Nearly 40 years into her legal career as a prosecutor and a judge, Heather Holmes knows something about high-profile cases – murders, constitutional matters, odd ones like the decision on women’s right to go topless.
But nothing has placed the Associate Chief Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court in anything like the international public spotlight she is in now.
On Wednesday, Associate Chief Justice Holmes will release a ruling in the extradition case of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou that could shape Canada-China relations for years to come.
It is an extradition case like no other in Canadian history. China detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in apparent reprisal for the RCMP’s arrest of Ms. Meng Dec. 1, 2018, on a request from the United States. And the legal issue is novel, too, because while Ms. Meng is charged with fraud, her lawyers say the case is really about evading U.S. sanctions against Iran – which, if true, would mean the crime she is accused of does not exist in Canada. If the judge decides the case is about sanctions, not fraud, Ms. Meng could go free.
For the moment, Associate Chief Justice Holmes is the face of Canadian justice – a system China has called a political tool of the U.S. government, and which the United States is looking toward to uphold its extradition treaty with Canada.
“I would be surprised if any judge in her position wouldn’t understand the huge consequence for Canada and for the lives of those two people in prison,” former B.C. attorney-general Brian Smith said.
"I mean, she’s human, she has to think of those things.
“But everyone I’ve talked to has the highest regard for her fairness and independence.”
Lawyer Ravi Hira says he has no doubt she will be able to look beyond the international consequences. “She cares about making sure the proper thing is done. I expect her to decide the case based on the record of the case and applying the law.”
What kind of judge is she? At times cautious – she wouldn’t allow the news media to broadcast the four-day first phase of the court proceedings in January – and at other times bold. In 2012, she ruled that retroactive parole provisions in a Harper-era criminal law were unconstitutional. In 2005, she ruled a portion of a four-year-old federal anti-gang law unconstitutional. In 2000, she ruled in favour of a woman who had violated a city bylaw by going topless at a city pool, a decision that gave women the right to do so on public property in B.C. “There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in her conduct … anyone who was offended was not forced to look,” she said in her decision.
She can be tough. In a 2012 case, she ordered a man surrendered to the United States on major drug charges despite his argument that as a permanent resident of Canada, not a citizen, he would be deported to his former home of Sudan after his sentence. Last year, she ordered the release of $2-million in cash to a person accused in the province’s largest money laundering case because of shortcomings in the way the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office managed the file.
Before the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien appointed her to the bench in 2001, she was a federal prosecutor specializing in corporate crime. She has also worked in criminal-law policy development in Ottawa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her Associate Chief Justice in 2018.
In the B.C. court, that position carries responsibility for managing criminal cases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has overseen technological changes that allow the court to conduct some hearings by video conference, lawyer Richard Fowler said. She was also responsible for ensuring that the courts changed their bail processes after a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year mandated bail reviews after 90 days for those held in pre-trial detention, he said.
Another former B.C. attorney-general, Wally Oppal, said not many judges are more knowledgeable about the criminal law than Associate Chief Justice Holmes.
“You have to really know the nuances of the criminal law when you are doing commercial crime.”
Whatever she rules on Wednesday, Canadians can be content, knowing that their judges are independent, Mr. Trudeau said on Tuesday.
“One of the good things about having a truly independent justice system is that we don’t need to apologize for or explain the decisions taken by our independent justice system.”
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