Judge more chivalrous than sexist

from the Toronto Star Aug 13, 2009 04:30 AM

Lisa MacLeod is a blue-ribbon, gold-plated hoot.

Just 34, the Ottawa-area MPP is animated, feisty, hard-working. She’s well to the right, a bit on the loud side and almost impossible not to like. In fact, she’s so down-to-earth and engaging she might well, if so inclined, represent the riding of Nepean-Carleton until retirement.

None of which necessarily makes her a good witness.

The Progressive Conservative MPP found herself in an intriguing little contretemps this week. Owing to the manner in which a 69-year-old Superior Court judge discounted her testimony in a recent verdict, the gender wars have flared anew around her.

But, as is often the case, the story is more nuanced than the headlines suggest.

MacLeod gave evidence earlier this year in the influence-peddling trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien. Last week, Justice Douglas Cunningham dismissed the charges. In his ruling, he said he gave little weight to MacLeod’s testimony as a Crown witness. But how he did so sparked outrage.

He said she had "a number of rather significant things going on in her life" when she gave police a statement. Among other things, "she was commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa."

Naturally, the howls were loud that, here again, an out-of-touch male had dismissed the ability of a young working woman to step out of the home and still remain focused and credible.

Premier Dalton McGuinty left a wife and four kids under 10 in Ottawa when he was first elected to Queen’s Park and it’s inconceivable that any judge, in similar circumstances, would have made any such remark about a man.

Without doubt, Cunningham would have been wiser to leave MacLeod’s personal circumstances alone and deal only with her evidence, which does seem to have been exactly as he found it – imprecise and of little value.

Unfortunately, the outrage seems to flow from those who have seized on a few words in a 21-page ruling.

Taking the troublesome quote in context – which, alas, often ruins a good story – it’s easy to conclude Cunningham was less guilty of being sexist than he was of being overly chivalrous and solicitous.

Unfairly, some media reports plucked the incendiary quote from its rather ameliorating context. What Cunningham said was: "She was commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa. As well, in March 2007, her father was diagnosed with cancer."

To leave out the second sentence was to leave out a lot. It took a comment that could easily be interpreted as sympathetic and spun it nearer the merely sexist.

In fact, there’s an inference to be drawn that – since MacLeod held such a public position as MPP, and since credibility matters in such a job – Cunningham went out of his way to explain why he put so little stock in what she said.

When Cunningham summed up MacLeod’s evidence he again took pains to cast her in the best light.

"Ms. MacLeod’s recollection of a brief, casual portion of her conversation is so imprecise that, through no fault of her own, I must assign it little weight."

In short, he was making excuses for her. Probably in a way he wouldn’t have done for a man, but probably as a way of softening his discounting of her testimony.

Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t so much being insensitive to a woman as he was being overly considerate of the fact that she is a young politician.

Not to mention the fact she was probably the most likeable person he encountered during the trial.


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