Judge says wearing Trump hat was ‘ill-conceived joke’

A Hamilton judge who wore a Trump hat in court insisted in a hearing Wednesday that he was not a racist, a bigot or a misogynist.

Ricardo Federico and Giulia Gambacorta speak to reporters after the hearing.
Ricardo Federico and Giulia Gambacorta speak to reporters after the hearing.

Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel is facing possible removal from the bench for sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat in court the day after United States President Donald Trump was elected in November. He later said in court that same day that the hat’s appearance “pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so I was the only Trump supporter up there, but that’s OK.”

The episode garnered condemnation from law professors, lawyers and members of the public, who said the incident violated the tradition of judicial neutrality and threatened the integrity of the judicial system. More than 81 complaints poured into the Ontario Judicial Council, spurring a hearing into Zabel’s conduct.

In his testimony, Zabel said he wore the hat as an “ill-conceived joke” that was meant to “lighten” the mood of the courtroom. He insisted he was not a Trump supporter, and said he had simply intended to gloat about the fact he had correctly predicted the election outcome.

“The man depicted in the complaints is not me,” he said in the hearing.

“I’m not a racist. I’m not a bigot. I’m not a misogynist.”

He admitted that his conduct was contrary to the standards of conduct judges must adhere to, and agreed he would never wear the hat in court again.

One of Zabel’s lawyers, Ricardo Federico said the judge had bought the hat from Amazon.com in June 2016 “as a historic memorabilia type thing.”

Zabel, who has been on the bench for 27 years, kept the hat in his desk drawer, and was even questioned by fellow judges who saw him wearing it on his way into the courtroom that morning.

Federico said Zabel wore the hat for less than a minute in the courtroom before placing it on the dais and then never wearing it again.

Zabel later apologized in court for wearing the hat after media reports about the incident.

Federico blasted media reports that had said Zabel wore the hat a second time.

“Shame on the media,” he said.

Zabel’s lawyers asked that the panel “blend” the 81 complaints with 63 letters of support that have been submitted. Federico noted that none of the complaints were from anyone that was in the courthouse the day of the incident.

Lawyer Linda Rothstein, who acted as presenting counsel in the hearing, later responded that the complaints should not be given less weight than the letters of support.

Zabel’s lawyers also tried to draw a parallel between Zabel’s conduct and that of Ontario Superior Court Justice Toni Skarica, who had been seen wearing a Trump shirt at a grocery store. The Canadian Judicial Council chose not to discipline him.

Rothstein said the circumstances were different, as Skarica had not worn his shirt in court, nor did he make comments similar to Zabel in court.

“That is a very fine distinction,” she said. “He was in court.”

The potential penalty Zabel faces could be anything from a warning or reprimand to a recommendation that he be removed from the bench. Zabel’s lawyers argued that reprimand or warning would be enough to restore the public’s confidence.

Rothstein said it will be up to the panel to determine what penalty would be appropriate.

In her submissions, Rothstein said that supporting Trump in the Canadian context does not mean donating to his campaign or electioneering for him.

“It is being seen to condone and support what he stood for and that is enough,” she said.

“And any judge who outwardly does that in his courtroom should be sanctioned in some fashion.”

The hearing panel — made up of a bencher from the Law Society of Upper Canada, two judges and a member of the public — did not provide a decision on Zabel’s fate Wednesday, but will do so at a later date.

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