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Ontario Premier Doug Ford is defending his government's appointments of two former staffers to a committee that helps select provincial judges, saying he's not going to put Liberals or New Democrats in those roles.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he has the right to choose “like-minded” conservative judges and defended his installation of two former senior political aides on the government’s judicial appointments committee – the latest in a series of moves critics say is politicizing the province’s courts.

Lawyers groups and opposition politicians raised alarms about the Premier’s comments on Friday, saying they amount to a rejection of judicial independence, undermine public confidence in the courts and set a course toward a U.S.-style partisan justice system.

Mr. Ford was unrepentant when asked about a Toronto Star story that his government had put two of his former senior political aides on the province’s Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, which vets and shortlists candidates for Attorney-General Doug Downey to name to the Ontario Court of Justice.

Ford government’s moves to evade court scrutiny face challenges

“We got elected to get like-minded people in appointments,” he told reporters at an unrelated announcement in Brampton on Friday, asserting that it was “part of democracy” to appoint judges that agree with the governing party.

“I am not going to appoint some NDP or some Liberal. I’ve made it very clear where I stand with judges. Justices of the peace, and judges, they are letting criminals out.”

The Premier went on to describe what he says are incidents from the recent wave of auto thefts, saying that thieves who were “kicking in doors, putting guns to people’s heads” were then released on bail “eight times.”

“How would you like it if someone kicked your door in and put a gun to your head, and all of a sudden you find out that that criminal that did that is out on the streets the next day? It’s unacceptable,” Mr. Ford said. “So every single appointment I can, to find tough judges, tough JPs, to keep guys in jail – and I say guys because 99.9 per cent are guys – I’m going to do it.”

Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie issued a statement warning of the “U.S.-style politicization of our courts,” calling Mr. Ford’s comments “an alarming affront to legal and democratic norms” and demanding the reversal of the committee appointments.

The Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA), an umbrella group for 46 local lawyers groups, issued a statement saying the comments “reflect a juvenile understanding of the role of an independent judiciary” and undermine “public confidence in the administration of justice in a dangerous and anti-democratic way.”

“We would expect this sort of commentary from a MAGA [Make America Great Again] Republican, not the Premier of Ontario,” FOLA chair Douglas Judson said in an interview.

Kelly McDermott, president of the Ontario Bar Association, said it was important for the province to maintain a justice system independent from party loyalty, ideology or government influence.

“The U.S. experience is a frequent reminder of the need to protect a court system that can be relied upon to make decisions on the basis of the law, rather than ideology or partisan politics,” Ms. McDermott said in an e-mailed statement. “This is fundamental to the rule of law.”

Adam Weisberg, vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, called the Premier’s comments about not appointing New Democrats or Liberals “disheartening,” and said the organization was “deeply disappointed” with Mr. Ford’s “decision to politicize the judicial selection process.”

Veteran Toronto criminal defence lawyer Frank Addario said Mr. Ford’s comments show he “truly needs a civics lesson.” The Premier has now left any recent judges named to the bench under a cloud, Mr. Addario said, further tainting a process once looked to as the gold standard for non-partisan appointments and regarded as superior to those in other provinces and at the federal level.

“Every judge that now takes the oath of office, people are going to look at that judge and go, what did they do to pass the litmus test of the Premier?” Mr. Addario said in an interview.

The Premier’s former deputy chief of staff, Matthew Bondy, was appointed to chair the 13-member Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee on Feb. 1. Onetime PC political aide Brock Vandrick, who had served as Mr. Ford’s director of stakeholder relations, was appointed in December.

For years, the Ford government has faced widespread criticism for changes it has made to the way Ontario appoints judges, altering a process that dated back to 1988 and had been designed to minimize patronage.

Passed in 2021, the changes gave the province’s Attorney-General more power over who sits on the advisory committee: He now approves all but the three members of the 13-strong panel. The changes also required the committee to present him with a shortlist of six candidates for each judicial vacancy, instead of two.

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