The Real Contempt

New Zealand’s Parliament considers legislation that would shield courts from criticism ― and make them instruments of censorship

I do not write about New Zealand very much, although I have been living here for a year and a half. Perhaps it is as well. If the Administration of Justice (Reform of Contempt of Court) Bill currently before the Justice Select Committee of New Zealand’s Parliament is enacted into law without substantial amendments, a blog post making “an allegation or accusation … against a Judge or a court [of New Zealand]” and deemed to create “a real [to] undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” could land me in prison for up to two years, or get me fined $50,000.

Now, much of the Contempt Bill, developed by the New Zealand Law Commission as part of an effort to clarify and update the law of contempt of court, seems to be a worthwhile project. But the provisions relating to criticism of the judiciary are dangerous. They are overbroad, infringe the presumption of innocence and freedom of conscience as well as freedom of expression, and rely on a dangerous amount of discretion in their enforcement.  Even if they are not applied to the fullest extent of which they are capable ― and, as I will explain below, I think they are meant not to be ― these provisions will have a chilling effect on lawyers and laypersons alike who might want to comment on the courts, whether in the media, on blogs, or in scholarship. They ought be amended or indeed abandoned altogether.

In a recent post, for instance, I argued that the Supreme Court of Canada had a “pro-regulatory bias”; previously, I criticized Chief Justice McLachlin for “tak[ing] up a partisan slogan” ― Pierre Trudeau’s “just society” ― “and try[ing] to make it into a constitutional ideal”, and mused about the corrupting effects of power on chief justices generally. If I criticize New Zealand’s courts and judges in similar ways, I think it would be fair to say that I would be making “accusations or allegations” that could, at least if read more widely than this blog normally is, “undermine public confidence in the … integrity or impartiality” of their targets. And while I know that not everyone is a fan of my sometimes strongly-worded opinions, I wouldn’t be the only one to fall foul of the Contempt Bill. The cover article of the New Zealand Law Society’s magazine this month is called “Bullying from the bench“, and its very first sentence is: “Bullying judges are identified and discussed whenever lawyers get together”. The same Law Society, meanwhile, is investigating a lawyer, Catriona MacLennan, for calling a judge unfit for the bench after he let off a man accused of domestic violence on the basis that “many people … would have done exactly” the same. Perhaps if the Contempt Bill is passed the Law Society will have a chance to rethink its position as it joins Ms MacLennan among those charged with undermining public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.

These examples make clear, I hope, that the criminalisation of “accusations or allegations” that “could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” can capture a vast range of perfectly legitimate, indeed absolutely necessary, criticism. While the Contempt Bill (and the Law Commission’s report) seem to suggest that only “untrue” statements are being targeted, this word appears only in the headings of Subpart 6 of Part 2 and of Clause 24 of the Bill  ― not in the text of subclause 24(1) which defines the offense. Rather, the truth (or material truth) of an “allegation or accusation” is, by subclause 24(3), made a defence to a charge under subclause 24(1) ― if the accused can prove the truth of the “allegation or accusation” “on the balance of probabilities”.

This is nowhere near enough to circumscribe the scope of the offence. For one thing, many “accusations or allegations” against the judiciary (such as my claims about pro-regulatory bias, or arguably Ms MacLennan’s views about the unfitness of the nothing-wrong-with-domestic-violence judge) are matters of conjecture or opinion: they are inherently incapable of being proven true. For another, ostensibly factual statements that could in theory be true or false can be made for rhetorical effect, and fail to be “materially true” even though they make a legitimate and easily discernable point (such as the claim about lawyers always talking about bullying judges). Besides, the requirement that an accused prove the truth of a statement when only “untrue” ones are thought to be worthy of being criminalized sits uneasily, to say the least, with the presumption of innocence (protected by paragraph 25(c) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). To be sure, in Canada, a similar truth-as-a-defence provision was upheld as a justified limitation on the right to be presumed innocent in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697. But what is justified in the context of a very narrow proscription of hate speech might not be in the context of a much broader ban on criticizing a branch of government and its officials.

Moreover, it seems to me that asking judges to rule that “allegations or accusations” calling into question the impartiality or integrity of colleagues, let alone hierarchical superiors, are true is putting both them and the accused forced to make that case in an exceedingly difficult position. (Of course, any suggestion that judges might be reluctant to impugn the impartiality or integrity of fellow-judges into question is itself an “accusation” that could “undermine public confidence” in their impartiality and integrity ―  and one that is inherently incapable of being proven true.) In Canadian law, there is a principle of fundamental justice according to which any defence to a criminal charge “should not be illusory or so difficult to attain as to be practically illusory”: R v Morgentaler, [1988] 1 SCR 30 at 70 (per Dickson CJ);  R v St‑Onge Lamoureux, 2012 SCC 57, [2012] 3 SCR 187) at [77]. While the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act does not require such principles to be followed before a person can be imprisoned, this still seems like a sensible moral guideline. The Contempt Bill does not comply with it.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions on criticism of the judiciary have other serious problems, besides the breadth of the offense it creates and the narrowness if not the illusory character of the defence of truth. Instead of, or in addition to, prosecuting a person for having made “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary, the Solicitor-General is empowered, under subclause 25(2) to “request” a retraction or an apology ― including a retraction pending the determination of that person’s guilt. The Solicitor General can also apply, under subclause 26(1), for an order of the High Court requiring, among other things, a retraction or an apology. Such an order is to be granted if the Court is “satisfied that there is an arguable case that” prohibited “allegations or accusations” have been made. Such orders must, under subclause 26(5) be consistent “with the rights and freedoms contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”, but non-compliance can, under clause 27, lead to stiff fines ― and “knowing or reckless” non-compliance to imprisonment too.

This, in my view, is inconsistent with the freedoms of expression and conscience, as well taking further liberties with the presumption of innocence. The Solicitor-General’s “requests”, backed by the implicit threat of hauling a non-compliant person before the High Court, will at least produce a chilling effect, if not be outright coercive. “Requests” to retract statements that have not yet been judged to be illegal ― with perhaps, wink wink, nudge nudge, the possibility to avoid prosecution as an inducement ― are especially disturbing. But the prospect of court-ordered apologies is even worse. Persons who are being coerced, by threat of imprisonment, into apologizing are being made to say something they do not believe in and, in an affront to freedom of conscience, also to express a moral judgment about their own culpability which they presumably do not share. A liberal state cannot extort such moral judgments from its citizens. As Justice Beetz, speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in “additional reasons” in National Bank of Canada v Retail Clerks’ International Union, [1984] 1 SCR 269, said of a labour arbitrator’s order that a bank sign a letter endorsing the objectives of labour legislation, “[t]his type of penalty is totalitarian and as such alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada,” ― or New Zealand ― “even for the repression of the most serious crimes”. (296) Whatever the Contempt Bill might say about respecting the Bill of Rights Act, it is not possible to make such orders with violating the freedom of expression and the freedom of conscience of their targets.

