Inquiry into naming of Quebec judges begins

A commission of inquiry examining allegations of partisan interference in the selection of judges in Quebec got underway Monday morning in Quebec City.

Chaired by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache

Michel Bastarache presides over an inquiry into the appointment process for judges to the provincial court, municipal courts and Quebec's administrative tribunal. He launched the inquiry on Monday in Quebec City. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))
A commission of inquiry examining allegations of partisan interference in the selection of judges in Quebec got underway Monday morning in Quebec City.

The inquiry, chaired by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache was ordered by Premier Jean Charest in April.

Charest launched the probe after his former justice minister, Marc Bellemare, alleged he was pressured to name certain judges to the bench based on the recommendations of major Liberal Party fundraisers.

In his opening statements, Bastarache said the inquiry would not be limited to Bellemare's assertions alone but rather would try to determine whether there is a systemic problem with court nominations in the province.

"I assure the public, the participants and interested parties that I take on this responsibility with an open spirit, guided by one goal: to help guarantee Quebec a sound justice system which is above all suspicion," said Bastarache.

The former justice reiterated that the commission is not a court. While it has the power to call witnesses, it does not have the legal power to assign guilt or responsibility.

Bastarache also addressed the demands of opposition parties, which have called for a broader inquiry that would also investigate allegations of collusion and corruption in the construction industry.

"I have the duty to interpret my mandate but not the right to enlarge it," said Bastarache. "According to my understanding of my mandate, I have sufficient flexibility to look at all aspects of the issue, to see whether third parties have had, or still have, an influence — undue or not — on the nomination of judges in Quebec courts."
Marc Bellemare, Premier Jean Charest's former justice minister whose allegations about undue influence of Liberal fundraisers on the judge nomination process were the impetus for the inquiry, is seen here in 2004.

In particular, Bastarache said he would look at whether there had been any changes in the nomination process over the past decade and whether that has had any impact on the reliability of the system.

On Monday morning, lawyers for different interested parties petitioned the commission to be able to participate in the hearings. Petitions were made on behalf of the Government of Quebec, Premier Jean Charest, the Quebec Liberal Party, Parti Québécois and the association of Quebec court judges, among others.

The very integrity of the judicial process — and the perception the court system is fair — is under attack, said Michel Jolin of the association of Quebec judges.

Bastarache indicated he will carefully consider whether to allow political parties to intervene, raising concern the inquiry could turn into a partisan scuffle.

Notably absent among those seeking to participate was Bellemare.

In several interviews, the former minister has been critical of the commission and expressed doubt that it would get to the real root of the problem.