McLachlin says it’s time to ‘turn the page’ on spat with PMO

James McLeod
Published on August 15, 2014

Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin says she feels it’s important to move on from a public spat between the Supreme Court and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.


McLachlin was at the Canadian Bar Association conference in St. John’s Thursday. In her speech to lawyers from across the country, she made only a wry passing reference to the war of words between the Prime Minister’s Office and the nation’s top court earlier this year.

But after the speech, nearly all of the questions from journalists focused on the issue and the perceived conflict between the government and the courts.

“At this point,I think the important thing is to turn the page and get on with the important business of our court,”she said.

Earlier this year, McLachlin butted heads with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay over the appointment of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court.

Before the case came to the Supreme Court, McLachlin tried to talk to Harper to warn him about potential problems with the nomination, and he refused to take the call.

A statement from the PMO said that the conversation would have been “inadvisable and inappropriate.”

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled 6-1 that Nadon was not eligible to be appointed.

After all of this was reported in the media, the International Commission of Jurists studied the issue and concluded that McLachlin hadn’t done anything inappropriate. The Geneva-based international organization said that Harper should apologize to McLachlin.

Back in May, Canadian Bar Association President Fred Headon called for Harper to clarify his remarks, and make it clear that McLachlin did nothing wrong

Since then, there’s been no public apology or backing down from the PMO.

Headon said this is the sort of thing that undercuts people’s confidence in a strong, independent judiciary, and affects them when they enter a courtroom.

“I think it’s unfortunate, it’s unhelpful and it’s a risk to our system of government and our democracy if people do not have confidence in the system,” he said. “It’s not right that in a democracy people should feel that they need to question the independence of the judge they’re before.”

When speaking to reporters Thursday, McLachlin downplayed the matter.

“It’s not for me to say whether there is or is not an erosion of respect,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of respect out there, personally. I feel it.”

When it comes to the appointment of Supreme Court justices, McLachlin said it’s standard for the Chief Justice to be consulted.

“I do whatever the justice minister and the prime minister ask me to do in the sense of responding to the needs of the court, and that’s it,” she said. “If I have some special concerns, it’s routine for the chief justice — and it has been for as long as I think the court’s been going on — for the chief justice to discuss the needs of the court.”