Ottawa Citizen

Sunday August 22, 1999

Supreme Court chief justice resigns

 
BOB WEBER
The Ottawa Citizen

EDMONTON (CP) - Canada's top judge says he is losing his passion for the job and plans to retire.

"At the time of my appointment I said to myself that I would step down when I lost le feu sacre (the holy fire) - the necessary enthusiasm of spirit and intellect for hearing the kinds of cases that come before our court," Chief Justice Antonio Lamer told the annual meeting of the Canadian Bar Association on Saturday.

"After the coming session I will gradually start to lose that degree of enthusiasm and passion . . . it will be time for me to go," a red-eyed he said with a trembling voice.

Lamer, 66, who presided for 10 years over a Supreme Court whose charter rulings at times redefined the country's law, will retire effective next Jan. 7.

Most of the judges now on the bench were in high school when he began delivering judgments, Lamer said to underline why he believes it's time to find something new.

"Some people stay on a year or two too many and they're remembered by those two years.

"I've witnessed that," he said. "It's pitiful."

He said he has no plans for filling his time - other than seeing friends and family more often.

"This year is the first year I've been fishing since I was appointed chief justice. Maybe I'll go every year now."

Prime Minister Jean Chretien said he was not surprised by Lamer's decision.

"We had discussed that some time ago," Chretien said in New Aiyansh, B.C., where he spoke to the local native community.

"He has been serving on the Supreme Court something like 20 years, 10 years as chief justice, and he has been a good judge.

"He served Canada extremely well, and for personal reasons and bit of health reasons he decided to move on."

He was named to the high court in 1980, shortly before the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The charter, which gives judges the power to overturn laws that conflict with it, caused a fundamental change in Canadian law, Lamer said.

"I know many judges who retired on the day they could because they were amongst the judges of the older school and just could not accept this change in our job description," he said.

"I found it fascinating."

Lamer, high court's longest-serving member, wouldn't name a judgment of which he was most proud.

"I love them all - but I'm the only one to love them all," he joked.

But Richard Scott, chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, singled out a 1986 case in which Lamer used the charter to strengthen a citizen's right to a fair, speedy trial.

"That really got the charter interpretation off on the right foot," said Scott. "(Lamer has) written many great, great judgments."

Some say Lamer, appointed chief justice in 1990, led an activist court that moved farther and faster in implementing the charter than Canadian society wanted.

"He's led a court that has delved more into the human rights side than a lot of Canadians would appreciate," said Reform party justice critic John Reynolds. "I think he's been one of the leaders in that area."

In 1998 the court not only struck down Alberta's human rights code, but altered it to force the province to extend discrimination protection to homosexuals.

"There's no question the Supreme Court has made laws," said Reynolds. "But I give Justice Lamer credit in the fact that he has openly talked about that."

Lamer has been increasingly vocal over the last few years about the role of what he has characterized as an increasing fragile justice system.

At last year's summer bar association convention he warned that judge-bashing by those unhappy with a court's ruling must stop or the justice system would be weakened beyond repair.

Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark called Lamer "a singular force in Canadian law.

"(He) worked to help Canadians understand better our justice system and the delicate balance between rights and reason."

Barry Gorlick, Canadian Bar Association president, said Lamer "made our society better for all Canadians - Canadians of every race, colour, creed."

Attention will now turn to replacing Lamer, who was a well-known Quebec criminal lawyer before he became a judge almost 40 years ago.

Because the court must have at least three judges from Quebec, his seat on the bench must come from that province.

Chief justices are normally named from those already on the court. Lamer expects to have a hand in naming his successor.

"Usually, the chief justice is consulted. In turn, the chief justice consults."

Asked if the appointment should involve some sort of parliamentary hearing, Lamer refused comment.

"Ask me Jan. 8," he said.

Reynolds, however, called for the appointment to be discussed and approved by the Commons justice committee.

Lamer said he discussed retirement with Prime Minister Jean Chretien in June and informally with Justice Minister Anne McLellan "a couple weeks ago."

He is staying on until January, he said, to clean up a few cases and help orient Louise Arbour, the replacement for Justice Peter Cory, who resigned early this summer.

A quick sketch of the career of Antonio Lamer, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who has announced his decision to retire Jan. 7:

Born: July 8, 1933, in Montreal

Early career: Called to the Quebec bar 1957. Appointed to Superior Court of Quebec 1969, Quebec Court of Appeal 1978.

Supreme Court: Appointed 1980, named chief justice 1989.

Rulings: Heard 1,317 cases for Supreme Court, wrote 345 judgments.

Quote: "What was a very demanding but fascinating period of my professional life is gradually becoming a job."

© The Canadian Press, 1999

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen