A landmark ruling
Experts tackle Morin-Crawford judgement

Arthur Milnes
Northern News Services

NNSL (Jan 25/99) - Long after Don Morin and Anne Crawford are forgotten, a recent ruling by NWT Supreme Court Justice John Vertes on last year's conflict of interest inquiry and its commissioner will still be talked about.

This is the view of a number of political scientists and parliamentary experts who have read Vertes's Jan. 14 decision denying a judicial review of Conflict of Interest Commissioner Anne Crawford's office and report.

"This is the clearest, strongest statement from a superior court that the Northern territories have distinct constitutional status," University of Toronto political science professor Graham White said.

Vertes' judgement went back to the early days of Confederation. He said the legislative assembly was one of the oldest political institutions in post-Confederation Canada.

Morin's lawyers had argued the opposite, questioning whether Crawford's office could be covered by parliamentary privilege when the legislative assembly has, in its view, no inherent privileges other than those authorized by legislation made in Ottawa.

"...considering the history, the legal powers, and the constitutional position (of the NWT Legislature), I conclude that it is an independent legislative institution as fully effective within its sphere of jurisdiction as any other legislature," Vertes wrote, rejecting the arguments advanced by Morin's defence team.

Queen's University parliamentary expert, Professor C.E.S. Franks, said this aspect of the ruling is significant for NWT and Nunavut residents.

"It says your legislature is a serious body," he observed.

White added the decision could be important as land claims and other issues are discussed in the NWT.

"When you have aboriginal organizations say this (GNWT) is an illegitimate government and so forth in regards to land claims and such, you now have a court saying it (GNWT) is more than just an arm of Ottawa," he said.

Vertes' ruling on the legislative assembly's rights of privilege should also be noted, White said.

"The parliamentary privilege doesn't apply to the city council in Toronto," he said. "This is for the big league."

Gary Levy, editor of Canadian Parliamentary Review, also said the judgement is ground-breaking.

"It seems (Vertes' judgment has given) a lot more power to these officers (of parliament or the legislatures)," he said, adding the judgement will be eagerly read across Canada.

In Levy's view, the ruling means people like the federal and provincial auditor generals, Official Languages Commissioner and conflict of interest commissioners across the land have a judge affirming their rulings cannot be appealed to the courts. Instead, they can only be judged by the respective assembly or parliament to whom they report.

While most scholars, Levy said, believe the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has weakened the rights of parliament over individuals, the judgement has strengthened notions of parliamentary privilege.