Colleagues celebrate 'brilliant legal mind' as Chief Justice Neil Wittmann retires

In his final week as chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Neil Wittmann is being celebrated by colleagues as a fierce advocate, a "brilliant legal mind" and a man whose love of animals is so great he signed-off on a plan to house the Calgary Zoo's lions in the basement cells of the courthouse if needed during the 2013 flood.

Wittman, who has been dogged in lobbying Ottawa for more appointments to this province's superior court, will have his last day as leader of Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench on Friday.

He is leaving his post and adding to his legacy with the federal government's announcement just weeks ago of four new judges who will fill vacancies at the Court of Queen's Bench, plus a commitment to add 12 more to Alberta's compliment.

"He cared about everyone's right to justice," said Justice William Tilleman. "That's a huge legacy."

Wittmann admits to feeling "some trepidation" about stepping aside but won't dwell on that for too long.

"I have mixed feelings about it, I like what I do," he said.

"On the other hand, there is some excitement... I've been approached by various people to do something afterward, which is a nice position to be in."

Redwater Energy decision 

One of the decisions Wittmann brought up as his most difficult was the recent case of Redwater Energy, which went into receivership in 2015, owing $5 million to ATB Financial.

Historically, producing wells had to be sold to pay the environmental clean-up costs of its abandoned wells but Wittmann found federal insolvency law trumps provincial energy regulations.

Just days ago, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld his decision to allow secured creditors to collect on debts ahead of well clean-up, which now places that burden on the Orphan Well Association, which is already overwhelmed and is expected to receive taxpayer funds.

"It's not that you are not aware of the policy, or the effect of your decision, it's that you're sworn to the law," said Wittmann just before the appeal court delivered its decision.

"You have to apply it, and you have to apply it objectively."

50th anniversary of graduating law school 

In Canada, Superior Court judges must retire by the age of 75. The father of three and grandfather of six is nine months away from that milestone.

"I think part of it is psychological in terms of me determining when I will leave," said Wittmann.

His wife of 25 years, provincial court Judge Catherine Skene, says her husband will likely "adapt very well" after passing the torch 

"I am very proud of Neil," said Skene. "He has done an exceptional job."

2017 marks 50 years since Wittmann graduated from law school.

A lawyer for more than three decades, Wittmann became a judge in 1999. Ten years later, Stephen Harper appointed Wittmann as chief justice.

A love of the law

"He's just a brilliant legal mind," said Tilleman. "I worked at his firm as an articling student 31 years ago, and I saw that then."

That sentiment is shared by colleagues.

"Neil was one of the top litigators in Alberta, probably in Canada before his appointment," said Justice Adele Kent.

Wittmann offers a glimpse into what drives his love of the law.

"The variation of problems is probably as endless as human nature," he said.

"There's always new problems, there's always new areas of legal development... so it's exciting if you like to solve problems."

Lions, tigers and leopards

A more personal glimpse of Wittmann is offered by by Kent, a close friend and executive director of the National Judicial Institute.

"The only sad thing I would say about him is he has this unfortunate love of country and western music," said Kent.

"Other than that he is a great guy; he's friendly, he's got a lot of humanity, we can tease him."

Some of Wittman's friends' favourite fodder stems from the 2013 Alberta floods when he signed off on an emergency plan to house the lions, tigers and leopards in the Calgary Courts Centre.

"One of his legacies I always loved to think about was when he agreed, during the big flood, to take the big cats into the holding cells in the basement of the courthouse," said Kent. "It never happened, but we all teased him a lot about that and, he was good about it."

Born during the war

In 1943, Wittmann's father was off fighting with the Canadian Army so his mother joined her family in Grande Prairie, where he was born.
 
After the war, Wittmann's father returned to work as a banker taking the family from Calgary to Wainwright to Winnipeg to Lethbridge before returning to Calgary. 

"Looking back on it I don't regret it, it gives you a sense of what things are like in different communities and different places... it makes you integrate into the community, make new friends," he said.

After graduating with a commerce degree, Wittmann says his father — who had never attended university — didn't initially understand why he would go back to school.

"I can remember telling them, 'well I think I'm going to law school', and the response was, 'why don't you go out and get a job?'" said Wittmann laughing. "I think they ended up being quite pleased about it."

'You have to do what you think is right'

Though rumours are swirling as to who will succeed Wittmann, Ottawa has not yet signaled when that announcement will be made. 

Either way, Friday is Wittmann's last day and the man who values integrity and candour above all other qualities says he's confident his successor "will improve" on what he's accomplished.

"I am very proud of our court, and make no mistake, that has nothing to do with me," said Wittmann. "The judges here are dedicated, and very, very smart."

Wittmann describes the toughest cases he's presided over as the ones that provided "anxious moments" and "thoughtful moments" — some criminal, some civil, in each the stakes were high and a carefully crafted decision required. 

"You have to accept that maybe you're wrong, but you have to do what you think is right," he said.

- MORE CALGARY NEWS | Expanded NICU set to open at Peter Lougheed Centre

- MORE CALGARY NEWS | Stockholm's Olympic exit won't affect Calgary's potential 2026 bid, local officials say

Correction : An earlier version of this story referred to Neil Wittmann as Alberta's chief justice. In fact, he is the chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. The Alberta Court of Appeal's Catherine Fraser is the chief justice of Alberta.(Apr 27, 2017 5:06 PM)