Being absolved of influence-peddling accusations in the nomination of judges won't immediately repair the damage suffered by his party, Premier Jean Charest says, but it may be a first step in restoring public confidence in his government.
In a report tabled on Wednesday, the commission of inquiry headed by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache cleared Mr. Charest of wrongdoing and dismissed former justice minister Marc Bellemare's allegation that he was forced to submit to "colossal pressures" from Liberal party fundraisers in the appointment of judges.
Mr. Bastarache concluded that Mr. Bellemare "acted voluntarily and independently" without undue political pressure from anyone.
"The year 2010, marked by Mr. Bellemare's accusations, was one of the most difficult years of my personal life," Mr. Charest said in reaction to the report. "The allegations and the media reports about them caused me considerable damage as well as to the Quebec Liberal party, the government and the magistrate. These damages will take time to repair. … This will not be fixed over a short period of time."
The $4.8-million commission, which was set up last spring, examined Mr. Bellemare's allegations of influence-peddling in the appointment of two judges and the promotion of another. It also probed the process of nominating judges.
There was no evidence, according to Mr. Bastarache, that Mr. Bellemare was forced to make decisions against his will due to political interference by Liberal fundraisers in the appointment and promotion of judges
"I conclude that the facts do not demonstrate that Mr. Bellemare acted under the pressure or orders of third parties, disregarding his own conscience and opinions," Mr. Bastarache said in his report.
However, Mr. Bastarache found serious flaws in the nomination process of Quebec judges and made several recommendations to improve the system.
"The process is vulnerable to all manner of interventions and influence," the report stated. "The candidates' political affiliation or acquaintance with representatives of the political party in power may play a role."
One of Mr. Bastarache's main recommendations was to propose an overhaul of the current selection process. He proposed the creation of a standing selection committee made up of 30 appointed members representing the public, lawyers and judges. A seven-member panel would be selected from the pool of committee members whose main task would be to propose potential candidates for appointment to the bench. A secretariat for judicial selection would administer the work of the standing committee.
Mr. Bastarache stated that his proposal would "substantially eliminate the concerns raised during the commission about undue influence in judicial appointments."
The commission undertook its mandate in what Mr. Bastarache described as an "extraordinary political climate," where the public had serious misgivings about the government's integrity and the impartiality of the judicial system after Mr. Bellemare's serious allegations.
Mr. Bastarache concluded that Mr. Bellemare's evidence to support his allegations were unreliable. For instance, "cardboard" notes taken on the back of a notepad "[do]not meet the reliability criteria by the general rules of evidence" Mr. Bastarache stated.
The "cardboard" notes were entered as evidence to show that Mr. Bellemare had spoken to Mr. Charest about the influence exercised by party fundraisers Franco Fava and Charles Rondeau in nominating judges. Mr. Bellemare also alleged that he witnessed a cash donation exchanged between Mr. Fava and a party official at a Quebec City restaurant.
The commission also refused to give any major significance to testimony by one of Mr. Charest's senior aides, Chantal Landry, who acknowledged consulting Mr. Rondeau for certain nominations and would even indicate on a candidate's file by using a sticky note if the person was a Liberal supporter.
Based on testimony during the inquiry hearings, Mr. Bastarache concluded that neither Mr. Rondeau nor Mr. Fava exercised any influence whatsoever in the nominations of Marc Bisson and Line Gosselin-Després to the Quebec Court and the promotion of Michel Simard to the position of Associate Chief Judge of the Quebec Court.
"He [Mr. Bastarache]believed Mr. Fava, he believed Mr. Rondeau, but he didn't believe Marc Bellemare. It's a disaster for Mr. Bellemare's credibility," said the Quebec Liberal party's lawyer, André Duguay.
Mr. Bellemare had not yet read the report late Wednesday afternoon and his lawyer Rénald Beaudry refused to give any extensive comments. Mr. Bellemare was expected to react this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.