The jury trial of Gerald Stanley, charged with second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, marks a new development in criminal law.
The trial itself was not unusual – a jury heard the evidence, deliberated and acquitted the Saskatchewan farmer.
It’s what followed the acquittal that’s remarkable.
Immediately following the verdict, the most senior federal politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, waded into the controversy through social media in a manner that clearly implied that the jury was wrong. The federal politicians sided with the Boushie family against the man the law now says is innocent.
The significance of this is only now becoming clear. Our criminal law system, with the jury at the centre, developed over the course of 1,000 years.
Before Canada had a sophisticated criminal law system, justice belonged to the most powerful man or the will of a mob. A despot could simply punish or kill a less powerful person at will, or a mob could seek vengeance when they chose to do so.
Very slowly, this primitive system changed. Trial by combat, or crude methods of judging a personʼs guilt or innocence through the use of magic were early steps in a process that finally produced the system we have today.
It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it’s far better than the crude ‘justice’ it replaced.
But there was one clear understanding that allowed this system to do its job: the politicians were to tend to their duties and judges were to tend to theirs.
Just as it was improper for a judge to comment on political matters, it was completely inappropriate for politicians to comment publicly about court cases.
That’s the long-held convention that was so blatantly breached by the federal cabinet ministers and the prime minister.
Was it done out of ignorance or was it a clear case of virtue signalling for political points?
They didn’t say.
Does it signal the beginning of a new convention with politicians tweeting their disagreement with any court decision they donʼt like?
We donʼt know.
Does it also give judges the go-ahead to start directing their judicial decisions at political decisions they donʼt agree with?
That’s unknown but if politicians are signalling that the gloves are off, that canʼt be too far behind.
I hope these politicians simply didn’t think before they tweeted. If that’s the case, they should publicly apologize and vow to keep their misguided tweets to themselves.
The late-night tweeter to the south of the border should give them pause.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Center for Public Policy.