Justice minister could get veto on moves of judges by Friday

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Justice minister could get veto on moves of judges by Friday

A controversial Liberal bill that's been denounced as a threat to judicial independence could become law by Friday.

After months without any movement, Bill 17 received second reading from the legislature on Tuesday and was passed by a committee of MLAs on Wednesday.

The bill would amend the Judicature Act to give the provincial justice minister a veto over Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith's ability to transfer judges on his court.

Smith has criticized the bill, calling it a threat to judicial independence.

It was first introduced in February 2016 as Bill 21 but died when the new session of the legislature began last fall. It was reintroduced as Bill 17 last November, and until this week was the oldest piece of Liberal legislation that hadn't advanced past first reading.

Legislature adjourns Friday

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday until the fall, when a new session would begin.

"We would certainly love for it to pass," Liberal cabinet minister Victor Boudreau said. "It and every other piece of legislation on the agenda."

But the bill isn't urgent enough for the Liberals to limit debate.

On Tuesday, they voted to restrict the time that can be spent debating on four other bills they say must get through by Friday.

Opposition justice critic Ted Flemming said there's not much way to stop the legislation.

"It's like the Black Knight in Monty Python. You can only take so much. They cut you up pretty good. They're determined, it seems to me, to proceed."

Deals with moving judges

The Liberal government says the bill is designed to stop the practice of Court of Queen's Bench judges being appointed by Ottawa to smaller communities such as Woodstock and Campbellton and then being moved by Smith to a larger centre, a pattern they call a "revolving door."

Justice Minister Denis Landry told the committee debating the bill Wednesday that the government "wants to be part of the conversation" about moving judges, even though he said he hopes he never has to use the veto.

PC MLA Jody Carr responded that other Liberal ministers, by criticizing Smith and by revealing they'd had conversations with other judges about the bill, had "tainted" the public's confidence.

"Any honourable purpose the government may have had has been diminished," he said.

Carr said the government should have instead given the veto to the judge being moved and left the minister out of the process.

In January, Smith asked the Canadian Association of Superior Court Judges to support his fight against the bill.

The organization represents more than 1,000 judges across Canada. Smith asked the group to lobby Ottawa to send the bill to the Supreme Court of Canada for advice on whether it's constitutional.

But the association decided last month not to do that after one of its committees concluded the bill didn't threaten judicial independence.

The Canadian Bar Association's New Brunswick chapter opposes the legislation.

Last year, PC MLA Kirk MacDonald said the bill was designed to keep judicial vacancies open so that Ottawa could appoint MP Dominic LeBlanc's spouse, provincial court Judge Jolène Richard, and her brother,  André Richard, as Court of Queen's Bench justices.

Last week Premier Brian Gallant announced that Jolène Richard was being appointed the first female chief judge of provincial court.