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PM picks Quebec lawyer Suzanne Côté for Supreme Court seat

Quebec government lawyer Suzanne Côté is shown in Quebec City on Aug. 30, 2010.

MATHIEU BELANGER/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The newest judge on the Supreme Court is a high-profile lawyer who grew up in Quebec's remote Gaspé Peninsula, became the first female head of litigation at a top Montreal firm, and represented a big tobacco company two years ago in a class-action lawsuit involving addicted and ill smokers.

But Canadians in general, and parliamentarians in particular, will not have a chance to learn anything straight from Suzanne Côté herself because the government has decided – for the second Supreme Court appointment in six months – not to let legislators grill the new judge in a public hearing.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the first to ask new Supreme Court judges to appear before a parliamentary committee for questioning, beginning with the 2006 appointment of Justice Marshall Rothstein of Manitoba.

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The hearings were not exactly in the U.S. style – the committee could not reject the nominee, members were cautioned about what they should not ask.

Also, Mr. Harper gave them just two days to prepare, rather than the five weeks members of the U.S. Senate judiciary committee have. But they allowed some public scrutiny of a candidate's qualifications and judicial philosophy.

In June, the Conservative government did not hold a hearing or a candidate screening process involving Parliament when Mr. Harper named Justice Clément Gascon to the Supreme Court from the Quebec Court of Appeal. The Justice Department said cited as the reason a "breach of confidentiality" in the selection process that happened when The Globe revealed last May that four of six government candidates for a previous vacancy were from an ineligible court. "Unfortunately, due to some breaches in the integrity and the confidentiality of the last process, we decided we had to use an alternative method, which included direct and broad consultation," Justice Minister Peter MacKay told reporters on Thursday.

Mr. Harper cited Ms. Côté's "wealth of legal knowledge and decades of experience" but nothing more specific in announcing the appointment.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister who created the first Parliamentary committee for screening Supreme Court candidates in 2004, said Ms. Côté is an eminent lawyer, but that Parliament's exclusion from the process shows disrespect for the public. "What is lost is the public's understanding and appreciation of the process, and respect for the independence of the judiciary."

Ms. Côté's appointment returns the nine-member court to its high-water mark of four women. Mr. Harper has named seven judges (eight if the failed appointment last year of Marc Nadon is included) and Ms. Côté is the second woman. Ms. Côté, who specialized in civil and business cases with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, is the first female trial lawyer named straight to the top court.

The fluently bilingual Ms. Côté, 56, is described by a friend as a self-made woman able to stand her ground under pressure. As a young lawyer representing the municipality of Gaspé in negotiations with civic workers, she was publicly accused by union leaders of dragging out the talks to enhance to her pay. She sued, and in a battle that lasted more than a decade and reached Quebec's highest court, she won $15,000 in damages.

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"She's not a woman who can be threatened and pushed around," said a friend who asked not to be named. "She's very independent. She makes her ground and can keep her ground."

She declined to be interviewed on Thursday.

Her mentor was lawyer Mortimer Freiheit of Montreal, who hired her to work at the firm of Stikeman Elliott. "She was a young lady from the Gaspé, but I saw in her eyes enough to make me hire her on the spot," Mr. Freiheit said in an interview on Thursday.

"She's known as an extremely aggressive advocate," McGill University law professor Robert Leckey said.

(Editor's note: An earlier, uncredited version of this story incorrectly identified Côté as a judge; she is, in fact, a lawyer.)

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