Politics

Federal government stops using Liberal Party database to vet would-be judges

The Trudeau government has stopped using the Liberal Party's private database to conduct background checks on candidates for judicial appointments, federal sources said.

Government abandoned the practice in response to widespread criticism

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister David Lametti in 2019. The federal government has quietly abandoned the use of a Liberal Party database for vetting judicial candidates. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government has stopped using the Liberal Party's private database to conduct background checks on candidates for judicial appointments, federal sources say.

According to information obtained by Radio-Canada, the practice — which had gone on for years — was halted in response to widespread criticism both from opposition parties and legal experts.

The use of the information in this database, called the Liberalist, led to accusations of partisan bias in the judicial appointment process. For months, the Conservative Party and Bloc Québécois accused the government of favouring candidates with a history of donating to the Liberal Party.

Those accusations emerged after CBC News, the Globe and Mail and La Presse published articles that demonstrated the existence of partisan considerations in the federal judicial appointment process.

"Basically, we are getting rid of a serious problem involving duelling roles ... a private party database that was used in the government's decision-making process," said Patrick Taillon, professor of law at Laval University in Quebec City.

"That was really scandalous and extremely difficult to defend … There is now an agreement that the party is the party, that the government is the government, and that there needs to be a barrier between the two."

According to federal sources, the government will now limit its background checks to information contained in public databases.

For example, the government will continue to consult databases kept by Elections Canada or various lobbying commissioners across the country, as well as public websites such as news aggregators, social networks and lists of people with accounts in offshore tax shelters, such as the Panama Papers.

"Right now, what is being used is publicly available information," said a federal official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Government remains silent on Liberalist

The government taps Elections Canada databases for information about judicial candidates' past donations to federal and provincial parties. Government officials insist that a candidate's record of political donations does not help or harm them in the vetting process; they say they want to know about past donations because the information can subsequently be used to attack the government's appointments.

In one case, Justice Minister David Lametti consulted the federal ethics commissioner before appointing a candidate who had donated to his Liberal nomination race. The commissioner said the appointment could go ahead after ruling that Lametti was not a friend of the candidate.

The Trudeau government has consistently refused to provide specific details on how it uses Liberalist in the judicial appointment process.

Instead, information on the practice came to light through leaks of confidential documents to various media organizations.

Federal officials have declined to say when exactly Ottawa stopped using the Liberalist in the judicial appointment process.

Bloc Quebecois member of Parliament Rhéal Fortin says the judicial appointment process still needs reform. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin said Ottawa must go further and appoint a parliamentary committee to find ways to make the judicial appointment process more independent from government.

"I can only applaud the fact the Liberalist is no longer in use. I've been asking for that to happen for years," he said. "That being said, it's not over. We should roll up our sleeves, keep working and create a committee to review the appointment process and fix this problem once and for all."

Confidential information

Through Liberalist, the government had access to confidential information about candidates who've had various interactions with the Liberal Party over the years.

For example, the government could find out whether candidates had ever been members of the Liberal Party, had participated in the leadership race that led to the election of Justin Trudeau as party leader or had offered their support to the party in recent elections.

The government has defended itself from accusations of partisan influence in the selection process, saying it only looked into the background of candidates to avoid being caught off-guard by questions from the media or the opposition after an appointment had been announced.

Trudeau and Lametti have frequently defended the judicial appointments process by saying that candidates are chosen on merit, with the aim of representing Canadian diversity in courts across the country.

"Our government believes that Canadians' confidence in our judiciary is reinforced by a transparent and accountable selection process that identifies outstanding judicial candidates who reflect Canada's diversity," said David Taylor, spokesperson for Lametti.

While the Liberalist was being used in the judicial appointment process, it was consulted after the justice minister had proposed a candidate but before that candidate was approved by cabinet.

The Liberalist verification process was conducted not by people in the justice minister's office but by officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the Liberal Party's research bureau, sources said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Leblanc is a reporter with more than 20 years experience in investigative journalism and federal politics. He is a past winner of the Michener Award, the Charles Lynch Award and three National Newspaper Awards.

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