The Ontario Judicial Council has issued its disciplinary opinion regarding Justice Bernd Zabel, the Hamilton-based trial judge who wore a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball hat into his courtroom on the day after the U.S. presidential election last November. The hat, of course, is associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It is uncontested that Judge Zabel wore the hat into his courtroom, stated “Just in celebration of a historic night in the United States,” and then removed the hat, placing it on the dais with the MAGA phrase visible to all in the courtroom. He presided over about ten matters before taking a recess, at which point he removed the hat from the courtroom. The hat did not return after the recess.
Unsurprisingly, Judge Zabel’s behavior spurred sharp reactions, including 81 formal complaints from a variety of public interest organizations, lawyers, and law professors. (I informally critiqued his actions on this blog as well; see link above.) Interestingly, however, none of the formal complaints came from any lawyers or parties before Judge Zabel that day. Indeed, lawyers in the courtroom that day, and those who have appeared before Judge Zabel in the past, defended his overall judgment and integrity even as they classified the events of that morning to be a professional mistake.
Judge Zabel, too, quickly realized his error. After the Globe and Mail ran a story about the incident two days later, the judge made a public apology in his courtroom. He explained that he was trying to make a humorous gesture, that in retrospect it was entirely inappropriate, and that he sincerely regretted the decision. Later, Judge Zabel sought out private lessons on judicial ethics from another member of the bench.
The judge’s contrition notwithstanding, the Hearing Panel of the Ontario Judicial Council on Monday suspended Judge Zabel for 30 days without pay. This was the most severe sanction they could issue, short of removing the judge from office. In my view, it was too harsh a sanction, supported by surprisingly slipshod reasoning. More below.
Continue reading “Ontario judge who wore MAGA hat into his courtroom receives 30-day suspension without pay; did the Ontario Judicial Council overreact?”
Three federal judges in Canada have been cleared of wrongdoing after they attended sponsored social events at an international tax conference in Spain. The Canadian Judicial Council concluded that concerns that the judges’ attendance compromised their impartiality were “unfounded.”
The judges themselves were more sanguine about the signal their attendance might have sent. Judge R.S. Bocock, for example, recused himself from a pending case involving one of the sponsors, even though he was unaware of the conflict at the time he attended the sponsored event. Bocock stated,
“I have reflected on this entire matter….The potential for a conflict of interest in this matter seems remote; however, through inadvertence, the portrayal of a potential conflict, where all the facts are at first unknown, is possible,” said Bocock, in a letter sent to the complainant.
“As such, there are consequences, costs, and reputational risks to the judge, the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. Prudence and best practice would suggest that, in future, refraining from attending such off site sponsored conference receptions is a better and wiser choice. I certainly intend to follow this prudent conduct in the future.”
Judges often have to straddle a line on social occasions so as to not appear to favoring a particular party or law firm. The appearance of impartiality is so important that most judges choose to avoid more social events than they rightfully should. But there is no easy solution. Justice Abe Fortas reportedly said that “Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, or near as may be, an island entire.” The phrasing is a bit stiff, but there is plainly some truth to the observation.
I noted in May that Canadian authorities were weighing whether to mandate training on sexual assault and domestic violence cases for the country’s judges. That training has now begun for new judges, and the Toronto Star provides a thoughtful report here on how it operates.
The Ontario Court of Appeal has formally reprimanded a trial judge for repeatedly failing to give reasons for her decisions in a timely manner. The reprimand came after an appeal for a new trial in a domestic violence case filed in 2014. The judge acquitted the defendant, stating from the bench that she had been left with reasonable doubt as to his guilt. But the judge never provided written reasons for her decision–as was required–even after being asked repeatedly for them as late as September 2016. Citing several previous violations of the same judicial responsibility, the Court of Appeals concluded that “[t]he trial judge’s failure to give reasons, despite her repeated promises to do so, has frustrated the proper administration of justice.”
Whereas juries need not provide any justification for their decisions, it is part and parcel of the judicial role. The legitimacy of a judicial decision rests less on its ultimate accuracy and more on its ability to state principled reasons for the result in a clear and comprehensible way.
From the story:
The Canadian Judicial Council is pushing back against the idea of having sexual assault survivors and support organizations help develop training for aspiring and sitting judges, fearing it could interfere with the independence of those on the bench.
The requirement was a recent change to proposed legislation introduced by Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, whose Bill C-337 calls for would-be federally appointed judges to first undergo comprehensive training in sexual assault law.
Once enacted, the legislation would also require the council to report on continuing education courses on sexual assault law, including telling the government how many sexual assault cases were heard each year by judges who lack the training.
The Canadian Judicial Council issued a statement Tuesday saying it still believes the bill, which was sent to the Senate with all-party support Monday, goes too far.
“While the council has been clear from the beginning that it finds the objectives of the bill laudable, we continue to have some concerns about the constitutionality of some aspects of the proposed law which may infringe on judicial independence,” spokeswoman Johanna Laporte wrote in an email.
“Specifically, reporting the number of sexual assault cases heard by judges who have never participated in seminars and opening the door for special interest groups dictating the kinds of education judges should adopt.”
I’m curious what readers of this blog think. Similar issues arise in other contexts, such as the placement of allegedly defense-oriented or plaintiff-oriented attorneys on rules committees. Courts want to strike the proper balance between informing judges and indoctrinating them, but sometimes that general principle is hard to put into practice.
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.
Continue reading “The judicial workplace”