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Supreme Court nominee Sheilah Martin veers from the controversial during questioning from MPs

By Marco Vigliotti      

The latest nominee for the country's highest court was largely relegated to generalities and overarching sentiments during the course of her roughly two-hour cross-examination by members of the House and Senate.

Justice Sheilah Martin listens intently during a question-and-answer session with members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, members of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, and representatives from the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party, in Ottawa on Tuesday.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Supreme Court nominee Sheilah Martin voiced support for better sexual assault education for judges, acknowledged the taut balancing act of competing Charter rights, and touted existing supports for jury members during a question and answer session with Parliamentarians on Tuesday, but steered away from any queries that could touch upon future cases or controversial issues.  

Ms. Martin was largely relegated to generalities and overarching sentiments during the course of her roughly two-hour cross-examination by members of the House Justice and Human Rights Committee and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and representatives from the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party, at the Sir John A Macdonald Building across the street from Parliament Hill. 

In an effort to preserve the independence and impartiality of the judicial system, questions on laws or cases that may appear before the Supreme Court, or questions on public policy are generally not permitted, meaning the Alberta jurist mostly sidestepped pressing questions on hot-button issues. 

Most notably, Ms. Martin deferred comment when asked for her view on ex-Conservative leader Rona Ambrose’s private member’s bill mandating sexual assault education for judges, but voiced support more broadly for better education efforts.

“I’m an old law professor and I’ve rarely heard a good argument against more education,” she said in response to a question from former federal justice minister and Conservative MP Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.).

Ms. Martin also deferred when asked by NDP MP Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) about the applicability of awarding legal personhood to rivers and lakes under Canada’s common law system, saying she couldn’t directly respond to the question and didn’t want to speculate on how the Supreme Court may rule in that circumstance.

New Zealand recently awarded a river held sacred by its Indigenous Māori people the same legal rights as a person. Under the concept, two guardians are to be appointed to act on behalf of the Whanganui river, one from the government and one from a local Māori tribe.

But when prompted to discuss her views on juries, Ms. Martin applauded supports available in Alberta to help jury members confronted with disturbing material during the course of their duties.

“Members of the public may be profoundly affected by the things they see,” she said.

Ms. Martin was nominated last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to fill the vacancy created by the impending resignation of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Ms. Martin will fill McLachlin’s seat on the court, but not succeed her as chief justice.

Ms. McLachlin announced earlier this year she would step down this December after some 28 years on the Supreme Court, including the past 17 as chief justice.

The Trudeau government has yet to put forward its pick to serve as the new chief justice, as Ms. McLachlin’s pre-announced retirement date of Dec. 15 inches closer.

At the onset of her appearance on Tuesday, Ms. Martin guided Parliamentarians and moderator François Larocque, interim dean for the University of Ottawa faculty of law’s common law section, through her personal and professional background, explaining her unorthodox path to the bench that began in academia before moving to private practice.

Ms. Martin was born and raised in Montreal in an anglophone family. She studied common law and civil law at McGill University, and also received law degrees from the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto.

She started her legal career as a researcher and law professor at the University of Calgary in the early 1980s, and also served as a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. In the early 1990s, she served as dean of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law, before practicing criminal and constitutional litigation in Calgary from 1996 to 2005.

She was appointed a judge on the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut in 2016 after serving  on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta since 2005.

Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre, Alta.) opened the round of questioning by asking the Alberta jurist what values and perspectives she would bring when balancing competing Charter rights.

Ms. Martin said she believed there would be more cases in the future involving the balancing of rights spelled out in the relatively young Charter, saying although not always possible, she would look to see if all rights could be protected. She also claimed that existing jurisprudence determined that there is “no hierarchy of rights.”

Asked more broadly about how she envisioned the role of a judge, Ms. Martin said it was to “render justice based on the law.”


The Hill Times 

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