How the language of sports translates to the courts

Cour suprême: le bilinguisme des juges

Pierre Boivin, the outgoing president of the Montreal Canadiens, has some advice for the federal New Democratic Party.
He didn't put it that way. But the NDP, which proposes to require that all judges of the Supreme Court of Canada be bilingual, should take note of something Boivin said in his interview with Dave Stubbs of The Gazette, published on Wednesday.
While English is the working language in the front offices and dressing rooms of the National Hockey League, the general manager and the coach of the Canadiens must be able to explain themselves to the team's fans in French as well.
This bilingualism requirement means the Canadiens "are severely competitively disadvantaged," Boivin said.
Another NHL team needing a new general manager can choose from "a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It's the same thing with coaches."
In effect, this makes bilingualism not only a requirement for the job of general manager or coach of the Canadiens, but the most important one.
Even the candidate with the best record will not be hired in Montreal if he (or she) cannot speak both English and French "without the assistance of an interpreter" - the wording of the NDP's proposed requirement for Supreme Court judges.
It's contained in Bill C-232, which died when Parliament was dissolved for the May 2 federal election, but which NDP leader Jack Layton has promised to reintroduce in the new Parliament.
Bilingualism is already an asset for candidates for the court. But Bill C-232 would have amended the Supreme Court Act to make it one of only three legal requirements for appointment.
Already, a candidate must be a judge of a provincial superior court or a member for at least 10 years of a provincial bar. And at least three of the nine Supreme Court judges must be from Quebec, whose civil law differs from the common law practised in the rest of the country.
As a legal requirement, bilingualism would take precedence over the tradition that three of the court's nine judges be from Ontario, two from the West, and one from Atlantic Canada.
It would also take precedence over proven judgment, expertise or experience beyond the minimum 10 years practising law.
So it would have the same effect as the one that Boivin observed: it would considerably reduce the pool of acceptable candidates, especially from outside Quebec.
At the 2006 census, only 7.4 per cent of anglophones outside this province claimed to be able even to carry on a conversation in French.
Among those old enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court and in the Western provinces, the percentages were even lower.
And the NDP's standard for Supreme Court judges would be much higher than that.
They would have to be able to listen to oral arguments, ask questions of counsel, deliberate among themselves, and read legal texts, all without the help of interpreters.
Such a requirement could result in an unrepresentative Supreme Court, which would weaken the moral authority of the country's highest constitutional arbiter.
The important thing is not to favour bilingual lawyers from this province for Supreme Court appointments.
It's to ensure the right of lawyers pleading before the court, and the court's judges, to understand each other.
And that can be accomplished by addressing what French-speaking lawyers say are shortcomings in the court's translation services.
There's less real need for Supreme Court judges to be bilingual than there is for the general manager and the coach of the Canadiens.
Unlike the latter two, the judges don't have to answer questions about their decisions in news conferences or interviews in two languages.

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