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Three retired chief justices are urging Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government to rethink proposed changes to the judicial appointment process, saying they put the independence of the system at risk.

Between them, Annemarie Bonkalo, Brian Lennox and Sidney Linden led the Ontario Court of Justice from 1990 to 2015. Now, in a written submission to a legislative committee studying the proposed changes, they say the court owes its quality and independence to safeguards against partisanship built into the current system.

“This is an awkward topic for judges to raise, but politics or the suspicion of politics has often been the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to judicial appointments,” they said.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Linden added: “When I was a chief [1990-1999], I travelled a fair bit across the country and other places, and I was always so proud of our system – our system was miles ahead of everybody else.”

Ontario’s appointment process for judges, which dates from 1988, is often described as the gold standard in Canada for the way in which it limits the chance that a government will name its political friends to the bench.

But under changes introduced last month in Bill 245, the government would appoint 10, instead of the current seven, of the 13 members of the judicial appointments advisory committee, which recommends candidates to the attorney-general. And it would increase the minimum number – to six, from two – of candidates the committee generally must recommend for each vacancy. (The committee could recommend fewer than six if it explains in writing why that was necessary.) The attorney-general’s existing right to reject all the names on the shortlist would be written into the law. The legislature must still debate and vote on the changes.

The government says the legislation is an attempt to modernize the system and speed up the process (Bill 245 is called the Accelerating Access to Justice Act), ensuring that vacancies can be filled promptly.

“The proposed changes follow over a year of consultation with lawyers and justice partners, and would maintain current legislated qualifications to become a judge as well as other safeguards that ensure the process is non-partisan,” Jesse Robichaud, a spokesman for Attorney-General Doug Downey, said in an e-mail.

But the retired chief justices told the legislative committee they are concerned about giving an attorney-general greater control over the process. “It would be unfortunate if the cumulative effect of the changes proposed in Bill 245 were to reduce the independence of the committee and of its process by giving a future attorney-general increased control over the membership of the committee, its practices, its recommendations and, ultimately, the appointments to the court.”

They called for a provision barring the consideration of political affiliation in the selection process, as Quebec does now. And a minister who rejects all shortlisted candidates should be required to provide written reasons, they said.

It is unusual, although not unprecedented, for former or current judges to involve themselves directly in the legislative process.

The intervention of Mr. Linden, Mr. Lennox and Ms. Bonkalo echoes the public opposition from leaders of the Supreme Court of Canada when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper made similar changes at the federal level in 2006.

Mr. Harper proposed to (and eventually did) add a police representative to each of the 17 judicial advisory committees for federally appointed courts across Canada, and gave government appointees a voting majority on each committee. That prompted then chief-justice Beverley McLachlin, and a retired chief justice, Antonio Lamer, to publicly express concerns about the independence of the process; Mr. Lamer testified before a Commons committee. The Liberal government has removed the police representative and ended the voting majority of government appointees.

Ontario’s appointment process is very different than the federal one. It does not create a large, ongoing pool of candidates. Instead, a judicial advisory committee interviews candidates for each vacancy. It then submits a list of as few as two names. Ottawa’s pool of recommended candidates for federally appointed courts, by contrast, amounts to hundreds of judges, which can mean scores of applicants from which to choose as vacancies arise in a province. (Federally appointed courts include the superior courts of provinces, the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada.)

Thus, the ambit for appointing friends of the party in power is much wider at the federal level. The Globe reported two years ago that the names of recommended candidates for federally appointed courts under the current Liberal government are put through a private party database called the Liberalist, which tracks party membership, participation in party activities and the taking of lawn signs during election campaigns.

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