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Judge fights for job despite 'inappropriate' views on Indigenous people, women

An Alberta judge has lost his job over "completely inappropriate" beliefs and behaviours involving his views on Indigenous people and victims of domestic and sexual assault. And now, Judge Donald Norheim is fighting to get his job back.

Judge Donald Norheim sat for 27 years in Hinton, Alta.

The chief judge of Alberta's provincial court has refused to reappoint a 72-year-old Hinton judge citing inappropriate behaviours, comments and attitudes toward Indigenous people, victims of sexual assault and drug addicts. (Google Street View)

An Alberta judge has lost his job over "completely inappropriate" beliefs and behaviours involving his views on Indigenous people and victims of domestic and sexual assault.

But Judge Donald Norheim is fighting to get his job back, filing an application in Alberta's superior court for a judicial review of the decision by Alberta provincial court Chief Judge Terry Matchett not to reappoint him.

Norheim called the move "fundamentally unfair." He was informed of the decision in August.

"Your beliefs or behaviours in many cases are completely inappropriate for any judge," Matchett wrote in an email to Norheim on Aug. 14, 2019.

Matchett's findings are based on a year-long review of transcripts and recordings from Norheim's courtroom, as well as hearing "expressions of deep concern" from other judges and lawyers. Specific examples of his courtroom behaviour were not given in the email, letter and court documents, aside from comments he made about people addicted to drugs being "liars."

The chief judge also indicated this is not the first time Norheim has been put on notice for his "courtroom arrogance" and discriminatory comments.

'Rude and bullying'

Norheim was appointed 27 years ago and sat in Hinton, Alta. — located about 280 kilometres west of Edmonton — until August.

After the age of 70, provincial court judges must be reappointed every year by the chief judge.

Matchett advised Norheim that he would not be reappointed this year and would sit only until Sept. 29, the Hinton judge's 72nd birthday.

"You've demonstrated attitudes and publicly express personal views regarding Indigenous accused, female victims of domestic assault, and consent in sexual assault cases which caused significant concerns for the perception of trial fairness before you," wrote Matchett in a letter dated Aug. 14.

Matchett wrote that on "numerous occasions" Norheim spoke to people who appeared before him "in a way that can only be described as rude and bullying."

'Courtroom arrogance'

On Aug. 23, after Norheim was advised by letter that his appointment would not be extended beyond September, he met with Associate Chief Judge J. Schaffter and Matchett.

"You did not dispute the accuracy of the court behaviours or comments outlined in the letter," wrote Matchett in a followup email to Norheim four days after the meeting. "You said the events could have been 'handled better.'"

"That lack of contriteness would be deeply troubling by any judge but it was particularly so by a judge who has served 27 years on the bench. You essentially attempted to minimize the inappropriateness of your behaviours," wrote the chief judge.

Matchett also indicated that this was not the first time Norheim had been warned about his behaviour in court. 

In 2016, Charles Gardner — then the associate chief judge — met with Norheim to discuss many of the same concerns later raised in 2019.

Those concerns included Norheim's "courtroom arrogance and demeanour, regularly challenging counsel's integrity, your inflexibility, refusing to accept joint submissions of counsel for adjournments, waivers and sentences, regularly denigrating Legal Aid."

Calls people addicted to drugs 'liars'

The letter also asserts that Norheim has called people who are addicted to drugs "liars" and made comments that they are incapable of recovering from their addictions.

A letter from Norheim's lawyer to Alberta Justice counsel argues the refusal to reappoint the Hinton judge "was made in a fundamentally unfair manner that lacked the high standard of justice that is required when the right to continue in one's profession is at stake."

The application for a judicial review was filed in an Edmonton court on Sept. 20 and seeks Norheim's reappointment.

It also seeks an injunction preventing Matchett's decision from taking effect until Judicial Council makes a determination on Noheim's complaint.

Norheim claims the process not to renew his appointment "offends the principles of procedural fairness and natural justice" and that it is a breach of his constitutional right "by limiting judicial independence of and removing procedural protections for judges over the age of 70."

The parties were in court in Edmonton on Oct. 17 but the case was adjourned without a return date being set. 

CBC News requested comment from Norheim, his lawyer and a lawyer for Matchett. None of the parties responded to the request.

About the Author

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary.