OTTAWA – An impartial, independent and credible judiciary is critical to sustaining Canada’s democracy, says the latest nominee to the country’s top court.
Quebec Justice Richard Wagner appeared before a House of Commons committee Thursday where his appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada was ostensibly being vetted by MPs.
The proceedings, however, were less a job interview than a coming-out party.
“We all know we are here to introduce you to Canada,” NDP critic Francoise Boivin dryly observed.
The 55-year-old Wagner handled the task with humour and elan, not surprising given his upbringing as the middle child of former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister and one-time federal Conservative leadership candidate Claude Wagner.
At one point he noted he’d won a bar association post with 91 per cent of the vote: “If only you could be so lucky,” Wagner gently ribbed the committee’s MPs.
He recounted his “privileged background” and a “very traditional childhood” with a stay-at-home mother, while joking that his first court experience was at age seven. “Don’t worry, I was not a juvenile delinquent.”
But the justice from the Quebec Superior Court of Appeal also burnished his own bona fides with a very serious pitch.
He said judges, lawyers and governments all need to do their part to maintain the credibility of the courts.
Citing his own writings from last November, Wagner said he “reminded people that the sustainability of our democracy and the respect of its fundamental values — including freedom of expression — was largely due to the impartiality of the judiciary, of its independence, and especially of its credibility.”
“I am a fervent advocate of the independence of courts,” said Wagner, adding that “the judiciary is only accountable to the person subject to trial.”
Such sentiments might appear to sit uneasily with certain Conservatives, who have loudly complained for years about “judge-made law.”
Under questioning from Conservative MPs, Wagner stressed that “courts must apply the law. It is up to parliamentarians to enact legislation, it is not up to the courts to do so in their place.”
But he refused to bite when Conservative MP Scott Reid asked about whether judges should be interpreting the Constitution.
“It is quite possible — not possible, probable — that the Supreme Court will be called again to interpret the Constitution,” said Wagner.
“With all due respect, I would like to be part of that debate and that decision, so I would prefer not to comment on this question.”
Wagner also had an interesting take on sentencing, given the Conservative government’s plethora of criminal justice bills containing mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes.
“It’s a difficult process, it’s a sensitive process, because it calls for an amount of discretion — not for arbitrary decision, but judicial discretion. And that’s not easy,” he told Conservative MP Greg Rickford.
“I always preferred to look at it under the light of fairness. Is the sentence fair given all the circumstances?”
Ontario courts have twice struck down mandatory minimum sentences this year as being unconstitutional, cases that may wind their way to the Supreme Court and Wagner’s purview at some point.
The main objection to Wagner’s appointment appears to be his gender, as there will now be six men and only three women on the top court.
“The only criticisms? Well, you’re not a woman and I can’t blame you for that,” said the NDP’s Boivin.