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The Honourable Justice Donald McLeod, photographed where he grew up at 51 Gilder Dr. in Toronto on Feb. 27, 2014.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A judge who helped organize a black advocacy group and met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been found to have engaged in political lobbying incompatible with being a judge.

Even so, the Ontario Judicial Council cleared Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod of a misconduct charge, saying he did not harm public confidence in his impartiality or in the justice system.

It warned, though, that a judge who crosses the line in a similar way to Justice McLeod could be found guilty of judicial misconduct.

“Judges must stand above the political fray, free from the pushes and pulls of public opinion,” a four-member panel of the Ontario Judicial Council said in a ruling released late Thursday afternoon.

“It is incompatible with the separation of powers for a judge to enter the fray and ask political actors for policy changes and the allocation of resources, however worthwhile the judge’s motivating cause. A perception could arise that the judge’s rulings will be influenced by whether the government accepts or rejects the policy changes that the judge has advocated for, or that the government will try to influence the judge by accepting or rejecting such changes.”

The ruling comes after two days of public hearings this month into a charge brought by Associate Chief Justice Faith Finnestad of the Ontario Court.

Justice McLeod, who was appointed by the provincial Liberals in 2013, testified that he helped launch the Federation of Black Canadians in 2016 after the fatal shooting of a pregnant woman in Toronto. His group met with politicians at all levels of government, and made specific requests, including financial support for transitional housing and new race-relations programs. But it did not specifically seek money for its organization.

Mark Sandler, a lawyer for Justice McLeod, said it was fitting that the council said the case was not one of misconduct. He added that the council recognized that “Justice McLeod as a role model in the black community has an important continuing role to play in the community in educating the public as to the challenges facing the vulnerable and marginalized, including black young men and women.”

Len Carby, a founding member of the FBC, had not seen the ruling when contacted by The Globe and Mail. He said he was pleased that there was no reprimand or punishment for Justice McLeod’s attempt to support the community, but added: “Maybe there has to be a revisiting of what judges are allowed to do.”

Toronto lawyer Frank Addario, one of several members of the legal community who wrote character-reference letters to the judicial council in support of Justice McLeod, said in an interview that he does not agree with the council’s approach.

“I just think we need to broaden our traditional understanding of judicial speech. It’s not 40 years ago. The judiciary doesn’t have the same face or the same concerns and is not connecting with the same community.”

The judicial council said it was appropriate to evaluate Justice McLeod’s actions “in light of the racial dynamics” in Ontario. The judge’s “life experiences made him uniquely aware of black overrepresentation in the criminal justice system and its roots,” the panel, chaired by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Robert Sharpe, said in a 43-page ruling.

It also listed several other reasons for its finding that Justice McLeod did not undermine the public’s confidence in him or in the administration of justice. His activities were not partisan, but part of a good-faith effort to improve life for a disadvantaged community. He did not engage in fundraising. He did not express opinions on cases likely to come before the court. His goals were laudable, and the FBC’s approach was “non-combative and co-operative,” bringing in defence lawyers, prosecutors, police and corrections to discuss certain issues.

The council said, too, that Justice McLeod’s participation in the group created some controversy in the black community and the media. “Justice McLeod should have avoided involvement that could have unnecessarily exposed him to political attack.”

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