Dominic LeBlanc's family, friends, neighbour win 5 of 6 recent judicial appointments
'All judicial appointments are made on the basis of merit,' says office of federal justice minister
Federal Liberals have been promising to appoint the "most meritorious jurists" to judicial vacancies across Canada, but most candidates winning judicial appointments in New Brunswick over the last year have had something else going for them — personal connections to senior Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.
Five of the last six federal appointments announced in New Brunswick include Leblanc's neighbour, a LeBlanc family relation and three lawyers who helped retire debts from his unsuccessful 2008 leadership bid. LeBlanc is currently minister of intergovernmental affairs, northern affairs and internal trade.
Erin Crandall, a professor at Acadia University who has written extensively on the politics of judicial appointments in Canada, said patronage is still a significant force in provinces like New Brunswick, despite reforms to curb its use in the selection of judges.
"It's more prominent in smaller provinces," Crandall said.
"It's less of an issue today than it was, for example, five decades ago, when it was much more blatant. But we can still see that it certainly does happen."
In the latest judicial appointments in New Brunswick announced last month, federal Justice Minister David Lametti named Moncton lawyer Robert M. Dysart and Saint John lawyer Arthur T. Doyle to the trial division of the Court of Queen's Bench.
According to financial records on file with Elections Canada, both men have been regular donors to the Liberal Party, including to LeBlanc's Beauséjour riding association, even though in Doyle's case he lives 100 kilometres away.
The two were also among a group of 50 donors who gave money in 2009 to help LeBlanc retire about $31,000 in debts from his unsuccessful 2008 federal Liberal leadership campaign, according to records filed with Elections Canada.
Also helping with that leadership debt was lawyer Charles LeBlond and businessman Jacques Pinet, both from Moncton.
LeBlond won an appointment to be a judge on the Court of Appeal in March.
Pinet is married to Justice Tracey Deware. She was named chief justice of New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench trial division by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early June.
DeWare herself was a Conservative Party donor and originally appointed to the bench in 2012 by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But she and Pinet are also neighbours of LeBlanc.
In 2013, they bought a seaside property in Grande-Digue from LeBlanc next to his own summerhouse. Property records show they paid $430,000.
In a fifth appointment last year, Moncton family lawyer Marie-Claude Belanger-Richard was picked to fill a judicial vacancy in Saint John. She is married to LeBlanc's brother-in-law.
Belanger-Richard is the only one of the five justices who responded to attempts to contact them about the string of appointments and their connection to LeBlanc. Through a court clerk, she declined to comment.
LeBlanc's office referred questions about the judicial appointments to Lametti.
Lametti's office declined an interview request, but his press secretary, Rachel Rappaport, issued a statement denying favouritism and political patronage in any of the New Brunswick appointments.
"All judicial appointments are made on the basis of merit," Rappaport wrote. "As with all Canadian citizens, judicial candidates are free to engage personally in political activities. The appointments process neither disqualifies nor privileges an applicant on the basis of political association."
Patronage prominent in province
Several academic studies have shown New Brunswick has traditionally owned one of Canada's most patronage-tinged judiciaries and little has changed in recent years, despite Liberal promises to inject more merit into the selection system.
A 2010 study that looked at 856 judicial appointments in Canada over a 15-year period found "major" political connections were involved in New Brunswick appointments nearly 77 per cent of the time — double the national average and more than five times the rate politically connected people won federal judgeships in provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario.
Lori Hausegger, director of Canadian Studies at Boise State University in Idaho, was one of the lead academics on that study.
She said the problem with judges appointed because of political connections is not their qualifications — all potential federal judges in Canada are vetted for competence by independent panels — it's the possibility they use connections to take spots from better candidates.
"The problem is whether or not that [connected] person is different from the other ones that they didn't pick in terms of their decision-making," said Hausegger. "There is not a lot of transparency in the system. We don't actually know a lot in terms of how the minister is finally choosing."
Likely several applications for a vacancy
Canada's Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs will not say how many lawyers applied for the judicial positions in New Brunswick that were eventually awarded to those connected to LeBlanc, although it is likely there were several.
Across the country last year, it reports 257 qualified lawyers were considered for 79 vacancies.
The commissioner will also not reveal if any of the unsuccessful candidates in New Brunswick scored higher than the winning candidates on assessments of their ability and qualifications to be a judge.
"Assessment results are confidential and solely for the minister's use," Philippe Lacasse, executive director of judicial appointments for the commissioner, said in an email to CBC News.
"In fact, candidates themselves are not informed of the results of their assessment."
In 2016, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the justice minister at the time, promised major improvements in the quality of how judges are selected in Canada.
"We are committed to ensuring that we make substantive and thoughtful appointments to the judiciary, based on the principles of openness transparency merit and diversity," Wilson-Raybould told Parliament in May 2016.
Since 2017, there have been 10 federal judicial appointments or elevations in New Brunswick. In addition to the five most recent connected to LeBlanc, at least three other appointees were past political donors to the Liberal Party.