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Supreme Court nominees to face questions from MPs

[PoliticsWatch Updated 3:30 p.m. February 20, 2006]

OTTAWA  —  The next Supreme Court justice will have to face questions from a committee of MPs but will not be subject to a vote of approval under a new process unveiled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday. 

"The next Supreme Court nominee for the first in Canada's history will face questions from elected Members of Parliament," Harper said at a news conference on Parliament Hill. 

"The Supreme Court is a vital institution that belongs to all Canadians. And the public through their elected representatives deserves to know who sits on the court."

What Harper is proposing goes a step further than the process the previous Liberal government instated. 

The last time the Liberals appointed a justice, then justice minister Irwin Cotler appeared before a committee one afternoon to argue in favour of the selection. 

Conservatives criticized the process at the time. 

Justice Minister Vic Toews said in August of 2004 as Tory Justice critic: "All nominees should appear before the committee themselves, to present their credentials and to speak with committee members. You wouldn't hire somebody without speaking to them in person."

Under Canada's Constitution, the appointment of a Supreme Court judge is at the discretion of the PM. 

Harper will name his nominee on Wednesday and next Monday that person will appear for three hours before a televised adhoc committee hearing. 

But the nominee will not face a vote by MPs. 

Harper said he will just "take into account the deliberations and the views of the committee in determining the suitability of the final nominee."

Cotler told reporters in a conference call Monday afternoon that he wanted to commend the government for sticking with the process that came up with the names for a nominees. 

"The way this has happened, they have effectively followed the process we established. I expect this is more in the nature of continuity."

He also said his party will participate in the hearings because he does not feel it will politicize the process. 

"It's not an American-style hearing in the sense that this committee does not have veto power," he said. 

David MacLean of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation criticized the decision not to have MPs vote on the nominee. 

In a radio interview Monday, MacLean said Harper's change has created "just another committee that really has no power to put Supreme Court candidates to an up or down vote."

"We live under their rulings," he said. "They can have very serious impact on our day-to-day lives and this sort of power should not go unchecked."

Harper has also decided to select his first Supreme Court judge from a list already created by the previous Liberal government. 

The list has had input from all parties and is currently down to three prospective names after recommendations by an advisory committee. 

"The fact that we will be choosing a candidate from a Liberal list I believe we are ensuring a larger consensus on the nomination of the next justice," Harper said. 

The Canadian Bar Association quickly opposed Harper's announcement on Monday. 

"The CBA strongly opposes any system that would publicly expose judges to partisan criticism of their judgments or cross-examination of their personal beliefs or preferences," said Brian Tabor of the association. 

Earlier this month, Beverly McLachlin, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, said she did not want the selection process changed "in order to preserve the public confidence in the impartiality of the courts" and to avoid "politicizing" the appointment process. 

The new court nominee will replace retired Justice John Major. 

Toews stood near Harper during the press conference Monday but refrained from later taking questions from reporters. 

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