Is the fix in?

Woolgate scandal – judges duck accountability

Judges in the growing Woolgate scandal are lawyering up to insulate themselves from accountability.   This follows the announcement this week by acting Attorney General Judith Collins that Judges Helen Winkelmann and Anthony Randerson have been appointed along with chief Ombudsman Beverly Wakem to a Judicial Conduct Panel to formally investigate judicial misconduct by current Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson.

In the 2007 Saxmere v Wool Board appeal, then-Court of Appeal Judge Wilson failed to disclose the extent of his business and personal relationship with the Wool Board’s Counsel Alan Galbraith QC.  Wilson later lied to cover up the fact he owed Galbraith money and was in the middle of purchasing a $2.1 million property with Galbraith at the same time he presided over the appeal.

While Chief Justice Sian Elias is now hiding behind judicial mouthpiece Neil Billington after months of personally keeping a lid on fellow Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson’s misconduct, Wilson himself has hired a key material witness as his lawyer.

According to key investigation documents, Wellington lawyer Colin Carruthers QC personally pleaded with Wilson early on in the scandal to disclose his financial indebtedness to Galbraith.  Wilson refused.  In a move which is as unlawful as it is effective, Wilson has now hired Carruthers as his lawyer.  Hiring Carruthers makes Carruthers immune from having to testify as to these material facts of Wilson’s misconduct.

Mr Carruthers is married to former ACT MP and journalist Deborah Coddington.  He is expected to charge the NZ government upwards of $600 per hour to defend Wilson and has already come out swinging hard.  He told the press that a judicial review application will be filed in the Auckland High Court challenging the authority of the statutory appointment of a judicial conduct panel to investigate and possibly remove Wilson from the bench.

Attorney General (and friend of Wilson) Chris Finlayson proposed earlier this year that the government would help reimburse the multi-million dollar legal expenses incurred by Saxmere and the Wool Board due to Wilson’s alleged misconduct.

Perhaps reflecting how dysfunctional the NZ Court system is on the whole, Wilson J has defiantly stated his actions do not warrant disciplinary action, in addition to his lawyer’s legal challenges that the Executive and Legislative branches of government have no authority.  Unlike virtually every other law-respecting country in the world, New Zealand has no prohibition against judges presiding in cases where they have a conflict of interest.

Wilson’s salvo has also put Judges Winkelmann and Randerson on warning that no one will be spared.  Not that he needed to.  Though Winkelmann has distinguished herself among her judicial peers as honourable, she is timid by nature and quick to back down when confronted by her fellow judges.   One lawyer called her “the most virtuous girl in the brothel”.

On the other hand, Randerson J, as Head of the High Court Bench, was well-known to have covered up worse judicial misconduct than Wilson is accused of.  In 2005, for example, Judge Randerson dismissed a formal complaint with unequivocal evidence that High Court Judge Judy Potter failed to disclose her family relationship when she ruled on behalf of her brother-in-law in a case.  Quite creatively, Randerson said he saw nothing wrong with Potter J’s failure because the ruling she issued was “procedural” in nature.

Beverly Wakem has been put on as filler.   When the protocol for such an eventuality of a Judicial Conduct Panel was established by Parliament in 2004, a fierce judicial lobby ensured that the judges would control any panel and that Parliament would not be able to discipline any judge for misconduct short of removal from office by a full vote.  When it comes to the legal jockeying which is destined to permeate the process, Judges Winkelman and Randerson will be leading Ms Wakem with a tight leash