Sullivan, Timothy (1874–1949), judge, was born 25 August 1874, the fourth son among nine sons and eight daughters of Timothy Daniel Sullivan (qv), nationalist journalist, politician, and poet, and Catherine Sullivan (née Healy) (d. 1899), daughter of Thomas Healy, teacher, of Bantry, Co. Cork, and aunt of Timothy Michael (‘Tim’) Healy (qv), KC, MP, and first governor-general of the Irish Free State. At Sullivan's birth his parents were resident at 19 Richmond Place, Dublin. Educated at Belvedere college, Dublin, he read law at the King's Inns, where he was admitted to the bar in 1895. Practising on the Munster circuit, he was equally proficient in both chancery and assizes. He became a king's counsel in 1918, and a bencher of the King's Inns in 1921. After doing legal work throughout 1922 for the provisional government of the Irish Free State, he served (1923) on the judiciary committee appointed by the executive council to recommend on the organisation of the new courts system that replaced both the extant system inherited from British rule and the recently abolished dáil courts of the revolutionary period; the committee's recommendations formed the substance of the Courts of Justice Act 1924. Sullivan then served as first president of the high court of justice (1924–36) established by the act; while his professional prominence merited appointment to a senior judicial office, he only received the presidency when the outgoing master of the rolls, Sir Charles O'Connor (qv), given a choice of seats, opted for appointment to the supreme court. Throughout his tenure Sullivan presided over a high court whose membership of six was equally divided between judges of nationalist and unionist background. Succeeding Hugh Kennedy (qv) as the second president of the supreme court and chief justice of Ireland (1936–46), Sullivan was the country's senior judge at the time of enactment of the 1937 constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. As chief justice he administered the oath of office to Douglas Hyde (qv) as first president of Ireland under the new constitution (25 June 1938).
During his career both at the bar and on the bench Sullivan was involved in some of the landmark cases involving the exercise by successive governments of emergency powers intended to suppress political violence. In November 1922, during the civil war, he was one of three barristers who represented the provisional government in successfully opposing the application on behalf of Erskine Childers (qv) for a writ of habeas corpus after his conviction by a military tribunal of unlawful possession of a firearm. After Childers was subsequently executed while an appeal against the rejection of his application was pending, Sullivan appeared for the government in the court of appeal to apply for the case to be struck out. As president of the high court he upheld in R (Burke) v Governor of Mountjoy prison (7 July 1924) the validity of a prisoner's detention under the 1924 public safety act; though the challenge had been based on procedural rather than substantial issues, the decision was significant as the first reported judgment on a case regarding emergency legislation by a court established under the 1924 courts of justice act, and signalled that judicial scrutiny of emergency powers within the new Irish state would follow much the same loose pattern as under British rule. In November 1939 the supreme court with Sullivan presiding refused to entertain an appeal by the Fianna Fáil government against an order of habeas corpus granted in the high court by George Gavan Duffy (qv), who had declared unconstitutional the internment provisions of the 1939 offences against the state act, resulting in the immediate release of fifty-three IRA prisoners. When the government's subsequent amending bill was referred by President Hyde to the supreme court for judicial review under article 26 of the constitution, Sullivan delivered one of the most definitive judgments in Irish juridical history regarding the relationship between individual liberty and the coercive powers of the state (1940). Advising that the bill was not repugnant to the constitution, he noted that, despite the prior existence of several statutes providing for indefinite internment without trial, the framers of the 1937 constitution had not expressly prohibited such laws. He determined that the bill did not violate the principle of separation of powers by empowering government ministers to administer justice, in that the detention envisaged was not in the nature of punishment but of prevention, and held that the dignity and freedom of ‘the individual member of a state’ cannot be attained unless ‘social order is maintained in that state’. The judgment represented the culmination of a series of juridical decisions that effectively placed the liberty of the citizen at the mercy of the oireachtas, any enactment of which, if not repugnant to the constitution, had the force of ‘law’ in accord with which the individual may be deprived of his liberty; thus, the Irish citizen, despite his written constitution, enjoyed no greater protection against legislative encroachment on his liberty than did a subject of the British crown.
In subsequent decisions of the early 1940s, the supreme court under Sullivan upheld the constitutionality of the military tribunals and the special criminal court established under the 1939 special powers legislation. Among his important judgments in other areas of law were those involving the rights of parents to control their children's education. In the 1934 Westby minors case, when the supreme court reversed a judgment rendered by Chief Justice Kennedy in the exercise of his wards-of-court jurisdiction, Sullivan – in one of the rare occasions of his sitting on the supreme court in his ex officio capacity as president of the high court – offered a dissenting opinion concurring with Kennedy's decision that a child be educated in the Irish Free State despite the wishes of the mother that he attend an English public school. As chief justice, however, he adjudged as unconstitutional a section of the 1942 school attendance bill designed to prevent parents sending their children to English schools, holding that the manner in which a child receives the ‘certain minimum education’ guaranteed by the 1937 constitution was entirely a prerogative of the parents and not of the state.
Despite their similar nationalist backgrounds, Sullivan proved more cautious and traditional as chief justice than Kennedy, his record more typical of the prevalent conservatism of the Irish bench throughout the first quarter century of the new state. Lacking his predecessor's zeal for an indigenously Irish system of law, and his adventurous approach to constitutional law and judicial review, Sullivan remained immersed in the British positivist tradition of his training and early experience, suspicious of concepts of fundamental law, and devoted to the principle of the sovereignty of parliament. His 1940 judgment on the offences against the state amendment bill included an enunciation as fundamental principle of the presumption of constitutionality when reviewing legislation.
Sullivan married (6 February 1913) his niece Maev Mary Healy (1885–1967), daughter of his sister Erina Kate (1857–1927) and her husband, Tim Healy; owing to the many marital liaisons between the two families, Tim Healy was thus Sullivan's double first cousin, and his father-in-law. Sullivan and his wife – who wrote a memoir of her father, No man's man (1943) – had no children; they resided from the latter 1920s at Shamrock Hill, Stillorgan Rd, Donnybrook, Dublin. Shy and retiring, well versed in literature and the arts, Sullivan approached his professional duties with a demeanour of austere gravitas that concealed his private kindliness and courteousness. Owing to ill health, he retired in April 1946 several months before reaching the age limit. He died in his home on 29 March 1949.