Legal groups seek review of decision that allowed Justice David Spiro to keep his job

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The University of Toronto Jackman Law Building

A federal judge is facing a new effort to have his actions reviewed over allegations he tried to stop the University of Toronto from hiring a scholar who has been highly critical of Israel.

In a document filed in Federal Court this week, several groups ask for a judicial review of a disciplinary body’s decision that Justice David Spiro made errors of judgement, but they did not merit removing him from the bench.

The controversy concerns Spiro, a judge of the Tax Court of Canada, and his discussion with a fundraising official at the law school about the hiring of Valentina Azarova to head the law school’s International Human Rights Program.

She had emerged in August 2020 from a pool of 146 applicants as the choice of the hiring committee.

Law professors Craig Scott and Leslie Green, along with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and Independent Jewish Voices are behind the challenge.

They argue in the filing that the Canadian Judicial Council’s decision was “inconsistent,” “unreasonable” and “not based on a rational chain of analysis.” The facts of the case, they conclude, clearly call for action.

Spiro, a former director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, was approached in September 2020 and asked to “raise concerns” with the dean of the law school about Azarova’s potential appointment. Spiro is a graduate of UofT law and, with his extended family, has been a generous donor to the school.

Spiro said it would not be appropriate for him to speak to the dean directly, but he did raise CIJA’s concerns at the end of a scheduled call with a university fund raising official.

Shortly after that call, the university, which had been negotiating terms of employment with Azarova, abruptly halted the talks, citing “immigration issues.”

Spiro’s comments, the groups argue, show he could be prejudiced against Muslim litigants and should be removed.

“Despite the stated seriousness of the conduct, the Decisions take no further action on the Complaints. The Decisions are not justified in relation to the facts and the law that constrained the CJC, nor do they sufficiently articulate why the CJC is taking no further action on the Complaints,” the groups argue.

“The Decisions find that ‘right thinking persons apprised in accurate terms of the conduct of Justice Spiro over his career and in relation to this matter could not conclude that the judge is biased against Palestinian, Arab or Muslim interests.’ This conclusion is unreasonable considering the number of complaints from organizations as well as affected and interested individuals.”

In a later letter published on a York University site, Scott criticized the CJC decision for finding Spiro was acting as an alumnus of the university, not as a judge, when he voiced CIJA’s concerns and that simply voicing concerns did not amount to actively campaigning against the Azarova appointment.

The bitter Azarova debate has also sparked allegations of anti-Semitism against the president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association.

Terezia Zoric told an online forum entitled “What the hell happened at the University of Toronto law school” recently that “an entitled, powerful Zionist minority” has been subjecting Azarova supporters to a campaign of “unending harassment and psychological warfare… ”

A key component of that campaign, she said is the belief any criticism of Azarova’s supporters or an independent report that found donor interference played no part in the decision not to hire her “could be met with accusations of anti-Semitism… ”

Similar views were expressed by other participants in the two-hour event, billed as the first in a series of meetings to analyze the Azarova affair.

Political Science professor Renan Levine, a member of the faculty association’s council, said when he heard those statements from an influential senior official “It was jaw open time.”

“This is not just another faculty member with strong views about Israel and a touch of paranoia. She is the head of our faculty association,” he said in an email exchange “I am on UTFA Council. I identify as a Zionist. The notion that people like me would be responsible for unending harassment or psychological warfare is without factual basis.

“That a person of such prominent authority at the university would say something like that is stunning,” he added.

A video of the meeting can be found on YouTube.

Zoric did not respond to a request for comment.

In the wake of the decision not to hire Azarova the university has been placed under a censure—a virtual boycott—by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

That censure urges CAUT members across the country not to accept appointments, honours or speaking engagements at UofT until Azarova is hired.

A second hiring committee, chaired by the new dean of the law school, is now in that process and has said it already has a “preferred candidate.”

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