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The Right Honourable Madam Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, P.C., is photographed in her office at the Supreme Court of Canada on Jan. 5, 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The Right Honourable Madam Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, P.C., is photographed in her office at the Supreme Court of Canada on Jan. 5, 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ten years as top judge and she's still losing sleep Add to ...

After presiding over thousands of cases in a 29-year career on the bench, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has witnessed enough conflict and human suffering to leave the average judge inured.

However, in a rare interview marking her tenth anniversary as the country's top judge, Chief Justice McLachlin confessed that she still lies awake at night worrying about the impact of her judgments on those caught up in the machinery of justice.

"They are all really, really important issues at this level," the 66-year-old judge said. "One does ponder them, and go back and forth agonizing about them. I must say, it is a preoccupying thing."

A tough and efficient administrator known for choosing her words carefully, Chief Justice McLachlin said most of the significant Charter of Rights battles have already been fought, many before she became chief justice, leaving the court to deal mainly with subtle interpretations.

"In [the Charter's]early years, the court did a huge amount of very good work laying down the basis," she said. "We are just building on that.

"To my surprise, there are new Charter issues that come once in a while - but not to the same extent."

Chief Justice McLachlin also expressed surprise that the court has developed a reputation for defending press freedoms and free expression - the sort of pattern that tends to emerge only after a serendipitous line of cases work their way to the top court.

"I'm often surprised when I look back and say, 'Oh, that's interesting,' " she said. "It wasn't that we planned it that way, but people brought the cases forward, they were good cases, and the law developed as it did."

In several of these cases, the court made a point of extending its rulings to bloggers and other new media, giving them a shield as well as new-found legitimacy.

I have always wanted to be known as a good jurist, as a serious jurist Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin

"We have to be realistic," the pre-eminent jurist said. "When we are making these principles, they have to go forward as part of our law. They have to fit in the real world - and that real world is one where we have emerging and different types of communication of fact."

The cases that she said trouble her the most tend to involve human rights - such as a 1993 case where the court ruled 5-4 against a B.C. woman, Sue Rodriguez, who wanted to be euthanized before a debilitating disease could rob her of all movement.

It is the sort of decision that motivates her to bounce ideas off colleagues or take long, pensive walks. "Sometimes, that is when all the things that have been percolating somehow come together," she said. "You examine your conscience very carefully."

Still, what she feared most about taking on her new role as chief justice in 1999 was that it might force her to reduce her caseload. She refused to sacrifice judging to the demands of administration.

"I have always wanted to be known as a good jurist, as a serious jurist," she said. "I still sit on as many cases as anyone else. I think it's important from a leadership perspective, and because I'm selfish."

In just three more years, Chief Justice McLachlin will have served longer than all 15 previous chief justices in the 135-year history of the Supreme Court. And, with nine years left before her mandatory retirement date, she could set a record that will be extremely difficult to equal.

"Whatever happens, happens," she said. "It has been a great privilege, one I could never have imagined in my wildest imaginings when I started out in law."

Equally unimaginable, four of the nine seats on the court are occupied by women - a development that has given the Supreme Court a unique status on the world stage.

"I think that's a wonderful situation for the court to be in," she said. "It gives encouragement to people who might otherwise feel they ought not to try for whatever it is they want to try for."

In her early years, Chief Justice McLachlin often found herself wondering whether colleagues were parsing her statements with the subconscious thought, "Is that her hormones - or her woman-ness - talking?"

That is no longer the case, she said. "We just don't think in terms of gender on this court. I don't think it is for the men on the court, either."

The toughest job a chief justice faces is shepherding nine fiercely independent minds toward unanimity. Many court-watchers believe that, in an effort to reduce the number of dissenting or concurring reasons, Chief Justice McLachlin applies pressure to her colleagues.

"I would never - and have never - gone to a judge and even suggested that they should not write a concurring opinion," she insisted. "I wouldn't do it. It's not right."

Instead, she tries to keep different factions talking to one another - for months, if necessary. This may involve calling them back for a second or third conference to thrash out a case.

"I try to make sure there is an environment where everybody can be heard, where people want to talk to each other and listen to each other," she said. "It's amazing; gradually we narrow the issues."

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