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OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are asking Canada’s top judge to investigate whether Liberal MP Jim Carr and his wife have compromised the selection of Manitoba judges.
However, Carr said Wednesday, the process is based on merit, because an independent committee comes up with the short list of candidates.
"It’s merit-based by virtue of the judicial committee, but ultimately governments have to make these decisions," the Winnipeg South Centre MP told the Free Press. "There is no partisan politics involved, and the appointments that have been made to the court have been very good appointments."
Leaked emails obtained by the Globe and Mail showed Tuesday that Carr and his wife, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche, disagreed with then-justice minister Jody-Wilson Raybould over the selection of a handful of candidates for Manitoba courts in 2018.
During Stephen Harper’s term as prime minister, the Liberals accused the Conservatives of politicizing the selection of judges by relying on MPs, party volunteers and ministers. However, the leaked emails show Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office relied on the same groups of people as it garnered feedback on candidates.
The Liberals argue their process is more independent than their predecessors, because arm’s-length advisory committees form the list of candidates, from which the federal cabinet chooses. Those advisory committees include provincial officials and bar associations.
Under the previous government, police had a role in those bodies, with Harper explicitly saying he wanted judges who agreed with his tough-on-crime agenda. His cabinet ministers often had an effective veto over candidates.
According to the Globe, early 2018 emails claim Suche had submitted the same list of suggested judges as her husband, who was a federal cabinet minister at the time. The emails also infer Liberal staff used encrypted messages to discuss appointments, outside of email chains.
Suche has not responded to Free Press emails asking for an interview.
No one has alleged Carr, Suche, nor the Liberals of any criminal wrongdoing.
However, the Tory justice critic has asked Chief Justice Richard Wagner to have the Canadian Judicial Council investigate Suche’s involvement in the nomination process, "and the resulting impact on judicial independence."
MP James Bezan, who represents Manitoba’s Interlake, said it’s the only way to ensure public confidence in independent courts.
"It is incredibly unethical for a judge to be vetting other potential appointments," said Bezan, arguing the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to shake Canadians’ faith. "This has taken political, partisan appointments to a level that undermines the independence of our judiciary."
Carr would not speak Wednesday to the leaked emails, but said the Liberals intentionally gave the independent advisory councils more sway than the Conservatives had, and he argued those councils better reflect the communities they represent.
The justice minister gets a list of candidates the committees have approved of — with each either recommended or strongly recommended — and picks from each pool, based on the needs of the court. That could mean someone who is only "recommended" being chosen over someone "highly recommended," because a court lacks an expert in one area of law.
"Minister of justices consult ministers and members of Parliament; they have staff who will sometimes call members of the bar in the given province," Carr said.
Updated on Thursday, February 20, 2020 at 8:03 AM CST: Corrects reference to Winnipeg South Centre