National News

Harper facing fresh Supreme Court vacancy

Supreme Court Justice Louis LeBel laughs during his swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa Monday Feb 14, 2000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson -
Supreme Court Justice Louis LeBel laughs during his swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa Monday Feb 14, 2000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson
— image credit:

By The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Political gadflies and jurisprudence junkies, grab the popcorn and pull up a chair: Prime Minister Stephen Harper will soon have yet another Quebec vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Word of Justice Louis LeBel's imminent retirement came Friday just as the Globe and Mail published a surprising report detailing what it said were the facts behind Harper's disastrous bid last year to name Marc Nadon to the high court.

LeBel, who spent 15 years on the Quebec Court of Appeal before joining the ranks of the Supreme Court in January 2000, served notice he plans to retire on Nov. 30, when he turns 75.

"It has been a privilege to contribute to the administration of justice in Canada and to the development of our laws," LeBel said in a statement. When he retires, he will have served as a judge for 30 years, he noted.

"I have been fortunate to share my duties with colleagues whom I deeply appreciate and respect."

In her own statement, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said LeBel served the court with great distinction.

"He is a jurist of immense gifts and wisdom, and is a pillar of the court," she said. "He is deeply loved and respected by his colleagues and he will be dearly missed."

Harper's office issued a familiar-sounding, if heartfelt, statement thanking LeBel for his service, promising that his "exemplary dedication to the law and his distinguished service to Canada will be long remembered."

The last sentence, however, seemed to carry more weight than usual: "Plans to fill the resulting vacancy on the Supreme Court of Canada will be announced in due course."

Those plans will comprise what is likely to be one of the most closely watched Supreme Court appointments in recent memory.

The court, which normally consists of nine members, has been short a justice for some nine months, most notably among the three seats that are reserved by the Constitution for jurists from Quebec.

Nadon, a semi-retired Federal Court judge, was deemed ineligible by the very court Harper sought to have him join, ruling in March that he didn't meet the specific criteria for Quebec judges as spelled out in the Supreme Court Act.

Since then, the behind-the-scenes machinations of the appointment process have slowly risen to the surface, exposing an unprecedented — and now very public — spat between McLachlin and the Prime Minister's Office.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives publicly questioned McLachlin's actions, suggesting she inappropriately tried to make contact with Harper to discuss potential legal problems with Nadon's appointment.

But it wasn't just Nadon that prompted McLachlin to contact the government, but a shortlist of candidates that included no fewer than four Federal Court judges, even though it was far from clear whether such candidates would be eligible, the Globe and Mail reported Friday.

As part of the selection process, the government stacked the deck with Federal Court candidates in hopes of nominating a more conservative judge than it believed was otherwise available in Quebec, the report suggests.

On the day Nadon was rejected, Harper himself offered a hint of that preference, saying, "The reality is the Supreme Court has decided that a Quebec judge at the Federal Court is a second-class judge."

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