Deal struck on how to judge judges

Canadian Press

Monday, Aug 23, 2004

Ottawa — The federal parties have struck a deal for a new process to overhaul in the way Supreme Court justices are selected, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Monday.

The first-ever parliamentary hearings on Supreme Court nominations will start Wednesday, with a panel of MPs set to question Justice Minister Irwin Cotler about the two justices being named to the bench, said party sources.

The identity of the judges selected to replace the departing Louise Arbour and Frank Iacobucci will likely be announced by the government Tuesday at a Justice Department briefing for panel members.

“We have come to an agreement on the way it should be prosecuted,” Layton said after a meeting with Prime Minister Paul Martin, without providing details.

The Prime Minister has long promised a more transparent process for nominating Supreme Court judges, but months passed since Mr. Iacobucci and Ms. Arbour left with still no mechanism in place.

Now just six weeks remain until the high court begins its fall session, which will feature landmark hearings on same-sex marriage.

It typically takes two months to prepare Supreme Court justices for their new jobs.

The Conservatives had long been pushing for parliamentary hearings similar to the United States' congressional grilling of prospective Supreme Court judges in that country.

But the mechanism to be used this week is a far cry from the politically charged proceedings seen in the U.S. A more permanent system will be devised after the next two judges are appointed.

For starters, Mr. Martin will continue naming Supreme Court judges — just like prime ministers always have — and cannot be overruled by the interim panel of three Liberals and four opposition MPs.

And the hearings might not be televised. Panel members will vote at the start of Wednesday's proceedings whether they want them broadcast.

The panel — which will include two independent legal experts — will table a report about the hearings once they wrap up either Wednesday or Thursday.

There will be no vote, formal recommendation or any other official mechanism for objecting to the nominations. The final report has no binding effect on Mr. Martin.

The Conservative justice critic said the process hardly makes Supreme Court appointments more democratic.

“We have decided that we will attend (the hearings) but we are not pleased with the process,” said Vic Toews, who will sit on the panel.

“Not only are we not getting the nominees, but we're getting the second-hand political story.... We'll have the Justice Minister answering questions as to why the Prime Minister thought these two individuals should be on the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I don't think that process is acceptable.”