Manitoba judge under investigation shortly after her appointment

By | June 16, 2020

A newly appointed Manitoba judge is under investigation by the province’s judicial oversight body, but court officials won’t say why.

Judge Christina Cheater was appointed to the bench in Dauphin provincial court in late February but is currently unassigned with pay while Manitoba’s Judicial Inquiry Board investigates a complaint, officials said. 

“I can confirm that a complaint has been referred to the Judicial Inquiry Board regarding Judge Christina Cheater and no further comment will be provided,” Sandy Kuchinski, administrator of the Judicial Inquiry Board, wrote in an email Thursday.

Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe declined a request for an interview, but did “acknowledge there is a complaint regarding Judge Cheater being investigated by the Judicial Inquiry Board,” Wiebe’s executive assistant, Aimee Fortier, told CBC News.

The province’s Judicial Inquiry Board investigates complaints alleging misconduct or incapacity of judges, but hearings are done in private and details aren’t made public unless the complaint is elevated to the Canadian Judicial Council.

Gerard Kennedy, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, says any time a judge is being investigated by a Judicial Inquiry Board, it’s serious. (Ron Scheffler/Submitted by Gerard Kennedy)

“It is quite serious that any judge — newly appointed or not — is being investigated by the Judicial Inquiry Board,” said Gerard Kennedy, a law professor at the University of Manitoba.

“That this is occurring early in Judge Cheater’s tenure is regrettable and reflects the nature of the alleged misconduct.”

Cheater never responded to CBC’s requests for comment.

Ensuring ‘good character’

CBC News has learned Judge Christina Cheater is named in civil and small claims court cases involving a family construction contracting company — and was under court orders garnisheeing her wages to pay off debts as recently as 2019.

It is unknown whether she disclosed the lawsuits against her when she applied for the job, or whether this is even the subject of the complaint.

Judicial candidates must fill out a form that asks them whether there are any business interests, civil claims or personal matters that could cause “public embarrassment on the bench.”

Another question asks whether they are aware of any “potential direct or contingent financial claims against themselves or their partners.”

“It’s like any job application, though, perhaps even more so for judicial applications — you’re supposed to be honest,” said Kennedy.

“They definitely want to ensure that those who fulfil the judicial role are of good character.”

2 lawsuits

Cheater is named in two court cases — one resolved and one ongoing — involving a family company called A&A Building Cleaning and Contracting Ltd. 

She is listed as the secretary while her father, Bernard Cheater, who lives in Las Vegas, is named as the president. 

In one case, a general contracting company sued the Cheaters in 2017 for a job involving a fitness studio, alleging A&A never paid for the work. 

A&A argued that Shanahan’s Limited Partnership never completed the project and offered to pay a lower amount over four installations, court documents say. Shanahan’s agreed but only one payment of $25,000 was ever made, court documents say.

WATCH | CBC’s Karen Pauls reports on Manitoba judge under investigation:

In the end, in early 2019, the court ruled against the Cheaters in a default judgment, ordering them to pay the full $61,024.62 cost of the project plus nearly $20,000 in interest.

A few months later, the debt was still not paid and an order to garnishee Cheater’s wages was issued. 

A&A’s law firm said they didn’t receive emails from Shanahan’s about their intentions to take action against Christina Cheater until months later because they went into a spam folder, court documents say. 

Default judgment set aside

Cheater always intended to defend herself, the law firm said. Her response was delayed due to travel outside Winnipeg for prolonged periods for her work as a federal Crown attorney covering a rural circuit.

“An opportunity to hear the merits of Ms. Cheater’s motion to set aside default judgment should be heard prior to any enforcement proceedings taking place against her,” the court documents said.

The garnishee order was stayed and the default judgment against Cheater was set aside. The judgment against her father remains and she’s a defendant in the case.

Meanwhile, a small claims case from March 2018 also involved work done at the same fitness studio.

A company called Julian Tile sued Christina Cheater for $7,133.45. A default judgment ordered her to pay the full amount plus costs after she did not appear for a hearing in May.

Julian Tile didn’t get its money until November 2018, after the court entered an order to garnishee her wages from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

Geoffrey Bayly and Christina Cheater were appointed as judges for the provincial court of Manitoba in Dauphin on Feb. 21. Judge Bayly has already been hearing cases in Dauphin. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Under the Provincial Court Act, a three-person Judicial Inquiry Board investigates complaints alleging misconduct or incapacity of judges.

It can resolve the complaint with the agreement of both parties, decide there is no basis for the complaint, or formulate a charge of misconduct or incapacity. This process takes place in private. 

The allegations against Cheater will only become public if the Judicial Inquiry Board formulates a charge and sends the case to the Canadian Judicial Council. An exception is if the case involves sexual harassment or misconduct.

The Judicial Council is the body that would make a recommendation about what, if any, discipline is required. If it involves removal, the decision could be appealed to the Court of Appeal. 

New security screening 

Meanwhile, the Manitoba Court has begun asking provincial judge candidates to consent to a new security screening requirement, which includes everything from their social media activity and credit records to taxation, civil court and bankruptcy checks.

This is in addition to disclosure from the Law Society of Manitoba on their professional activities. That new security screening form went up on the court’s website on June 1.

Fortier would not comment on whether the new screening assessment is connected to the Cheater investigation, pointing instead to changes in the Provincial Court Act that took effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

They include revisions to the appointment process of judges and judicial justices of the peace.

The court looked at what other provincial courts are doing and decided to make public some of the background checks taking place during the vetting process, Fortier said.

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