NEWS
05/02/2014 01:38 EDT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Stephen Harper weighs in on spat with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it would have been inappropriate for him to speak to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada about whether a federal court judge from Quebec could be appointed.

"There's been some suggestion that rather than seek outside legal experts, I should have talked to the judges themselves. Let me just be very clear that I would never do that," Harper said at a news conference Friday.

"I think the suggestion ... that if people thought that the prime minister, other ministers of the government were consulting judges on cases before them, or even worse consulting judges on cases that might come before them, before the judges themselves had the opportunity to hear the appropriate evidence, I think the entire opposition, entire media and entire legal community would be outraged." 

This is the latest salvo in a growing discord between the Prime Minister's Office and Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin. The PMO late Thursday suggested that the chief justice of the Supreme Court tried inappropriately to intervene in the process to appoint Justice Marc Nadon, even though her advice came before Nadon's appointment was announced and ultimately would have saved the government an embarrassing defeat.

But in response to Harper, McLachlin has fired back with a written statement from her office Friday.

"At no time was there any communication between Chief Justice McLachlin and the government regarding any case before the courts," she said in the statement.

She goes on to spell out a timeline of the events last summer, long before Nadon's appointment was announced, that included her communicating the general needs of the court to the government as Ottawa began to consider potential appointees to replace retired Justice Morris Fish.

She also spoke to Justice Minister Peter MacKay and the prime minister's chief of staff, Ray Novak, to flag a "potential issue regarding the eligibility of a judge of the federal courts to fill a Quebec seat on the Supreme Court."

Last month, the court issued an opinion that, constitutionally, Nadon was not eligible to represent Quebec because he had been a Federal Court judge in Ottawa for the past 20 years, and was not a sitting Quebec superior or appeals court judge, nor a current member of the Quebec bar.

The prime minister has consistently expressed surprise at that decision and Friday reiterated why.

"I should mention that this had never come to our attention before. It had not come to our attention previous times in our history when judges had been appointed from the Federal Court, nor had it come to this government's attention when we had in fact appointed justices from Quebec to the Supreme Court," said Harper.

"When that issue was raised, I did what was the appropriate thing. I sought legal advice from experts, both legal experts within the Government of Canada and constitutional and legal experts outside of the Government of Canada."

McLachlin's statement Friday again addressed the innuendo that she tried to interfere and to what the government knew and when.

“Given the potential impact on the court, I wished to ensure that the government was aware of the eligibility issue. At no time did I express any opinion as to the merits of the eligibility issue. It is customary for chief justices to be consulted during the appointment process and there is nothing inappropriate in raising a potential issue affecting a future appointment.”