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Harper organizer appointed to the bench 

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:00 p.m. June 28, 2006]

OTTAWA  — A key New Brunswick organizer for the prime minister and the Conservative party was among those given judicial appointments by the Conservative government this week. 

Richard Bell was a New Brunswick campaign co-chair for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2004 Conservative party leadership race and was a co-chair in New Brunswick for Conservatives in the 2004 and 2006 federal election campaigns.

Bell made headlines in New Brunswick during the 2006 campaign when he denied a claim made by former Tory MP Elsie Wayne that the Conservative party was against same-sex marriage.  

The appointment of Bell to the Court of Queen's Bench in New Brunswick comes just over a year after Harper and Justice Minister Vic Toews were calling for an investigation into allegations of political favouritism in the appointment of judges by the former Liberal government. 

At the height of the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, Benoit Corbeil, a former president of the Quebec wing of the Liberal party, alleged in a number of media interviews that as many as eight Quebec lawyers who volunteered for the Liberals during election campaigns were later named to the bench.  

"Anyone who wanted to be a judge or win mandates needed to have friendly relations with those people," Corbeil told Radio-Canada last April.

Corbeil's allegations about the selection of judges was never investigated further by the Gomery inquiry because it went beyond the scope of Gomery's terms of reference. 

However, that did not stop Harper and Toews, who was the opposition justice critic at the time, from calling for an investigation into the process. 
 
In question period last May, Harper said Corbeil had "revealed that the Liberal Party of Canada has corrupted the system of nominating, vetting and appointing judges."

He accused former prime minister Paul Martin of doing "absolutely nothing in terms of reacting."

At the time, Toews said Corbeil's allegations placed a "dark cloud over the Canadian judiciary" and accused the Liberals of paying off campaign workers. 

He called for the then justice minister Irwin Cotler to investigate the judicial appointments process. 

"It is an issue that does need to be explored because this is now . . . casting a cloud over our judiciary. This matter either needs to be investigated by the RCMP or by the judicial council in the province of Quebec."

Corbeil's allegations set off investigations by bloggers and some reporters linking campaign contributions and judicial appointments. 

Toews later called for an investigation into the entire judicial appointment system after a Montreal Gazette investigation found that nearly 60 per cent of Quebec lawyers who were appointed as judges since the 2000 election had contributed money to the Liberals in years leading up to their appointments. 

"This isn't simply a freakish coincidence," Toews said at the time. 

Federally appointed judges are first vetted through a federal judiciary advisory committee, but once they pass that hurdle the final decision to whittle down the nominees rests with the justice minister. 

Since coming into power earlier this year, the Conservatives have made reforms to make the appointment of Supreme Court justices more transparent, but have not made changes yet to the appointment of other judges, even though they were critical of the process while in opposition. 

Mike Storeshaw, a spokesperson for Toews, said reforming judicial appointments is a "big process with a lot of stakeholders."
 
He defended the selection of Bell to the bench, and noted his nearly 30 years experience as a lawyer.

"We're going to continue to put qualified people with a strong legal background on the bench," said Storeshaw, who stressed the appointment had nothing to do with politics.

"Political affiliation is not a disqualification, but legal excellence and a strong legal background is going to be key and Richard Bell certainly has that." 

Bell is bilingual, has over 25 years experience in labour law and litigation, and has even tried cases before the Supreme Court. 

He is currently a partner at the law firm McInnes Cooper, the same firm former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna practised at before becoming Canada's ambassador to the U.S.

The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal reported that even Bell's political adversaries praised the appointment. 

Greg Byrne, president of the New Brunswick Liberal Party president, told the paper that Bell was "well qualified" for the court. 

: Related Links

> Parliament will revisit same-sex marriage this fall- PM

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