This moment of transition provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the joys and pressures of the position, Penny Collenette writes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed Sheilah Martin to the Supreme Court of Canada. A look at her application for the position, which is online, reveals her stellar qualifications for the extremely tough post, Penny Collenette writes. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Supreme Court, an opaque fortress of law, gives the impression of great strength, not easily amenable to change. But after 17 years of extraordinary and steady leadership by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, transition and transparency are high on the court’s agenda as they bid farewell to one justice, welcome another, and anticipate the name of a new chief justice.
The nine justices, accustomed to headlines for their collective decisions (unanimous or not), rarely feel the glare of an individual spotlight. But transition affords us a unique moment to reflect on the long road to a Supreme Court appointment and the pressures of the position.
Somehow Beverley McLachlin made it look effortless.
Brilliantly balancing her personal sphere while maintaining an international and community-based public profile, she radiates intelligence and poise. Both cautious and courageous, she is known for her consensus-building skills as well as her leadership abilities.
Spending her formative years in Pincher Creek, Alta., she was later called to the bar in both Alberta and British Columbia, becoming chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court in 1988. Seven months later, she was elevated to the Supreme Court by Brian Mulroney.
Her learning curve on the court was 11 years before Jean Chrétien appointed her as chief justice, making her the first female in that position. Not only did McLachlin’s appointment shatter the Canadian legal glass ceiling, she also managed to shatter the record for the longest-serving chief justice. Under her leadership, the court was known for its professionalism and discretion in spite of an unprecedented disagreement with Stephen Harper over his nominee to the Court in 2014. Filling her shoes is clearly a very tall order, especially as her departure creates two judicial vacuums.
Her position as the “western/northern” justice was filled this week by Alberta Justice Sheilah Martin. A transparent and non-partisan appointment process headed by former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, had given the PM a short list of three candidates.
Justice Martin’s application for her appointment is on line. It reveals not only her stellar qualifications, her bilingualism and her extensive legal and academic experience, as well as her “joy of learning.”
Further information about her selection is still to come.
The Minister of Justice and Kim Campbell will appear before a House of Commons Standing Committee tomorrow to explain the rationale for the appointment. Justice Martin will then participate in a question-and-answer forum with members of other committees, while law students observe the proceedings. This is the second time for an open dialogue with an appointee, which is a popular technique. It helps to illuminate a traditionally shrouded process.
The prime minister has a second chance at shaping the court by naming a chief justice from among the nine justices. The internal process of the appointment will understandably be less transparent but nevertheless highly consultative.
Due diligence is crucial because appointments are made until the age of 75. However, it is not uncommon for justices to retire from the bench before their retirement date. The case load and the isolation of the position can be wearing. Working intensely with eight colleagues from different backgrounds and different regions of the country in an austere setting can cause friction.
A recently published book by Prof. Constance Backhouse, A Life, brilliantly describes life on the court — the exhilaration and exhaustion as well as the stresses and strains. Backhouse meticulously chronicles the life of 90-year-old Claire L’Heureux Dubé, the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1987 and the first from Quebec.
When L’Heureux Dubé entered the legal profession in 1952, there were very few female lawyers. Far from feeling discouraged, she used her formidable intellect, legendary work ethic and irrepressible personality to overcome professional obstacles and personal tragedies. Like McLachlin and Martin, she already had an impressive judicial career before she reached the Supreme Court.
Especially interesting is her description of early days on the court, where she felt as if she were living a “monk’s existence.” The work, however, trumped the existence. She “loved the challenge of the cases and jurisprudence.” Massive social and political issues of the day, such as the Quebec secession case, wind their way through the book, masterfully blending jurisprudence with history.
Whether through transparency or recollection, the life of any Supreme Court justice is inspirational and educational. Let’s take this unique moment to say thank you before they disappear back into their fortress.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.