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Canada’s newest Supreme Court judge pitches his street smarts

Justice Richard Wagner appears at a committee on his appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The country's newest Supreme Court of Canada judge, Mr. Justice Richard Wagner, turned inexperience into a virtue on Thursday, telling a parliamentary committee that he will bring to the top court a practising lawyer's sense of street savvy.

With just eight years of judging under his belt, Judge Wagner said the 27 years he spent in the legal trenches as a top Montreal civil litigator gave him a finely-honed sense of lawyers' behaviour.

"As trial lawyers, we were in the line of fire," he said. "We had to resolve problems of an immediate nature. That knowledge will be useful to me in terms of why people make certain applications in court and what lies behind various cases."

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Addressing another area of expertise that is in short supply on the Supreme Court – knowledge of criminal law – Judge Wagner said that he embraced the challenge of criminal trials as soon as he was appointed to Quebec Superior Court in 2004.

"It was a new experience in my life," he told the all-party committee.

"I worked quite hard and had the satisfaction of presiding over trials by jury. I believe I will be able to share these skills with my colleagues at the Supreme Court."

The committee cannot stall or negate Judge Wagner's appointment. Its purpose is to ask questions that can bring transparency and accountability to an otherwise opaque appointment process.

The three-hour session was polite and non-confrontational. Judge Wagner provided insight into his views on judicial activism, harsh sentences and barriers to the court system.

He described access to justice as "the biggest challenge to our judicial system."

Trial delays and the unavailability of legal aid are some of the most blatant manifestations of a problem that cries out for resolution, he said.

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Judge Wagner also asserted that judges need to remember their place in a democracy: "The creation of laws is for you, Members of Parliament, to do," he said. "It is not up to judges."

While judges must avoid commenting on political matters, he added, "we also don't want politicians to meddle in areas of the judiciary."

The 55-year old jurist described sentencing as the most difficult task for a trial judge.

"I always looks at fairness," he said. "Sometimes, a fair sentence can be harsh punishment. But a fair sentence can be lenient, too."

Judge Wagner said aboriginals were left out of the national discourse for far too long and credited key judgments from the Supreme Court of Canada for ending this injustice.

He strongly endorsed the notion that judges should appear in public, speak out about how justice is administered and avoid maintaining a Sphinx-like silence.

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In an introductory statement, Judge Wagner described himself today as a child of privilege who dreamed of becoming a civil litigator.

Judge Wagner said that his father, Conservative Party stalwart Claude Wagner, taught him the value of legal principle and public service.

Judge Wagner's first attempt at advocacy came early, he said, when he was still a political science student at the University of Ottawa.

Informed that he could not enroll simultaneously in the law faculty because of a long-standing university regulation, Judge Wagner refused to accept defeat.

"I did a lot of research and found there was no such rule," he told the committee. "I could enroll in several faculties at once."

As much as he enjoyed the cut and thrust of courtroom advocacy, Judge Wagner said he also has a strong attraction to mediation and consensus.

He attributed it to being the second of three children who grew up in a typical matriarchal home.

"I learned how to compromise," he said.

Thursday's hearing was the fourth for a Supreme Court appointee.

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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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