Bastarache commission: Respected counsel caught in the maelstrom

The lead counsel who resigned from the Bastarache Commission after being caught in a maelstrom that raised doubts over his impartiality “deeply regrets” missing the opportunity to leave at the twilight of his career his imprimatur on the inquiry into alleged political interference in the nomination of judges.

Barely a week after being appointed as the chief prosecutor by former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache, Quebec City lawyer Pierre Cimon bitterly submitted his resignation after becoming the target of intense scrutiny from the media and opposition in the legislature following revelations that he had regularly contributed to the Quebec Liberal Party. Between 2002 and 2007, Cimon made five donations ranging from $250 to $500 – far less than what he gives to the Barreau du Québec’s Foundation or his local parish.

“I donate to the local parish even though I am not a churchgoer,” said Cimon. “I donate because I believe churches play an important social role. It doesn’t mean that I practice and believe in the church’s dogma or agree with Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s position that abortion should be criminalized. The same holds true for the donations I made to the Liberals. I am a federalist, and that was the only place I could donate.

Though the 67-year old trial lawyer asserts he is apolitical, never attended a political meeting nor solicited or received any benefit from any government, and does not even know anyone stemming from ranks of the Liberals, he felt he had no choice to step down in order to avoid doubt being cast on the impartiality of the Bastarache Commission and to ensure the serenity of its procedures.

The former chair of the ethics committee at the Barreau du Québec said that though the Commission was “practically ready to begin” its work after spending weeks of preparation, Cimon said it became impossible to get any work done due to the “media and political circus.” Warding off the charges sapped morale within the Commission’s team of 15 lawyers and became so time-consuming that “more and more time” was being spent on discuss on how to deal with the charges than the work at hand.

Making matters even more frustrated was the fact that Cimon was constrained by the duty to act in a reserved manner. Cimon could not and did not publicly respond to the charges while in the employ of the Commission. Instead, he had to rely on press releases issued by the Commission to fight back, but “obviously it was not enough,” said Cimon.

“It’s sad,” said Cimon, a senior partner with Ogilvy Renault, who chaired from 2004 to 2007 the Committee on the remuneration of the judges of the Court of Québec and the municipal courts established under the Courts of Justice Act. “While no one ever brought up the issue of competence, visceral and unreasonable doubts were raised. I was guilty by association. The mere fact that I donated to the Liberal Party raised fears that I was susceptible of losing my judgment, of being impartial, of being corrupted. By merely exercising one’s rights, my integrity was attacked. It makes no sense.”

Indeed, both Bastarache and Cimon were completely taken aback by the turn of events. As is the case with any new mandate, Cimon informed Bastarache over any possible sticky issues, and discussions were held over Cimon’s donations to the Liberals. “Neither him nor me could have imagined the events that transpired,” added Cimon.

Pierre Trudel, a law professor at the Université de Montréal, was not surprised, given Quebec’s highly charged political atmosphere. The Bastarache inquiry was launched after former justice minister Marc Bellemare alleged that influential Liberal party donors asked him to appoint certain individuals as judges during his tenure. Bellemare, who appointed four judges to the Court of Quebec and promoted three, also alleges that Premier Jean Charest was aware of the irregularities. Further, Bellemare alleged that the party was involved in illegal-financing activities after witnessing the exchange of huge amounts of cash between construction entrepreneurs and Liberal Party officials. Opposition parties have long been clamoring for an inquiry into suspect ties between the construction industry and political contributions to the governing Liberals – without success. Instead, Charest established the Bastarache inquiry, whose mandate is limited to probing allegations about influence peddling in the naming of Quebec judges.

“Under the extremely controversial and tense political climate, there can be an overheated buildup over questions over conflict of interest, impartiality and independence,” noted Trudel. “It’s worrisome. It’s not because someone has expressed his opinions, or contributed in a modest fashion to a political party that he doesn’t have the capacity to be independent to allow him to do his work effectively and efficiently. But in a highly charged partisan atmosphere, reason is not always at the forefront.”

Roderick MacDonald, a McGill law professor who has sat on numerous commissions, too is not surprised.

“The opposition is doing just about everything that an opposition party anywhere in Canada has done in these kinds of circumstances,” said MacDonald, who chaired a task force on access to justice of the Ministère de la justice du Québec. “You criticize the mandate of the inquiry, the impartiality of the commissioner, the way the public input is set up. All of these are procedural critiques because the opposition is not in a position to critique the independent inquiry itself. So invariably the commission itself becomes the object of political debate. That is standard practice.”

The inquiry, which has now begun holding its hearings. The Bastarache Commission is expected to render its findings in six months.

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