A judge is facing a charge of judicial misconduct after he founded an advocacy group for black Canadians and met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in that role.
Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod says his experiences growing up in public housing motivated him to launch the Federation of Black Canadians and urge federal cabinet members to address issues such as poverty and justice reform. But the Ontario Judicial Council has accused him of using “the prestige of the judicial office” to raise money and of violating his duty to avoid partisan political activity.
On Friday, Justice McLeod will go before a public disciplinary hearing. If found guilty, he faces anything from a warning to a suspension to a recommendation for dismissal.
The disciplinary case is the latest test of what judges may do to serve their communities on their own time. It follows a case in which a judge faced the possibility of dismissal for filling in as dean of a law school in crisis; that judge was found this month to have acted inappropriately, but no punishment was imposed. Justice McLeod’s case will send a strong message about whether Canadian judges must live in an ivory tower – still an unsettled issue 30 years after the late Supreme Court justice John Sopinka declared that judges need not be monks.
“We don’t want monks who are aloof and removed from communities and the currents of society,” York University law professor Lorne Sossin said in an interview. “We want judges who are in those currents and understand those currents. But obviously there need to be boundaries and limits, and this is one of those cases where … confusion or a grey area emerged.”
In a legal document, the judicial council cites a wide range of particulars – from founding the group to meeting with the Prime Minister. It quotes Justice McLeod from an online video, in reference to his meeting with Mr. Trudeau and his staff: “We let them know we’re not just expecting talk. We have to have action.”
The document says Justice McLeod allowed himself to be identified as a judge to further the federation’s goals and while meeting with politicians and civil servants. It also says that while he sought advice from an ethics committee of the Ontario Association of Judges, he did not fully describe his role and activities.
The document setting out the allegations against Justice McLeod also says his conduct could harm public confidence in the independence of judges from politics and in Justice McLeod’s ability to carry out his duties impartially. It goes on to say it contravenes the Principles of Judicial Office, which set out, in broad terms, the standards expected of Ontario judges.
The judicial council says it investigated Justice McLeod after receiving a single complaint, whose source it has not publicly identified. A panel of three judges, including Justice Robert Sharpe of the Ontario Court of Appeal, and one layperson will conduct the hearing.
Justice McLeod, who was appointed five years ago by the Ontario Liberals, says it is no secret that what he has been doing is not the norm among judges.
“Yes, this is something different from someone that’s a judge,” he says in the video, still posted on the federation’s website. “Because judges aren’t necessarily expected to do that. But I’m also a judge from a neighbourhood that most people are not from.” He grew up in inner-city communities in Regent Park and Scarborough.
The issue of race will be on the table. “It’s of particular importance in the context of a racialized judge, where people … look to these individuals as leaders in their community,” said Justice McLeod’s lawyer, Mark Sandler, in an interview.
In the video, Justice McLeod describes how a series of fatal shootings in Toronto, including one that killed a pregnant mother and her unborn child, prompted him to call a meeting of local black community members. He then met with federal MP Marco Mendocino and eventually with Mr. Trudeau and his chief of staff, Gerald Butts. He was urged to make the group national to qualify for federal support.
The group’s website says it has asked Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen for a meeting to discuss deportation policies that affect black children in care. The website is critical of police “street checks,” saying they are applied arbitrarily to black people. It calls for reform to the justice system.
Richard Picart, a marketing executive and board member of the federation, said in an interview that he has known Justice McLeod for decades and called him a “gentleman’s gentleman.” From the black community’s perspective, “what is happening here is wrong,” Mr. Picart said about the disciplinary hearing. “It’s an infuriating posture that they’ve taken.” He said the organization is non-partisan and apolitical.
Justice McLeod has played a leadership role in another community group, the 100 Strong Foundation, which raises money for educational and mentorship programs for young people. In a 2014 profile in The Globe and Mail, he said anything is possible in Canada: “You’re in a country that will allow you to dream.”