In 2004, Conservative justice critic Vic Toews criticized then Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler for appointing his former chief of staff, Yves de Montigny, to the federal court.
Toews acknowledged that de Montigny was qualified, reporter Janice Tibbetts wrote, but said it looked bad all the same.
“It’s just one more illustration of how who you know gets you on the bench,” Toews said.
In opposition, Toews complained bitterly about a federal judicial appointments process that was obviously rigged to put Liberals on the bench.
In 2005 a Canwest News Service analysis found that more than 60 per cent of federal judicial appointees had donated to the party in the five years before their appointment.
Toews wanted the system changed, so that the government would appoint judges from a short list chosen by an independent advisory panel. When he became Stephen Harper’s first justice minister in 2006, though, he had a change of heart
, describing the process as a “relatively well-working mechanism.”
He tweaked it slightly, adding representatives of law enforcement to the advisory panels that review lists of potential judges, in keeping with a government that often emphasizes the order part of law and order.
Before long, the Tories were being accused, rightly, of appointing their own to the bench, just as the Liberals did before them. The Conservatives influence the advisory committees by naming some members. The Manitoba committee includes three members who are said to be close to Toews, including former provincial Tory strategist Marni Larkin, who the Tories also put on the CBC board.
Back in 2008, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Toews had tired of federal politics and was looking to get appointed to the bench in Manitoba.
Columnist Don Martin wrote then:
“The mind reels. If the Conservatives under Harper stood for anything while in Official Opposition with Toews as the justice critic, it was a clean bench kept clear of patronage deadwood.”
The blowback seemed to spook the government, and Toews stayed in cabinet, moving first to treasury board and then to public safety.
He was rumoured to be seeking a way out, though, because he was weary of politics, particularly the tricky business of supervising the RCMP. But a second marriage, a young child and an expensive divorce meant that he needed a big paycheque.
I was told that the prime minister had quietly told him he could go to the bench, but there would have to be a six-month cooling off period.
Toews pooh-poohed that kind of talk, chiding journalists for their unseemly speculation.
But then he retired in the summer, and sure enough, nine months later, on Friday afternoon, the government appointed Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench.
He will make $288,100 a year, $51,000 more than the $236,900 he made as a cabinet minister, plus his MP pension, which ought to make those enormous alimony payments easier.
As Martin wrote in 2008:
“It’s difficult to fathom why the Conservatives would risk so much political karma on such a move.”
It looks terrible. The bench should not be used as a retirement home for burnt out politicians. That’s what the Senate is for, and certain consular offices.
It’s not to say that Toews isn’t qualified to sit on the bench. As a former Crown prosecutor and a provincial and federal attorney general he has been wrestling with difficult legal issues for many years, and appears to be intelligent, although he often seemed to enjoy playing dumb in front of the cameras.
Still, that’s not why they appointed him. They appointed him because of his political connections, perhaps because promising him the appointment was the best way to get rid of him, or because they like him and want him to be happy.
The Toews appointment — less than a year from cabinet table to the bench — seems to set a new standard for blatant patronage, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has watched Harper appoint senators.
Personally, I agree with Vic Toews circa 2004. We would be better off having independent panels draw up short lists, taking the politics out of the system, not because unqualified people get appointed under the current system, but because we want the best on the bench, and when you throw partisan politics into the mix, you don’t get the best, you get the best-connected.
But there is little reason to fear that Toews will be as much of a knucklehead as a judge as he sometimes seemed as a politician.
Years ago, when I was writing columns criticizing then-justice minister Anne McLellan for appointing her old schoolmate — Heather Robertson — to the bench in Nova Scotia, I got a call from another judge who had taken Robertson under his wing.
You’re getting it wrong, he told me. She’s a great judge. I’m a Tory. She’s a Liberal. We’re all appointed for political reasons, but when we put on the robes, we set that aside.
We really do.
I’m pretty sure that’s true.
Vic Toews appointment seems to set new standard for blatant patronage | canada.com