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Politics Justice minister says he will keep looking at partisan past of prospective judges

Justice Minister David Lametti says he will continue to compile information on the past political donations and partisan activities of candidates for judicial appointments, saying they offer relevant information when he selects new judges.

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Lametti defended his government’s handling of the appointment process since 2015, saying he wants access to all relevant information about prospective judges. Before the justice minister recommends a candidate to cabinet for approval, the Prime Minister’s Office and the office of the minister of justice compile information from a variety of sources, including the Liberal Party’s database of supporters, and consult MPs and members of the legal community.

“There is a very sound vetting of all aspects. We want to know everything about the person in case we have to defend the decision,” he said.

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On the issue of political donations and partisan activities, he said: “It doesn’t help you and it doesn’t hinder you. It is another data point.”

In 2016, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould revamped the judicial-appointment system, promising to increase the “openness, transparency, accountability and diversity of Canada’s judiciary.” However, the government’s use of partisan data in the vetting of candidates has attracted criticism from opposition politicians and academics who study the judicial selection process.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that the Prime Minister’s Office runs the names of candidates through a private database called Liberalist to find out whether they have been active in the Liberal Party going back more than a decade. For example, the database shows whether prospective appointees donated to the Liberal Party, if they were members, whether they participated in party activities and if they received lawn signs during election campaigns.

“When Canadians go to court, they need to know the judges are impartial, not whether they donated to the Liberals or had a big, red Liberal lawn sign,” NDP MP Tracey Ramsey said during Question Period on Tuesday. “Canadians deserve a government that takes the rule of law seriously.”

Using information from Elections Canada’s public database of political donations, The Globe determined that about 25 per cent of the 289 judges Mr. Trudeau’s government appointed or promoted since 2016 had donated to the Liberal Party of Canada. About 6 per cent donated to the Conservative, New Democratic or Green parties.

Of the 83 judges who were found to have made political donations, 75 (90.4 per cent) gave to the Liberal Party or its candidates. Nine (10.8 per cent) donated to the Conservatives, eight (9.6 per cent) to the New Democratic Party and one to the Green Party of Canada. Ten judges donated to more than one party.

“Like 75 per cent of the people we’ve appointed are not Liberals," Mr. Lametti said. "That is quite a meaningful statistic and it’s way more meaningful than the contrary. We’ve got a great record.”

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Asked about the fact that the number of Liberal donors is much greater than the total number of donors to all other parties combined, he said he did not want to “jump into the numbers.”

“I am thrilled with the quality of the candidates that we have nominated, and the legal community is thrilled with the quality of the candidates that we have nominated,” he said.

Still, experts said the federal government needs to better explain how it picks judges.

"The system is opaque enough that we’re not sure whether the very best people are being appointed and, if not, if it is having to do with partisan affiliation in certain cases or not,” said Troy Riddell, chair of the political science department at the University of Guelph.

Emmett Macfarlane, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said he is concerned that since 2015, of the people being considered for judicial appointments who had made political donations, those who gave to the Liberals were more likely to obtain an appointment than donors to all other parties combined.

“That suggests there is a clear effort to avoid appointing donors of other parties and a clear willingness to appoint donors to the Liberal Party. That is something that is worth talking about," he said.

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