I often criticize judges, on this blog and elsewhere. I think it is very important that people who exercise power over citizens be subject to criticism whenever they exercise it unwisely or, worse, recklessly, and still more when they abuse or overstep the powers given them. While the media can, more or less, be counted on to criticize legislators and bureaucrats, from time to time anyway, criticizing judges is difficult, because this criticism has to be informed by technical knowledge and skills, which few journalists possess (though there are worthy exceptions). This means that it is especially important for lawyers, including academic lawyers such as myself, to be the judiciary’s critics. And precisely because I am an unabashed critic of the judiciary that I think I need to do so something that might be outside the scope of my normal blogging.
I want to express my dismay, my horror even, at the way in which judges have been treated in much of the British Press in response to the High Court’s ruling that legislation is necessary before the United Kingdom’s government can formally initiate the process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union. The Guardian has collected the front-page reactions: “Who do you think you are?” “The judges versus the people” “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE“. A paper “helpfully” noted that one of the (very distinguished) members of the panel that heard that case is gay. Another is apparently just as suspicious by virtue of his wealth. This is shocking, vile stuff.
I do not feel confident enough to comment on the merits of the High Court’s ruling, but there appears to be quite a strong case ― made for instance by John Finnis and other experts for the Judicial Power Project, as well as by Adam Tomkins ― for the proposition that the Court erred. That’s beside the point ― except insofar as these arguments, some of them quite forceful, remind us that it is possible to criticize judicial decisions without resorting to taunts, insults, and sloganeering. Whether or not the High Court rendered the right decision, it decided the case before it in accordance with its understanding of the law and of its own constitutional role. The argument implicit in the tabloids’ headlines is that the court had to decide otherwise ― having no regard to the law, but only to the supposed will of the people. But that would be a culpable dereliction of duty; that would make judges act like politicians in robes; that would make their unelected, unaccountable status grounds for criticism.
But perhaps trying to discern an argument amidst that fury is already too generous. Look at the words they use. Enemies of the people! In modern history, the phrase was apparently first popularized by Robespierre. In case anyone is wondering what life under the Jacobins was like, they should read Dame Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, which succeeds remarkably at creating an atmosphere of all-encompassing, pervasive fear. That same atmosphere was also characteristic of the other period in history where “enemy of the people” was a label used by power to justify mass murder ― Stalin’s purges. This is the heritage which the English press now claims. Land of hope and glory, mother of the free!
Criticizing courts is necessary if we are to hold on to the inevitably precarious proposition that there is a law apart from what the courts say the law is; that there can be a Rule of Law and not merely a rule of judges. If we are to have, in John Adams’s celebrated phrase, a government of laws not of men, judges, like legislators and ministers of the Crown, must obey the law ― and be called out when they fail to do so. It is for this reason that I am wary of, and do my best to contradict, those who would shut down criticism of the judiciary on the pretense that it risks undermining the Rule of Law. But if we are to have a government of laws not of men, then even the most revered men and women ― which in a democracy means the voters ― cannot stand above the law.
A final historical parallel, perhaps more exact although of greater antiquity, is in order. When in 1607 the King of England thought that he could substitute his own judgment for that of the law, his Chief Justice would not let him:
His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which law is an act which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it: that the law was the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege [that the King ought not to be under any man but under God and the law].
Like once their king, the people of England ― or at least the demagogues who would speak for them ― may be offended by being “under the law”. But ― as the examples of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks remind us ― it is the law that protects them in safety and peace. One has every right to insist that judges too keep to the law. But it is lunacy ― suicidal lunacy ― to wish to with to throw off the law’s protection under the pretense of throwing off its shackles.
4 thoughts on “Sub Lege”
The High Court’s decision does seem like a break with established British public law, going back to Blackstone and relied on in our own constitutional development. The decision as to whether to exercise an international law right under a treaty has always been thought to be a Crown prerogative: this is the basis for the decision in the Labour Conventions case. The issue of whether a change in the international law obligations of the UK would require legislation to implement domestically is a different issue. The High Court seems to me to have confused these points. The traditional view would be that the Crown could give notice under Article 50, but only Parliament could repeal the statutes that would presumably have to be repealed as a result of leaving the EU.
The High Court transforms this into a principle that the Crown can’t give notice under Article 50 because there are statutes that implement the UK’s EU obligations and these create domestic rights as well as rights of UK nationals in other EU countries. This amounts to saying that EU law is not public international law. The social context is that the bar and judiciary are presumably part of the London elite that are opposed to Brexit. That gives rise to suspicion about motives for these kinds of transformations of long-established constitutional principles. Obviously, that doesn’t justify the kind of incivility on offer here, and, equally obviously, the principles involved don’t really have much to do with democracy or the will of the people.