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Two Ontario judges frontrunners for Supreme Court vacancies

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A pair of senior Ontario judges are emerging as leading contenders in a contest to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Within Ontario's gossipy legal community, a belief has taken root that Ontario Court of Appeal judges Andromache Karakatsanis and Robert Sharpe are in the lead.

The two would bring very different attributes to the Supreme Court. Judge Karakatsanis came to the bench after a career as a top public servant in the Ontario government, while Judge Sharpe is an academic and a prolific author of judgments and legal books.

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The vacancies have given Prime Minister Stephen Harper an opportunity to put his stamp on the court for many years to come. Legal observers believe he will favour candidates in their late 50s who can steer the course of the court for the next 20 years.

The contenders seen as the strongest are those with support in Conservative backrooms and a track record of conservative decision-making. One will likely be a woman. Mr. Harper is also thought to be debating the optics and merits of appointing an aboriginal or member of a visible minority.

Judge Karakatsanis would likely take a deferential approach to legislation - a key attribute in Mr. Harper's eyes. She is bilingual, and her appointment would be applauded in the Greek community and satisfy clamouring for a female judge. Her superb connections include Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, her one-time boss at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General.

"I think she has a lock on it if she wants it," said a veteran Toronto litigator who is regularly consulted about judicial vacancies. "Beyond that, it's anybody's guess."

However, Judge Karakatsanis is also thought to be a leading candidate for Chief Justice of Ontario when the position comes vacant in three years - a less arduous job which does not involve the same degree of isolation.

Judge Sharpe is bilingual and highly respected for his legal acumen and good sense. He is also personable, down-to-earth and hard-working - three crucially important traits on a bench of nine judges who work in an intense environment. He is a former law dean at the University of Toronto, and two of his former students include Tory heavyweight Tony Clement and Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

Since Justice Department officials consult broadly within the legal community prior to an appointment, names bandied about go beyond mere speculation, as they also do when a candidate slips off the list through lack of enthusiasm, linguistic deficiencies, age or affiliation to the wrong political parties.

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Federal Court of Appeal Judge David Stratas and Mr. Justice James MacPherson of the Ontario Court of Appeal are also considered serious contenders for the seats that will be vacated in August by Mr. Justice Ian Binnie and Madam Justice Louise Charron.

Judge Stratas is a former Bay Street constitutional expert with a conservative streak, a prodigious work ethic and an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. A sparkling writer and an engaging personality, he would play a central role in oral arguments in the Supreme Court and would provide leadership in the back chambers. He is studying French but has yet to become fully bilingual.

Judge MacPherson, a former dean of law at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, is fond of cutting to the chase during court hearings with tough, blunt questioning. Bilingual, affable and well-versed in the law, he would also wade into the fray of oral argument.

Two candidates are mentioned less often, yet have strong credentials and an intriguing logic to their candidacy: Mr. Justice Russell Juriansz of the Ontario Court of Appeal and prosecutor Michal Fairburn of the Ontario Attorney-General's Crown Law Office.

Born in India, Judge Juriansz is hard-working, conservative and extremely computer-savvy. His background in human-rights law may or may not give Mr. Harper pause, but the prospect of making history and pleasing the Indo-Canadian community with the first appointment of a visible minority judge could prove difficult for Mr. Harper to resist.

Ms. Fairburn is a formidable litigator who exudes confidence and ability. Well-known at all levels of court, she is respected by opponents and the judiciary alike and would be seen as an apt replacement for Judge Charron, a one-time prosecutor.

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Pressure is stronger than ever to appoint an aboriginal judge. The most visible candidate, Mr. Justice Harry Laforme of the Ontario Court of Appeal, is seen to have ruined his chances by abruptly resigning from the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.

The other logical candidate, Mr. Justice Todd Ducharme of Ontario Superior Court, is a sharp, savvy former defence lawyer with a masters in law from Yale University.

Among the other contenders:

  • Bay Street litigator Sheila Block.
  • Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk of the Ontario Court of Appeal, an outstanding but unilingual jurist.
  • Madame Justice Gloria Epstein of the Ontario Court of Appeal, who may otherwise become Chief Justice of Ontario when the position becomes vacant.
  • Guy Pratte, an Ottawa corporate and commercial lawyer who acted as lead counsel for Brian Mulroney at the Oliphant Commission.
  • Mr. Justice David Brown of Ontario Superior Court, a fundamentalist Christian who won respect as a judge after coming from a successful Bay Street practice.
  • Mr. Justice Marc Rosenberg of the Ontario Court of Appeal, arguably the leading criminal law mind in the country, but also a critic of Conservative crime policies.
  • Ontario Court of Appeal judges Robert Blair, David Doherty and Michael Moldaver are viewed as viable candidates. However, age may not be on their side.

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About the Author
Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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