Trudeau appoints Richard Wagner as chief justice of Supreme Court

Trudeau appoints Richard Wagner as chief justice of Supreme Court

OTTAWA — Montreal-born Richard Wagner, a self-proclaimed advocate of judicial independence, will become the next chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday.

Wagner, 60, was called to the Quebec bar in 1980 and practised law until being appointed to the Quebec Superior Court in 2004. He sat in the civil, commercial and criminal divisions of the court until 2011 when he was appointed to the Quebec Court of Appeal.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper named him to the Supreme Court only five years ago, giving Wagner another 15 years to define his legacy as chief justice before the court’s mandatory retirement rule kicks in.

Wagner’s age may have given him an edge for the job over Rosalie Abella, 71, who was widely seen as the other leading contender for the position. Trudeau had been under pressure to name a Quebecer as chief, in keeping with the tradition of alternating between a civil code jurist from Quebec and a common-law one.

In that respect, the prime minister’s choice was likely limited by consideration of experience — the other two Quebec judges on the court were appointed just three years ago.

The current chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, is stepping down Friday after 28 years on the court, including almost 18 years as chief. McLachlin, 74, is the first woman to hold the top job on the high court and also Canada’s longest-serving chief justice.

Wagner is slated to take the oath of office as chief justice next Monday.

In a statement Tuesday, Trudeau said he has the utmost confidence in Wagner’s ability to lead the court.

“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,” Trudeau said.

The chief justice fosters decision-making by consensus on the court, holds many leadership and administrative responsibilities and represents the Canadian judiciary at home and abroad, the Prime Minister’s Office noted.

Trudeau spoke with Wagner on Monday night. Before choosing the chief justice, he consulted McLachlin, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and leading members of the Canadian legal community.

Wilson-Raybould praised McLachlin as a galvanizing force on the court who served as an admirable ambassador, adding Wagner has many of the same qualities.

“He is known for his collegial nature, being able to get along with people, and this is particularly important in terms of the highest court of the land,” Wilson-Raybould said.

“As the chief justice, Beverley McLachlin leaves incredible shoes to fill, and I think that there are similarities but I’m confident that Justice Wagner will chart his own path, and it will be a positive path for the Supreme Court.”

Wagner is a firm believer in the independence of judges, once saying that “the judiciary is only accountable to the person subject to trial.”

He has long been familiar with the glare of publicity as the middle child of former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister and one-time federal Conservative leadership candidate Claude Wagner.

Controversy ensued last summer after Wagner denied four LGBTQ groups an opportunity to intervene in a case about a Christian law school. Notably, the judge took the rare step of explaining his decision to a newspaper reporter, insisting he was not trying to exclude voices.

“He doesn’t seem to be afraid to engage in the public sphere. We’ll see if that continues as chief,” said Carissima Mathen, a vice-dean of law at the University of Ottawa, Wagner’s alma mater.

Wagner’s rulings have leaned to “the more conservative side” on matters of criminal law, noted Mathen, who has provided advice to the Prime Minister’s Office since 2016 concerning Supreme Court appointments.

For instance, he was in the dissenting minority on high-profile decisions that struck down mandatory sentences for certain gun crimes and established timelines for completion of criminal trials to ensure fairness to the accused.

However, Wagner has signed on to charter-related high court judgments striking down key elements of Canada’s prostitution laws and the prohibition on doctor-assisted death.

Supreme Court

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta is on pace to administer more than 300,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, according to the provincial government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
One million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Alberta

Alberta hit a milestone in the fight against COVID-19 this week. As… Continue reading

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Interior work will start this year on Red Deer hospital project, says infrastructure minister

‘We are committed. This is a top priority,’ says Presad Panda

Even with recent restrictions due to rising COVID-19 variant case levels, about 95 per cent of businesses are open in Alberta, said Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Consistent pandemic policy has helped Alberta, premier says

Alberta fatality rate lower than Canadian average

People play on the rocks on a calm Lake Ontario near Humber Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

In this Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Charlie Riedel
Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

People wear face masks as they walk in a park in Montreal, Sunday, April 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Premier Francois Legault softens rules for outdoor mask use following criticism

Premier Francois Legault softens rules for outdoor mask use following criticism

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The Alberta government says schools in Calgary will move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
‘Operational pressures:’ Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

‘Operational pressures:’ Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on April 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Italian-Canadians to get formal apology for treatment during Second World War

Italian-Canadians to get formal apology for treatment during Second World War

Heartfelt messages are left on a table as people come out to mark International Overdose Awareness Day during a mass group naloxone training seminar at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. nbsp;When British Columbia's provincial health officer declared an emergency into the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response. Since then, Dr. Perry Kendall says roughly 7,000 died unnecessarily. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
7,000 more overdose deaths since B.C. declared public health emergency in 2016

7,000 more overdose deaths since B.C. declared public health emergency in 2016

A vial of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine dose is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Ontario sees vaccine supply issues, Ottawa keeps AstraZeneca on the market

Ontario sees vaccine supply issues, Ottawa keeps AstraZeneca on the market

Storage tanks are shown at the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in Detroit on April 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Sancya
U.S. oil comprised 77 per cent of Canada’s foreign oil imports last year: regulator

U.S. oil comprised 77 per cent of Canada’s foreign oil imports last year: regulator

Most Read