‘He was the face of the supreme court for years and years’
Yukoners are mourning Harry Maddison, a retired judge who served on the Yukon Supreme Court for 30 years, staunchly defending judicial independence and integrated First Nations approaches to justice into the legal process.
Photo by Whitehorse Star
COLLEAGUES CONFER – Justice Harry Maddison, right, is seen with then-territorial court judge Heino Lilles in 1987 (top). NEW COMMISSIONER TAKES OFFICE – Justice Harry Maddison, left, swears in Ione Christensen as the Commissioner of the Yukon in 1979.
Yukoners are mourning Harry Maddison, a retired judge who served on the Yukon Supreme Court for 30 years, staunchly defending judicial independence and integrating First Nations approaches to justice into the legal process.
Maddison died last Thursday at age 89 in Vancouver, friends and colleagues said.
Yukon Supreme Court Judge Ron Veale, who took over for Maddison in 2000, argued cases before him for years and got to know him well as a friend in Maddison’s retirement.
“I think he did a very masterful job,” Veale said in an interview today. “He was the sole judge for 20 years. He had a huge task in terms of running the court.”
There are currently two judges on the Supreme Court, including Veale.
“As a single judge, you’ve got nobody in the office next door to talk to. It was very tough.”
Maddison’s formal demeanour on the bench belied a robust sense of humour outside the courthouse, Veale said.
“You saw the friendlier guy, the guy with the great sense of humour, which was quite different from the guy you saw in court.”
Veale noted Maddison’s support of the local arts scene.
“He was very active in the community. For example, he was very active in one of the drama societies, which wouldn’t happen today.”
A debate over park benches flared one year at city hall, where some fretted their installation would attract derelicts.
“Two days later, there was a photograph in the Whitehorse Star of Judge Maddison sitting all alone on a bench,” Veale recalled.
“That was kind of his quiet statement about the issue and whoever the counsellor was.”
Veale had fond recollections from when he first arrived in the territory as a young lawyer in 1973.
“One of the lovely stories I remember is when I first came up ... and had my first big trial with him. I was all excited and waiting for the judgment, not realizing that it takes more than a few days to think about the issue and write it up.”
Growing antsy, a 28-year-old Veale called the court registry, then adjacent to the judges’ chambers, to ask how the ruling was coming along.
“‘Tell him he lost!’” came the joking reply from the other end.
“He could have been very short and curt with me. You don’t call a judge and ask him about his ruling. You wait for it.”
Beyond his affectionate personal side, Maddison strove to preserve the independence of the courts, even on apparently superficial levels.
In the early 1980s, he fought to keep the territorial government from hanging its crest on courtroom walls.
At one point during the “crest affair,” Maddison took matters into his own hands: “I remember the day the crest was put in. He had a black lawyer’s robe thrown right over it,” Veale said, laughing.
Though Maddison softened up a bit, conceding to the royal coat of arms in all five Whitehorse courtrooms, for example, he maintained a bare courtroom.
“At the end of the day, he was establishing judicial independence, and that is an extremely important marker for us today,” Veale said.
Born in 1924, Maddison piloted a bomber plane in the Second World War and went on to receive his bachelor and law degrees from the University of Alberta, practising real estate law in Edmonton in the 1950s.
He worked for four years in “a special service to the oil patch,” according to ADR Chambers International, a Canadian legal organization. He then spent 10 years in general practice in Peace River, Alta.
Called to the bench in 1969, Maddison served for the next 30 years as a Yukon Supreme Court justice, retiring in 1999 and residing in Whitehorse until his death.
Steering the Supreme Court court as its sole judge for two decades, Maddison sought to expand accessibility to the justice system through proceedings in the communities and also in the Northwest Territories.
“In his capacity as one of the trial judges of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, he sat in almost every community in the N.W.T., usually hearing criminal matters in the smaller communities, civil matters in Yellowknife,” ADR states.
Maddison also integrated traditional forms of dispute resolution into his decisions, including circle sentencing, which draws on First Nations customs to find appropriate punishment, denunciation and deterrence.
The publisher of Maddison’s collected lectures – co-edited by Veale – describes him as “a traditionalist and a reformer.
“He embraced mediation while many courts were still questioning its value.”
Retired Whitehorse lawyer Jack Cable recalled the balance and clarity Maddison brought to the courtroom.
“He was precise,” Cable told the Star today.
“And he would demand that you knew what you were talking about ... so it was a learning lesson for lawyers when they walked into his court,” Cable said.
“He was the face of the supreme court for years and years.”
Cable, who ran a practice that included Veale as a managing partner in the 1970s and ’80s, recounted Maddison’s simultaneously formal and empathetic sides.
Cable had forgotten a small white tab that makes up part of a lawyer’s garb in court. Rather than chastise him, Maddison gave Cable a spare from his own drawer.
“It was quite a human touch, because he didn’t criticize me for being improperly garmented,” he said.
“That’s part of my memory of Harry Maddison.”
Yukon College recently established a permanent chair in his name to recognize the judge’s contribution to northern justice.
Maddison’s family plans to hold a celebration of life in 2014.
The late jurist’s longtime wife, Jeannie, died several years ago.