Provincial court judges released for 27 years' good behaviour

After nearly 30 years, North Shore judges rest their cases
Jane Seyd / North Shore News
June 8, 2018

Judges Doug Moss and William Rodgers have retired after 27 years as colleagues on the bench at North Vancouver provincial court. photo Lisa King, North Shore News

“Want to see the judge face?”

Judge William Rodgers sat back and instantly erased all expression: no smile, no frown, and no hint of what he might be thinking.

It’s a face he got used to wearing during his almost three decades as a provincial court judge in North Vancouver.

There’s the way he got used to speaking too. “You talk in short sentences. No polysyllabic words. Lots of pauses. ... It drives your family nuts,” he said.

Judge Doug Moss gestured to a filing cabinet in the corner of his office, full of files, headed to the shredder. It was one of the few things that hadn’t been packed away.

It was a week before both judges officially retired after 27 years in North Vancouver provincial court, and there were still cases to wrap up. Moss listed a few of them: a custody case from Sechelt, a criminal case from Whistler that might get delayed because the accused had fallen off his mountain bike, a civil dispute involving a trucking company.

“Ditto,” said Rodgers. “Everything he’s got, I’ve got.”

Source: file photo Kevin Hill, North Shore News

Provincial court judges are generalists by necessity. They also hear the lion’s share of cases that directly impact people’s lives.

“We do 90 per cent of the criminal work in the province,” said Rodgers. And 90 per cent of the family law.

Those are among the reasons neither judge ever voiced interest in being appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court.

After 20 years as a criminal defence lawyer prior to being a judge, “I didn’t want to sit around and instruct juries,” said Moss, 73.

As a former commercial lawyer, “The last thing I wanted to do again was humongous bank against cutthroat developments,” said Rodgers, 68. “I wanted to deal with people. I wanted someone in the courtroom who was interested in the outcome, other than how it affected their financial bottom line.”

In North Vancouver provincial court, both judges have had that and then some: drunk drivers and scam artists and child pornographers. The man who set his friend on fire. The dog granted a stay of execution. The drunken fight on the dock and the road rager who beat a stranger with a baseball bat.

There is a heaviness to a judge’s job.

“No one comes through the door happy,” said Rodgers.

There are cases that are draining: those involving children or random violence, for instance. Those involving mental illness and addictions for which there are no easy answers.

Recently, in Pemberton, a man appeared in front of Moss who had been one of his first cases 27 years ago, on a manslaughter charge. “He was back on an assault causing bodily harm charge. That gets depressing after a while,” he said.

Family cases among most emotional
Family cases can often be among the most emotional. Rodgers recalled one case involving a small change in the time a father was to pick up his children that quickly spiralled out of control in the courtroom. “He slugged the mom and he slugged her lawyer and the rodeo started. And we didn’t see it coming.”

There have been other “incidents” over the years. The youth who broke his hip trying to make a getaway by jumping out of the courthouse window. The accused who strode out of the prisoners’ box and advanced on Moss before a police officer in the gallery leapt forward and tackled him.

Moss and Rodgers were appointed to the North Vancouver court within months of each other in 1991. At the time, the province was looking to appoint local judges. As longtime North Shore residents, Moss and Rodgers fit that bill. They’ve been colleagues and friends ever since.

Source: file photo Kevin Hill, North Shore News

Being a local judge can be a double-edged sword.

“Some judges don’t want to preside in the community in which they reside,” said Rodgers. In small towns, especially, the court of public opinion expressed in the grocery store aisle can be wearing. But neither Moss nor Rodgers have found that to be a problem.

Once, the girlfriend of a man Moss had detained went online to ask if anyone knew where the judge’s daughter lived. That woman got a visit from the police.

In another case, a man who had violently assaulted his wife and been released on bail with conditions not to contact his family told his bail supervisor he was going to kill the judge. “It took three or four days before the police found him and arrested him,” said Rodgers. “I had a police car outside my front door. My daughter was nine or 10 at the time.”

For the most part, “I’m invisible,” said Rodgers – out of context, people tend not to recognize him. “But I always recognize them.”

