The judicial workplace

Many workplaces have written and unwritten rules — dress codes, face time requirements, and informal norms about appropriate behavior. Courthouses are no different, and the most fundamental rule for judges is to always maintain the appearance of impartiality.

These rules are so well-engrained that it remains surprising when they are flaunted — as was the case last November when a judge in Ontario appeared on the bench wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Judge Bernd Zabel, a Canadian citizen and Donald Trump supporter, claimed that he was simply joking with his colleagues, who were predominantly supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Judge Zabel is, of course, absolutely entitled to his opinions and political beliefs. But this is not even a close call.  No more than we would condone a judge wearing a local team’s baseball cap, or affixing a button or ribbon supporting a particular cause to her robe, the public should not condone ostensibly political statements or clothing, even if meant as a joke.

I have routinely remarked on this blog that judges are human beings, with their own likes and dislikes, passions and interests.  That is to be applauded — no one is looking for justice from emotionless automatons.  But the judicial uniform — whether the honest black polyester of the American judge or the black or red robes of the Canadian judge — carries a reminder that judges must set aside those interests and beliefs as much as possible when they appear on the bench.

Judge Zabel faces a disciplinary hearing in August.

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