In a classic story of humble beginnings, human potential and hard work, lawyer Sarah Hudson ’00 uncovers the passion that fuels our 2015 Distinguished Alumnus in Law, the Honourable Michael Code ’67.
Now a sitting judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto, the Honourable Mr. Justice Michael Code ’67 has had a career as rich as any lawyer could hope for. Although he had no premonition or inkling of a legal career during his school days, the foundation for his success was established early on. The young boy who studied hard and gave 100 percent at sports became a law student who articled twice (with the Defence and the Crown) because he wasn’t satisfied he was ready for practice after just one set. In time, he became a lawyer, law professor, and judge defined by his tireless work ethic and dedication to the law. For these reasons the SMUS Alumni Association selected him as the 2015 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni award.
Michael came from the prairies to University School with his brother in 1958. He was 8 years old – the youngest in the school. School patriarch Reg Wenman had helped piece together bursary support for the brothers to attend as boarders – an opportunity Michael has not forgotten or squandered. Although the school suffered hard times after the war – with too few students and too little money – Michael remembers the leadership of J.J. Timmis and the advent of wonderful teachers, in particular Rob Wilson, Carey Creek, Nick Prowse, Ian Mugridge and Peter Caleb. These familiar figures have shaped the school SMUS is today and who, as Michael recounts, made their impression on him as well. With their arrival, the environment transformed from a militaristic boys’ school (complete with rifle practice in the quad and rounds in the boxing ring!) into a dynamic place of learning, strong in both academics and athletics. Today SMUS is a much larger school, with greater resources, diverse courses and more plentiful extra-curricular offerings than existed in Michael’s time, but he says that “the same emphasis on good character, loyalty and hard work in sports and in studies remains.”
After graduating from University School in 1967, Michael attended Atlantic College in Wales to take his A levels before returning to Toronto to take the first of three degrees at the University of Toronto (U of T). Following three years of an undergraduate English literature degree, Michael remembers feeling the urge to have a greater connection with the day-to-day workings of the world and people’s lives. It was ultimately this instinct that drove him to law. He applied to only one law school – U of T – and was accepted. He fell in love with the subject and the place he studied it. Michael’s connection to the U of T Faculty of Law includes two degrees (Bachelor of Laws in 1976 and Master of Laws in 1991) and two decades of teaching. It was his last post before his appointment to the bench. In 2005, Michael left private practice and was appointed Assistant Professor of Law, spending a number of years teaching, conducting research, writing, and focusing on policy work.
I was fortunate enough to be one of Professor Code’s students at the U of T from 2005 to 2007. He was a hugely popular professor and was nominated by our graduating class to receive the 2007 Mewett Award for Teaching Excellence. His lectures on criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence and ethics were always packed, often spilling over into hallways or office hours. As students, we came to him to discuss coursework, but also for coaching tips in advance of moot competitions, for advice about a client at the students’ legal aid clinic, or for career guidance. He took a keen and genuine interest in it all. His connection with his students was evidenced by several nominations to deliver the faculty Hail and Farewell speech at convocation – more of a “so long” than “farewell” in Professor Code’s case, because he still keeps in touch with many of his students. When word trickles out that work commitments have brought him to Vancouver, a group of alumni descend on his hotel lobby bar to catch up.
A self-described “junkie for the law,” Justice Code’s passion for his subject ignites the same in others. He also speaks from experience – lots of it. As a lawyer, Justice Code worked in private practice with leading criminal defence and constitutional litigation firms, as Crown counsel, and in public service. From 1991 to 1996 he was Assistant Deputy Attorney-General of Ontario, managing the province’s 500 prosecutors. He has argued some of the leading criminal and constitutional law cases in the Supreme Court of Canada and appellate courts across the country. Close to home, he acted as defence counsel in the Air India terrorism trial in Vancouver. He has also served as counsel to various public entities, such as the RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission, the Ontario Judges’ Association, the BC, Ontario, Manitoba and federal ministries of the Attorney-General, and the Driskell Inquiry into a wrongful conviction in Manitoba.
Just prior to his appointment to the bench, Michael was selected by the Attorney-General of Ontario to conduct a policy review of the problems associated with long and complex criminal trial procedure and to make recommendations for change. The resulting report proposed various ways to make the criminal trial process more effective and efficient, placing emphasis on the need for high standards of ethics and professionalism among lawyers. In 2009, Justice Code was appointed to a courtroom of his own and yet another perspective on his profession.
“This is where I always wanted to end my career,” he says. The human interest stories before him daily are a reminder of why he chose the law as his life’s work, which he now carries out from its highest post. “The law takes you out of yourself,” he says, “and into a problem-solving world that’s important to people’s lives.”
This past October, Justice Code visited the school as the honoured guest at the Founders’ Day Scholars Dinner. He also had the opportunity to meet with students and talk to four Senior School classes on the impact of history on the law. A theme of his remarks was the importance of continuing to hire great teachers and providing financial support to qualified students who could not otherwise afford tuition – both of which, he says, were key to his success.
This article appeared in the Winter 2015/16 edition of School Ties. Click here to read the complete magazine.