Is Geoff Plant really one of the finest legal minds in British Columbia?
On September 8, I heard CKNW Radio host Sean Leslie blithely refer to former attorney general Geoff Plant as one of the finest legal minds in British Columbia.
Leslie made the comment in connection with Plant's appointment as B.C.'s lead lawyer at the Joint Review Panel's evaluation of the Northern Gateway Project.
Anyone who has interviewed Plant has likely come away thinking that he's exceptionally intelligent, which may account for Leslie's statement.
I recall inviting him into one of my journalism classes that I taught at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He delivered an impressive analysis of the impact of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the relationship between governments and the governed.
There's no question that Plant is articulate. He wrote the Campus 2020 report, which included some excellent recommendations for modernizing B.C.'s postsecondary education system. He also didn't appear to make any serious blunders during his stint as Vancouver's civil city commissioner when Sam Sullivan was mayor.
But does this warrant the type of lofty praise offered up by Leslie? After all, this is the same attorney general who announced the firing of B.C.'s chief commissioner of the human-rights commissioner, Mary-Woo Sims, during question period. That was hardly his finest moment in government.
And as attorney general, he also oversaw the introduction of some of the most draconian welfare legislation in the country. This included a two-year independence test for young people and a 100-percent clawback on family maintenance payments and any earnings for those on social assistance.
I decided to look at the record of some high-profile legal cases that Plant has been connected to in recent history. When he was attorney general, the Crown won an appeal in one of the most important cases that ever came before the Supreme Court of Canada.
This was the Auton litigation. The B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the B.C. government had violated autistic children's constitutional right to equality by refusing to include applied behavioural therapy in the Medical Services Plan.
The country's highest court, however, deemed that it was not discriminatory to deny the provision of some "non-core benefits", such as this therapy for autistic kids. Plant could chalk this up as a win, even though his government's determination not to pay for this service enraged these children's parents.
However, Plant was also attorney general when the B.C. Liberal government ripped up contracts for teachers and health-care workers. In these instances, the courts later ruled that the B.C. Liberal government violated the workers' constitutional right to freedom of association. As attorney general, Plant was the government's top legal adviser when the legislation was drafted.
Another strikeout occurred when Plant and his B.C. Liberal colleagues Mike de Jong and Gordon Campbell went to court to challenge the constitutional validity of the Nisga'a treaty. That was blown out of court.
More recently, Plant wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun claiming that the HST Extinguishment Act was unconstitutional.
A bunch of business groups took this advice and launched a legal challenge in B.C. Supreme Court. They lost.
Plant was on the winning side as a member of the B.C. government's legal team arguing the Delgamuukw case in B.C. Supreme Court. This ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada when the government was represented by a different group of lawyers. In 1997, the highest court confirmed the existence of aboriginal title and offered a definition, which has had a profound impact on the province ever since.
I'm sure Plant has had many other legal victories, which have not been reported here.
But in light of this record in the most famous cases, perhaps the media should temper the superlatives when discussing his legal expertise. He won Delgamuukw (though he wasn't the lead lawyer) and Auton, and lost badly after ripping up workers' contracts and challenging the Nisga'a treaty. The province's largest business organizations also took a beating in court after he came to some controversial conclusions over the HST Extinguishment Act.
There are many great lawyers in B.C. And some of them (notably Joseph Arvay) have a better track record than Plant when it comes to dealing with the most newsworthy cases in the public interest. Maybe it's time that we in the media talked more about their accomplishments.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.