“Mr. Speaker, this Liberal government has allowed judges to become the most powerful force in setting social policy in Canada. Whether it is by allowing convicted murderers to vote or by changing fundamental institutions like marriage, this government has substituted the supremacy of an elected Parliament with unelected judges.”
— Then federal Opposition justice critic Vic Toews, Feb. 23, 2004, in the House of Commons
As a member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons, and a justice critic for the Conservative party in 2004, Vic Toews was absolutely correct when he slammed the Liberal government for using patronage appointments to fill open judge positions.
For years, the Chrétien Liberals used the bench as a reward for influential political friends — as did political parties in power before them. The practice of stacking judicial benches with partisans in any given province is a loathsome practice that does little to improve public opinion of our court systems.
Unfortunately, we have to say it still “is” a loathsome practice because even after more than eight years in power, the Conservative government has not made substantial changes to how judges are appointed in this country, at least not in a way that has eliminated the smell of political patronage in the process.
Last Friday, after years of speculation, former Tory cabinet minister Vic Toews was appointed to Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench, after having retired from federal politics less than a year ago.
Whatever people may think of Toews and recent controversy surrounding his time in office, he certainly comes with substantive credentials. Toews spent years as a Crown prosecutor before becoming Manitoba’s justice minister in the late 1990s as part of former Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon’s government.
He then made the leap to federal politics where he spent nearly 13 years as the MP for Provencher. From 2001 to 2005, he acted as justice critic, and took over the role as minister of justice and attorney general when the Tories won a minority government in 2006.
As part of his tough on crime approach, Toews brought forward bills to require mandatory minimum prison sentences for people convicted of gun crimes, and the elimination of house arrest as an option for various offences.
But Toews and his hardline stance on law and order drew criticism for being too “draconian” from opposition members as well as those in the legal profession, and within a year, he had been shuffled out of justice and appointed president of the Treasury Board, as a means to soften the Tory image to moderate Canadians.
Earlier this week, a Winnipeg Free Press report reminded Manitobans that as attorney general, Toews made three key changes to the judicial-appointment system.
Toews added a police representative to the advisory panel that vets potential judges in each province. Though this move was condemned by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, we hailed it at the time as a proposal that “makes sense from a practical, not a partisan standpoint.” He also stripped the chair of the advisory committees of voting rights, and changed the way the provincial advisory committees forward possible appointments to the minister.
But these changes have really done nothing to improve the transparency and accountability of the process — two buzzwords that were supposed to have characterized the early government of Stephen Harper. And they certainly have not eliminated partisan abuse or political influence.
According to the Free Press, the majority of the eight-member judicial advisory committee for Manitoba have ties to Toews, making his appointment to the bench little more than a rubber stamp.
We still support, in some respects, a small-c conservative agenda for justice issues in this country, and we have no doubt that Tory partisans are hailing his new judge’s robes.
But Toews’ appointment to the bench goes against everything he righteously criticized about the former Liberal government’s judicial appointments, which makes us question not only his sincerity, but also his judgment.
The ends can’t justify the means.