News, Politics

Canada’s Chief Justice, PM Square Off

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Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. Image: Gervásio Baptista/ABr
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. Image: Gervásio Baptista/ABr

There is a very unusual argument taking place between two very high-profile Canadians.

The Prime Minister of Canada and the head of Canada’s Supreme Court are in a battle of words and the stakes are high.

It involves the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, as the name suggests, is the highest court in Canada. The most important and final decisions are made there. Its judges make very big and important decisions.

Supreme Court judges are chosen by the federal government. The Prime Minister can choose almost anyone he wants, as long as he follows certain criteria (or rules).

This year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper picked someone, but in the end, that judge wasn’t allowed to join the Supreme Court because he didn’t meet the criteria.

Now, the Prime Minister says that the head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, did something wrong.

Harper says that before the new judge was selected, McLachlin tried to contact the Prime Minister’s office to discuss the selection of the new judge.

The Prime Minister says this was wrong, because it looked like the Chief Justice was trying to change his mind about who he should appoint to the court. He suggests that this showed the Chief Justice was not being fair.

Chief Justice McLachlin says that’s not what happened. She says she only contacted the government to make sure that the Prime Minister understood the rules for selecting the judge.

She says she would never try to affect who gets appointed to the court. She also says this all happened months before the judge was actually appointed, and that she would never discuss a current case with the Prime Minister.

“At no time was there any communication between Chief Justice McLachlin and the government regarding any case before the courts,” she said in a statement to the media.

This is an important situation, because the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice each hold a lot of power in Canada. Each is in charge of a separate branch of government. It’s very important that the Chief Justice and the Prime Minister are independent from each other, which means they don’t interfere in what the other is doing.

The Chief Justice is not allowed to talk to the government about specific judges because that might affect the selection process. For the same reason, the Prime Minister is not allowed to talk to judges about appointments or cases either, because that might affect what the judges decide.

Canada’s system of government is based on this separation of powers, and it would be dangerous if either person were to break the rules.

TeachingKidsNews.com spoke with a legal expert, who said he thinks it’s very unlikely that Chief Justice McLachlin would talk to the government inappropriately.

“It’s so rare that I can’t think of a single instance of it ever happening in Canada, at any level of court,” said Jordan Furlong, a lawyer and legal consultant in Ottawa. “Maybe someone in the Prime Minister’s office misunderstood the reason for the Chief Justice’s call. I can’t see the Chief Justice ever doing what the Prime Minister suggested that she did.”

Canadians will continue to follow this complex but important debate.

CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS
By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
Why do you think it is so important for the Prime Minister and the Supreme Court to remain separate?

Reading Prompt: Point of View
This complicated situation comes down to two different points of view: that of Beverly McLachlin and that of Stephen Harper. What does each side believe?

Are there any other points of view missing from this story?

Junior
Identify the point of view presented in texts, ask questions to identify missing or possible alternative points of view, and suggest some possible alternative perspectives (OME, Reading: 1.9).

Intermediate
Identify the point of view presented in texts, including increasingly complex or difficult texts; give evidence of any biases they may contain; and suggest other possible perspectives (OME, Reading: 1.9).

Language Feature: Proper Noun
A noun is a person, place or thing. A proper noun is a specific person, place or thing. For example, Supreme Court and Canada are examples of proper nouns.

Find all of the proper nouns in this article and figure out what they have in common (hint: they are all written in the same way).