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Time to move on from feud with Harper and MacKay, says Canada's chief justice

Beverly McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivers a speech in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 5, 2013. Canada's top justice says she is not concerned that a recent spat with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay has eroded the respect of politicians for the courts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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Beverly McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivers a speech in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 5, 2013. Canada's top justice says she is not concerned that a recent spat with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay has eroded the respect of politicians for the courts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Canada's top justice says she is not concerned that a recent spat with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay has eroded the respect of politicians for the courts.

Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court, said Thursday it's not uncommon to have occasional tension.

"I think there is a lot of respect out there, personally," McLachlin told reporters in St. John's, N.L., where she addressed a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association.

"We have a job to do in our court and we will continue to do it to the best of our ability. ... There's always going to be tensions here and there, but it is part of the process."

Earlier this year, Harper and MacKay suggested McLachlin had behaved inappropriately by trying to flag potential problems with the proposed appointment of Federal Court Judge Marc Nadon to the country's highest court.

A court challenge of the appointment resulted in a ruling that Nadon didn't meet the specific criteria for Quebec judges laid out in the Supreme Court Act. Justice Clement Gascon was later appointed in his place.

The public criticism prompted a rare statement from McLachlin saying she had not tried to weigh in on Nadon's appointment, only to point out potential problems.

During her speech Thursday, McLachlin drew laughter from members of the bar association when she noted that a new member had been sworn in to the court.

"I'm sure you're aware of all of this," she said.

Later, McLachlin told reporters that she's ready to get on with the business of the court, despite unanswered calls from a Geneva-based group of judges and lawyers for Harper to retract his comments.

The International Commission of Jurists has also called on Harper and MacKay to apologize to McLachlin, whose integrity it said has been impugned by the public criticism.

"The criticism was not well founded and amounted to an encroachment upon the independence of the judiciary and integrity of the chief justice," the commission said in a written opinion.

Harper's director of communications said last month the Prime Minister's Office had seen the letter but had nothing to add. MacKay's office also had no comment.

Bar association president Fred Headon said there are lingering concerns that comments made by Harper and MacKay have hurt the confidence of Canadians in the judicial system.

"Anything that undermines confidence can have a very corrosive effect on democracy," he told reporters.

Speaking to the association, Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton expressed concerns as well about how the Nadon appointment and its fallout could affect Canadians' opinions of the courts.

The International Commission of Jurists has also urged the government to rethink the process of appointing judges, calling for an "open process with prescribed criteria based on merit and integrity and without discrimination."

There will be another Quebec vacancy on the Supreme Court to fill later this year when Justice Louis LeBel retires after nearly 15 years on the high court.

McLachlin said she's hopeful his replacement will have expertise similar to LeBel, though she declined to comment on the appointment process.

"The Constitution places this in the government's, the prime minister's, hands," she said.

"It is for them to devise a process that they feel comfortable with."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Beverley McLachlin says she is not concerned about an erosion of the public's respect for the courts.

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