The appointment of Richard Wagner, a Quebecer, as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada was met with a sigh of relief by jurists and political leaders across the province.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, Quebec’s justice minister and the head of the provincial bar association both applied public pressure on the federal government to replace the outgoing chief justice — Beverley McLachlin — with one of the three Supreme Court justices from Quebec.
There were concerns that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would opt instead for Rosalie Abella, an Ontarian and the most senior judge on the bench of Canada’s highest court.
But doing so would have violated an unwritten rule which sees the chief justice position alternate between jurists schooled in Quebec’s civil law tradition and those hailing from the common law tradition used in the rest of Canada.
McLachlin, who is from British Columbia, was preceded by Montrealer Antonio Lamer. He served as chief justice between 1990 and 2000.
“The fact that we have a judge with expertise in civil law at the head of the Supreme Court is important for us,” Premier Philippe Couillard said Tuesday.
“It’s been many years since there’s been a judge with expertise in civil law at the head of the Supreme Court of Canada, and civil law is one of the ways Quebec distinguishes itself within Canada.”
Paul-Matthieu Grondin, who heads the Quebec Bar Association, also welcomed Wagner’s appointment as a reaffirmation of the importance of Quebec’s Civil Code to the country’s highest court.
“It has high symbolic value for Quebec,” Grondin said. “If someone else had been nominated, it probably would have been a while before seeing another Quebecer at the head of the Supreme Court.”
‘He knows the machine’
Wagner was only named to the Supreme Court in 2012, but he still has more experience than the other Quebec justices, Clément Gascon and Suzanne Côté.
He also spent a brief spell on the Quebec Court of Appeal after having served on the Quebec Superior Court between 2004 and 2011. Before that he practised commercial law in Montreal for 25 years.
“To be the chief justice you have to know the machine. And he knows the machine,” said Pierre Dalphond, a former justice on the Quebec Court of Appeal.
While a Superior Court justice he presided over a number of high-profile cases in Quebec before Stephen Harper tapped him for the Supreme Court.
He is perhaps best known for handing a heavy prison sentence — 13 years — to the white-collar fraudster Vincent Lacroix, who masterminded a scam that cheated 9,200 investors out of $115 million.
That case contributed to his reputation as slightly more conservative on criminal justice matters than his fellow Supreme Court justices.
But long-time colleagues of Wagner stressed he doesn’t fit easily within any left-right divide.
“On questions of applying the charter he has a very open, very liberal vision,” said Raymond Doray, who practised law with Wagner for several years at the Montreal firm Lavery.
When Wagner was first named to the Supreme Court, he appeared before a House of Commons committee, where he made a passionate defence for the independence of the justice system from political meddling.
“When the state abuses its power, he is generally willing to see the state’s behaviour sanctioned,” said Doray.
Ambassador of the justice system
Wagner also has a reputation within Quebec legal circles as a good communicator, which is seen as an essential quality for the chief justice. Along with presiding over the court’s busy schedule of hearings, the chief justice is expected to serve as an ambassador for the Canadian justice system as a whole.
Former colleagues describe Wagner as a hard-worker — arriving at the office as early as 5 a.m. — but also collegial, a consensus-builder and a “bon vivant.”
“I think he’ll be good at taking on the role of representing the court,” said Dalphond. “He’s always been a good speaker.”
Those diplomatic skills will be an asset for the chief justice in Quebec, where the Supreme Court can sometimes be seen as a “foreign institution,” said Doray.
“There are people who have always thought of the Supreme Court as espousing the centralizing vision of Canada,” he added.
“Justice Wagner is not part of that movement. He’s a defender of co-operative federalism and respecting provincial jurisdiction. That’s reassuring for Quebec.”