The Supreme Court of Canada homepage opens with, "Canadians are privileged to live in a peaceful country." With Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin retiring in December, that homepage opener is too modest. It should read, "Canadians are privileged to live in a country with an outstanding chief justice." History will cast an approving gaze on the McLachlin court, for four reasons.
First, Chief Justice McLachlin guided the Supreme Court with a steady hand through long periods of both Liberal and Conservative government. Sound judicial equilibrium during political ebb and flow is an under-appreciated imperative whose value to the country is enormous.
People initially come to court because they are in a fighting mood, and cannot make peace among themselves. People make it all the way to the Supreme Court because their fights also raise far-reaching questions of national importance, often ideologically or politically charged. Thus the peace-making role of the Supreme Court is not limited to deciding for or against one of the litigants before it. The court's decisions must also build consensus on large social or legal issues for the entire country.
The Supreme Court's work is nothing short of nation-building through the law. Its work must not be buffeted by changing political winds. It must always chart a course based on enduring values that will continue to unite us as governments come and go. In accomplishing this difficult but essential task, Chief Justice McLachlin's guidance has been deft and perceptive. Throughout her tenure, judges have been appointed by both Liberal and Conservative governments, to decide many controversial cases. Despite the potential for divisiveness, we witnessed virtually no ideological posturing that devalues the work of the United States Supreme Court. Instead, the McLachlin court has been prudent, and although sometimes underwhelming, always carefully reasoned and reasonable. The McLachlin court built out solid legal foundations for social cohesion. In its understated but strong approach to the law, the McLachlin court was prototypically Canadian and Canada is stronger for her court's work.
Second, the McLachlin court laid crucial groundwork for the core Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge for the 21st century: reconciling competing rights. Shortly after our Charter arrived in 1982, the Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice Brian Dickson had to give the new document meaning and substance. Chief Justice Dickson...