Monday, May 31, 2010

Digging a deeper hole

Earlier in the month, the Judicial Conduct Commissioner recommended that a judicial conduct panel be appointed to investigate the actions of Justice Bill Wilson. The allegations against Wilson - that he presided in a case despite being in business with a QC appearing before him, and owing that QC quarter of a million dollars - are serious, and call Wilson's impartiality in that case, and the court's processes for monitoring and preventing conflicts of interest, into question. As a result, the Attorney-General this morning formally appointed a panel of two judges and the Ombudsman to inquire into it.

Justice Wilson's response has been to file for an immediate judicial review of the decision, on the grounds that the seriousness of the findings would not warrant his removal as a judge, meaning the Attorney-General did not have jurisdiction to convene a panel. That may or may not be true. But in the process, he has undermined his own case so severely as to make his continuation in office untenable.

The problem for Justice Wilson is that this is not just a question of law, but of politics. And the standard the New Zealand public demand from our judges is very high: their integrity must be unquestioned, their impartiality beyond doubt. They must not only be fair and unbiased, but they must be seen to be so. And Justice Wilson has already failed the latter test. That may or may not be worthy of a sacking - that's what the inquiry is meant to decide. But fighting that process unquestionably makes it worse in the eyes of the public, and is unacceptable behaviour from someone who is, ultimately, our servant. It makes it look like he has something to hide. And under a political standard of judgement, that is enough.