I WAS AN AMATEUR MAGISTRATE
In his court you could call His Honor “George,” take your shoes off and know he would hand down horse-sense justice
GEORGE A. WRIGHT
As told to Frank Hamilton
MAY 31, 1049, was a big day for me. It was my 75th birthday and my 53rd wedding anniversary. It. was also the day I retired as Chief Magistrate of Brockville and the Ontario counties of Leeds, Grenville and Dundas, and as Judge of the Juvenile Court.
I remember when the Henry Government of Ontario appointed me Magistrate of Brockville in July, 1930. It sure stirred up a lot of talk around town because I had had no legal training.
I had been a businessman, not a lawyer. The only times I had been in court were as a spectator.
My wife overheard a local clergyman voice a general comment. “Huh!” he said scornfully. “An amateur magistrate!” When my wife told me, I said, “I’ll be the best dang amateur they’ve ever seen!”
That, was some 57,000 cases ago, and I’m still jealous of my amateur standing. Today, when I look back over my 19 years on the bench, I can’t: help chuckling. Frankly, it’s been fun.
Except for two years as a traveling bile bean salesman in Canada and England when I was a young fellow, I have lived in Brockville all my life. My father founded and owned The Rol>ert Wright Company, the biggest department store in town, and I went into the business at 19. I married at 22 on a salary of $11 a week.
Despite a painful hip disea.se which developed when I was eight and partially paralyzed my legs, I became an enthusiastic sportsman and got into local polit ics. I was elected to public office 17 times, twice as Mayor.
After my father’s death I became president of the store and was one of the wealthiest and best established citizens in town. Then one night in 1926, when I was 52, an age at which many successful people begin to think of retiring, the store went, bust, and I went bust with it. Eaton’s own the place now.
Instead of retiring I had to start all over again to build a new career and a new life. Besides my large city home and my country estate at Devil Lake and a few practically worthless stocks I had nothing. But I had $500 insurance to pay a year.
Soon after I was given the job of superintendent of the Children’s Aid Society, at $1,000 a year. I was appointed Magistrate in 1930 at $1,800 a year. I kept my Children’s Aid Society job until Attorney-General (now Senator) Roebuck told me I couldn’t do both, so I reluctantly let the first $1,000 go. However, a week later Mr. Roebuck informed me of my promotion to Chief Magistrate with a salary boost to $3,000 (last year it was raised to $5,000).
The last few years
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have not been without handicaps. 1 had to keep one son in a mental institution for 20 years until he died. My other son is crippled with spinal curvature. Six years ago a severe threemonth illness finished the crippling job on my legs and left me with arthritis. Yet I could still drive a car and get about with help, and 1 kept at my job and kept up my interest in sports (1 sometimes adjourned court early to drive 100 miles to see a ball game).
When 1 was appointed Magistrate 1
didn’t even know much about what a magistrate does, but I had to learn fast. A magistrate handles only criminal cases. They fall into three categories: minor, more serious and most serious.
In minor cases, such as traffic violations and intoxication, he has complete jurisdiction and, with the consent of the accused, he has the same power to deal with the more serious cases like robbery and assault. He has no judiciary powers in the most serious cases, such as murder, but a preliminary enquiry is held before him and he can either commit the accused to stand trial before a higher court or dismiss the case.
As a magistrate my most unpleasant moments were when 1 had to send people, some of them lifelong friends,
to prison. I fined a lot of friends too. Sometimes one of them would plead that it shamed him to be fined. I used to say, “Heck ! Getting fined is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve been fined myself!” I did it myself too—fined myself $1 plus $2 costs once for overparking.
Thousands of persons appeared before me charged with every imaginable offense from murder and wife-beating to parking beside a fire hydrant. I always tried to help them; to correct, not punish.
I think that my earlier experience with people in business and public life gave me an insight into human nature and human weaknesses which was a help to me on the bench. Also, my own years of physical suffering gave me
compassion for other people in trouble. In my first eight years as a magistrate I gradually took over the territories and duties formerly covered by five magistrates in the three counties of Leeds, Grenville and Dundas, and the Hepburn Government promoted me to Chief Magistrate of District No. 11. With three counties to cover I was sort of traveling magistrate, sitting on cases in scores of villages and towns. I held court in some queer courtrooms -—in libraries, theatres, schoolrooms, dance halls and barns.