The fact that these orders could be made, not upon a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or even on a balance of probabilities, but merely if there is an “arguable case” that a person has published “an allegation or accusation” that creates “a real risk” of “public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” being “undermined” only compounds the iniquity of the Contempt Bill. To be sure, the orders are, ostensibly at least, a form of civil remedy ― though note Justice Beetz’s description of the arbitrator’s letter as a “penalty”. Thus the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act’s protection for the presumption of innocence, which only extends to persons “charged with an offence”, does not apply. Yet the low burden of proof required for a retraction or an apology order means that rights can be interfered with on the basis of a weak showing by the government, even one that is less likely than not to be justified, and so go against the principle of respect for individual rights if not the right to be presumed innocent itself.

Finally, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Contempt Bill quite clearly contemplates that the enforcement of its proscription on “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary will be highly discretionary. Prosecutions are required to be “in the public interest”, (subclause 25(4)) and “may consider” the existence of any complaints about a judge and “any explanation provided by the Judge” (subclause 25(5)). This, I think, is a tacit admission of drafting failure. The Contempt Bill’s authors implicitly recognize that it is overbroad, and hope that the good judgment of prosecutors can be relied on to avoid fining or imprisoning people for legitimate criticism of the judiciary. This is not good enough. The chilling effect of the criminalisation of such criticism will be felt even if there are no abusive prosecutions, as those who write about the courts constantly watch their words and wonder whether they are crossing the line that exists in the prosecutors’ minds. And there is something perverse for a bill that sets out to clarify the law and give citizens fair notice of their responsibilities vis-à-vis the justice system to rely on prosecutorial discretion to avoid these responsibilities becoming a crushing burden.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions restricting criticism of the judiciary must not be enacted in their current form. Whether any such provisions should be enacted at all is something I still need to think through. If enacted, however, they ought at a bare minimum to make room for what Lord Denning MR described, in R v Com’r of Police of the Metropolis, Ex parte Blackburn (No 2), [1968] 2 QB 150 (CA) as “the right of every man, in Parliament or out of it, in the Press or over the broadcast, to make fair comment, even outspoken comment, on matters of public interest”, including by saying that a court is “mistaken, and [its] decisions erroneous, whether they are subject to appeal or not” (155) ― and including, too, if the commenter him- or herself is in error. New Zealand’s Parliament should take the advice of Lord Denning when he said that his court would not invoke its powers to find a person in contempt “as a means to uphold [its] own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations.” (155) That this power would now  come from statute rather than the common law does not change matters. New Zealand’s courts are independent, and therefore should, just like the English Court of Appeal, “not fear criticism, nor …  resent it”. (155) If anything, it seems to me that the courts’ dignity is more endangered by legislation that would make them into instruments of censorship than by criticism.

Setting the Story Straight

History, Originalism, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Comeau

Over at the historical blog Borealia, Bradley Miller ― no, not that Bradley Miller ― has a post defending the treatment of history in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in  R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15. Professor Miller argues that, contrary to what I said in my own comment on Comeau, to which he refers a number of times,

the courts took history and historical evidence and inquiry seriously in Comeau. In fact, historical analysis was central to the case against Comeau’s right to bring beer over the provincial boundary.

Professor Miller also suggests that Comeau illustrates the difficulties that would arise out of attempts to apply originalist methodologies to the interpretation of Canada’s constitution. With respect, I think Professor Miller misunderstands my criticisms of Comeau, which have to do not with the substantive outcome but with the way in which the Supreme Court treated historical evidence. As for Professor Miller’s critique of originalism, it reprises arguments that were made 35 years ago in the United States ― and addressed by the development of originalist theory since then.

Regarding substance, I am obviously not well positioned to debate Professor Miller’s assessment of what he describes as the “two very different versions of history [that] emerged from two historians involved in the litigation”, one presenting Confederation as a triumph of economic liberalism, the other emphasizing more cautious views among the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867. I am tempted to say that, even if the Fathers of Confederation endorsed international protectionism and government intervention in the economy, that doesn’t really dispose of the question of their intentions as to non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade. Practical politicians rarely hold fully consistent views, and at least today many would distinguish ― however little basis there may be for this distinction in economic theory ― barriers to trade across and within international borders. But perhaps things were different in 1867.

Be that as it may, though Professor Miller says that “[a]t the Supreme Court, the justices preferred the latter [i.e. more nuanced] view” of the Fathers’ attitudes to free trade, there is little basis for this claim in Comeau. The Court (or, likely, Chief Justice McLachlin) says that “the historical evidence, at best, provides only limited support for the view that” section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the provision at issue, “was meant as an absolute guarantee of trade free of all barriers”. [67] But the Court never actually refers to the evidence on the other side of this debate, even though, as Professor Miller points out, this evidence was submitted to the Court’s attention by the Attorney-General of Alberta’s factum. [16]-[20] (I don’t agree with Professor Miller that these five paragraphs are “central” to the factum, but they are certainly there.)

If anything, this choice to ignore historical evidence that arguably supported the Supreme Court’s conclusion reinforces my view that Comeau was dismissive of history’s value to constitutional adjudication. In other cases, the Supreme Court is eager to seize on such evidence, for example by directly quoting the framers of the constitutional provisions at issue and the documents that reveal their plans and intentions. In Comeau, by contrast, the Court does no such thing. The other ways in which the Court is disparaging towards historical evidence is its insistence that such evidence, unlike that drawn from the social or health sciences, cannot justify reconsideration of precedent, and its aversion to the use of historical expert evidence.

Ultimately, as I argue in my Comeau comment and also in a response to some of my fellow-critics, the Supreme Court’s decision is driven by a conviction that a federalism where internal barriers to trade arising out of provincial regulation are pervasive is the right sort of federalism. The Court does not defend this conviction on historical grounds; it just says that that’s what federalism means. Thus I do not think that “historical analysis was central” to Comeau. Perhaps an opinion focusing on the evidence to which Professor Miller refers and reaching the same outcome the Court reached could have been written. But the point is that it wasn’t. History, in Comeau, is neither the main character nor even a supporting one; it is an adversary to be neutralized and dispatched before moving on to the more important business of constitutional policy-making.

As for Professor Miller’s comments on originalism, they are even less convincing than his defence of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Comeau. Professor Miller describes originalism as “a technique which is often a tool of social conservatives seeking to squash rights for women, LGBT people, and others, and very uncommon in Canadian constitutional cases”. His evidence for this condemnation? Why, a link to one of Sean Fine’s “Tory judgesscreeds ― this one, ironically, decrying the appointment of Justice Bradley Miller to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Professor Miller also informs us of “the challenges that originalists face in trying to document a singular and enforceable original intention or original meaning in a document that was as much-Fathered as the [Constitution Act, 1867]”, of his belief that the Fathers of Confederation might not have wanted originalism to be the methodology used to interpret the constitution they created, and of the danger “that this methodology might leave judges needing a resident historian to co-preside on the bench in constitutional cases”. The living constitutionalist “methodological status quo” serves Canadians just fine, Professor Miller concludes ― and those who disagree should just think about the goings-on south of the border “over the last year and a half”.

