Former Supreme Court Justice William Stevenson dies at 87

Former Supreme Court Justice William Stevenson, who started the Alberta Law Review, served on four courts and shaped the careers of generations of lawyers, died in Edmonton on July 7. He was 87.

Months after recovering from COVID-19, family members said he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in June.

Stevenson was appointed to the District Court of Alberta in 1975 and became a Court of Queen’s Bench justice when the courts merged in 1979.

The next year, he was elevated to the Courts of Appeal of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and in 1990, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In a statement last week, Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner said that Stevenson’s “contributions to the law in both Alberta and Canada were considerable.”

“I’ve heard many lawyers and judges refer to him as an icon,” said his daughter Vivian Stevenson, who followed her father into the profession. 

“He has touched the legal profession in so many ways, not just in the decisions that he wrote, but in institutions that he helped found,” she said in an interview with CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active.

Radio Active8:05Remembering an influential Edmonton judge

Two of Bill Stevenson’s children tell us about their father’s path to the Supreme Court of Canada. 8:05

William Alexander Stevenson was born in Edmonton on May 7, 1934, the only child of parents Alexander Lindsay Stevenson and Eileen Harriet Burns. 

His children recently learned that in his valedictory speech for Eastwood High School’s class of 1951, he said he hoped to make law and a family his life’s work.

Stevenson, a gold-medal winning student, earned a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of laws from the University of Alberta, where he helped start the Alberta Law Review and served as its first editor-in-chief. 

Stevenson articled with Morrow, Morrow & Reynolds and joined the firm after being called to the bar in 1958.

One of the highlights of his career came early, in 1959, when he and his colleagues, led by Bill Morrow, argued the last Canadian appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England.

As a young lawyer, Stevenson worked on the last case from Canada that was appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England. (Submitted by Vivian Stevenson)

Married in 1961, he and his wife Patricia had four children: two daughters and two sons.

Stevenson taught at the U of A’s law school for many years, including as a full-time professor from 1968 until 1970.

Those close to him knew mentoring young lawyers was one of his passions.

“He would take students and young people under his wing,” said Sonny Mirth, a partner at what is now called Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer. (One of the firm’s board rooms is named after Stevenson). 

“He was never harsh, never difficult with them, but focused on educating everybody,” Mirth said.

Retired Court of Appeal Justice Jean Côté, who took courses taught by Stevenson in law school and later worked with him, said he was a natural teacher.

Over coffee or lunch, “you just absorbed so much by listening,” he recalled.

Stevenson helped establish the Legal Education Society of Alberta and the National Judicial Institute.

With Côté, he wrote annotations of the Alberta Rules of Court, a document that evolved over the years, eventually becoming a five-volume encyclopedia of civil procedure.

Bill Stevenson on a trip with his family. (Submitted by Vivian Stevenson)

In a speech delivered at an Alberta Law Review event in 2018, Supreme Court Justice Russell Brown described Stevenson’s judgments as “models of uncommonly fine legal writing, characterized by economical, pithy, and scrupulous legal analysis” and “the product of an uncommonly fine legal mind.”

Though that mind remained sharp, his children said their father’s career was cut short by his deteriorating physical health. Diagnosed with a progressively degenerative neurological condition, he stepped down from the Supreme Court on June 5, 1992.

Later that year, he received an honorary doctor of laws from the U of A, and in 1996, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Many lawyers will remember Stevenson as a judge or mentor, but to his children, he was just dad. He prepared their brown-bag lunches every day before driving to the courthouse in his Honda Accord.

Despite his professional stature, his son, James, recalled that for many years, he was not the most well-known “Bill Stevenson” in Edmonton — a local football player had the same name — and the judge liked it that way.

“He stayed under the radar because that was who he was,” he said.

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