POLITICS
03/26/2019 13:06 EDT | Updated 03/28/2019 16:18 EDT

Trudeau Won’t Say If Office Leaked Stories About Wilson-Raybould’s Top Court Pick

"Canadians can know that we have a strong and independent judiciary."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to media after meeting with students and teachers at Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology (MITT) in Winnipeg on March 26, 2019.
John Woods/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to media after meeting with students and teachers at Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology (MITT) in Winnipeg on March 26, 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won't say if his office leaked stories detailing internal disagreement with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over a Supreme Court appointment.

"Canadians can have confidence in our government's respect for the institutions, the Supreme Court," Trudeau said in Winnipeg Tuesday morning. "Canadians have confidence in the strength of our judiciary in this country. I have no further comment to make on this issue."

UPDATE: Trudeau told reporters on March 28 that his office did not have "any part in leaking" details about the Supreme Court appointment process.

Trudeau was pressed to respond to reports from CTV News and The Canadian Press this week that Wilson-Raybould advocated for Glenn Joyal, chief justice of Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench, to not only be named to the top court in 2017 but also appointed chief justice.

Earlier: Trudeau shares his side of SNC-Lavalin affair

Trudeau ended up promoting Richard Wagner as chief justice of the Supreme Court and naming Sheilah Martin to fill the vacant western Canadian seat.

"Well-placed sources" told CP that Trudeau balked at naming Joyal to the top court because of his past criticism about the court's activism on Charter of Rights and Freedoms issues. The newswire reported this was a matter of "significant disagreement" between the prime minister and Wilson-Raybould.

Internal discussions about who should be named to the top court are highly confidential and sensitive. Wilson-Raybould said as much in statements to both outlets, warning that reporting on such conversations "could compromise the integrity of the appointments process and potentially sitting justices."

According to CP, Joyal withdrew from consideration after Trudeau told Wilson-Raybould he did not back her choice. In a statement Monday, Joyal said he took himself out of the running because of his wife's metastatic breast cancer and raised concerns that the confidential process of naming Supreme Court justices was being politicized.

"I fear that someone is using my previous candidacy to the Supreme Court of Canada to further an agenda unrelated to the appointment process," Joyal said. "This is wrong."

A number of lawyers expressed discomfort on social media over the latest twist in the saga.

On Tuesday, Trudeau would not offer any insight as to why Joyal would have been the wrong pick to serve as the top court's chief justice.

"I think one of the most important things is that Canadians know... they can continue to have confidence in their judicial system, in the way we operate as a government," he said. "Canadians can know that we have a strong and independent judiciary and as would be proper, I'm not going to comment any further on that question."

Trudeau kept that message discipline when asked directly if he decided against Joyal or if the application was withdrawn in advance.

"The choice of Supreme Court justices and indeed chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is always a decision by the prime minister," he said. "Canadians can know that they can have confidence in our institutions, in our judicial system. And I have no further comment to make on this particular story."

The reports landed one day before the House of Commons ethics committee met to discuss an opposition motion to have Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, who quit Trudeau's cabinet over the controversy, testify about the SNC-Lavalin affair. Liberal MPs on the committee voted against launching a new probe into the matter.

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Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee last month that she faced months of sustained pressure from Trudeau and other officials to help the Quebec engineering giant secure a remediation agreement to avoid a criminal trial on corruption charges.

Wilson-Raybould also told the committee she believed she was shuffled to Veterans Affairs in January, widely seen as a demotion, because she would not help SNC-Lavalin land a deal.

Last week, Liberal MPs on the justice committee ended the group's investigation into the matter. Wilson-Raybould has since said she will make a written submission to the committee to disclose more "facts and evidence."

While the prime minister denies Wilson-Raybould's allegations, these most recent reports offer another potential reason as to why Trudeau might have wanted a new attorney general and justice minister. Still, Wilson-Raybould was not moved during a large summer shuffle in 2018, after the reported strife over the Supreme Court appointment, when five new ministers were named.

Trudeau: Liberals 'stronger and more united than ever before'

Trudeau has also said Wilson-Raybould would still be attorney general today if Scott Brison had not resigned as Treasury Board president in January. His former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, said the same while testifying before the justice committee about the decisions behind that fateful cabinet shuffle.

Asked by a reporter Monday about what looks like a simmering "civil war" within his party, Trudeau suggested he has no concerns about unity. The prime minister pointed to the 30-hour marathon vote triggered by Conservatives last week as something that ended up building morale.

"Our team has come out stronger and more united than ever before," he said. "I'm incredibly proud of the Liberal party that is focused on things that really matter to Canadians."

Both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott did not attend those votes.

With files from The Canadian Press