The suggestion that originalism is somehow responsible for the misery of the Trump presidency ― the prospect of which was denounced by many prominent originalists ― is, to put it as politely as I can, puzzling. But Professor Miller’s other critiques of originalism are not much better. He ignores the existence of originalist arguments in favour of marriage equality and against sex discrimination, among other progressive causes, in the United States, and of Kerri Froc’s feminist originalism in Canada. He also ignores the fact that so-called “new originalism”, focused on the public meaning of constitutional texts rather than the intentions of their authors, developed (starting in the late 1980s!) precisely in response to criticism about the impossibility to ascertain the joint intention of multiple authors who may or may not themselves have been originalists. (Professor Miller might be suggesting that a “much-Fathered” text cannot even have a “singular original meaning” ― but the fact that he also seems to think that he understands the Comeau judgment, ostensibly the joint product of nine fathers and mothers, rather detracts from whatever strength that criticism might otherwise have had.) As for courts needing resident historians ― the Supreme Court in Comeau says that it can do the job without professional assistance, and of course it is managing to dabble in social and health sciences without resident experts. Last but not least, Professor Miller should know, having linked to Benjamin Oliphant’s and my article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, that the claim that originalism is “uncommon” in Canada, and living constitutionalism is the secure status quo, is simply false. The use of originalist reasoning is pervasive, albeit also erratic, in the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision in Comeau is consistent with the best evidence of the original public meaning of section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, any such consistency is accidental, rather than the result of serious engagement with the evidence. Unlike many of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, Comeau is a living constitutionalist, policy-driven decision that accords little importance to history, and as such, it is a poor foundation for any conclusions about the feasibility or soundness of originalist constitutional interpretation. Unpersuasive arguments against originalism, which ignore the developments in originalist theory over the last decades, are sadly not uncommon. Yet if we are to develop something better that what Mr. Oliphant and I described as “a buffet-line approach to interpretation, unfettered by standards for the principled application of the interpretive methods available”, we must begin by understanding the different options on the menu. Perhaps, having done so, we will conclude that originalism is not the right choice. But we cannot come to this conclusion on the basis of outdated clichés and persistent misunderstandings.

La Cour, c’est qui?

Peter McCormick identifies the likely author of the “by the Court” opinion in Comeau

Peter McCormick, University of Lethbridge

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Comeau has definitely put the judicial cat among the federalist pigeons.  At first glance – we have all seen the headlines – the case is about bringing cases of cheap beer into New Brunswick (“Free the Beer!”).  On a closer look, the already enfeebled Section 121 of the Constitution Act 1867 has been effectively gutted, taking with it any realistic prospect of a major shift toward greater intra-Canadian free trade.  Along the way, the sort of trial judge’s revisiting of precedent that was so highly lauded in Bedford has been severely chastised.  An interesting case, therefore, on several levels.

The decision took the somewhat infrequent form of a “By the Court” judgment – one that is both unanimous and anonymous – which arguably makes it more emphatic while coyly veiling the identity of the judge who did the drafting.  But the curtain of anonymity can be brushed aside to identify the lead author, or at least to establish solid relative probabilities.  That identity will come as no surprise, but the methodology I will describe takes it some distance beyond simple conjecture.

That methodology is function word analysis.  Function words are the words that express grammatical or structural relationships between other words (prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs and particles), as distinct from the content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs) that convey more concrete meaning.  Function words are the words that everybody uses, but different people use with different frequencies and proportions, so much so that these frequencies and proportions provide a literary fingerprint.  There are about 300 function words in the English language; my more focused function word list is drawn from the literature, and modified to reflect the actual usages of the Supreme Court over the last twenty years.  It involves the 44 most frequently used function words, some of which are totals for related words such as “a” and “an”, or the different tenses of common auxiliary verbs like “to be” or “to have” or “to do”; together, these words accounted for a rather remarkable 40% of the total word count – overall and for every one of the judges.  This was used to generate a word-usage profile from the written reasons attributed to each judge, and these in turn can be compared with the parallel profile of any specific anonymous decision.  (The logic and procedures of the methodology are described at length in my article in the Dalhousie Law Journal.[1])  The point is to calculate a “Similarity Index”, summing for the 44 words the absolute value of the differences between that judge’s word-use frequencies and those that appeared in Comeau.  The lower the score, the more likely it is that the particular judge was the lead writer.

Language is a possible problem – because counting words within even a superbly translated version will tell us as much or more about the translator than about the original writer – but the Supreme Court Reports assures us (by describing the English reasons as “the judgment” and the French reasons as the “version francaise”) that the original language of the Comeau decision was English.  This also limits the number of “suspects” for the lead writer; I am assuming that Gascon and Cote would have written in French, such that the French language text would have been “le jugement,” and the English language text the “English version”.

Quotations are also a problem – extensive direct quotations distort the word counts by reflecting the usage patterns of the quoted writer, rather than those of the immediate writer.  My solution is to delete all direct quotations from the examined text.  Some Supreme Court justices quote very extensively, to such an extent that quotations can make up a quarter or more of the total word count.  For the Comeau decision this proved to be a negligible factor, reducing the word count by less than 4%.  As I will indicate below, this unusually low quotation count is itself a pointer to the identity of the lead writer.

Law clerks can be a problem, because they may have contributed early drafts for at least the more routine parts of the judgment.  My solution was to eliminate these more routine parts (the introduction, the background, the decisions of the lower courts) and focus only on the much longer analysis section.  This further reduced the word-count by about 20%, but it left 11,000 words and this is easily enough for the function word analysis to operate with credibility.

An adequate comparison basis is a problem; both Brown and Rowe have been appointed recently enough, and have had such a limited opportunity to write judgments or minority reasons, that there is not a large enough body of words to provide a reliable basis for comparison.  Seniority is a large enough factor in decision assignment generally, especially for major cases and especially for constitutional cases, that it would in any event have been unlikely that either of these more junior members of the Court would have been doing the lead writing.

Finally, the “circulate and revise” process pursued by the Supreme Court can be a problem.  All indications are that the other members of the panel take this very seriously, such that the lead writer’s initial draft can undergo significant revision as a result.   My “fingerprint” metaphor above should be qualified to recognize that what is available for analysis may be a smudged rather than a perfect fingerprint.  However, checking results back against the handful of By the Court decisions whose authors have actually been identified in judicial biographies has validated the methodology even for reasons that are described as having undergone major revisions. (Most dramatically, it revealed the “did not participate” Le Dain as having been the initial lead author of Ford and Devine, a finding that has been confirmed by both the Dickson biography and a recent CBC radio documentary).

Running this process for the Comeau decision, restricting the enquiry to the five senior judges who normally write in English, yields the following results:

Judge Similarity Score
McLachlin CJ 8.03
Abella 8.94
Karakatsanis 9.64
Moldaver 10.17
Wagner 11.76

Lower scores pointing to a more likely author, function word analysis points to McLachlin.  Readers may initially be disappointed because the spread between individual judge’s scores are modest, but the tug of ingrained writing habits makes this meaningful.  A smoking gun this may not be, it provides a rank ordering for the likelihood of lead authorship, and McLachlin is clearly indicated.

