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Antonio Lamer had ‘passion’ for law and life

|Written By Helen Burnett

Passion: it’s the word used most often by friends and colleagues to describe Antonio Lamer.

Former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer died last week at age 74.
“It was the way he lived; he had a passion for law, a passion for life, a passion for people,” says Ottawa lawyer Eugene Meehan of Lamer, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who died last week in the capital at age 74.

A private memorial ceremony by invitation only was to be held today at the Supreme Court. Lamer reportedly suffered from a prolonged illness and recurring heart problems over the last few years.

Remembered by friends and colleagues for not only his passion for law, but his defence of the independence of the judiciary, Lamer served on the Supreme Court for nearly 20 years and as chief justice for 10. He heard 1,317 cases and wrote reasons in 345, before his retirement in 2000.

When Lamer announced he was stepping down, he noted that as chief justice, one must always maintain the “sacré feu,” or sacred fire, recalls Meehan, Lamer’s first executive legal officer at the Supreme Court. Lamer wanted to make sure that he left his role as chief justice while he still had that fire.

“A bright shining star in Canada’s legal universe that has fallen to earth with dignity, grace, and poise,” he notes.

Though retired, over the last several years Lamer was involved in a number of significant endeavours. In addition to joining the Ottawa office of Stikeman Elliott LLP in 2000, he was named as head of the 2003 commission of inquiry into three wrongful convictions in Newfoundland and Labrador, on which he reported and made a number of recommendations last year.

“This was a massive task, because they were really like three separate royal commissions,” says Ed Ratushny, a professor at the University of Ottawa faculty of law who was senior counsel advisory at the commission and worked with Lamer at various points in his career.

During the commission, Ratushny says he spent a lot of time with Lamer travelling back and forth and had the chance not only to talk about legal work but to reminisce about days gone by, which he says was a very unique opportunity.

Lamer was also named commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment in 2003 and led a five year independent review of the National Defence Act that same year.

“He was a very passionate person and believed strongly in the pursuit of justice; he devoted his whole life to it and I guess that didn’t stop when he retired from the Supreme Court,” says Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Robert Sharpe.

“If he turned his mind to computers, he would be Bill Gates, if he were a road, he would be the Trans-Canada Highway. If he sang, he would be Luciano Pavarotti and Celine Dion combined. And if he were a judge, he would be chief justice of Canada, but then again, he was,” says Meehan.

Amongst the bar, the former chief justice was seen as practical, pugnacious, and principled, he adds.
Sharpe, executive legal officer of the Supreme Court from 1988 to 1990, describes Lamer as a strong leader with a no-nonsense approach, who defended the judiciary and was sophisticated to appear in front of as counsel.

Included among Lamer’s numerous notable Supreme Court judgments, according to those who knew him, are the 1985 Re. B.C. Motor Vehicle Act case, which Sharpe notes was really the first time the Supreme Court indicated that judicial review would be substantial as well as procedural.

While it was authored by the court and not Lamer specifically, Sharpe describes the 1998 Quebec Secession reference, in which the court ruled that the province had no right under the Constitution or under international law to secede unilaterally, but the rest of Canada would be required to negotiate if a majority of Quebec’s population voted in favour of separating in a referendum, as “clearly one of the most important cases the Supreme Court has ever decided.”

The 1997 Remuneration of Judges of Prov. Court of P.E.I. reference and Independence and Impartiality of Judges of the Prov. Court of P.E.I. reference had significance, notes Ratushny, as at that time, there were battles between governments and judiciaries over salaries. In Lamer’s judgment, he devised the approach that salaries be determined by independent commissions, which Ratushny notes “put a layer in between the judiciary and the government in dealing with remuneration.”

But it was along with Chief Justice Brian Dickson and Justice Bertha Wilson that Lamer laid the foundation for the Charter, says Sharpe, which is one of his most notable legacies.

Ratushny tells Law Times that what strikes him most about Lamer’s career is that it “seems to have been a perfect training for dealing with the Charter when it came in.”

Called to the Quebec bar in 1957, Lamer practised law at the firm of Cutler Lamer Bellemare and Associates, developing “quite a practice” as a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal, practicing in every level of court in the province, says Ratushny. Lamer’s father was also a lawyer, and advisor to the Montreal police force, and consequently he was familiar with the police role and with criminal law at an early age, he adds.

Appointed to the Quebec Superior Court in 1969 at age 36, Lamer was named vice chair of the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1971 and chair in 1976, before joining the Quebec Court of Appeal in 1978.

Ratushny notes that when Lamer returned to the Quebec Court of Appeal after his time with the Law Reform Commission, where he was working on the reform of criminal law procedure and evidence, “he probably knew as much or more about criminal law generally than anyone in the country.”

Meehan tells Law Times that while Lamer’s legacy in terms of the judgments he wrote as a member of the Supreme Court will continue, the less obvious, but enduring legacy was his high level of discipline and organization, which he says you had to work with Lamer to know.

“He ran, as chief justice, the tightest of tight ships. He eliminated, with his colleagues . . . the court’s backlog of cases where the appeals had been heard but judgment not yet delivered and also the cases were waiting to be heard, but the appeal had not yet been heard,” he says.

“The result was that people got faster access to justice at Canada’s highest court,” he adds.

“The trains really were running on time . . . there was probably a significant backlog when he came in and he got on top of that and the judgments got churned out in a timely way,” adds Ratushny.

As chief justice, Lamer also worked with the Canadian Judicial Council on the delays project, to help Canada’s chief justices eliminate backlogs in the trial and appellate courts of other jurisdictions. “He had, I think, a significant impact on the administration of justice not only in terms of running the Supreme Court but also in relation to the courts across the country through the judicial council,” says Ratushny.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted last week on behalf of the Supreme Court that Lamer was “an eminent jurist and a fierce defender of the independence of the judiciary. He served as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and as Chief Justice of Canada during an important period of Canadian history. He was a forceful advocate for the rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His decisions left an indelible mark on both the law and Canadian society. His presence and passion for the law will be sorely missed.”

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