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Thursday, April 29, 1999

Supremes hit the road for the first time
High court judges travel en masse outside Ottawa

Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

OTTAWA - The judges on the Supreme Court of Canada are going on the road together for the first time, a move observers say is meant to bring the court closer to the public at a time that the judiciary is under increasing scrutiny.

Travelling on separate commercial flights for security reasons, eight of the nine judges fly to Winnipeg today for their first annual retreat outside the national capital region.

"That doesn't sound like the Supremes to me," said Peter McCormick, a University of Lethbridge political scientist who has been studying the court for decades.

Only Justice Peter Cory, who retires from the high court in June after a decade, will not go to the Manitoba capital for the meetings and cocktail parties that await his bench mates.

The unprecedented foray into the trenches is being described as both a smart public-relations move and a symbolic gesture that means nothing.

"There is much criticism, particularly in the West, of the court being disconnected from the public, disconnected from legislators and disconnected from politics," said David Taras, a political scientist at University of Calgary.

"I guess by going to Winnipeg they are trying to reconnect or at least show there is an attempt to move out of Ottawa, go to a different political environment."

The ageing judges on the top court, all but two of whom have sat for most of the 1990s, find themselves under growing criticism, particularly from the right, that they are out of touch. They face charges of becoming too powerful by being able to use the Charter of Rights to override the will of elected legislators.

Although the judges routinely travel and speak individually both in Canada and abroad, their first trip en masse is the start of a move to get out and meet lower court judges and lawyers.

"It's unprecedented," said Allan Fineblit, president of the Law Society of Manitoba, who is organizing a cocktail party Friday night for 500 people at a Winnipeg museum.

"I think it's a reflection of kind of an interest in meeting with the judiciary and the profession and having an opportunity to talk to them about their practices and experiences in a way that they would never get in their everyday work, so it does speak volumes to me."

Mr. Fineblit also made the guest list for a reception the top judges are hosting at their Winnipeg hotel Thursday night.

The Supreme Court judges normally gather for an annual meeting in the Ottawa area to discuss housekeeping issues affecting the high court.

Their meetings in Winnipeg, to take place Friday and Saturday, will be behind closed doors at a downtown hotel. They will also meet privately with several judges, including Justice Richard Scott, Manitoba's chief justice.

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