Language requirement would be a supreme misjudgment

Don't make bilingualism mandatory for Supreme Court justices

No language requirement would be a supreme injustice...

It was just another private member's bill that attracted little public attention. Then the three opposition parties in the House of Commons got together to pass it. And now it's a source of linguistic division in the country.
Bill C-232, now before the Senate, would amend the Supreme Court Act to require that future appointments to the highest court in the land be bilingual.
Bilingualism is already an asset for candidates for the court. But as a legal requirement, it 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.
(There is an existing legal requirement that three of the judges be from Quebec, whose civil law differs from the common law practised in the rest of the country.)
So what, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff rhetorically shrugs. "You want to get on the Supreme Court? You might want to study a little French," he advised Westerners in a recent interview with a Saskatchewan newspaper.
A little French? Bill C-232 would require a judge to be able to understand French and English "without the assistance of an interpreter."
That is, judges would have to be sufficiently fluent in legal French and English to understand oral arguments, ask questions of counsel, deliberate among themselves, and read laws, jurisprudence and each other's opinions, all without the help of interpreters.
How many otherwise qualified candidates for appointment to the court could meet such a high standard?
(For that matter, how many of the lawmakers who voted for this bill could satisfy the requirement they propose for the judges who interpret the laws they make? )
Not many, especially 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 both official languages.
Among those old enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and in the western provinces, the percentages were even lower.
Supporters of the bill complain of a double standard. Unilingual anglophones are appointed to the Supreme Court, but not unilingual francophones.
True, life isn't fair to linguistic minorities in Canada. Here in Quebec, a unilingual francophone can reasonably aspire to be premier of the province or mayor of its largest city, but even a perfectly bilingual anglophone can't.
And the bill's supporters complain that in the court's deliberations, the judges in the linguistic minority have to defer to the language of the majority. Excuse me, but isn't that how we're always being told in this province that things are supposed to work?
Official bilingualism doesn't guarantee that everybody who cashes a federal paycheque gets to choose the language in which he or she works. Rather, it promises every citizen the right to service from federal institutions in English or French.
That includes justice, and it's on this essential point that francophones might have a legitimate complaint.
One lawyer has said ( that after he lost a case he pleaded in French before the court in 2005, he found significant errors in the English interpretation heard by the judges.
And Sébastien Grammond, then a professor and now dean of law at the University of Ottawa, has written ( that francophone lawyers and their clients are at a disadvantage when the lawyers plead in French before unilingual anglophone judges.
The remedy: Improve the translation services at the court and expand them to include the judges' research and deliberations, while continuing to prefer bilingual candidates for appointment as judges.
That's a more practical solution than Bill C-232, and one more likely to preserve the moral as well as the legal authority of the Supreme Court in all regions of the country.

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