The Supreme Court―What Is It Good for?

The Supreme Court is deciding fewer cases; is this a sign of modesty, or boldness?

I’d like to come back to a recent post of Mark’s, the one on the Supreme Court seemingly granting leave to appeal in and hearing ever fewer cases. As Mark notes, “[o]n first blush, the grant of fewer leaves is inconsistent with the role the Supreme Court has given itself over time” ― that of a national institution charged with developing the law, and not merely with correcting the errors that occur in the lower courts. Indeed the idea that the Supreme Court’s role is to develop the law follows logically from the requirement that decide whether to grant leave in a case according to whether it presents questions of “public importance” or “the importance of any issue of law or any issue of mixed law and fact involved”. And this requirement is laid down not by the Court but by Parliament, in s 40(1) of the Supreme Court Act. It might even be an essential characteristic of the Supreme Court and thus a constitutional requirement according to Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433. Who knows.

Be that as it may, Mark argues that, whether or not it is a dereliction of duty, the Supreme Court’s choice to butt out and let the provincial and federal courts of appeal develop the law isn’t all bad:

 There is nothing special in the Supreme Court’s decision-making process that makes it any better suited to decide legal questions—apart from the fact that it provides a final resolution. The finality question is important, but we should not kid ourselves: the law can and does settle without the help of the Supreme Court. This suggests that, perhaps, the question is not whether more or fewer leaves are granted. Rather, the question may be whether the Supreme Court is granting leaves to the right cases. (Paragraph break removed)

I have a somewhat different view on this. For one thing, there is at least some reason to think that the Supreme Court’s decision-making process is in fact more suited to the development of the law. For another, and more importantly, the Supreme Court’s choice to take fewer cases is not exactly innocent.

On the process side, the reason panels expand, while the number of cases courts and individual judges hear shrinks, as one goes up the curial hierarchy is that we expect that more judges devoting more time to any one case are more likely to get it right. In particular, the Supreme Court’s nine-judge bench is sure to be more diverse ― geographically, on a number of demographic dimensions, and ideally intellectually too ― than a three- or even five-judge panel of a court of appeal. To be sure, there can be costs associated with larger panels, especially when they try to conjure up unanimous judgments that need to paper over substantial disagreements. But, at least in the long run, this logic seems sound.

The Supreme Court also benefits, if that’s the word, from inputs into its decision-making that should, in theory, improve it. There are more interveners at that level (including Attorneys General from provinces other than the one whence a case originated), more clerks, and more academics writing about cases before the Court. Perhaps some or all of these do more harm than good. (See, for example, Justice Stratas’ skepticism about interventions in Canada (Attorney General) v. Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164.) But, to the extent that any do some good, they underscore the benefits of the Supreme Court’s decision-making. Again, the effects, if there are any, only appear in the long run. There are tons of great decisions made by courts of appeal, as Mark notes, and far too many bad ones made by the Supreme Court. But the latter does seem to have an institutional advantage.

More importantly though, I think that the Supreme Court does not grant leave in fewer cases out of some sort of modesty. The issue isn’t whether Court sees itself as having an important role in developing the law ― it certainly does ―, but how it chooses to play this role. Crudely, there are two possibilities: on the one hand, a court might develop the law incrementally by deciding many cases; on the other, it might decide only a few cases, but make significant changes to the law in every one. Of course, this is something of a caricature: how much a case develops the law is a matter of degree, a point on a spectrum. And even the same court might not take the same approach in every case. But you get the idea. Mark writes that “[i[f the Court is granting fewer leaves, it is deciding fewer cases that could ‘settle the law’ in areas that require it”. But deciding many cases isn’t the only way to settle the law.

