Frenzy overtook the United States when Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last month. It was a far cry from when former Canadian chief justice Beverley McLachlin announced her retirement last year and Canadians breathed a collective “Who?”
This is among the starkest of differences between the political cultures and Canada and the United States.
In American politics, a Supreme Court vacancy means countless news cycles: weeks of speculation about potential nominees, followed by days of in-depth coverage about the nominee, capped off with weeks of confirmation hearings. This is because it’s significant. Putting the right justice on the bench can shape a president’s legacy in monumental ways.
In each of their eight years, Barack Obama and George W. Bush installed two Supreme Court justices. Donald Trump will accomplish the same with less than two years in office. If Trump wins a second term, he may well get another two vacancies to work with, with 85-year old Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 79-year old Stephen Breyer — both appointed by Bill Clinton — holding down the older side of the bench.
American politicians — and their voters, for that matter — understand the stakes of the court. Canadians couldn’t care less.
In Canada, there’s no drive to understand whether a potential justice is pro-life, or religious, or a strict constitutionalist. In the United States, these same people are lightning rods in the culture war over these very issues.
One could argue that having an expectation judges will rule along ideological lines based on who appointed them defeats the purpose of a supposedly apolitical judiciary. This is inevitable, however, when so much politics is dispensed from the judiciary. Our era is one of governance from the bench, meaning Canadians would do well to pay attention to what happens there.