Tucked away in the Herald Sun this past week was the tale of a reportedly tipsy magistrate alleged to have groped “a young woman’s buttocks” and told their owner after “a night of drinking” that he “loved her” . For an encore he is said to have further enlived the Christmas party by urging “a member of the public” to physically assault “a male staffer whom he described as a ‘c—‘.” While the incident immediately set tongues wagging throughout Melbourne’s legal precinct,where gossip is the currency of corridor discourse, it was not until a journalist brought the matter to the attention of Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen that an investigation was launched.
At this writing the matter is before the new Judicial Complaints Commission and the magistrate in question continues to dispense justice. For all we know, he might even have passed judgement on other accused bottom-fondlers. Once, in days now fading to memory, some might have invoked Caesar’s wife and suggested it would be prudent were the reveller with the reputed roving hands stood down until his name could be cleared, or something like that. Indeed, most would have seen such a step as the only course, lest the thought gain credence that the bench regards the appearance of propriety as being “for thee, not me.”
None of this surprised anybody who works within the courts or observes them at close quarters, a perspective that often leaves the impression of a system which believes it is a law unto itself. This is particularly so in regard to the courts’ escalating disdain for scrutiny.
Buried in the Magistrates’ Court media guidelines, for example, is an assertion unique in Australia, one usually found under dictatorships. When a reporter seeks an interview, those guidelines advise, “the Court will generally only consider a request of this nature if a copy of the article is sent to the judicial officer or person interviewed, for approval, prior to publication.” In other words, if you want to write about us we’ll decide what you can say.
Victoria’s Supreme Court recently tried to “accredit” journalists, backing off only after the union, the MEAA, pointed out the sheer lunacy of trying to control reporters when courtrooms remain open to any and all who care to sit in the public gallery. The County Court still thinks it can accredit journalists, a confidence at odds with media outfits’ decision to ignore what has so far proven an impotent edict.
While the courts are increasingly seeking to control those who sit in on their proceedings and how they are reported, the Supreme Court’s Justice Lex Lasry is more open in passing social-media verdicts on all manner of topics. Milo Yiannopolous was the target of a recent bon mot.
Mr Lasry also retweeted a journalist’s description — now vanished from his feed — of a minor political party as the “Shooter, Fishers and Felchers Party”. Put the kids to bed before you google “felchers”. I’ll leave it to readers to ponder the probity of a judge re-broadcasting a gross obscenity directed at a registered political party, one that drew 56,536 upper-house votes at the 2014 state election and saw two candidates elected. Should the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party ever find itself in court, one guesses they would prefer to find a judge other than Mr Lasry in charge of proceedings.
Not long ago, when the ABC’s 4Corners was reheating a potted history of Clive Palmer’s adventures in politics, business and courtroom, Mr Lasry was moved to retweet the following from former radio man and dumped SMH columnist Mike Carlton.
“Why are so many of our mining magnates enormously fat?”
Justice Lasry relayed that question to his 3515 Twitter followers. Retweets aren’t endorsements, as almost everybody’s Twitter account declares, but neither is their propagation a repudiation. He has also twittered that he will never visit Bali until Indonesia’s death penalty is abolished, isn’t fond of duck hunters and doesn’t have much time for monarchists. Were a duck-hunting Balinese assemblyman in receipt of imperial honours ever to come before him, one wonders if the defendant might also be keen to request another judge.
There used to be an old gag about cloistered judges and their wonderment at the mysteries of modern life. “This Big Mac,” the crusty beak inquires, “who is he?” Some might say it’s a long bow, linking the presumed right to edit journalists’ work with a judge’s candid expression of opinion on the day’s events, not to mention the court system’s keeping in situ a magistrate under investigation for sexual harassment. What cannot be denied, however, is that none of this would have happened in the past, when judicial officers attended to their jobs, judges kept their non-legal opinions to themselves and the courts stuck to their onions.
When those boundaries and standards are thrown over, only the wigs, elevated benches, tipstaves and protocols will remain — not as trappings of august impartiality but as reminders of a dignity sacrificed on the altar of arrogance.