Gleeson upstaged

Judge Wilson scandal continues

The maneuvering behind the scenes in the drawn out Judge Bill Wilson scandal seems as frenetic as the cloak of secrecy over the actual investigation is thick.  Now, it appears, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security under the previous Labour Government Paul Neazor has been brought on board by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner.  Justices Neazor and Wilson worked together on top secret national security matters, including the Ahmed Zauoi case, when Wilson acted as the government’s lawyer.   It is safe to say the two men share many government secrets.  The retired High Court Judge with deeper roots in the system than a full-grown willow has been called in to help with the “independent” investigation of Wilson.

Chief Justice Murray Gleeson
Chief Justice Murray Gleeson

This bizarre move follows the surprise move of the JCC last month in bringing retired Chief Justice Australian Murray Gleeson (pictured) over as an independent examiner to interview the witnesses and give a legal assessment on Judge Wilson’s conflict of interest.  Gleeson apparently gave his assessment “with the directness that is the prerogative of age”.   Wilson J, however, is refusing to fall on his sword and the JCC’s latest move appears designed to put a lid on the inquiry altogether.

The conflict stems from the 2007 Court of Appeal case Saxmere v Wool Board, where current Supreme Court Justice Wilson failed to disclose his business partnership and financial indebtedness to Wool Board Counsel Alan Galbraith QC.  The 2004 statute governing the JCC provides for him to appoint a panel to investigate judicial misconduct and this panel to make a recommendation based on its findings to the Attorney General.  But current Commissioner Sir David Gascoigne is taking more detours than a European backpacker.

Wilson J has firmly maintained his indiscretion was a matter of degree (both parties agree he did disclose to Saxmere counsel Francis Cooke QC that he and Galbraith shared an interest in a racehorse).  Privately, he is said to be angry that so much focus has been on actions which pale in comparison to what many of his judicial peers have done.  In 2005, for instance, a lawyer filed a complaint that High Court Justice Judith Potter failed to disclose her conflict when ruling in a matter where her brother-in-law was a party.  Then-Chief Justice Tony Randerson dismissed that complaint on the spurious grounds that, while Potter J predictably ruled in favour of her brother-in-law, her failure to disclose her relationship was acceptable because her ruling was “procedural” in nature.  It is the plethora of such cases which Wilson now clings to as his lifeboat in refusing to resign.  The fear of what he might do if forced off the bench has gripped everyone from his horseracing mate Sian Elias to Justice Neazor’s former boss and current head of the Law Commission Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

From the tidbits of information which are leaking out, Judge Gleeson seemed disinclined to reserve his opinions.  Meanwhile, all three of the Solicitors General since Mr Neazor (that’s right, Neazor was additionally Solicitor General under David Lange) want to protect Wilson J because they consider this to be in the best interest of the NZ judiciary.  Two successors, Terrence Arnold and John McGrath, are judges on the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court respectively.  The third, current Solicitor General David Collins, directed Saxmere lawyer Sue Grey fired from her job at Department of Conservation because she exposed Wilson’s misconduct.

An attempt to relegate the Honourable Gleeson another reason to bash Australia may be afoot, but it would be prudent not to shoot this inconvenient messenger.  On point, the haunting quote of Judge Gleeson himself is poignant: What is at stake is not some personal or corporate privilege of judicial officers; it is the right of citizens to have their potential criminal liability, or their civil disputes, judged by an independent tribunal.  The distinction is vital.  Independence is not a prerequisite of judicial office; the independence of judicial officers is a right of the citizens over whom they exercise control.”

This inspiring quote is perhaps the clarion call in the Wilson scandal.  If unheeded, it may prove we have learned little since the Mt Erebus air crash cover-up and the lone voice of NZ’s own Honourable Peter Mahon where he declared “an orchestrated litany of lies” was leading the judiciary.  If we have truly matured as a nation enough to justly supplant the Privy Council with former Court of Appeal Judges as the ultimate appellate court, let us pray and hope some lessons have been learned.  Part of this maturity is the wisdom and fortitude to acknowledge that if Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson survives, New Zealand has forever blurred the definition of independent judicial officers.