With Jonathan Sumption QC and Sir Nicholas Wilson expected to be appointed to the Supreme Court shortly, who will be the next lawyer to join the top rank? One senior judge who has been tipped for the top job - though his age might well prevent it - is Lord Justice Sedley, who recently retired from the Court of Appeal after sitting since 1999.
Called to the Bar in 1964, Sedley has written regularly for the London Review of Books since 1986, and has never shied away from engaging in public debate. His new anthology of essays and lectures, Ashes and Sparks, offers an insight into the development of his thinking on constitutional law and the role of justice in society.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sedley's practice was fuelled by the rapid expansion of public law and judicial review. His background as an advocate is apparent throughout the 38 pieces in the collection, whose overarching theme is the interrelationships between the individual and different branches of the state. The tension between what Sedley labels 'macro-justice' and 'micro-justice' is everywhere apparent. Nonetheless, he takes care to reconcile the theories of jurists like Ronald Dworkin and Amartya Sen with the everyday exigencies of judicial reasoning.
Those hoping to divine the future from these judicial tea-leaves will find Sedley's writing on human rights particularly interesting. Initially sceptical of adopting a domestic human rights instrument based on the European Convention on Human Rights, he was "catapulted across the Rubicon" following the introduction of theHuman Rights Act 1998, which he describes as having "deepened our own jurisprudence and sharpened our judicial standards".
But Sedley does not derive his conception of rights solely from the Strasbourg case law. Instead he prefers to place himself squarely within the tradition of English radical non-conformism, by drawing a direct line from theories on the rights of man that were first espoused during the Civil War by groups like the Levellers and the Diggers. Indeed, the 'ashes and sparks' of the title is derived from a phrase in a Leveller pamphlet, The Privileges of the People, published in 1649.
In a later piece, Sedley argues that in the 21st century, rights "will not be confined to those that seemed self-evident in the eighteenth and nineteenth", hinting at his framing of rights within a wider historical perspective. This might well raise an eyebrow among critics of what some of the press regards as judges 'legislating from the bench' in the field of human rights. But Sedley is quite right to point out in response that the rights alone mean nothing. "Any state can set out rows of shining rights, like medals on a leader's chest. Stalin did it, and much good it did his millions of victims". It is only in their application to difficult legal and practical issues that rights are given meaning.
Sedley recognises that law entails making difficult choices. However he does run into more difficulties with the relativistic nature he ascribes to rights. In one essay, he proposes dropping the argument for rights as a universal concept, in favour of a more locally diverse model. Sedley does admit that this carries a heavy price tag in terms of being able to insist on certain transnational values. But even then, he seems a little too keen on defining rights in such a way as to secure the widest possible agreement, without defining which core values truly are universal.
Given the increasing criticism judges face in the press, Sedley has been refreshingly proactive in his response. He recently settled a libel action against the Daily Telegraph, which had published a serious of untrue and professionally damaging allegations. For a judge to bring a libel case is extremely rare, but this was Sedley's second victory - his first having been in 1996, when the Independent issued a public apology after claiming he was politically partisan.
Interestingly – and given his radical roots, surprisingly – Sedley resists the idea of a judiciary perpetually at odds with the government, and even goes so far as to reject the idea of the Supreme Court developing into a full-blown 'constitutional court' with powers to strike down primary legislation it feels is unconstitutional. Although he hesitates to expand upon the powers of the court, Sedley repeatedly expresses his worry about the constitutional lacunae created by the exercise of the Crown's prerogative powers by the executive.
This is perhaps unsurprising given his involvement in one of the leading cases (M v Home Office  1 AC 337), on the accountability of ministers arising from these powers.
On the basis of the breadth and depth of inquiry exhibited here, Sedley would have been well suited to the challenge of that most Procrustean of all judicial appointments: the Supreme Court.