One winter I arrived at the library in Morrisburg to find the janitor had neglected to turn on the heat, so I held court in the street, sitting at the wheel of my car. The spectators sat on the library steps while I sentenced a man for robbery.
Another time when traveling between courtrooms with the crown prosecutor and my court clerk, I came on an accident on the highway. An American tourist admitted he was guilty of careless driving, so I held court on the spot and fined him $7.
Because of my infirmity I was sometimes confined to the house and on such occasions held court in my living room.
Once a bad attack of neuritis kept me in bed for three months, but I held court just the same—in my bedroom. I presided in a nightshirt, sitting up in bed, with the Crown or. one side of the bed and the defense on the other. The court clerk sat on the foot of the bed. I seem to recall that most of the cases I dealt with in my bedroom were family squabbles and that most of them were settled happily. I think the homey atmosphere of my “courtroom” probably had a lot to do with it.
I guess 1 was Canada’s most informal magistrate, though I never, as some people hinted, took my fines out of an old Eaton’s catalogue.
A Scolding From the Clerk
Most of the people who appeared before me I called by their first names, and most of them called me George instead of Your Honor—and that’s the way I wanted it.
Sometimes my secretary, Mrs. Ethel Cork, who was also court clerk, court stenographer and a Justice of the Peace, criticized me.
“George,” she would scold, “you’re an old fraud. I’m sure you don’t listen to the lawyers when they Ye quoting from lawbooks and referring to past cases. You just sit there looking at the ceiling or gazing out the window. You’re probably thinking about fishing or making up undignified poems about the Crown Prosecutor. I bet you make up your mind about a case before the lawyers start talking.”
Actually, 1 usually enjoyed the clever work of the learned gentlemen of the bar. I’m a good listener. However, 1 never cared for the fussy ones who kept objecting and things like that. I’ve found the best pleaders don’t waste words.
In one case at Morrisburg a longwinded lawyer kept getting his argument hopelessly tied up. Mrs. Cork was laughing behind her handkerchief. I was enjoying it too, but not showing it. I’m a great one for the internal laugh. At. last the lawyer paused.
“Your Honor,” he said wrathfully, “I have just one question to ask you. Why is the court clerk laughing?”
“Well now, Horace,” I smiled, “I guess it’s because Ethel has a sense of humor.”
One of the kindest things the lawyers called me behind my back was “The Mischievous Magistrate.” I didn’t mind. I guess I was a bit of an old devil at that.
My courtroom procedure was, I
admit, far from orthodox. At times I’m afraid I was the despair of the Crown Attorney. I always remembered the advice of kindly old Judge Edmund J. Reynolds, who swore me in as a Magistrate. All he said was, “George, don’t worry; never be hasty; give your decisions; don’t give too many reasons and you’ll be all right.”
I used to make-it. a practice to keep in personal touch with persons I dealt with leniently or granted suspended sentence, because I felt it stiffened weak morale, lessened any tendency to slip. Take the case of Sam, a friend of my youth.
He’s Brockville’s Dorothy Dix
Sam, a veteran of World War I, gradually became one of the most hopeless alcoholics I have ever known. Every Monday morning, when the habitual parade of Alcoholics Unanimous trooped in, Sam was sure to be there. At last he took to drinking anything from rubbing alcohol and hair tonic up, and begging on the street. Finally, a three months’ sentence and some plain talk.
To soften the jolt I ended on a light note. “I’m sort of counting on you to be one of my pallbearers, Sam, and I hope you won’t let me down.”
“Don’t worry, George,” he said contritely, “I’ll be there.”
After he was released I got him a job and visited his home periodically. All went well for six years.
Then one morning he again faced me in court, shamed and humble. “Well, Sam,” I said without reproach, “I guess everyone’s entitled to a slip. Come on, I’ll drive you home.” Sam has never had a drink since.
1 often had to send personal friends, business or professional acquaintances to jail for drunkenness or driving while intoxicated. Once many years ago 1 had to give my son’s doctor seven days. It was an unpleasant duty, but my experience has convinced me that excessive drinking is the direct cause of fully 75% of all crimes and offenses.
