Trudeau stands by judicial appointments process despite N.B. judges' links to Liberal MP
'We are pleased that we have nominated top-notch judges right across the country,' prime minister says
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he stands behind the federal process for appointing judges despite recent revelations that five of the past six judges appointed in New Brunswick have links to Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.
"We are fully confident that the process, the transparent merit-based process that we've put in place, is the right one and we stand by it," Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Tuesday.
The prime minister said the process that his government introduced to select judges is an improvement on the system left behind by the Conservatives and has served the country well.
"We are pleased that we have nominated top-notch judges right across the country and we will continue to," he said.
CBC News revealed this week that recent 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, the New Brunswick MP for Beauséjour, was minister of intergovernmental affairs, northern affairs and internal trade, but he stepped down from cabinet in April to focus on fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He has since said his treatment is going well enough for him to run in the October federal election.
Last month, Moncton lawyer Robert M. Dysart and Saint John lawyer Arthur T. Doyle were appointed 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.
If Dominic LeBlanc took part, then he should be found guilty of violating the federal ethics law and hopefully that alone will cause the system to change.— Duff Conacher, Democracy Watch
Also helping with that leadership debt was lawyer Charles LeBlond, who was appointed to the Court of Appeal in March.
Justice Tracey DeWare was named chief justice of New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench trial division last month.
DeWare was a Conservative Party donor and originally appointed to the bench in 2012 by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But she is also LeBlanc's neighbour, and her husband, businessman Jacques Pinet, contributed to LeBlanc's leadership debt repayment.
Moncton family lawyer Marie-Claude Bélanger-Richard was picked to fill a judicial vacancy in Saint John. She is married to LeBlanc's brother-in-law.
Liberals' judicial appointments changes
In October 2017 the Liberals made changes to how the federal government makes judicial appointments.
The size of the 17 judicial advisory committees across Canada was set at seven members, with one member from the provincial or territorial law society, another from the regional branch of the Canadian Bar Association, a judge nominated by the chief justice of the province or territory and an attorney general or minister of justice from the province or territory.
The remaining three members represent the general public, and can come from the legal profession but do not have to. They are appointed by the federal government. A change brought in by the Harper government, that each judicial advisory committee include a member from the law enforcement community, was scrapped.
Judicial members of the committees regained the right to vote for applicants they want to recommend, and committees once again were permitted to give special recognition to outstanding candidates.
Committee members were also asked to consider judicial candidates' ethnicity, Indigenous status, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical disability.
In 2018 LeBlanc notified the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner that he had recused himself from any discussions involving his relative, Bélanger-Richard. He did not recuse himself from discussions regarding the other appointees.
Democracy Watch's Duff Conacher said there is at least an appearance of a conflict of interest, and that if LeBlanc participated in the appointments process, he violated the federal ethics law by appearing to further the interests of someone that would put him in a conflict of interest.
"The current appointments system unfortunately taints these people and makes it seem like they're not qualified and they probably are qualified, and it's really an argument to change the appointments system and make it much more independent and ethical by removing cabinet ministers from it," he told CBC News.
Conacher said he doesn't want to see the appointments rescinded. What he is advocating is improvements to the appointments system and for a closer look at LeBlanc's role in the recent appointments.
"The real solution is to change the appointments system," he said, "and if Dominc LeBlanc took part, then he should be found guilty of violating the federal ethics law and hopefully that alone will cause the system to change."
Defending the process
Earlier this week, LeBlanc's office referred questions about the judicial appointments to Justice Minister David Lametti.
"The appointments process neither disqualifies nor privileges an applicant on the basis of political association," Lametti's press secretary, Rachel Rappaport, said in a statement.
"All judicial appointments are made on the basis of merit. Candidates are first evaluated by independent judicial advisory committees, who thoroughly review the applications and provide recommendations to the minister."
The minister then carefully reviews the findings of the advisory committee and considers a number of factors, the statement says, including "the needs of the court, the diversity of the bench, each candidate's area of expertise, and the strength of their application, in determining who to recommend to cabinet."
'Outrageous,' Sheer says
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the proper rules are in place to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, but the Liberals are flouting them.
"Its outrageous. And once again we see that the Trudeau Liberals have been caught abusing the power of their offices to reward their rich and powerful friends," Scheer said.
With files from the Robert Jones and Evan Dyer