Globe and Mail

First female chief justice draws praise

Legal experts hail tough, independent Beverley McLachlin

Justice Reporter; With a report from James Rusk
The Globe and Mail
Thursday, November 4, 1999

Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin's appointment as the first female chief justice of Canada yesterday was widely praised as fitting symbolism for a new century.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that the 56-year-old judge will be sworn in on Jan. 7 as the court's 17th chief justice to replace Antonio Lamer, who is retiring.

Universally seen as a tough and independent-minded jurist, Judge McLachlin was an early front-runner, based largely on her years of seniority and a talent for churning out well-reasoned judgments.

"There is no doubt that she has earned the chief judgeship every step of the way," said Sheilah Martin, a University of Calgary law professor. "This appointment shows that women are increasingly being integrated into the most powerful positions. Our judiciary is becoming more and more representative."

One of three women on the court, Judge McLachlin has consistently defied pigeon-holing. Legal observers consider her neither particularly activist nor a judge who shies away from carving up unconstitutional legislation.

"I don't see her as someone who does the popular thing," said MPP Michael Bryant, justice critic for the Ontario Liberal Party and a former clerk in Judge McLachlin's chambers.

Mr. Bryant said Judge McLachlin has gone against the grain time and again in her decisions. "She is a judge's judge," Mr. Bryant said. "She is very professional, and she doesn't play politics."

Nor does she readily play the media game. Emerging from an appeal hearing yesterday afternoon, Judge McLachlin let it be known that she was simply too tired to begin a round of press interviews about her appointment.

Appointed to the court on March 30, 1989, Judge McLachlin is third in seniority, after Madame Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé and Mr. Justice Charles Gonthier.

She was born and raised in southwestern Alberta.
The last chief justice from the West was Chief Justice Lamer's predecessor, Brian Dickson, who was born in Yorkton, Sask. He retired in 1990 and died last year.

Judge McLachlin's rise to the pinnacle of the judiciary is unprecedented. It includes an intense litigation practice in Vancouver, a period on the faculty of the University of British Columbia and a place on three levels of court in B.C.

Judge McLachlin has one previous taste of administering a senior court. For a brief period in the late eighties, she acted as Chief Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Eugene Meehan, president of the Canadian Bar Association and a former Supreme Court executive officer, said yesterday that Judge McLachlin is invariably well prepared and considerate both in the courtroom and behind the scenes.

"She understands that God gave her two ears and one mouth for a reason," Mr. Meehan said.

At the same time, Mr. Meehan said Judge McLachlin is not one to back down on matters of principle. "She would throw you through a plate glass window and then brush your shoulders off afterward."

Errol Mendes, a law professor and director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Ottawa, said Judge McLachlin will not be cowed by a recent criticism alleging the court is too activist when it comes to striking down legislation.

"She is somebody who does not and will not be fit into preconceived stereotypes," Prof. Mendes said. "With the Supreme Court being the final arbiter on so many fundamental issues facing the country, it needs someone like that as its head who resists being classified into artificial categories."

Judge McLachlin has written for the majority in many major decisions during her nine years on the court.

They include a decision to strike down the law of "spreading false news" under which Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel was convicted, as well as a decision overturning the federal ban against tobacco advertising. In the controversial 1991 case of Regina v. Seaboyer and Gayme, she wrote a seminial decision striking down the federal rape-shield law.

"I think she will be a great chief justice," said University of Toronto law professor Peter Russell. "This is a very happy marriage of merit and seniority. She has the ability to represent the court publicly in an effective manner and be a good leader within the court itself."

"As an administrator, I think she will modernize court operations," Mr. Bryant said. "The output of the court is necessarily going to increase with someone as prolific as Madam Justice McLachlin as its head."

Most observers said yesterday that Judge McLachlin is so relentlessly industrious that her writing output is unlikely to suffer. Many also suggested that the degree of consensus in court judgments is likely to rise.

"She writes with different people on different issues," Prof. Martin said. "That is a strong sign that she will pull the court together."

Judge McLachlin is a particularly crisp and clear writer who brings "a deep sense of context to her arguments," Prof. Russell said. "There is a structure to her arguments that is like that of Brian Dickson."

The other judge considered a strong candidate for the chief justice position was Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci. Legal observers said yesterday that despite Judge Iacobucci's strong body of jurisprudence and his similar tenure on the court, the momentum to appoint a strong-minded woman from the West was simply unstoppable.

Mr. Chrétien told reporters in Toronto that Judge McLachlin had proven herself at every level of the justice system. "It was a great opportunity to have, for the first time, a woman as Chief Justice of Canada. I was very happy to make that decision, because she is very good," the Prime Minister said.

Judge McLachlin is the second woman appointed chief justice in a Commonwealth national court. Earlier this year, Madam Justice Sian Elias was appointed Chief Justice of New Zealand. In Canada, one woman has risen as far as the position of provincial chief justice: Chief Justice of Alberta Catherine Fraser.


Justice Beverley McLachlin

Beginnings: Born Sept. 7, 1943, Pincher Creek, Alta. Educated University of Alberta, BA, MA, LLB.

Law career: Called to Alberta bar in 1969, Bar of B.C. in 1971. Taught law at the University of British Columbia 1974-1981. Practised with several firms 1969-1975.

Life on the bench: Appointed to County Court of Vancouver in April, 1981, Supreme Court of British Columbia, September, 1981; Court of Appeal of British Columbia, 1985. Named Chief Justice of Supreme Court of British Columbia, 1988. Appointed to Supreme Court of Canada, 1989.

Personal: Widely published, considered collegial and approachable. Married, one son.

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