National Post

Tuesday, March 02, 1999

Judges say the darndest things

Elena Cherney
National Post

Public apologies from Canadian judges attempting to remove wayward feet from oversized mouths come in degrees from abject grovelling to a grudging "sorry" to the most heartfelt expression of regret.

Perhaps the best-known example of judicial foot-in-mouth disease -- until last week -- was that of Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie, who managed to give offence with a casual remark less than one month after his appointment to the country's top court in February, 1998.

Speaking to a group of 100 lawyers, law students, and judges in Toronto, Judge Binnie termed an initiation rite of the Phi Delta Phi legal fraternity a "faggoty dressup party." He quickly apologized, saying it was an "off-the-cuff" comment.

Judge Binnie's slip of the tongue came less than one year after Canada's top judge, Antonio Lamer, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was forced to explain a comment he made about Chinese men.

Judge Lamer, who was criticized by the Chinese Canadian National Council for calling Chinese men "tremendous gamblers," explained he was trying to illustrated how a judge can wrongly form a stereotype based on personal experience. Mr. Lamer said he encountered many Chinese gamblers as a lawyer.

Only a month before Judge Lamer's gaffe, a New Brunswick judicial panel reviewed the case of Judge Jocelyn Moreau-Berube, who gave offence by stating there were few "honest people" on New Brunswick's francophone Acadian peninsula.

Judge Moreau-Berube issued an apology a few days later, saying she had made a mistake.

Some judges choose to simply not apologize. In Montreal, Judge Monique Dubreuil angered the Haitian community last year when she sentenced two men to an 18-month suspended sentence for a sexual assault, and explained her leniency by saying the men, of Haitian origin, came from a culture where rape is accepted. Judge Dubreuil said that "the absence of regret of the two accused seems to be related more to the cultural context, particularly with regard to relations with women, than a veritable problem of a sexual nature."

Judge Dubreuil later said she "made mistakes" in her ruling, but Haitian community groups said her statement fell short of the apology they felt was owing. The Quebec Judicial Council reprimanded Judge Dubreuil for her "cultural context" statement and criticized the lenient sentence, but did not take disciplinary action against her.

In another highly publicized Montreal case, the refusal by Quebec Court Judge Jean Bienvenue to apologize for comments he made was cited by the Canadian Judicial Council as a reason for their recommendation that he be removed from the bench.

Judge Bienvenue, who resigned before he could be ousted, commented while sentencing a woman for slashing her husband's throat with a razor blade that women are capable of greater depravity than men. The judge also said the killer, Tracy Theberge, was more vicious than the Nazis. "Even the Nazis didn't kill millions of Jews in pain or in blood. They died without suffering, in the gas chambers."

Related Sites

R. v. Ewanchuk
The Supreme Court decision handed down in the "no means no" sexual assault case.

Jurist Canada
The leading judicial website.

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