New Brunswick

Liberals dismiss judge-moving bill from must-do list

There’s a pause in the showdown between the Gallant government and a senior judge, but it’s not clear yet whether they’ll avoid a legal confrontation later this year.

Premier Brian Gallant says bill is not as important as others he wants passed by Friday

The Gallant government has left its controversial Bill 21 off a list of legislation it intends to pass before adjourning for the summer. (CBC)

There's a pause in the showdown between the Gallant government and a senior judge, but it's not clear yet whether they will avoid a legal confrontation later this year.

The Liberals are ready to let the controversial Bill 21 stay in limbo over the summer, giving them time to cool their war of words with Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith.

Two weeks ago, Smith suggested through his lawyer that he had given up on reaching an informal compromise on the bill because it appeared set to become law by this week.

But the Liberals have opted to not include it on a list of legislation they will force to a final vote by Friday.

The bill would give the justice minister a veto over Smith's ability to transfer judges on his court, a power that Smith says could be unconstitutional for violating his independence.

Premier Brian Gallant called it an "administrative" bill last week that was not as important as some of the other bills he wants to pass.

"It's not one that I'm passionate about," he said of Bill 21.

It's interesting that it suddenly, after all that, ceases to be a priority.- Michael Bray

Deputy House leader Victor Boudreau said the legislation was one of four bills that would come back in the next session of the legislature.

"They need to go forward so they would be reintroduced in the fall," he said.

Even so, the delay could be significant.

Michael Bray, Smith's lawyer, said June 23 there was no point accepting an offer to meet with Justice Minister Denis Landry in the coming weeks because the bill would become law before the meeting.

But with the bill now likely on hold until the fall, that opens up more time for a compromise.

Wait and see

"They haven't shared their motivations with us," Bray told CBC News Monday.

"Of course we'll wait and see what happens. If it comes back in the fall and passes then, we'll make a decision at that time."

Bray has talked about "options" the chief justice may pursue once the bill passes.

Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith has transferred 13 judges since becoming chief justice in 1998. (Acadia University)
Bray is also going to court to try to force the province to release documents about Bill 21 that he requested through the right-to-information law.

The province turned down the request and Smith's application for a review of that decision will be heard Oct. 3.

"We're planning on going ahead with that," he said.

"Certainly the chief justice will be open to meet with the minister at any time on Bill 21 or any other matter involving court administration."

Bray said it is "interesting" the Liberals don't feel the need to pass the bill quickly, given it appears to have been drafted on short notice in January and "pushed so strenuously" despite opposition from Smith, the New Brunswick Law Society and the Canadian Bar Association.

"It's interesting that it suddenly, after all that, ceases to be a priority," he said.

Gallant said last week the government was open to suggestions on changes to the bill as long as they "let us get the spirit of what we want to have."

Boudreau said the only reason Bill 21 wasn't among the bills to be rammed through this week is that it is "less time-sensitive" than other measures, such as a program for free tuition for low-income students.

But if the PC Opposition abandoned its procedural stalling and let the bill pass on top of the more urgent ones, "that would be even better," he said.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.