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Former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer dies

Last Updated: Sunday, November 25, 2007 | 9:53 PM ET

Antonio Lamer, best-known as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 1990 to 2000, has died in Ottawa at age 74 after several weeks in hospital.

Lamer died Saturday, peacefully and surrounded by family members, said Eugene Meehan, a former aide and longtime friend.

He had been in and out of hospital several times in recent years suffering from recurring heart problems.

Born Joseph Antonio Charles Lamer in east-end Montreal, he began his legal career in 1957 and became renowned as an authority on criminal law.

Lamer put in nearly 20 years on the high court and spent a decade as chief of the nine-member bench.

He joined the Supreme Court in 1980, two years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted.

Lamer said in a CBC interview that once the Charter was in place, some judges found it "somewhat of a shock to see their job description changed so fundamentally."

Under the Charter, a law found to contravene an individual's constitutional rights could be struck down, something that happened with Canada's abortion law in 1988. This and other Charter cases ushered in an era that critics have denounced as judicial activism.

In an interview shortly before his retirement from the high court, Lamer spoke of the court's difficult role in interpreting the rights of the individual.

"It's not for me to criticize legislators but if they choose not to legislate, that's their doing," he told Southam News. "If they prefer to leave it up to the court, that's their choice. But a problem is not going to go away because legislators aren't dealing with it. People say we're activist, but we're doing our job."

He also said judges on the high court have been conservative in their approach and are reluctant to strike down legislation.

In January 2000, at 66, Lamer retired from the high court, but continued to work. In one of his jobs, he was an associate professor of law at the University of Montreal.

In March 2003, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador chose Lamer to oversee an inquiry into how the criminal justice system dealt with three discredited murder convictions. The hearings lasted about three years.

In May 2004, when the inquiry was well into its second year, Lamer suffered a mild heart attack at 70. About six weeks' worth of scheduled sessions were postponed and Lamer took the rest of the summer off to recover before the inquiry resumed in September of that year.

With files from the Canadian Press

Related

Video

Rosemary Barton reports for CBC-TV (Runs: 2:46)
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CBC-TV's Jacquie Perrin talks to Eugene Meehan, friend of Antonio Lamer (Runs: 3:37)
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