Our Pythic Judges: SNC-Lavalin

In Ancient Greece, travelers from far and wide descended upon the Oracle at Delphi. Known collectively as the Pythia, these priestesses or women of Delphi, over generations, provided advice and counsel to anyone wishing to seek it. The Pythia were thought to channel the god Apollo. As the mythology of the Pythia grew, with kings and leaders of armies seeking counsel, no major decision was made before consulting the Pythia. 

We seem to be in a Pythic reality in Canada these days. All in the last month, we have been told that former Chief Justice McLachlin would investigate impropriety in the British Columbia legislature; that former Chief Justice McLachlin was also considered as a potential font of advice for Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s ne’er-do-well former Principal Secretary in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal; and that former judges of the Supreme Court of Canada Justice Cromwell and Iacobucci were involved in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin case, representing former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin, respectively.

This state of affairs attracted considerable commentary on Twitter, and I truly think it is a live question that should be debated in the Canadian legal community: what expectations should we have for retired Supreme Court judges (or judges generally)  in Canada?

One can think of two issues that this question invites: the ethical question and the democratic question. First, consider the ethics of the situation. No one denies that judges should be able, like all people, to have a productive and fulfilling post-retirement life. That could include work. After all, these judges have considerable talents that could be brought to bear in any number of situations. Work as a commercial arbitrator, counsel to a law firm—the opportunities are potentially endless.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate question whether judges should be doing certain kinds of work post-retirement. Judicial independence is not only about actual independence but the perception of independence. Though retired, it is certainly possible that a member of the public, objectively and reasonably looking at a particular former judge, could conclude that there is an independence problem if a former judge is using his or her talents in a way that impacts the perception of impartiality. There is at least an implicit recognition of this principle in the generous pensions we provide for those who have served Canada on the bench.

These principles are reflected in the scheme for mandatory retirement. The upshot of Canada’s mandatory age of retirement for judges is that, eventually, judges have to retire, even if they are not ready. In the United States, there is no mandatory retirement age such that judges—most recently Justice Antonin Scalia—sometime pass away while on the bench. There are benefits and drawbacks to the American approach. On one hand, when judges leave the United States Supreme Court, they are probably ready to truly retire, and there is less of a concern about independence. On the other hand, the Canadian approach “cycles” judges in and out of the system, and one might reasonably think that this cycling is for the better.

It’s hard to resolve this question, but I think it is probably best to err on the side of protecting the integrity of the judicial office. The role of the judiciary is too important in modern day Canada—perhaps more important than it should be, mind you—to risk even a perception of partiality. This does not mean that judges should be barred from work, far from it. It simply means we desperately need rules to govern the situation.

My larger concern is with the democratic side of the equation, and this is where modern-day retired judges seem to resemble the Pythia. I think it is unwise for questions about the law within the political branches to be referred to retired judges as if they are some standing committee to  resolve legal disputes in the abstract. This is not the role of the courts in the first place: courts require concrete facts connected to legal causes of action that are ripe for adjudication before they can weigh in. It should most certainly not be the role of retired judges, however eminent.

The effect of making a retired judge like former Chief Justice McLachlin or otherwise “an eminent Canadian jurist or panel of jurists” a first port of call in a case like SNC-Lavalin has corrosive pragmatic and legal effects. Consider the legal effect, first. Gerald Butts mentioned that the former Chief Justice was a potential option for advice, because of the fact that the law governing remediation agreements was new.  The goal was to consult the Pythic judges before the Attorney General would make a decision on SNC-Lavalin. This tendency—to punt the result to some advisory panel—erodes the role that the political branches of government should play in the interpretation and application of law, especially where the law is new. Novelty is no reason to punt the task of law-elaboration within the executive branch. Even if an advisory panel of retired judges was a legitimate idea—and it is not—questions like the ones posed in SNC-Lavalin are not easily amenable to judicial scrutiny. In this realm, the political branches of government should wear the responsibility and burden of making important decisions.

This is connected to the ultimate pragmatic effect of permitting this advisory practice to go unabated. As we know, Ministers of the Crown are politically accountable (or answerable, in other contexts) in the House of Commons for their actions. This concept of responsible government has the effect of providing a focal point for political accountability. But if a Minister, facing political heat, seeks to essentially delegate the power of making a tough decision to a retired judge, that delegation deflects democratic responsibility. Should other politicians disagree with whatever decision the judge renders and then the Minister adopts, the Minister can simply say that she followed the recommendation of the eminent retired judge. It is unlikely that those in the general public will wish to question the opinion of such an esteemed person, asked by the Minister to consider the situation and provide an answer. So, we have a diversion of political accountability, with a politically irresponsible judge essentially making tough decisions for a Minister. The incentive effect will be more of this advisory work sought by governments seeking to duck the hard decisions.

In a modern democracy, there is no Pythia to which we should appeal. Judges serve a defined and circumscribed role, and retired judges an even more circumscribed role. I do not think it is a best practice, except in certain situations, to ask judges to resolve politically difficult issues simply because the law on the issue is unsettled.

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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