Sheilah Martin, Supreme Court nominee: ‘Judges need to show respect to get respect’

Sheilah Martin at an event for the University of Calgary Faculty of Law. Courtesy: Adrian Shellard/University of Calgary

The newest nominee to Canada’s Supreme Court says judges need to work to earn and maintain the trust of Canadians and hinted that educating more judges about sexual assault might not be a bad idea.

Sheilah Martin was nominated to the country’s highest court last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fill the seat that will be left vacant when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin retires on Dec. 15.

READ MORE: New Supreme Court justice will be Alberta’s Sheilah Martin

Martin, born and raised in Montreal, was appointed a judge on the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in the summer of 2016, and prior to that served on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in Calgary since 2005.

On Tuesday, she appeared before a panel of members of parliament and senators to take questions on her career, her approach to the law, what she sees as key issues facing the Supreme Court in the coming years, and how she sees the role of a judge.

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“I think judges need to show respect to get respect, and it has been my personal goal to be respectful in court,” Martin told the joint committee, and described the role of a judge as a “neutral arbiter.”

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Among the questions put to Martin by parliamentarians were those touching on several issues before House of Commons and Senate including whether there needs to be additional supports for jurors and whether judges need sexual assault training.

The latter was a bill introduced by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and it is currently stalled in the Senate.

Martin said she could not comment directly on the bill but noted, “I’m an old law professor and I’ve rarely heard a good argument against more education.”

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On the issue of support for jurors, Martin pointed to her experience as a trial judge and explained some of the difficulties that can come from being exposed to material used in a criminal trial.

READ MORE: Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin to retire from Supreme Court

She also noted that Alberta, the province where she practiced for the bulk of her law career, has supports available for jurors at the end of trials and that parliamentarians might be interested in looking to that province when considering their own study into juror mental health.

“One of the things we talk about as judges is the things that we see in our roles. Sometimes you can never un-see them. There are things you can never unlearn,” she said.

“Members of the public may be profoundly affected by the things they see.”

Martin also provided some perspective when asked about what she sees as emerging issues facing the Supreme Court.

Among those will be the balance of personal rights with the rights of collective groups, she said and pointed to language rights as a possible example of that.

She also pointed specifically to challenges arising from free speech and difficulties around interpreting law in the digital age.

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“There will be, of course, emerging issues around technology and the age of information that we will have to revisit,” she said. “Those underlying ideas in a new context and that will be a challenge.”

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