'Rock ‘n roll judge' returning to Christchurch

Judge David Ruth admits to being easily triggered at times. Photo: Supplied via Open Justice
Judge David Ruth admits to being easily triggered at times. Photo: Supplied via Open Justice
Judge David Ruth admits to being easily triggered at times.

It was never more evident than during a high-profile outburst a little over two years ago when his comments about a defendant’s “nutcase views” reached the ears of the Chief District Court Judge.

Or when a defendant tried arguing a claim of innocence, by nature of being a woman, from the back of the courthouse in Blenheim and Judge Ruth told her: “Be quiet for goodness sake”.

Occasionally, there’s humour too, such as when a lawyer, perhaps emboldened by appearing on a video link and not in his court in Nelson, suggested Judge Ruth wasn’t too old to learn softer ways of doing things.

Those in court struggled to stifle their laughter as Judge Ruth inferred it was perhaps too late.

But after 50 years in court the Lyttelton-born and raised 74-year-old is moving from his adopted hometown of Nelson back to his tūrangawaewae in Canterbury.

Dubbed Nelson’s “rock ‘n roll judge”, for his after-hours vocation playing bass guitar with a local band, Judge Ruth is heading home to Christchurch.

He’ll carry out judging duties for a final year before hanging up the cloak for good.

In an interview with NZME, he was candid about what drives him and what’s behind the sudden shifts in tempo, such as that time two years ago when he accepted he’d been “overly robust”, and which prompted intervention from higher up.

“I am easily triggered, unfortunately. It’s usually people who want to talk over you and who hold certain views about their sovereignty.

“They firmly believe they are right but most of it’s about trying to dodge the impact of the law upon them.”

Maverick Judge David Ruth, who took some heat in 2022 over comments he made about a defendant's ...
Maverick Judge David Ruth, who took some heat in 2022 over comments he made about a defendant's "nutcase views". Photo: Supplied via Open Justice
Crown prosecutor in Nelson, Jackson Webber, described Judge Ruth as pragmatic.

“You do always know where you stand with him.”

Long-time defence lawyer Michael Vesty described Judge Ruth as a “very clear communicator who doesn’t suffer fools”.

At other times, it’s clear that beneath the sometimes halting, raspy tones, there is a softer and more emotional side to him.

The death of Christopher

Judge Ruth says at times it takes extra effort to put to one side an especially harrowing chapter in his family’s life.

Just over 19 years ago he and his wife Margaret lost their adult son Christopher, after a near lifetime of intensive, round-the-clock care.

“When I hear about people who create children who are then bashed and abused and I think ‘do you not realise how precious that life is?’ - that affects me sometimes.

“Working in the Youth Court does to the same extent, and I think ‘if only you understood what life could be like for you’.”

Christopher was just two years old when he was stricken with encephalitis – an infection that causes the brain to swell.

“Chris was our firstborn. He was spectacularly bright and articulate before he was two.”

Soon after his second birthday, he began to convulse.

“We didn’t know what was happening or what to do. We called an ambulance and we were rushed to hospital.”

The Ruths were sent home and for three nights, life seemed back to normal, but Chris began convulsing again, and they were back in hospital.

“Two or three months later we emerged with this floppy child who was never going to recover.”

The Ruth family. Tim (blue shirt), David at rear, Margaret and Olivia (right) with Christopher in...
The Ruth family. Tim (blue shirt), David at rear, Margaret and Olivia (right) with Christopher in front, who died in 2004, on the date of Margaret’s birthday in October. Photo: Supplied via Open Justice
Christopher was left disabled. He was physically unable to move and had to be fed and toileted.

“It was a nightmare for us as parents. I was at work all day and it was Margaret who did all this – she is just a saint.”

Christopher died in 2004, on the date of Margaret’s birthday in October, which has been a bittersweet day ever since.

Sister Olivia made it back from overseas on time to say goodbye.

“I think if she’d been able to fly the plane to make it go faster, she would have,” Ruth says.

The family took turns on shifts to watch over Christopher as he slowly succumbed to the septicemia that had taken hold during a weekend in respite care.

“He died on my shift. I watched his eyes close and life leave him.

“That has never left us,” Ruth says.

His memory lives on in the Chris Ruth Centre in Christchurch; now a collection of five centres in Canterbury that provide what’s described as an individualised community-oriented service for people over 18 with complex needs.

“We became aware of other parents coping with similar levels of disability in children and that there was nothing there for them.

“Once they got to a certain age, education didn’t want to know them, they couldn’t go to a school, there was no healthcare plan for them, so Margaret and a number of other parents lobbied various people including [former Prime Minister] Jenny Shipley and she provided the funding for what became the first Chris Ruth Centre.”

Margaret Ruth told NZME the lobbying began when Shipley was MP for Selwyn, and the funding promised then has continued to roll over.

