases to them. It was the ultimate boys club, and in the 1970s most of the boys didn’t play with the girls. Elias made do with odds and ends-a commercial case here, an environmental case there-sometimes appearing in court with one of her two young sons in tow. 

Elias’s big opportunity came in the early 1980s. Under New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, the British annexed the country in exchange for guaranteeing Maori the possession of their lands. That promise was not always kept. Inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement, young Maori activists demanded that the government fulfill its obligations under the treaty and return tribal lands. Elias began representing Maori arrested during the land protests. Through this work she met Maori elders who subsequently asked her to represent them before the Waitangi Tribunal, which the government had set up to hear claims and make recommendations for their resolution. 

Elias represented them well. In 1988, the government anointed her a Queen’s Counsel, one of the first two New Zealand women to receive the honor usually reserved for somber, gray-suited members of the legal fraternity. Seven years later she was appointed to the High Court, which acts like federal district courts in the U.S. In 1999, she was tapped to become the nation’s chief justice. Her promotion was welcomed by politicians of every stripe and persuasion.

Rangatiratanga. The word rolls off Elias’s tongue as if it were just another Latin legal phrase, like quid pro quo or habeas corpus. It is one of dozens of Maori words that pepper her speech, each one enunciated with patrician precision. 

She does not use the Maori language just to appear politically correct. Maori terms such as rangatiratanga—which embodies Maori authority over their land and obligation to care for it—defy direct English translation. 

The Maori constitute about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population. They lag behind New Zealanders of European ancestry in health, wealth, and education, but have claims to vast tracts of land. In comparison with indigenous peoples in other former British colonies, they wield significant political clout. It was not always this way. 

A Polynesian people, the Maori first journeyed to New Zealand a millennium ago. They called their new home Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. The British began settling there in the early 1800s, but they found themselves vastly outnumbered by Maori warriors. So when Queen Victoria annexed New Zealand in 1840, she did so not as a conqueror but as a petitioner, signing the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori chieftains. In exchange for Maori recognition of British rule over New Zealand, the British Crown promised the Maori they would retain ownership of their lands. 

But the Pakeha, as the Maori call European New Zealanders, didn’t always keep their end of the bargain. Over the next century, the Maori found their ancestral lands slipping away as disease, war, and theft took their toll. Despite the Treaty of Waitangi’s status as the nation’s founding document, it had become something of a historical relic by the mid-20th century, invoked annually on the anniversary of its signing but pretty much ignored the rest of the year. 

If the treaty had faded from the consciousness of European New Zealanders, so too, to some degree, had the Maori, who tended to live in rural areas. “If you grew up in the city, like I did, you never saw Maori,” says Paterson, Elias’s classmate. While Elias also had little exposure to the Maori during her early years in Auckland, one childhood memory remains indelible: the day her mother took her to the Auckland foreshore to witness a Maori encampment being forcibly removed. “They said that it was too untidy to have the settlement right on the waterfront,” Elias recalls, shaking her head. “That was the attitude then.” 

By the early 1980s when Elias began to represent the Maori, however, that mind-set was being questioned. Elias calls it “unbelievable” that she had never read the treaty until that time-even though her dissertation was on New Zealand constitutional law. 

The treaty itself consists of only five paragraphs. But the cultural divide between the English and Maori translations of those 500 or so words loomed large. Maori tradition eschews Western notions of private property, and so Elias found herself grappling with such concepts as rangatiratanga. For Elias and a small cadre of attorneys, the early treaty cases represented labors of love, done pro bono or for token pay. “I think a lot of her colleagues would have turned their noses up at taking on such highly political cases,” says Shane Jones, a Maori leader who met Elias in the early 1980s. “But her willingness to take cases unpopular with the legal community enabled her to show her brilliant legal mind.” 

Says another Maori leader, Archie Taiaroa: “She was able to fit in very well with what the thinking was by the Maori. She was very open to knowing the situation of colonization in New Zealand and the feeling that something had to be done.” 

Ben Fletcher remembers that during his childhood his mother would take him and his older brother to ceremonies at Maori meeting houses and to her Waitangi Tribunal hearings. “Mum feels their pain,” Fletcher says. “The stories of what it meant to the tribes to have their lands taken away from them will affect Mum until the end of her days.”

One story in particular touched Elias and set her off on a legal crusade that resulted in a groundbreaking ruling for the Maori in 1987. Nganeko Minhinnick, a Maori activist, had spent years battling a local planning board over the pollution of a river sacred to her people. The planners rejected her pleas to take into account Maori spiritual and cultural values when they were deciding whether to approve sewage discharges into the Waikato River, contending that the law did not permit such considerations. “Whenever we got ill my parents would walk 10 kilometers to the Waikato River because it was spiritually healing,” Minhinruck says. “Everyone else just seemed to view it as a place to dump rubbish.” 

Elias filed a suit on Minhinnick’s behalf and took the case to the High Court. “I don’t know if she had a 100 percent understanding of the spiritual and cultural values,” Minhinnick says of Elias, “but she certainly had far more than any other lawyer I had met in those days.” 

Elias’s approach was unusual: She maintained that under the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori spiritual concerns must be considered regardless of whether the treaty was referenced in any particular piece of legislation. It was the first time Elias, then 37, had argued the treaty in the High Court. She was nervous and had good reason to be so. The courts had been disinclined to apply the treaty to domestic law. But as Elias researched the historical record, she discovered this was not always the case. “The early decisions in the courts acknowledged that common law picks up customary law wherever it goes and that applies to Maori custom,” she says. 

