Prime Minister Stephen Harper has strengthened his imprint on the Supreme Court of Canada bench, naming a centrist judge from Quebec – Mr. Justice Richard Wagner – as his fifth appointment to the nine-judge bench since the Tories came to power in 2006.
In choosing a man to replace departing judge Marie Deschamps and reducing the number of women on the bench to three, Mr. Harper risked controversy. Four of his five appointments to the court have been men.
The appointment provides the court with a popular, well-respected leader from Montreal's civil and commercial litigation bar.
Judge Wagner, 55, also has a Conservative pedigree. The son of former Quebec Progressive Conservative Party stalwart Claude Wagner, Judge Wagner is seen as a self-confident, ambitious man who has flourished at every level of his career.
"He is an excellent choice," George Hendy, a Montreal civil litigator with Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, LLP, said after Tuesday's announcement. "He is a very highly regarded judge."
Based on Judge Wagner's relatively short judicial record and impressions from friends and acquaintances, he is likely to be a court centrist who is neither staunchly conservative nor a strong believer in advancing the law through creative judgments.
One-time law partner Denis Ferland said Judge Wagner is open-minded and approaches each case with no set viewpoint.
He said that his colleague displayed his work ethic and quick grasp of the law after being appointed to the Quebec Superior Court bench in 2004. With no experience in criminal law – a staple of most court benches – Judge Wagner quickly developed an affinity for tough criminal trials.
"He had a positive feeling about handling criminal matters and took a lot of interest in them," Mr. Ferland said. "I never got the feeling that he did it because he wanted to check a box on his to-do list."
In one of the most high-profile cases he dealt with after being elevated to the Quebec Court of Appeal last year, Judge Wagner refused bail to a former Quebec Court of Appeal judge, Jacques Delisle, who had been charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Nicole Rainville.
Mr. Delisle was later convicted.
By reducing the number of female judges, Mr. Harper appeared to rely on a broad sense within the Quebec legal community that he can redress the gender imbalance on the court over the next couple of years.
Two more Quebec vacancies will arise when Mr. Justice Morris Fish reaches mandatory retirement in 2013, and when Mr. Justice Louis LeBel retires in 2014.
Eugene Meehan, a lawyer with the Ottawa firm of Supreme Advocacy LLP, said that the gender issue is unlikely to loom large when Judge Wagner appears before a parliamentary committee on Thursday to be questioned by MPs before he is sworn in.
"The emphasis is more on talent, ability and experience," Mr. Meehan said. "Moving toward the best judge for the court – rather than the best gender representative – is a mark of juridical, as well as judicial, maturity as a country."
However, Queen's University law professor Kathy Lahey was critical of Mr. Harper. She noted said that only eight of more than 70 appointments in the history of the court have been women.
"If the current nomination succeeds, then four of the last five vacancies on the court will have been given to men," she said. "This reduces the diversity and equity reflected in the court, and sends the message that the wisdom and expertise of women lawyers and judges is still not valued equally with that of men in 21st-century Canada."
Known for his sociable, athletic and ambitious nature, Judge Wagner was on a list of three names provided to Mr. Harper by MPs on an all-party parliamentary search committee.
With his fifth Supreme Court appointment, Mr. Harper is well on the way to refashioning the very bench that will ultimately rule on the legitimacy of several controversial aspects of his criminal-law reform package.
The parliamentary review process Thursday will be used for the fourth time since it was introduced in 2006.