The Ontario Judicial Council has issued a 30-day suspension to a judge who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat in court.
Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel has been suspended without pay and reprimanded for what an OJC panel found was a breach of a fundamental principle that judges be impartial and not express political views.
Zabel faced possible removal from the bench, but the panel found that was too harsh a penalty.
“In this case, a judge with a lengthy and stellar record of service committed a single aberrant and inexplicable act of judicial misconduct,” the decision said. “A reasonable and informed member of the public, considering Justice Zabel’s conduct in the context of his entire career, and in the context of the evidence we have heard, would not think it necessary to remove him from office because of this single transgression in order to restore public confidence in the justice system.”
Zabel was initially suspended in December after he sported the red ball cap associated with supporters of President Donald Trump in a Hamilton court the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He had later said in court that day that wearing the hat “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 okay,” according to a court transcript.
Lawyers, scholars and members of the public submitted 81 complaints in all about the episode to the OJC after news broke that Zabel had worn the hat.
He later apologized in court.
At his OJC hearing, Zabel admitted he had engaged in misconduct. He insisted he wore the hat as an “ill-conceived joke” and said he was not a Trump supporter.
The panel found Zabel’s conduct was serious and that it harmed the reputation of justice in Ontario. Whatever Zabel’s intentions were, the panel determined that his actions were bound to be taken as an expression of support for Trump.
However, the panel also found that Zabel realized his conduct was unacceptable, regretted his actions and has made efforts to change.
The panel also noted other mitigating factors such as Zabel’s unblemished record from 27 years on the bench, apart from the incident in 2016.