National Post

April 4, 2002

Judge defends lobbying for abused wives

Rare disciplinary hearing: Integrity jeopardized in domestic violence cases, legal groups say

Tom Blackwell
National Post

Yvonne Berg, National Post
Prior to her judicial council hearing Justice Lesley Baldwin is greeted by Vivien Green, co-ordinator of the Women Abuse Council of Toronto. Baldwin faces a charge of misconduct for urging the province to implement proposals of a domestic violence committee she had chaired.

An Ontario judge was only trying to prevent more wife-abuse killings, not act as a political lobbyist, when she urged the province to take action against domestic violence, her lawyer told a rare judicial disciplinary hearing yesterday.

Justice Lesley Baldwin strongly rejected accusations that she crossed the line of proper judicial behaviour by contacting the government in July, 2000.

If the Ontario Judicial Council finds the provincial court judge guilty of misconduct, she could face punishment ranging from a rebuke to being dropped from the bench.

Lawyer Earl Levy insisted Judge Baldwin would have done more harm to the legal system had she not written the letter to Jim Flaherty, then the province's attorney-general. In it, she urged Ontario to keep its promise to implement recommendations of a domestic violence committee she had chaired.

"I ask the council not to shoot the messenger just because she's a judge," Mr. Levy told Ontario's top judge and other members of the council. "Her letter was designed to save lives or prevent serious bodily harm. It had nothing to do with how she would rule on domestic violence cases."

Critics, on the other hand, say she turned herself into an advocate with the letter, casting doubt over her objectivity in abuse cases and violating the sacred principle that judges steer clear of most policy debates.

Members of the judicial council reserved their decision, which could help define the vague rules now governing judges' freedom of expression outside the courtroom.

The hearing itself was a notable event, one of only four times the council has met to consider misconduct charges against a member of the provincial court. The Canadian Judicial Council handles allegations against judges of higher courts.

The hearing resulted from complaints filed by two legal groups, the Ontario and Niagara criminal lawyers associations, two individual lawyers and a member of a men's rights group.

Judge Baldwin had been asked by the government to chair a committee made up of outside activists, lawyers and government officials, that was supposed to come up with a plan of action against domestic violence. It stemmed from an inquest into one of several murder-suicides in which men killed their female partners.

The report came out in mid-1999 but almost a year later, some members of the committee wrote to Judge Baldwin to complain that few of its proposals had been implemented. They asked her to contact the government and request that it print 2,000 copies of their report and support a summit on woman abuse.

Judge Baldwin forwarded their letter with a short, three-paragraph missive of her own. It said she endorsed the others' requests and noted she has observed no noticeable change in how lawyers deal with abuse cases in her court, despite the report's call for changes.

The letter soon leaked to the media. Dr. Peter Jaffe, a psychologist and member of the committee, admitted at the hearing yesterday he had freely distributed the letter.

"[The letter] showed me that, based on her feminist ideology and gender profiling, she was not open-minded," Peter Cornakovic, one of the complainants and a member of the group Fathers are Capable Too (FACT), said after the hearing.

Doug Hunt, the lawyer who prosecuted the case against Judge Baldwin, said the general principal is that judges are guilty of misconduct when they create at the least the impression they have lost their impartiality or independence and have damaged the justice system.

The lawyer argued Judge Baldwin was given a set period by her chief justice to sit on the provincial wife-abuse committee. After that period had ended, she had no right to pursue such policy issues with the government, he said.

"One can move relatively quickly from the relative safe harbour of the courtroom ... to a deeper, more unstable and tumultuous situation," he said. "You may conclude that is what occurred in the situation before you."

However, some of the most prominent judicial discipline cases give Mr. Hunt little ammunition. Thomas Berger, a former B.C. Court of Appeal judge, spoke out in the 1980s against the federal government's exclusion of some native rights from the constitution, but was cleared of misconduct by the Canadian Judicial Council.

Justice Michel Bastarache of the Supreme Court of Canada was exonerated last year by the national council after giving newspaper interviews in which he questioned whether native land disputes should be resolved by the courts.

But Mr. Hunt noted the national council can mete out only one punishment -- a recommendation the judge be dismissed -- and would do so only in severe cases. The provincial council has a range of possible penalties, which may let it impose a less stringent test, he said.

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