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Nova Scotia Supreme Court chief justice, ‘a servant of the rule of law,’ retires

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 @ 2:49 PM | By John Chunn

Joseph P. Kennedy, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia’s longest serving chief justice, retired on April 30 after more than four decades on the bench.

“I’m fortunate to have had the opportunities I did throughout my career,” said Chief Justice Kennedy. “Whether it was arguing a case as a lawyer or balancing the arguments of others as a judge, I feel so privileged to have worked in a fair and independent legal system, governed by the rule of law. We sometimes forget, but we are lucky people living in a lucky country.”  

According to the Courts of Nova Scotia press release, Chief Justice Kennedy, 74, received a B.A. from Saint Mary’s University and graduated with his law degree from Dalhousie University in 1968. He was called to the Nova Scotia bar in January 1969 and practised law in Bridgewater from 1969 to 1978. During that time, he also served as the federal Crown prosecutor for Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

Chief Justice Kennedy, a native of Enfield, N.S., was first appointed a judge of the provincial court of Nova Scotia in September 1978, presiding primarily in Bridgewater and Lunenburg. In July 1993, he was appointed as associate chief judge of the provincial court and then chief judge in July 1996. During his years on the provincial court, Chief Justice Kennedy also held the position of president of the Nova Scotia Provincial Court Judges’ Association.

In April 1997, Chief Justice Kennedy was elevated to the Supreme Court, where he sat as a puisne judge for three months before being appointed as that court’s associate chief justice in July 1997. A year later, in July 1998, he was appointed as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

“Chief Justice Kennedy has served the Nova Scotia judiciary and the people of this province with diligence and integrity for decades,” said Michael Wood, chief justice of Nova Scotia. “He was the chief justice throughout my tenure on the Supreme Court and was known for his unwavering support and encouragement of all the judges on that court. For that, he will be sorely missed.

“On behalf of all his colleagues on the bench, I want to wish Chief Justice Kennedy and his wife, Helen, a long and rewarding retirement. It is well deserved.”

During his 43 years on the bench, Chief Justice Kennedy has presided over thousands of cases, some, like the 1990 criminal trial of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, that helped shape the constitutional landscape in this province.

In 1989, Morgentaler was charged with performing unlawful abortions, contrary to the Medical Services Act of Nova Scotia. At the trial in the provincial court, Chief Justice Kennedy found that the Medical Services Act and the regulations made pursuant to it were criminal law. Thus, they were beyond the jurisdiction of the province and therefore were invalid legislation. More specifically, Chief Justice Kennedy found that the law was made primarily to control and restrict abortions within the province. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, and later the Supreme Court of Canada, affirmed his decision.

Chief Justice Kennedy is also a strong proponent of media access to the courts. He is a past member of the Nova Scotia Courts’ Media Liaison Committee and was the first judge in this province to allow live tweeting from inside the courtroom in 2014. He regularly speaks with journalism students about the courts’ relationship with the media and has helped develop policies and guidelines that ensure media and the public have more consistent access to court proceedings and documents.

A member of the Canadian Judicial Council for 20 years, Chief Justice Kennedy has been involved with several national judicial committees, including the Judicial Conduct Committee. He is an active public speaker of considerable note throughout Nova Scotia, as well as in many parts of Canada and the United States.

“I have been a servant of the rule of law,” Chief Justice Kennedy said. “I’ve always thought of my career as being in the fair trial business.”

Chief Justice Kennedy has no immediate plans for his retirement, but he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife and their children and grandchildren at the family cottage on the South Shore.

The next chief justice of the Supreme Court has yet to be named. That appointment is made by the federal cabinet based on recommendations from the prime minister. In the interim, the associate chief justices of the Supreme Court’s General and Family Divisions will oversee the administration of those courts.