Justice Louise Arbour of the Ontario Court of Appeal is a rarity among jurists: with virtual unanimity, colleagues, friends and even those who follow her work from a distance describe her with unalloyed admiration. She is, they say, a tough-minded judge who also has a striking capacity for empathy and tact. They marvel at her ability to combine principle with practicality, and praise her reputation for fairness: labels like liberal or conservative just do not fit, they say. Last week, Canadians not used to poring over lengthy judgments got a firsthand taste of what many lawyers say is vintage Arbour. As head of the yearlong inquiry into disciplinary incidents at the Kingston Prison for Women, she flayed the correctional service for the mistreatment of inmates, even though public opinion is swinging strongly behind get-tough measures in Canada’s prisons. "She is not afraid to make a tough call,” says Osgoode Hall Law School Prof. Harry Arthurs, who was dean when Osgoode hired Arbour in 1974. “But she is saved from prissiness by a
common touch. She has the star quality to be a member of the Supreme Court of Canada.” That is not an unlikely scenario. During her career at Osgoode, Arbour, now 49, gained a reputation as an energetic teacher who could communicate difficult material and tell jokes at the same time. She also acted as vice-president and counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, where she defended restrictions on the so-called rape shield law. To the chagrin of many women, Arbour argued that the 1983 law, which severely restricted the ability of defence lawyers to question complainants about their sexual pasts, could exclude relevant evidence and lead to the conviction of innocent men. “She was absolutely breathtaking in the care she took to reach that position," recalls journalist June Callwood, who was also a vice-president of the association. In 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed and struck down part of the law as unconstitutional.
She was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1987 and elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1990. Her decisions on social issues tend to make waves, such as the 1995 judgment ordering an Ontario school board to educate a disabled child in a regular classroom, instead of in a segregated class. And in what is widely viewed in the legal community as a stunning achievement, the United Nations recently appointed her chief prosecutor of the international tribunal to try war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She will take up that post in October.
Arbour brings a wide range of knowledge and personal contacts to that job. Born in Montreal and educated at the University of Montreal, she is thoroughly versed in both the civil and common law traditions. She was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, a position generally reserved for the most outstanding students. It was there that she met her longtime partner, Larry Taman, also a former professor at Osgoode and now deputy attorney general of Ontario. Friends say her English was halting at best when the two met, but that she rapidly became thoroughly proficient. Taman learned French at the same time. They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Friends say Arbour plans to take her children with her for at least part of the time she is in The Hague, where the tribunal is based. Taman, himself the centre of controversy as Premier Mike Harris embarks on sweeping cuts to the justice system, says that he plans to stay on as deputy attorney general. For both, the next few years will be interesting times indeed.
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