World

A woman of independent mind

John Geddes May 24 1999
World

A woman of independent mind

John Geddes May 24 1999

A woman of independent mind

World

Rarely has one contender left all others so far behind in the handicapping that inevitably precedes an appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada. “There is a kind of consensus in the legal community that Louise Arbour is an ideal candidate, or, if not ideal, then clearly the leading candidate,” says Patrick Monahan, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. But if Arbour’s front-runner status is undisputed, there remains plenty of room for conjecture about what role she would play on the topcourt—at a time when debate rages over how far Supreme Court judges should go in redefining the law on thorny issues from gay rights to native land claims.

Arbour’s legal track record frus-

trates attempts at pigeonholing. As an Ontario Court of Appeal judge, she won praise from groups that favour court-backed social reform when she ordered an Ontario school board in 1995 to educate a disabled child in a regular classroom. But she is also resented by some feminists for having argued successfully, as counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in a key 1987 case on the so-called rape shield law, that defence lawyers should sometimes be allowed to question a victim of an alleged assault about her sexual past. “She brings an independence of mind, a willingness not to adopt a stance because it is seen as the correct position, but to look at issues on their merits,” Monahan says.

That sort of balanced approach

could be sorely needed on the Supreme Court. If appointed, Arbour would replace retiring Justice Peter Cory, who played a key role in bridging the court’s activist and restraintminded camps. While Arbour is more charismatic than the amiably low-key Cory, her reputation for charm and tact could help her play a similar conciliatory role. A 52-yearold mother of three separated from her husband, Arbour has strong credentials: educated at the University of Montreal, a former professor at Osgoode, appointed to the Ontario Supreme Court in 1987 and the appeal court in 1990, seconded to the UN war crimes tribunal in 1996. Now, she may be about to trade a stint of global celebrity at The Hague for the often monastic life of one of Canada’s most powerful jurists.

John Geddes in Ottawa