Supreme Court opening eclipses steaming scandal

As the opening ceremonies of the $80 million Supreme Court building concluded yesterday (19 January 2010), it’s very foundation was being rocked at the law offices of Minter Ellison around the corner.

Former Chief Justice of Australia Murray Gleeson and Judicial Conduct Commissioner David Gascoigne met with superfine woolgrower Saxmere principal Peter Radford and his formidable counsel Sue Grey yesterday as the first step in deciding whether Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson will become the first Judge in New Zealand History to face removal from office for misconduct.  What ensued at the 3 hour meeting was an expose into systemic abuse of power by judges and Crown law officers, with little regard for their personal conflicts of interest.

The main subject of the inquiry into Judge Wilson’s alleged misconduct was his overturning a ruling while on the Court of Appeal in a case where his business partner was counsel for the lucky party.  It turned out that lawyer had assisted Judge Wilson with bank financing and the two were in the middle of purchasing a $2.1 million property.  When the conflict was later discovered and a complaint laid, Wilson admitted he thought Saxmere would likely object to his presiding as Judge if they had known this – but Wilson decided it was his privilege not to tell them.

Unlike the New Zealand Supreme Court, import Chief Judge Gleeson did not limit the evidence.  He wanted to hear it all.  Ms Grey did not hesitate.  The no-nonsense Gleeson was shocked to learn how the Supreme Court had first gotten it so terribly wrong (when they ruled Wilson J had no apparent bias in July 2009) and that Judge Peter Blanchard had actually dismissed extremely damning evidence of Wilson’s financial indebtedness to counsel in that appeal.  After detailing Wilson J’s conduct in the Saxmere appeal, Grey described how she had been fired from her job at the Department of Conservation on the order of Solicitor General David Collins after she first blew the whistle.

She next told of how Wilson had written the Supreme Court opinion in the TVNZ v Simunovich case last August – after working as legal advisor for the NZ Ministry of Fisheries years earlier when the scandal encompassed by the claims had arisen.  She referred to legislation and rules common to all law-respecting societies which precluded Judges from presiding over matters where they have an existing opinion, personal involvement or personal knowledge of disputed facts.  She left Judge Gleeson, and even the Commissioner, stunned by her potent display of relevant facts and law.  She left no doubt that Saxmere was not an isolated case – that the problem was likely systemic and severe.

Media were barred from the meeting, but it was digitally-recorded by the Commisioner and transcripts are to be supplied to the participants later.  Gleeson was reported to be pleasant and engaging – contrary to the steely persona portrayed in the media.  Both Gleeson and the Commissioner were free with questions which were unabashedly on point, seemingly unafraid of asking the nettlesome questions to which the answers almost certainly offended their innate sensibilities.  As the press had been barred, Ms Grey asked for guidance concerning press enquiries, at the same time she expressed her considered view that the evidence of Wilson’s indiscretions would have been covered up if not for the press coverage.  Commissioner Gascoigne readily agreed that the media exposure played a crucial role.   It was, after all, the first of over 500 complaints the Judicial Conduct Commissioner has received in the 4 ½ years since the oversight body was created (Note: active Kensington Swan law partner Ian Haynes was Commissioner for all but the last six months).

Near the end, the Commissioner stated that he had three options: to do nothing, to refer the matter to Chief Justice Elias for possible disciplinary action, or to appoint a panel with the power of removing Wilson if their inquiry confirms the prima facie case against him strong enough.  Counsel Grey vehemently objected to Chief Justice Elias being handed the matter, informing the Australian Gleeson that Wilson and Elias own racehorses together and are close mates.  She commended the Commissioner’s wisdom in bringing Judge Gleeson in for the preliminary interviews and suggested any panel investigating Wilson would equally benefit from picking appointees from outside New Zealand given the small fishbowl in which the New Zealand judges all swim.

Next step?  Gleeson and the Commissioner are to meet with other parties involved in the Saxmere case over the next seven days.  This includes Francis Cooke QC, Alan Galbraith QC and, no doubt, Judge Wilson QC.  At this point, it seems these interviews are merely a matter of crossing the “t”s and dotting the “i”s.  If the expected full and meaningful panel inquiry does not quickly result, we might as well write-off the new $80 million Supreme Court building in respect to any justice we hope to get out of it.