Goodbye to the courtroom....so now what?
I'm sure by now you all know that on December 31, 2021, I finally hung up my judicial robe for good. After almost 27 years as a criminal and family court judge in the Ontario Court of Justice in Canada, I retired. I must tell you that it was the happiest day of my life.
Please don't get me wrong. I am profoundly grateful that I had the opportunity to serve the public as a distinguished member of one of the most respected judicial systems in the world. And I'm proud of my accomplishments in a long and eventful legal career - many of which are set out in the recent feature newspaper article that appears on the home page of this website. Most of all, I'm proud of the fact that I was able to inject my own personality into my judicial style, while manifesting my passion for supporting victims and those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, and most importantly, advancing the best interests of children. It was not always easy to do.
The "culture" of the judiciary is an extremely conservative, staunch, "status quo", ivory tower, cramped with officious protocol and austere decorum, in which judges are not-so-subtly dissuaded from presenting themselves as real people. We're living in a "gotcha" society, in which even an inadvertently imprudent choice of words can be interpreted in such a way as to cause offence to someone. The effect of living and working under such a microscope of intense scrutiny is that one keeps one's lips tightly buttoned, and says absolutely no more than is absolutely necessary to do the job. Judges assess the evidence, make findings of fact, apply the law, and render their verdicts - no more and no less. Judges are stifled and muzzled by those pressures. Their in-court personalities are like pablum: no flavor and no texture - and absolutely humorless. Any attempt to speak from the heart to comfort a victim, or to express human sentiments and emotions in condemning bad behaviour by offenders, is, under the hypercritical eye of the public and the overseeing judicial bodies, done at one's own peril.
Given the judicial culture I just described, can you imagine the guts it took for me to write a book intended for the general public? Can you imagine my dilemma when, to my utter amazement, the book became a national best seller, and suddenly I was flooded with requests for media interviews? Can you imagine the courage it took to host a national TV talk show for 2 seasons, and then launch a YouTube talk show featuring authors and celebrities? Did I ever ask the Chief Justice for permission before doing any of those things? Of course not. It would have been swiftly refused. I did what I thought needed to be done to enhance access to justice (regarding the book and TV show). And as for my talk show "Harvey Brownstone Interviews", I felt strongly that my position as a judge had no bearing on what was essentially an extra-curricular activity being carried out in my personal, not professional, capacity. So far, I was the only sitting judge in the world to take any of those steps, and I'm extraordinarily proud that I did it.
And God forbid a judge should attempt to inject a modicum of humor or levity into the proceedings to break the ice, make a nervous lawyer, accused or witness more comfortable, or just put an awkward fact situation into perspective. There is always someone out there - maybe a disgruntled litigant, lawyer or even a jealous colleague - ready to try to bring you down. I hated that part of being a judge.
I loved speaking in plain language to the people who appeared in my court. I wanted them to clearly understand the decisions I was making and my reasons for making them, so I avoided high falutin' legal terminology whenever possible. I wanted to present myself as accessible, so they could say whatever they wanted to me, without fear of being censored or punished. I wanted them to feel listened to and respected. If, at times, I was considered unconventional, or even outrageous, I was fine with that. Sometimes the facts of the case warranted extreme comments from the judge, to convey the necessary community response to someone's behaviour.
And yes, sometimes people took offense to things that I said. Well, folks, we're all human. And it's not a bad thing for the people who appear in court to realize that judges are not emotionless automatons. We're human beings who sometimes misspeak in the heat of the moment, just like everyone else. Provided the comments in question do not convey inappropriate attitudes, prejudices or bigotry, there is no harm done that can't be alleviated by a simple apology. And if by chance a judge makes an error, the appeal courts are there to reverse bad rulings. I'm proud to report that my record on appeal was impeccable.
Am I happy to be liberated from the judicial "prison" that I lived in for the past quarter-century in order to make a living? You bet! Will you see a new "unleashed" Harvey Brownstone who freely expresses his opinions and doesn't carefully measure and weigh every word that comes out of his mouth? Yes!! But will the new Harvey Brownstone be that much different than the old one? No. Because folks, I've been keeping it real, as much as humanly possible, my whole life!