The first centre was housed in leased premises at the Hoon Hay Working Men’s Club.

Margaret stepped down as a founding member 11 years ago when they moved to Hamilton, before their migration back south. Their daughter Olivia is now on the board of trustees.

Margaret Ruth says the aim now is for a dedicated building as the main centre, for which they have to raise $8 million.

Off-duty musician

Judge Ruth finds escape in the music that might have been his chosen career, but for the fact the influence of his parents was stronger than that of newfound friends at the hip American Club where he played in his 20s.

“I grew up in the 1950s with parents who’d been through the Depression and job security was something drummed into me.

“I think I was too scared to make that leap because of the fear of the unknown.”

Ruth was in a band that played in the local hangout at Christchurch Airport for members of Operation Deep Freeze on their return from Antarctica.

“It was in a building out at the airport and in those days a number of Christchurch acts would come and play.”

Ruth says an American he became friends with had contacts in the music business back in the United States.

“He said if I went there, there was at least a chance of an internship as a pit musician or something along those lines. That decision taxed me for some time.”

Judge David Ruth in his chambers at the Nelson Courthouse. Photo: Tessa Jaine
Judge David Ruth in his chambers at the Nelson Courthouse. Photo: Tessa Jaine
Ruth picked up a guitar in his youth and learned by ear, to the strains of Cliff Richards and The Shadows.

He switched to bass guitar in the late 1960s, influenced then by the greats including James Jamerson and more recently, Australian singer, songwriter, bassist and guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld.

“She’s just a genius and I love watching her play.”

Occasionally when playing music in Nelson bars and cafes, he’s recognised by defendants, including on one occasion a man he’d sentenced the same day.

“Not long after I arrived in Nelson, the band I had helped to form was playing at the Sprig and Fern on Hardy Street.

“I noticed a young guy staring at me. I had never seen him before. He then approached me, and I thought ‘Here we go’.

“However, he then brought with him a second guy who I most certainly did recognise - I had sentenced him that very afternoon.

“The first guy said: ‘There – I told you he was the judge’.”

Ruth said the brief exchange, in which the defendant shook his hand and thanked him, allowed him a glimpse into the positive impacts of his role as a judge.

“He promised me that he would take the opportunities I had built into his sentence.”

The start of a career in law

Ruth’s foray into criminal law was, by his account, accidental. His legal career started in the administration of estates and conveyancing, at a time when the duty lawyer scheme was in its infancy and carried out by law firm partners.

“If they were too busy, which was often the case, they’d send the underlings along.

“Back then I didn’t even know where the courthouse was.”

He was sent to court and allocated his cases.

“I had absolutely no idea what was going on and then the defendants allocated to me pleaded not guilty and under my breath I was saying: ‘Please don’t do that’.

He went back to the office with seven cases, which was the start of his career in criminal law.

Ruth was admitted to the bar in 1974 and was a partner in the Christchurch firm of Brockett James for 10 years before becoming an associate - and then partner - in Layburn Hodgins in 1998.

He became a barrister sole in 2000, specialising in criminal law, and was appointed a judge in May 2011 when he and Margaret moved to Hamilton.

In June 2015 he took up his post as Nelson’s third resident judge before “retiring” in 2020 at which time he was issued an acting warrant that has allowed him to continue sitting in courts around the country.

He says being a judge became an ambition, the more seniority he gained in criminal law.

“It didn’t make me more suited than others but it was something I began to pursue because I felt it was a logical step for me to take if the opportunity arose and thankfully it did.”

He says of the cases that have stood out, there was one in particular. A teenage student planned to shoot teachers and fellow pupils at a school in the Tasman region until police were tipped off to disturbing social media posts.

“It required so much thinking outside the box. On the one hand, we had people baying for blood and on the other I was thinking ‘What can we do for this boy’?

“While he needed help we couldn’t lose sight of the fact this was a very real and present danger.”

A case in Blenheim will remain with Judge Ruth as a highlight of his time here, as an exercise in straddling the tensions between Māori and Pakeha philosophies and how to apply the law.

The vineyard contracting firm Montford Corporation Limited was fined $55,250 in the Blenheim District Court on a charge of modifying or damaging an archaeological site, without the permission of Heritage New Zealand.

Judge Ruth said it was a huge case that involved tomes of information on many historical Māori artefacts dating back to the 13th century.

“They wanted a tikanga-type outcome and I had to work within the law as it stands now. I had to balance the expectations of those two worlds as best I could within the criminal system.”

Ruth’s acting warrant expires finally on his 75th birthday on March 27, 2025, and he’s not sure what might be next.

“I’ll be too old to rock ‘n roll, I think, but then I look at Mick Jagger as a role model and I guess I’ll be alright for another couple of years.”

By Tracy Neal
Open Justice multimedia journalist