November 5, 1999
Talent, not gender elevates top juristEditorial
The highest judicial post in the land is now held by a woman. Beverley McLachlin's appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court is symbolically important, but the real breakthrough lies in the fact that no one can dispute that she earned the job.
This is true gender equality.
The new chief justice is impossible to typecast. In her 10 years on the Supreme Court, she has both pleased and angered feminists; won high praise and sharp condemnation from civil libertarians; ruled in favour of powerful corporate interests and destitute single mothers; reinforced and restricted aboriginal rights. The only constants in her judgments are exhaustive research and a clear line of reasoning.
McLachlin takes over the leadership of the court at a delicate time. Canadians are becoming aware of how much power the 1982 Charter of Rights has given the courts and some don't like it.
The Reform party, the Ontario government and the Alberta government have mounted a fierce campaign against ``judicial activism.''
At the same time, the costs of equality - from extending spousal benefits to gays and lesbians to respecting pay equity settlements - are producing a vocal backlash from social conservatives.
Nor is the controversy likely to recede, as major native rights cases work their way through the judicial system and society struggles to draw the line between individual freedom and the public interest.
McLachlin is well-suited to guide the court through this moral and legal maze. She is liked and respected by her peers, she is not afraid of taking unpopular stands, she brings an open mind and a comprehensive knowledge of the law to every case, and she writes crisply and succinctly.
The 56-year-old lawyer will also give the Supreme Court, which many consider a remote, forbidding institution, a more human face. She is approachable. She knows how to laugh at herself. She hasn't forgotten her roots in rural Alberta.
Although the opinion of the chief justice has no more weight than those of the other eight Supreme Court judges, it will be up to McLachlin to try to get a consensus on the bench as often as possible. Thus the court's record will reflect both her intellect and her leadership.
This means Canadians can expect an emphasis on minority rights, a considerable tolerance for freedom of expression and a liberal interpretation of equality. ``The essence of equality is to be treated according to one's own merit, capabilities and circumstances,'' she wrote in a recent decision.
Politically, McLachlin was a logical choice in three ways. She is a woman, she is a westerner and she is the most senior judge from outside Quebec.
Fulfilling those requirements was enough to pre-empt any immediate negative reaction. Even the Reform party had nothing bad to say.
But it was McLachlin's other credentials - her reputation as a prodigious worker, an independent thinker, a good administrator and a sensible jurist that accounted for the almost universal approval that greeted her appointment.
Gender was not really an issue. No one could credibly say that McLachlin was chosen because she was a woman. She was chosen because she has the talent, experience and strength of character to head Canada's highest court.
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