Three years ago, for instance, a man was brought before me and charged with a very serious case of wife-heating. Excessive drinking was the background. I was reluctant to send him to jail because it would have meant a serious family situation. There were 10 children and a worried wife begged for leniency for her erring husband.
The man was guilty, but I gave him a suspended sentence of two years under strict conditions. He had to sign the pledge in the presence of his wife and the parish priest. I visited their home in tlie country and arranged for the priest to send me periodic reports.
The next summer 1 went to see them again. The man was happy, hardworking and the house had been painted. A radiant housewife brought out a new baby boy.
Over the years 1 have become a sort; of unofficial consultant on family difficulties. Even today worried people still come to my home for a private interview. No matter at what hour they come I always receive them. Usually the trouble is solved before they leave.
My experience has taught me this: keep them from airing family problems in public and you may avoid the breakup of a family. Like crimes and other offenses, many family difficulties stem from overindulgence in alcohol. The liquor question is our greatest unsolved social problem.
Five years after I was appointed Magistrate I was commissioned as Judge of the Juvenile Court.
I have found that the so-called juvenile delinquency is usually a reflex of something lacking in the home life or
training. The parents, not the youngsters, are the real delinquents. I like the movies, but I am critical of those that dish up gangsters, drinking, murder and sex to juveniles. I like the funnies, but 1 am critical of those socalled comics that feed the same lurid slush, the same tragedy and the impossible achievements of superhuman beings and visionary characters like Superman to children.
I always handled juvenile offenders differently and more carefully in some ways than adults. 1 donned the cloak of formality sometimes and gave them a good scare. I told them what a terrible place the training school was and intimated that I was going to send them there, then almost invariably gave them a suspended sentence.
Once 1 was doing such a good job of scaring a young rascal that the Crown Prosecutor thought that I was really going to send him to jail. He nudged me and hissed in my ear, “Heh, George! Suspend sentence!”
One time a bunch of young scalawags appeared before me charged with raiding an apple orchard. It reminded me of my boyhood. I sentenced them to eat apples. They ate until they couldn’t look at another one. I think it cured them.
“I’d Recite a Verse or Two”
The walls of the courtroom in Brockville’s ancient and musty City Hall are graced with the provincial coat of arms, faded portraits of my two predecessors (Joe “Dollar and Costs” Deacon, K.C., and James Albert Page, B.A.), a yellowed “No Smoking in this Area” sign, and two curling commercial calendars. 1 used to hold court there three mornings a week and travel the counties the rest of the time.
1 never wore robes, only a plain business suit. Once, when Senator Roebuck was Attorney-General under Premier Hepburn, he issued orders that all magistrates wear morning clothes. The thought of a cuteway coat and striped trousers frightened me. Luckily the order was never enforced. 1 think all that dressing up just scares people.
1 always insisted that witnesses be comfortably seated before questioning.
I remember once asking a witness why he looked so uncomfortable.
"It’s these new shoes, George,” he said, “they’re hurting my corns.”
“Well, Mert," 1 told him, “just take them off and make yourself comfortable and we’ll get back to this case.”
At Westport 1 used to hold court in „he hall over the fire station. It was usually used for entertainments and dances and the magistrate’s desk was on the stage. Once I arrived to try a criminal case and found the hall packed. 1 had no sooner got seated than l received a call that the Crown Prosecutor and the police would IK* delayed two hours. 1 told the crowd that they could go ahead and smoke and suggested that we pass the time with some entertainment.
A mouth organ player, a couple of cowboy singers and a pianist volunteered. Then 1 gave a talk on humor, told all my jokes, recited “If” and then some of my own poetry. I’ve been scribbling poetry all my life. The local papers have printed it and a collection, “Life Lines,” was published in three editions for the benefit of the Red Cross and the Canadian Legion. 1 used to like to recite a verse or two to the courtroom once in a while.
At Christmas I always brought the prisoners out of the police cells and asked them what they’d like to do. Last year we had three—a man who had served seven days of a three months’ sentence on a liquor charge; a soldier waiting trial for attempting
to steal a car; and a man who had stolen the Christmas presents of a poor family.
The first prisoner said he’d like to be out in the country for Christmas so I released him. The soldier admitted his guilt but said he had been drunk. He wanted to go home. I released him on suspended sentence of one year. But the man who had stolen the Christmas presents got no mercy. He stayed in jail.
