James Morton, a once successful lawyer, professor, author and mentor, received a six-month conditional sentence Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to bigamy and fraud.
The judge cited Morton’s “dishonest manipulation of the court system” in sentencing him.
While the 59-year-old Morton was not motivated by financial gain, he used his position as a lawyer to forge documents so he could tie the knot with his law clerk while he was still married to his wife of 30 years, said Ontario Court Justice Howard Borenstein, as he read out his reasons in the Newmarket courthouse.
When a lawyer engages in that kind of conduct, the punishment must send a clear message of denunciation and deterrence, said Borenstein, glancing occasionally at Morton seated at a table facing him. Morton’s wife is Rhonda Shousterman, also a lawyer, who sits as a justice of the peace in the same Newmarket courthouse where the hearing took place.
The judge added Morton’s actions are particularly “baffling” because he went through the ceremony, marrying Jennifer Packwood on May 12, 2018, despite knowing a police investigation was underway.
Morton has not offered any explanation for what he did, but did express “heartfelt deep remorse” at his sentencing hearing this summer, the judge said. “I believe he is profoundly remorseful, not just for being caught, but for the harm he has caused to both women, as well as to the administration of justice, as the result of having committed these offences, having had the privilege, the trust and responsibility of being a lawyer.”
The judge took note of the “powerful” victim impact statements read both by Packwood and Shousterman in previous, separate court appearances. The women described in detail the emotional toll, financial hardship and public humiliation they have suffered as a result of Morton’s deception.
Packwood appeared initially supportive of Morton, but has asked the court for a no contact order, which Borenstein agreed to impose.
The judge said a mitigating feature is that Morton “has lost much, which he, himself, said he deserves.” Morton, whose licence to practise law is under suspension, told his sentencing hearing in July he is finished as a lawyer and has so far been unable to find work of any kind.
Crown attorney Robert Scott had asked for a six-month jail sentence to be served in the community as a conditional sentence. Defence lawyer Stephen Bernstein asked for a conditional discharge to reflect Morton’s lack of criminal record and guilty plea.
Borenstein said the Crown’s suggested sentence properly balances all of the mitigating and aggravating factors, while demonstrating “restraint and compassion.”
Morton must serve the first two months of his sentence under house arrest, with some exceptions, and live with staggered curfew times for the remaining four months. The judge ordered him to perform 50 hours of community service, too.
After court, Morton’s lawyer, Stephen Bernstein, said the sentence in the “extremely unusual” case seems fair, given his client’s position as a lawyer, as advocates are entrusted with upholding the administration of justice.
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