Naming courthouse for Danny Williams was inappropriate: Judge

'The perception of any linkage or relationship between the court and a living individual is problematic.'

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A top Newfoundland and Labrador judge raised concerns before a new courthouse was named after former premier Danny Williams, saying the move was inappropriate.

David Orsborn was acting chief justice of the provincial Supreme Court’s trial division when he wrote the letter dated Aug. 12 to then-premier Tom Marshall.

It was released this week during proceedings related to an ongoing defamation case involving Williams and political blogger Brad Cabana, who provided it to The Canadian Press.

“It is one thing to name a building after a deceased public servant,” Orsborn wrote.

“It is another matter to name a building after an individual who is only recently departed from government, who remains in the public eye and who is, I suggest, still identified by many with government.”

Orsborn said the plan to name the courthouse in Corner Brook, on the west coast of Newfoundland, could be perceived as an indication of gratitude. He compared it to how schools and hospital wings are often named for major benefactors.

“But a school or hospital wing is not a courthouse,” Orsborn wrote. “They are not facilities in which disputes between government and individuals are adjudicated by an independent body.

“The perception of any linkage or relationship between the court and a living individual is problematic.”

Orsborn said he was not aware of any other courthouse in Canada named after a politician who had recently served.

He said his concerns were compounded by the fact that Williams, a former lawyer and entrepreneur who left politics in 2010 to resume his business interests, could have matters before the very court that bears his name.

He stressed that “it is not beyond the realm of possibility that within the building there could be conducted litigation that involves either the individual or government as parties or, in this case, the individual appearing as counsel.”

Orsborn then refers to a conversation with Marshall, who retired in September.

“You made it clear yesterday that government has already made its decision,” he wrote.

Orsborn urged Marshall to change course.

“The clear separation of the various branches of government is important to society; the perception of that separation is just as important and I would urge you to have your government reconsider this decision.”

Orsborn, now serving as a supernumerary or part-time judge, declined through an assistant to comment as the matter is before court.

He stressed in his letter to Marshall that he was speaking on behalf of the provincial Supreme Court trial division only.

Almost four weeks later, on Sept. 8, members of the Progressive Conservative government christened the Corner Brook law courts the Danny Williams Building.

Marshall said at the time it was to honour all that the former premier had accomplished.

In an interview, Marshall said he took Orsborn’s concerns seriously. But the former attorney general said he believed then and still believes that naming the building for Williams was totally appropriate.

“With the greatest of respect, I disagree with him on this point.”

His government followed a tradition in the province that honours people who’ve served the public, Marshall said.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving,” than Williams, he added.

Marshall stressed that the Danny Williams Building is distinct from the courtrooms it contains, and over which judges rule with independence.

Williams said Friday that he finds Orsborn’s objections “a bit absurd.”

“As we all know, there’s a clear distinction between the judicial branch of government and the executive and legislative branches of government,” he said in an interview.

Orsborn appears to have crossed that line by expressing an opinion to Marshall and pushing for action, Williams added.

“Obviously, this Chief Justice Orsborn had an issue that he had dealt with privately, unsuccessfully, and then basically through another vehicle decided to table it (the letter) and make it public.”

Williams said there were other judges who attended the naming ceremony in September.

“They didn’t see anything wrong with it, but obviously Chief Justice Orsborn has a different opinion. That’s probably the nicest way I can put it.”

Luke Joyce, a spokesman for the provincial Justice department, confirmed Orsborn’s letter was received. He declined to comment as it relates to matters before the court, he said in an email.

Cabana on Tuesday submitted an application to strike a statement of claim filed in 2012 by Williams and Alderon Iron Ore Corp., a mining company.

They accused Cabana of suggesting the Muskrat Falls hydro project being built in Labrador was engineered to make money for Williams and mining interests at the expense of ratepayers.

Cabana alleged in a countersuit that Williams and Alderon are trying to “nullify his criticism” of the development.

The allegations in both the lawsuit and countersuit have not been proven in court.

In his latest application, Cabana argues that the statement of claim against him should be struck because the “overtly political” naming of the Corner Brook courthouse breaches principles of judicial independence, impartiality and equality before the law.

Cabana’s application says that even if Williams’ name was removed, “significant damage has been done to the perception of equality and fairness in the legal system as it relates to Williams, and that there is no repairing the perception of bias that this act has created.”

The matter is due back in court in February.

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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