Canada taps Alberta judge to fill spot on country's high court

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday tapped an Alberta judge for the country’s Supreme Court, filling the spot that will open when the chief justice retires next month with someone who is seen taking a progressive view of the court’s role.

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court of Canada sits empty before the start of an official welcome ceremony in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Trudeau did not say who will take over as Canada’s top judge when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin steps down on Dec. 15. McLachlin was the first woman to become chief justice and oversaw landmark rulings on topics such as same-sex marriage and prostitution.

The appointment of 60-year-old Sheilah Martin will maintain the gender split of the top court at four women to five men. Trudeau’s two-year-old Liberal government has made promoting gender equality in Cabinet and other institutions a major part of its mandate.

Martin could weigh in on some controversial issues that may make their way to the top court, including expected challenges to oil pipelines and Quebec’s recent law banning Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil when providing or receiving government services.

Carissima Mathen, law professor at the University of Ottawa, said Martin’s past work and questionnaire she submitted for the post suggest her philosophy is the court must both uphold the constitution and defend individuals’ rights.

“She would be more on the progressive end of the spectrum as far as Canadian judges would go,” Mathen said.

Supreme Court justices serve until they retire or reach age 75.

Born and raised in Montreal, Martin practiced criminal and constitutional litigation in Calgary from 1996 to 2005 and was appointed to Alberta’s top court in 2005.

She was appointed to the court of appeals of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut last year and has also served as a deputy judge for the Supreme Court of Yukon since 2009.

Martin was also part of a team that worked on finding a new way to address the harm caused previously by the forced attendance of indigenous children in residential schools, which contributed to a class-action settlement the former Conservative government agreed to in 2006.

Some had called for Trudeau to appoint an indigenous judge to fill the spot on Canada’s top court as the government aims to repair its relationship with First Nations communities.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is the first indigenous person to hold the job, praised Martin’s past work, saying Canada will someday see an indigenous judge on the Supreme Court.

Reporting by Leah Schnurr; editing by Jonathan Oatis, G Crosse