A Toronto-based judge will take over a courtroom in Ottawa to hear the Mike Duffy trial, where the veteran of the Ontario Court of Justice will be expected to bring a neutral eye to what has been a heated political saga.
The court confirmed on Wednesday that Justice Charles Vaillancourt has been assigned to the case that has attracted national attention and could shine a negative light on the Conservative government ahead of the election scheduled for October.
Appointed to the bench in 1990 by the NDP government of Bob Rae, Justice Vaillancourt will need to keep a tight grip on the proceedings. The trial is scheduled to last 41 days, but sources have told The Globe and Mail that the defence has already raised the possibility of seeking an extension in preliminary discussions with the Crown.
Mr. Duffy, a former television journalist who became a senator in 2008, was charged by the RCMP last July with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. The charges were related to living and travel expenses claimed, contracts awarded by his office and a deal in which he received $90,000 from the Prime Minister's former chief of staff to reimburse the government for his controversial expenses.
Starting on April 7, Justice Vaillancourt will hear the opening arguments of the Crown and the defence. The trial will be held in front of a judge alone, and it will be up to him to rule on Mr. Duffy's guilt or innocence.
The trial will delve deeply into the arcane rules of Senate administration, but also offer an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the Prime Minister's Office.
The RCMP investigation has turned up hundreds of e-mail exchanges involving PMO officials and other Conservative staffers, while looking into vast amounts of invoices, forms, receipts, contracts and agendas as it built its case. The Crown and the defence are expected to offer vastly different interpretations of the evidence, leaving Justice Vaillancourt to keep the trial moving.
"Judges in criminal cases these days are used to avalanches of documents and evidence," said William Trudell, chair of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers. "Sometimes trials do unexpectedly get bogged down, but it is also important to recognize that people's lives are at stake. Efficiency is important, but fairness is essential."
Mr. Trudell called Justice Vaillancourt "very patient, a good listener, pleasant to appear before, balanced and with no shortage of common sense."
He is no stranger to the pressures that come with being a judge. In one case, police officers packed the courtroom to hear a verdict involving their fellow officers.
"That terrorized me," Justice Vaillancourt said at a legal conference in 1996. "But I went on to give the judgment I had prepared."
He has overseen other trials involving politicians, such as the late New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos, charged with assaulting a security guard, whom he acquitted in 1998.
He has stated his willingness to go against public opinion in his rulings. "Judges are not in the happiness business," he said, in reference to his landmark 1998 ruling affirming Métis hunting rights around Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. While not unanimously popular, his ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court.
Toronto lawyer Steven Skurka said he believes the Ontario Court of Justice carefully chose Justice Vaillancourt for the case.
"He makes bold decisions. He will not be affected by public sentiment. He plays no favourites in the courtroom," Mr. Skurka said. He added that Justice Vaillancourt is "a better judge when he has great lawyers in the courtroom. There are some judges who perform better when both sides present vigorous, formidable positions, and that will no doubt happen in this case."
Speaking through his lawyer after he was hit with 31 charges last July, Mr. Duffy maintained his innocence and said he looks forward to a fair hearing in court.
Justice Vaillancourt will bring more than a quarter-century of experience to the task. He was a school teacher before spending 16 years as a criminal lawyer in Sault Ste. Marie. He also taught criminal jurisprudence for a decade at Algoma University in Northern Ontario and Lake Superior State University in Michigan.