Ottawa Citizen

Sunday August 22, 1999

Next top judge could be woman

McLachlin, Iacobucci head replacement list

Janice Tibbetts
The Ottawa Citizen

EDMONTON -- Canada could soon have its first woman as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Although it's not required by law, Chief Justice Antonio Lamer suggested yesterday that the next chief justice will be named from the remaining eight judges on the court when he retires on Jan. 7.

Judges Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, and Frank Iacobucci, who was chief justice of the Federal Court, appear to be the top contenders, according to court insiders and lawyers at a conference of the Canadian Bar Association.

"The decision is going to have a profound impact on Canada," said Barry Gorlick, president of the Canadian Bar Association, who named Ms. McLachlin at the top of the list.

At 55, Ms. McLachlin is one of the youngest judges on the court, but she has the most seniority behind Judge Claire L'Heureux-Dube, who turns 72 next month and will retire in the next three years.

Her most serious competition is the older, more sociable, and more experienced Frank Iacobucci, 62, whose impressive list of credentials include five years on the Federal Court, former dean of the University of Toronto law school, and former deputy minister of justice.

The decision is up to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who will select a new chief justice after private consultations, including with Justice Lamer.

Court observers speculate that the prime minister, who appointed Bertha Wilson the first woman on the Supreme Court when he was justice minister in 1982, would like to take credit for appointing the first female chief justice as well.

"I wouldn't bet against Beverley McLachlin," said Pierre Gagnon, president of the Quebec branch of the Canadian Bar Association. "I think the time is right for a woman chief justice."

Doug Robinson, president of the B.C. branch, called her "very bright, she doesn't suffer fools gladly, and she listens well.

Ms. McLachlin is widely regarded as a judge devoted to the letter of the law who is difficult to pigeonhole.

One of her most noted decisions was a 1992 ruling in which the court struck down the federal rape shield law that prevented complainants from being questioned about their sexual history.

One of her more recent judgments was in the case of Nancy Law, when she wrote for the court that the B.C. widow wasn't entitled to her late husband's Canada Pension Plan benefits because she was too young when he died.

While Ms. McLachlin has been described as an outsider on the court, Mr. Iacobucci, an Ontario appointee, is very much an insider and is most likely to be in the Lamer camp on the Liberal side of the bench.

One of his most recent rulings, which he co-wrote with retired justice Peter Cory, was the noted decision on gay rights in May that effectively ordered Ontario to include gays and lesbians in spousal support laws.

Other names that have surfaced as dark horses include Justice Louise Arbour, the most recent appointee to the Supreme Court, and Justice Michel Bastarache, who joined the bench in October 1997 from the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

But the job of chief justice, which includes extensive administrative work, is expected to go to a judge with a lot of experience on the Supreme Court.

Justice Lamer said his successor should be able to get along well with the rest of the court and work hard.

"One of the very important factors is being gregarious and be capable of living in collegiality," he said.

But gender should not play a part in the decision, Justice Lamer said.

He said he will consult other judges on the Supreme Court before coming up with a short list to present to the prime minister.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen