CALGARY -- Public support for the high-profile defendant in a damages case is strong but Alberta's premier and justice minister may have crossed an ethical line in voicing their support for Edouard Maurice.

Charges against Maurice were dismissed last year after an incident in February of 2018. The Okotoks-area rancher caught two people going through vehicles outside his home in the early morning hours and a shot from a .22 calibre rifle hit one of the intruders in the arm.

The gunshot victim,  Ryan Watson, has filed a $100,000 lawsuit against Maurice for physical and psychological damages.

A fundraising effort to pay for Maurice’s defence was sitting at over $40,000 as of Tuesday morning.

Over the weekend, Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer tweeted his apparent support for the defendant in an active case that falls under his ministry.

Premier Jason Kenney took to his personal Facebook page last week and encouraged others to donate to Maurice’s legal fund.

While their posts reflect the apparent broad public support for Maurice and his family, they raise serious questions about the independence of any judge attempting to reach an impartial decision in the case.

"As ridiculous as (this case) may appear to the public, it will go a long way to establishing the extent of the right to defend property from intruders," said Gideon Christian, assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. "The decision will be of interest to every member of the public, particularly rural Albertans."

Christian says the Justice Minister is subject to the legal professions code of conduct, which requires lawyers to show respect and encourage public respect for the legal system. It also prohibits lawyers from communicating information that is likely to be "materially prejudicial" to a case before the courts.

Christian says it would appear Minister Schweitzer has broken those rules and he’s surprised the tweet has not been deleted.

The Law Society of Alberta's Code of Conduct indicates "A lawyer must not communicate information to the media or make public statements about a matter before a tribunal [court] if the lawyer knows or ought to know that the information or statement will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing a party’s right to a fair trial or hearing."

Before the charges against him were dropped, Maurice’s court appearances were marked by dozens of supporters, many complete strangers, who would applaud as he came and went from the courthouse with his family.

More to come. . . .