Snippets of human drama, portals into a great unwritten novel

The Duffy trial witnesses a case-law battle royale in Courtroom 33
Suspended senator Mike Duffy leaves the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Duffy is facing 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust, bribery, frauds on the government related to inappropriate Senate expenses. Justin Tang/CP

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa

Courthouses, like the one on Elgin Street in Ottawa, where suspended Sen. Mike Duffy is on trial, have a way of drawing into themselves, their rooms and corridors, a mixed crowd.

There’s Duffy, on trial on 31 bribery, breach of trust and fraud charges, who enjoyed a career as Canada’s most successful news broadcaster, and has the taste in suits to prove it.

Then there’s the guy with the large cobra throat tattoo, stopping by the same restroom. Or the Dutch-sounding security guard who’s a stickler for the correct time to open the room where Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, faces off each day against the Crown. Or the reporter with the Palaeolithic digital recorder, which weighs eight pounds and emits sonar sounds at inexplicable moments.

And court dissertations, on this or that and no matter the charges, which tend to fold into themselves the damnedest things.

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Observers in Courtroom 33, where Duffy’s being tried, heard tell today of the First Fruits Office book, an agricultural record—the doomsday tome for seed-bearing edibles?—that came up as part of a 19th-century dispute between the Irish Society and the Bishop of Derry.

Of Finnish military records involving a man from Thunder Bay, Ont., named Kaipiainen, the 1952 murder of his four-year-old son, and the issue of his precarious sanity.

Of Italian birth records germane to the distribution of an estate worth 200,000 British pounds in 1850.

Of Cypriot irrigation systems, and two families locked in a feud over a river.

And of the regimental records that put the lie to a woman’s claim that it was her husband who was indeed the father of her child.

These snippets of human drama—each a portal into a great unwritten novel—come from case law on the admissibility of public documents, and each made its appearance in Courtroom 33 as part of an otherwise dry-as-dust voir dire, a trial within a trial. Justice Charles Vaillancourt will use the material presented by either side to rule on the matter of whether to allow, as per Bayne’s druthers, the 11th report of the Senate standing committee on internal economy.

That document would, it seems pretty clear, bolster Bayne’s view that the Senate rules Duffy is accused of breaking were blurry, badly communicated and, anyway, not much enforced.

Bayne dragged his two-hour estimate on the time he’d require to make his case on the document into a stultifying day and a half, but while he mentioned most, if not all, of the cases briefed above, it was left to Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes, his reading glasses perched in accusatory fashion three-quarters down his nose, to inject drama into the proceedings.

It was a bit of a your-mama moment: Holmes, who has the irascible bearing of a high school vice-principal, took barely a couple of hours to rebut Bayne, and still managed to tell more stories.

The legal wrangling involved case law going back to the 18th century, mention of such antique subjects of concern as nautical charts and ship’s manifests, and such beautiful Jane Austin-esque prose as this from 1785’s R. v. Aickles: “The law reposes such a confidence in public officers that it presumes they will discharge their several trusts with accuracy and fidelity; and therefore whatever acts they do in discharge of their public duty may be given in evidence and shall be taken to be true, under such a degree of caution as the nature and circumstances of each case may appear to require.”

Such confidence in the infallibility of public officials, allowed Holmes, “seems like a quaint notion today.”

You can say that again. It was—all of it today—a long, long way from the Duffmeister.

And the day got more still, thanks to the testimony of the unflappably cheerful Louise Lang, an investment adviser at CIBC Wood Gundy—and, for the purposes of this trial, more properly called secretary to the Kerry Blue Terrier Club of Canada, a society that for many years helped to stage a dog show at Peterborough’s Nichols Oval Park, where the Crown says Duffy bought a puppy.

Bought a puppy, they allege, on the public dime.

Lang declined to engage Bayne in his apparent attempt to muscle her into a bad-tempered funk. When at one point he barked an objection, causing the clerk to put Lang on mute so that she could not hear the substance of his complaint, the witness could still be heard singing softly to herself.

Vaillancourt won’t announce his decision on the internal Senate report till June. And there is no telling when, for those keeping track of such matters, the juicy stuff on Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the $90,000 cheque he signed over to Duffy to pay for his improperly filed expenses, will come up: Both sides told reporters that, while they agreed they needed six to eight weeks more to argue this case, they’d not managed to work out a timeline for when any of that would actually happen.

And Gerry Donohue, the shadowy figure at the centre of the quote-unquote slush-fund companies the Crown alleges Duffy used to elude Senate oversight, remains sick, and Bayne remains concerned he won’t ever appear at all.

Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial