Judge guilty of misconductjudicial panel: 'Mortified' Dianne Nicholas could face reprimand, be forced to apologize
Shannon Kari The Ottawa Citizen
June 30, 2004
TORONTO - An Ottawa judge has been found to have engaged in judicial misconduct for comments she made about a defendant's family, in court and outside the courthouse.
Judge Dianne Nicholas may eventually be reprimanded, forced to apologize to the defendant or to write a letter of apology, after a four-member Ontario Judicial Council panel accepted a joint submission by her lawyer and a subcommittee of the council.
"There is no doubt in our view that Judge Nicholas is truly mortified by her conduct and sincerely regrets these incidents," said lawyer Douglas Hunt, who acted for the council during the brief hearing in Toronto yesterday.
Mr. Hunt told the panel that Judge Nicholas' misconduct was "serious," but it should attract a penalty "within the lower end of the scale of sanctions for judicial misconduct."
The judge was represented by high-profile Ottawa lawyer David Scott, who told the panel that his client was "a person of very high integrity. She is motivated to demystify the (judicial) process, which is a very positive instinct."
Judge Nicholas did not speak during the disciplinary hearing and could be seen taking notes during her lawyer's submissions. She declined to comment after the hearing ended.
The council oversees the conduct of the more than 270 full-time provincial court judges in Ontario, who now earn $202,000 annually after a recent court victory that increased their pay by 21 per cent over a three-year period.
The disciplinary hearing was a result of a complaint filed by Sylvana Segreto, an Ottawa woman who appeared in front of Judge Nicholas in April 2002.
Ms. Segreto was in court to plead guilty to welfare fraud that was estimated to be between $5,000 and $11,000.
During the court hearing, the judge was informed that the defendant had suffered medical and financial difficulties connected to a family dispute. Judge Nicholas inquired about the name of one of Ms. Segreto's brothers and told the court he used to be her daughter's soccer coach.
"I really didn't like him," said the judge. "He's a loser basically, and he basically left his wife and two children for the mother of one of our team who was the manager."
The judge then offered to remove herself from the trial.
Ms. Segreto's lawyer, Ronald Guertin, told the court his client was content to have Judge Nicholas continue and a date was set for sentencing.
However, Ms. Segreto later learned from her niece that before the sentencing hearing, Judge Nicholas also spoke about the case with a neighbour and fellow soccer parent she met outside the courthouse.
Ms. Segreto alleged in her complaint to the council that the judge passed on "every imaginable detail" about the case to the neighbour.
An agreed statement of facts made public yesterday said the neighbour told the council Judge Nicholas mentioned only that Ms. Segreto had pleaded guilty to welfare fraud and "seemed nice."
Judge Nicholas later agreed to allow Ms. Segreto to rescind her guilty plea and transfer the case to another judge. She also wrote a letter to Ms. Segreto and her lawyer apologizing for her "indiscretion," said the agreed statement of facts.
"Judge Nicholas is a sound judge. As with all of us, she is not perfect. She has the tendency to speak frankly in the courtroom," said Mr. Scott, who urged the panel to put the whole incident in "context."
"Many judges quite appropriately have communication about what happened in court that day," argued Mr. Scott.
He conceded his client's "extra-judicial communication" to her neighbour was improper because he was someone connected to the soccer team and knew the defendant's family.
Mr. Scott also asked the panel to award Judge Nicholas $15,000 to cover half of her legal expenses incurred in the disciplinary process. The other $15,000 has been paid by the provincial court judges' association, the panel was told.
The panel, which included two judges, a lawyer and a layperson, reserved its decision on an appropriate sanction and legal costs.
However Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry said on behalf of the panel that the recommendation of a relatively minor penalty was "clearly in the best interests of the administration of justice."© The Ottawa Citizen 2004