CKNW Editorial
for May 25, 2000

Judges are unusual people. They have to be to be judges. Most of them are prepared to give up much of the kind of life we all enjoy and become, in a sense, cloistered much like monks of the Middle Ages. This is because they, like Caesar’s wife, must be above reproach.

When I was a young lawyer I viewed the bench, especially the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal benches, with considerable awe. I was in many ways afraid of them. Every time I stood my ground before them I was inwardly afraid that my career might be on the line.

I well remember my first day in Chambers which is where lawyers go before a judge to have him sort out interlocutory matters, which is to say, those details which go into the normal course of a lawsuit. In the cases which are contested the matter was put over to what was called Second Reading. On my first day of articles, not having the faintest idea of what Chambers was all about – indeed where it was - I was sent by my Principal to put an application for a jury onto second reading because it was contested. To make a long story short, I did so, my principal got waylaid in court and I spent all afternoon arguing the case opposed by no less than Douglas McK, Brown QC, perhaps BC’s best barrister of the day … and without going into details I fought him to a draw. On the very day I was called to the Bar a year later I was in the Court of Appeal. I have, then, a respect and awe for the Bench which lingers.

But it is not undiluted. Not by any means. In several cases over the past years – especially it seems in cases involving children – I have found myself very critical of friends of mine who, I thought, made wrong decisions and especially used language inappropriate to the type of reporting that goes on today.

What’s this all leading up to?

Simply this. I recognize that Judges cannot fight back when they are publicly attacked and are in a position where it’s important that we cut them lots of slack. But, dammit, they are not beyond obligations to be accountable, not just for their decisions which are subject to appeal, but for their public actions.

The judges employ a public relations man, an eminent former judge, who audits everything said about judges and responds with the instant and rapier like tongue for which he was famous as a lawyer and judge back in those days. Though he seldom, indeed in my experience never, congratulates the media on handling a difficult case well he is right in there like Jack the Bear if he thinks his precious bench has been dealt with inappropriately. And I say to him now publicly what I have said to him privately – this is a two way street. Judges must not only be protected from the inappropriate mutterings of the public through the media but the public has a right to protection from judicial abuse and to know what is going on with the administration of justice. And I ask Lloyd McKenzie, the respected flack for the Supreme Court, to answer a question to which the public is entitled to have answered – what happened with the Bryan Williams matter? And I ask it because the legal profession and the judges know the answer to that question but we the public are not entitled, evidently, to be included.

Last February, to the great surprise of all, BC Supreme Court Chief Justice Bryan Williams suddenly, after less than 3 years in the job and ten years before he might be expected to retire, suddenly quit. There was a brief story about some pornography and his computer but that story died faster than you could say "internet". Then there was some pallid story about how Mr Williams suddenly decided that he should pursue his goal of seeing more arbitrations occur in the settling of disputes. Then a new Chief was appointed.

I mean no harm to Bryan Williams whom I’ve known and liked as a friend for nearly 50 years. But these answers are not good enough especially when you hear what judges and senior lawyers are saying privately and, in fact, not all that privately. And let me emphasize this – the point is not really the question of what happened – the question is why are the public not entitled to know what happened? What makes it public business when a Premier or a cabinet minister resigns but none of their business if it’s a judge … especially if it’s the Chief Justice? Why is it, Lloyd, that it’s in the public interest that judges be defended but not in the public interest that the system explain itself when a situation cries out for explanation?

This is a stonewall. It is known that Bryan Williams, whose appointment in the first place raised eyebrows because we were told that these things were no longer political, was a personal friend of Prime Minister Chretien’s and we’re told that he commanded the appointment be made. The word is that Senator Ross Fitzpatrick prevailed upon the Prime Minister to finally recognize that British Columbia was a real place and that an appropriate appointment as Williams’ replacement be made which by all accounts it has been. But the fact remains that the Williams resignation has not been explained. And let it be clear – no inferences against Mr Williams conduct at all can be drawn from what I say. I don’t know what the story is, which is the entire point.

Mr McKenzie – you cannot have it both ways. You cannot expect me and those like me to give the benefit of every doubt to the judges then stonewall us when there is clearly an unreported story about men and women set in authority over us.

Write me another letter, Lloyd – this time not complaining how I have wronged a judge or misinterpreted a decision but setting forth in detail, subject to my personal cross examination of you, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth behind the resignation of Bryan Williams.

That, in exchange for our understanding of the special role judges play, is the bench’s obligation to us the public.