Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says she's concerned about how long it is taking to fill a coming vacancy on the Supreme Court of Canada and hopes a new judge is named as soon as possible.
Chief Justice McLachlin's comments come on the heels of the Liberal government's pledge to overhaul the way Supreme Court justices are chosen, in an attempt to make the process more accountable and to diversify the bench.
Justice Thomas Cromwell of Nova Scotia, who announced his retirement in March, is set to leave the Supreme Court on Sept. 1.A new independent seven-member advisory board, chaired by former prime minister Kim Campbell, has been given the task of recommending a list of candidates to replace him – although the new judge won't necessarily hail from Atlantic Canada. It has been a long-standing convention to replace a judge from a particular region with one from the same part of Canada.
"The court needs – and the Canadian people, I believe, are entitled to – a full complement of nine judges to decide the complex and important questions before it. I would be less than frank if I did not say that I am concerned about the length of time it has taken to fill this vacancy," Chief Justice McLachlin said Thursday during a speech at the Canadian Bar Association's annual conference in Ottawa.
"I remain hopeful that we will be able to welcome Justice Cromwell's replacement, if not in time for the October sittings, at the earliest possible date this fall."
Chief Justice McLachlin, who has held her position since 2000, added that there are 44 federally appointed judicial vacancies across Canada – a recurring problem under different governments. She said this can lead to delays that impact the public's confidence in the justice system, and hopes to discuss the issue with officials in the federal Justice Department.
"There is something deeply wrong with a hiring scheme that repeatedly proves itself incapable of foreseeing, preparing for and filling vacancies as they arise," she said.
"The perpetual crisis of judicial vacancies in Canada is an avoidable problem that needs to be tackled and solved."
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, testifying at a parliamentary committee Thursday about the new appointment process, said the government is "aiming to fill" Justice Cromwell's coming vacancy in the court's fall session. She said candidates also need to be "functionally bilingual," meaning they can understand written and oral arguments.
"The process used to appoint Supreme Court justices is opaque, outdated and in need of an overhaul," she said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked the advisory board to provide a shortlist of three to five candidates that includes Atlantic Canadians – but added that the next judge could come from another area in Canada.
"The next appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada will not necessarily be a person from Atlantic Canada. Having said that, we recognize the importance of regional representation," she told the committee.
Both the Conservatives and NDP say the next judge should come from Atlantic Canada. Janet Fuhrer, president of the Canadian Bar Association, wrote to Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Wilson-Raybould on Wednesday urging them to respect the custom of regional representation.
After her speech, Chief Justice McLachlin – who said she was consulted by the Justice Minister on the new appointment process – said she hopes it functions "expeditiously, fairly and that the position will be filled in the very near future."
But she told reporters that she can't comment on the issue of regional representation as it could one day come before the court.
"It's for the government to decide who the next judge should be. It's not for me," she said.
With a report from The Canadian Press