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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews waits to appear before the Public Safety committee Thursday March 21, 2013 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Vic Toews, a former Conservative justice minister, has been appointed to Manitoba's top trial court, setting up a possible candidacy for the Supreme Court of Canada, which will have a vacancy from the West within two years.

Mr. Toews, 61, who retired from the government last July, is known for tough-on-crime legislation and his criticism of activist judges. Ten years ago, in a speech called "Abuse of the Charter by the Supreme Court" at an anti-abortion conference in Winnipeg, he praised the work of the conservative U.S. scholar Robert Bork, who said judges were imposing a set of values upon the American people.

"I submit that it's no different in Canada," Mr. Toews said.

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The appointment, made by Justice Minister Peter MacKay, drew mixed reactions. Law dean Lorna Turnbull of the University of Manitoba said Mr. Toews was a respected justice minister and had a distinguished career that included teaching at law at the school. But DeLloyd Guth, a legal historian at that school, said the appointment violated a convention that politicians not be named to the bench within two years of leaving government.

"The gall of this is just unspeakable," he said. As for appointment to the Supreme Court when Justice Marshall Rothstein of Manitoba reaches retirement age on Christmas Day, 2015, he said, "I certainly see that coming."

He is not the only one who does.

"Toews' name is likely to be on the list" of candidates for the Supreme Court, said Peter Russell, a political scientist who has written books about the court.

Both pointed to changes the Conservative government made to the rules for screening judges that removed the category "highly qualified" and left a screening committee to set a low bar – dividing applicants into the qualified and the unqualified.

Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said nothing is illegitimate about a judicial appointment that is political "as long as it's meritorious." She said: "He's a smart man; he was very well respected as a constitutional law lawyer before he went into politics." She also said he has been deeply involved in policy development for the past two decades. "That has to count for something."

Mr. Toews went to Ottawa as a Canadian Alliance MP in 2000 and was a prominent critic of the Liberals on law-and-order files, including the gun registry, during his six years in opposition. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named him his government's first justice minister. In that job, he introduced a wide range of legislation featuring new mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes.

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Some of his more controversial comments came during his three-and-a-half years as minister of public safety from January, 2010, until he left federal politics in July, 2013. In advocating for new police surveillance legislation in February, 2012, Mr. Toews told opposition MPs they "can either stand with us or with the child pornographers."

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