John Josiah Robinette (Obituary)

On the morning of March 16, 1946, children playing on the mountain that dominates Hamilton stumbled upon a headless and dismembered corpse partly concealed by a rocky outcropping.

Robinette, John Josiah (Obituary)

On the morning of March 16, 1946, children playing on the mountain that dominates Hamilton stumbled upon a headless and dismembered corpse partly concealed by a rocky outcropping. The discovery led to one of the most sensational murder cases in Canadian history - a shocking and lurid tale of conspiracy, sex and betrayal. It also catapulted a self-effacing 40-year-old Toronto lawyer - then little known even in Toronto - onto the national stage. But when he died last week at 90, J. J. (for John Josiah) Robinette had long since been acknowledged as the patriarch of Canada's trial lawyers; perhaps, some said, the profession's greatest practitioner ever.

During the 62-year career that preceded his retirement five years ago from the gilt-edged Toronto law firm of McCarthy Tétrault, Robinette served as the courtroom advocate for powerful individuals and commercial empires. Yet his rise to prominence began inauspiciously enough in the fall of 1946, when he agreed to handle the appeal of a seductive and promiscuous 25-year-old woman from Hamilton. Evelyn DICK was to be hanged on Jan. 7, 1947, for the murder of her husband, a streetcar conductor, whose chopped-up body was left on the mountain.

During her trial, Dick testified that she had slept with scores of men, including the son of the presiding judge. The evidence that she had killed her husband was overwhelming - traces of human bones beneath her driveway, blood in her car. But Robinette won the appeal on the grounds that police failed to warn her against making self-incriminating statements. At her second trial, the jury acquitted her. Several weeks later, Dick was charged with manslaughter when the body of her infant son was found encased in concrete. This time, Robinette failed to rescue his client - she was sentenced to life imprisonment and served 11 years. But the publicity surrounding the two cases had made him a courtroom celebrity and his practice thrived. "The Evelyn Dick case," he was quoted as saying years later with characteristic understatement, "was intellectually stimulating."

Although Robinette ultimately saved 16 clients from the gallows, he lost interest in criminal law because, he once said, the cases were too much alike. He turned to civil litigation, and his legal scholarship, ferocious preparation and succinct argument impressed judges and persuaded juries. William Parker, former associate chief justice of the Ontario High Court, said Robinette could explain a case so well that even the judge could understand it. Brian DICKSON, a former chief justice of Canada, described Robinette as the best counsel the country had ever seen, adding that he had to "carefully balance John's arguments for fear of being swayed by his charm."

At the nation's highest court, that charm was frequently on display - Robinette made more appearances there than any lawyer in Canada. His most noteworthy was in 1981, when he argued successfully that the federal government could enact legislation to repatriate the Constitution from Britain without the unanimous consent of the provinces.

Last week, hundreds of judges and lawyers paid tribute. "He was a giant," said Antonio Lamer, the current chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. "If some lawyers, as we say, become priests of the law, then I think John Robinette was a cardinal." For several years, the Supreme Court has videotaped its proceedings and copies of the tapes are deposited in the National Archives. "My only regret," said Lamer, "is that we did not have that system in place soon enough to really capture this great, great man."

Those sentiments were widely shared. Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry called Robinette "a great Canadian, perhaps the greatest lawyer this country will ever see. He inspired me as a law student and as a young lawyer." Patrick LeSage, associate chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, said: "He made everything appear effortless. Most of us see a mountain without knowing how to get to the top. Robinette would see a staircase and know exactly how to get there." Toronto criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan said Robinette "was the best, the very best. He has been and always will be the standard against which all lawyers will be measured."

That standard attracted well-known clients. When Toronto Maple Leafs boss Harold Ballard was accused, along with Stafford Smythe, of misappropriating Maple Leaf Gardens funds, he hired Robinette. Smythe died before the case came to trial and the aging Ballard was eventually sentenced to three years in jail. When the federal government charged Toronto Sun publisher Douglas Creighton in 1978 with violating the Official Secrets Act by publishing top secret RCMP documents, he retained Robinette. The charges were subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence. For more than 30 years, Robinette was closely associated with legal issues involving the media as counsel to The Canadian Press, the national news-gathering co-operative.

Robinette suffered other losses besides the Ballard case, but only two were pivotal. The first occurred in 1952 when a client, bank robber Steve Suchan, a member of the notorious BOYD GANG, was hanged for murdering a Toronto police officer during a shootout. The devastated Robinette became an outspoken foe of capital punishment. The second defeat became inevitable five years ago when Robinette was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The degenerative condition gradually obliterated a much admired and scholarly mind.

Maclean's December 2, 1996