08/23/2017 15:56 EDT | Updated 08/23/2017 15:56 EDT

Justice Bernd Zabel, Ontario Judge Who Wore Trump Hat To Court, Now Says It Was A Joke

He seems to have flip-flopped on whether or not he supports President Trump.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. House Republicans depart with Trump campaign

TORONTO — An Ontario judge who wore a hat in court bearing a slogan used by U.S. President Donald Trump told a disciplinary hearing Wednesday he was shocked to discover that what he meant as a joke was viewed as a political statement.

Justice Bernd Zabel told an Ontario Judicial Council panel in Toronto he meant to "lighten things up" by wearing a baseball cap with the slogan "Make America Great Again" while walking into court on Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after Trump won the U.S. election.

Zabel, 69, testified that it was only after his actions made headlines that he realized some believed he was showing support for the controversial American president and his policies.

"I had no malicious intent," said Zabel, who vowed never to wear the hat in court again.

Zabel admitted his actions were contrary to the standard of conduct expected of a judge and constitute judicial misconduct.

"I had no malicious intent."Justice Bernd Zabel

An agreed statement of facts shows Zabel wore the hat while walking into a courtroom and said it was "just in celebration of a historic night in the United States." He then took it off and placed it on the dais until the break, when he took it back to his office, the document says.

While leaving the courtroom at the end of the day's proceedings, Zabel was asked about the hat's disappearance by a prosecutor, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Previously said he was a Trump supporter

He replied: "Brief appearance for the hat. Pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so. I was the only Trump supporter up there, but that's OK."

Zabel later apologized publicly for his behaviour, calling it a "lapse in judgment."

The judge testified Wednesday that he misspoke in discussing the hat in court, and meant to say he was marking an unprecedented historic event rather than celebrating Trump's victory.

He maintained he is not a Trump supporter but was simply "gloating" at having predicted the outcome of the election better than his colleagues.

The panel must decide what penalty, if any, to order. It may impose a number of sanctions or recommend he lose his job.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
President-elect Donald Trump tosses a 'Make America Great Again' hat into the crowd while speaking at the Dow Chemical Hangar, Dec. 9, 2016 in Baton Rouge, La.

The judicial council said it received 81 complaints about Zabel's behaviour, with some suggesting his apology was not consistent with his earlier comments in court.

Sixty-two character references have also been filed, lauding Zabel as a sensitive and compassionate judge.

The Ontario Court of Justice said in January that Zabel, who is based in Hamilton, was no longer being assigned cases.

One of Zabel's colleagues, Justice Marjoh Agro, said his absence has put a strain on courthouse operations and caused scheduling headaches in several trials.

I deeply regret not ripping that hat off his head.Justice Marjoh Agro

Agro was one of the few to see Zabel with the hat on when they ran into each other near the elevators before court, she testified. She asked if he was out of his mind, to which he responded that it was a joke, she said.

"I deeply regret not ripping that hat off his head," she said.

A Hamilton city councillor, who said the incident raised concerns about Zabel's impartiality in the courtroom, has called for the judge to step down or be removed from the bench.

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