Nominating judges: the power of strategy

Photo by Bob Kelly, Flickr

Photo by Bob Kelly, Flickr

One of the major transformations brought about by Stephen Harper as prime minister will surely be the mark he will leave on the Supreme Court of Canada. He will have, in a way, remodeled it after his own design. The nomination of judges to the highest court in Canada is a top priority for any prime minister but Harper has had the opportunity to be more prolific than most PMs. Judge Marc Nadon’s recent nomination brings the number of Supreme Court judges nominated by Harper to 6, out of 9 in total.

This sort of power allows the Prime Minister to keep his populist base happy. It’s no secret that a good number of his party’s most loyal supporters are deeply concerned about matters of law and order. In fact, it’s one issue where members of the Conservative party can make things difficult for the Prime Minister, which is why we have seen the current government adopt a number of bills to address law and order issues.

Evidently, for the Conservatives, the law and order agenda is a fruitful one, despite the economy and fiscal responsibility remaining at the core of the Conservative government’s message. The Conservatives can use law and order issues to differentiate themselves from their adversaries; Harper can play tough and come across as the public’s foremost defender against all sorts of crimes, even as the latest surveys indicate that crime rates are receding across the country.

Despite what the statistics may say, many conservatives believe that criminality in this country is out of control. I will not stop to judge the rightness or wrongness of this perspective here. It is what it is. Given the preoccupation of many of the party’s supporters and members with this issue, the Conservative government must take it seriously. Their continued electoral success suggests that they have been doing that very well right from the start.

The power of judges has often raised problems for Conservatives. Over the years, they have made numerous calls to bring judges back to order. This was at the forefront of the Reform party’s political platform and the dossier wasn’t set aside when the Conservative party formed. Even today we often hear about Party members’ frustrations towards what they consider to be a usurpation, by judges, of powers that should belong to parliament.

Conservatives have long decried judicial activism and many decisions taken by Canada’s highest courts have horrified them. Take, for example, the Supreme Court’s 2010 determination that Omar Khadr’s rights had been violated. This kind of decision gives the Conservatives shingles. The same goes for the Harper government’s decision to close Vancouver’s Insite injection site, only to see it hit a wall following a decision made by the country’s highest tribunal.

All this led many Conservative opinion leaders in the country to conclude that the Court was holding a much too liberal interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an interpretation that – according to them – doesn’t fit with the social fabric of Canadian society.

In this context, the Prime Minister’s nominations have been thoroughly welcomed by his supporters, even if there is no obvious guarantee that those judges will side with a particular ideology. We’ll see, in a few year’s time, if the Court has in fact changed its interpretation of the Charter, among other things. But the next dossier on the agenda that will call for attention is another favorite among the Conservatives: the Senate reform. It will be heard in November.

Translation Monique Kroeger