Prime Minister Stephen Harper's hastily announced nominee to fill a Supreme Court of Canada vacancy - Nova Scotia Court of Appeal Judge Thomas Cromwell - was widely hailed yesterday as a dream candidate who excels at writing and pinpointing the crux of a case.
Judges, lawyers and academics unhesitatingly endorsed Mr. Harper's description his nominee as "well qualified to serve on the country's highest court."
However, praise for the sudden nomination of Judge Cromwell was quickly obscured by anger over Mr. Harper's decision to bypass a parliamentary advisory committee and to perpetuate Newfoundland's status as the only province that has never supplied a Supreme Court judge.
"Stephen Harper continues to treat this province with disdain and disrespect," Newfoundland Justice Minister Jerome Kennedy said in an interview. "The constitutional convention is such that this was our turn. But he, in effect, is saying that we don't have qualified candidates."
Mr. Kennedy complained that he was set to appear before the advisory committee next Wednesday to argue for a Newfoundland nominee. Despite spending the past two days sitting alongside him at a justice ministers conference, Mr. Kennedy said that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson "never once had the guts to tell me what was happening."
Meanwhile, NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said Mr. Harper had reneged on a commitment to choose from a list of three final candidates forwarded to him, after vetting, by the all-party advisory committee.
"It takes decades for a constitutional convention to take root, and what they have done is put that process back," Mr. Comartin said in an interview. "We'll have to start all over again."
Peter Russell, a political scientist who specializes in judicial affairs, also blasted the federal move yesterday: "They should be held accountable if they have abandoned that step," he said. "Did they draw Cromwell's name out of a hat? Is he a buddy of Nicholson? They have an obligation to tell us what happened."
With an election to be called tomorrow, Judge Cromwell will not face questions from a parliamentary committee until after the Oct. 14 election.
Raised in Kingston, Judge Cromwell, 56, has a wife and one son. Fluently bilingual, he once acted as executive legal officer to former chief justice Antonio Lamer. After graduating in law in 1979, he spent a decade in legal practice before embarking on a 15-year stint as a Dalhousie University law professor.
"He was one of the best classroom teachers I've ever had," said Dalhousie's current dean of law, Philip Saunders. "He is a superb writer who thinks very logically, very clearly and very analytically. He also has a very dry and effective sense of humour."
Mr. Justice James MacPherson, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge with Nova Scotia roots, said that Judge Cromwell "is as good a possible appointment as could be made."
"He knows a lot about all of the core areas of law and is a real expert in all of them," Judge MacPherson said. "He is also one of the best writers in the country, one of the most prolific writers in the country and one of the fastest writers in the country. He is widely regarded as a middle-of-the-road judge - what I would call a judge's judge. There is nothing ideological about him."
John Merrick, a Halifax lawyer, predicted that it would be impossible to find a single naysayer. "I think it's a straight-up, merit appointment," Mr. Merrick said. "He has a very sharp mind and grasps strong and weak points in an argument. He isn't confused or distracted by puffery or fluff."
The only whiff of negativity yesterday came from a legal academic who spoke on a basis of anonymity. Judge Cromwell "tends toward the conservative side, but is not by any means an extremist," he said. "One hopes that, with the security of an appointment, he may surprise us by looking a little bit more on the liberal side."
Mr. Comartin stressed that Judge Cromwell "is eminently qualified. He has a varied background and is probably in the moderate-centre when it comes to decision-making. He isn't extreme left or right."
However, Mr. Comartin complained that "there is no question the government was committed" to the vetting process created by the Paul Martin government several years ago.
"We were in process of doing it," he said. "They said they would follow the same process as last time. They were not absolutely bound to abide by this, but they certainly strongly implied they would only choose from the three names chosen from the parliamentary committee."