Toronto Star

Sunday, August 22, 1999

Top justice tells why it's time to go

Colleagues praise Lamer for `brilliant' constitutional work

By William Walker
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau Chief

OTTAWA - Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Lamer often worried about losing his passion for the court.

``There comes a time after a certain number of years that it becomes a job,'' Lamer told The Star in an interview yesterday.

``When it does happen to me I want to be gone. I don't want it to be a job. I want to be involved in something that I consider a vocation and something that's passionate.

``I'm just taking my precautions and the safe route to leave before that happens. I know from experience that it's around the corner.''

`I don't want it to be a job. I want to be involved in something that I consider a vocation and something that's passionate.'
- Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Lamer

Lamer, 66, the longest-serving member on Canada's highest court, announced his retirement yesterday at the Canadian Bar Association's annual meeting in Edmonton.

Most of the judges now on the bench were in high school when he began delivering judgments, Lamer said.

``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.''

Last night, Lamer said he felt serene about his decision ``to hang up my robes early in the next millennium.'' He was planning to go for a walk in an Edmonton park with his wife Daniele Tremblay, then take in a museum.

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

``We had discussed that some time ago,'' Chrétien said in New Aiyansh, B.C. ``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.''

Canadian Bar Association president Barry Gorlick praised Lamer's tenure as ``one of the finest periods in the court's distinguished history.''

``The Lamer court will be remembered as one that faced innumerable challenges and opportunities and rose to the occasion every time to benefit Canadian law and society,'' he said.

``We're going to miss him,'' said Toronto lawyer Clay Ruby. ``One of his important skills was making majority decisions. Before him you had five or six judgments (in a single case) and it was hard to see what the law was.

``But he made it a cohesive group. His constitutional work was also brilliant. He has a vision of the Constitution that would make this country work, namely a standard of decency for government in dealing with its citizens.''

Many legal experts said yesterday that in the late Brian Dickson and Lamer, Canada's last two chief justices have been among the finest ever.

But with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in place, both Dickson and Lamer faced more controversy, since the public and the press became more aware and debate was heightened about the court's rulings.

``It puts more pressure on them. Their duty is to ignore it, but it's real pressure,'' Ruby said.

Lamer was more bold than past chief justices about writing open letters to the public defending some of the court's decisions.

While that was frowned upon by some, others felt it opened up the court in unprecedented ways and led to a greater public understanding.

He was also praised yesterday by legal experts for revolutionizing the workings of the court by streamlining its operations and producing faster and more efficient rulings, while never compromising the law.

``He has been a very, very fine chief justice and a strong advocate of human rights and as such, he'll be greatly missed,'' said Toronto lawyer Morris Manning, who has written texts on the Constitution.

``It is a very tough job in terms of the workload. While they can get judgments out faster now, it's more difficult. The Charter has placed a lot of pressure on the court,'' he said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark called Lamer ``one of the first chief justices that really had to deal with the new attention that came to the court because of the Charter. That led him to make very consistent and effective efforts to make the work of the court known to the public.''

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