Is discipline in order for an Ontario judge who went shopping wearing a “Make American Great Again” t-shirt? What about a judge sitting in court the day after the American election wearing a baseball cap with the same logo?
Local resident Lorne Warwick was also shopping when he saw Justice Toni Skarica, of Ontario’s Superior Court, with the allegedly offensive t-shirt, describing his attire as “shocking” and a “flagrant display” of support for a politician who openly discriminated against Mexicans and Muslims. Mr. Warwick complained to the Canadian Judicial Council, suggesting that Judge Skarica’s fashion choice represented a breach of impartiality rules for judges.
In a letter dismissing Mr. Warwick’s complaint the Canadian Judicial Council referred to his concerns that President Trump was a serial liar, racist, and demagogue and that Judge Skarica’s “embrace” of such a man rendered him unfit to be an impartial arbiter for Canadian citizens before his Court.
The Council was persuaded by Judge Skarica that the t-shirt was simply historical memorabilia that had been given to him by his brother who had been in Washington, DC. He had worn the shirt to show a friend and without thinking, wore it to the grocery store. He confirmed he had not participated in the Trump campaign, had not donated monies, and had never been engaged in activities with the Republican party. Most importantly, he vehemently denied he was a racist.
However, the story for Judge Bernd Zabel is markedly different. He’s the judge that wore a Trump baseball hat in court on November 9, 2016. He apologized for his admitted “lapse in judgment” characterizing it as an attempt at failed humour. He also said:
“This gesture was not intended in any way as a political statement or endorsement of any political views, and, in particular, the views and comments of Donald Trump. I very much regret that it has been taken as such,” he said.
However, a transcript from the court proceedings revealed his support of Donald Trump:
“Brief appearance with the hat. Pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so. I was the only Trump supporter up there but that’s okay,”
“Just in celebration of a historic night in the United States. Unprecedented”
Interviewed by the Toronto Star newspaper, Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association opined:
“Judges like Zabel are outliers in an otherwise elite court led by an innovative and hard-working chief justice. He should have matched their demanding work ethic, read their judgments, or sought their wise counsel,…
Instead, he has besmirched his position and embarrassed his colleagues and he should step down immediately, pending judicial council review, if he has any respect left for the court, and the public.”
A record number of 81 complaints to the Ontario Judicial Council followed, resulting in a directive that Judge Zabel no longer conducting court hearings. His conduct is the subject of a hearing before the Council scheduled for August 23, 2017.
Admittedly Judge Bernd Zabel has called into question his ability to impartially adjudicate matters that come before him, particularly where they involve visible minorities or members of the LGBTQ community. Judges hold a place of honour and prestige in Canadian communities and the slightest taint of bias is sufficient to attract pointed scrutiny and perhaps severe discipline.
Sitting since 1990, Judge Zabel is an experienced jurist who crossed the line, although it should be pointed out that support of Donald Trump does not necessarily mean that a Trump fan endorses every part of his philosophy. Nonetheless, it is one thing for a lay person to support Mr. Trump, but quite another for a judge from the bench to endorse a politician of any stripe.
It remains to be seen whether Judge Zabel’s behaviour results in his removal from the bench.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang