Mahmud Jamal, Supreme Court of Canada justice, Court of Appeal for Ontario judge, litigation lawyer, author, teacher (born 1967 in Nairobi, Kenya). Mahmud Jamal is the first racialized person and the first South Asian Canadian to be appointed as a justice to the Supreme Court of Canada. A former Fulbright scholar with a background in law and economics, Jamal worked as a litigator with the Toronto firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP before becoming a judge with the Court of Appeal for Ontario. He began serving on the Supreme Court on 1 July 2021.
Mahmud Jamal’s great-grandparents emigrated from India to Nairobi, Kenya, in the late 1800s. Jamal was born there in 1967. When he was two, his family sought greater opportunities and moved to England. Jamal has said he developed an early appreciation for diversity by learning Christian values and prayers at school and Muslim values and prayers at home. However, like many South Asian people in England at the time, he was subjected to racism and was often harassed due to his name, race and religion.
Jamal was the first member of his family to attend university. He studied for a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science before earning an economics degree from the University of Toronto in 1989. He studied common law and Quebec civil law at McGill University, earning a bachelor of laws and a bachelor of civil law in 1993. In 1994, he earned a graduate law degree, as a Fulbright scholar, from Yale Law School.
Early Law Career
While in university, Jamal spent many of his summers working as an associate and as a clerk with law firms in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. In 1991–92, he worked as a law clerk to Justice Melvin L. Rothman of the Quebec Court of Appeal. In 1994–95, he clerked for Justice Charles D. Gonthier of the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 1996, Jamal became a litigation associate with the Toronto firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. He became the firm’s litigation partner in 2001. Jamal was elected or appointed to several positions in the firm, including its national executive committee and partner compensation committee. He also chaired its pro bono committee.
Jamal argued cases and appeals in seven provinces, as well as at the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada. (See also Federal Court of Canada.) He argued 35 appeal cases before the Supreme Court of Canada relating to regulatory, criminal, and constitutional issues. His clients included individuals; corporations; not-for-profit organizations; federal, provincial and municipal governments; a national organization representing Indigenous peoples; and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Court of Appeal for Ontario
In 2019, Jamal was appointed by the federal government to the bench of the Court of Appeal for Ontario. (See also Appeal.) In his judicial application, Jamal wrote: “Every judge knows what an extraordinary privilege and responsibility it is to be entrusted with the judicial role…. I try to approach each case with an open mind and a willingness to listen, both to counsel and to my colleagues — it is always more important to listen than to speak.” He rendered important decisions on cases involving criminal and civil law; constitutional matters; legal procedures (see Civil Procedure; Criminal Procedure); and family and child protection law.
Legal Community Activities
An active member of Canada’s legal community, Jamal has served on various committees and associations. They have included the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (see Civil Liberties); the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History; the Supreme Court Advocacy Institute; the Canadian Bar Association’s pro bono counsel; the Antitrust Sections of the American Bar Association; the National Judicial Institute; and as a member of the executive of the Civil Liberties and Human Rights section of the Ontario Bar Association.
Jamal is also a prominent legal scholar. He was on the editorial board of the Journal of Constitutional Law, the Yale Journal of International Law and the McGill Law Journal. He was a co-editor of the Global Competition Litigation Review and was a trustee with the Canadian Business Law Journal. He has also written articles for many journals; contributed to books as both a co-author and an essayist; and made many presentations at conferences.
Jamal has taught law courses at McGill University and Osgoode Hall Law School. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, the University of Ottawa, Ryerson University and the University of British Columbia. He also taught programs at various legal associations, including the Law Society of Ontario (formerly the Law Society of Upper Canada); the Canadian Association of Law Librarians; the Canadian Bar Association; le Barreau du Québec; the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers; the South Asian Bar Association; and the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners.
Appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada
An opening on the Supreme Court of Canada was created with the mandatory retirement of Justice Rosalie Abella at age 75 in June 2021. Due to the constitutional convention of regional representation on the Court, Abella’s replacement was required to be from Ontario. On 28 June 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Mahmud Jamal’s appointment to the Supreme Court, effective 1 July. Jamal became the first racialized Canadian to serve on the Court.
Though many argued that it was long past time for a Supreme Court justice of Indigenous background, Jamal’s appointment was largely applauded. Canadian Bar Association president Brad Regehr observed: “The Canadian Bar Association is happy that with the nomination of Justice Jamal, who was born in Kenya, the Supreme Court of Canada will be more reflective of the diverse population it serves.”
In his advisory board interview, Jamal said, “Anybody who is from a racialized community, a minority, has a tremendous responsibility and so I am very, very mindful of that. What people say is that they really do see that public institutions are open to them. That they have hope. That they can see their own faces reflected in the judiciary…. I think it engenders trust in public institutions."
Jamal’s wife, Goleta (née Samari), fled Iran as a refugee in 1979. (See also Iranian Canadians.) They were married in 2000 and have two sons. Attracted by the spiritual unity of his wife’s faith, Jamal converted to Bahá'í.