C-232: a bill to right an obvious wrong: supreme court justices should be bilingual

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to catch a bit of House of Commons proceedings that I found eye-opening. New Brunswick Member of Parliament Yvon Godin (Acadie-Bathurst) brought forward a private member's bill (C-232) that would require justices appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada to be able to hear cases in both official languages without a translator.

I was floored. You mean Supreme Court justices do not have to be bilingual? That is correct. Judges in every other level of federal court must be able to hear cases in either English or French. But in the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in the land and the court of last resort, there are Anglophone justices who can only hear a case prosecuted in French through the use of an interpreter.

I mean no disrespect to the amazing interpreters out there who do an incredibly difficult job, but if my case were being heard by the Supreme Court, I'd rather not depend on an intermediary for clarity - an intermediary who I might not be able to understand, so I wouldn't be able to assess the accuracy of the translation!

I saw the second reading of the bill. I put this post in drafts, then couldn't find time to get back to it. And before I did, the bill had passed its third reading! It's on its way to the Senate now.

This is a complete no-brainer. Only this Conservative government would oppose it. I suppose it complicates their patronage plans.

Good job by Yves Godin and the NDP, and cheers to a united Opposition that can pass a private member's bill!

Story from Lawyer's Weekly:
Few lawyers would deny that only the best qualified jurists should be appointed to Canada’s top court — but what is best is partly in the eye of the beholder.

With three Supreme Court of Canada judges facing mandatory retirement over the next five years (2 from Quebec and 1 in Ontario) the government making the next appointments will have to decide what it wants, beyond impeccable legal credentials, good character and sound judgment.

There are already plenty of ideas on offer about what other characteristics and qualifications the next Supreme Court nominees should possess.

On Parliament Hill, for example, NDP, Liberal and Bloc Quebecois MPs have joined ranks to back a private member’s bill which would require all new Supreme Court appointees to be able to hear appeals in both official languages, without the assistance of interpreters.

The Conservative government opposes Bill C-232, but was unable to kill it at second reading debate last May, when the bill passed by a vote of 140 to 133.

If passed at third reading next month, Bill C-232 would rule out many otherwise well-qualified candidates for the high court, particularly for the upcoming vacancy in Ontario, and future openings in the West (for example, Stephen Harper’s first appointee after he became prime minister, Justice Marshall Rothstein of Manitoba, was not bilingual).

Bill C-232’s sponsor, New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin, argues that all Canadians are entitled to have the nuances of their arguments in both official languages fully understood by all the members of the top court.

He says he has no sympathy for eminent jurists who could find their Supreme Court aspirations dashed by his bill.

"That's not what should be the test," the former miner and union official told The Lawyers Weekly. "At the lower level nationally, the Federal Court, they have to be bilingual, so why not the Supreme Court?"

Francophone Supreme Court judges from Quebec and New Brunswick have long been obliged, in practice, to be bilingual before they are deemed worthy of appointment by the government, Godin points out. Why should there be a lower standard for anglophone jurists, he asks.

He scoffs at the suggestion that qualified bilingual candidates are scarce in some regions. "We have 33 million people in our country and we cannot find nine judges who are bilingual—I think we are in trouble," he says. . . . [More on Supreme Court of Canada appointments here.]

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