The High Court agreed. “Maori spiritual and cultural values cannot be excluded from consideration if the evidence established such links to a particular and significant group of Maori,” the court held onJ une 2,1987. The ruling would become a cornerstone for consultation with Maori on everything from urban planning to genetic engineering. Says Elias, “That was probably the biggest personal satisfaction I ever had in any of that litigation.” 

But there was no time to rest. In the 1980s New Zealand was undergoing a gut-wrenching upheaval as the government moved to dismantle the country’s state-dominated economy-“the most extreme of the government-slashing, privatizing regimes of the time, out-Thatchering Thatcher,” as a writer for the New Statesman put it. With land claims piling up before the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori feared there would be little property left for compensation as the government divested itself of its holdings. Elias, working under the lead of an attorney who would later become a High Court judge, sued to block the government from disposing of the national patrimony until provisions for protecting Maori interests could be put in place. 

It was an audacious undertaking financed on a shoestring. At night Elias would slip into her husband’s six-floor office building and do photocopying for the case, moving from floor to floor, leaving jammed copiers in her wake. “The next day they knew it was me,” she says. The trash bins were full of papers with Maori names on them. 

Late in 1987, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal, the country’s highest domestic tribunal, affirmed the Treaty of Waitangi’s importance as the nation’s founding document. For New Zealand, the impact was the equivalent to Brown v. Board of Education. “The duty of the Crown is not merely passive but extends to active protection of Maori people in the use of their lands and waters to the fullest extent practicable,” a unanimous court held. “This means that where grievances are established, the State for its part is required to take positive steps in reparation.”

If Elias’s advocacy on behalf of the Maori had a radical consequence, her legal arguments were essentially conservative-reaching back into the nation’s judicial history to support the application of the Treaty of Waitangi to contemporary laws. “We had forgotten so much of our own history,” she says. “It has taken us a long time to rediscover it, but it’s there in our beginnings.” And once the history was recalled, New Zealanders embraced some of the nation’s founding principles. “There’s been a revolution in attitude, and in quite a short time,” she adds. What seemed extreme 20 years ago is taken as conventional wisdom today. 

Not as accepted is the growing number of Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal petitions that have multiplied in the wake of Elias’s earlier advocacy. To detractors, what began as a noble effort to right past wrongs has spawned a multimillion dollar “claims industry,” enriching lawyers and some Maori at the expense of others. Maori claims for wider swaths of New Zealand have triggered a backlash from some conservative politicians and calls for a cap on treaty payouts. A Maori petition now before the Waitangi Tribunal asserts Maori rights over indigenous plants and animals-a claim that could immensely complicate efforts to accommodate Maori concerns over genetic engineering. The Labour Party won reelection and has pledged to lift in October the ban on releasing genetically modified organisms in New Zealand. Inevitably, some of these disputes will reach the Court of Appeal and, in the future, New Zealand’s new Supreme Court, expected to be up and running in 2004. Reconciling the interests of Pakeha and Maori will prove a delicate balancing act for the Elias court. “She now has to think in a much more global sort of way,” says classmate Bob Paterson. 

The gains of the past two decades notwithstanding, some Maori remain skeptical that the legal system can effect real and lasting change. The pioneering court decisions of the late 1980s reaffirmed the principals of the Treaty of Waitangi but do not necessarily guarantee that Maori will prevail in their claims. When Nganeko Minhinnick talks about how the Waikato remains polluted 15 years after the milestone ruling on its behalf in the High Court, her voice betrays a weariness born of her half-century fight to protect the river. “I can’t see one place we’ve managed to save from all the court cases we’ve done,” says Minhinnick in a phone interview, above the chatter of her grandchildren. 

For Elias, the Treaty of Waitangi offers no surefire blueprint for the two peoples who in 1840 agreed to build the country of Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather, it provides principles for coexistence that benefit both Pakeha and Maori. 

The afternoon sun streams into Elias’s chambers, reflecting off New Zealand’s silver beehive-shaped Parliament building, visible through the windows and framed by the green canopy of a steeply wooded hillside. We’re talking about rangatiratanga. The Maori concept of sovereignty implies not just ownership of land but the authority and responsibility for its stewardship. By way of example, the chief justice brings up one of her favorite cases, a 1993 Waitangi Tribunal claim that was one of the last she took on before joining the bench. She represented an iwi, or tribe, that for a century had been petitioning for the return of the Whanganui River, which they considered a sacred ancestor.

“It was not property,” she notes. “In fact, one of the arguments is that our concepts of property are inadequate.” Rather, to the Maori the river has a life of its own intimately connected with the iwi. The river, as Elias suggested to the tribunal, might well be considered a legal entity, a claimant in its own right, in other words. It’s a notion that may strike those steeped in Western legal tradition as bordering on the bizarre-but surely no stranger than the American custom of considering corporations to be legal “persons” entitled to many of the rights and privileges of flesh-and-blood litigants. “I don’t think it is beyond the common law to recognize that interest,” Elias says of rangatiratanga. The tribunal agreed, recognizing in 1999 Maori rangatiratanga over the Whanganui River. 

The Maori worldview of the interconnectedness of the human and natural words is echoed in the beliefs of Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, and other indigenous peoples. Perhaps uniquely in New Zealand, those concepts are finding their way into Western law. Still, Elias recognizes that the law can only go only so far in fulfilling the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi. “Working out how that is achieved, well, that probably takes the life of a nation.