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Saturday, March 27, 1999

PM rejects call for review of judicial rulings
'We have a good system'

Robert Fife and Sheldon Alberts
National Post

Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen / Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin.

SASKATOON - Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, yesterday brushed off concerns about the growth of judicial power in Canada and rejected a Reform Party proposal that controversial Supreme Court of Canada decisions be subjected to parliamentary review.

And Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin suggested, in a speech in Ottawa yesterday, that Canada should be "very careful" when considering another Reform's proposal -- to hold parliamentary hearings prior to the appointment of top judges.

Preston Manning, the Reform leader, has called on Parliament to launch a special committee to review high court rulings that run counter to the intent of federal laws. He has also proposed that nominees for Canada's highest court be questioned about their qualifications and philosophies by MPs prior to their appointment, in the same manner U.S. Supreme Court appointees are questioned by members of Congress.

Mr. Chretien, who as justice minister during the early 1980s ushered in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which critics say has led to judges usurping the role of legislators, said he is happy with the way the courts now operate.

"We have a good system in Canada of the separation between the Parliament and the judiciary," he told reporters. "It is very tricky if committees of Parliament review the judgments of the courts. It is not the way the legal system functions. It is the separation of the two powers."

The prime minister also rejected Mr. Manning's proposal for parliamentary hearings on prospective Supreme Court nominees.

"We have a very good system on the appointment of judges here and they serve the nation very well," he said.

The trend to "judicial activism," which critics see in such cases as the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision acquitting a man on charges of possessing child pornography, has sparked demands from politicians, such as Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta, for legislatures to restore Canada's tradition of judicial restraint.

The increased criticism of the judiciary last year prompted Antonio Lamer, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to suggest judges speak out against "judge-bashing."

Yesterday in Ottawa, Judge McLachlin, an eight-year veteran of the top court, said she welcomes debate and criticism about the court's ruling.

But Judge McLachlin, speaking to University of Ottawa law students, said she believes judge bashing goes too far when the attacks become "highly personalized."

Earlier this month, Alberta Court of Appeal Judge John McClung sparked a wave of controversy after publicly criticizing Supreme Court Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube.

Judge L'Heureux-Dube and her eight Supreme Court colleagues quashed two Alberta court rulings that a 17-year-old woman had implied consent to the sexual advances of Steve Ewanchuk of Edmonton. In its decision, the Supreme Court convicted Ewanchuk, and Justice L'Heureux-Dube took the unusual step of criticizing Judge McClung's Appeal Court ruling in a separate opinion.

Judge McClung fired back with a letter to the National Post suggesting L'Heureux-Dube's writings might be responsible for the high suicide rate of men in Quebec.

Judge McLachlin said yesterday, without mentioning Judge McClung's attack or the Ewanchuk case, that personal attacks cross the line.

"It probably doesn't further the public interest a lot to get into personalities and so on," said Judge McLachlin. "On the issue of so-called 'judge-bashing' issue, I am a great supporter of freedom of expression, freedom of debate about public ideas. What we are talking about in our judgments are public ideas. This is the law. It is the people's law. I believe that it is healthy and good for people to discuss those ideas."

When asked about Reform's proposal to conduct hearings into the qualifications of potential jurists, Judge McLachlin said Canada's current appointment system is already transparent.

"When I was appointed to the Supreme Court, I had been a judge for eight years. I had written hundreds of judgments," she said. "People knew what kind of a judge I was."

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