41 judges who got promotions had given Tories money: study

By Janice Tibbetts And Glen McGregor, Canwest News Service

A strong majority of judges who made political donations before being elevated to the federal bench in recent years contributed to the Conservative party.

It's a finding that suggests the Harper government is favouring those who are politically like-minded.

An Ottawa Citizen- Canwest News Service analysis found that 41 judges appointed by the Conservatives to the prestigious postings had donated to the party or its candidates since 2004.

The Tory donors represented almost two-thirds of judicial appointees who backed political parties by contributing cash before they were promoted to their postings, which pay salaries of $267,200-a-year.

Of the 66 judges who donated before their appointments, 41 gave to the Conservatives, 14 contributed to the Liberals, another 10 gave to both parties -- the Tories and Liberals -- and one contributed to the NDP.

Another 25 judges appointed by the Tories have names that matched political contributors in the Elections Canada database -- mainly Conservative donors -- but could not be positively verified as the same people.

The analysis electronically compared a list of more than 270 first-time judicial appointees against Elections Canada records of 870,000 contributions to political parties, ridings associations, individual candidates and leadership contestants.

The Harper government, which railed against patronage while in opposition, also has given coveted judgeships to more than a dozen identified party organizers, failed candidates, and former cabinet ministers, beginning soon after the Conservatives came to power in 2006.

There is no suggestion that any of the judges who donated to the Conservatives were promoted as pay back for their financial support.

Caps on political contributions are set at $1,100, a level that effectively curbs any influence a single donor can wield.

"Liberals as a general rule don't appoint Tories and Tories as a rule don't appoint Liberals," acknowledged Justice Alan MacInnes, who donated to the Conservative party before former prime minister Brian Mulroney elevated him to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in 1992.

"Given the choice, they'd rather have somebody who they believe ascribes to their philosophy than one who doesn't. Frankly, for me, that isn't an issue, as long as the people who get appointed are worthy candidates."

MacInnes, president of the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association, added that the political persuasion of lawyers makes no difference once they become judges, who are bound by ethics, and motivated by peer pressure, to be impartial.

"There is a considerable internal pressure," said MacInnes.

"You don't want to be a rogue and you don't want to look like an idiot to your colleagues."

The hefty percentage of Conservative donors is a turnaround from the Liberal years of government.

A 2005 Canwest News Service survey of three provinces found that 60 per cent of new judges had donated to the Liberals in the years before they were appointed.

"Nothing has changed," lamented Jacob Ziegel, a retired University of Toronto law professor and longtime critic of the judicial appointment process.

"It's a system that lacks credibility, it's tarnished and highly partisan and it should be a national embarrassment," he added.

Ziegel said the appointment process should be overhauled to give the government less power.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the former opposition justice critic who was once a vocal critic of naming political cronies to the bench, was cochair of a House of Commons committee that recommended in 2005 that advisory committees craft short lists of only a handful of candidates to curtail government discretion.

But he had a change of heart soon after the Conservatives won power and declared the system was a "relatively well-working mechanism."

The Harper government has now named or promoted more than 300 of the 1,000 judges who sit on provincial superior courts, appeal courts, the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada.