This week, the Canadian Supreme Court is one judge lighter. Justice Russell Brown, appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, retired in the wake of a misconduct investigation by the Canadian Judicial Council. Brown allegedly had engaged in harassing and disorderly conduct at a resort in Arizona. Brown’s counsel vigorously disputed this as a concocted social media smear, but the justice chose to step down because he felt that a protracted investigation serves “nobody’s interests — the Court’s, the public’s, my family’s or my own.”
Once Brown’s seat is filled, six of the court’s nine judges will have been appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And as anyone following the United States Supreme Court knows, even one judge can make a big difference. The death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020 allowed then-President Donald Trump to appoint conservative Amy Coney Barrett, just shy of his electoral loss in November. Her appointment created a right-wing majority on the court, paving the way for the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the ensuant passage of state laws rolling back abortion rights.
Trudeau’s appointments veer in the opposite ideological direction but are just as political. Malcolm Rowe is the first judge from Newfoundland-Labrador; Sheilah Martin is a strong advocate of reproductive choice; Mahmud Jamal the first Supreme Court justice of South Asian descent; Michelle O’Bonsawin is the first indigenous justice. Through the appointments process, Trudeau has both diversified the court and engaged voter bases and values that Liberals hold dear.