Liberal Party 'overwhelmingly' appoints party donors as judges: report

According to donation records, 21.4% of the 555 nominees to a provincial superior court since 2016 donated to the Liberal party — over three times higher than Conservative appointees (6.8%). Being nominated to a superior court is a 'logical' step towards receiving an appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Liberal Party 'overwhelmingly' appoints party donors as judges: report
The Canadian Press / Christinne Muschi
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Amid ongoing calls to urgently fill judicial vacancies, court watchers have pressed the federal government to bolster transparency on the apparent ‘partisanship’ of judicial appointees. 

According to the results of an eight-month investigation by the National Post and the Investigative Journalism Foundation (IJF), approximately 76.3% of judges who donated to political parties favoured the Liberal Party of Canada.It found that out of 1,308 judicial and tribunal appointments since 2016, "nearly one in five of them donated to a political party at least once in the decade leading up to their appointment."

Of those who donated, a scathing three-quarters donated to the Liberals.During that period, the number of Conservative donors appointed to the judiciary dropped significantly, whereas judges who donated to the NDP more than doubled between 2016 and 2022.

“These long delays are symptomatic of the politicization of appointments, in the partisan and ideological sense of the term,” emailed Patrick Taillon, professor of constitutional law at Université Laval.

The federal government appoints members to provincial superior and appeal courts, which oversee most criminal and civil cases, as well as the Tax Court of Canada, the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

The feds also appoint members to over a dozen “quasi-judicial” tribunals and boards, including the Social Security Tribunal, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada Industrial Relations Board, and the Canadian International Trade Tribunal.

A Justice spokesperson rejected the claim that government appointees are based on “an applicant’s political donation record.”

“The judicial appointment process is focused on merit, on the needs of courts, and on building a bench that reflects the country it serves,” said David Taylor.

However, Taillon said the high proportion of Liberal donors serving as justices over Conservative donors is not coincidental. 

“It is the emblematic reflection of a political will to choose, from among competent candidates […] who are not associated with the political adversaries and ideologies to which the Liberal Party is opposed,” he said.

For example, Court of King’s Bench of Alberta Justice Kevin P. Feehan made nearly $15,000 in donations to the Liberal Party between 2006 and 2016.

Social Security Tribunal member Leanne Bourassa made $10,300 in donations to the Liberals between 2006 and 2017 when the tribunal appointed her.

According to donation records, others donated as little as $250 or $400 to a party once in the decade before their appointment. 

In 2016, nearly one in three (31.3%) judicial and tribunal appointees who donated to a political party donated to the Conservatives. Six years later, that number dropped to 20%.

During that period, the share of NDP donors appointed by the Liberals rose significantly from 12.5% to 28%.

Legal scholars have repeatedly viewed the federal appointment process for judges and tribunal members as ‘fundamentally political’ because Cabinet decides who receives an appointment. 

They said the lack of diversity in the judiciary undermines public confidence in Canada’s courts, owing to concerns of potential political influence.

The Justice Ministry told The National Post that “the minister does not receive information on the political affiliation or donation history” as information pertinent to an applicant’s candidacy.

However, a 2019 article by The Globe and Mail revealed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) used a partisan database called Liberalist to vet judiciary candidates recommended by the justice minister before formalizing their appointment. 

When asked if they still use Liberalist in this capacity, PMO spokesperson Mohammad Hussain replied: “We do not use political party databases.”

“We continue to have this challenge of partisan affiliation in those getting appointed,” said Erin Crandall, associate professor of political science at Acadia University.

“The concern […] is not so much the quality of the judges that are being appointed. […] The real challenge is the perception of the partisan relationship,” he added.

“It is essential to the functioning of the judiciary that citizens have confidence in judges.”

According to donation records, the number of judicial and tribunal appointees who previously made a partisan donation fell slightly from 2016 (19.1%) to 2019 (17.8%). However, the proportion of donors who contributed to the Liberals outpaced that decline (77.4% to 74.8%).

Among provincial superior court appointments, the percentage of donors who gave to the Liberals compared to other parties jumped 13% to 77.4% — despite the number of appointees who previously donated to a political party remaining stagnant.

A deeper dive into the donation records uncovered more than one in five (21.4%) of the 555 nominees to a provincial superior court since 2016 made donations to the Liberal party before their appointment — over three times higher than Conservative donor appointees (6.8%).

Taillon said this doesn’t surprise him as being nominated to a superior court is a “logical” step towards a final appellate court such as the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Placing a large number of judges in this trial court, which is the most important trial court in Canadian law, is politically logical,” he said.

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify the percentages of Liberal-donating judges.

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