Wilson-Raybould defends ‘dynamic, 21st-century’ SCOC process

Justice Minister defended selection process during an appearance before House justice committee.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

OTTAWA — Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says the Liberal government is going to stick with the selection process that led to the nomination of Newfoundland and Labrador justice Malcolm Rowe to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“A modern, dynamic, 21st-century court needed a modern, dynamic, 21st-century selection process,” Wilson-Raybould said Monday as she defended the new selection process during an appearance before the House of Commons justice committee.

The Liberal government revealed changes to the way it would appoint Supreme Court justices in August, saying it wanted to bring more openness and transparency to the process, while also encouraging more diversity and requiring functional bilingualism among judges on the high court.

It was also the first time that Canadians were invited to apply for the job.

Related: In defence of a bilingual Supreme Court of Canada

Wilson-Raybould and former prime minister Kim Campbell, who led the non-partisan advisory board tasked with coming up with a shortlist of candidates, appeared before the committee to explain the process and defend the choice of Rowe as one of the contenders.

On Tuesday, MPs, senators and even law students will get the chance to put their questions directly to Rowe when he sits down for a question-and-answer session at the University of Ottawa.

“This is historic and it provides an opportunity to invite Canadians into a process wherein they will have the opportunity to get to know the next Supreme Court of Canada justice,” Wilson-Raybould said of the session, which will be moderated by McGill University law professor Daniel Jutras.

However, Conservative and New Democrat MPs on the committee pointed out they would have liked to be involved in the actual creation of a shortlist.

“It has no legal standing,” NDP MP Murray Rankin said of the Tuesday event.

Related: Justin Trudeau names Murray Rowe to the Supreme Court

Wilson-Raybould said she would take any and all feedback from the justice committee into consideration, but stressed that having an independent, non-partisan advisory board be the one to come up with a shortlist is a central part of the new selection process.

There will be much fodder for questions Tuesday.

The government published the questionnaire Rowe completed as part of the application process, detailing his views on issues such as diversity, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, aboriginal treaty rights and the role of the court in a constitutional democracy.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had such a document about anyone who’s gone to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Campbell told the committee.

The fact that Rowe is a judge from the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal is also likely to be a topic of discussion.

The Liberals had been coming under fire from the opposition for saying their selection process would not necessarily follow the custom of regional representation, which would have ordinarily meant the successor to retired Justice Thomas Cromwell, from Nova Scotia, would be from Atlantic Canada.

Campbell, who said she understood the terms of reference to mean the advisory board needed to come up with at least two candidates from the region, said they had no trouble finding them.

“Atlantic Canada sent us some outstanding candidates, so it wasn’t something where we sat around saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we better rustle up a couple of Atlantic Canadians,”’ Campbell said to laughter from the committee.

“Au contraire,” said Campbell, who also noted they had no trouble coming up with candidates who were functionally bilingual.

Campbell acknowledged that Rowe, a white male in his 60s, does not necessarily tick any of the “boxes” associated with diversity, but having that as one of the stated considerations prompted a wide range of candidates to apply.

“The terms of reference were a clear message to the Canadian legal community and that was reflected in the applications,” Campbell said.

The previous Conservative government had lifted the curtain — for a time — on the Supreme Court selection process by asking a small group of MPs from all parties to narrow down the short list and then allowing a larger parliamentary committee to grill them during a televised hearing.

After the nomination of Marc Nadon, however, which was ultimately nixed by the Supreme Court, former prime minister Stephen Harper took the process back behind closed doors.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.