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Ford wants 'tough' judges, advocates for partisan appointments

Ford defended appointing his ex-staffers to a committee that selects judicial candidates as a step toward getting tough-on-crime judges
Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a news conference at Bramalea GO Station, in Brampton, on Thursday May 11, 2023.

Under fire for "blatant patronage" appointments to a committee that recommends provincial court judges, Premier Doug Ford said he did it to get "tough" judges on the bench.

"I'm not going to appoint some NDP or some Liberal," Ford said on Friday. "I've made it very clear where I stand with judges. The ... justices of the peace and judges, they're letting criminals out," he said.

"I'm putting in like-minded people that believe in what we believe in, keeping the bad guys in jail, and I'm proud of the job that they're doing. I'm gonna continue doing it."

The comments alarmed some prominent lawyers, with the chair of the Federation of Ontario Legal Associations (FOLA) saying he'd expect to see them "from MAGA Republicans, not the Premier of Ontario."

Ontario Bar Association president Kelly McDermott also warned of the American-style influence of politics on the justice system in response to the premier's comments.

“The U.S. experience is a frequent reminder of the need to protect a court system that can be relied upon to make decisions on the basis of the law, rather than ideology or partisan politics," McDermott said. "This is fundamental to the rule of law."

“It is important that Ontarians trust that ideology, government influence and partisan considerations will not be brought to bear on any case in front of any judge.”

The Toronto Star first reported that two of the premier's former staffers, Matthew Bondy and Brock Vandrick, were appointed to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee (JAAC), which recommends lawyers for the attorney general to appoint to the Ontario Court of Justice.

Other lay members of the committee include Holly Haire, an event planner and former assistant to Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, and Scott Munnoch, a lobbyist who served as a senior adviser in the office of former PC premier Mike Harris.

Bondy is the new chair, replacing Rachel Curran — another Conservative appointed by the Ford government, who served as a senior adviser in Stephen Harper's Prime Minister's Office.   

Ford's cabinet recently recommended Curran to sit on the deputy judges council, which reviews and approves standards of conduct and continuing education for deputy judges. 

At an unrelated press conference in Brampton Friday morning, the premier was asked if he was OK with the appointments that had been criticized as "blatant patronage."

"One hundred per cent I am," he replied. "We got elected to get like-minded people in appointments."

He went on to describe an armed home invasion and complain about perpetrators getting released on bail.

"So every single appointment I can to find tough judges, tough JPs, to keep guys in jail — and I say guys, because 99.9 per cent are guys — I'm going to do it," he said. "That's part of democracy. You voted a party in — and I'd say that no matter what party's in. If the feds want to appoint Liberals up in the federal government, that's up to them."

In a statement, the chair of FOLA said the comments erode confidence in the legal system by "doubling down on the position that judges be appointed for political and not merit-based reasons" and they "reflect a juvenile understanding of the role of an independent judiciary."

"The justice system is not a playground for politicians to bully," said Douglas Judson. "The rule of law is upheld when judges are placed by merit, not by fiat."

FOLA appoints a member to the JAAC and Judson said he is disheartened to see the hard work of the people on the committee "besmirched" in this way. He also lauded many of the modernizations Attorney General Doug Downey has made to justice system processes and told The Trillium it was disappointing that the premier had put him in "disrepute with the legal community."

"The premier's comments are irresponsible," he said. "They are harmful. And worse, they are contagious on the political right and pull apart the threads of our democracy in a misleading and dangerous way. We would expect to see this behaviour from MAGA Republicans, not the premier of Ontario."

Michael Spratt, a prominent criminal lawyer who has accused the Ford government of tipping the scales of the justice system before, said the comments are "destructive" because they bring the Canadian justice system more in line with that of the U.S., where political ideology trumps quality in judicial appointments.

"That is something that until very recently — until Doug Ford — has been completely unknown in Canada," he said.

In Canada, it's common to see judges appointed by a government overturning that government's laws, and to see judges appointed to the bench by a government of one party be elevated to a higher court by a government of another stripe — all of which adds to confidence in the justice system and the quality of judges, he said.

Spratt noted that Downey had made similar comments when speaking about reforms he'd made to the JAAC process that gave him more candidates to choose from. 

In a 2019 interview with TVO, Downey said he wanted to ensure they share his "values," such as "understanding victims' issues."

"When you have blatant manipulation and blatant partisanship, and comments like Ford and Downey's, it risks undermining that public confidence in a really important democratic institution and an institution that is really one of the only ways to hold Ford accountable," said Spratt.

"The court is an important democratic check against people in power and the fact that Ford is willing to — to use a legal term of art — f--- around with it is so disturbing."

Politicians also condemned the premier's remarks.

Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne said premiers are not elected to "put like-minded people in appointments," as Ford said.

"Intentionally tainting the judicial process is reprehensible but sadly not surprising for this man," Wynne said on X.

The current Ontario Liberal Party leader, Bonnie Crombie, said Ford's comments were "unacceptable."

"​We do not want U.S.-style politicization of our courts," she said on X. "These appointments should be reversed.”

The party's justice critic, Lucille Collard, wrote to the attorney general, demanding he revoke the two ex-staffer's appointments.

NDP justice critic Kristyn Wong-Tam said the appointments came as the court system has spiralled into "chaos," with cases getting thrown out because of court delays.

"Instead of fixing the mess in our courts, the attorney general is focused on using their majority to award partisan patronage appointments and erode people’s faith in our justice system," they said.

This story has been updated since it was first published with comments from the Ontario Bar Association and opposition politicians.

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Jessica Smith Cross

About the Author: Jessica Smith Cross

Reporting for Metro newspapers in five Canadian cities, as well as for CTV, the Guelph Mercury and the Turtle Island News. She made the leap to political journalism in 2016...
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