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Saturday March 1, 2008

Fearless lawyer stepped off the highest of benches

Respected and qualified, he was called to Canada's top court but, unhappy at the pace, remained for just 3½ years

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- Louis-Philippe de Grandpré had all the makings of a Supreme Court of Canada judge. He was respected by many lawyers for his ability to break down complex cases. He was fearless in expressing legal and political opinions in various leadership positions. He could also cast a critical eye on his profession while holding a deep respect for its principles.

At 56, he got the call to that highest of benches, the apex of a legal career in Canada. But as much as Mr. de Grandpré was suited for that high office, it was not suited for a man whose confidence and talents were fuelled by friends, colleagues, family life, culture and the to and fro of a good argument. He served on the court for just 3½ years, from 1974 to 1977, a period most noted for its ruling on abortion law that sent Henry Morgentaler to prison.

Mr. de Grandpré liked to tell people that his legal career had three lives. The first comprised the years before his appointment, when he threw himself into a growing law practice and presided over the local, provincial and federal bar associations. The second was his time on the bench, and the high-pressure decisions and stifling conditions that it entailed. The third was a return to his practice and overseeing the many junior lawyers who would never forget his gifts.

Louis-Philippe de Grandpré, son of Roland and Aline, was the oldest of three brothers, all of whom would practise law. His father worked as an insurance manager for over 35 years until his death at 65; brother Jean eventually became chairman and CEO of Bell Canada Enterprises.

His childhood summers with rural cousins planted the seeds for stories that, decades later, would delight his children and grandchildren.

Like his brothers after him, Mr. de Grandpré received a classical education, graduating from Collège Sainte-Marie and studying law in English at McGill University.

At the age of 29, eight years after he had been called to the bar and just before he would put together a dream team of lawyers at Tansey, de Grandpré & de Grandpré, he was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a rare and degenerative neurological condition. A cyst was spreading through his spinal cord. His prognosis wasn't good, but he defied doctors and continued his legal work.

Virtually paralyzed on his right side, unable to write by hand and hampered by a limp, he never gave in to the frustration that a strapping man who had been passionately involved in hockey and tennis must have felt. It was never awkward for friends and family to cut his meat - just a given. Delmo's, his favourite Old Montreal restaurant, serve him a plate filled with bite-sized pieces for years, and legal colleagues were always there to button up his collar, traditionally worn above the court robe.

He dictated all his briefs to a long-time secretary, using his prodigious memory and ability to synthesize.

While his memory may have impressed, it was his legal mind that held the greatest currency. He was a civil litigator, arguing mostly commercial cases and carving out a specialization in medical malpractice and insurance. He over-prepared but wrote concise briefs. He liked to say that legal work was 95 per cent fact and 5 per cent law - once you have your facts, the legal issues will work themselves out.

This reputation helped him, his brother Jean and partner Harold Tansey attract a small but high-powered team. His standing as a lawyer's lawyer grew, and by 1968, both the Montreal and Quebec bars had elected him president.

As head of the Quebec Bar, he presented a 160-point brief to a commission looking into the administration of justice in Quebec. It called for sweeping changes to protect the rights of the accused. It also called for eliminating "politically inspired" appointments to the bench, something he would revisit years later in a report on judges' independence.

In 1972, his legal leadership and activism went national when he was elected as president of the Canadian Bar Association. While Pierre Trudeau had said the state had no business in the nation's bedrooms, Mr. de Grandpré felt that the state, now under Mr. Trudeau and Robert Bourassa, had gotten into every other room and made themselves too comfortable. He was opposed to state-controlled legal aid plans, saying they encroached on the attorney-client relationship and would allow government access to private files.

During his two years in office, he made the CBA very public by publishing signed articles in newspapers, where he urged the public to better know its rights, pushing for bilingual trials and explaining French-language protection to English Canada. One opinion that came back to bite him was his public position on abortion, delivered as president in a headline-making speech at a CBA convention. The speech came on the heels of Roe v. Wade, the watershed U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. He argued that if a late-term fetus could be sustained outside the body as a premature baby, thus gaining the right to protection under the law, why would it not be protected in utero? As a practising Catholic, his arguments pegged him as an anti-abortion advocate.

On New Year's Day, 1974, Mr. de Grandpré was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada with fellow Quebecker Jean Beetz. The move took him away from his family, friends and legal colleagues. There were no more lunches with colleagues at Delmo's; now, his social schedule would be scrutinized lest he be seen as less than impartial. The move was particularly hard on his wife, who was needed in Montreal to nurse her ill mother.

The pace of work was production-line quick. Mr. de Grandpré estimated that the nine judges worked on 150 cases a year. And it was dead boring, Mr. de Grandpré told Le Devoir last year.

"You're just reading through files all day long and you're just listening to arguments without being able to offer up anything. You can't call that a life! Try to imagine for a moment: No telephone, no visitors, no correspondence of any kind. I found myself sitting there and starting to reminisce about my old practice."

In 1975, the Morgentaler case was on the docket. The plaintiff was trying to overturn a conviction that had itself overturned a jury-decided acquittal. His attorney challenged Mr. de Grandpré's right to hear the case. The lawyer, Claude-Armand Sheppard, brought up his public utterances on abortion but then chief justice Bora Laskin protected his judge. It was decided that he would sit through the case.

While the Morgentaler case ended with a conviction, it eventually led to an amendment of the criminal code. Today, an appellate court can still overturn a jury acquittal, but can no longer substitute a guilty verdict.

Just over three years into his Supreme Court appointment, Mr. de Grandpré's children knew their father was unhappy. They and their mother were at the family country home one night.

His oldest son, Michel, started the discussion. Soon, everyone would hear the larger-than-life man admit disappointment in himself. In Le Devoir's article, he admitted that if he had his druthers, he never would have agreed to the appointment.

His later years seemed to be his most generous. People in the top legal echelons, including Bernard Amyot, CBA's current president, and Allan Lutfy, chief justice of the Federal Court, came to see him as a mentor.

In 1985, he came out with a report on the independence of judges. Commenting later on his committee's note that judges tend to burn out after 25 years on the bench, he said, probably with his trademark wink, that if they stay too long, "they will be very grumpy."

LOUIS-PHILIPPE DE GRANDPRÉ

Louis-Philippe de Grandpré was born Feb. 6, 1917, in Montreal. He died in Longueuil, just outside Montreal, on Jan. 24, 2008, of pneumonia. He was 90. He leaves Marthe, his wife of 66 years, children Michel, Ivan, Sylvie and Francine, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He also leaves brother Jean and is predeceased by brother Pierre.

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