Moreover: the middle row in the table is significant in way that allows us to ratchet up the language with which to describe the findings.  This provides the similarity score the word by comparison with an all-judge figure based on a combined total of four million words over a twenty-year period.  Karakatsanis, Moldaver and Wagner are less like Comeau than is that all-judge figure; McLachlin – and only McLachlin – is significantly closer to Comeau than is the all judge figure.  This makes the findings more decisisve than might have appeared at first glance.

Further: I mentioned earlier that eliminating direct quotations from Comeau reduced the total word count by only about 4%.  For the McLachlin Court’s constitutional cases more generally, the average figure for such quotations was 13.5%.  But this, too, is a distinctive and persisting characteristic of individual judges:  some quote extensively and some do not.  Abella, for example, frequently uses direct quotations, accounting for fully one-quarter of the words in her constitutional decisions, almost double the average.  McLachlin, however, does not; direct quotations account for only 6.5% of the total words in her numerous constitutional decisions, less than half the all-Court average.  This reinforces the suggestion of the similarity scores that McLachlin is the most likely lead writer of the Comeau judgment.

It is somewhat frustrating that one can create a large data-base, run detailed calculations, generate complex indices – and then wind up with a conclusion that simply confirms what was the most obvious guess from the beginning.  (Who needs science when hunches work so well?) Beverley McLachlin has led the Court for almost 20 years, longer than any other Chief Justice in the Court’s history.  During that time, she has delivered a disproportionate share of the Court’s constitutional decisions, and this statement remains true even if one pro-rates the counts to accommodate the fact that no other member of her Court has served the full eighteen years.   Comeau is one of the last major constitutional decisions with which she will have been involved, and arguably the most significant federalism case of her Chief Justiceship; if there is any surprise, it is that she chose to write behind the veil of “By the Court” rather than over her own name.

[1] Peter McCormick, “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 39 (2016) 77

Comeau’s Lesson

It’s not that the courts have generally messed up Canadian federalism, still less that they should improve it

The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, which eviscerated section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to uphold the power of the provinces to impose barriers to inter-provincial trade (so long as they are “rationally connected” to some real or made-up regulatory objective) has been sharply and almost universally criticized. Indeed, I can’t recall another decision of a court that, according to more than a few Canadian lawyers, can do virtually no wrong, that was met with such widespread disapproval. But, though I too have argued that Comeau was wrongly decided and very poorly reasoned, I would like to push back against a view expressed by some of my fellow critics, especially by Emmett Macfarlane in Maclean’s, that not only Comeau, but the broader Canadian federalism jurisprudence is fundamentally wrong.

Professor Macfarlane argues that this jurisprudence distorts “the obviously centralized constitutional design implemented in 1867”. He writes that

past courts … trampled over the written text and intent of the framers to dramatically broaden the powers of the provinces while artificially narrowing relevant federal provisions like the trade and commerce clause. … [L]ongstanding federalism jurisprudence … is … a product of judicial invention rather than a reflection of the constitutionally established powers.

Professor Macfarlane also faults the Supreme Court for “abandon[ing] its famous ‘living tree’ metaphor to treat ancient federalism precedent as inviolable.” Philippe Lagassé, paraphrasing Craig Forcese, similarly writes that “it’s hard not to notice that the [Supreme Court] is encasing Canadian institutions in amber”.

With respect, I think that these critiques are largely misguided. Canadian federalism jurisprudence is far from perfect, and I have criticized it from time to time, but it does not merit wholesale condemnation. It is important to distinguish among the multiple issues that arise under the general label of federalism. Failures to deal with some of them do not negate successes in other areas. And it is important not to lose sight of the courts’ task in enforcing a federal distribution of powers ― or, for that matter, any kind of entrenched constitutional provisions: not to make federalism great again, let alone the best it can be, but to give effect to the arrangements arrived at by political actors in the past (and susceptible of revision by political actors in the future).

One kind of issues that courts applying a federal constitution must address has to do with the interpretation of the heads of power it assigns to one or the other level of government. In Canada, these are mostly, though not exclusively, found in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and much of the groundwork of interpreting them was done in the first decades after Confederation by the British judges sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It is a venerable Canadian tradition, going back to FR Scott and even earlier scholars, to attack these judges ― pausing only to fawn over them for their decision in the “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), from which the “living tree” metaphor is drawn.

For my part, however, I do not agree that they somehow distorted the Constitution Act, 1867. As Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, their interpretation of sections 91 and 92 was based on the public meaning of these provisions at the time of their enactment. It also took into account the most obvious, and distinctive, fact about the distribution of powers in Canada: that the powers of both orders of government are set out in the Constitution Act, 1867 (in contrast to the United States, and also Australia), and thus must be read together so that all can be given effect. The oft-heard complaint about the courts’ narrow reading of the federal “trade and commerce” power ignores  the existence of both the provincial power over “property and civil rights”, and of other federal powers, such as “banking” and “bankruptcy and insolvency”, which a broad reading of “trade and commerce” would render nugatory. Without going into more detail, I remain of the view that the interpretive part of the Canadian federalism jurisprudence is mostly, if not entirely, satisfactory. It is, moreover, a good thing, not a bad one, that the Supreme Court has resisted the temptation of re-writing these precedents in the name of the living tree; absent a showing, such as one that was made in Comeau, that they were at odds with the original public meaning of the Constitution Act, 1867, their endurance is cause for celebration.

The second type of federalism issues involves the drawing of the boundaries between the powers attributed to the two levels of government. These can overlap, even if they are interpreted in a way that accounts for the distribution and so reduces the overlay to some extent. Doctrines like federal paramountcy, inter-jurisdictional immunity, double aspect, and co-operative federalism determine, for example, whether the courts will conclude that a federal and a provincial law that are plausibly within the respective powers of the legislatures that enacted them are in conflict, and what happens if they are. The Constitution Act, 1867 bears on these questions, but only to some extent, so that the courts have mostly operated without textual guidance in this area.

Many of the rules the courts have developed are of more recent vintage than the interpretations of the heads of powers in sections 91 and 92 ― and of lesser quality. Since I started blogging (and it’s only been a little over six years), I have had occasion to denounce the Supreme Court’s paramountcy jurisprudence, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the doctrine of inter-jurisdictional immunity and the Court’s attempt to freeze it. Meanwhile, in an important recent article, Asher Honickman has criticized the Supreme Court for abandoning the textually-required exclusivity of the federal and provincial heads of power. Both Mr. Honickman’s criticisms and mine, as well as a noticeable part of the invective directed at the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Comeau, has to do with the Court’s embrace of the concept of “co-operative federalism”, which seems to be based on the idea that the more regulation there is, the better off we are. The court has sometimes tried to rein in this idea, notably in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, where it rejected Québec’s attempt to force the federal government to hand over the data from its defunct gun registry. But, as Comeau demonstrated, co-operative federalism keeps coming back to haunt its jurisprudence.

There is, I think, a third category of federalism issues ― those that have to do with the general implications of this principle, as implemented in the Constitution Act, 1867 and other constitutional provisions. It encompasses cases such as Hodge v The Queen, (1883) 9 App Cas 117Liquidators of the Maritime Bank of Canada v. Receiver-General of New Brunswick, [1892] AC 437, to some extent the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, and more recently cases concerning constitutional amendment, including the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217. In various ways, these cases hold that provinces are autonomous political communities and not mere components of the Canadian whole. This conclusion is an inference from the history and text of the Constitution Act, 1867. Perhaps the inference is wrong. All I can say here in its defence is that it is not enough to point to John A. Macdonald’s hope that provinces would in due course become no more than glorified municipal governments, if not wither away. Macdonald had initially hoped for a legislative union instead of a federal one. He lost that all-important fight, and the federation created by the Constitution Act, 1867 did not reflected the vision of Macdonald alone. To be sure, a federation without economic union may have been of little use; but a federation without meaningfully autonomous provinces would have been impossible.

Balancing these two considerations is no doubt exceedingly difficult ― but, fortunately, it is usually not the courts’ job. For the most part, it is the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 (and its amendments) who did it when they distributed powers between Parliament and the provinces. They were, on the whole, remarkably successful, though of course, that’s not to say that they got everything right, still less that what was right in 1867 is also right a century and a half later. But, right or wrong, the Constitution Act, 1867 is the law, the supreme law of Canada, and the courts must enforce it to the best of their ability ― not re-write it. As the one British judge for whom Canadian lawyers usually profess admiration, Lord Sankey LC, wrote in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58, that

[t]he process of interpretation [of the Constitution Act, 1867] as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR 65)

Thus, when they adjudicate, the courts’ task is usually to ascertain what the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 did. They do not need to update the balance between centralization and decentralization, between union and autonomy, from case to case. Nor have they the authority to try.

The problem with Comeau is that the Supreme Court made the attempt. According to the classification I sketched out in this post, the main question in Comeau was of the first, interpretive type (albeit that it concerned a limitation on, not a grant of, legislative powers). Had the Court got the interpretation right, it would have had to deal with additional questions belonging to the second, line-drawing, category. Comeau was not a case of the third type, and the Supreme Court erred in treating it as such. One of the rare defenders of Comeau, the usually very astute Chantal Hébert, makes the same mistake in her column for The Star. In her view, the case was “a timely reminder that Constitution does not cast the provinces as junior partners of a unitary federation”. Perhaps that’s how the Supreme Court saw it, but it’s not what the legal issue was.

Yet regrettably, many of Comeau‘s critics too seem to be taking the wrong lesson from it. They want the Supreme Court to remake Canadian federalism in the name of the “living tree” or of the desire which, Andrew Potter tells us, Canadians feel for an ever closer union. To ask the Court to remake the law in this way is only to encourage further mistakes in the future. To be sure, some corrections are in order, mainly in the realm of doctrines operating at the boundary of federal and provincial jurisdictions. But they would involve, in Mr. Honickman’s words, “getting back to the constitutional division of powers” laid down in 1867 ― not updates in the service of economic policy or nation-building. If such updates are necessary, they must be carried out by politicians following the procedures provided for constitutional amendment, not judges. What Comeau teaches us is not that our federalism jurisprudence as a whole is hidebound or perverse, but that the Supreme Court should stop playing constitution-maker’s apprentice and stick to enforcing the law.

Unmaking History

In the “free the beer” case, the Supreme Court shows ― again ― that it is the spoiled child of the Constitution

When it accepted to pronounce on the constitutionality of non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade, the Supreme Court had a chance to make history. In R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, the Court chose to unmake it instead. Far from “freeing the beer” and invalidating legislation that prevents bringing booze from one province to another and other regulatory schemes built on provincial protectionism, Comeau countenances even restrictions on inter-provincial trade that would previously have been thought flatly unconstitutional. In the process, it tramples over constitutional text and history, as well as logic.

Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides that “[a]ll Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces”. But free of what exactly? Of any and all regulation, or of just some particular kinds? In Gold Seal Ltd v Alberta (Attorney-General),  (1921) 62 SCR 424, the Supreme Court held that “free” meant “free from tariffs”. In Comeau, it was asked to revisit this holding. As the Court ― its members evaded responsibility for their (mis)judgment by attributing it to the institution, though I am looking forward to Peter McCormick or someone else exposing the true author(s) ― notes, this question is of the highest importance:

If to be “admitted free” is understood as a constitutional guarantee of free trade, the potential reach of s. 121 is vast. Agricultural supply management schemes, public health-driven prohibitions, environmental controls, and innumerable comparable regulatory measures that incidentally impede the passage of goods crossing provincial borders may be invalid. [3]

* * *

Before answering the interpretive question, however, the Supreme Court addresses a different one: whether the trial judge was entitled to depart from Gold Seal to hold that s. 121 applied to non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade. The judge had taken up the Supreme Court’s invitation, issued in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, to revisit precedent in light of newly available evidence. In Bedford and Carter v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331, which dealt with the constitutionality of the provisions of the Criminal Code relative to prostitution and assisted suicide respectively, the evidence that was held to allow lower courts to revisit Supreme Court precedent came mostly from the social sciences. In Comeau, the trial judge relied on new historical evidence about the context and original meaning of s. 121.

This, the Supreme Court insists, was not something that Bedford authorizes. Bedford “is not a general invitation to reconsider binding authority on the basis of any type of evidence”. [31; emphasis mine] What is required is a showing “the underlying social context that framed the original legal debate is profoundly altered”, [31] triggering the applicability of the Court’s “living tree” approach to the constitution. Historical evidence, which the court derides as “a description of historical information and one expert’s assessment of that information”, does not count: “a re-discovery or re-assessment of historical events is not evidence of social change”. [36]

In conversation with Maclean’s, Carissima Mathen said the Court “essentially chastised the trial judge for going beyond his authority, in terms of feeling free to disregard this older decision”. Were she less polite, prof. Mathen could have described the Supreme Court as delivering a benchslap to the trial judge, at once gratuitous and telling. Gratuitous, because this part of the Court’s reasons is, in my view, obiter dicta ― it is not part of the reasoning that’s necessary to the decision, which is based on the court’s own re-examination of the constitution and relevant precedent (including, as we’ll see, a departure from Gold Seal). Telling, because the disparagement of history is of a piece with the Court’s broader approach to the constitution, on which more below.

Embarking on its own analysis of s. 121, the Court repeats that a robust reading of this provision would call into question much existing regulation. But, it concludes, such a reading is not required. The constitutional text is “ambiguous, and falls to be interpreted on the basis of the historical, legislative and constitutional contexts”, [54] ― though it is mostly the latter that does the work in the Court’s reasons.

Historical context, in the Court’s view, is inconclusive, because different visions of what form of economic union Confederation would implement were presented by the political actors at the time (none of whom the Court actually quotes). Although it duly notes that “in drafting s. 121, [the framers of the constitution] chose the broad phrase ‘admitted free’ rather than a narrower phrase like ‘free from tariffs'”, [64] the Court insists that “[w]e do not know why they chose this broader, and arguably ambiguous, phrase”, [64] and concludes that “the historical evidence, at best, provides only limited support for the view that ‘admitted free’ in s. 121 was meant as an absolute guarantee of trade free of all barriers”. [67; emphasis in the original]

This is bizarre. Surely we can tell that, if the framers were consciously choosing between a narrower and a broader versions of a constitutional ban on barriers to trade, they chose the broader because the narrower did not capture all the barriers they meant to prohibit. As Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, the Supreme Court is no stranger to the “originalist inference” ― reasoning from a choice made during the framing of a constitutional text between competing proposed versions of a provision. The inference seems obvious here, but the Court avoids it. Even more remarkably, the Court also ignores the injunction in Bedford that appellate courts are not to re-assess “social and legislative evidence”, [49] including expert evidence, presented at trial. While the wisdom of this injunction is highly questionable, the Court is, admittedly not for the first time, simply ignoring relevant precedent, without bothering to either distinguish or overrule it.

