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A libertarian student group has developed a growing presence in law schools, where it seeks to shake up a legal culture it views as devoutly uncritical of the Supreme Court and established Canadian legal norms.

From a tiny group on a handful of campuses three years ago, the Runnymede Society now has a presence on nearly all of the country’s 18 law campuses where it is fighting for the hearts and minds of young people who will go on to careers in legal practice, academia, politics and business, and as judges.

Similar to the influential Federalist Society in the United States, which also started as a student group, Runnymede has a core view that judges too often are guided by their own political preferences, rather than applying the law. In its first book of essays, published late last month with the provocative title Attacks on the Rule of Law From Within, and in edgy remarks at its events from leading judges, it has sought to spark a debate on some cherished Canadian principles, such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms being a living tree that changes with the times.

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“Obviously the Canadian legal community is a small community, and the game is influencing the influencers,” says Joanna Baron, a Runnymede founder and now the executive director of its parent group, the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation.

Joanna Baron in Edmonton, Alberta on Sept. 4, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

A particular Runnymede favourite is Federal Court of Appeal Justice Marc Nadon, who told the students his views are similar to those of the conservative judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservative former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed him to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013 in an attempt to nudge the court to the right, only to have the court reject him as legally unqualified.

Justice Nadon has done a number of sessions with the students, including a pub night in March.

“Our court is as political as the Americans'," he said at one session recorded on video, referring to the Supreme Court in both countries. But instead of being roughly split between conservatives and liberals, Canada’s nine-member panel has “nine liberals.” (He later corrected himself, saying Mr. Harper had appointed one or two conservatives.)

In its challenge to what it sees as law school orthodoxy, the Runnymede Society has some similarities with the Federalist Society.

Launched in 1982, the Federalist Society now has 60,000 members, including practicing lawyers. All five conservative judges on the U.S. Supreme Court were members.

The secret to the U.S. group’s growth is that it “discovered an untapped market” of conservative law students and lawyers, says Hollis Amanda-Brusky, who teaches in the politics department at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and has written a book about the Federalist Society. Conservative political elites noticed student interest in the group, and conservative philanthropy – the Olin Foundation, the Koch Brothers and others – got behind them, she said in an interview.

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Runnymede, which is non-partisan, has “partnered” with the Federalist Society for some of its events, accepting speakers from the U.S. group, says Runnymede national director Mark Mancini, whose website biography says he has “a mandate to shift the legal culture in Canada towards liberty.” (Runnymede is the name of the meadow where the Magna Carta was written in the 12th century.)

At times, that partnership has met with controversy on campus. In one case, at McGill University in Montreal, when U.S. Judge Diane Sykes – shortlisted by President Donald Trump for the Supreme Court – was to speak, inflammatory comments on social media prompted Runnymede to hire security, Ms. Baron said.

“Certainly there have been protests,” she said.

The Runnymede Society says it is not socially conservative and does not have the Federalist Society’s deep attachment to originalism – the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as its authors intended, rather than according to the living-tree approach widely used in Canadian courts.

But it wants students exposed to both views, Ms. Baron says.

“You go to most Canadian law schools pre-Runnymede – I was in this situation at McGill – and you’re not aware there’s any method of constitutional interpretation beside the progressive living tree,” Ms. Baron said, adding that Supreme Court rulings are seen as “Holy Writ.”

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And “liberty-oriented legal arguments are still seen as outliers.” One example of a liberty-oriented argument comes in the biggest case under way involving the Canadian Constitution Foundation – the eight-year-old Cambie Surgeries case in Vancouver, in which the foundation has retained leading lawyers to argue for a right to private medical care.

Legal observers who are not part of Runnymede expressed mixed views about the group’s positions. Wayne MacKay, who has taught law since 1979, and is now a professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax, said he agrees that “there is a bit of a law school bias toward left-of-centre collective rights,” but added: “Liberty can often be kind of a code for limiting equality rights.”

Retired Supreme Court judge Marshall Rothstein, when asked about the group’s view that judges are too interested in transforming society, said it is “worthy of consideration.”

Runnymede Society has a $250,000 annual budget, Mr. Mancini says, and gives charitable-tax receipts through the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which received just more than $5-million in donations in the year ending in March, 2019, from individuals and foundations. The biggest part of those donations was given for the Cambie case, Ms. Baron said.

The Canadian Constitution Foundation is well-connected in political and legal circles: Its former executive director Howard Anglin was a senior adviser to Mr. Harper, and is now principal secretary to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney of the United Conservative Party. Supreme Court Justice Russell Brown, a Harper appointee, is a former member of its board of directors.

With the exception of a grant of about $10,000 from the U.S.-based Atlas Network, which funds groups supporting the rule of law and free markets, it has received no money from foreign sources, Ms. Baron said.

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