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A misconduct case involving a judge who started a black advocacy group risks creating a chilling effect on judicial involvement in the community, a disciplinary panel was told on Tuesday.

Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod spearheaded the creation of the Federation of Black Canadians two years ago after the fatal shooting of a pregnant woman in Toronto, and met with politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to push for new policies and funding in a range of areas including housing, education, corrections and the justice system.

Associate Chief Justice Faith Finnestad of the Ontario Court laid a complaint that he had engaged in improper political activity, creating a conflict of interest and an appearance that he lacked independence from government.

But Mark Sandler, a lawyer representing Justice McLeod, said the legal system is “not a fragile flower” that wilts when a judge enters into a perceived controversy. Other judges – including former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin with a statement on genocide against Indigenous peoples, and current Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella with a speech on judicial independence in Israel – have spoken on controversial subjects without imperiling their independence or impartiality, he said.

“This man is a wonderful role model of how judges can really contribute to their communities,” Mr. Sandler told the four-person panel, chaired by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Robert Sharpe. Justice McLeod grew up in inner-city subsidized housing in Toronto, and was appointed to the bench in 2013.

The final day of the two-day hearing drew about 40 mostly black people on Tuesday, among them Justice McLeod’s wife and mother and several members of his extended family. The panel reserved its decision.

As an example of judicial involvement in meetings with government, Mr. Sandler mentioned an Ontario working group on mental health that included some judges who made what he described as invaluable contributions. And he asked for a ruling that does not put a chill on such activities, send a "message of despair” to those who look to Justice McLeod as a role model, or deter people from becoming judges.

But Linda Rothstein, who is laying out the case for the Ontario Judicial Council, said that lines need to be drawn around political activity, and that those lines can still leave room for community involvement.

She urged the disciplinary panel to be cautious about looking at the importance of an issue, or the level of controversy around it. It would be "very fraught and difficult for anyone to articulate the appropriate hierarchy of causes, the idea that some causes are more worthy than others,” she said, citing examples of judges who oppose wind farms or support guns, both of which could be subjects of litigation in their court.

A better approach, she said, is to make a distinction between consultations initiated by government, which are documented and at least somewhat public, and lobbying government. While the Federation of Black Canadians documented what they told Mr. Trudeau and other cabinet members, they did not document what those politicians told them, she said.

Mr. Sandler said that Justice McLeod was addressing in his meetings with politicians a permissible area of political activity – issues that affect the administration of justice. Other judges, he said, have accepted as fact that black people are over-represented in correctional facilities in Canada, an issue he described as being at the heart of Justice McLeod’s activism.

"You are entitled to say things that are politically controversial if they directly affect the operation of the court," he said.

Decades ago, the late Supreme Court justice John Sopinka said publicly that judges need not be monks, and since then, Mr. Sandler said, “We’ve seen somewhat of a sea change." Rulings from judicial disciplinary bodies in Canada do not draw a sharp line between charitable and political activity, he added.

When Justice Sharpe asked him what he would say if feminist judges met with government to promote feminist causes, Mr. Sandler replied that “it depends” on how contentious the matter, how militant the presentation, and whether the issues are likely to wind up before the court.

Mr. Sandler said it was important to keep in mind the needs of the black community. “The uncontradicted evidence is that the needs of the black community are great. The challenges are enormous.”

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