The “legislative context” that the Court refers to is the placement of s. 121 in a Part of the Constitution Act, 1867 that largely deals with financial issues. The Court considers that  its other provisions “attach to commodities and function by increasing the price of goods”, suggestion that s. 121 does not “capture merely incidental impacts on demand for goods from other provinces”, rather that “direct burdens on the price of commodities”. This might be the Court’s best argument, though it may also be that, as the trial judge found, s. 121 was put where it was simply because this was as good a place as any other in the Constitution Act, 1867. Be that as it may, the Court itself does not seem to attach all that much importance to its conclusion on this point.

The heart of the Court’s reasoning is its discussion of the principle of federalism, which it finds to have two implications of particular relevance to the question of the constitutionality of barriers to inter-provincial trade. One is the exhaustiveness of distribution of powers between Parliament and the provinces. The other is the idea of a balance between the powers of the two levels of government ― and the Court’s role in maintaining that balance. As to the former, the Court insists that there must be no “constitutional hiatuses — circumstances in which no legislature could act”. [72] For any given policy ― including the imposition of barriers to inter-provincial trade ― there must be a level of government competent to enact it, alone or at least in “co-operation” with the other. As to the latter, the Court quotes F.R. Scott for the proposition that “[t]he Canadian constitution cannot be understood if it is approached with some preconceived theory of what federalism is or should be”, [82] and insists that, rather than “a particular vision of the economy that courts must apply”, federalism “posits a framework premised on jurisdictional balance that helps courts identify the range of economic mechanisms that are constitutionally acceptable”. [83]

Here, the Court contradicts both the constitution and itself. Constitutional hiatuses are not anathema to federalism. They exist: in section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (which limits the powers of both Parliament and the legislatures to interfere with the independence and jurisdiction of superior courts); in sections 93(1) and (2) (which limit the provinces’ ability to interfere with minority rights in education, without allowing Parliament to do so); and, even on the Court’s restrictive reading, in s. 121 itself. And then, of course, there is the giant constitutional hiatus usually known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the smaller but still significant one called section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. As for the court’s disclaimer of authority and desire to impose a particular vision of federalism or the economy, it is simply laughable. The idea that federalism requires judicially-imposed “balance” rather than the respect of the letter of the constitution, and any conceivable form of economic regulation must be able to be implemented are precisely the sort of preconceptions that the Court pretends to banish from our constitutional law.

Oblivious to its own incoherence, the Court claims that federal balance would be undermined, and a “constitutional hiatus” created, by an overbroad interpretation of s. 121. Instead of “full economic integration” [85] or “absolute free trade”, the Court propounds what it presents as a compromise:

s. 121 … is best conceived as preventing provinces from passing laws aimed at impeding trade by setting up barriers at boundaries, while allowing them to legislate to achieve goals within their jurisdiction even where such laws may incidentally limit the passage of goods over provincial borders. [91]

The notion of impediment to trade is seemingly a broad one, extending to any provincial law that “imposes an additional cost on goods by virtue of them coming in from outside the province”, [108] or indeed bans inter-provincial importation outright. But, crucially, only laws “aimed at” creating such impediments are prohibited by s. 121, and this will be an extremely narrow category. In effect, it seems that only laws serving primarily “purposes traditionally served by tariffs, such as exploiting the passage of goods across a border solely as a way to collect funds, protecting local industry or punishing another province” will count ― and even that “depending on other factors”. [111] A law having a “rational connection” [113] to some other regulatory purpose, such as “protecting the health and welfare of the people in the province”, [112] or most any other conceivable regulatory objective, will survive. The law at issue survives because it is part of a regulatory scheme intended “to enable public supervision of the production, movement, sale, and use of alcohol within New Brunswick”. [124] Its effects on inter-provincial trade in liquor coming to New Brunswick are merely “incidental”, and constitutionally permissible.

This is wrong in many ways. As a starting point, the Court is answering the wrong question. The issue is not how s. 121 is “best conceived”, but what its purpose is, and how that purpose can be given effect. As Randy Barnett and Even Bernick write in a their essay on purposive constitutional construction (which I reviewed here),

[t]o formulate a rule with reference to the function that the relevant provision is designed to perform is not a matter of making the law “the best it can be” but giving effect to the law as best one can. A judge who decided a case on the basis of some other reason—however normatively appealing that might seem—would be departing from the law entirely. (27)

Second, the Court is wrong to claim that its approach to s. 121 is consistent with precedent. However narrowly it construed s. 121, Gold Seal at least maintained an outright prohibition on inter-provincial tariffs. Following Comeau, tariffs are fine ― provided that they are rationally connected to some regulatory scheme that can be spun to appear to be directed a public health and welfare objective. So much for stare decisis. Most importantly though, as Malcolm Lavoie points out in a CBC op-ed, the Court’s “approach practically nullifies Section 121”, because legislation primarily intended to deal or interfere with inter-provincial trade is already something that provinces cannot enact ― if anyone can, it is Parliament, under section 91(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867. (Professor Lavoie, it is worth noting, is the author of the most important article on the Comeau litigation, which the Court ignored, as it ignored all other scholarship touching on the case, as well as recent work on constitutional interpretation more broadly).

* * *

What causes the Court to re-write the Constitution Act, 1867 (while insisting that it is not making a policy decision), ignore precedent (while admonishing the trial judge for doing so), all in the name of a quest for a federal balance that it is quite different from the one the framers of the constitution struck (while denouncing the imposition of pre-conceived notions of federalism)? Emmett Macfarlane, writing for Maclean’s, denounces Comeau as “craven”, the result of “politicized timidity”. He is not wrong about this (though I think he is in his general denunciation of the federalism jurisprudence), but let me be more specific. In my view there are two (loosely related) problems with the way the Court decided Comeau: its pro-regulatory bias, and approach to constitutional interpretation.

The Court’s bias in favour of regulation appears in the introduction of both the decision as a whole (at [3], quoted above) and that of the substantive part (at [51], in similar terms). The Court is preoccupied by the fact that s. 121 might prevent the enactment of some forms of regulation. It is this, rather than the more general notion of “constitutional hiatuses” that leads it to narrow s. 121 into oblivion. As noted above, hiatuses exist, and the Court is actually quite fond of expanding them, s. 96 and the Charter especially. It is the prospect of constitutional limits on economic regulation that makes the Court suddenly desirous to ensure that Canadian legislatures can make or unmake any law whatever.

