SCC Skepticism

In a recent piece in Maclean’s, Adam Goldenberg explains why the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) does not suffer from the same partisan interest the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) does. He lists three main reasons: (1) the nature of partisanship in the US; (2) the American conservative movement’s incubator for legal talent; and (3) American political parties galvanizing support on the strength of controversial court rulings. I accept all of these reasons and invite those interested to read Goldenberg’s piece.

But one more should be added, without which the story is incomplete: American citizens know where law is made.  They realize (even without knowing the legalities) that winning a constitutional debate in court wins the democratic debate for all time.  The matter is put beyond the reach of the regular democratic process. Canadians should be more critical of this reality in our own country.

Two forces have led us to this point. The first is both Canada and the US courts do not shy away from deciding controversial issues. In Canada, Bedford and Carter dealt with prostitution and assisted dying, respectively. In the United States, Obergefell dealt with same sex marriage. The fact that courts often delve into these issues (or, as defenders of the courts would say, are forced into these issues by the nature of an entrenched bill of rights) makes them a lightning rod for political attention.

At the same time, opinion polls in the United States show that Americans have record low confidence in their political institutions, and Canadians are no different. Confidence in government is at all-time lows. We see this in the context of Aboriginal law, where Aboriginal groups have moved to the courts as the primary vehicle by which they can vindicate their rights. One can surmise that they have done so because of the historical ineptitude of the Government of Canada.

These forces together understandably cause citizens to make a choice. Recalcitrant politicians and a lack of confidence in institutions? The slog of convincing one’s fellow citizens? Or, a sweeping court declaration which forces legislatures to respond?

In the US, citizens largely made the latter choice to resolve their plights. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in Planned Parenthood v Casey that the SCOTUS, rather than legislatures, were increasingly subject to intense political pressure by both sides of hot-button issues—in that case, abortion. The letters, comments, and protestors directed to the SCOTUS, not the legislatures, was an odd sight to Justice Scalia, who viewed the development skeptically. To Justice Scalia’s mind, because the American people “are not fools,” they recognized that the SCOTUS had become the leading institution where these value-laden issues were decided.

While Goldenberg notes that much of this political attention focuses on what the original meaning of the US Bill of Rights means in modern America, I think this overstates the case. The political attention is just that, naked politics, not shrouded in any legality. Many people want the court to achieve their explicitly political ends.  As for originalism, originalists have not held a majority of the US Supreme Court, at least in the last twenty years. Justice Scalia himself was known as a fiery dissenter. For example, under the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), the SCOTUS developed a profoundly non-originalist test—the so-called “evolving standards of decency” approach. While Justice Kagan’s point that we are all originalists now may be true, it is not true that originalism has been a wholly successful legal project in the United States.

No matter what one thinks of originalism, it provides a limiting principle on otherwise free doctrinal reign. But because it has not been embraced consistently in the US, and no other real principle has come forward, the political parties have latched on to the SCOTUS nomination process as a means to vindicate their particular versions of the good. Since the Bork confirmation hearings, both parties in the US have used the process because they know its consequences. They know that getting the “right” people on the Court will do far more to change laws than simply electing people to the legislature. We see this sort of discussion now with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the ludicrous proposal of “court-packing” to block a Republican nomination.

The Americans have gone too far, and Goldenberg rightly decries this development. But one has to ask whether it is all that bad given the stakes. People understandably want a say in the laws that govern them. If the SCOTUS takes a bigger piece of the pie of the law-making process, then citizens should have the right and the responsibility to campaign on “the court” as an issue.

In reality, Canada’s SCC is just as central in the Canadian polity as the SCOTUS is in the American. Despite the Court’s recent ruling in Comeau, the test to revisit previous precedents is fairly relaxed, and so litigants understandably invite the SCC to do so. This approach invites members of the Court to decide when, according to them, a particular precedent no longer jibes with modern times.  Whatever the strength of the Court’s stated commitment to living constitutionalism, it generally supports its “ideological sex appeal,”   viewing its role as deciding what is best for Canadian society. As Leonid pointed out in a previous post, the SCC has an ideology, but it is probably not evident to most.

A good example is the SCC’s opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. There, the SCC majority spoke of giving “benediction” to the right to strike. The full quote by the SCC majority is instructive: “[T]he right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right. It seems to me to be the time to give this conclusion constitutional benediction” [3]. In this example, it was the SCC that decided that now, rather than some past time, was the right time to expand a constitutional right, forever removing it from the realm of democratic debate. This is a political conclusion at heart, more an assessment of what modern times demand rather than what the law does.

And so, it is understandable that political groups should want to have a role in moving the Dworkinian Hercules. But as Goldenberg points out, Canadians have not latched on to these developments as a political matter. In fact, many of the criticisms I’ve advanced to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour case are common in the US, but less common in Canada. Canadians seem to be  sluggish in response to these tendencies in our own SCC. I can’t speak to why this is; but perhaps it is true to say, as the National Post did, that Canadians are simply “different” than Americans—more trusting of government institutions.

In light of the stakes, Canadians could learn from Americans in taking an active, critical interest in what the SCC does. While I do not advocate a full-blown American approach to judicial nominations, there are various ways Canadians should respond to this phenomenon. Justice Scalia’s prescription was a rigorous application of original meaning originalism, which he thought was the antidote to the excesses of living constitutionalism. I am partial to this approach, but I need not argue this point to make the following assertion: Canadians should first fully reckon with what the SCC is actually doing, whether one thinks its good or bad. If the SCC makes law, as so many legal realists believe, we should hold them to the same standards we hold legislatures. We should, in short,  become Supreme Court skeptics, rather than fawning admirers of our nation’s highest jurists.

This is a distinctly second-order response to the issue, but the most realistic one in the intellectual and legal climate in which we find ourselves.  Canadian academics certainly engage vigorously with SCC decisions, but the extent to which this filters into the larger society (or the extent to which it is representative of all potential critiques) is an open question. We should be concerned with fostering a healthy skepticism of the SCC, similar to the skepticism we hold for legislatures.

This means fostering an open climate of academic, cultural, and political discussion about the SCC, and viewing judges as humans, rather than celebrities—no more capable of coming to conclusions about the nature of human rights than any Joe or Jane Six-Pack. This is a more radical proposition than one might think; consider Leonid’s comments in his recent post about New Zealand’s anti-court criticism bill.

This could also involve a more open nomination process. I saw nothing particularly wrong with the selection process of Justice Marshall Rothstein. His “confirmation” hearings, while in reality non-binding, at least gave those interested a look into the mind of a man who would serve on the SCC. We can have these hearings without devolving into an American three-act-play, or a challenge to the independence of the institution. The fact that Justice Rothstein’s hearing was a model of decorum is an example of this working well.

Goldenberg’s piece underlines the problems with the American approach, but I think it paints far too rosy a picture of our courts.  The Americans understand the consequences of their system and are taking part in it. Canadians, as Goldenberg seems to admit, do not. This is not a fact of which we should be proud.

 

 

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law, and a current LL.M. student at the University of Chicago Law School. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics, particularly remedies law viewed from an economic perspective. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and mine alone.

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