Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner had a ringside seat when the US Supreme Court came into trouble last month.
Wagner was on an official visit to Washington, D.C., when a draft majority decision that could have overturned US abortion laws was leaked to the media, setting off a political storm that still raged south of the border. Is.
“It was devastating,” he said in French during an interview with Radio-Canada.
“It makes you think that in some countries nothing is sacred and that an institution can become weak very quickly.”
Wagner said that, given the less polarized nature of the Canadian bench, he does not think there will be a similar leak within his court – but he argued that the incident demonstrates the fragility of judicial independence.
“Exactly like trust. It takes years and years for people to trust institutions, and it takes a single incident to destroy that trust,” he told his office in Ottawa.
The need to maintain and build that trust is one reason the Supreme Court of Canada is running a campaign to explain its role in Canadian democracy.
Wagner, who has been on the Supreme Court since 2012 and served as chief justice since 2017, said recent global political events – such as the January 6, 2021 insurgency attempt in Washington, D.C. – are a warning to Canadians. should work as
“We can never say to ourselves, ‘We have judicial independence, we are in Canada, everything is fine, we have respect for institutions.’ No, we have to be on the lookout,” he said.
“And we must react, we must condemn, as soon as an incident occurs that may attack judicial independence.”
As part of its outreach campaign, the court now publishes plain-language versions of its decisions and recently launched an Instagram account.
The court has also started hearings outside Ottawa. Supreme Court judges hearing a case in Winnipeg in 2019. They will hear two cases in September in Quebec City. In Quebec, nine judges are expected to host a free public event to answer questions about the court’s role.
Wagner said misinformation about Canada’s legal system was on display this past winter when protesters gathered in Ottawa for nearly a month to fight COVID-19 restrictions.
Some protesters cited the “First Amendment” to claim rights in Canada – which protects freedom of expression in the United States.
“I’ve always said that the cause of bias is a lack of knowledge. So the more information we give people, the better they can form an idea,” Wagner said.
“It is not for judges, judicial independence. It is for citizens. It is to ensure that citizens understand that when they appear before the courts, they will have access to an impartial and independent judge, whose decision is a will not depend on covert influence.”
Courts are under attack around the world
Vanessa McDonnell, professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said the legal system is under attack around the world.
He said conservatives in the United Kingdom have criticized the power of judges to interpret the Human Rights Act as part of a pattern of “political attacks” against courts in that country.
In 2020, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law a widely criticized law that gives politicians the power to fine and fire judges whose actions and decisions they deem harmful. Human rights advocates have also expressed concern about the Hungarian government’s moves to limit judicial independence in recent years.
McDonnell said Canadian institutions are also not safe from attack.
Controversy over a resolution to sack Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Poiliver as governor of the Bank of Canada has engulfed that leadership race.
“It only makes sense that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, given what is happening elsewhere in the world and how quickly the situation can deteriorate, decides that this is an issue to be faced at the earliest. [rather] Later, reactively actively,” McDonnell said.
Conservative Sen. Claude Carrigan, a lawyer who looks closely at legal issues, said political events in the United States often have an impact in Canada. He said he sometimes hears people confuse the role of the Canadian Senate with that of its US counterpart.
“We are attacked by the discourse of what is happening in the United States in our various media,” he said.
“I think the Supreme Court [of Canada] would like to establish, through a certain communication plan, that there are differences with the Supreme Court of the United States and that when someone sits on the Supreme Court of Canada, we are not meant to represent the movement of the right or the left, or the red or of blue, but we are to judge the merits of the judgment according to the present laws.”
Openness Comes With Risks, Experts Warn
Guillaume Rousseau, professor of law at the University of Sherbrooke, said he appreciates efforts to make the Supreme Court more accessible in recent years. He also cautioned that this approach comes with risks.
Rousseau, who advised Quebec’s government on its controversial secularism law, said the judges’ visit to Quebec City would coincide with the provincial election.
While in Quebec, a Supreme Court judge will hear a case involving a dispute between the federal government and Quebec over the legality of home cultivation of cannabis.
“It concerns the division of powers, therefore the autonomy of Quebec, so it can be very fragile,” Rousseau said in French, speaking to Radio-Canada.
Still, “in a democracy, when you have political power, it’s obviously very healthy to have political communication, to explain yourself, to worry for transparency, to worry about citizens’ access, ” They said.
‘Eventually it will be anarchy’
Wagner said he knows he is taking a risk by communicating more openly and frequently with the public and going to court outside Ottawa. He said that he still believes it would be risky to do nothing.
“I think the benefits outweigh some of the criticisms,” he said.
“If they lose faith in the justice system, what will happen? People will solve their problems on the street and it will eventually lead to chaos, and we completely lose the peace, tranquility, well being of the citizens in these matters. “
Wagner spoke to Radio-Canada, before the Supreme Court recently issued a controversial ruling that said Alexandre Bissont, the gunman who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque, was 25 years old before being eligible for parole. Can’t wait any longer.
The three leading candidates for leadership of the federal Conservative Party – Patrick Brown, Poilever and Jean Charest – have issued statements condemning the decision and have pledged to use the clause despite the constitution to reverse the ruling if they are elected as prime minister. Should become a minister.
The Liberal government said that while it supports longer periods of parole ineligibility in cases such as the mosque shootings, it will respect the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.