Now it might seem that the two approaches ― many incremental cases or few big ones ― amount to much the same thing, in the long run: 10 cases developing the law by one unit each, the next always building on the last, or one case jumping ahead by 10 units end up in the same place. One might even think that the few-big-cases approach is preferable insofar as it saves some litigants the expense of ending up at the Supreme Court. It might also enable the Supreme Court to maximize the institutional advantages I have described above. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 is an illustration: it attracted all manner of attention from interveners and academics, and the Supreme Court itself appointed amici curiae to assist it.

Despite this, I think that we should be wary of the few-big-cases approach. It sits uneasily with the judicial role ― even the role of a court mandated to develop the law, and not only to do justice between parties in individual cases. Even when developing the law, a court still does so in the process of deciding cases, in response to the gaps or defects revealed by the disputes before it. It can properly seek to fill the gaps or remedy the defects, but it does not hold a roving commission to reform the law on a grand scale. Again, there are degrees of this, and the line between what is and what is not appropriate is blurry. But it should be apparent that, taken to the extreme, the view that a court can reform large areas of the law at once makes its role indistinguishable from that of a legislature.

There is, perhaps, an additional point. The self-perception of a court may matter: does it see itself as primarily engaged in adjudication or in law reform? This is related to but not quite the same as the vexing question of whether courts make or find law. (I discuss an example of the Supreme Court’s puzzlement at this here.) While a court that thinks of the common law as the product of judicial legislation might be inclined to be less modest than one that thinks of it as the product of judicial discovery, it need not necessarily be so; it might see itself as only properly legislating “in the gaps”. Conversely, a court may not be modest despite claiming not to be making law. The Dworkinian conception of judging is like that ― it is not at all modest, despite ostensibly disclaiming judicial law-making. In any case, the court’s self-understanding may shape its decision-making, at least in subtle ways.

And it is easy to point to decisions of the Supreme Court reflect a legislative, ambitious view of its role. Vavilov is one, of course, and very visibly so. Mark compares it to “an academic essay”, but it is at least as much of a legislative act, albeit one less crisp, though more fully reasoned, than a statute. The majority opinion does not even get to the dispute before the court until Part V, paragraph 146. But Vavilov is only an extreme, not the only example. R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52, [2014] 2 SCR 544, where the Court reformed the law on the admissibility of “Mr. Big” confessions, is a favourite of mine. Justice Moldaver, for the majority, explained that he

propose[d] a solution that … strikes the best balance between guarding against the dangers posed by Mr. Big operations, while ensuring the police have the tools they need to investigate serious crime.  This solution involves a two-pronged approach that (1) recognizes a new common law rule of evidence, and (2) relies on a more robust conception of the doctrine of abuse of process to deal with the problem of police misconduct. [84]

And then, of course, there are the constitutional cases. There are those where the Supreme Court re-writes the law and gives “benediction” to rights heretofore unknown to our jurisprudence. But others too, like the notorious R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631, also have a legislative feel to them.

Mentioning Jordan brings me to an important caveat: I do not mean to suggest that the Supreme Court should never go big. I have defended that decision, which may well have been the only way the right to a trial “within a reasonable time” could have been made more than a dead letter. Hart may have been the only way the considerable injustices plaguing the use of Mr. Big operations were ever going to be addressed, when one considers the resounding silence of Parliament on this issue both before and since. And even a clean-up on the scale of Vavilov may have been inevitable in administrative law. Justice Scalia, in “The Rule of Law as Law of Rules”, famously argued that judges should confidently lay down rules when deciding cases, to achieve equality before the law and predictability, and to bind themselves and their colleagues to a stable legal framework, including in the face of political pressure. There is something to this.

Nonetheless I think the point still stands: the Supreme Court is not necessarily being cautious or taking a laissez-faire approach just because it is deciding fewer cases. It may well be making a choice to develop the law in bold, big steps rather than incrementally. Bold action may have its advantages, and it may sometimes be necessary, but it runs the danger of being less judicial, and thus injudicious. On the whole, I think I would rather that the Supreme Court decided more smaller cases than fewer big ones. But they won’t ask me.

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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