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Supreme Court Justice LeBel’s exit to create second Quebec vacancy

The Supreme Court of Canada.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have another opportunity to put his stamp on the country's most influential court now that Supreme Court Justice Louis LeBel of Quebec has announced he will leave on Nov. 30, his 75th birthday, when his retirement is mandatory.

Justice LeBel, appointed by prime minister Jean Chrétien 14 years ago, is part of a shrinking group on the court viewed as keen to defend the rights of accused people. Justice Morris Fish, also of Quebec, who retired last summer, was an outspoken defender of such rights. In March, Justice LeBel wrote a unanimous ruling broadening prisoners' rights to complain to a judge about the conditions of their detention.

"No one should be deprived of their liberty without lawful authority," he wrote. He was known for his wide-ranging expertise, from civil and constitutional law to administrative and labour law.

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Pierre Issalys, who teaches law at Laval University in Quebec City, said Justice LeBel's contribution to the law was outstanding. "His reasons for judgment always display precise, deliberate and forceful reasoning. His articles illustrate the legal mind at its best: a sound perception of realities combined with a truly philosophical outlook. His balanced views are those of an 'honnête homme' and concerned citizen."

Sébastien Grammond, dean of civil law at the University of Ottawa's law school, said Justice LeBel showed "a global understanding of the law; he's able to relate a particular problem to broad concepts and to draw comparisons to other areas of the law, to make the whole thing coherent." He was also a "a champion of bijuralism," weaving together Canada's two legal traditions, common-law and civil law, when interpreting laws.

Mr. Harper's opportunity to appoint another Quebec judge also means a return to the scene of controversy. The Supreme Court blocked the appointment of Justice Marc Nadon of the Federal Court of Appeal to replace Mr. Fish, ruling that Federal Court judges are ineligible for any of the three spots on the court reserved for Quebec. And Mr. Harper has yet to announce a replacement. The court has been sitting with eight judges since September.

Only two judges will remain on the nine-member court who predate Mr. Harper's tenure: Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Rosalie Abella.

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