As for the Court’s interpretive method, it is implicitly, though not explicitly, living constitutionalist. In an appendix to the “Originalist Reasoning” article, Mr. Oliphant and I wrote that in Comeau the Court “be faced with a stark interpretive choice between a very strong originalist case”, which prevailed at trial, “and arguments based (perhaps paradoxically) both on stare decisis and what may be perceived as the needs, or at least the expectations, of current society”. These perceived needs are reflected in the Court’s pro-regulatory bias which causes it to impose its own vision of federalism. And doing so is all the easier if historical evidence can be treated as less significant and worthy of deference than equivalent social scientific evidence, twisted, or even ignored.

* * *

As I wrote in an essay published last year in Diritto Pubblico Comparato ed Europeo, the well-documented hefty costs of the regulatory schemes which the Supreme Court thought it so important to preserve from constitutional challenge, and the fact that this cost is, in many cases, disproportionately borne by the most economically disadvantage members of Canadian society, ought to remind us that “living constitutionalism can come at a price, not only to abstract ideals such as the Rule of Law, but also to individuals and families, including, and even especially, to the most vulnerable”. (644) To be sure, we can in theory demand that our politicians enact inter-provincial free trade even if our judges will not impose it. But this argument could be made in response to literally any constitutional claim. The raison d’être of an entrenched, judicially enforceable constitution is that the political process sometimes fails to translate just demands, and indeed even popular demands, into legislation, due to either the tyranny of self-centred majorities, or the well-organized resistance of self-interested minorities. Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 was enacted in recognition of this reality. The Supreme Court presumes to update our constitution, but it lacks the wisdom of those who wrote it.

It has been said, perhaps unfairly, that Viscount Haldane was “the wicked stepfather of the Canadian Constitution“. The Supreme Court deserves to be called the Constitution’s spoiled child. This child demands that its parent conform to its demands, and throws tantrums whenever it does not. Unfortunately, too many people find this child’s petulance endearing. Perhaps Comeau will convince them that it must, at long last, be made to behave.

Despotism, Revisited

Thoughts upon belatedly reading an (anti-)administrative law classic

I have, rather belatedly, read an (anti-)administrative law classic, The New Despotism by Lord Hewart’s  ― an attack on the power of what would come to be called the administrative state published in 1929 by the then-Lord Chief Justice of England. The book made quite an impression when it was published, prompting the government to set up an inquiry, and even has its own Wikipedia page. However, I don’t think The New Despotism is often discussed in Canada these days. (A quick HeinOnline search shows no more than occasional citations in the past decade; and, what little that’s worth, I hadn’t heard about it until I sat in on my colleague Vernon Rive’s administrative law lectures.) So perhaps some comments here may be of interest, if only to my fellow dabblers, despite the book’s antiquity.

In a nutshell, Lord Hewart was alarmed by the expansion of unreviewable legislative and adjudicative powers delegated by Parliament to officials within the executive branch. While he is almost certainly skeptical of the administrative state generally, Lord Hewart mostly suspends this skepticism and focuses his attacks not on the exercise of power by administrative decision-makers as such, but on the fact that, all too often, administrative power is exercised more or less secretly, without the persons affected by it being able to make submissions to decision-makers, or without decision-makers having to take these submissions into account, or to explain how they reached the conclusions they did. He criticizes legislation empowering administrators to override statutes, or to interpret and apply them without any judicial oversight. Such legislation, he insists, creates a system that is not, properly speaking, one of “administrative law”, such as it exists in Europe (Lord Hewart doesn’t share A.V. Dicey’s notorious disdain for continental administrative law), but one of “administrative lawlessness”.

The remarkable thing is that, while it is fashionable to describe The New Despotism (insofar as it is referred to at all) as a “tirade” delivered by an apologist for the nightwatchman-state dark ages, his critique has been largely accepted ― including by the latter-day defenders of the administrative state ― and incorporated into modern administrative law. Whatever our views on the Canadian (and American) practice of deference to administrative interpretations of statutes, even those who defend this practice accept that some judicial oversight over administrative decision-makers is constitutionally essential. And they, like their critics, would share Lord Hewart’s indignation at decision-making processes in which anonymous officials may act without receiving evidence or submissions from affected parties, whom they need not appraise of their concerns, and are not required to give reasons. He might not be kindly remembered, but in a very real sense, Lord Hewart won the battle of ideas. Pro- or anti-administrativists, we largely agree with him, and indeed among ourselves. The outstanding disagreements are of course significant, but not nearly as significant as the general assent to the subjection of administrative decision-making to judicial review in matters both procedural and substantive.

Interestingly, however, this consensus was not implemented in the manner Lord Hewart envisioned. It is largely reflected in the development of the common law, and not so much in changes to legislative practice which he urged. Some legislative changes have occurred. In particular, there are better, though I suspect still deficient, mechanisms for Parliamentary review of regulations, which Lord Hewart called for. But legislatures have not ceased purporting to delegate vast and unreviewable powers to the executive. What has changed is that the courts came to take a much more skeptical approach to such legislation, and seldom give it its full effect. This, I think, is not surprising. Lord Hewart thought that, to eradicate administrative lawlessness, “what is necessary is simply
a particular state of public opinion”, for which to “be brought into existence what is necessary is simply a knowledge of the facts”. (148) This seems almost touchingly naïve ― almost, because, as a former politician himself, Lord Hewart ought to have known better. It is implausible that public opinion can be drawn to, let alone firmly focused on, issues that are bound to strike non-lawyers as purely technical matters. This is something worth pondering as we reflect on the relative legitimacy of judicially-articulated and legislated rules, whether generally or specifically in the context of administrative law.

Let me now go back to the disagreement between those who favour judicial deference to administrative decision-makers and those who resist it. That Lord Hewart would surely have been in the latter camp will not persuade anyone who is not, given his reputation as an arch-anti-administrativist. But there is another jurist, whose name carries more authority in Canada than Lord Hewart’s, whom I am happy to claim for non-deferential camp (to which I belong): none other than Lord Sankey, of the “living tree” fame. In an extra-judicial speech, delivered just months before the opinion in Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124, a.k.a. the Persons Case, and quoted by Lord Hewart, Lord Sankey emphasized the importance of the Rule of Law, and of the courts as its enforcers:

Amid the cross-currents and shifting sands of public life the Law is like a great rock upon which a man may set his feet and be safe, while the inevitable inequalities of private life are not so dangerous in a country where every citizen knows that in the Law Courts, at any rate, he can get justice. (151)

And then, describing the threats to the courts’ role in upholding the Rule of Law, Lord Sankey pointed to

what has been described as a growing tendency to transfer decisions on points of law or fact from the Law Courts to the Minister of some Government department. (151)

And as for Lord Hewart himself, he did have an answer to at least one objection to judicial oversight of the administrative state that the defenders of deference still trot out from time to time: that allowing unobstructed judicial review of administrative decisions will lead to too much costly litigation. (For instance, in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, Justice Karakatsanis’ majority opinion claimed that “[a] presumption of deference on judicial review … provides parties with a speedier and less expensive form of decision making”. [22]) Lord Hewart responded to this concern by pointing out that

what is desired is not that there should be endless litigation but rather that litigation should be rendered as a rule unnecessary by the diffused and conscious knowledge that, in case of need, recourse might be had to an impartial public tribunal, governed by precedent, and itself liable to review. (155)

The point is one that goes to the very nature of the Rule of Law:

Nobody outside Bedlam supposes that the reason why Courts of law exist in a civilized community is that the founders of the State have believed happiness to consist in the greatest possible amount of litigation among the greatest possible number of citizens. The real triumph of Courts of law is when the universal knowledge of their existence, and universal faith in their justice, reduce to a minimum the number of those who are willing so to behave as to expose themselves to their jurisdiction. (155)

Just last year, the UK Supreme Court adopted essentially this reasoning in R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, in the course of explaining the importance of access to adjudication ― perhaps ironically, in that case, adjudication in administrative tribunals, albeit ones functioning quite differently from those decried by Lord Hewart. Arch-anti-administrativist he may have been, but Lord Hewart was a more intelligent, and is a more relevant, jurist than those who dismiss him might realize. If you are interested in administrative law and haven’t read The New Despotism, you probably should read it.

