Citizens and Judicial Independence

A lawyer’s attempt to spy on a judge is a threat to judicial independence

This is a joint post with Mark Mancini

The goings-on in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench seldom make for front-page news. This time is different though, as that Court’s Chief Justice, Glenn Joyal, has revealed that he has been followed and his house visited by a private investigator, and lawyers for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) have admitted that they are the ones who hired the investigator (though the Board of the JCCF has disclaimed any knowledge or responsibility for the incident). The JCCF is representing people challenging pandemic-related restrictions on religious worship and apparently thought that it would be a brilliant idea to find out whether Chief Justice Joyal, and seemingly other public figures too, complied with these orders.

This has elicited prompt and entirely proper condemnation. It is, of course, “astonishingly inappropriate” for lawyers to be gathering dirt on judges in their cases, with―presumably―the intent to embarrass them at the “right” moment, should the opportunity arise. If a lawyer is concerned about a judge’s impartiality, he or she needs to raise this with the judge, instead of proceeding in this underhanded fashion. But we want to make a further point here. This situation reminds us of the limited but still meaningful ways in which judicial independence imposes obligations on citizens, as well as on government officials—apart from and in addition to any obligations imposed on lawyers as officers of the court.

Generally speaking, we think of judicial independence as a constraint on what are (especially in the United States) sometimes called the “political branches” of government, i.e. the legislature and the executive. They are required by explicit constitutional provisions or implicit but enforceable constitutional principles to respect the judges’ security of tenure, financial security, and administrative independence. Private citizens cannot meaningfully threaten these incidents of judicial office, which makes it easy to think that judicial independence does not concern them.

Parliamentary rules and constitutional convention also strictly limit the ability of Members of Parliament and Ministers to criticize judges. This serves to avoid creating unconstitutional pressure or, perhaps more likely, the appearance of such pressure on the courts. Here, the position of ordinary citizens is radically different. They must be free to criticize individual judges and the courts as a whole. Judges and courts exercise the public power over citizens; the state’s armed force is wielded at their behest; the power of legislatures and thus the citizens is limited by their pronouncements. Their decisions, no less than the decisions of those who write the laws they apply, must be subject to public scrutiny. For this reason, arguments to the effect that citizens (or specifically the media) must respect judicial independence are sometimes little more than cover for disturbing attempts to silence legitimate criticism of the judiciary.

That said, there is indeed a way in which even private citizens ought to respect judicial independence. This obligation is so narrow that it is seldom worth discussing, but the JCCF’s shenanigans bring it to the fore. As with other fundamental constitutional principles, although the main responsibility for upholding and fostering them rests with officials, citizens should avoid undermining judicial independence, just as they should avoid undermining democracy (say, by making false allegations of electoral fraud) or the Rule of Law (say, by condoning private violence).

The most obvious way in which citizens can undermine judicial independence is by engaging in intimidation intended to make judges decide cases otherwise than in accordance with the judges’ honest understanding of the facts and the law. Indeed, the reason why political actors are so constrained in their ability to criticize the judiciary is precisely that their doing so risks being perceived as intimidatory even if it is meant as respectful disagreement. This is not normally true of private citizens or even the media. But there are exceptions. One of us (Sirota) has written here about some instances of extreme criticism of judges by UK media in the wake of Brexit. As that post suggested, that looked like an attempt to intimidate the courts into ruling in accordance with perceived popular will rather than the law.

The JCCF’s “investigation” of Chief Justice Joyal appears to have been a similar attempt at intimidation, intended to influence a judge’s decision (or at least his decision as to whether or not to recuse himself from a case). It may be worth noting that if, say, the media learn that a judge has been breaking the law―especially if this happens to be a law that the judge in question found to serve some important public purpose―they would surely be justified in reporting on it. But this would be very different matter from what the JCCF seems to have attempted. It is one thing to say that public power has been exercised hypocritically; it is quite another to attempt to direct the exercise of public power toward irrelevant considerations, such as potential embarrassment.

In short, the JCCF broke even the narrow obligations that ordinary citizens owe to the independence of the judiciary. This is apart from and in addition to a possible breach of the distinct, and more onerous, obligations that lawyers to the courts before which they practise. (We express no view on the JCCF lawyers’ actions from that perspective.) The JCCF’s conduct is reprehensible. While it may be tempting to write the situation off as the initiative of one person, it illustrates a deeper willingness of some—even legal professionals—to run roughshod over constitutional principles in service of their own legal or partisan goals. Whatever “advantage” the JCCF thinks it may have attained from its inappropriate investigation is clearly outweighed by the pound of flesh taken from the integrity of the legal system. Over time, these situations open the door to more enterprising litigants and private citizens who seek to maximize their chances of “winning,” however they describe it. The result is the continual erosion of cherished constitutional principles like judicial independence.

The widespread condemnation that has followed was thus reassuring―and we hope that it was the result of a widespread commitment to the principles at stake, and not only of the fact that the JCCF is known for defending views at odds with those of much of the legal profession. Some principles are so fundamental that they must be defended from ideological friend and foe alike.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

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