TORONTO — An Ontario judge who wore a hat in court bearing Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has been suspended without pay after an oversight body ruled his behaviour constituted a “single aberrant and inexplicable act of judicial misconduct.”
In a decision released Tuesday, the Ontario Judicial Council said it struggled to reconcile Justice Bernd Zabel’s actions with his stellar record as a judge, and found his conduct warranted the most serious reprimand possible short of removing him from the bench.
“Justice Zabel’s conduct that day gave rise to a perception by many that he was a Trump supporter and that he agreed with Trump’s views and policies. In doing so, he violated a fundamental principle of judicial ethics and, particularly in view of the controversy surrounding Trump’s campaign, engaged in serious misconduct,” the council panel wrote.
“His conduct on Nov. 9, 2016 was completely at odds with the exemplary judge he has been for the past 27 years. We are satisfied that Justice Zabel does not hold any of the discriminatory views that the complainants attribute to Donald Trump,” it said.
The council received 81 complaints about the incident, including several it said expressed concerns that people from vulnerable communities would fear they would not be treated fairly by a judge who supported Trump. This, because of the U.S. president’s “many well-publicized statements perceived to indicate misogynistic, racist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and homophobic views,” it said.
However, the council said, “we are satisfied that members of vulnerable groups need have no fear about the treatment they would receive from Justice Zabel.”
Zabel will be suspended for 30 days. The Ontario Court of Justice said in January that Zabel, who is based in Hamilton, was no longer being assigned cases.
At his hearing last month, Zabel said he meant to lighten the mood by wearing a baseball cap with the Trump slogan while walking into court on Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after Trump won the U.S. election.
He testified that it was only after his actions made headlines that he realized some believed he was showing support for the controversial American president and his policies.
Zabel wore the hat while walking into a courtroom and said it was “just in celebration of a historic night in the United States,” according to an agreed statement of facts. He then took it off and placed it on the dais until the break, when he took it back to his office, the document says.
When asked about the hat’s disappearance later, Zabel quipped that he had taken it off because it had angered other judges who “all voted for Hillary,” according to the agreed statement of facts. “I was the only Trump supporter up there, but that’s OK,” he said.
Zabel later apologized publicly for his behaviour, calling it a “lapse in judgment.”