Ontario judge called out for sporting Trump campaign slogan in court after election

A Trump supporter dons a hat at an Ohio campaign rally. Photo from Getty Images
A Trump supporter dons a hat at an Ohio campaign rally. Photo from Getty Images

A formal complaint has been filed to the Ontario Judicial Council after a judge showed up in court this week sporting one of president-elect Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats.

The decision by Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel was “childish and clearly unbecoming of a judge,” reads the complaint filed Friday by Gus Van Harten, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and former law clerk at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

“I am very surprised and disappointed that Justice Zabel would bring the court into disrepute so frivolously and in so blatantly a partisan way,” Van Harten wrote in his complaint.

“Justice Zabel’s conduct would be inappropriate if it were associated with any political party, politician, or political movement but it is made worse by the discriminatory and abusive character of views and attitudes commonly and reasonably associated with President-elect Trump and some in the partisan political movement that supports him.”

Zabel appeared in court in Hamilton on Wednesday with the slogan on a campaign hat, the Globe and Mail reported.

The complaint points out that Trump has made many public statements that are derogatory toward women, ethnic groups, religious groups and people with disabilities.

He has also, it reads, made public statements reasonably interpreted to be inciting or endorsing violence against people who disagree with him.

“It is clear that, by wearing his hat in his courtroom, Justice Zabel was publicly supporting and celebrating Donald Trump’s victory and using his judicial office to broadcast that celebration,” Van Harten wrote.

It violates several judicial council principles for judges, he said.

“It is not dignified, courteous, or honourable for a judge — as Justice Zabel did — to provide a credible basis for associating himself and the court at which he exercises power with attitudes of intolerance, misogyny and disdain for the less fortunate that are reasonably and commonly associated with president-elect Trump and some in the partisan political movement that supports him,” says the complaint.

Ontario courts were closed Friday for Remembrance Day and neither Zabel nor court or justice officials were available to comment.

Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall, said context may be important to better understand why Zabel wore the cap.

“But on its face, such a display may well be understood as ‘manifesting’ favour towards the interests advanced by Donald Trump during the campaign,” Sossin wrote in an email response to Yahoo Canada News.

“A reasonable observer following recent news may well see the Justice as sharing views about immigration, for example, or allegations of sexual assault, as espoused by Donald Trump during the campaign. Depending on the circumstances, this could give rise to an ethical complaint against the Justice, or to allegations of bias in particular cases which the Justice hears that day (or subsequently) involving these kind of issues.”

Tamar Witelson, legal director of Toronto-based Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, said Trump’s public comments have made his views clear.

He is opposed to access to abortion for women, has made racist remarks, and was captured on video making lewd comments about sexually assaulting women, she points out.

“He is, at best, insensitive to a woman’s right to bodily integrity and safety and, at worst, he doesn’t respect those rights of women at all,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

The slogan worn by Zabel is synonymous with sexism and discrimination, she said, and women could be concerned about appearing before this judge.

“We are concerned that a message like this simply contributes to an already deep-rooted concern about the legal system and its treatment of women,” Witelson said.

The complaint filed by Van Harten asks the council to publicly condemn and discipline the judge.

“I suggest that Justice Zabel should at least be required to recuse himself from cases involving members of groups that have been publicly maligned by president-elect Trump,” Van Harten wrote.