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Rona Ambrose played role in Robin Camp appointment, former justice minister says

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, seen in Ottawa in February, introduced a bill last month on training in sexual-assault law for aspiring judges

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, who introduced a bill last month on mandatory training in sexual-assault law for would-be judges, was directly involved in the appointment of the only federal judge to resign over his conduct of a rape trial, according to a former Conservative justice minister.

That judge, Robin Camp, had acquitted an accused rapist in 2014 after asking the complainant – whom he repeatedly called "the accused" – why she did not keep her knees together. A disciplinary body recommended his dismissal and Mr. Camp resigned last month.

Read also: Conservative bill on training judges in sex-assault law spurs political clash

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Ms. Ambrose played a key role in the judicial appointment process when the Conservatives held power, according to Peter MacKay. He was the justice minister who promoted Mr. Camp to the Federal Court in Ottawa from the Alberta Provincial Court in Calgary, where he conducted the sex-assault trial. Mr. MacKay said that despite multiple levels of screening, the government was unaware of Mr. Camp's handling of the trial of Alexander Wagar when it appointed him to the Federal Court.

Ms. Ambrose declined to comment for this story.

The Conservative government, like its Liberal predecessors, relied on a network of "political ministers," also known as regional ministers, to screen candidates in each province, and make recommendations to the justice minister, according to dozens of interviews with legal officials and members of both parties. Ms. Ambrose was political minister for northern Alberta, and Jason Kenney was political minister for southern Alberta (he is now the leader of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives). The Globe and Mail contacted Mr. MacKay after Liberals on a Commons committee studying Ms. Ambrose's bill criticized him on Tuesday for appointing Mr. Camp to the Federal Court.

In his response to The Globe, Mr. MacKay described the process in which judges are screened, first by a non-partisan committee, then by regional ministers and later by the department of justice (DOJ). Nothing turned up on Mr. Camp's comments from the Wagar trial, he said in an e-mail. At the time, he noted, the Crown was appealing the acquittal.

"There is also a search done at DOJ and checks by the Regional Minister(s). There were no formal complaints before the Canadian Judicial Council or the Provincial AG as he was a prov-trial judge when the comments were made. Not one of these oversights turned up the comments made by Camp."

The Globe asked Mr. MacKay specifically if Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Kenney vetted and approved Mr. Camp's appointment to the Federal Court. He replied: "Regional Ministers always had sign off on all judicial appointments and could also challenge any GIC appointment at Cabinet when lists were presented." GIC refers to governor-in-council appointments – that is, appointments made by the governor-general on the advice of cabinet.

Mr. MacKay also said that if he had known of Mr. Camp's comments in the sexual-assault trial, he would not have appointed him. "Had I been made aware I would never have brought the name to Cabinet for approval, period," said Mr. MacKay, now a partner with the global law firm Baker McKenzie, working out of Toronto.

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He added: "Sadly there is no perfect system. We have seen past examples of judges being removed for conduct unbecoming on various matters even convicted of Criminal Code offences. Hindsight is 20/20."

Ms. Ambrose made a similar point at the committee studying her bill on Tuesday, saying any government could appoint a judge that it would live to regret.

"You have no idea what some judge might say or has said or done that your government might appoint."

Some in the legal community say the fault lies not in judicial training – programs exist for sitting judges to receive instruction on sexual-assault law – but in the appointment process. Mr. Camp, a business lawyer, was appointed by the provincial Progressive Conservatives under premier Alison Redford to the Provincial Court, which has a huge docket of criminal matters. He went to the Federal Court even as his conduct of the Wagar trial was being appealed by the Alberta prosecution service.

"For me, it raises a question of the appointment process," George Thomson, the former director of the National Judicial Institute, which trains federally and provincially appointed judges, said of the Camp controversy in an interview.

Brent Rathgeber was one of the few lawyers in the Alberta caucus of the federal Conservatives, from 2008 to 2013, before becoming an independent and then leaving politics to launch a private legal practice in St. Albert. He said in an interview that Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Kenney sometimes consulted him on appointments. He said the vetting by the regional ministers was not so much about the candidates' legal merits as their political pedigree.

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"I take Peter at his word that they did their vetting," Mr. Rathgeber said. "But their vetting at that point isn't phoning members of the bar to find out what the individual's competence and merit is. At that point, they're more interested in political compatibility with the Conservative philosophy of non-activist judges with respect to Charter matters."

Mr. Kenney could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Ambrose's bill, tabled at a time Mr. Camp's conduct had placed the judiciary in the spotlight, would require anyone who wishes to be considered as a candidate for federally appointed courts to be trained in the law of consent and in myths about sexual assault and victims. She would also require the Canadian Judicial Council to keep tabs on and publish data revealing the numbers of judges on each court who have not been trained. And she would require all rulings in sexual-assault cases to be made in writing, not simply orally.

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