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Many looked away from nude photos

Lawyers obliged to report misconduct -- but they didn't

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The Canadian Judicial Council inquiry into the actions of Manitoba Associate Chief Justice Lori Douglas is, as everyone knows, a sordid affair.

Douglas has been enveloped in controversy every since it was learned her husband, Jack King, not only posted nude photos of his wife online, but attempted to coerce a client, Alex Chapman, into having sex with Douglas. Chapman later received a $25,000 out-of-court settlement. In 2010, Chapman violated a non-disclosure agreement, went public with his sexual harassment allegations and filed a complaint with the Law Society of Manitoba. All of this convinced the CJC to investigate.

The council is concerned about whether Douglas participated in the harassment, whether she properly disclosed the fact King posted nude photos of her on a porn website, and whether the mere existence of the photos make her unfit to serve as a judge.

It should be noted Douglas is widely respected for her work as a judge, and there are more than a few people in this city who believe she is getting a raw deal by even having to go through an inquiry. They believe many within the legal profession knew about the photos, and thus Douglas could not be influenced by them at a later date. Those people argue the CJC inquiry is less about her suitability as a judge and more about a profession desperately trying to cover its posterior.

Perhaps. At the very least, it's pretty clear now that if you somehow get past the nude photos, the voyeurism, the sexual harassment and the cast of inglorious characters, you might conclude this is really about a self-regulated profession that has, in so many ways, demonstrated its inability to self-regulate.

For example, all lawyers in this province are obligated to report misconduct by another lawyer to the Law Society of Manitoba. It is, simply put, one of the pillars of self-regulation. Even so, lawyers at the century-old Thomson Dorfman Sweatman firm kept King's misdeeds under wraps. There was no complaint filed with the law society, which allowed King to disappear under the guise of a medical leave. There is no way to know if formal action against King would have allowed Douglas to seek a judicial appointment without encumbrance, but we do know the firm failed miserably in its duty to the profession.

The law society itself is also culpable. Officials at the law society have admitted knowing about the harassment claims as early as 2004, but failed to act until 2010, when Chapman came forward with his complaint. The law society can initiate an investigation on its own, without a complaint from a third party, because like all its members, it has a responsibility to act when it receives information about a professional transgression. As was the case with Thomson Dorfman Sweatman, the law society failed miserably.

And then there is the committee that vetted Douglas' judicial application. One member of that committee has already testified at the inquiry he not only knew about the photos, the harassment and the hush settlement, but he ensured then-Justice Minister Irwin Cotler knew before a final decision was made on Douglas' judicial application. On the one hand, it appears some, if not all, of the members of that committee demonstrated tremendous compassion by giving Douglas the benefit of the doubt and not denying her a place on the bench purely because of her husband's tawdry hobby. On the other hand, perhaps this wasn't compassion. Perhaps it was a few members of the legal profession cutting special deals for special friends.

Like King, Douglas had a stellar career at Thomson Dorfman Sweatman, one of a handful of iconic firms that dominate the inner workings of Manitoba's legal profession. These firms control most of the committees at the Manitoba Bar Association and the Law Society of Manitoba. They are more likely to sit on judicial vetting committees. Perhaps it's just the cattiness of the legal profession, but there are many lawyers in this town who believe that, just as everyone was willing to look the other way when King got in trouble, an applicant with Douglas's baggage who came from a smaller firm would not have seen as much "compassion."

In testimony at the inquiry, King and others have portrayed Douglas as the unwitting victim of a sexual fetish, aware of neither King's intention to post lewd photos on the web nor King's attempt to recruit Chapman as a sexual partner. It's a reasonable conclusion, but it does not satisfy.

Despite professional guidelines to the contrary, some lawyers in this city seem to have covered up the ethical misdeeds of one of their own. When the law society learned of those misdeeds on its own, it did nothing. And then, in a desperate bid to mitigate an inherent injustice, another group of lawyers decided to overlook Douglas's vulnerabilities and promote her to a position of judicial authority.

Douglas may indeed be the victim. But it was a team effort, with the perverse culture of the legal profession and her misguided husband working in concert, to inflict what may be fatal wounds to a once-promising legal career.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2012 A8

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