Trump’s Trial Defines Justice in Disrepute

Canada and the US both have a problem with rogue judges
Published on June 10, 2024

Whatever one thinks of former President Donald Trump, his criminal trial violates the jurisprudence established  by England’s Lord Chief Justice Hewart: “It is… of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

Judges too often preside over cases despite having a conflict of interest. Trump’s argument had merit, that having the Democrat stronghold of Manhattan as the venue for his trial was unfair. And the assignment of Acting Justice Juan Merchan for the trial may reasonably be said to be corrupt. The US Judicial Code says: “Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik says Justice Merchan contributed to the Democrat campaign in 2020. And his daughter, Loren Merchan, is heavily involved in Democrat politics. Stefanik says her firm stood to profit from Trump’s conviction. So, one may presume the judge’s bias against Trump.

The charge against Trump was that money was paid to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet and not undermine his presidential election prospects in 2016. Paying money to suppress prurient assertions is not illegal. But, it was said to violate US election law if intended to influence the outcome of the election—and not merely to protect Trump’s reputation. Given what everyone knows, how could publication of Daniels’s assertions influence a single voter’s intentions?

Many other wandering public figures come to mind. Certainly, Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. Said to be expert on the bedroom ceilings of rich men, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was Clinton’s ambassador to France.

Textbooks and case law forbid judges to hear cases where there could be a perception of bias. A landmark case involved an application by the Spanish government to extradite former President Pinochet of Chile from England. Lord Hoffmann was the swing vote in the decision that immunity did not prevent extradition. The House of Lords set aside that judgment because Lord Hoffmann had been chairman of Amnesty International, which had campaigned for Pinochet’s prosecution. The judges said that the Amnesty link was an automatic disqualification for sitting on the case.

During the 2022 truckers’ protest in Ottawa, Chief Justice Richard Wagner made outlandish comments about an incipient revolution. The Canadian Judicial Council, of which he is head,  exonerated him. By contrast, Justice Thomas Berger of the BC Supreme Court resigned gracefully after being scolded for non-partisan comment on the entrenchment of Indigenous rights in the Charter.

A typical case of conflicted judging is MediaTube v. Bell Canada, discussed at length in my book Justice on Trial. The plaintiff asserting that Bell stole the technology for FibeTV. The Federal Court’s trial judge, Justice George Locke, had been a partner in the firm of Norton Fulbright that acted for Bell. His decision in favour of Bell is gobbledygook. He acknowledged that Bell had constantly changed the description of how their system worked, as if they didn’t know that. Arguably, Bell and their lawyers McCarthy Tétrault committed the criminal offences of perjury and obstruction of justice. Justice David Stratas spoke for the appellate judges despite having previously represented Bell before the Supreme Court. In 130 words, he justified the exclusion of new evidence by citing a case that had analyzed the purported new evidence in 9,000 words.

Trump’s case follows ones described in Christie Blatchford’s book, Life Sentence: Stories from four decades of court reporting—Or how I fell out of love with the Canadian justice system (Especially judges). “The judiciary,” she wrote, “is much like the Senate. Like senators they are unelected, unaccountable, entitled, expensive to maintain and remarkably smug.”

Canadians as well as Americans need outside accountability for lawyers and judges. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

 

Colin Alexander’s degrees include Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford. His latest book is Justice on Trial: Jordan Peterson’s case shows we need to fix the broken system.

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