Sudbury judge admits misconduct, faces possible suspension

Sudbury judge John Keast admits he 'blurred the line' when he attempted to intervene in a child custody case and made harsh remarks about the CAS in private text messages. Warning: This story coarse offensive language

Warning: This story contains coarse language

Justice John Keast admitted to misconduct for text messages he sent regarding the Sudbury children's aid society and a particular custody case involving a woman and her daughter.

Sudbury judge John Keast says he doesn't recognize himself when he reads text messages he sent regarding a child custody case last year.

This matter was not in his courtroom.

It involves a woman—who died before the hearing— and her daughter, whom the CBC cannot identify under a publication ban.

Keast exchanged text messages over two months with long-time friend Lynda Cullain, who was a manager at the Children's Aid Society of the Districts of Sudbury and Manitoulin.

Those texts were lifted off Keast's phone without his knowledge and provided to the Sudbury children's aid, which then gave them to the Ontario Judicial Council, prompting the disciplinary hearing this week in Toronto.

In those texts, Keast requests and receives confidential information about the case and questions how the CAS handled the situation, calling the agency "stupid" and "negligent." 

The judge also writes in the text messages that CAS management had "fucked up" the case and believed that the agency was perpetrating a "cover-up" to keep him from finding out more information about it.

Keast told the disciplinary hearing Wednesday that he was concerned about a child being abused and was obligated under law to report to the CAS, which he says he did by texting Cullain.

The judicial panel heard Keast made that report and those disparaging comments about the Sudbury children's aid just days before he was scheduled to rule on a child protection case that he describes in the texts as "badly let go by the CAS."

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the mess I will be in," Keast writes in the text messages.

The panel heard that Keast did divulge this possible conflict-of-interest to his supervisor and to the lawyers in this upcoming trial, but withheld information about the extent of his personal involvement.

Keast advised friend to sue CAS

Prosecuting lawyer Scott Hutchison argued that Keast "compromised his position" which "had the potential to impair a very serious child protection proceeding."

He said the disciplinary hearing's job is "restoring the public's confidence in this judge and the administration of justice generally" and that "something more than a warning or a reprimand is required."

Keast has stayed on the job since the disciplinary process began last year but has not been presiding over any cases.

Hutchison suggested the 16-year judge should now be suspended without pay for a period shorter than the maximum of 30 days.

He acknowledged that Keast is an "exceptional man" whose career has been "without blemish."

"That history only takes Justice Keast so far," Hutchison argued.

In the text messages. Keast also gives Cullain legal advice on how to best negotiate an exit package from her job at the children's aid.

During that part of the exchange, Keast refers to several specific children's aid officials as "bitches" and suggests Cullain sue the agency.

"You fucked them good," he writes to Cullain.

Keast has apologized to the children's aid society and the employees who he names in the texts.

In his written affadavit, Keast states that when he reviews the text messages now "I do not recognize myself and wonder 'what was this was guy thinking' as I look at some of them."

Justice John Keast has been on the bench at the Sudbury courthouse since 2001, but during the disciplinary process over the last year he has not presided over any cases. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

Keast's lawyer Paul Stern calls the misconduct "a step back" that constitutes "a risk of the appearance of bias"  but one that is "rooted in personal emotional crisis."

The Sudbury children's aid society, Keast and his supervisor have agreed to a 12-month "cooling off period" where he will not preside over child protection cases.

"Though I feel I'm ready to return now to child protection matters, I can understand... that this would be very stressful, there might be some difficult feelings," Keast testified to the hearing.

"There could be some sense of uncertainty about me in their minds and I understand that."

The chair of the disciplinary panel Justice Eileen Gillese said it will be difficult to deliver a ruling in this case that restores the public's faith in the justice system and in Justice Keast's fitness to rule on matters involving the Sudbury children's aid society without revealing details that are covered by the publication ban.

"They need some kind of insight," Gillese said of the public concerned about possible bias from Justice Keast in future children's aid cases.

"We have to show them." 

The four-person panel did not give a date on when it expects to come to a decision on Keast's punishment.