Chief Judge Thomas J. Crabtree (left) presided over a unique “case” Monday when a courtroom packed with the who’s who of Campbell River’s justice administration paid tribute to Judge Brian Saunderson (right) who retires after 25 years as a Provincial Court judge on the North Island.

Judge calls it a career

Tribute paid to a career of public service

The staid and sombre chamber of justice that is the Campbell River Courthouse’s courtroom No. 1 rang with laughter and fond remembrance Monday.

The who’s who of the community’s legal profession gathered to say farewell to the man who set the tone for the process of justice in this community for the past 25 years.

Provincial Court Judge Brian Saunderson gazed over a packed courtroom much like he’s done many times since he was first called to the bench on Jan. 16, 1991. This time, however, he was the subject of the proceedings as representatives from every arm of the administration of justice in Campbell River and the North Island paid tribute to the judge’s body of work over the past 25 years. Speaker after speaker – from Crown counsels to sheriffs, judges to courthouse staff – made it clear that this was a man held in high esteem as much for his legal courage and fortitude as his humanity and humour.

“I want you to know that whenever you cross the threshold of this building, you will always be addressed as Your Honour,” said Doug Smith, manager of Campbell River Court Services, referring to the title by which judges are addressed when presiding over a case.

Monday’s event in the Campbell River Courthouse was presided over in a quasi-formal way by the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of B.C., Thomas J. Crabtree, who sat with him at the judge’s bench at the head of the courtroom. To Judge Saunderson’s left, sitting in the jury box were the judge’s family.

“I approach this special sitting with mixed emotions,” Chief Judge Crabtree said. “It’s a unique privilege and opportunity to attend a community where a presiding judge has served the public for a great number of years.”

On the other hand, it is a sad occasion, the Chief Judge said, bidding farewell to a judge who has served his community with honour and dedication.

Judge Peter Doherty served with Judge Saunderson in Campbell River and other North Island courtrooms. The two became great friends and the judge related to the courtroom the pair’s love for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, telling the audience of a cross-Canada trip the two took with Judge Doherty’s son.

It left the audience with the compelling image of two Harley-Davidsons roaring across the nation being driven by two sitting judges of the Provincial Court of B.C.

Campbell River Crown Counsel Adrienne Venturini began working here in 1993 and Judge Suanderson was her first presiding judge. She said Judge Saunderson viewed the Provincial Court as the people’s court. Whenever people find themselves in front of the judge it can be pretty intimidating. Judge Saunderson’s manner and approach, however, always allowed people to leave the courtroom with a better understanding of the process and with a feeling that they have been heard.

Besides his sensitivity, Venturini also paid tribute to Judge Saunderson’s management.

“It takes a special judge to get through the (court) list in a timely and efficient manner,” she said. “He was not only fair but he was extremely efficient.”

She also mentioned the unique challenge of serving as a judge in this far-flung region.

“I need to say that in my view, being a jduge in this jurisdiction is demanding,” Venturini said. “Judge Saunderson always rose to the travel challenge.

“Campbell River and Port Hardy uniquely benefited from having a judge who understood this community.”

Venturini said the Campbell River Courthouse has “a unique cast of characters” and the judge likened the administration of justice to “herding cats” by which he usually was referring to the lawyers serving as counsel. He was consistent in his dealing with counsel and on busy days had a preference for brevity, she said.

Venturini related a story from one case involving one of the justice system’s “frequent flyers” who attempted to escape from the police by jumping into a 45-gallon drum that was – unbeknownst to the perpetrator – filled with discarded cooking oil. The would-be escapee completely submerged himself in the drum and the police decided to wait him out. He soon resurfaced.

During the recitation of these details, the judge interrupted Venturini and “with a straight face he asked ‘completely submerged?’”

Doug Marion is one of Campbell River’s longest-serving defence counsels. The two have faced each other in court in more than 1,000 trials, Marion estimated.

Marion paid tribute to Judge Saunderson’s dedication to the spirit of the law. He recited a murder case from the early 1990s where it was clear that one of two men had to have committed the act but there was no clear evidence as to which one. Judge Saunderson acquitted the murder charge because to convict one of them raised the possibility of the wrong one getting away with it.

“You knew that in finding one young man not guilty, you would be allowing (the other) young man to walk away from murder,” Marion said.

That acquittal was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and Judge Saunderson’s original ruling was upheld.

“I had the honour to be there when they decided you did the right thing,” Marion said. “You did what you were required to do, even when that was unpopular.”

Marion also said that Judge Saunderson “steadfastly defended the independence of your court.” He recited an instance of another “frequent flyer” coming before Judge Saunderson with a packed courtroom of Campbell River’s business community awaiting a harsh sentence. What the judge handed down was the sentence the law dictated, not what the community wanted.

Marion and others also paid tribute to the efforts Judge Saudnerson made to link with the First Nations community. He met with First Nations communities and their leaders.

“You reached out,” Marion said.

Marion said that in all of the thousand or more trials he and Judge Saunderson faced off on, he may have appealed the judge’s decisions less than 20 times.

Court staff also paid tribute to Judge Saunderson.

“We were all able to do many things because you believed in us and taught us many things,” said Sgt. George MacLagan of the B.C. Sheriff Services, a longserving member of the Sheriff Service in Campbell River. “You always supported and protected us when others did not.”

“It has been an honour and a privilege to work in your courtroom,” MacLagan said.

For more than an hour, tribute was paid to Saunderson. Living up to his standards of brevity and conciseness, the judge thanked all for their kind words.

“I am truly touched by the remarks I have just heard,” Judge Saunderson said. “It is time for me to retire. I have been a member of this court for 25 years. They have been the best years of my life.”

The emotional judge concluded with “Now I must say goodbye. I will miss you all.”