What’s at stake in the case of Justice Robin Camp

The Alberta judge is under review by a panel of his peers. His critics say it’s about more than his words.
Robin Camp
Federal Court Justice Robin Camp takes his seat at a Canadian Judicial Council inquiry in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Three senior Alberta judges have already weighed in on Justice Robin Camp’s performance in the sexual assault trial featuring a 19-year-old female complainant and an accused man a few years older and nearly twice her weight. This Alberta Court of Appeal panel ruled that Camp seemed to not understand laws on consent and an alleged rape victim’s sexual activity, and that his acquittal of the man may have been coloured by “sexual stereotypes and stereotypical myths, which have long since been discredited.” Camp’s ruling was thrown out; a new trial is forthcoming this fall.

In a hotel meeting room blocks away from Calgary’s courthouse, three more senior judges sit on another panel this week to retry not that case, but Camp himself. They will further consider Camp’s words to the young woman about whether she couldn’t “keep [her] knees together,” or “if she skews her pelvis slightly she can avoid him”—along with further remarks from the bench like “sex and pain sometimes go together … not necessarily a bad thing.” These out-of-province judges, along with two lawyers, sit on the Canadian Judicial Council’s inquiry into whether such trial comments are so unbefitting a judge that Camp should cease to be one.

Camp has apologized for his utterances, will do so again at this week’s public inquiry, and has, since the Appeal Court ruling and his conduct made headlines, sought remedial counselling from a senior judge, a psychologist and a law professor. His legal team says he’s learned his lessons about the stereotypes and myths he’d bought into, and remains  “fit and qualified to be a judge of a Canadian court,” his lawyer Frank Addario told the inquiry committee.

Just as pretty much anybody would be shocked to have heard judicial commentary such as Camp’s in the year 2014, it strains belief in 2016 that this episode might be considered in isolation. And in the year of Jian Ghomeshi’s acquittal, it will not be. “This inquiry in particular features issues that transcend the specifics of this case,” said Austin Cullen, the inquiry’s chairman and Associate Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Marjorie Hickey, the lead counsel opposite Addario, stressed that the stakes go beyond one judge. “The focus should not be on whether Justice Camp’s shortcomings can be or have been remedied without the need to remove him from office, but whether public confidence in the judiciary can be remedied without removal of Justice Camp from office,” she said Tuesday.

That confidence has been tenuous over the last 12 months, as Camp’s words got national and international attention, and as complainants in the Ghomeshi sexual assault trial were raked over the coals in much-publicized cross-examinations whereupon a judge ultimately ruled their stories were not persuasive enough to convict.

“The outcome of this inquiry will have a broad impact on the conduct of sexual assault trials in the future, and contribute to society’s discussions about gender equality and how the justice system responds to sexual assault and complaints,” says an intervenor filing by a coalition of women’s groups and anti-sexual assault organizations. A rape crisis centre and a legal clinic formed a second intervenor group, and more bluntly call for Camp’s removal from the judiciary: “The appearance of justice on the ground is not linked to a single judge’s experience, but depends on a robust systemic approach that rejects rape myths.” That crisis centre is in Vancouver; the legal clinic is in Toronto. Much of Canada is watching the fate of Robin Camp.

But adherents of the “I believe her” mantra seriously risk setting themselves up for more disappointment. This is not a court trial, with innocence and guilt. Hickey is not a prosecutor seeking the toughest penalty she can, or even explicitly urging that the panel deliver a report that might lead Canada’s attorney-general to remove Camp. Another panellist warned Hickey about referring to Addario’s team as defence lawyers. “Justice Camp is not a defendant,” said Chief Justice Raymond Whalen of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.

Doctors get sanctioned and lawyers disbarred, but it’s much tougher to remove a Canadian judge. Even the council, their oversight body, cannot do it; they merely make recommendations to the justice minister. It’s rare that complaints about a judge’s behaviour gets an formal inquiry—it’s only happened 11 times in the 45-year history of the judicial council. In only two cases did the council recommend a judge’s removal, and in both cases he’d resigned before getting pushed. In one of those cases, the Quebec judge hearing a woman on trial for her husband’s murder two decades ago disparaged women and suggested her actions went further than the Nazis’ against Jews in the Holocaust. Those comments went further than the ones that triggered a 2011 council review into Manitoba judge’s handling of a rape case, but given his apology and sensitivity, the council determined this was an isolated incident in that fellow’s career and recommended no action.

Camp shouldn’t be punished “for everything that’s broken” about the justice system, Addario told the inquiry. Among exhibits released Tuesday were two dozen character letters supporting Camp—mostly legal peers praising his support for women and minorities, and saying the words at the 2014 trial were regrettable aberrations he has learned from. They disparage the caricature of Camp that has emerged from his comments’ public airing. One Calgary criminal defence lawyer writes it was clear Camp had limited background in criminal law in early 2013, still months into his life as a judge; another barrister writes Camp is prone to out-loud “stream of consciousness” reasoning, and would take untenable positions just to play devil’s advocate.

Camp’s daughter, Lauren-Lee Camp, writes to confess that she herself was raped years ago in her home, by somebody she knew. Her father was “gentle and helpful,” and understood why she didn’t want to press charges and might be traumatized if she took the case to court. She calls some of his words in the 2014 case “disgraceful,” “wrong and extremely painful for me, as a victim, to hear about.” Now, the judge “speaks with a new kind of sensitivity and understanding,” her letter states. Along with Camp’s wife, his daughter accompanied him to the trial, hand on the judge’s shoulder as they walked out of the room.

In coming days, the inquiry will hear further testimonials to Robin Camp’s personal growth. Hickey completed her roll of witnesses two hours after the inquiry began Tuesday afternoon. Her lone witness was the complainant who was asked about where her knees should have been.

She had short-cropped hair, a slight figure in black shirt and pants. The woman, now 24 and protected by a publication ban, wept and sighed deeply as she spoke; she pleaded for a bathroom break moments after first starting. She was homeless at the time of the assault, and was into drugs when the alleged assault occurred, but was clean and had a job by her trial. She said Camp’s comments left her confused and feeling guilty: “He made me hate myself and he made me feel like I should have done something. That I was some kind of slut.” In the days after her testimony, she got high repeatedly, because she “just wanted to love myself again.”

She has since struggled with suicidal thoughts, and has second-guessed continuing with the retrial, which begins in November. “My biggest worry is about the victims that will never come forward because of what they read in the newspaper about Justice Camp’s words,” said the 24-year-old, echoing the advocacy groups.

She also shared the hopes they’ve brought to this inquiry. “I’m glad someone’s taking action—well, trying to.”

CORRECTION, Sept. 7, 2016: An earlier version of this story stated there was a 2011 inquiry by the Canadian Judicial Council into a Manitoba judge’s comments in a sexual assault case. In fact, it was a council review, not a public inquiry.

CORRECTION, Sept. 7, 2016: An earlier version of this story appeared to link the victim’s suicidal thoughts to her courtroom testimony. We have clarified that.