OTTAWA -- A Supreme Court of Canada judge who defended the right to individual privacy is calling it quits.
Mr. Justice Gérard La Forest, 71, announced yesterday that after 12 years on the Supreme Court he will retire Sept. 30.
"It's been exciting, but the clock is running and I thought it was better to go now when I'm still in good shape than at 75 when I would have to retire", the native of Grand Falls, N.B., said in an interview yesterday.
Asked about his reputation as a privacy advocate, La Forest replied: "I like the state off the citizen's back."
La Forest's successor will be the first Supreme Court judge appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The new judge will come from Atlantic Canada which by tradition has one of the nine positions on the court.
Chrétien will be under pressure to appoint a third woman to the high court and to look to Newfoundland because that province has never had a representative on the high court.
Earlier this week, Chief Justice Antonio Lamer said he would welcome having more women appointed to the court. A leading candidate from Newfoundland is Madam Justice Margaret Cameron of the province's court of appeal.
Another qualified candidate is former Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, a top-notch litigator. However, Wells is loathed by many Quebecers for his role in killing the Meech Lake constitutional accord.
"Before entering politics Wells was one of the top courtroom lawyers in Newfoundland", a judge who asked not to be identified said in an interview. "The problem is that because of his Meech Lake stand he is one of the most disliked Canadians in all of Quebec."
"Appointing Wells would look too much like Chrétien was stacking the court. It would be a serious mistake."
It would be especially risky given that the Supreme Court is preparing to hear a reference from the federal government on whether Quebec can unilaterally secede. The timing of that hearing could now depend on how quickly Chrétien names a replacement. Lamer wants nine judges ready to hear such an important case.
A former Rhodes scholar, the bilingual La Forest was a lawyer, dean of law, constitutional adviser to prime minister Pierre Trudeau and member of the Law Reform Commission of Canada prior to being appointed to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal in 1981 and the Supreme Court four years later.
He remarked earlier this year that he would not retire until he had sold his $520,000 home in Ottawa's trendy Rockcliffe Park. After 1 1/2 years on the market it recently sold, just as La Forest was set to take it off.
La Forest, who is married and has five grown daughters, plans to return to New Brunswick.
La Forest crafted judgments on a wide range of subjects, including landmark rulings guaranteeing the mentally handicapped protection from being sterilized against their will and another upholding mandatory retirement.
But it was in the area of privacy, where he was vigilant in striving to curb police abuses, that La Forest carved his reputation as a crusader.
"The freedom not to be compelled to share our confidences with others is the very hallmark of a free society", he wrote in a unanimous 1990 decision that said police could no longer surreptitiously bug private conversations of suspected criminals without obtaining a warrant.
La Forest also penned a 1990 decision that forced police to obtain a warrant before they secretly videotaped suspected criminals.
"The notion that agencies of the state should be at liberty to train hidden cameras on members of society wherever and whenever they wish is fundamentally irreconcilable with what we perceive to be acceptable behavior on the part of government", he wrote.
La Forest said his decisions were often unpopular because the public would look only at the small picture - the fact that an alleged criminal might have been set free or had a conviction overturned.
"It does seem to me the public should try, to the extent it can, to consider the big picture", he said. "We may have to release from time to time some offensive fellow, but that is the price of keeping the state off the backs of everybody."