Says Who, Again?

Peter McCormick on why “by the Court” decisions matter – and who wrote them.

A few years ago, I blogged about an attempt to unmask the authors of “per curiam” opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States by having a computer identify individual judges’ word use patterns. Although I was skeptical about the value of the exercise, I noted that if, as its authors suggested, the attribution of opinions to the Court rather than to individual judges is indeed cause for concern, then

we in Canada have a problem ― and need somebody to replicate their study for our own Supreme Court a.s.a.p. [because] [f]or over 30 years, it has had the habit of issuing opinions ‘by the Court’ in the most important and controversial cases”.

In a couple of articles published last year, Peter McCormick takes up the double challenge of identifying the authors of the anonymous decisions of Supreme Court of Canada issued since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice, and of describing the overall history of such decisions (including those signed by all of the judges in a majority, such as the one in l’Affaire Nadon), going back to when they first became a significant factor in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

Prof. McCormick details this history in  “‘By the Court’: The Untold Story of a Canadian Judicial Innovation“. Although the device of unanimous and anonymous decisions has been in use for almost as long as the Court has existed, it is only in the 1960s that it was deployed in significant cases, rather than minor procedural ones. And it was, prof. McCormick suggests, something of an accident. The Court issued its first anonymous opinion, signed by the eight members of the majority, in Reference Re: Steven Murray Truscott, [1967] SCR 309, in which, as prof. McCormick puts it, the government was asking the court, “Had you heard the appeal that you denied leave to eight years ago, would you
have allowed it?” (1057) In an “extraordinary” (1058) attempt to save face and resist the accusation implicit in the question, the majority issued a “joint opinion” signed by each of its members. Shortly thereafter, the precedent was applied when the Court delivered its opinion in Reference Re: Offshore Mineral Rights, [1967] SCR 792, signed this time as “the joint opinion of the Court”, and again a dozen years later, in Att. Gen. of Quebec v. Blaikie, [1979] 2 SCR 1016 ― a “revival” that prof. McCormick credits to Justices Martland and Ritchie.

Blaikie was followed by the trickle of “by the Court” opinions that has not stopped to this day: prof. McCormick counts “fifty of these in the forty-eight years since 1967, a number
that shrinks to forty-five if we treat companion cases … as single examples”. (1059) Not all of these opinions are very significant; there have been cases where the choice of unanimity was “clearly less a matter of strategic choice than of administrative convenience … where a judgment simply could not be attributed in the normal way” (1064) due to the death or health problems of its true author. But most of the anonymous decisions were in important cases, largely in various areas of constitutional law. Many unanimous opinions were delivered in response to reference questions asked by the federal government, especially when the Supreme Court was unanimous. Others arose in “cases that deal with issues that relate directly to the judiciary as an institution”, (1075) or indeed specifically with the Supreme Court ― although, as prof. McCormick notes, there have also been many cases dealing with judicial independence that were not anonymous, including the notorious Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3. And, under the long leadership of Chief Justice McLachlin, the Supreme Court’s use of anonymous opinions is arguably more vigorous than ever.

Does this matter though? Prof. McCormick insists that it does. The “packaging” of court decisions, as well as their “content”, is significant;  “the mode of presentation” of the Supreme Court’s decisions is “the product of conscious and shared choices” (1052) by the judges, not an accident. Because the Court matters, these choices matter too. The choice to present a judgment as the opinion of the “the Court” itself, rather than any individual judge, represents the extreme case of the Court’s collective ethos prevailing over the individual ambitions of its members, and is inextricably linked to the Court’s positioning itself as an institution to be reckoned with, especially in references where the Court acts as “a unified institution providing the other half of a conversation about national governance with the federal government”. (1074) Moreover, such a choice “flatly repudiates [the] expectation”, nearly universal in common law jurisdictions, that a judge will take responsibility for his or her decisions and can be praised or criticized for them: “the whole point is that no single judge is identified and no individual accepts responsibility”. (1054)

But prof. McCormick’s other article, “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”(2016) 39 Dal LJ 77 (not freely available, alas), seeks to make sure that the judges face the music, if only belatedly. Like the American paper on which my original post about “by the Court” opinions was based, it uses linguistic analysis to identify the likely authors of anonymous opinions ― in prof. McCormick’s case, those of the Supreme Court of Canada since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice. This should give us an insight into “how the Court is evolving in its decision-making and equally important decision-explaining process”. (84) Is the process of reaching decisions attributed to the Court as a whole the same as with other cases, or is it somehow different (for example, with an even more important role for the Chief Justice)?

The attempt isn’t entirely successful: prof. McCormick is only able to identify a “probable” author for a little more than a third of the decisions that he has analyzed. For most of the others, he points to two, and in a couple of cases to three “possible” authors. (It is of course possible that these decisions were jointly written, as some of the Court’s attributed decisions are, but it seems unlikely that all were.) And even when prof. McCormick points to a single “probable” author, this is not always a clear finding. Still, it’s an impressive achievement. For instance, prof. McCormick points to Chief Justice McLachlin as the “probable” author of both the majority opinion in l’Affaire Nadon and the Court’s opinion in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. The Chief Justice is likely to have written or co-written many of the other “by the Court” decisions too, with a few other judges also more regular likely authors than others. Prof. McCormick concludes that more research would be warranted into the issue and, given both his partial but real success and the remaining uncertainties, it is hard to disagree.

Overall, prof. McCormick has persuaded me that my previous rather casual dismissal of the importance of this issue was misguided. “By the Court” decisions matter, as he says, because it matters how power ― including judicial power ― is exercised. While I often accept the need for confidentiality, even secrecy, in the working of government (including the courts), any given instance where government seeks to withdraw information ― perhaps especially information that it normally makes available, such as the identity of the author(s) of judicial opinions ― deserves scrutiny. An institution engaged in information-withholding should be prepared to justify itself. The Supreme Court does not do that. So long as it does not, at the very least, it should not be surprised at receiving some extra scrutiny, welcome or otherwise.

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.

2 thoughts on “Says Who, Again?”

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