Consistency and Complexity in Judicial Review

In a (somewhat) recent post commenting on Justice Brown’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Paul Daly wrote about “an interesting paradox” in the world of judicial review of decisions by the “political branches” of government: “[t]hose [who] would defer to Parliament would not defer to the executive.” The “conservatives” who are skeptical of judicial review of legislation, especially on Charter grounds, rally under “the Diceyan banner” ― which is also “a flag of hostility to the administrative state” ― and thus don’t like courts to defer to the decisions of administrative agencies and tribunals. This is indeed an interesting observation, but perhaps not, I would suggest, a paradox. Or, if it is indeed a paradox, then “conservatives” are not the only people who hold paradoxical beliefs about the proper relationships between the courts and the other branches of government.

Consider what people other than “conservatives” or Diceyans think of judicial review. Start with the view that is dominant in the Canadian legal community, including on the Supreme Court, which we might call “progressive.” (Actually, I’m not sure that either it or the “conservative” view described by prof. Daly should be described by such politically charged labels, but let’s put that worry to one side, while keeping in mind that it is legal ideologies we are talking about, not those of democratic politics.) The progressive view favours robust judicial review of legislation, and in particular robust judicial enforcement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also, however, favours judicial deference to administrative decision-makers. If the conservative view is paradoxical, so is the progressive view ― it’s just that its paradox goes in the opposite direction.

There is also a third view, which we might call “classical liberal” or “libertarian,” that rejects judicial deference both to legislatures and to administrative decision-makers. On this view, the Rule of Law means that, to conscript Chief Justice Marshall’s famous words, “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Whatever the legislature thinks the constitution means, and whatever the executive branch thinks a statute (or the constitution) means, the judges may not substitute those opinions for their own. This view is not very, or even at all, popular in Canada, but it does have some adherents. To put my own cards on the table, it is the one I am most sympathetic to, among the broad categories I am describing.

Finally, we could imagine a position that favours deference both to legislatures and to administrative decision-makers. To be honest, I am not sure that it has any actual adherents, though my ignorance should not be taken as evidence of their absence. I am also not quite sure what to call this view. Actually, “progressive” might be a better label for this position than for the current mainstream one I describe above, because deference-across-the-board is probably closer to the views of the original progressives of a century ago, but I suppose that using it in this way now might be confusing.

With apologies for my non-existent graphics skills, here is how the above categories look in table form:

Deference to:




Administrative Agencies or Tribunals







Both the conservative and the progressive positions seem to involve a paradox, if deference to one “political branch” but not the other is a paradox. The libertarian position, by contrast, has the virtue of consistency, as does the (hypothetical?) deferential position.

But, as I suggested above, I am not sure that the conservative and progressive positions can be fairly characterized as paradoxical, no matter how tempting it is for me to criticize them. It is, surely, at least plausible to believe that judges, being unelected and unaccountable, should defer to the constitutional judgments of elected legislators, but that the same argument for deference does not apply to unelected, and often virtually unaccountable, bureaucrats. It is also plausible to believe that judges should defer to expert administrators, but not to the bunch of amateurs or even bigots that make up a legislature. Of course, I tend to think that the better view is that courts should not defer either to administrators or to legislators, because both face various perverse incentives and neither is really willing and able to abide by the Rule of Law. But I don’t think that either the conservative or the progressive position can be dismissed out of hand as merely illogical.

And then, there’s the fact that both of these views are actually much more complex than I have made them out to be ― and that even their supporters sometimes acknowledge. The conservative view may favour robust judicial review of decisions made by the executive branch, but perhaps not in some areas, such as those that have to do with national security. The progressive view, even more clearly, leaves important areas of legislative action out of the scope of robust (or indeed any) judicial review ― notably anything that has to do with economic policy and regulation, and property rights (although, in a further inconsistency, some of those who hold this view are committed to defending the economic rights of organized labour). Indeed, it is arguably even possible to sympathize with the libertarian position on judicial review and yet argue that in some types of cases, courts should be more deferential than in others; or at least I have taken this position, though perhaps I’m just a faint-hearted libertarian.

I think prof. Daly is right to remind us about the links that exist between the two sorts of judicial review ― that of legislation and that of administrative decisions ― and to invite us to think about whether our approach to them makes sense when we consider them together, and not only in isolation. As we engage in this reflection, we might want to attain a certain level of coherence in our views on democracy, the Rule of Law, and institutional competence. But the legislature and the executive might not stand in the same relation to these principles; indeed, the same branch might interact with them very differently depending on the issue at hand. Thus it is no surprise, and no paradox, that internally coherent legal ideologies would countenance apparent inconsistencies in the levels of deference courts should afford different decision-makers.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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