Sean Dunnigan: Calgary’s talking judge

By Geoff Ellwand, for Canadian Lawyer Magazine Nov/Dec 2012

Alberta Provincial Court Judge Sean Dunnigan does something very unusual for a judge. He talks in public.

By Geoff Ellwand, for Canadian Lawyer Magazine Nov/Dec 2012

Alberta Provincial Court Judge Sean Dunnigan does something very unusual for a judge. He talks in public.

For a lot of what Dunnigan calls “sensible” reasons, most judges prefer “the old English tradition that judges should only be heard through their judgments.” But he says “our society has changed dramatically over the past 50 years” and people have more and quicker access to what is happening in court and thus the courts are placed under greater scrutiny. As a consequence, Dunnigan argues courts have to use the media to make their decisions better understood.

Which is part of the reason why almost every second week, Dunnigan goes on CBC Calgary’s afternoon Homestretch show to talk about the sometimes controversial legal issues of the day. In the two years he has been an on-air regular, he has taken on a long list of hot potatoes. Issues such as absolute discharges, guilty pleas, Alberta’s tough new drunk driving laws, and house arrest for convicted criminals have got an airing.

But Dunnigan emphasises he is not peddling his personal ideas about the law. “I’m a judge. I’m not entitled to have a public opinion.” Instead he tries to give an insider’s explanation of what is happening. For example “what goes through a judge’s mind when they grant bail or deny it. What does a judge consider when sentencing someone.”

The man who helped persuade Dunnigan going public was the right thing for a Provincial Court judge to do was CBC Radio host David Gray. But while Gray, a veteran journalist, thought a sitting judge on his show would be a good thing he wasn’t prepared to be a patsy putting a PR glow on the work of the courts. If Dunnigan was to go on air, Gray insisted he had to able the challenge him. “The deal would be I could ask any question any time,” recalls Gray. “And he would be free to say, ‘I can’t comment on that.’” There have been a few blunt exchanges but the men clearly have a lot of mutual respect.

Gray met Dunnigan at a bibulous Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a mutual friend. “Sean was not your regular judge’” remembers Gray. “He was wearing a cowboy shirt, a leather coat, and had absolutely no compunction about talking on any issue.” Right at the party, over a martini, Gray pitched the idea to Dunnigan of doing a spot on his show. Dunnigan said he liked the idea but it would never happen. In spite of considering it a good idea doomed to failure, he agreed to let Gray “run it past his boss.”

The boss was, and is, Gail Vickery, chief judge of the Provincial Court. Gray remembers her asking a lot of very tough questions, primarily “what do you want out of Sean?” She also wondered if Dunnigan became an on-air regular, would the public esteem of the court be lowered?  Finally, with Gray’s persuasion and Dunnigan’s silent support, Vickery agreed. But now Gray had to convince the CBC having a judge on the show would be good radio. A judge rattling on about arcane legal issues might not make the most engaging radio. But Gray convinced his bosses Dunnigan was anything but a bore and in the end they went for it.

The woman who handles the segment and is charged with making sure it results in interesting radio is producer Jenn Blair. She talks to Dunnigan before the show and says it is easy to find issues that resonate with listeners. “He can’t speak to specific cases that are before the courts . . . but he can explain things from a position of experience and authority.” She believes “he’s doing a valuable thing to come out as a public media figure . . . to explain legal issues to a broad audience.”

Dunnigan is one of the very few judges to regularly go public, but he is not the first. British Columbia’s former Provincial Court chief judge, the late Hugh Stansfield, appeared often on radio and television and held public “meet the judge” forums around the province. In Ontario, Justice Harvey Brownstone, a sitting Ontario Provincial Court family law judge, hosts a television show called Family Matters, which is looking to launch a second season.

Dunnigan has received inquiries from the Quebec Provincial Court about what he is doing. Incidentally Dunnigan spent much of his youth in Quebec and prides himself on “a pretty good” Quebecois accent. He says the Quebec court doesn’t want him to be a host, they just want to pick his brain.

Dunnigan is a funny, outgoing man always ready with a quick quip. He remains a favourite after-dinner speaker and was formerly a popular president of the Law Society of Alberta. But he is absolutely serious about his job as a Provincial Court judge. “It’s a different world once you’ve got someone’s life in your hands.” He says in radio or real life that is a fact he never forgets.


This article was originally published by Canadian Lawyer Magazine in its November/December 2012 issue and has been re-printed here with permission.