Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Former Chief Justice believed it is only through the press that most individuals can really learn of what is transpiring in the courts
Chief Justice Lamer & the Media
(Excerpts from a speech given by Stephen Bindman, who was the Chief Legal Correspondent for Southam News, in which capacity he followed the Supreme Court of Canada closely. Stephen is now a senior advisor in the Federal Department of Justice.)
The speech came at the end of a Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice conference in Montreal in honour of C.J. Lamer, who died on November 24, 2007.
Chief Justice Lamer's legacy should bring comfort to beleaguered journalists everywhere, especially in British Columbia. - BC Mary.
In the very few minutes I have before the close of this conference, I would like to discuss Chief Justice Lamer’s relationship with the media.
By his relationship with the media, I am NOT referring to the judgments he wrote. If I was, I would of course have to mention Dagenais, where he stated that there is no hierarchy of rights in the Charter and reformed the law on publication bans. It is today a key weapon in every media lawyer’s legal arsenal.
To suggest Chief Justice Lamer was the media’s best friend would of course be an exaggeration. However, it is not an exaggeration to state that the Chief was certainly a friend of the media. He was incredibly accessible and made great strides in making the Supreme Court of Canada accessible to the media and through the media to Canadians.
For I think he took very seriously the words of Justice Cory in the 1989 Edmonton Journal case:
It is only through the press that most individuals can really learn of what is transpiring in the courts. They as "listeners" or readers have a right to receive this information. Only then can they make an assessment of the institution. Discussion of court cases and constructive criticism of court proceedings is dependent upon the receipt by the public of information as to what transpired in court. Practically speaking, this information can only be obtained from the newspapers or other media.
He recognized that especially in the era of the Charter, the Court belonged to all Canadians and if the media knew more about the workings of the Court – and better understood its rulings – then there was a better chance Canadians would too.
Building on the work of Chief Justice Dickson, Chief Justice Lamer put in place several measures to assist reporters in their coverage of the Court and its rulings.
While in previous years the Executive Legal Officer was present in the media room on judgment days to hand out copies of the rulings and answer any questions, that morphed under Chief Justice Lamer into a detailed briefing about the issues in a case up until 9:45 a.m. – and then a quick and accurate summary of the Court’s answers right at 9:45.
This ensured that when reporters went live on the air two minutes later, they actually knew what the Court said.
You’ve already heard about the introduction of cameras in the Court – the Chief Justice never ceased to marvel about the number of Canadians who are actually up and watching CPAC at 3 in the morning when the hearings were first televised.
I recently watched a clip of Sue Rodriguez watching in BC on television as her right-to-death case was argued before the Supreme Court in Ottawa – she was too ill to travel. It was a poignant moment.
There were of course a few glitches when the experiment first began – since the cameras were automatic and sound activated, whenever one of the judges coughed or shuffled papers, or worse, the camera automatically shifted to them.
But I’m sure everyone agrees the experiment has been a resounding success – I understand that in the US Supreme Court, audio recordings still aren’t even released until weeks after the hearing except in unusual cases. There still aren’t any cameras.
Now, the Chief wasn’t perfect as far as the media were concerned. There were two areas where he just wouldn’t go.
He refused entreaties for a media lockup – sort of like the release of the federal budget where reporters are locked up in a room for an hour before the ruling is released. This would give them time to read the ruling and prepare, but not release, their stories before 9:45. The Chief felt very strongly that the media should not get to know the results of a case before the actual parties to the case.
The other thing he was unwilling to change was the scheduling of judgments – they always came out on Thursday morning, no matter how many there were, of no matter what import. So it was not uncommon to have six or seven judgments released the same morning. I still remember one nightmare day - May 25, 1995. At the same time, the Court released its judgments in Miron v. Trudel, a seminal case on the rights of common-law spouses, Egan and Nesbit, a landmark same sex rights case, and Thibaudeau on taxation of alimony payments. Yikes.
I repeatedly told the Chief that it was impossible for the media to do justice, pardon the pun, with so many rulings at once and there was only so much space in the next day’s paper for Supreme Court news. But he always said it wasn’t fair to the litigants to delay a ruling by even a day if it was ready for release. Despite my disappointment with his position, it always reemphasized for me the Chief’s firm belief that the Court was still about the parties to a case.
The Chief also began the tradition after speaking every year to the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting in August to having an on-the-record, cameras-allowed-press-conference with the members of the media present to discuss a broad range of the pressing judicial issues de jour. Pretty gutsy for a Chief Justice.
As well, the Chief often made himself available for interviews – in English, French, print and television. Of course he didn’t often talk about the Court’s rulings but about the work of the Court, the Charter, the relationship with the executive, the importance of judicial independence and the like. I can’t remember how many times he explained that it wasn’t the judges who asked to become the arbiters and interpreters of the Charter.
In your own ways, you truly opened up the doors and the workings of the Supreme Court to all Canadians.
The Speech is second from the bottom.
The LastWord -Media Coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada
by Sauvageau, Schneiderman and Taras -
published by UBC Press - 2006
Professor David Schneiderman (with Florian Sauvageau, Universit� Laval, and David Taras, University of Calgary)
From the publisher:
"Media coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada has emerged as a crucial factor not only for judges and journalists but also for the public, which understands the work of the court through the media. Journalists and news organizations decide which court rulings they will cover, and how. Simply put, once judges hand down rulings, they lose control of the message. Journalists have the last word. To show how the Supreme Court has fared under the media spotlight, the authors examine a year of media coverage, and more in depth, four high-profile cases including the Marshall case (Aboriginal rights); the Vriend case (gay rights); the Quebec Secession Reference; and the Sharpe child pornography case. They explore the differences between television and newspaper coverage, national and regional reporting, and the French- and English-language media. The authors also describe how judges and journalists understand and interact with one another amid often-clashing legal and journalistic cultures, offering a rich and detailed account of the relationship between two of the most important institutions in Canadian life."