The country’s most media-savvy judge is going prime time.
After testing the boundaries of judicial timidity with an Internet talk show and a best-selling book on marital strife, Judge Harvey Brownstone will push the traditional role of the judiciary still further next week with a daring television series on family law.
The Ontario Court judge said he will be sufficiently flamboyant and candid to keep viewers glued to their screens – but not so much that he risks the ire of publicity-shy colleagues.
“That’s the tension of the show,” Judge Brownstone said in an interview. “I am constantly dancing on that high wire. I think there will be people who think I went too far on some shows. But there will be others who say: ‘No, let him show that judges are human.’ ”
The show will cover topics ranging from sex addiction and domestic violence, to gay parenthood and parental alienation.
“People say I’m a maverick, but I’m not – I’m a trail blazer,” Judge Brownstone said. “Nobody has done this before. There has never been another judge who takes the risks I take with the media.”
He conceded that many of his judicial colleagues, schooled in discretion and decorum, will be holding their breath when the program, Family Matters, premieres on Hamilton’s CHCH on Tuesday and subsequently on other stations in the CHEK network.
“I think there is some anticipation, some apprehension and a lot of curiosity about how far Brownstone is going to go this time,” he said. “There is still a tremendous reluctance to speak out – especially to the media.”
Senior judges have steadily encouraged the judiciary to speak more freely about justice and the court system, but Judge Brownstone is venturing onto virgin terrain, said Manitoba Chief Justice Richard Scott, chair of the Canadian Judicial Council’s judicial conduct committee.
Chief Justice Scott said the show is likely to create a test case for judicial governing bodies. “At some point in time, somebody is sure as heck going to file a complaint … about something the judge has said on the air,” he said.
“There could be a decorum issue,” he added. “But if the judge doing the interviewing is very careful in the way the questions are asked and doesn’t leap into the fray and start arguing, I don’t see that being a particular issue. It’s unique and very daring, but to me, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it.”
Grant Gold, a veteran Toronto family lawyer, said the legal profession tends to see Judge Brownstone as an entertaining educator who provides sound advice about legal processes. He said the judge has little to fear provided he stops short of giving legal advice on specific cases.
“To the extent that his goal is to educate the public, I think the TV series will be a big tool,” Mr. Gold said. “You’re not going to see him operating like a Judge Judy. I don’t think he is doing this as a shock talk show for ratings. He’s doing it as part of his role as a public educator. I don’t think there is anything wrong with demystifying the family-law process.”
Judge Brownstone became the country’s first openly gay jurist when he was appointed 16 years ago. He has come to see himself as part adjudicator, part educator and part showman.
“I have a theatrical personality,” he said. “I like performing. I like communicating with people in a way that is compelling and entertaining. I do it in the courtroom and I reach people on an emotional level. That’s my gift. And I’m a good interviewer.”
Programs will typically feature family experts, litigants and other judges.
His book – Tug of War – drew on his experience in the battleground of family court to deliver a resounding message: Litigation should be a last resort.
“We need to reach these people before they make these critically important decisions to launch themselves into litigation,” said Judge Brownstone, who does not stand to profit personally from the series. “By the time they got into court, it was too late.
“This isn’t a program about Tiger Woods or about politicians who get into trouble,” he said. “This is a program that will talk about what is really going on in people’s families. This is about what we see in the courtroom every day.”
At the same time, the program will not be a procession or dreary talking heads and dull topics. One segment will focus on Internet porn addicts who have destroyed their marriages. Others will examine grandparents’ rights and children addicted to text messaging.
“We are going to do a show on Internet dating that is going to blow people away,” Judge Brownstone added. “The Internet has completely revolutionized how people meet other people and how relationships break up.”