Ontario court justice Bernd Zabel, who wore a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap following the US election, could be removed from bench after flood of complaints.
A Canadian judge who wore a Donald Trump campaign hat into court after the US election is facing a disciplinary hearing and possible removal from the bench after his actions triggered an unprecedented number of formal complaints.
In November, the Ontario court justice Bernd Zabel entered his courtroom in Hamilton, Ontario, clad in black robes and a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. He reportedly told those in court that the hat was meant to mark an “unprecedented” night in the United States and singled himself out as the lone Trump supporter among his colleagues.
Days later, amid public anger sparked by reports of his actions in Canada’s Globe and Mail, Zabel apologised for what he called a “misguided attempt to mark a moment in history”. His decision to wear the hat, he said, was not meant to be a political statement or to endorse the political views of Trump.
But his words of regret did little to stem the torrent of formal complaints being filed against him. In the months since the incident, the Ontario judicial council said it had received 81 complaints – 10 times more than it had received about any other judge in the province.
Twenty-seven law professors at the University of Windsor – where Zabel obtained his degree – signed on to a formal complaint, expressing concern that his actions seriously breached the impartiality and objectivity demanded of judges.
Another complaint came from the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, which pointed to the several women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump and his persistent belittling of women. “One need only imagine the difficulty and distrust a survivor of sexual assault would likely experience were it necessary for her to testify before an officer of the court who has so publicly celebrated the election of an admitted assailant,” the organisation noted.
Others pointed to the denigrating comments Trump has made towards Muslims, Mexicans and people with disabilities. “Judges are supposed to have good judgment,” the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto wrote in its complaint. “By wearing a symbol that has come to be associated with racist and discriminatory statements, Justice Zabel participated in partisan political activities in the performance of his judicial duties.”
Citing Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association questioned whether Muslims could expect to be treated fairly in Zabel’s courtroom. “The effect Justice Zabel’s actions will have on Muslims appearing before him, whether as lawyers or litigants, is unmistakable, and unfortunately, likely irreversible,” the group noted in its complaint.
The complaints will be considered at a public disciplinary hearing in late August, the Ontario judicial council said in a statement. A four-person panel will consider Zabel’s actions as well as his apology – which contradicted his earlier comments in court, the council noted – to determine whether Zabel is guilty of judicial misconduct.
Zabel, who began sitting as a judge in 1990, faces penalties ranging from a reprimand to suspension with or without pay. If he is found guilty of misconduct, the disciplinary body could also recommend to the province’s attorney general that he be removed from office. Zabel did not reply to a request for comment from the Guardian.
The disciplinary hearing follows a spate of high-profile complaints regarding judges in Canada. Earlier this year, Robin Camp, the Calgary judge who made headlines around the world after asking a complainant in a rape trial why she couldn’t just keep her knees together, resigned, hours after the federal disciplinary body recommended that he be removed from the bench.