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Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey, seen here on June 20, 2019, said the system is antiquated and needs to be 'modernized,' and that it now leaves out too many qualified lawyers.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey is defending a proposal to overhaul the province’s process for appointing judges, even as opposition parties point to his Progressive Conservative government’s recent patronage scandals and accuse of him threatening the independence of the judiciary.

The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that Mr. Downey told an audience of lawyers last week he is contemplating changes that would provide him with a larger pool of applicants to choose from when appointing provincial court judges, instead of the two names that come from an advisory committee.

The opposition at Queen’s Park accused Mr. Downey of trying to fiddle with a process explicitly designed to minimize the role of politicians in selecting judges so they can’t stack the bench with allies.

But Mr. Downey said the system is antiquated and needs to be “modernized,” and that it now leaves out too many qualified lawyers.

“To suggest that you can’t improve a system is just, frankly, not the way that government should be," Mr. Downey told reporters on Monday. “There are people getting excluded."

He said some lawyers have stopped applying and others who were qualified have failed to get interviews. He said the committee has never asked him about his priorities for judges. (His office appoints more than half of the committee’s members.) Mr. Downey said the attorney-general, not an obscure committee, should be trusted to select judges.

Mr. Downey said a pool system could mirror the federal government’s process for appointing Superior Court justices and allow him to fill vacancies more quickly. However, that system has faced criticism for appointing judges with links to the federal Liberals.

Mr. Downey also revealed that on three separate occasions since he was appointed Attorney-General in June, he has sent back committee recommendations, as is his right under the legislation, deeming them unsatisfactory.

The NDP said the government of Premier Doug Ford cannot be trusted to alter the appointments process for provincial court judges and justices of the peace.

The Ford government has been rocked by patronage scandals. It was forced to rescind the appointment of a 26-year-old former lacrosse teammate of the son of the Premier’s former chief of staff to a job as a provincial emissary in New York. It also faced months of controversy over its attempt to have Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, a friend of Mr. Ford, installed at the helm of the Ontario Provincial Police.

“The judiciary needs to be completely separate from government,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters. “This government didn’t understand that about the police, and the fact that they don’t understand that, apparently, about the judiciary is very troubling.”

The Premier has not been shy about criticizing judges. Last year, after an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled the government’s move to cut Toronto’s council almost in half was unconstitutional, Mr. Ford decried the power of unelected judges and wrongly asserted that former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty had appointed the federal justice who heard the case.

The province’s 13-member judicial appointments advisory committee includes judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, lawyers appointed by the profession and seven lay members appointed by the attorney-general.

Only 11 members are currently listed. Six have been appointed or reappointed this year, including a former aide to prime minister Stephen Harper, Rachel Curran, who last year publicly supported Mr. Ford’s move to invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause in the Toronto council case. The committee’s chairman, former provincial bureaucrat and Toronto deputy city manager Fareed Amin, was reappointed in March.

A similar committee handles applications for justices of the peace. Its chairman, Andrew Suboch, resigned in July after The Globe revealed that his son played lacrosse with the son of Dean French, Mr. Ford’s former chief of staff.

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