Quis Custodiet?

If judges are the guardians of our constitutional values, they need to be guarded too, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s example shows

There has been no shortage of panegyrics on the occasion of Beverley McLachlin’s retirement. Richard Albert‘s is particularly interesting to me, though, because it is largely based on the former Chief Justice’s extra-judicial output, mostly speeches, and I once toyed with the idea of writing a piece based on such materials myself. (Disclosure: Professor Albert and I are working on an edited collection project together.) Indeed, I have critiqued individual speeches that Chief Justice McLachlin has given on a couple of occasions (here and here).

These explanations of how the former Chief Justice saw her role are significant ― if not always informative, as I will also suggest below ― yet bound to attract less interest, and less critical attention, than her judgments. Professor Albert’s paper is thus a useful contribution to our understanding of the former Chief Justice ― even if we dissent from its tone and disagree with its assessment of its subject, as I do. This is all the more so since the papers on which Professor Albert draws are not as easily accessible as one might wish. The Supreme Court’s website offers only a selection of the former Chief Justice’s speeches (which includes neither of those I have commented on, for instance), and virtually nothing from any for her colleagues, or even her successor.

According to Professor Albert, the former Chief Justice has been a towering figure in early 21st-century Canada. Prime Ministers and Governors General came and went, but the Chief Justice remained, rising almost to the stature “of Conscience-in-Chief
that Americans have sometimes seen fulfilled by their presidents”. (7) You might think it’s a bit too much for a person who writes thrillers, not treatises, in her spare time, but Professor Albert is unrelenting in his praise:

Chief Justice McLachlin … has made Canada a better, fairer and more equal place, and our Constitution the envy of the world. She leaves an equally important legacy as an expositor and guardian of our constitutional values. (1)

As mentioned above, Professor Albert draws on the for Chief Justice’s extra-judicial pronouncements to make his case. In my view, however, the light he shines on her exposes a rather unflattering image.

The earliest speech Professor Albert describes concerned “The Role of Judges in Modern Society“. It is part of that role, the former Chief Justice said, to “be sensitive to a broad range of social concerns” and to “be in touch with the society in which [judges] work, understanding its values and its tensions” ― while at the same time “attain[ing] a level of detachment” from their personal views “which enables [them] to make decisions which are in the broader interests of society”. In another speech discussed by Professor Albert, this one on “Defining Moments: The Canadian Constitution“, Chief Justice McLachlin added that “as a nation’s values and expectations change over time, so its constitution is applied in a way that reflects those changes”.

The idea that judges must maintain a connection of some kind to “their” society is, of course, reminiscent of the discussion of the role of “social values” in l’Affaire Nadon, a.k.a.  Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 ― delivered just five weeks after the “Defining Moments” speech. In his article “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”, Peter McCormick suggested that Chief Justice McLachlin likely wrote the majority opinion in that reference, and thanks to Professor Albert’s investigation of her extra-judicial pronouncements we arguably have additional evidence in support of this suggestion. What we lack, either in l’Affaire Nadon or in the “Defining Moments” speech, is an explanation of the mechanisms by which judges are to maintain sensitivity to social concerns or understand social values, let alone make decisions in the broader interests of society.

This is impotant. Never mind the normative question of whether deciding in the broader interests of society is in fact the judges’ job. (It’s not.) Ought implies can, and the suggestion that the judges can do these things is implausible and betrays an arrogance that is quite incompatible with maintaining “an attitude of ‘active humility'” for which Chief Justice McLachlin also called in the same speech. The matter of the “social values” that Québec judges on the Supreme Court of Canada purportedly channel is illustrative. The joint dissent by Justices Lebel, Wagner, and Gascon in the gun registry litigation, Quebec (Attorney General) v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, referred to an alleged consensus in Québec in favour of the (now-defunct) long-gun registry ― yet as I noted here, polls showed that this consensus only existed among the media and political elite, but not among the general population.