Neither Moss nor Rodgers came from legal families. Rodgers’ father had a Grade 8 education. He didn’t know any lawyers but got to know a law student who was in the same dormitory in university. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to court to watch?’” Instantly, he was hooked.

Moss took law in high school and later began watching trials downtown. He recalled the case of the “Milkshake Murderer” – a CKNW announcer who secretly poisoned his wife with arsenic while keeping up his day job of pulling radio stunts sitting atop the BowMac sign. It was a fascinating world.

Court has changed - mostly for the better
There have been changes in the 27 years the judges have been on the bench – most of them improvements.

Youth crime has all but disappeared from court, said Rodgers. “It used to be every Monday we’d run a full day of youth court. Then it went to half a day. I don’t remember the last time I did one,” he said.

They credit programs directed at helping teens earlier, and diversion into restorative justice options. The programs work, but no one gets credit for spending that money, said Rodgers. “A politician will never get a thank-you for a crime that didn’t happen.”

Impaired driving charges – once a mainstay in North Vancouver court – have all but disappeared as well since the province passed new laws allowing police to fine and ban drunk drivers without criminal sanctions.

Other successes include the family maintenance enforcement program, which has cracked down on child support deadbeats without having to involve the courts. Mediation is also now a compulsory first step for civil and family cases in provincial court. “We clear probably 60 per cent of our civil and family cases through mediation,” said Rodgers.

The judiciary itself has changed – about half of them are now women and the ranks are becoming more diverse. Judges also get mandatory education twice a year on social topics ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to non-verbal cues in different cultures.

Some things, of course, don’t change. The court process still tends to be slow and expensive. “Lawyers have never ever been able to estimate time correctly,” said Moss. Judges are deliberately overbooked so no court time is wasted.

Then there’s the problem that “in criminal matters half of the participants never want to come to trial,” said Rodgers. “So they’re trying to delay things and avoid coming to court.”

There are more people who can’t afford lawyers and are representing themselves. That’s difficult for judges because “you can’t intervene on one side or the other,” said Rodgers. “Sometimes you see an incredible imbalance.”

Dealing with the impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on legal cases has been a big part of both judges’ careers. On that score, the court of public opinion has never been especially lenient.

“I’ve heard it referred to as the Freedom for Criminals Act,” said Rodgers.

Judges Doug Moss and William Rodgers outside judge's chambers in North Vancouver Provincial Court. - photo Lisa King, North Shore News

Yet neither Moss nor Rodgers has been subjected to particular public vitriol for their decisions.

“It tells me they were fair and balanced,” said Dave Walsoff, a North Vancouver defence lawyer who has appeared before both judges thousands of times. “We expect judges to conduct themselves in a way that reflects community values and standards, and they clearly were able to do that.”

Living on the North Shore helped, he said. “They had something at stake in the community.”

The vast majority of those decisions have withstood legal challenges – collectively they can point to only half a dozen times their decisions have been successfully appealed.

Once a judge, always a judge
Decisions take time, said Rodgers, and when judges are considering them, they are very aware “somebody’s life is going to go one direction or another.”

There are occasional cases that stay with them, long after the court case has ended.

Most people, when presented with the same facts and arguments as a judge has heard, will reach similar conclusions, said Rodgers.

But judges are also different – part of a very select society that doesn’t end with retirement.

“Once a judge always a judge,” said Rodgers. Outside of court, “You can’t get an opinion out of me except for the weather.”

Although there have been exceptions, like the judge who became a real estate agent. “They frown on that,” he added.

In their almost three decades dispensing justice in North Vancouver court, both judges have had no shortage of human drama play out in front of them.

In one of the more lighthearted moments, one man, disputing a child support order before Moss, entered his ex’s Facebook ad with rates for “adult entertainment” as proof she was making more money than she claimed on her tax return.

“There are people out there who live lives that are far more interesting than ours,” said Rodgers. “You learn that in a bail hearing after a long weekend.”

© 2018 North Shore News
Reprinted from the North Shore News, courtesy of the North Shore News