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Editorial: Challenges to judicial integrity, real and feigned

Few things are more essential to our democracy than the integrity and competence of our court system. Recent allegations about the appropriateness of and alleged political interference in judicial appointments merit our attention.

The latest and more serious concerns a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal and his failure to disclose his professional association with the Hells Angels. The second deals with unsubstantiated allegations by former Quebec justice minister, Marc Bellemare, of influence peddling in the appointment of judges by the Quebec government.

As La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert pointed out last month, the federal government, which appoints judges to the Quebec Court of Appeal, is expected to fill its benches with recognized experts, university professors with international reputations and chief justices of lower courts.

This was not the case when Jacques A. Léger in January 2009 began sitting on the Court of Appeal, a mere 2½ years after the Conservatives appointed him as a Superior Court judge. At that time, Boisvert reported, Léger was on nobody’s short, or long list of the most competent candidates among those interested in the job. Many were surprised when the Harper government named him to sit among the 20 judges on Quebec’s top court.

“Stupefaction in legal circles” is how Boisvert described the reaction. Léger is a former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada who actively supported the “unite the right” movement. There is certainly nothing wrong with that and Léger is an expert in intellectual property. The current chief justice, Michel Robert, 72, was a high-profile Liberal before being named to that job. Recognized as a constitutional expert, Robert is nearing the compulsory retirement age, and there is concern in legal circles that Léger could be named his successor.

We believe he disqualified himself by not asking to be recused from a case involving the Hells Angels. Robert ordered him not to sit on that case because Léger represented Robert Bonomo, a Hells kingpin, in registering the gang’s logos. Bonomo now faces 22 murder charges. While Léger was only involved in administrative work, the principle that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done is entirely relevant here. He erred in not reporting his previous work for the Hells. In combination with his reported lack of the necessary skill set for the chief justice position, Léger has shown that he does not have the required level of integrity to become Quebec’s chief justice.

In marked contrast, there is a lot of smoke but no apparent fire in Bellemare’s charges, backed by second-hand testimony, of what could have been legal cash donations in connection with judicial appointments. When Justice Minister Kathleen Weil said she consults the premier on judicial appointments, some saw this as proof of political interference.

The buck stops at the premier’s desk and he has a moral obligation to know who is being proposed for judicial appointments among 23,000 Quebec lawyers. A committee of a judge, a lawyer, and a third party draw up the short list. That committee selects qualified candidates and the minister chooses one for final approval by cabinet.

Here is the key, and the difference with the Léger appointment: Bellemare, whom Charest is suing for $700,000 for defamation, never alleged that the Liberals ever appointed any judges who did not meet the competence criteria and lacked the approval of the selection committee. The integrity of Quebec appointees to the bench was never challenged in this so-called scandal.



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