Aug. 25, 2004. 09:16 PMCANADIAN PRESS
The first-ever committee to review Supreme Court candidates aired no qualms today about Ontario Court of Appeal Justices Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron.
In fact, the all-party advisory panel of seven MPs and two legal experts asked few questions about the judges themselves.
Instead, opposition members on the interim panel spent much of a three-hour session venting frustration about the process.
The interim committee has no veto power, did not see a short list of candidates before selections were made, and will issue a non-binding report on Friday. The appointments must then be made official by the prime minister any time after that.
Conservative members had to settle for grilling Cotler after the Liberals nixed their request to quiz candidates in person.
Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay called the process "a sham" that breaks Prime Minister Paul Martin's promise to open the high-court selection system.
`It's a joke," MacKay said after the hearing. "It's window dressing. It's lip service. It's just running it by us for some form of credibility that doesn't exist."
Cotler said he wasn't about to risk judicial integrity by exposing high-court candidates to such queries as "When did you stop beating your wife?"
MacKay called the comment "insulting" and said MPs never intended to turn the screenings into a political free-for-all.
Still, much of Wednesday's hearing was a mix of grandstanding and partisan clashes.
MacKay and Conservative justice critic Vic Toews lambasted Cotler for giving the panel 24 hours' notice, a three-hour televised hearing and just two days to report on the candidates. Abella and Charron weren't announced as nominees until Tuesday.
Cotler, on the other hand, spent eight months researching potential nominees, consulting with judges and lawyers, and reviewing rulings.
Toews called it a "rubber stamp" process that strips Canadians of their right to know their most powerful jurists.
He called it "astounding" that the candidates were not even asked if they would appear before the committee.
Cotler fired back that all parties agreed that only the justice minister would take questions on a contender's intellect, demeanour, racial awareness and other attributes.
New Democrat MP Joe Comartin reminded Cotler that the Liberals weren't willing to negotiate on that point.
MacKay called the hearing a pointless review of a done deal. Conservatives had little choice but to accept a lousy process and fight for future changes, he said.
Cotler himself all but confirmed its irrelevance.
It would take a lot to change his mind about Abella and Charron, he told the panel.
"Only if you can provide any clear, authoritative evidence that would disqualify a person from serving."
Both nominees are "outstanding," Cotler repeatedly said.
The government tried to broaden public scrutiny of top-court appointments while protecting judicial independence, he said.
Even before the hearing began, Toews noted that Abella and Charron are both known for judgments supporting same-sex rights.
The nine-member Supreme Court will hold a milestone hearing in October on Liberal efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Toews suggested a political connection.
"It is clear for everyone to see that this is part of the prime minister's agenda" to allow gay weddings, he said.
Cotler insisted that merit was his prime consideration when whittling down top candidates.
He also dismissed suggestions from some quarters that Abella, a renowned defender of human rights, is soft on crime.
"This has no basis in fact," Cotler said, citing a review of her judgments.
He also torpedoed the idea that Abella may be the court's next great dissenter. Of 313 judgments since 1994, Abella dissented in 31 - or 10 per cent of cases, he said.
Cotler also rejected a Quebec request for the federal government to choose from a list provided by the province to fill future vacancies from Quebec.
In a letter sent Aug. 6 to Cotler, Quebec Justice Minister Jacques Dupuis and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier asked for "formal participation" by Quebec in the process.
"We insist that we are part of the decisions," they wrote.
But Cotler said selecting from a list provided by the province would infringe on the federal government's constitutional right to name justices.