Judge Joe: media watchdog

A close-up look at the media-savvy Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy.

By Peter de Vries

Long-time Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy takes note of journalists’ presence in court. For a decade he’s been working to improve court-media relations, so reporters and judges can help each other, instead of fight each other.

From left to right: Justice Kenneth Haley, Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy, Justice Robert Ferguson (Photo: Tera Camus)
From left to right: Justice Kenneth Haley, Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy, Justice Robert Ferguson (Tera Camus supplied photo)

By Peter de Vries

If you were to ask Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy what he thinks about how the media cover the courts, you would be in for a very long-winded answer.

He answers, sitting at his desk in a grand office in downtown Halifax overlooking the ocean. Two Montreal Expos caps sit on top of his enormous bookshelf. A collection of seven baseballs and a football are a couple of shelves down.

This man has the power to send people to jail. He’s also a stand-up comic. He has a collection of model antique cars mounted on his office wall, and he’ll occasionally lash out at news columnists whom he feels are out of line. Like a wise and sometimes cranky grandfather, he reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of the legal system and a cunning awareness of the media’s watchful eye.

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Most Canadian judges aren’t outspoken, and not all have strong opinions about criminals and the media.  “(Journalists) used to treat us with a benevolent neglect,” Kennedy says. “We (judges) can’t complain about being misunderstood when we don’t make any effort to be understood.”

Kennedy isn’t just talking. He helped organize a conference called Media and the Courts, while a member of the Canadian Judicial Council’s Public Information Committee (PIC), that aimed to inform both the media and the judiciary of each others’ issues.

While Kennedy was on the board, from 2000 to 2008, the PIC also advocated for a specialized officer to handle media requests in courts across the country. Today, every province and territory in Canada has one of these officers. “He was a champion for encouraging media relations in various courts across the country,” says Johanna Laporte, director of communications and strategic issues for the Canadian Judicial Council.

For years, four or five reporters covered Kennedy’s Halifax court on a regular basis. Then some news outfits began to run out of money. He hasn’t seen many court reporters lately. “There was a concerted effort by Nova Scotia media to become better court reporters, and it was successful,” Kennedy said. “We used to have a lot of good court reporters.”

A Quotable Judge and a Sassy Columnist

Jennifer Stewart covered courts for The Chronicle Herald from 2006 to 2009. She remembers sometimes barely being able to scrape together enough quotes to tell her stories effectively. She never had this problem in Kennedy’s courtroom. “He’s very media-savvy,” Stewart says. “He knows who the regular reporters are, and he’ll play up to them a little bit.”

“We (judges) can’t complain about being misunderstood when we don’t make any effort to be understood.”
–Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy

She recalls a 2007 case when Kennedy sentenced Quoc Nguyen to two years in jail for production of marijuana and theft of power. Nguyen had used his home in Tantallon for part of a marijuana-growing operation, and Kennedy chose his words carefully: “Operating in the midst of riding bicycles, children walking back and forth to school, birthday parties in the backyard, we have this drug factory. Get those children out of there.”

While Kennedy may be quotable, he’s not a media sweetheart. When David Rodenhiser, a former columnist for The Daily News, suggested in 2006 that Justice David Gruchy had “blood on his hands” for the murder of Damon Crooks, Kennedy decided to defend the judge publicly. He described Rodenhiser’s comments as “reprehensible and reckless.”

“To suggest that a judge in the proper and careful exercise of his function is somehow culpable in the sad death of a man, occurring years after a judicial decision is rendered, is sensationalism and irresponsibility to a degree that we are not accustomed to in Nova Scotia.”

In 2004, Gruchy had sentenced Corey Wright to five years and seven months in jail for aggravated assault. The time was reduced to three years and five months after granting Wright double credit for the 13 months he had served in pre-trial custody. Wright was out on parole when he murdered Crooks, and Rodenhiser argued that Crooks would still be alive if Gruchy had given Wright a heavier sentence. Kennedy was so outraged at Rodenhiser’s comments that he suggested “an apology would be in order”.

Despite their differences of opinion, Rodenhiser has nothing but praise for Kennedy. In fact, he remembers Kennedy’s reaction to his column as an odd kind of good day. “It shows that people in positions of power are reading what you’re writing, and taking what you’re saying seriously enough that they feel the need to react to it.”

Kennedy Gets Funny

Kennedy combines his love of Judging with his love of Baseball (Photo: Peter de Vries)
Kennedy,a baseball fanatic, decorates his office with sports paraphernalia (Peter de Vries photo)

It’s the 20th annual celebrity roast to benefit the Arthritis Society, at the Cunard Centre in Halifax. The day is Oct. 28, 2009. Kennedy casually walks up to a podium to a big round of applause. With an easy-going nonchalance, he lowers his eyes to the script and prepares to speak.

His eyes don’t even attempt to meet the 500 faces in the crowd until he raises his voice to address them. “Good evening everyone, my name is Joe Kennedy. It’s true that I am a judge, though not in the pejorative sense. I’m not Judge Judy, though I would like to be Judge Judy.”

Quiet laughter is heard throughout the room.

“I never meant to be a judge, it was sort of a process of elimination,” says Kennedy. More laughter fills the silent gap in between his words.

“I actually wanted to be an accountant,” says Kennedy. A single person in the crowd claps, applauding this comment, before Kennedy delivers his punch line. “But I knew I didn’t have the charisma.”

