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Small talk, big trouble

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Should provincial court Judge Ken Champagne have removed himself from presiding over a high-profile criminal case?In case you missed it, Champagne raised concerns earlier this month about some light-hearted small talk he had with the lawyer representing the accused, Brock Golden, during a recent social event.The two men crossed paths at a legal conference, just two days after Golden's sentencing hearing ended with Champagne reserving his decision.Golden, the son of long-time city councillor Al Golden, admitted he used the Internet to lure teenage girls to a city hotel room to have sex with and take nude photos. The Crown asked for a three-year prison sentence, while Golden is seeking a conditional penalty that allows him to remain free in the community.Champagne returned to court last week during an emergency hearing to decide whether he should stay on the case.The judge told court how he and Wolson made idle chit chat until talk turned to the sentencing hearing.According to Champagne, Wolson said he “wanted to share a story.” Wolson then described how one of his client’s many supporters in court less than 48 hours earlier had been retired provincial court Judge Sam Minuk, a long-time family friend of the Goldens.Wolson told Champagne that Minuk had wanted to submit a letter of support on behalf of Golden, and also address the court and make a verbal submission. Wolson said he had talked Minuk out of it, believing it would put Champagne in an "uncomfortable" position.“Then, in a joking manner, Mr. Wolson stated, ‘So you owe me one. You won’t issue a bench warrant for me if I’m stuck in Ottawa,” Champagne told court in recalling their conversation. (Wolson is headed east to serve as lead commission counsel for the federal probe into former prime minister Brian Mulroney's business and financial dealings with lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber)Champagne said he knew immediately that Wolson was joking and "doesn't believe for a second" there was any ulterior motive for it."I can assure all of you that remark has not influenced or impacted me in any way regarding this matter," said Champagne. Still, the judge said he's aware that there were hundreds of people at the conference -- including lawyers, judges and police officers -- and that he wanted to address the issue head-on."I am obliged to disclose these comments as there may have been a perceived, reasonable apprehension of bias," he said.Wolson, who is widely considered by his peers to be one of the most honourable and effective lawyers in Manitoba, was stunned."I'm quite taken aback because the last thing I'd ever do is influence a judge," he told court. "I'm shocked that would be a matter you would raise with us. The comments were not said for any purpose or advantage. I would never want to have a victory in the courts that isn't earned, on advocacy or evidence."Crown attorney Mick Makar said he had no concerns with the issue, saying Wolson has an "impeccable" reputation. He agreed with Wolson's suggestion that Champagne stay on the case and give his decision to avoid any further delays.Champagne took a few days to think it over, then returned to court Tuesday and decided he would stay on the case. No date has been set for Golden's sentencing decision.Here's my personal take on this. Then I want yours. Richard Wolson is a stand-up guy, as good as they come. I know a lot of members of the public believe defence lawyers have no morals, but that's unfair and inaccurate. They don't have to like the clients they represent - they just have to do a job, same as all of us. And Wolson is very good at his job, among the best. I'd hire him in a heartbeat if I ever needed good legal representation.Like Champagne, Makar and likely the rest of Manitoba's legal community, I don't believe Wolson had ulterior motives when he chatted up the judge. However, I do believe it was a mistake for Wolson to bring up the sentencing hearing in any way, shape or form. It was too fresh, and he knew Champagne hadn't yet made his decision.I applaud Champagne for bringing this matter into the public domain. I'm sure he could have just dealt with this privately, or not at all, and it would have just gone away. But Champagne recognized this was a sensitive issue and one that ought to be put on the record.I have known Champagne for many years, most of them as a Crown prosecutor, and believe he is truly honourable. I don't have a problem with him continuing to sit on the Golden case because I trust that he won't be influenced in any way by what's happened.If nothing else, at least this issue has shown the justice system can be an open and transparent one. And no doubt plenty of lawyers out there are re-evaluating what they might say the next time they cross paths with a judge at a cocktail party or convention.After all, it's a relatively small legal community out there and small talk is bound to happen. The trick is to avoid turning it into a big problem.What do you think? Should Champagne have recused himself, or is there no harm, no foul here? You can also vote in my latest website Jury Poll question by clicking HERE.Post your thoughts below.

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About Mike McIntyre

Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.

Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.

Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.

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