Medical and legal professionals accused an Alberta judge of discriminating against a Nigerian-born doctor in a court decision. They filed a formal complaint against Justice Terry Clackson with the Canadian Judicial Council and requested an investigation.
This raises the central importance of the judiciary’s impartiality. Racial discrimination, or bias of any kind, is monitored closely because it erodes confidence in the justice system.
The complaint relates to the trial of David and Collet Stephan who were charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life following the death of their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel.
The child had meningitis and the main issues in dispute were what kind of meningitis he had, whether this caused his death, whether his parents knew he had meningitis and, therefore, should they have sought medical intervention.
Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo was the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Ezekiel Stephan. The Crown called him as a witness and Dr. Adeagbo testified that the causes of death were bacterial meningitis and a lung infection.
What did Justice Terry Clackson say?
Justice Clackson sided with the defence’s medical expert, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, and found the causes of death were viral meningitis a lack of oxygen. Justice Clackson listed several “observations” about Dr. Adeagbo’s communication:
His ability to articulate his thoughts in an understandable fashion was severely compromised by his garbled enunciation; his failure to use appropriate endings for plurals and past tenses; his failure to use the appropriate definite and indefinite articles; his repeated emphasis of the wrong syllables; dropping his Hs; mispronouncing his vowels; and the speed of his responses. In addition, his answers were not always responsive and he would on occasion embark upon a mission to educate the parties and the Court.
The lawyers and doctors who filed the complaint allege that his comments could be perceived as racist. They argue the judge appears to have favoured the opinion of a Canadian-born forensic pathologist, Dr. Sauvageau, over the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. Those making the complaint also point out that the ruling made no reference to Dr. Sauvageau’s French-Canadian accent.
The question for the Canadian Judicial Council is whether Justice Clackson gave less weight to Dr. Adeagbo’s evidence because of his observations about his communication and whether this constitutes discrimination.
The Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association provides ethical principles for judges. It states:
It is not enough for the judiciary, as an institution, to be independent – individual judges must be seen to be objective and impartial. In their personal lives, judges must avoid words, actions or situations that might make them appear to be biased or disrespectful of the laws they are sworn to uphold.
Judges efforts to remain impartial extends to their personal lives where they avoid most forms of community involvement. However, it is a sacrifice they accept to be above reproach. Judges go to great lengths for the sake of their impartiality and complaints like this are further examples of just how important it is.