Antonio Lamer

Dispensing Justice From The Shadows

Edmonton - Monday, November 25, 2002 - by: Ron Thornton


In the United States, Supreme Court Justices must go through a vetting process that retired Canadian Chief Justice Antonio Lamer has termed in published reports as being a political "circus." One certainly could not classify the process that selected Lamer and those presently sitting on the bench in such a fashion. No, the term 'circus' brings to mind visions of elephants and tigers, the flying trapeze and the high wire, along with the smells of popcorn and sawdust. Our process of selection, with the anointed so chosen at the sole discretion of a single person in the form of our Prime Minister from a short list submitted by his Minister of Justice, is anything but a circus. It appears to me that when our Supreme Court acts to give social exiles in our prisons the vote, to cite a recent example, that the process produces what can best be described as a troop of clowns rather than well-rounded, well-scrutinized circus performers.




It takes a special person to stand the test of public scrutiny, one who must demonstrate their mettle, their character, and their views before a legislative committee during a confirmation process. We, the people, need to know more about those who may radically interpret our laws in ways never envisioned by our legislators, invent rights on their own initiative, and take to themselves the powers that the framers of our constitution had placed in the hands of our elected representatives.




Wouldn't it be nice to publically review these people and their past judgements so at least we have an idea as to what to expect? We can give much thanks to Chief Justice Lamer, as outlined in a Time magazine article three years ago, for ruling that a divorced spouse was no longer free from an ex-mate, but obliged to assist in medical costs accrued long after that union had been dissolved. Treaty rights that once allowed for sustenance fishing provisions for aboriginals suddenly included commercial rights as well. The fitness standards required to be a firefighter were tossed out when a woman who failed the test was viewed to be the victim of "systemic discrimination."




Yet, when it comes to putting such decisions to the test of public scrutiny, well, that is another matter. On the topic of the judicial system, in 1998 Lamer was quoted as saying,
"Watch it, criticize it, control it properly, yes, but judge-bashing must stop. The court process is like a psychodrama, and the actors, or judges, have come to command a certain degree of respect, or it's chaos and the whole system falls apart."
Still, there are some who believe that, like most of us, judges shouldn't command respect, they should earn it. In fact, it seems he believes the only outlet for our displeasure with a judge many view as running amok is to get rid of the guy who selected him. Lamer says that should a prime minister make a bad appointment
"you turf them out."
Sure, but it would appear that is easier said than done, especially if you hail from the west. Meanwhile, such nominees can continue to slip through the side door to avoid the public scrutiny that only a committee made up of our elected representatives can provide, while the rest of us brace for the decisions they might blind side us with at some later date.




Of course, we wouldn't want to, in any way, politicize the Court. Justice Lamer, a former Liberal youth executive from Montreal from 1960-1966, was appointed to the Quebec Superior Court in 1969 and to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 1978 by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. His appointment to the Supreme Court was made in 1980 by Trudeau, though it can be said it was Brian Mulroney who made him Chief Justice in 1990. Still, me thinks that maybe there is more than a touch of politics already involved.




With that being the case, then would it not be prudent to have our nominees for the Canadian Supreme Court stand before a public confirmation body, to undergo the scrutiny that is required of even the least elected public official? Should such individuals be prepared to explain their previous decisions, to be answerable for their views before becoming unaccountable members of an institution that essentially gives them veto power over the laws passed by our duly elected Parliament? Isn't it then better to affirm our future Justices through the light provided by a political "circus" than to allow them to slide in to office under the shadow of anonymity?


Ron Thornton




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