The room erupts with laughter. Kennedy’s face betrays a wry smirk at the success of his joke.

Kennedy had agreed to host the event. Throughout the evening, he poked fun at prominent Nova Scotians, including former premier John Hamm. “We love this guy for no obvious reason. Shouldn’t he be in Sarasota running for mayor of an RV park or something?”

Kennedy’s humour isn’t reserved only for public functions. Michael MacDonald, chief justice of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, enjoys Kennedy’s humour when they meet to discuss issues over lunch. “Regardless of how difficult the topic is, I always have a good laugh,” MacDonald said. “We can’t do our job without a sense of humour.”

Kennedy is careful about being funny in the courtroom, though. He’s aware that his words can be misinterpreted, and the appropriate level of humour depends on the subject matter of the case. “You don’t try to say anything funny when you have a sexual assault case. But when it’s less serious in chambers and there’s nobody but lawyers, you can have a little fun with them.”

(Arthritis Society video)

Life on the Bench, Life in Jail

Kennedy began his career on the bench as a judge for the provincial court of Nova Scotia in 1978. He was appointed chief judge of that court in 1996. He became a justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court one year later. In 1998 he was elevated to chief justice.

Kennedy says there are two kinds of people he winds up sentencing: terribly unlucky people who have made mistakes, or “just plain bad people”.

“There’s such a thing as a bad human being. I’m not under any sense that everybody is good. That’s baloney.” He muses about how it’s unsafe to leave a bar at closing time in Nova Scotia. “Back in the old days, somebody would do something and you’d take a swing at them. Today, they stick a knife in you.”

Kennedy had stern words for Sergio Bowers, who appeared before him for sentencing after pleading guilty to aggravated assault, misleading police, and possession of cocaine and ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking. “You’re a disgrace,” Kennedy said from the bench. “You’re an embarrassment. Maybe the only thing you’ve got going for you is that you’re only 21. People do change, even the worst of us. So you decide.”

Kennedy has reasons for speaking as graphically and harshly as he does. “I want him (Bowers) to get the message, and I want to communicate to the public that I feel the same way about this that many of them must feel. I mean to do it, and I do it either rightly or wrongly for what I think is a positive purpose.”

Joel Pink, a criminal defence lawyer who has known Kennedy for 45 years, has watched Kennedy sentence many of his clients. “Chief Justice Kennedy is very pointed,” Pink says. “If the crime is one that has shocked his senses, he will make it known to the accused. At all times he keeps in mind the general principles and policies of what the sentencing process is all about.”

Joel Pink, a criminal defence lawyer (Photo: Nova Scotia Barristers Society)
Joel Pink, a criminal defence lawyer (Nova Scotia Barristers' Society supplied photo)

The 21-year-old Sergio Bowers is now living in prison, perhaps in Springhill (Corrections Canada will not reveal his exact location because of Privacy Act concerns). Every day, he says, he writes lyrics for his new rap album. He’s been rapping for five years as a hobby, but only in jail did he realize music is his god-given talent. He has written four albums’ worth of material – his latest is called Words of Wisdom.

In Bowers’s cell there is a window, a sink, a bed, a desk and a toilet. He works out in the gym for about 90 minutes every day. He is trying to consider his time inside philosophically.

“Some of my closest family members have been doing a lot of time,” Bowers said. “Being around them I could never complain about the little bit of time I have received. It makes you look at things more realistically.”

What the Media Didn’t Get to Hear

Kennedy’s calls his late father a “great responsibility guy”. Kennedy is always thinking about things his father told him. One was: “Always be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there.” He says court reporters should follow that rule.

He adds that good court reporting is also about asking questions and working hard to understand what factors lead to a judge’s decision. He’s irked that journalists often report only the decision and people’s emotionally charged reactions that follow, without proper attention to the process that led to it. “When I make a decision, it’s not necessarily right or definitive, and almost certainly someone is going to be unhappy with it and anxious to express that.”

“We (judges) are not hothouse flowers. Go ahead and be critical, so long as you know what you’re talking about.”
–Justice Kennedy on court reporting

He prefers thoughtful, well-researched stories critical of the judiciary to stories that have facts but no explanation or supporting context. “We (judges) are not hothouse flowers. Go ahead and be critical, so long as you know what you’re talking about.”

Kennedy says a journalism degree, hard work and, above all, experience in the courtroom are all key ingredients to good court reporting. But it doesn’t end there.

He remembers a number of stories published with headlines like, “What the judge didn’t want the jury to hear”. Each time the journalist accurately reported facts and evidence, but never mentioned why these facts and evidence were held back until the jury was sequestered. The reason, he says, is that the information would prejudice the defendant’s right to a fair trial. “It would be helpful if every reason for why every bit of evidence was held out is communicated, so that at least the public would know that the judge isn’t crazy.”

He says judges are interested in both encouraging freedom of expression and protecting fair trials, but that the media plays by different rules. Media have a great deal of interest in freedom of speech, he believes, but less in whether an accused will be able to get an unbiased trial.

Despite such issues, Kennedy is optimistic about the relationship between the media and the courts, and he continues to advocate for better communication. “The courts don’t get covered like they used to. That’s no reason not to be as co-operative as we reasonably can.”

Elsewhere in this issue
Street newspaper takes hard hit
Backlash, breakfast, and fans: life as a Herald cartoonist
Is lifting condolences off Facebook too easy?
Judge Joe: media watchdog
Life after the Daily News