The Supreme Court v the Rule of Law

In ruling against Trinity Western’s fundamentalist law school, the Supreme Court unleashes the administrative state

The Supreme Court’s decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33 are a disaster for Canadian law. By a 7-2 majority, the Court upheld the decision of the Law Societies to deny accreditation to a concededly academically adequate law school on the sole ground that its students and faculty would have been required to sign up to a religiously-inspired “Covenant” and, inter alia, promise to abstain from sex outside of a heterosexual marriage for the duration of their studies ― a requirement that disproportionately affects gay and lesbian students and was therefore widely regarded as discriminatory, though it was not illegal under applicable anti-discrimination law. The Supreme Court’s decision and reasoning subvert the Rule of Law and nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom.

The Trinity Western cases presented two sets of issues. First, there was the administrative law questions of whether the law societies were even entitled to consider  the “Covenant” in deciding whether to accredit it and, in the British Columbia case, whether a referendum of the law society’s members was an appropriate way of deciding whether to accredit Trinity Western. (The British Columbia decision is the one where the reasoning of all the judges is set out in full, and that’s the one I will refer to below, unless otherwise specified.) Second, there were the constitutional law questions of the framework to apply to review of the compliance of administrative decisions with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, substantively, of whether the law societies’ decision infringed the Charter and whether this infringement was justified. In this post, I focus on the administrative law issues, and add a few words on the applicable review framework. I will write about the religious freedom issues separately.

On the issue of the law societies’ entitlement to consider the covenant, as on the outcome, the Court splits 7-2. The majority reasons are ostensibly jointly authored by Justices Abella, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gascon; the Chief Justice and Justice Rowe concur. They hold that the law societies were within their rights to deny accreditation to Trinity Western based on the “Covenant”. Justices Brown and Côté jointly dissent. The majority holds that the referendum was a permissible procedure for deciding on the Trinity Western accreditation. Justice Rowe disagrees, although his comment on this point is in obiter. The dissent also thinks the referendum procedure was not appropriate. As for the review framework, the majority purports to apply the one set out Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 and (modified in) Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613. The Chief Justice and Justice Rowe, however, propose substantial modifications of this  framework, while the dissenters call for it to be reconsidered.

* * *

The majority (with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justice Rowe) considers that the law societies had the power to consider Trinity Western’s “Covenant” and its discriminatory effects because of their alleged statutory mandate to regulate the legal profession “in the public interest”. The British Columbia legislation, for instance, provides that “[i]t is the object and duty of the society to uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice by”, among other things, “preserving and protecting the rights and freedoms of all persons”. This “overarching statutory object … is stated in the broadest possible terms”, [33] and the majority decides that in upholding the public interest and rights and freedoms the law societies were entitled to take into account “inequitable barriers on entry to the school” [39] created by the “Covenant”, as well as unspecified “potential harm to the LGBTQ community”. [44] Moreover, the majority thinks that since the “shared values” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “are accepted principles of constitutional interpretation”, [41]

it should be beyond dispute that administrative bodies other than human rights tribunals may consider fundamental shared values, such as equality, when making decisions within their sphere of authority — and may look to instruments such as the Charter or human rights legislation as sources of these values, even when not directly applying these instruments. [46]

To be sure, since neither law society provided reasons for its decision, it is not quite clear whether the decisions were actually made on this basis. But, since the Supreme Court has for some time now insisted that reasons that could have been given by administrative decision-maker can support its decision just as well as those that actually were, this is of no consequence.

The dissenters beg to differ. Constitutional values are irrelevant “to the interpretation of the [law society]’s statutory mandate,” and “it is [its] enabling statute, and not ‘shared values’, which delimits [law society’s] sphere of authority”. [270] That statute allows the law society to regulate itself, “‘lawyers, law firms, articled students and applicants’ [but]does not extend to the governance of law schools, which lie outside its statutory authority”. [273] As a result, the effects of the “Covenant” on which the majority relies are irrelevant considerations; in trying to forestall them, a law society acts for an improper purpose, since ― as Justice Rand famously observed in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 ―,

there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion”, that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator; … there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption (140; cited at [275]; emphasis Brown and Côté JJ’s)

