Wednesday, December 20, 2017
I’ve never met former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. But I’ve read most of her judgments and written about many of them over the past 23 years.
I’ve also read the accolades that accompanied her retirement. The opinions were unanimous, an undivided public and professional outpouring of affection, admiration and gratitude for someone who’s done so much for this country’s highest court and our respect for it.
So I have little to add — except for the two occasions that I found myself writing about the chief justice herself rather than her judgments. Both instances, to my way of thinking, demonstrate just why she has been so effective. Both also demonstrate what many commentators have noted: that her success at creating consensus on the court lay primarily in her ability to put the court and the law ahead of her personal views and interests.
On June 26, 2014, a Thursday, the Canadian Bar Association announced that then president Fred Headon would outline its plans to improve the selection process of justices to the Supreme Court of Canada at the organization’s National Constitutional and Human Rights Conference. Headon was to speak on Friday afternoon. The announcement also pointedly referenced Chief Justice McLachlin, who was to open the conference with a speech on Friday morning.
I thought the juxtaposition of the announcements was odd, given that the chief had recently been embroiled in a controversy with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over a phone call she made regarding the selection process leading to the appointment of Federal Court Judge Marc Nadon, an appointment ultimately voided by the Supreme Court. I believed the CBA should have been more careful about appearing to co-relate its judicial selection recommendations with the chief justice’s appearance at the conference given the fact that McLachlin had barely three months earlier been part of the high court majority that nixed Nadon’s appointment.
My short blog about McLachlin’s appearance at the conference appeared in the National Post’s Legal Post on Thursday, shortly after the press release became public. The blog wasn’t exactly a tidal wave as news stories go.
But McLachlin, or someone at the Supreme Court noticed. By Thursday afternoon, the CBA advised that McLachlin was “unable to attend.” Sources at the court told me that a “scheduling conflict” had occurred.
I can’t be sure that the blog had anything to do with it. But the fact that McLachlin didn’t attend — without making a fuss about it — stuck in my mind. I remembered it again when I read the tributes on her resignation: something told me that our savvy chief justice’s “scheduling conflict” probably had as much to do with her unwavering commitment to putting the court and the judiciary first as it had to do with the flow of her day.
In May, I reported — again in the Post — that two sources in the publishing world had confirmed the existence of a thriller penned by McLachlin, to be published by Simon & Schuster Canada following McLachlin’s mandatory retirement date in September 2018, or sooner should she decide to retire earlier. The high court had no comment when I inquired there.
At the time, the general expectation was that McLachlin would serve until her mandatory retirement date. As The Lawyer’s Daily has reported, she had said for years that she intended to stay until she reached 75 years of age.
But less than two weeks after the Post published news of her novel, McLachlin announced that she would retire this month, nine months earlier than expected. The headline to this publication’s story on her retirement read “Chief Justice McLachlin stuns bar with early retirement.”
Again, I have no idea whether there’s any connection between McLachlin’s decision to retire early and the disclosure of her novelist ambitions. What I am certain about is this: there’s no way McLachlin would have wanted anyone to think she was at any time distracted by anything but her beloved court.