Judging the judges

Posted 03.29.05

Canadian judges have been in the news recently, with the Liberals preparing to raise salaries by close to 11 percent, bringing minimum pay for those who sit on the bench to $240,000.

Appointed by the government from a list of candidates prepared by a committee made up of their peers, their judgments on both civil and criminal cases vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In one province a criminal offense may bring a sentence of two years in jail -- in a neighboring province a similar offender might get six years.

We can all cite instances where judges have given an offender a "second chance" only to have him escalate from rape to murder, from armed robbery to the killing of a policeman. A recent tragic example was the man in Alberta who killed four RCMP officers with an illegal assault rifle. He was known to police, had served time, but no judge deemed him a Dangerous Offender, with a sentence that would not have allowed him to secure parole.

Unfortunately, the opposite situation also occurs. Last month the Canadian Civil Liberties Association asked Justice Minister Irving Cotler to pardon Robert Latimer. Latimer is the Saskatchewan farmer who was convicted of killing his severely-disabled daughter, who was in constant pain.

The jury in that case recommended that Latimer be eligible for parole after just one year of incarceration, but the judge sentenced him to life, without eligibility for parole for ten years.

The Latimer case was dramatized this winter in a stunning play called "Mourning Dove." Written by award-winning playwright Emil Sher, the searing drama moved audiences at Great Canadian Theatre Company to tears.

Sher was careful to present the fictional Latimer character as agonizing over the decision. This was no "murder" in the conventional sense, but rather a mercy killing by a father who was helplessness at the hands of a medical establishment who offered no relief for his child's suffering. His despair, combined with his profound love and compassion for his daughter, led him to end her life.

Certainly the purpose of a trial is to determine what really happened, and in the case of murder, the intent of the killer. The Latimer jury understood his motives, and listened carefully to the testimony of family, friends, and neighbors who described him as a gentle, loving husband and father. Although the Criminal Code dictated that they convict him, they felt a token sentence of one year would be sufficient punishment.

Indeed, a poll four years ago indicated that 70 percent of Canadians agreed with the jury's recommendation for leniency.

Instead, Latimer, who is no threat to anyone, is sitting in jail, his wife burdened with running their farm on her own, their savings depleted by legal fees for six hearings and an appeal to the Supreme Court.

In the end, it is judges who judge, who pass sentence, who decide upon appeals. We are all at their mercy. If they release someone, like repeat offenders who sometimes end up killing policemen or innocent civilians, or choose to keep someone like Robert Latimer in jail, we have little recourse.

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2005 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/02.05