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Influence beyond partisanship: Our Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers

In this issue, we unveil the ninth annual Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers list.

As I read feedback from our voters, I was also closely following the news of the confirmation debates in the United States — where the merits of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are being hotly debated. At press time, the confirmation hearing timeline was still up the air, but it is set to be a contentious and polarized debate. Kavanaugh’s pros and cons are being framed as though he is a sports star — can he help his team win or lose this zero-sum game?

The contrast with Canada, as exemplified by many of the winners on our list, was striking. We have winners from all areas of practice, including private firms and academics, but the most votes came for those who wield the most influence: the lawyers in our judicial and legislative branches. And the votes they received from our readers was rarely about partisanship.

Our most popular winner was Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella. While Abella does not shy away from political debates — her speech to a U.S. audience denouncing “narcissistic populism” or her warnings to an audience in Israel about diminishing the power of its Supreme Court were clearly political — her influence for our readers was overwhelmingly about her advancement of the law through her judgments.

Thomas Cromwell, a former Supreme Court judge, was our top vote-getter in the “Changemaker” category. While his many accomplishments on the bench were no doubt top of mind for many voters, he has been actively working on access to justice and advocating for smart adoption of technology since his retirement in 2016. He speaks publicly about the many issues facing our justice system and how incremental, not revolutionary, solutions will be what really make a difference to people’s lives.

Yasir Naqvi, the former attorney general of Ontario, also understood the importance of incrementalism when he launched a plan to modernize Ontario’s justice system with his Digital Justice Action Plan. While not as revolutionary as some techno-evangelists may have wanted, his initiatives are having a positive effect. Now that litigants can file civil claims online and the government can correspond with potential jurors by email and text, more small-scale initiatives should be taken up by Ontario’s new government — despite its different political mandate — to keep the positive momentum.

While Canadians can be proud that our legal system is not as partisan as that of our neighbour to the south, this comes with one big drawback — a lack of transparency. While the debate about Supreme Court judges in the U.S. is polarized, it is also in the public space. Canadians, on the other hand, rarely hear public debates about our justice system, which also means they know very little about how it works.

That is why statements about the need for transparency at the Supreme Court of Canada couldn’t come at a better time, voiced by Chief Justice Richard Wagner, who is also a winner on our Top 25 Most Influential list. While Wagner may discover that with transparency comes controversy, as it often does in the U.S., he will have the confidence of many of our readers, given their votes of support.

Let’s hope that he, like all of our winners, will continue to influence our justice system in a way that transcends partisanship and is about much more than a zero-sum game.