A judge who founded a national advocacy organization for the Black community has been cleared of a complaint that he engaged in improper political activity, and that he disobeyed an edict that he cease such activity.
The decision Wednesday by the Ontario Judicial Council frees Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod, who sits in Brampton, to continue his career on the bench, twice interrupted (without pay) by complaints that he was involved in political advocacy. He was appointed in 2013. The complaints could have resulted in a recommendation for his removal.
In a statement through one of his lawyers, Sheila Block, Justice McLeod said he is gratified and relieved, and will return to being a sitting judge.
The complaint was prompted by a blog written by Black journalist and activist Desmond Cole, which reported that Justice McLeod was undertaking activities he had committed to stopping after an earlier public hearing of the judicial council. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
The council said in its decision that Justice McLeod had committed two acts that were incompatible with judicial office: He had attended two meetings in 2019 with a federal agency, Employment and Social Development Canada, on behalf of the Federation of Black Canadians, a group he helped found. And, that same year, he spoke by telephone to two Black young people who said they had experienced racism in a visit to Parliament, and provided advice on how they should address the incident.
A four-member panel of the council, chaired by Justice Janet Simmons of the Ontario Court of Appeal, said these acts were not so seriously wrong, however, that they were “contrary to the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary,” or would undermine the public’s faith in the justice system.
It said his advocacy was not done in defiance of an earlier disciplinary ruling, but out of a mistaken understanding of that ruling, a mistake he acknowledged. Neither he nor his organization sought benefits in the meeting. As for the phone call, he had done it in the spirit of mentorship, the council said, though he should not have allowed himself and his office to be used to further the federation’s advocacy strategy.
Although the council warned Justice McLeod not to make the same mistake again – which, he suggested ruefully in the public hearing into the complaint, was the last thing he would do – it also repeated words of praise for the judge from the decision on the earlier complaint about his conduct. His permitted activities such as mentoring young people and speaking publicly to the community had fostered confidence in the justice system, it said.
Justice McLeod was raised in public-housing developments in Toronto by a single mother, and spearheaded the creation of the Federation of Black Canadians, while a sitting judge, to press for government action on poverty and justice reform.
Through Ms. Block, he said he was pleased the council was mindful of the testimony of McGill University professor Wendell Adjetey, who said Black people are treated as if they have a “credibility deficit,” with the result that “one perceived misstep” can result in “disproportionate scrutiny for life.”
The council walked a fine line on the issue of race. “No one suggests this context means the rules of judicial conduct are or should be different for racialized judges,” it wrote. “Nonetheless, the context Prof. Adjetey described may inform our findings of fact and assessment of whether particular conduct ‘crossed the line.’”
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