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Ontario's Attorney General Doug Downey attends Question Period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Nov. 28, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey has declined to meet with an array of lawyers groups to discuss concerns over the province’s judicial appointments process that have mounted since Premier Doug Ford said he intends to choose only “like-minded” judges who are tough on crime.

The request for a round table meeting with both Mr. Downey and Mr. Ford came from the Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA), and was sent last month on behalf of a list of 14 other groups that includes the Women’s Law Association of Ontario and organizations representing Black, South Asian and Muslim lawyers.

In comments first made in late February, Mr. Ford defended the appointment of two of his former senior political aides to the province’s Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee (JAAC), which screens potential appointments to the Ontario Court of Justice. The Premier cited high rates of car theft and said it was his right as a democratically elected Premier to choose “tough judges.”

The Premier’s assertions had both opposition politicians and leaders in the legal profession warning of the U.S.-style politicization of the province’s courts.

FOLA’s call for a sit-down meeting with the government was also prompted by a Globe and Mail analysis published last month showing that more than two-thirds of Ontario provincial court judges appointed since the Progressive Conservatives were elected in 2018 have been former prosecutors. Some defence lawyers said the numbers raise concerns that the process is unfairly skewed to elevate those the government sees as in-line with its tougher-on-crime views.

Marcus Gee: Doug Ford’s vow to pack courts with ‘like-minded’ judges is dangerous

In an e-mail dated March 28 and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Downey’s executive assistant and scheduler, Mike Tibollo, said the Attorney-General would not participate in the round table meeting requested by Douglas Judson, chair of FOLA, but would accept “written concerns.” The e-mail says there has already been “significant public debate” on the issue.

“Although improvements can be made to the existing system, we are confident judicial independence will remain fully intact,” the e-mail reads.

In an interview, Mr. Judson said he was disappointed the government did not want to discuss the concerns he has heard in the legal profession about the Premier’s comments. He said he had hoped the meeting would have resulted in constructive dialogue – including discussing ways to ensure a more diverse pool of applicants for judicial appointments, something he said the Premier’s comments have discouraged.

“Obviously no one expected the government to want to come to a meeting where they are going to get a public spanking, right? No one expected them to participate in that,” Mr. Judson said.

Andrew Kennedy, a spokesman for Mr. Downey declined to comment further on the decision not to attend the meeting.

The Ford government had already faced a round of criticism in legal circles for changes it made to the process of appointing judges to the lower Ontario Court of Justice in 2021. Opponents said the amendments would allow for more political interference, tainting a process widely regarded as non-partisan.

FOLA is one of three legal organizations with a seat on Ontario’s 13-member Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, along with the Law Society of Ontario and the Ontario Bar Association. But their representatives are now chosen from lists of three candidates each group provides to the Attorney-General, under the recent changes. Plus, the amendments also require the committee to provide the Attorney-General with a short list of least six candidates for each judicial vacancy, instead of two, from which to choose.

Higher court judges are appointed by the federal government, which has also faced criticism for allowing politics to influence judicial appointments.

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