MPs to vet top court choices

Panel hearings an experiment
PM still has final say on 2 vacancies

Aug. 22, 2004. 08:17 AM


OTTAWAŚCanada will have its first public hearings on Supreme Court appointments as early as this week in a pilot project for overhauling the way justices are selected.

The parties are in the final planning phase for parliamentary hearings that would be a scaled-down version of the congressional grillings Supreme Court nominees face in the U.S. However, it's unlikely Canada's version would see prospective justices appear in person.

The prime minister will continue nominating Supreme Court judges. But this time, various party sources said, committee members will receive the nominees' names, perhaps a day in advance, and prepare questions about their qualifications and legal track record. The questions will be put to Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.

The panel would not vote or pass judgment on the qualifications of the nominees but would produce a report reflecting the opinions of committee members following Cotler's responses, sources said.

The government is scrambling to fill two Ontario vacancies on the bench in time for an historic case on same-sex marriage and has proposed a temporary fix that would serve as the basis for a future high court jurist-review process.

The system used for filling the current vacancies would not be cast in stone, said the Liberal chairman of the Commons justice committee in the last Parliament.

"Whatever's constructed now would have to be a one-off because parliamentarians themselves may wish to revise it later," Derek Lee said.

The house leaders of all four major parties are crafting a mechanism that could be put to use during two or three days of hearings, sources said.

Critics have accused Prime Minister Paul Martin of dragging his heels in filling the vacancies left in June by Louise Arbour and Frank Iacobucci.

Vic Toews, Conservative justice critic, said he wants the nominees to answer MPs' questions in person.