Suzanne Côté, Harper's Supreme Court pick, soothes a self-inflicted wound

The prime minister is clearly in fence-mending mode these days, and the appointment of respected Montreal lawyer Suzanne Côté to the Supreme Court of Canada is a case in point, Chris Hall writes.

PM clearly in fence-mending mode these days

Montreal lawyer Suzanne Côté, shown here at the Bastarache Commission in June 2010, is to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court of Canada. (The Canadian Press)

Say what you will about Stephen Harper, but the man learns from his mistakes. The appointment of Montreal trial lawyer Suzanne Côté to one of the three Quebec seats on the Supreme Court of Canada is a case in point.

It was only eight months ago that the country's highest court ruled that another Harper appointee, Marc Nadon, was ineligible to fill a vacant Quebec seat.

Shortly after that the prime minister treated Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as though she was just another opposition leader rather than the head of an independent judiciary.

With Côté, the focus is entirely different. Anyone with a checklist and pencil will be busy ticking off the boxes: Woman? Check. Expert in Quebec's Civil Code? Check. Well-regarded in the legal community? Check. Oh. And eligible under the Constitution to fill one of Quebec's three seats on the Supreme Court? Check!

By tapping a woman to replace Justice Louis LeBel on the country's highest court, Harper brings the total of female justices back to four. In the process, he answered the most persistent critics of his previous two choices, and the Quebec government, who believe keeping a gender balance on the nine-member court is a priority.

"It's always good news when you see a woman going to the Supreme Court,'' said the province's Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée. "That was awaited by everyone in Quebec's legal community.''

Widely respected

Côté is a widely respected trial lawyer, not just inside Quebec but across the country.

She represented the Quebec government four years ago at the Bastarache Commission, which looked into allegations that the Quebec Liberal Party tried to influence judicial appointments in that province, and led the litigation team at one of Canada's largest law firms.

At the same time, in choosing Côté, Harper bypassed the Quebec Court of Appeal, remaining true to the prevailing wisdom among federal Conservatives that judges on that court have too much of an activist streak.

Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Côté becomes the first woman to be appointed directly from private practice to the Supreme Court, a rare but not uncommon procedure in the court's long history.

"She brings extensive expertise in commercial and civil law, as well as a wealth of experience in public law,'' Chief Justice McLachlin said in a statement released shortly after the announcement was made on Thursday.

That statement, by itself, is noteworthy, a signal that the frosty relationship between the court and government is thawing after Harper alleged earlier this year that McLachlin had overstepped her bounds some months prior by phoning his office, ostensibly to lobby against the appointment of Federal Court Judge Marc Nadon.

Legal experts were near unanimous in condemning the suggestion that the chief justice had done anything inappropriate.

McLachlin issued an unprecedented rebuttal at the time, releasing a statement that said she was merely fulfilling her obligations as chief justice to identify the needs of the court and offered no opinion on the merits of Nadon's appointment.

The almost year-long affaire Nadon was not a high-water mark in the annals of government relations with the Canadian judiciary.

In the end, the court ruled Nadon ineligible to represent Quebec on the court because he was not a member of the provincial bar or a judge in the province.

University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen hopes that Thursday's appointment of Côté turns the page on that particular chapter in the court's history.

"What we need to see is a return to normalcy in terms of the relationship between the judicial and executive branches of government. There are more substantive issues to be discussed now.''

Not everyone is happy

Opposition MPs say Côté joins Clément Gascon in being appointed without any consultation in Parliament, something the Conservatives vowed to do when elected (though Ottawa did consult privately with the Quebec government and the province's bar association).

Françoise Boivin, the NDP justice critic, agrees Côté is a brilliant lawyer and good choice. But that doesn't address the lack of input from MPs.

Supreme Court of Canada nominee Justice Marc Nadon arrives to testify before an all-party committee to review his nomination with Justice Minister Peter MacKay in October 2013. Five months later the Supreme Court ruled he was ineligible for the appointment. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"By having a woman we can't fault the government on that front. Thank God they named a woman who has brains and is viewed as a great lawyer. That will help, but it's still not the perfect process.''

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler agrees.

"I'm just saying the people of Canada deserve more. The judiciary deserves more. We need to have a government that will see itself as the trustee of Parliament and the public, and not a government that operates in secret to bring about an appointment, however eminent it may be.''

So, the right choice. But the wrong process. For those keeping a check list, that last box can go unticked. Not that many people will notice.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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