A needle in a haystack

Philip Slayton
“June is our women’s issue,” e-mailed the editor of this magazine. “Please try and make your column relevant.” Later, to prod me along I suppose, she sent an article from Law Times that began: “A group of female lawyers have formed the Women’s Court of Canada to rewrite key Supreme Court of Canada decisions from a feminist perspective in hopes of ending what they call a recent neglect of equality rights.”


Soon after this, I had dinner in Vancouver with a friend who is a senior and distinguished member of the B.C. bar (an older white male, needless to say). Over a drink or two, trying to figure out what I could write that would make my editor happy, and hoping for some ideas, I asked him what he thought about the Supreme Court, feminism, equality rights, etc. “What’s the problem?” he said, downing a gin martini. “Look it, aren’t four of the Supreme Court judges women?” Then, for the fun of it, we decided to see if we could list all nine Supreme Court judges, scribbling their names down on a paper napkin as they popped into mind. We managed to get them all, but it took a while.

“What about U.S. Supreme Court judges?” said my friend, getting into the spirit of the thing. “Let’s make a list of those guys!” That proved easier than the Canadian list. John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito: they tripped off the tongue. “Don’t forget Clarence Thomas!” said my friend. “He’s a good one!” People in the trendy Yaletown restaurant, quietly finishing business deals or starting romances, looked up as we shouted out the names of distinguished jurists.

Back in Toronto, thinking about the women judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the strange fact that it was easier for two Canadian lawyers to list members of the U.S. Supreme Court than those of our very own highest court, I decided to conduct a modest experiment. My plan was to pick a female justice of the SCC and see what one could easily find out about her from the public record. Maybe that would shed some light on the feminist and equality rights issues that prompted creation of the Women’s Court, and perhaps as well I’d get an insight into why our Supreme Court judges are so elusive that we can’t even remember their names. At random, I chose Justice Louise Charron.

Charron’s official biography (www.scc-csc.gc.ca/AboutCourt/judges/Charron/index_e.asp), and all her judgements, are, of course, on the public record and easily available, and that’s a good thing. But official biographies are notoriously unrevealing (lists of honourary doctorates and all that), and the average Canadian is not a legal scholar and cannot be expected to find insights in the law reports. How does the person on the street get a sense of a Supreme Court justice — her way of thinking, personality, likes and dislikes, how she might decide cases, and how — for example — she feels about feminism and equality rights?

What can we find out from newspapers? I went to the Canadian Newsstand database, which has the full text of over 190 Canadian newspapers, including major dailies, going back about 20 years. A search produced around a thousand articles that mention Charron. I ranked them in order of relevance, and looked at the first 300.
I discovered: she was born in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., the daughter of a bank manager; she is married (it’s a second marriage) to a retired policeman and has a son and two stepsons; she is bilingual and has been a law professor and assistant Crown attorney; she was “dumbfounded” when she got her first judicial appointment (to the Ottawa district court); she has “a pleasant personality” and a good sense of humour; she is “down to earth;” she is “a quiet, reserved woman;” she enjoys yoga and painting; she is thought to be conservative on matters of criminal law but progressive on social issues; she is a “soft-spoken, no-nonsense jurist;” she is “a top-notch legal mind, a prodigious worker, and an even-handed jurist unburdened with ideological baggage;” she is “a good team player with a quiet, dry sense of humour;” she is “low-profile;” she is “not seen as being either a law-and-order type or a big judicial activist;” she is a “radical feminist” (whatever that may be).

Pretty thin gruel, this, and rather incoherent. I found it hard to conjure up a clear view of Charron from newspapers. I turned to Google. The search term “‘louise charron’ judge” produced about 2,000 hits, and I took a look at the first 335 (subsequent entries, Google said, were omitted because they were “very similar”). Nothing much there; the relevance and interest of the hits dropped off dramatically quite soon, and there was a lot of ranting by crazed bloggers.

How can the average Canadian’s awareness and understanding of the Supreme Court be heightened? First, popular media must invest greater resources in sophisticated court reporting. The public editor of The New York Times recently described coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court as “one of the newspaper’s most important and most scrutinized beats.” What Canadian newspaper can say the same? The system itself is a problem and needs reform: in particular, the judicial selection process offers almost no opportunity for serious public scrutiny of appointments (the replacement of Justice Michel Bastarache offers a fresh chance for serious parliamentary hearings in public that could be carefully followed by the press). And school curricula should pay attention to the courts as vital institutions of Canadian government.

One thing my research did uncover. When Charron was first appointed to the bench, in 1988, a sitting judge was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as saying, “The girls are just coming into the right age for it.” The girls? Maybe we do need that Woman’s Court.

Philip Slayton has been dean of a law school and senior partner of a major Canadian law firm. Visit him online at philipslayton.com

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