Ottawa Citizen

Sunday August 22, 1999

Chief justice hangs up robes

Tearful Antonio Lamer says it's time to move on now that his professional life is 'becoming a job'

Janice Tibbitts
The Ottawa Citizen


Ryan Lash, The Canadian Press / An emotional Antonio Lamer, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, announced his retirement yesterday in Edmonton, saying 'by January it will be time for me to go.'

EDMONTON -- With tears in his eyes and his voice quivering, Antonio Lamer announced yesterday that he is retiring as chief justice of Canada -- and one of the country's most powerful men -- because he fears he is losing passion for a job that has been the centre of his life for three decades.

"I have decided to hang up my robes early in the next millennium," the country's longest-serving federal judge told the a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association.

"What was a very demanding but nevertheless fascinating period of my professional life is gradually becoming a job. To play it safe, by January it will be time for me to go and to be free to go on to other things."

The 66-year-old judge, who has spent almost half his life on the bench, then cried amid a standing ovation.

He will retire on Jan. 7, after settling in Louise Arbour, the latest Supreme Court appointee and his former law student.

Justice Lamer, an affable Montrealer , was appointed to the court in 1980 by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

Justice Lamer made legal history when he was appointed to the Quebec Superior Court when he was only 36 years old. He has been on the Supreme Court for almost 20 years and chief justice for nine years. He is legally entitled to stay at his $228,700-a-year post until he is 75, but he became eligible last year for his full yearly pension of $152,460.

Although his announcement was unexpected, there has been speculation in legal circles for months that he would step down next year after seeing the court into its 125th anniversary and the next century.

He said he consulted with friends and colleagues before making his decision earlier this summer. Although he says he is in good physical shape, he has a history of heart problems and walks with a cane due to arthritis in his legs.

He talked of staying on until he was forced out, but in a recent interview with the Citizen, he conceded his years on the bench have taken their toll.

He said he notified Prime Minister Jean Chretien this summer and officially faxed his letter of resignation yesterday to Justice Minister Anne McLellan.

Justice Lamer is considered to be at the Liberal end of the bench and an unabashed Charter of Rights champion who is attuned to the rights of the accused.

His departure comes at a time that his court is under increasing criticism, particularly from the political right, that judges are constantly overriding the will of elected legislators.

But Justice Lamer said the growing scrutiny of his court has nothing to do with his decision to leave.

"It's to be expected. It goes with the turf," he told reporters at a rare news conference after his announcement.

Names that emerge as potential successors include Supreme Court justices Beverley McLachlin, 55, former chief justice of the British Columbia Court of Appeal; and Frank Iacobucci, who was chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada before he was named to the Supreme Court in 1991.

Lawyers and judges praised Justice Lamer's contribution to Canadian law, saying he had one of the toughest jobs in the country, seeing the top court through the birth of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

"The Lamer court will be remembered as one that faced innumerable challenges and opportunities and rose to the occasion every time," said Barry Gorlick, president of the Canadian Bar Association. "He has had the challenge, particularly in the last 10 years as chief justice, of nurturing the Charter through its adolescence."

Chief Justice Barry Scott, of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, said Justice Lamer will be most remembered as the country's leading Charter advocate and for eliminating a backlog on the Supreme Court, which now hears cases as fast as they come in.

Justice Lamer, who noted he has heard 1,317 cases on the Supreme Court and has written 345 decisions, said he is not ashamed of any position he has ever taken. He also declined to pick a decision that he considered the most significant of his career.

"I love all of them, but I'm the only one to love all of them," he laughed, saying he would let others decide his legacy.

He said he has no plans upon retirement, other than to catch up with friends and do more fishing. He said he's also looking forward to being able to freely express himself, after having to maintain the traditional silence of a judge for so many years.

"I've been deprived of my full freedom of expression for 30 years and I'm anxious to recover it," he said.

He plans to stay in Ottawa, where his wife is a Federal Court judge.

Justice Lamer also refused comment on whether it's time for the Supreme Court to have its first woman chief justice, saying he is "sex blind."

Justice Lamer's retirement also leaves an opening on the bench from Quebec, which has three seats on the nine-member court.

Justice Lamer's two other Quebec benchmates, Claire L'Heureux-Dube, 71, and Charles Gonthier, 70, are also expected to retire in the next few years.

Justice L'Heureux-Dube, the only Supreme Court justice who attended Justice Lamer's announcement, applauded her friend, saying his reforms on the top court have been remarkable.

"Tony, the country is proud of you," she told a lunch meeting in a speech about the embattled judiciary.

Potential appointees to the Supreme Court from Quebec include Court of Appeal Justice Morris Fish and respected Montreal lawyer Michel Proulx.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen