A few weeks ago in this space, I mooted the arguments that could stand against the constitutionality of the administrative state. I alluded to an argument—percolating in Canada—that the administrative state could be mandated by the Constitution. I wrote this piece in a fully hypothetical mindset. But I forgot about a case in the Federal Court, Girouard v Canadian Judicial Council, in which the Canadian Judicial Council [the CJC] essentially attempted to constitutionalize its status as a statutory administrative tribunal by making it beyond judicial review. The Federal Court thankfully rebuffed the argument.
First, the brief facts. The CJC is a statutory body that has authority to review the conduct of federally appointed superior court judges. The CJC is made up of 39 members—chief justices, associate chief justices, and other senior judges—and is chaired by Chief Justice Wagner.
When a complaint is made against a member of the judiciary, the CJC has authority to investigate. It could do so through an Inquiry Committee [IC]. According to the Judges Act, which governs the CJC, the CJC may appoint an IC consisting of its membership or members of the bar of a province having at least ten years standing (s. 63(3)). After the inquiry has been completed, the CJC will report the conclusions and make recommendations to the responsible Minister (s.65).
Two inquiries were completed in the case of Justice Girouard, a judge of the Quebec Superior Court. In 2012, Justice Girouard was caught on a video that allegedly showed him involved in a drug deal. The CJC was asked to review Justice Girouard’s conduct. The first inquiry rejected the allegations against Justice Girouard, but raised concerns about the credibility and reliability of the facts reported by Justice Girouard. The CJC accepted the conclusion of the IC. In 2016, the Minister and Minister of Justice of Quebec filed a joint CJC complaint regarding Justice Girouard’s lack of credibility during the first IC. A second IC was convened, which found that Justice Girouard was not forthcoming during the first inquiry process. The CJC accepted that conclusion in its recommendation report to the Minister. In the main judicial review, Justice Girouard challenged the IC report to the CJC and the CJC report to the Minister, among other decisions.
The case here was a motion to strike brought by the CJC, which essentially argued that the CJC was a superior court, and not a federal board, commission or tribunal subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. To the CJC, the Judges Act expressly notes that the CJC is “deemed” to be a superior court. Apart from the Judges Act, the CJC also argued that judicial independence as a constitutional principle compels the conclusion that the Federal Court has no authority to review the CJC, composed as it is of s.96 judges. The Federal Court rejected these arguments, concluding that the CJC is a statutory federal body subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. Relatedly, the Federal Court concluded that the CJC does not possess the traditional indicators of a superior court, despite the fact that its membership is drawn from the ranks of s.96 judges.
The legal arguments presented by the CJC, to my mind, are problematic on three fronts: the implication of the CJC’s argument runs into problems at the level of fundamental principle; second, on specific legal points; and third, on the context in which this decision was made.
The first issue: if we accept the CJC’s argument, we can conclude that at least some of the administrative state is constitutionalized, simply because a s.96 judge (acting non-judicially) is on the committee. This is because the CJC argues that it is superior court, unreviewable without a right of appeal, despite being a body created by Parliament. Specifically, the CJC argues that the Federal Court cannot review the CJC because it does not fall into the definition of a federal board, commission, or tribunal in the Federal Courts Act. According to the CJC, this seems to be for two reasons: (1) because, properly interpreted, the definition does not encompass s.96 courts and (2) a principle of judicial independence precludes the Federal Court from exercising review over s.96 judges.
Both arguments run into what I call the fundamental principle of all administrative law: its statutory character, open to amendment or rescission at any time by the legislature. Tomorrow, for example, Parliament could remove the Immigration and Refugee Board, because the Constitution does not require the maintenance of a body to process refugee applications. We would revert to a pre-administrative law world, in which the executive (the responsible Minister) would process humanitarian and compassionate applications, for example. Put differently, and except in defined circumstances (such as those in Vriend, where Parliament has already spoken on a matter), the Constitution does not ordinarily require a legislature to positively act, much less to establish a robust administrative state. If the CJC is not open to judicial review under the ordinary channels, its actions are insulated from review, taking on a constitutional character. In the ordinary course, we would reject this argument—both on principle and because the Supreme Court has said that Parliament cannot establish s.96 courts (Crevier).
Why does this matter? While the CJC did not expressly argue this, its argument implites that the CJC can be put beyond review. An administrative actor created by statute should never be put beyond review, new-fangled theories of “constitutional structure” and administrative law constitutionalism notwithstanding. In constitutional democracies, government power must be subject to law. This means a neutral arbiter must determine if government properly exercised power according to law–the Rule of Law, at the very least, encompasses this principle of legality. If an administrative decision-maker, no matter the rank of its members or their august titles, is put beyond review, we approach a government by executive fiat and prerogative, not a government of laws adopted lawfully.
I see this case as an extreme example of the modern trend of administrative law: towards more regulation and more administrative decision-makers that have court-imposed “unlimited” powers (see West Fraser, at para 11). Once we accept even one instance of such a decision-maker, vested by statute, we have to conclude that no court can speak ill of that “unlimited” decision-maker. Obviously this has profound effect on the Rule of Law, individual liberties, and due process. Take this case–dissenting members of the CJC were concerned that certain anglophone members of the CJC could not evaluate the entire record, which was in French. This implicates the fairness of the process for Justice Girouard. A purpose of judicial review is to ensure this basic fairness, but if we make administrative decision-makers beyond reproach, we sit them alongside the basic law of the land–the Constitution. And of course, legislative bodies acting alone cannot establish new constitutional provisions.
The only wrinkle in the Girouard case is the membership of the CJC—in part, s.96 judges. A principle of judicial independence does require some separation between the judicial branch and the other branches of government. Resting on this, the CJC argued that s.96 judges—whenever acting in any capacity—exercise powers as a member of a court of inherent jurisdiction. But the CJC is established not as a loose confederacy of s.96 judges acting in a judicial, adjudicative role, deciding individual cases and applying the law. This is the hallmark of the judicial function (see Residential Tenancies at 743). Rather, it is established as a statutory investigatory institution, vested with powers only so far as the statute allows. The CJC has no other inherent power—no constitutional power to vindicate a right with a remedy—and has no supervisory jurisdiction, other powers typical of a superior court. It is acting only as a sort of self-governing professional body for judges, according to the terms of the statute. In absence of any exercise of a judicial function, and given the statutory basis of the CJC, there’s no reason to believe that the CJC should be constitutionalized as a s.96 court simply because, in another capacity, members of the CJC exercise judicial functions–notwithstanding the specific facts of the Supreme Court’s comments in Ranville (distinguished by the Federal Court).
In fact, the implication of the converse is absurd. The CJC stands and falls as a whole–as an institution. As I note above, the CJC ICs, for which the CJC sought immunity from review, is in part made up of s.96 judges. But the ICs can also include members of the bar of 10 years standing. The CJC’s argument implies that this does not matter so long as there are s.96 judges on the IC, the IC and the CJC together exercise s.96 functions, acting as members of a court of inherent jurisdiction. This sets up an interesting set of incentives. In order to make statutory bodies immune from review, Parliament could set administrative decision-makers composed in part by s.96 judges—perhaps composed of just one s.96 judge among other lawyers. On the CJC argument, this body would be beyond review without a right of appeal. Parliament could use the Constitution to game the fundamental principle of administrative law.
The real question is whether judicial review by the Federal Court infringes the judicial independence of a s.96 judge. Judicial independence has some textual mooring (ss. 96-100 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and s.11(d) of the Charter), but it is an “unwritten constitutional principle,” which guarantees “administrative independence, financial security, and security of tenure” (Provincial Judges Reference, at para 118). The CJC says that security of tenure is at stake, as removal of a judge requires an impartial process. The Court in the Provincial Judges Reference said something similar regarding financial security, but I am not sure the same result is compelled in these circumstances. It is not as of the Federal Court is some government administrative body that could allow the executive to interfere in the workings of the CJC—thus breaking the wall that should be set up between judiciary and executive. The Federal Court is itself independent. In the ordinary course, again, constitutional principles do not compel a particular legislative process or system. It simply requires a reality; that judges and executive/legislatures be separate.
Finer legal points also work against the CJC (though I note the CJC’s very sophisticated statutory analysis-see the factum below). The CJC argued that it is not subject to review in the Federal Court because the Federal Courts Act expressly excludes s.96 judges—and the power of the CJC is rooted not in a federal law (the Judges Act) but in a constitutional principle. The CJC says that if the Judges Act were removed tomorrow, the authority of the judiciary to investigate other judiciary members would remain. Again, on this I recoil instinctively. The CJC makes decisions as an institution—this the CJC recognizes. That institution, separate from its individual members, is created by statute. The Judges Act is one statutory manifestation that implements the principle of judicial independence, but is not the only one and perhaps not even the best one.
The CJC also points to s.63 of the Judges Act, which says that the CJC is deemed to be a “superior court.” In written argument, the CJC spends a lot of time discussing this deeming provision. I’m alive to the idea in statutory interpretation that a deeming provision creates a virtually irrebuttable legal fiction, but an unconstitutional statutory provision (deeming or no) cannot stand. An attempt by Parliament, through a deeming provision, to establish a s.96 court runs into constitutional problems on federalism grounds and on the Crevier grounds noted above. Even if this was not so, the particular deeming provision in this case is similar to ones that exist in other statutes. For example, the Canadian Transportation Agency similarly has “…all the powers, rights and privileges that are vested in a superior court” (Canadian Transportation Act, s.25). Yet no one argues that this provision alone grants the Canadian Transportation Agency the power to act as a superior court beyond powers pertaining to the procedures of the Court.
Finally, the context of the decision indicates that the CJC is aware of its statutory character. As noted by Paul Warchuk, the CJC tried once—the right way—to amend the Judges Act to make itself immune from review. A few years ago, the Minister of Justice sought recommendations on how to amend the Judges Act. The CJC recommended at that time that it be put beyond the ordinary judicial review procedure, subject only to an appeal to a statutory appeal body.
The CJC failed in these efforts, which basically mirror its submissions in Girouard. But implicit in this attempt is a recognition by the CJC that it is a statutory body subject to review by the Federal Courts system like any other federal body. After all, Federal Court judges are superior court judges (see s.4 of the Federal Courts Act, which establishes the Federal Court as a “superior court of record”). I’m not sure what changed between this recognition of its status and the Girouard case.
Overall, while counsel for the CJC argued the best case it could and ably so (whatever my opinion is worth), I’m less inclined to support the argument because of its implication: a further extension of the administrative state into unknown terrain. The coup failed this time, but as I’ve written elsewhere, the administrative state is a fickle bedfellow.
NB: To be fair, I’ve attached the CJC’s submissions below. Thanks to Alyssa Tomkins, counsel for the CJC, for sending them over.