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Canada’s Longest-Tenured Chief Justice

Last week, Beverley McLachlin gave a rare interview to mark an historic occasion: she became Canada’s longest-serving Chief Justice.

The country’s 17th Chief Justice, the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin began her tenure in January 2000, when then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien elevated her from the rank of Associate Justice (known in Canada as a “Puisne” Justice). She was originally named to the Court in 1989 by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. All told, Chief Justice McLachlin has served on the Court for 24 years, 13 of those as Chief. If she remains on the Court until the mandatory retirement age of 75–in roughly six years–she will have served a total of 30 years, with 19 at the helm.

There will be ample opportunity to assess the McLachlin legacy when her service comes to a close. (As a former law clerk to Chief Justice McLachlin, I will have a lot to say about how her leadership has improved the Court, her jurisprudence has shaped Canada and benefited Canadians, and her example has inspired women and men to lead just lives.)

For now, let me just highlight some of her remarks from her recent interview with Kirk Makin of the Globe and Mail.

On her high expectations of judges, lawyers and of the Court:

[T]he Chief Justice can be as firm with lawyers who stray from the point in court, as she is with judges who are slow to produce judgments. It stems from a desire for her court to be remembered for tackling cases efficiently and effectively.

“I would like this court to be thought of as one that produces high-calibre, wise jurisprudence; jurisprudence that works and makes Canada a better place,” Chief Justice McLachlin says.

On her impact as Canada’s first female Chief Justice:

[C]hief Justice McLachlin says she is struck on Canada Day each year by the way parents who come to the court building introduce her to their children.

“They want to show their children that we have a chief justice of Canada – and that she is a woman!” she says. “It shows an aspiration on the part of those parents and, in those shining children’s eyes, of the fact that there aren’t boundaries in this country in terms of gender.

“It has nothing to do with my personal qualities, of course,” the 69-year-old judge adds. “It’s just that I’m here.”

On the importance of diversity on the Court:

Chief Justice McLachlin declines to criticize the federal government for reducing the complement of female judges on the court from four to three. However, she affirms that gender parity is a vital goal.

“When you get three or four women on a court of nine … suddenly gender doesn’t even become an issue,” she observes. “It’s amazing. You don’t even think of the gender of the other person.”

The reverse is equally true. “The fewer women that there are, the more I, as a woman, think: ‘Oh, they are looking at me – she is deciding that because she is a woman,’ ” she says.

However, men and women are clearly a product of their different life experiences, she adds.

“There are myriad ways that society treats women differently than men, and men a little differently than women. We all bring our perspectives to our work. And perspectives are very important in judging.”

Chief Justice McLachlin has authored important judgments for the Court.

Scholars often highlight her more controversial judgments, namely R. v. Seaboyer (1991) (invalidating rape-shield law), R. v. Zundel (1992) (invalidating law pursuant to which Holocaust denier was charged for “spreading false news”), and Charkaoui v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) (2007) (invalidating procedures for security certificates and detention review).

What remains under-appreciated, however, are her important judgments on voting rights, specifically Reference re Provincial Electoral Boundaries (Saskatchewan) (1991) (holding that the purpose of the right to vote is not “equality of voting power” but rather “effective representation”) and Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer) (2002) (invalidating law denying prisoners the right to vote).

Chief Justice McLachlin apparently intends to remain on the Court. When asked about her plans for the future in Makin’s interview, she replied: “I have no intention of stepping down or stepping aside,” she says. “I’m loving my job and hope to continue on.”

Good news for the Court, and for Canada.

Suggested Citation: Richard Albert, Canada’s Longest-Tenured Chief Justice, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, June 17, 2013, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2013/06/canadas-longest-tenured-chief-justice.

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Published on June 17, 2013
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