Criticism from Ontario legal community continues over ‘like-minded’ judges comments

Ontario's Attorney General Doug Downey attends Question Period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Fresh concerns are being raised by Ontario’s legal community after Attorney General Doug Downey declared that judicial appointees would gain independence from the government after they’ve been given the job.

Downey has faced repeated questions about the government’s perceived politicization of the judicial system after Premier Doug Ford expressed a desire to hire “like-minded” judges to the Ontario Court of Justice.

On Monday, as Downey was questioned about judicial independence, he suggested that while the courts are free of political influence, the appointment process has a different standard.

“Judicial independence starts at the moment of appointment, not at the selection process,” Downey said. “Once the person is appointed, then they get their judicial independence.”

Doug Judson with the Federation of Ontario Law Associations said the idea of independence after the job interview is a “very confusing notion.”

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“It suggests that you need not apply if you are not close to this government politically which is, I think, really concerning,” he told Global News in an interview.

The Federation of Ontario Law Associations occupies one of the 13 seats on the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, alongside other judges, lawyers, and members of the community.

The Ford government’s initial appointment of two former Progressive Conservative staff members — and current provincial lobbyists — to the advisory committee triggered questions about whether the government is attempting to cast Ontario courtrooms in a conservative light.

Judson said the Premier’s comments on judicial appointments “suggests there would be a hand on the scale” during court proceedings and a comparison to the selection process for United States Supreme Court judges.

“These appointments are deliberately partisan, they go through a deliberately partisan litmus test to get on the court and then suddenly we’re supposed to accept that there are no partisan strings attaching to them,” Judson said.

“It’s almost a little bit too cute.”

On Tuesday, during a separate debate at Queen’s Park, PC MPP Christine Hogarth said the government felt “insulted” by some of the criticism and tried to clear up the government’s stance on appointing judges.

“There is a nonpartisan board that chooses judges. You cannot say that our judicial system is partisan or nonpartisan. Once you’re a judge, you are a judge. You will make that determination of a court case when you are there,” Horgarth said.

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Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, however, disagreed, pointing to the Premier’s stance on hiring “like-minded judges”

“The bottom line is, access to justice should be fair and equitable and it should be based on applying the law, not what the Premier tells a judge to do.”

Click to play video: 'Focus Ontario: Ford and the Bench'
Focus Ontario: Ford and the Bench

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