Judicial inability to channel social values not only calls into question particular opinions, such as the majority in l’Affaire Nadon or the gun registry dissent, but undermines the foundations of the Supreme Court’s professed (though not always followed) approach to interpreting the constitution. Professor Albert, referring to the former Chief Justice’s insistence that the Canadian constitution is “applied in a way that reflects … changes” in social values, writes that

[t]his raises a telling contrast with the United States, whose revolutionary traditions have invited dramatic reorientations in law and society. Our evolutionary model would certainly not embrace Thomas Jefferson’s famous suggestion that each American generation should discard the existing constitution, break legal continuity with the prior regime, and author its own new constitution according to the values of the time. (12)

This may be true at a wholesale level ― though of course the Americans have been no more keen on Jefferson’s suggestion for constitutional replacement than Canadians, which suggests that we are not all that different from one another. But of course the idea that the constitution can be applied ― by judges ― to reflect social change even in the absence of actual amendment amounts to a discarding of constitutional provisions in detail. Legal continuity is not shattered all at once, but weakened hairline fracture by hairline fracture, one constitutional benediction at a time.

Professor Albert asks “by what means are judges to determine how and when the country’s values have changed or are in a period of evolution from old to new?” Yet having dismissed constitutional amendment as a guide due to its difficulty, he simply accepts that “[j]udges … must themselves drive the evolution of the Constitution”. (13) Professor Albert suggests that the former Chief Justice thought so too; for her “judges must be guided by society but not directed by it”. (13) Indeed, it is the judges who must help direct society towards greater justice ― and specifically towards the “just society” promised by Pierre Trudeau. Professor Albert notes that Chief Justice McLachlin referred to this slogan in a speech she gave in 2007. She returned to the subject in 2016 (both speeches, coincidentally or not, were given to the same audience, the Empire Club of Canada; I suppose they are big fans of Pierre Trudeau there). Commenting on the latter speech, I wrote that it is “quite inappropriate for a judge to take up what was, for better or for worse, a partisan slogan and try to make it into a constitutional ideal”. I worried that this gave “grist for the mill of those who already think that the Charter, and the courts that enforce it, are essentially Liberal self-entrenchment devices.” My views on this haven’t changed, and my worries are only strengthened now that I realize that theme was not a one-off.

Another theme that Professor Albert highlights is the former Chief Justice’s professed commitment to “diversity” ” in speech, thought, origin and orientation, to name a few” (18-19). In another speech Professor Albert quotes, Chief Justice McLachlin insisted that her Court “focused not on ‘seek[ing] to erase difference, nor [sought] to impose conformity’ but to make it possible for ‘each group … to maintain its distinctions'”. (21) I’m afraid that Chief Justice McLachlin’s belief in diversity of thought and in allowing groups to maintain their distinctions will be news, and not very credible news at that, to Trinity Western University, whose law school the former Chief Justice voted to allow law societies to can, lest accrediting it be seen as a stamp of approval for Trinity Western’s (discriminatory) beliefs. But then, extra-judicially saying one thing and judicially doing another one was something of a theme for the person who joined an opinion disparaging “the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution” only months before jetting off to New Zealand to deliver a noted lecture encouraging judges to invalidate legislation for inconsistency with such principles, declared for the occasion to be tantamount to natural law. And in yet another lecture to which Professor Albert refers, Chief Justice McLachlin stressed that “the law … requires lawyers to take unpopular stands, judges to make unpopular decisions”. (20) Yet for all that she was willing to take on the Prime Minister when occasion called for it, how willing was the former Chief Justice to take a stand that would have been truly unpopular among the bien-pensant intelligentsia? Her change of heart on hate speech criminalisation ― which she opposed early in her career, but eventually accepted ―, and of course her opinion in Trinity Western, are not exactly evidence in her favour here.

Professor Albert has, it will be obvious, a very high opinion of Chief Justice McLachlin. He writes that “the key ingredient … to the success of Canada’s modern Constitution—and the reason why it is so admired abroad—has been how the Supreme Court has interpreted, elaborated and defended it”. (23) To my mind, though, his paper illustrates and explains not so much the successes as the failures of the Supreme Court and of its departing Chief: their rashness in choosing to deal in values rather than in law alone; their arrogance in disregarding legal constraints; their lack of principle and courage. If this is what other countries admire, let them. Canada deserves better.

If, like Professor Albert, I believed that judges can serve as the guardians of our constitutional values, I would not hold up Chief Justice McLachlin as the epitome of that role. But, for my part, I think we ought to heed Learned Hand’s famous warning:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.

The successes, and even the failures, of individual judges in the defence of our constitutional values are, ultimately, less significant than our own. It is our job to uphold these values, including against our public officials ― even the Chief Justice of Canada.

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.

One thought on “Quis Custodiet?”

  1. As a lawyer toiling away downtown in firm so so and so…I agree with you on the notion of judicial activism. Justice Cromwell would have made a fine CJ.

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