The perspective in which the law societies’ enabling statutes are intended to operate is a focus on the fitness of individual lawyers for legal practice, and denying accreditation to a law school whose graduates are not expected to be individually unfit is inconsistent with this perspective. As for the broad statement of purpose on which the majority relies, it provides no authority for a law society

to exercise its statutory powers for a purpose lying outside the scope of its mandate under the guise of “preserving and protecting the rights and freedoms of all persons”. For example, the [Law Society] could not take measures to promote rights and freedoms by engaging in the regulation of the courts or bar associations, even though such measures might well impact “the public interest in the administration of justice”. …

 It is the scope of the [law society’s] statutory authority that defines how it may carry out its public interest mandate, not the other way around. [286-87]

The law societies are not empowered to regulate student selection by law schools in the name of whatever they conceive as the public interest; if they were, they could (and perhaps would have to) regulate other aspects of the law schools’ policies that can have an impact on access to and diversity within the legal profession ― even, say, tuition fees. This simply isn’t the law societies’ job under their enabling legislation.

On this as on other points, I agree with the dissent ― which is probably the best opinion to come out of the Supreme Court in a long while, though it tragically falls three votes short of becoming the law. The majority’s approach is not altogether surprising. Indeed, it exemplifies tendencies illustrated by other cases, such the making up of reasons where the administrative decision-maker gave none, the better to “defer” to them. I once described judges engaged in this practice as playing chess with themselves and contriving to lose. More significantly, the Trinity Western cases resemble the recent decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, in that, as in that case, the majority seizes on a broad statement of purpose and disregards statutory language that more carefully circumscribes the powers to be exercised by an administrative decision-maker, expanding its competence so that it has virtually no limits. I described this aspect of West Fraser here, and stressed the importance of the “perspective in which a statute is intended to operate”, complete with the Rand quotation, here.

What is perhaps an innovation, albeit one that follows the same perverse logic of courts enabling regulators where legislators did not, is allowing the administrative decision-maker to effectively enforce (under the euphemism of “looking to”) laws that it is no part of their statutory mandate to enforce, supposedly because these laws represent “shared values”. The framers of these laws ― both the Charter and the British Columbia Human Rights Act ― made a conscious decision that they would not bind private entities generally, or religious institutions such as Trinity Western specifically, respectively. No matter ― the majority thinks that administrative decision-makers can apply them regardless.

It is for this reason that, in my view, the Trinity Western cases subvert the Rule of Law. They fly in the face of the idea that, as the Supreme Court still recognized not that long ago ― in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 ―,  “all exercises of public authority must find their source in law”, and that it is the courts’ job to “supervise those who exercise statutory powers, to ensure that they do not overstep their legal authority”. [28] According to the majority, public authority can be exercised without positive legal mandate, indeed in disregard of legislative attempts to (admittedly loosely) define such a mandate, on the basis of allegedly “shared values”. One cannot help but think of the more unsavoury totalitarian regimes, where “bourgeois legality” was made to give way to “revolutionary class consciousness” or similar enormities. That these “shared values” are said to derive from the Charter, which limits the power of government and, indeed, expressly provides in section 31 that “[n]othing in [it] extends the legislative powers of any body or authority”, only adds insult to injury.

As the dissent rightly points out, on the majority’s view law societies have a roving commission to weed out injustice. They could regulate not only “courts or bar associations” but also police forces, self-represented litigants, or anyone else who comes into contact with the administration of justice. Their regulation of lawyers can extend to the lawyers’ private lives, and very thoughts ― which is what what the Law Society of Ontario is already attempting with its requirement that lawyers undertake to promote “equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public”. Granting a regulatory body this amount of power unfettered by any guidance more precise than the notion of the public interest is inimical to the spirit of a free society.

* * *

On the question of whether the Law Society of British Columbia was entitled to hold a referendum on whether to accredit Trinity Western, the majority notes that there are not statutory limits on the ability of its governors, the Benchers, to “elect to be bound to implement the results of a referendum of members”. [49] The fact that the constitutionally protected rights were at stake does not change anything. The Chief Justice does not say anything explicitly about this, but I take it that she agrees with the majority.

Justice Rowe, however, has a different view of the matter. While he agrees that the Benchers are generally free to call and choose to be bound by the results of a referendum, he thinks that the case is altered where the Charter is involved. As I will explain in my next post, Justice Rowe (alone among his colleagues) thinks that this is not the case here. Were it otherwise, however, a referendum would not suffice to discharge the Law Society’s “responsibilities under the Charter. Is not one of the purposes of the Charter to protect against the tyranny of the majority?” [256] Majority opinion is not a sufficient basis on which constitutional rights can be restricted.

