Judicial Supremacy Defrocked

Justice Abella’s recent speech should remind us that courts are fallible.

In a recent speech reprinted in the Globe and Mail, Justice Abella of the Supreme Court again offered a robust defense of the judicial role and the profoundly benevolent impact of the Supreme Court in Canadian constitutional history:

Integration based on difference, equality based on inclusion despite difference and compassion based on respect and fairness: These are the principles that now form the moral core of Canadian national values…the values that make our national justice context democratically vibrant and principled…[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court.

She goes further:

A Supreme Court must be independent because it is the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph. In a polarized society, it is especially crucial to have an institution whose only mandate is to protect the rule of law.

On one hand, it is good to see that Justice Abella no longer finds the Rule of Law annoying. But on the other hand, her comments should give us pause. She presents a vision of a Supreme Court that decides what Canadian values are, and then imposes them on the society generally. We should first call this for what it is: judicial supremacy, in which rights are not recognized as much as they are created out of whole cloth at the discretion of the Supreme Court. Abella J seems to accept this in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, where she “gives benediction” to a right to strike. “Benediction” is defined as “the utterance or bestowing of a blessing, especially at the end of a religious service.” True to form, the Supreme Court is the high priest, bestowing us with rights as only a supreme institution can.

Glibness aside,  I do not mean to use the term “judicial supremacy” in a bombastic way, but rather in a technical legal sense. I mean it in the sense that Justice Abella clearly views the role of the Supreme Court as having the last word on constitutional matters. But her view goes even further: she thinks that the Supreme Court is a freestanding arbiter that is institutionally capable of rending final judgments on contests between values for the society on the whole.

I’m not sure this is normatively justifiable or whether it’s even a structural or textual feature of the Canadian Constitution. The legislature still has an important role to play in vetting laws for their constitutionality and making important value judgments that may impact constitutional rights—in most cases, the legislatures are probably better at this than courts. But this is a bigger fish to fry. Assuming for my purposes that Justice Abella’s description of what courts do and should do is accurate, maybe this state of affairs could be justifiable on the basis that courts are comparatively better at making the sorts of value judgments that arise in constitutional matters. If Justice Abella’s framing is true, so the argument goes, the essence of constitutional adjudication is value judgment; courts adjudicate constitutions, and therefore courts, over time, will be expert in value judgments.

But no one has ever presented evidence that this is empirically true, and I am not sure anyone ever could. Justice Abella herself recognized this in Doré, when she developed a doctrine of deference premised on the concept that courts are worse at constitutional decision-making than administrative decision-makers. In fact, courts are not institutionally suited to balance the sort of polycentric considerations that go into difficult and resource-laden value judgments. And judges are trained in the law, which on many modern accounts, is not even the purpose of law school. There are good reasons to doubt the ability of the courts to even begin to understand the weight of the task at hand.

If we are to have judicial supremacy, and judicial supremacy is fundamentally about final value judgments, I am not sure why we solely appoint legal practitioners to the Supreme Court. I only half-joke when I say that we could populate the court with people trained in the different perspectives through which value judgments could and should be made. Economic reasoning, for example, could be extremely helpful here. As Lon Fuller said, there is a point at which we could trade-off certain values in favour of others. We should attempt to develop theories by which we can anticipate and calculate the costs of adopting one right over another; or the reliance interests associated with this precedent over that one. What’s more, philosophy could be helpful. Moral and normative reasoning about how people should live is clearly within the interest of Justice Abella when she judges cases.

I think that the Justice Abellas of the world who argue that law is simply about “balancing values” are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, if they make that argument, they should accept that law has no claim to empire over adjudication. Adjudication is not what is taught in training for lawyers; and there are people who are better qualified to assess the different tradeoffs of values and the practical impact those changes have. But if they reject this proposition, then they must accept that there is a locus of “law” somewhere to be found in adjudication. It follows that we should train lawyers and judges to first, do no harm; determine the meaning of constitutional terms according to objective standards.  Values may be instantiated in the law, but one must first interpret that law to determine those values. It shouldn’t be the case that judges enter legal inquiries with an idea of the values they seek to advance.

The task of judging was supposed to be defined by “passive virtues,” with courts possessing neither force, nor will—only judgment (The Federalist, No. 81). Justice Abella evidently believes in a vision of courts that are not only supreme but confidently so. Judgment has turned into arrogant finality that decides not only the narrow constitutional issue before the court, but the larger value judgment which is settled for all time.  There is no democratic recourse to the ever-expanding domain of constitutional empire if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole.  If courts are going to do this—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

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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