Mrs. Cork, my girl Friday, wasn’t the only one who thought I was a queer magistrate. The lawyers did too. I don’t think they approved of me too much, especially when I relaxed the rules of evidence or protected a witness from vicious cross-examination. I got in bad with the lawyers soon after I was appointed.
One day I idly opened the Bible on my desk. By an odd quirk of fate, Luke 11, 46 jumped out of the page at me. I read to the Crown Prosecutor: “And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to lxborne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.”
Affer that 1 kept the page marked and often used it to deflate a particularly pompous gentleman of the bar.
1 was often criticized for leniency and
for my addiction to suspended sentences. But I think it is better to err on the side of leniency. I often gave a suspended sentence because I think that it’s worth a try if it might mean a new life for someone.
Take the case of Louis, a young 18-year-old Italian from Montreal, who appeared before me several years ago. He pleaded guilty to breaking and entering. The Crown naturally recommended a stiff term. I gave him a man-to-man talk, placed him under suspended sentence and returned him to his parents’ home.
Sensational Case of Eva
I kept a record of his address and sent greetings at Christmas time. Each successive yuletide Louis sent me a card with cheerful and encouraging news. Then there was a lapse of time. Louis was overseas. Two years ago came a long, heart-warming letter. Louis had a home, a wife and a baby. He was happy and prosperous.
“What would have happened to me, how would I have turned out, if you had sent me to prison instead of home?” he wrote.
The local newspaper, the Recorder and Times, has often criticized my judgments. Editor Dick Morgan is a
lifelong personal friend, and a lifelong political opponent—he is a Whig, I’m a Tory.
A few years ago the paper howled when 1 dismissed the charges against a man accused of a morals offense against a young girl. The stiffest sentence I ever meted out—seven years hard labor and 10 lashes—was given to a church janitor who had carnal knowledge of young girls. But this case was entirely different. The man had been drinking, had given candy to the girl because he honestly liked kids, and had sat on a doorstep in plain view with her on his knee.
The whole time he was under the observation of a police sergeant. He was a respectable married man. Nothing had happened, but an evilminded old busybody had seen them and phoned in a complaint. I would have liked to have got that troublemaker into court. She stirred up half the town against the poor fellow.
Another time not only the local paper but papers all across Canada criticized me. One Toronto rewspaper began its story: “Down in Brockville you can
kill a man and get off with a fine.” Eva, the domestic servant of a wealthy and influential Brockville family, had driven around a corner one wet night, run over a man and kept on going. At first there appeared to be no witnesses to the death. The coroner diagnosed the death as due to “natural causes” and the man was buried.
Then a man brought his young daughter to the police. She had seen the accident, taken Eva’s license number, but her father had not believed her at first. The body of the man who had been run over was exhumed but it was too late to find out much.
At leva’s trial other witnesses came forward. They testified that the man had been drinking and was already lying in the road when the car ran over him.
It seemed to me that Eva’s only mistake was that she had got scared and had run away and kept quiet, which was perhaps a natural reaction. So I fined her $100 and costs.
It was rumored that politics played a part behind the scenes in the Eva case, but that is not true. However, I do know that interference of local politicians in police matters is common in the smaller towns and villages.
One day a man came in to enquire about a case and asked me where the magistrate was.
“You’re talking to him,” I said.
“Heck,” he said, “you don’t look like a magistrate!” I guess I never did. I am a short, thin man with bushy white eyebrows and white, tufted hair thinning on top. I should look like a magistrate.
The late Hon. George P. Graham once wrote that I resembled Sir Wilfrid Laurier. I got quite excited about it and took to wearing only maroon ties (I have 40) like Laurier. 1 also wear a pince-nez. I always sign everything in green ink and use a big, 40-year-old orange-colored Waterman.
When my retirement was announced, hundreds of letters poured in from all over the country, and are still coming in. Some asked me what I was going to do now. To those I replied, “Going fishing at Devil Lake for six months.”
One old friend wrote: “Dear George, when I read you were going to retire I thought, There is the bird who took me out of circulation for seven days. Let him retire and spend his first seven days at the local and county hotel. Then perhaps he’ll enjoy his holiday.’ Seriously, George, I do hope you have ahead of you many more years of happiness and fun.”
At 75? Why not? There’s lots of fun left in the old dog yet. ★