Abusus Non Tollit Usum

Should judges refrain from accusing their colleagues of acting illegitimately?

In a recent conversation, my friend and sometime guest here Maxime St-Hilaire argued that judges should refrain from accusing their colleagues of having overstepped the bounds of the judicial role, or otherwise acted illegitimately ― which they are mostly, although not exclusively, apt to do in dissenting opinions. Prof. St-Hilaire is especially opposed specifically to the use of the labels of “activism” and “restraint” to advance such criticism. Having long argued that these are unhelpful, muddy concepts, I agree with him to this extent. And I agree that accusations of illegitimate behaviour should not be levelled lightly, and that those who make them risk being exposed as hypocrites. However, I disagree with the point of principle: in my view, it is not inappropriate for a judge to claim that a colleague’s opinion not only misinterprets the law, but amounts to the sort of decision-making that is not open to judges acting within the confines of their constitutional role.

Prof. St-Hilaire has two reasons for his position. First, he believes that philosophizing is not part of the judicial job description. Second, he thinks that accusations of illegitimacy undermine the courts’ authority generally and judicial review of legislation specifically, and ultimately the Rule of Law itself. In my view, this is not so. Committing philosophy, as it were, is an inextricable part of the judges’ job. The scope of judicial authority is contestable and contested, and these contests are very much a part of the business of law, and not only a theoretical debate external to it. As for the Rule of Law, in my view, it does not depend on the courts presenting a united front despite existing disagreements among their members.

It is tempting to say that the controversies about the nature of law, its relationship to morality, and the proper role of the judge in respect of both law and morality, which excite the minds of legal academics, ought to be of no concern to sitting judges. Indeed, some legal academics advocate this view as a means of escaping the (admittedly often stale and always abstruse) debates about legal positivism and anti-positivism. But a judge’s theory of law matters in some cases. It matters that in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753,  a majority of the Supreme Court adhered to a legal theory that I have described in a forthcoming piece as “pusilanimous positivism ― which simultaneously insists that any rules of law that are not enacted, whose existence cannot seriously be denied, must have been made by judges, and that judges have no mandate to engage in such law-making”. Had they adhered to a different legal theory, they could have recognized the legal status of constitutional convention, or given effect to constitutional principles as Justices Martland and Ritchie would have. Conversely, if the Court remained wedded to the legal theory the majority embraced in the Patriation Reference, then its opinions in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, and perhaps most significantly Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3 and its progeny, which were also based on the idea that principles, and not just posited rules, were part of the law of the constitution, would have been quite different.

To be sure, one can be concerned that judges are not very good legal philosophers. Some legal theories ― notably Ronald Dworkin’s ― assume that they are, but this is probably a mistake. There is simply no particularly good reason to think that judges are good philosophers. But then, they are also not very good economists, political scientists, geneticists, and much else besides. A snarky person might add that they are all too often not very good lawyers, either. But judges still have to engage with these various disciplines on occasion ― especially, although certainly not only, in constitutional cases ― and they must then do it as best they can. Whether or not judges are candid about this does not change the underlying reality that these other disciplines bear on, and sometimes are decisive to, the courts’ resolution of the disputes that come before them ― and there is, surely, a great deal to be said for judicial candour.

But assuming that judicial candour is good, can there be too much of a good thing? Prof. St-Hilaire thinks so. For him (and for many others who agree with him) the contemporary understanding of the Rule of Law principle encompasses judicial review of legislation. Arguments to the effect that a court has acted illegitimately in exercising its power of judicial review legislation undermine the authority of judicial review generally, and criticism that calls the legitimacy of judicial review into question undermines the Rule of Law itself. Accordingly, judges of all people should refrain from it. (Prof. St-Hilaire is not opposed to this sort of arguments being made by academics or journalists, presumably because they do not have the same responsibilities to the Rule of Law.)

In my view, by contrast, judicial review is not an inherent part of the Rule of Law, but only one possible means to secure the Rule of Law requirement (naïve though it may be) that public authority be exercised in accordance with the law. Indeed judicial review must itself be exercised in accordance with the law ― notably, constitutional text, but also other relevant legal rules, whether or not they have entrenched constitutional status. When a court acts without legal justification, it acts every bit as illegitimately (as well as illegally) as the executive or the legislature in like circumstances. It follows that the power of judicial review can itself become destructive of the Rule of Law if used for purposes other than ensuring that the executive and the legislature stay within the bounds of their authority. If, for example, a court uses its power of judicial review to attempt to bring about the just society, then it is not upholding the Rule of Law at all. It is indulging its members’ preferences, in the same way as government that knowingly secures the enactment of unconstitutional legislation, but in a manner that is all the more pernicious because it claims the authority and respect due to law.

It seems to me that, if they see this happening in a decision made by their colleagues, judges can ― and even should ― speak out. For very good reason, judges are not accountable for their exercise of their powers, except in the limited but still very important sense of having to give reasons for (most of) their decisions. Among other benefits, reason-giving exposes judges to scrutiny and criticism, starting with scrutiny and criticism by their colleagues who, in the common law tradition, have generally (the occasional resistance of some Chief Justices notwithstanding) been allowed to publish dissenting or concurring opinions.The possibility of criticism, starting with criticism in a separate opinion, is the only check on the power of a judicial majority in a case, beyond the restraint that individual conscience may or may not impose. So this check should be applied vigorously in order to ensure that the judicial power, and especially the power of judicial review, is exercised so as to further, not to undermine, the Rule of Law. As the Rule of Law’s first line of defence, dissenting judges must undertake, not shirk, this responsibility.

Of course, as I wrote here not long ago, those who criticize judges, including other judges, should do so “without resorting to taunts, insults, and sloganeering”. Accusations of “activism”, unless elaborated and supported by argument, amount to sloganeering at best. But as I wrote in that post,

[i]f 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.

Sure, “juristocracy” or “gouvernement des juges” can be used as taunts and empty slogans ― and are so used by people who do not for a second care for the Rule of Law. But as the Romans put it, abusus non tollit usum. That something can be abused does not mean that it should not be used properly.

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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