By Lillian Arp
In early 2020, within a day of each other, Gordon Matenga and Brandt Shortland were appointed District Court Judges for their respective New Zealand regions.
Both men are of indigenous Māori heritage and both had also served as Acting Chief Coroners, but these are only some of the many parallels in their lives. It turns out, Gordon Matenga and Brandt Shortland are long-time friends with so much more in common.
They are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have known each other since they attended Church College of New Zealand (CCNZ).
“I lived in Dinsdale, Hamilton . . . so I was a day student since 1977”, Gordon recalls. Brandt, who is a year older, enrolled in 1978, “That’s when we first got to know each other.”
It was a teacher at CCNZ, Brother Jim Kingi, who first planted the seed in Gordon’s mind that law could be a career for him. He didn’t know then that Brandt would eventually choose a similar path.
In his final year, each was elected CCNZ’s Student Body President, Brandt in 1980 and Gordon in 1981. They went on to serve full-time missions for the Church in Australia – Brandt in Perth and Gordon in Brisbane.
After their missions, Brandt enrolled at Waikato University to study Social Sciences; Gordon signed up for pre-law at Waikato, where he and Brandt did a Māori paper together.
From there, Brandt gained a law degree at Victoria University, and Gordon finished his studies at the University of Auckland. They reunited in Hamilton in the early stages of their respective law careers.
The parallels continued.
In 1996, Gordon became the first Māori coroner in New Zealand, and a decade later, he was appointed full-time coroner for both the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. That same year, 2007, Brandt left a thriving law practice in Hamilton to accept his own full-time coroners’ role in the Te Tai Tokerau (Northland) region.
As coroners, they’ve each had to “manage the impact of dealing with death on a daily basis,” Brandt says. “On top of that . . . dealing with grieving whanau (families) in the rawest of times is a tough ask.” He coped, by keeping himself physically fit and attending church regularly. “I have been lucky,” he adds, “with a whanau that keep my feet on the ground.”
Gordon remembers a difficult call regarding a 3-year-old who had drowned in a paddling pool. “I immediately went outside, emptied out [my own child’s] paddling pool and put it away.” But Gordon says it was only when the details of a case mirrored his own life that somehow it could affect him this way. “Otherwise, I didn’t find it that difficult . . . because of our knowledge of the Plan of Salvation. I knew that death is a part of life.”
Over the years, both have also served in various Church leadership roles. When they became District Court Judges, each had to be released as the first counsellor in his respective stake presidency.
“Everyone is entitled to be equal before the law,” says Gordon, “. . . to be represented.” Brandt says it’s about balancing human compassion with the requirements of the law. “I’d like to be remembered for being fair and respectful to all who appeared in front of me.”
These days, the friends don’t get to see each other as often as they’d like, but they continue to appreciate and support each other from afar. “Brandt has an uncanny ability . . . to remember people’s names,” Gordon says, “and he can talk to anyone . . . people warm to him. I admire that because it’s not one of my strengths.”
“[Gordon] has always been calm and measured in . . . all that he does,” Brandt says. “He has been a faithful servant. He has outlasted the trials that should have taken his life.” On top of all that, Brandt adds, “He is a great musician who loves to sing.”