Toronto Star

The year of fighting secrecy: Complaint about judge still under wraps

- RACHEL MENDLESON STAFF REPORTER

The Star has been fighting for more than a year to end the secrecy surroundin­g a complaint against a Toronto judge who has been chastised for legal errors, the appearance of bias and recycling “boilerplat­e” judgments.

Details of the complaint and how it was handled by the Ontario Judicial Council were outlined in documents contained in a manila envelope, delivered to a Star reporter last summer by an unknown source.

Justice John Ritchie then confirmed in an interview that he had been the subject of a complaint by the Criminal Lawyers’ Associatio­n (CLA). He said the council did not question the substance of his decisions, but on its recommenda­tion, he attended a refresher course on how to write good judgments, which he enjoyed.

However, the battle continues to lift a confidenti­ality order, which, according to the judicial council, prevents us from reporting on the vast majority of complaints against judges, except for those rare few that result in formal disciplina­ry hearings.

And this rare glimpse into how Ontario’s 330 provincial­ly appointed judges are themselves judged remains under lock and key.

In fact, even the arguments that have been filed over the past year by the newspaper and the judge, as well as the CLA, which has intervened in the case, are also secret, according to the judicial council.

“To any reasonable member of the public, it just looks as if they are trying to protect a judicial colleague.” JAMES LOCKYER LAWYER

“Please note that the contents of the submission­s should be considered to be confidenti­al unless and until the Ontario Judicial Council determines otherwise after it has considered the arguments being made in relation to the applicatio­n and the applicable law,” council registrar Marilyn King wrote in a letter to the Star’s lawyers, dated Nov. 24.

Star lawyer Iris Fischer calls the above directive “extraordin­ary.”

“The public has a right to know and understand how the judicial council is dealing with this applicatio­n. The conduct and discipline of a judge is a matter of great public interest,” Fischer said. “It should not take over a year to decide whether the public should know something or not. In the meantime, secrecy over this issue continues.”

This secrecy layered upon secrecy when it comes to judging the arbiters of justice does not sit well with criminal defence lawyer James Lockyer, who has previously expressed concern that innocent people were being convicted by Ritchie.

“The judicial council has determined that a complaint against a sitting judge has merit, and ordered a sanction. This is a matter of significan­t public interest and should be entirely out in the open,” said Lockyer, the founding director of the Associatio­n in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

“There is simply no excuse for the judicial (council’s) conduct,” Lockyer said. “To any reasonable member of the public, it just looks as if they are trying to protect a judicial colleague.”

Ritchie has been repeatedly upbraided by Superior Court judges.

An appeal court reversed a drunk- driving conviction in 2004 because the reasons Ritchie gave were “so deficient as to amount to no reasons at all,” according to Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy.

In 2011, Justice Ian Nordheimer said that Ritchie’s treatment of a defendant in a different drunk-driving case would leave an observer “with the distinct impression that (he) had predetermi­ned the result of the . . . applicatio­n, if not the likely outcome of the proceeding as a whole,” the Law Times reported.

Last summer, Ritchie told the Star that he has learned lessons from Superior Court judges and is “a good judge,” who only convicts “when the Crown proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ritchie and his lawyer declined to comment for this story.

According to Jill Arthur, criminal counsel in the office of Ontario’s Chief Justice, Ritchie “continues to preside and is assigned in accordance with regular judicial scheduling.”

On Thursday, he was presiding in Old City Hall’s federal plea court, which handles both guilty pleas and routine court appearance­s.

In an email, King, the judicial council registrar, said the council is “actively continuing its deliberati­ons on the issues raised and will have a decision completed as soon as it can.”

King said the timeline for considerin­g the Star’s applicatio­n for disclosure was affected by the CLA’s request to file submission­s, among other factors.

She said she could “not confirm or deny” whether the judge in question has been the subject of further complaints, citing confidenti­ality provisions in the legislatio­n.

The council determined how it would deal with the Star’s request for disclosure at a private meeting in September. After several rounds of submission­s, it received all the necessary arguments in late May and will presumably issue a ruling following another closed-door session.

Arthur said it would be “inappropri­ate” for Ontario Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuv­e, who sits on the judicial council, to comment for this story.

After the Star’s story last summer, critics at Queen’s Park called on the province to end the confidenti­ality blanketing these investigat­ions.

Several legal experts have previously argued that the order that keeps secret the details surroundin­g complaints that don’t result in disciplina­ry hearings is so sweeping and broad it could violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Criminal defence lawyer Reid Rusonik, who has previously aired his misgivings about Ritchie, said transparen­cy in this case is required to reinforce public respect for the integrity of the judicial council’s disciplina­ry proceeding­s.

“How can we respect what we cannot see? Such bodies should be proud to have the public see their work, not suspicious because of their resistance to revealing it,” he said. “You would think they’d be in a hurry to quell that suspicion.”

“Such bodies should be proud to have the public see their work, not suspicious because of their resistance to revealing it.” REID RUSONIK CRIMINAL DEFENCE LAWYER

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