Bernd Zabel has been suspended without pay for wearing a 'Make America Great Again' hat
A Hamilton judge who wore a "Make America Great Again" hat in court the morning after Donald Trump's U.S. election win last November has been suspended for 30 days.
Judge Bernd Zabel appeared before a disciplinary hearing last month, and said he did not support the American president, but was simply trying to make people laugh when he wore the baseball cap with the phrase Trump used during his campaign.
"Justice Zabel is reprimanded for his breach of the standards of judicial conduct," reads the decision from the Ontario Judicial Council.
The decision also said Zabel is suspended for 30 days without pay. He has not been hearing cases since December.
The suspension is the most serious sanction that the Ontario Judicial Council can impose, short of dismissing the judge.
After news broke that Zabel wore the hat in court on Nov. 9, 2016, the council received 81 complaints about his conduct. According to the decision, the most common theme throughout them was that the veteran judge's conduct "represented an unacceptable expression of partisan political views by a judge."
"Most complainants indicate a heightened concern as they perceive many of the things Trump said during his campaign to indicate misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and anti-Muslim attitudes," the decision reads. "The complainants state that Justice Zabel has associated himself with those views by his conduct and that women and members of various vulnerable groups would reasonably fear that they would not be treated fairly and impartially by Justice Zabel."
The decision also touched on the tumultuous political climate in the United States, and noted that the 2016 election campaign was "highly partisan and bitter."
"The candidates advocated strongly divergent policies. Many of Trump's positions were provocative and controversial. If adopted, his policies on matters such as free trade, climate change, immigration, and national security would affect the daily lives of many Canadians," the decision reads.
Judge Bernd Zabel and presenting counsel Linda Rothstein at an Ontario Judicial Council hearing on Aug. 23. (Pam Davies/CBC)
"His views attracted wide attention in Canada and many Canadians expressed their strong disagreement with his policies. It was often stated that Trump's policies were contrary to Canada's interests and contrary to 13 basic Canadian values.
"Many Canadians found his views on women, racialized minorities, and other vulnerable groups to be highly offensive. For a judge to appear to endorse Trump's views would be perceived by the public to be an expression of opinion on issues of profound importance to Canadians."
Zabel appeared before a disciplinary hearing in Toronto last month, and apologized for wearing the hat.
"The man depicted in those complaints is not me," Zabel said. "I'm not a racist, I'm not a bigot, I'm not a misogynist."
On top of the complaints, the council also received 63 letters of support about Zabel from his judicial colleagues, members of the bar, court staff and members of the public. Zabel has been a judge for 27 years, and has never been the subject of any Ontario Judicial Council hearings.
"Justice Zabel is praised for his hard work, professionalism, integrity, and for being helpful to other judges and to counsel," the decision reads.
Duff Conacher, a law and political science professor at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, said that Zabel's penalty feels appropriate, given his decades of service without complaints or appearance of bias.
"Though I would like to see him suspended for longer," Conacher said. "Our system of government is based on having independent judges. It is fundamental to our democracy.
Many on social media have complained that the outcry surrounding the baseball cap incident would not have been as extreme had Zabel worn a hat aligned with a different political stripe — but Conacher says he doesn't buy that argument.
"If he had worn a Justin Trudeau hat, I think reaction would have been just as strong."