Four of the six judges appointed to the federal bench in New Brunswick in the past eight months have links to Liberal cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc, prompting renewed questions about the government’s use of partisan criteria in its choices for the judiciary.
Mr. LeBlanc, a New Brunswick MP, is a close confidante of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He is on medical leave from his position as Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade while undergoing cancer treatment, but was part of the cabinet approval process for five of the appointments. Regionally important ministers have usually played a key role in judicial appointments.
The Liberals introduced changes to the judicial appointment system in October, 2016, saying they would ensure only the best candidates were appointed, without regard to political ties, in a transparent process.
Two months ago, however, The Globe reported candidates for federally appointed courts have their names put through a private party database called the Liberalist, which tracks party membership, participation in party activities and the taking of lawn signs.
Three judges named to superior courts in the spring and winter in New Brunswick made financial contributions of $400 each in 2009 to help pay down just over $31,000 in debt incurred by Mr. LeBlanc in his unsuccessful run for the party leadership, Elections Canada records show. Fifty-two people donated to pay off those debts. Each of the judges also made multiple donations to the Liberal Party since that time, records show.
All three – Justice Charles LeBlond of the Court of Appeal, and Justice Arthur Doyle and Justice Robert Dysart of the Court of Queen’s Bench – were appointed by Justice Minister David Lametti, who replaced Jody Wilson-Raybould in January.
A fourth, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Marie-Claude Bélanger-Richard, appointed by Ms. Wilson-Raybould, is a relative of Mr. LeBlanc’s. She has also donated to the Liberals multiple times. Mr. LeBlanc says he did not participate in that appointment, posting a declaration on the website of the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner that he recused himself from all “discussions, decisions, debates or votes” on the matter.
And a fifth appointee has an indirect link to Mr. LeBlanc. Chief Justice Tracey DeWare of the Court of Queen’s Bench, chosen last month by the Prime Minister, is married to Jacques Pinet, who also contributed $400 to pay down those debts and has since made multiple donations to the Liberals, federal records show. Chief Justice DeWare was first appointed to the bench by the Harper government and had been a Conservative donor.
“It just smacks of old-school patronage from a PM and a minister who professed they were going to do things differently,” Lisa Raitt, justice critic for the Conservative Party, said in an interview.
She took aim at Mr. LeBlanc, who was found to have violated conflict-of-interest rules last September in approving a lucrative clam licence when he was Fisheries Minister that could have benefited his wife’s first cousin. “One wonders if there was any personal interest that was being fulfilled here,” she said.
Vincent Hughes, a spokesperson for Mr. LeBlanc, declined to comment and referred questions to Mr. Lametti’s office. Rachel Rappaport, a spokesperson for Mr. Lametti, said, “All judicial appointments are made on the basis of merit.” She added the process “neither disqualifies nor privileges an applicant on the basis of political association.”
Christian Michaud, the past head of the New Brunswick Law Society, said too much is being made of links with Mr. LeBlanc. “Our Province is small and everyone knows each other; that is simply a fact of life in this area of Canada,” he said in an e-mail.
Since 1988, candidates for federal appointment to the bench (to provincial superior courts, the Federal Court and Tax Court) have been screened by non-partisan advisory committees. The justice minister chooses from the candidates who passed muster at the committees. First, though the justice minister then does his or her their own vetting, and so does the Prime Minister’s Office, before the minister’s recommendation goes to cabinet for a vote.
Three years ago, the Liberals restored the “highly qualified” category. Under the Conservatives, judges were either qualified or not. But the Liberals, who created a system with annual reports on applicants’ and appointees’ gender, LGBTQ status, disability, ethnic minority status and Indigenous background, have refused to release the number of judicial appointees who were considered “highly qualified.” The justice minister is able to recommend candidates who are considered either qualified or highly qualified by the screening committees.
Academics who have studied the importance of political affiliations in the appointments process called Tuesday on the Liberals to make public the numbers of merely “qualified” judges they have appointed.
“They reintroduced the category [of “highly qualified”] so the implication was that was where they were going, but we don’t really have any idea,” Lori Hausegger, an associate professor in the political science department at Boise State University in Idaho, said in an interview.
Mr. Lametti’s office did not answer why it would not reveal the number of merely “qualified” candidates who were appointed.
Prof. Hausegger also said Ottawa should consider adopting a system like Ontario’s, in which a non-partisan committee drafts a short list of names from which the justice minister must choose. (The minister, in Ontario’s system, is free, however, to ask the committee for more names.) This allows less scope for choices to be influenced by partisan considerations, she said.
Erin Crandall, who teaches in the department of politics at Acadia University, said the system, though non-partisan in its initial stage, vests a great deal of discretion in the executive branch. That discretion can be used to appoint more women and minorities, as the Liberals have done, she said in an interview, or to candidates with partisan affiliations an advantage over others.
Elections Canada records do not show any donations made by a sixth appointee, Justice Christa Bourque, of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Family Division, who was appointed last month.
The Globe was unable on Tuesday to reach the judges with links to Mr. LeBlanc named in this story.