Ricardo G. Federico In The News

Ontario judge wore Trump hat to be ‘humorous,’ court hears

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web-judge-trump-0823A judge who wore a Donald Trump campaign hat into court on the morning after the U.S. election says he is not the horrible person portrayed in the record 81 complaints to a judicial disciplinary body.

“The man depicted in those complaints is not me,” a calm, composed Justice Bernd Zabel of the Ontario Court in Hamilton told a four-member panel set up by the Ontario Judicial Council. “I’m not a racist, I’m not a bigot. I’m not a misogynist.” He said he had only wanted to “lighten things up with the hat that looked ridiculous on me,” and was shocked by the complaints, which he described as “heard around the world,” and the most unexpected event of his life.

“What I learned was something I thought was humorous can be interpreted in a much different way.”

The 69-year-old judge, who has 27 years on the bench, agreed with the complainants that he committed misconduct by violating the judicial code requiring impartiality when he briefly wore the hat in court. The question now for the judicial council is whether he deserves a warning, or a suspension, or even a recommendation to Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi that he be removed. It is believed to be the first case of a Canadian judge whose job is at stake over alleged partisanship.

The panel, which includes two judges, a lawyer and a community member, reserved its decision.

A key issue will be the panel’s interpretation of a comment Justice Zabel made at the end of the court day, which by the description of his lawyer, Ricardo Federico, he did not expect would be picked up on the court’s audio equipment. In response to a prosecutor’s comment about the hat, he said that other judges in the courthouse were “pissed off” Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. election, and that he was the only Trump supporter. At the disciplinary hearing, he explained he had been “gloating” to his colleagues over having predicted a Trump victory, and was not expressing true support for Mr. Trump.

Linda Rothstein, a lawyer presenting the case against him, challenged Justice Zabel’s interpretation, saying that “he has made a career making sure words matter.” Those words “celebrated” Mr. Trump’s election victory, she said.

She accused the judge of withholding information about the comment, which had not been included in initial news coverage of his conduct that day, when he made a public apology on Nov. 15, and when he made a statement to the Ontario Judicial Council in January. This failure to be upfront aggravated his offence, she said.

“His statement minimized his conduct.” She said the Supreme Court of Canada has described judges as the “pillar” of the justice system, and said they must embody the values protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Another issue is whether wearing the Trump hat was a more serious offence than it would have been to wear a hat of a different political stripe. Ms. Rothstein said it was. She said he had associated himself with a politician who has expressed racist and misogynist views.

“Many if not most Ontarians would view Trump as inconsistent with Canadian values.”