CANADA — An Ontario judge who wore a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap to court the day after the U.S. election of President Donald Trump is scheduled to face a disciplinary hearing.
Justice Bernd Zabel wore the hat to court on November 9 and issued an apology days later, asserting that donning the cap was an attempt at humor and not meant as a political statement.
“What I did was wrong. I wish to apologize for my misguided attempts to mark a moment in history by humor in the courtroom, following the surprising results in the United States election,” Zabel said in court on November 15.
“This gesture was not intended in any way as a political statement or endorsement of any political views, and, in particular, the views and comments of Donald Trump. I very much regret that it has been taken as such.”
A certified transcript of comments made by Zabel in court at day’s end on November 9 read, “Brief appearance with the hat. Pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary… I was the only Trump supporter up there, but that’s okay.”
A subsequent complaint was submitted to the Ontario Judicial Council, the independent organization that investigates provincial court judges. “The public statement given by him on Nov. 15, 2016, about his conduct was not consistent with comments he made in court on Nov. 9, 2016,” the complaint noted.
Because of the incident, Zabel, a past president of the Hamilton Criminal Lawyers’ Association, has been banned from hearing cases since last December. A disciplinary hearing will take place in Toronto on August 23.
The Ontario Judicial Council reportedly received 81 complaints regarding Zabel’s conduct, with critics questioning his impartiality following the incident. Some noted concerns about members of groups allegedly maligned by Trump — including Muslims, immigrants, and women — receiving fair treatment from Zabel.
“His Honour’s conduct negatively impacted the confidence of members of the public in his ability to carry out his judicial duties fairly, impartially and without bias or prejudice,” reads a summary of the complaints.
“His Honour’s conduct compromised the public’s perception of the independence of the judiciary from politics and constituted a statement about his political views and those of his judicial colleagues.”
Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, one of the organizations that filed a formal complaint, said, “Judge Zabel will have the opportunity to present his side of the story and have it tested. Alternatively, he may decide to retire after his long years of service and end the hearing. Either way, the fair process which led to and may include this hearing will remove the blemish created by this incident.”
If found guilty of judicial misconduct, Zabel could face penalties including a reprimand, a paid or unpaid suspension, or even a recommendation to the attorney general that Zabel is removed from the bench.
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