US & Canada

Trump hat judge says stunt was an 'ill-considered' joke

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs a hat after speaking at a rally at the Connecticut Convention Center on April 15, 2016 in Hartford, Connecticut. The 2016 Connecticut Republican Primary is scheduled for April 26, 2016. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 'Make America Great Again' hat was ubiquitous during the US election - File image

A Canadian judge who wore a "Make America Great Again" hat into court says it was an "ill-conceived, ill-considered" attempt at a joke.

Ontario court justice Bernd Zabel made the remarks during a misconduct hearing that could possibly see him removed from the bench.

Mr Zabel briefly wore the red campaign cap into his courtroom the day after the 2016 US presidential election.

The Ontario Judicial Council received 81 complaints about his conduct.

"I'm not a Trump supporter," Mr Zabel told the four-person disciplinary panel looking into those complaints on Wednesday.

"I find it very difficult to find the words to express my profound regret for what I did that day."

Mr Zabel described to the panel how he came to don the Donald Trump campaign hat in the Hamilton courtroom on 9 November in a fug of fatigue after staying up late to watch the results.

He said he had ordered five of the caps online in June thinking it would be "entertaining to have some historic memorabilia" from the election.

Mr Zabel, who appeared sombre and was wearing a charcoal pinstriped suit and patterned blue tie, described Mr Trump's win as "an almost surreal experience" and thought wearing the cap would "add a little humour" and "lighten the proceedings" in the courtroom that day.

He walked in wearing the cap and then placed it on the dais until morning recess, when he returned it to his office.

Returning to court briefly in the afternoon, an attorney quipped to him: "You lost your hat".

He replied: "Brief appearance for the hat. P***** off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary. I was the only Trump supporter up there but that's OK".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ontario Judge Bernd Zabel wore a Donald Trump campaign hat into court on 9 November - File image

A few days later, after the incident made headlines, he apologised in open court and said donning the hat was not meant as an endorsement of the US president's policies.

Complainants, including the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund and 27 law professors from the University of Windsor - Mr Zabel's alma mater -say the veteran judged breached principles of impartiality and objectivity and broke rules regarding the prohibition on partisan political activity.

Multiple complaints received by the council noted that the public apology he made on 15 November regarding his conduct was not consistent with the comment he made in court that afternoon about being a Trump supporter.

Mr Zabel said it was a poorly worded comment about how he had come to believe that Mr Trump could win in the weeks before the election - a prediction his fellow judges did not share.

On cross examination, presenting counsel Linda Rothstein pushed Mr Zabel on his choice of words on 9 November, noted the Trump hat could be tied to racism and bigotry, and asked whether he considered that many people felt devastated by the election results.

"I wasn't thinking it through," Mr Zabel conceded.

Mr Zabel also received 62 character references and letters from colleagues and others expressing their support for the judge and praising his integrity.

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Media captionIt started as joke. Now this couple is moving north because of Donald Trump

Ontario court justice Marjoh Agro appeared as a character witness for her colleague on Wednesday.

"I remember that day well because quite frankly I deeply regret not ripping that hat off his head," she said.

Mr Zabel stopped being assigned cases on 21 December, which Ms Agro said has caused "a lot of disruption" at the courthouse and has strained resources. She said she retains confidence in him as a judge.

"I didn't have concerns then and I don't have them now, other than the misjudgement of wearing a stupid hat into court," she said.

The Ontario Judicial Council investigates complaints about the conduct of provincially appointed judges.

Mr Zabel faces a number of possible sanctions, including being issued a warning or reprimand and suspension. The panel could also recommend to the attorney general that the judge be removed from office.

The disciplinary panel reserved judgment on Wednesday.