The dissent is similarly unimpressed. It notes that the majority’s basis for upholding the Law Society’s decision ― that it reflects a proportionate balancing of the Law Society’s objectives and the relevant constitutional rights ― presupposes “expertise in applying the Charter to a specific set of facts”, and requires “engagement and consideration from an administrative decision-maker”. [294] Once they decided to simply accept the outcome of a referendum of members, the Benchers did not exercise their expertise, or engage with and consider the issues; rather, they “abdicated their duty as administrative decision-makers by deferring to a popular vote”, [298] and their decision should be quashed on that basis.

The dissent is right that a referendum is simply incompatible with the framework for reviewing administrative decisions employed by the majority. It makes no sense to demand, as the majority does, that judicial review of administrative decisions effectively made by non-experts who do not deliberate be deferential on the basis of administrative expertise and deliberation.

But that, of course, does not address the real question, which is whether judicial review that implicates constitutional issues should be deferential at all. If the courts do not abdicate their responsibility to ensure that administrative decision-makers comply with the constitution, then whether these decision-makers abdicate their duty by deferring to a popular vote matters rather less. Justice Rowe cannot be right that a majoritarian procedure is, in itself, anathema as soon as the Charter is concerned. Of course the Charter is supposed to protect against the tyranny of the majority ― but it does so by empowering courts to review the decisions of majoritarian institutions, whether law societies, municipal councils, or legislatures, and not by preventing such institutions from deciding matters that might affect constitutional rights.

* * *

How, then, should the courts go about reviewing administrative decisions that implicate the Charter? I will not say much about this issue, because I do not think that the Trinity Western cases tell us much. As noted above, the claims to apply the Doré/Loyola approach of upholding administrative decisions if the achieve a “reasonable” or “proportionate” balancing of statutory objectives against the infringements of Charter rights. Both the concurring judges and the dissenters want to modify this framework and make less deferential.

This sounds like an interesting debate, but I’m not sure it is worth having, because I am not sure that the majority is speaking in good faith. For one thing, as the dissent points out, the majority is not really deferring to balancing achieved by the law societies, since neither gave reasons for its decision. For another,  the majority’s insistence that “Doré and Loyola are binding precedents of this Court” [59] is laughable. I mean this literally ― I laughed out loud when I read this. Even if we pretend that most precedents of the Supreme Court are binding on it, rather than being subject to tacit evasion and quiet undermining, as they increasingly are these days, Doré and Loyola do not belong to this category. As I’ve noted here, and as the dissent also points out (at [303]), the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations)2017 SCC 54 (CanLII), [2017] 2 SCR 386 and Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General)2017 SCC 55[2017] 2 SC 456, do not follow the Doré/Loyola approach. It is perhaps worth observing that all the members of the Trinity Western majorities except Justice Moldaver were also in the majority in both of these decisions.

The issue of how the courts should review administrative applications, or implicit applications, or failures to apply, the Charter is highly consequential. It is all the more so since the Supreme Court is letting the administrative state loose, unmoored from legislative constraint and judicial supervision on administrative law grounds. But while the suggestions of the concurring and dissenting judges in this regard are worth considering, this is not the place to do so. For the purposes of understanding Trinity Western, I think it enough to say that the Doré/Loyola approach suited the majority’s rhetorical needs, and therefore was used.

* * *

From the standpoint of administrative law and of constitutional control over the administrative state, the Trinity Western cases are a catastrophe. The Supreme Court subverts the Rule of Law by giving administrative decision-makers virtually unlimited powers, unfettered by statutory restrictions, and reinforced by the hopeless vague concept of “shared values” that allow these decision-makers to impose their views on those subject to their power quite apart from any legal authorization. As I will argue next, the Trinity Western decisions are also distressing because of their evisceration of religious freedom. However, the administrative law aspect of these cases might be an even more toxic legacy, because it cannot be confined to a single constitutional right that is an unfortunate victim of the culture war. The administrative state is pervasive, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to keep it under control will make victims on all sides of that narrower, if more salient, conflict.

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 “The Supreme Court v the Rule of Law”

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