Politics in, and of, Law Schools

That legal education is tied up with politics is no excuse for indoctrination or ideological homogeneity

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail Lisa Kerr and Lisa Kelly criticize “[c]alls for a return to … a legal education free of politics”, which they say amounts to “[s]tripping law of context”. Legal education, they insist, is necessarily, and properly, political. It is not just about legal doctrine, but also about “the complex relationship between legal principles and societal values”, as well as “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. I do not disagree with most of what they say on this point, so far as it goes. But I have a strong impression that Professors Kerr and Kelly, as well as their enthusiastic supporters in the Canadian legal academic corner of the twitterverse, elide crucial distinctions, and fail to address important questions that arise is their claim about the relationship between law, and especially legal education, and politics is accepted.

One claim in Professors Kerr and Kelly’s op-ed which I would not endorse without qualificaion is “that law and politics are not distinct domains”. To be sure, as I argued in one of my early posts here, “legal theory … is different from scientific theory, because it is in some measure argument [that] involves values, and hence ideology”. (Some of the things I said in that post now strike me as overstated, but I stand by this claim, and the post’s general tenor.) And it’s not just theory. As I wrote elsewhere, while Canadian courts is sometimes contrasted with American law as being less ideological, this is a mistake; Canadian judges are ideological, though they tend to share an ideology, and observes of Canadian courts believe, or pretend, that it is no ideology at all. Yet for all that, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that law and politics are wholly indistinct. Politics (in the sense of ideology, not necessarily partisanship) influences law, but it is not all there is to law. Professors Kerr and Kelly disparage “formalism”, but the law’s forms and procedures are important and valuable. “Due process of law” is not the same thing as political process, or the court of public opinion. I am not sure whether Professors Kerr and Kelly mean to suggest otherwise, but it would have been better had their op-ed not been open to such an interpretation.

I am also quite skeptical of the claim that Canadian law professors teach students not only law but also “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. With respect to my colleagues, how many of them master these subjects at even an undergraduate level?How many regularly read even, say, blogs written by historians or economists ― let alone scholarship? As readers who have followed my occasional musings on the “empirical turn” in constitutional law will know, it’s not that I am against the law being informed by these ― and many other disciplines; quite the contrary. But I am also skeptical about the capacity of the legal profession ― including the academy, as well as the bar and the bench ― to carry out the immense work that the “empirical turn” requires. Canadian law schools are several hundred Richard Posners short of offering the sort of interdisciplinary teaching that Professors Kerr and Kelly claim for them.

Be that as it may, as I said above, what worries me more is what Professors Kerr and Kelly do not say. First, as Michael Plaxton points out, there is a difference ― which Professors Kerr and Kelly elide ― between “drawing attention to political values” that permeate the law, and “adopting any particular political view, or imposing one on students”. One can expose the law’s politics and explain its context without necessarily arguing that the law is good or bad as a result. Now, I think that this distinction can only be taken so far. Given the limits on the time available to teach any subject, the choice of readings one assigns, or issues one emphasizes, is in part influenced by what one finds interesting and important, and one’s politics help shape those perceptions. Still, that’s not an excuse for giving up on even-handedness, or on broadening the issues one raises beyond one’s own interests and preoccupations.

Another important distinction is that between the positions of individual educators and educational institutions vis-à-vis politics. Professors Kerr and Kelly elide this distinction too, speaking of the way “we … teach law” and “the role of a law school” as if they were the same. They are not. Individual professors will, unavoidably, bring their particular political orientations to their teaching. They have a responsibility to strive, nevertheless, to fairly present views and concerns with which they disagree, but there are limits to how well individuals can discharge this responsibility, both due to the imperfections of the human nature and to the practical constraints I have already mentioned. Professors’ duty to create an environment where students who disagree with them feel free to do so is more absolute, but again, I am afraid that there are limits to what one can do. Ultimately, the professor gets the last word in a classroom discussion ― though the last word should often be a reminder that disagreement is welcome.

Law schools, as institutions, are subject to different constraints. Unlike individual professors, they are not entitled to their own political agendas. Individuals can only go so far in resisting the influence of their pre-existing commitments on their teaching. But law schools should have no pre-existing political commitments to resist. On the contrary, given the inevitability of a certain politicization of the teaching of individual professors, law schools should try to counteract this politicization by ensuring a certain degree of ideological heterogeneity among their staff, so that students are exposed to a variety of perspectives during the course of their studies. As Emmett Macfarlane points out, concerns about the role of politics in legal education have to do with “homogenizing attitudes” at (some) law schools that present them as committed to specific political orientations, so that other views would be unwelcome or at best devalued there.

One response to this that I have seen is to say that professors do not really change their students views. I think this is beside the point. For one thing, I don’t think that it’s necessarily improper for professors to change their students’ minds. If the change results from the students’ free assessment of arguments on both sides of an issue fairly presented by the professor, it’s a good thing, not a bad one. But conversely, even if  professors who set out to indoctrinate their students, or take a one-sided or authoritarian approach out of sheer carelessness, do not succeed at changing the students’ opinions, they are still causing harm. As Ilya Somin observed in a recent discussion of Keith Whittington’s new book on freedom of expression in universities, and as Matt Harringon pointed out in response to Professors Kerr and Kelly, students respond to such professors by hiding their true opinions, which harms the quality of classroom discussion. As Jonathan Haidt often reminds us, this leaves the holders of the majority opinions quite unprepared to argue against contrary views when they are confronted with them ― as will inevitably happen in the legal world, in particular.


So while I take Professors Kerr and Kelly’s point that the teaching of law is inevitably political, it is only true in certain ways and to some extent. Good legal educators do not shy away from discussing values, but they try to present more than their own value-laden perspective on the law, and do not seek to impose their own on their students. And, knowing that these attempts are bound to succeed only imperfectly, good law schools try to ensure that students are given opportunities to learn from professors whose political commitments are not homogeneous. I hasten to add that I strongly suspect that any legislative remedies for real or alleged failures of law schools and their faculties to live up to these commitments would be worse than the disease. But that just means that legal educators have to work very hard at it ― no one else can help them.