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Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper accused the federal government yesterday of stacking Canada's courts with liberal-minded judges over the years in a covert effort to legislate same-sex marriage.

Mr. Harper charged that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his Liberal government appointed biased judges so the courts - not Parliament - would decide the thorny issue, which has split Canadian public opinion.

"They wanted to introduce this 'same-sex marriage' through back channels," Mr. Harper told reporters on Parliament Hill. "They didn't want to come to Parliament. They didn't want to go to the Canadian people and be honest that this is what they wanted.

"They had the courts do it for them, put the judges in they wanted, then they failed to appeal, failed to fight the case in the court."

Mr. Harper took a broad blast at the judiciary's handling of the issue, asserting that it overstepped its bounds to rewrite the law and is not impartial on the issue.

"Look, the biases of the courts and the judges on this are well known. We don't share them. The government does," he said.

Mr. Harper said the judges were not appointed solely for their views on same-sex marriage, but that the government knows where they stand.

A spokesman for Justice Minister Martin Cauchon immediately denounced Mr. Harper's accusations.

"It's outrageous to suggest that this issue came about as the result of a government conspiracy," said Mike Murphy. "It's an unprovoked attack on the independence of our judiciary and a system of justice that has served this country historically and is respected around the world."

Gilles Marchildon, executive-director of the Ottawa-based national gay-rights group EGALE Canada, was also critical.

"It's insulting to the courts and it's also clearly outlandish," said Mr. Marchildon, noting that the federal government unsuccessfully fought to uphold the traditional definition of marriage in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec.

"His comments are outrageous. What planet does he live on to say this is all part of a global plot?"

Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, who wrote the recent Provincial Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal immediately, was an attorney-general in the provincial Progressive Conservative government of Bill Davis. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney appointed him to the bench.

Mr. Harper doubted his conservative credentials, however: "Well, he's a former Tory, but whether he's conservative or not is a matter of terminology."

The Ontario case - the latest in a string of court rulings that state the traditional definition of marriage is discriminatory - prompted the federal government to draft legislation that would allow same-sex marriage when Mr. Chrétien announced that Ottawa would not appeal the court rulings.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was at a caucus retreat in Duncan, B.C., yesterday, accused Mr. Harper of stooping to desperate political tactics.

"This is a desperation attitude," said Mr. Layton, whose party supports legalizing same-sex marriage. "In our view, this is a question of equal human rights."

The issue is expected to dominate Parliament when the House of Commons resumes next week. The Canadian Alliance is reintroducing a four-year-old motion upholding the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman "to the exclusion of all others." Many Liberal MPs, including Mr. Cauchon and Mr. Chrétien, voted in favour of the motion when it passed overwhelmingly in June of 1999.

Mr. Chrétien has insisted that he was dragged into legislating same-sex marriage, describing it as a problem he did not want in his last months in office. In closed-door caucus meetings, he told Liberal MPs he was furious when the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the immediate legalization of same-sex marriage.

"That's one interpretation. I don't have that interpretation," Mr. Harper said. "I think he believed in it all along. I think it's a typical hidden agenda of the Liberal Party."

The two other judges on the Ontario panel in that decision were Madam Justice Eileen Gillese, a former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, and Mr. Justice James Macpherson, a former dean of law at York University's Osgoode Hall. Mr. Chrétien appointed both.

In British Columbia, two of the three judges on the appeals court that rendered the same-sex marriage decision, Justices Kenneth MacKenzie and Richard Low, received their first federal judicial appointments from Mr. Mulroney's Tories. They were both appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court in 1992.

Mr. Harper said he believes the Sept. 16 vote in the Commons on the Alliance resolution will be close.

Nearly one-third of Liberal MPs have said they would vote against the government legislation in a free vote expected next year.

If opponents of same-sex marriage win, Mr. Harper said, the government should follow up with a law to reaffirm the traditional definition, if necessary using the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.