Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Sucking and blowing
Manitoba's chief provincial court Judge Ray Wyant decided this week to do something "outside the box" in an attempt to restore some faith in a justice system he admits is in rough shape.And how did his colleagues on the bench respond to his innovative, precedent-setting idea?In a nutshell, by throwing a big ol' hissy fit that forced Wyant to change his mind.Apparently they all got their robes in a knot over the thought that - gasp! - the public might actually gain some greater insight into how, and why, they are handing down their verdicts and sentencings.In case you missed my story in Wednesday's Free Press (click HERE
to read), Wyant had agreed to allow a live audio broadcast of next week's high-profile decision surrounding a former Winnipeg police officer involved in a deadly crash.Local talk-radio station CJOB had made the initial request, and Wyant decided that this would be the case to break some new ground. He would allow a "pool" microphone to send a feed from his courtroom across the airwaves.This would mean that anybody who wants to could listen to every single word of a decision that is sure to be extremely controversial.To recap, Derek Harvey-Zenk killed a mother of three after slamming into her stopped vehicle following a night of partying with his police colleagues after their shift had ended. There was definitely drinking involved, and Harvey-Zenk refused a breathalyser demand.However, massive problems with the investigation by the much-maligned East St. Paul police service - including how and when the breath demand was made - apparently forced the Crown to drop all alcohol-related charges.Submissions were made on the case several weeks ago, with both Crown and defence lawyers making a joint-recommendation for a conditional sentence that would spare Harvey-Zenk a jail term.The family of victim Crystal Taman howled in protest. The public responded in anger, flooding local talk shows and penning letters to the editor. And Wyant was clearly uncomfortable with the proposal, even requested lawyers to return to court last month to answer additional questions and make further submissions.Even then, Wyant was obviously still unhappy with the lack of information coming his way.So now, as he prepares to deliver his decision on Monday, Wyant made the decision to give the public as much information as possible.That doesn't mean he still won't be second-guessed. But at least the public would be fully informed of his exact reasons behind the decision - straight from the proverbial horse's mouth.So what's the problem with that?In my view, absolutely nothing. Judges routinely complain that the public doesn't fully understand or appreciate what they are dealing with as they try to craft the elusive "perfect" sentence.As a member of the media, I agree they have a point. Short of running a verbatim transcript of their decision in the newspaper - which space would never allow for - we are tasked with trying to sum up their reasons for judgment in a concise, accurate story that also represents the views of other parties with a stake. That means reactions from the victims, their families and even Crown and defence lawyers whenever possible.So this was their chance to make their voices heard. There would be absolutely no editing involved. It would go straight from Wyant's mouth into the ears of anyone who wanted to listen.So why did judges get so upset at this concept that they had a letter sent to Wyant expressing concerns, which indirectly came across as questioning his leadership?I certainly don't have the answers. I suspect Wyant doesn't either. Sources tell me he's as surprised at the backlash as anybody.One source said it best - "You can't suck and blow at the same time". But that's exactly what the judges who oppose this are doing.They're complaing you the public aren't nearly as informed as you need to be. And then they're standing in the way of allowing you to be better informed.This makes even less sense considering courts are public places that everyone is allowed to attend - and listen directly to a judge's decision if they wish.Of course, reality tells us the vast majority of people aren't able to take time out of their busy days to physically come to the downtown Law Courts. But giving them another medium to listen - such as on the radio of even through streaming audio on the Internet (which is a tool the Free Press would likely utilize in such a case) - is a brilliant way to bring the courtroom to the masses.Fortunately, Wyant isn't giving up. He's going to press ahead, hold a meeting with all judges and apparently table a policy that would give individual judges the discretion to choose whether to allow for broadcasts of their decisions.We know where Wyant will stand on that issue the next time a high-profile case comes before him.Let's hope other Manitoba judges follow his lead, realize this is a win-win for everybody and put away their criticism in exchange for some common sense.What do you think about this issue? Post your thoughts below, and make sure to take a second to vote on my website Jury Poll question by clicking HERE.
I can tell you this - some judges may not want you to hear them. But they are definitely reading this and will hear you!