Politics

Quebec jurist Richard Wagner named next Supreme Court chief justice

Successor to Beverley McLachlin praised for wisdom, integrity and 'collegial spirit'

SCOC Chief Justice 20171212

Quebec jurist Richard Wagner has been named the next chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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Quebec jurist Richard Wagner has been named the next chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

At age 60, Wagner is the senior Quebec judge on the bench. He was nominated to the high court in 2012 by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Before his judicial appointment, he had a commercial litigation practice focusing on real estate and professional liability insurance. Wagner is the middle son of former Quebec provincial Liberal cabinet minister and one-time federal Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Claude Wagner.

Wagner will take the oath of office on Dec. 18.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa about the appointment Tuesday morning, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould praised his credentials as a bilingual, experienced practising lawyer and judge. 

"With all of that experience, his commitment to legal education, to be involved in work internationally, he has the integrity, the wisdom and the collegial spirit and co-operation that a chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada needs," she said.

Wilson-Raybould discusses new Chief Justice 0:53

Wagner replaces Beverley McLachlin, who retires on Friday after 17 years in the post and 28 years on the high court.

'Distinguished jurist'

"I congratulate Justice Wagner on his appointment to this important and challenging role," McLachlin said in a statement. "Justice Wagner is a distinguished jurist and a person of deep integrity. I am confident he will lead the court with wisdom and skill."

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nominated Alberta-based judge Sheilah Martin to fill the western vacancy left by McLachlin's retirement.

In a statement announcing Wagner's appointment today, Trudeau said he has "utmost confidence" in his ability to lead the highest court in Canada, which has a long history of independence and excellence.

"The judiciary, the legal profession, and all Canadians will be well served by his dedication to upholding the laws and Constitution upon which this country is founded," he said.

'Consensus building and stability'

There has been a tradition of alternating between jurists trained in common law and those under Quebec's civil law, though there have been exceptions in past.

Wilson-Raybould said that was a factor the prime minister considered, along with Wagner's "flawless bilingualism" and his abilities to play a leadership role to the nine-member court.

"Although there was lots of speculation about who was in the running, I think Wagner will be a fine chief justice," said Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa 

"As the senior Quebec judge, he is in some ways a safe choice, but he has demonstrated a willingness to be quite direct and outspoken in his speeches. I think his tenure could prove to be very interesting."

Justice Rosalie Abella was also thought to be a possible pick for chief justice, but at 71, Abella is just 3½ years short of the mandatory retirement age.

"In an era of increasing complexity in the law, he will be a voice of consensus building and stability on Canada's highest court," Eugene Meehan, a former legal executive officer with the Supreme Court, said of Wagner.

During a vetting session with MPs when he was nominated to the high court, Wagner displayed a sense of humour along with a keen sense of the critical importance of an independent judiciary, noting that "sustainability of our democracy and the respect of its fundamental values — including freedom of expression — was largely due to the impartiality of the judiciary, of its independence, and especially of its credibility."

Last year, the Liberal government brought in a new Supreme Court appointment process to encourage more openness, transparency and diversity, which also requires high court justices to be functionally bilingual.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, standing ovation

Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing arguments on the New Brunswick cross-border beer case of Gerard Comeau. (CBC)

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