When Judicial Disagreement Doesn’t Matter

What does it mean for an appellate court’s decision to be unanimous?

By Peter McCormick

To begin with the obvious: common law appellate court decisions include two major elements.  The first is the outcome – crudely, who won? – that takes the dichotomous form of“appeal allowed” or “appeal denied”.  The second is the reasons for judgment, that take the form of a legal essay, sometimes of extended length, explaining why that outcome is the appropriate one and how it is grounded in existing law.  Put more formally: an appeal court decision responds to two imperatives, the first being to provide a definitive resolution to a specific legal dispute, and the second being to provide the reasons for that outcome in such a way as to provide useful guidance to lower courts and future litigants.

From this it follows that there are two different types of judicial disagreement. A member of the panel may disagree with the outcome, saying that their colleagues got the winner wrong – we call this type of disagreement a“dissent”.  Or they can agree with the outcome but disagree, or at least not completely agree, with the reasons given to explain and justify that outcome – in Canadian usage we call this a “separate concurrence”.

Dissents have drawn a voluminous literature, both empirical and normative, to such an extent that even a preliminary list would take several pages. When the focus of discussion shifts from the consideration of a specific example to a more general level, the usual complaint is that dissent rates are too high – judges (or perhaps just some judges) are too ready to pursue their own vision of the law rather than contributing to and reinforcing a more solid institutional position.  Separate concurrences, on the other hand, are very much the forgotten poor cousin of judicial disagreement; to the best of my knowledge, there have only ever been two articles in Canadian law journals exploring the practice of separate concurrence and evaluating its contribution to the law.[1]

With respect to dissent, Jeremy Gans, in a recent piece in Inside Story and referring specifically to the High Court of Australia, has taken the highly intriguing position of flipping the “too many dissents”argument.   Quite the contrary, he complains that it is possible – and, for the current High Court, an actual achievement – to have dissent rates that are low to the point of dysfunction, so much so that it reflects badly on the Court’s performance. His “Great Assenters” title is deliberately and pointedly ironic; at a certain point, he does not think that “assent” is great at all.

This looks like a fascinating conversation that I would love to join – perhaps by suggesting a “proper” (or at least“normal”) level of judicial dissent that as a yardstick against which “too high” and “too low” can be more precisely measured, such that the reasons (commendable or otherwise) for departures from that norm can be identified.  But my enthusiasm was derailed by the second paragraph, which casually told me “All four decisions made in the High Court of Australia last month were approved by every judge who sat (even if they sometimes disagreed on the reasons).”  Our own Supreme Court has exactly the same attitude toward “disagreement on the reasons”, keeping its statistics on how many of its judgments were “unanimous as to outcome” but not seeing any necessity of taking the further step of telling us how many of those were also “univocal” (which is to say: unanimous as to reasons as well).

The clear implication of both Gans’s comment and the Supreme Court statistical reporting is that only disagreement as to the outcome really matters; differences as to the reasons are not really worth noticing – not even if they involve fundamental differences expressed at considerable length, not even if they are joined by several other judges, not even if the consequence is that there is no statement of “outcome plus reasons”statement that is supported by a majority.  To be sure, disagreeing about the outcome is much more dramatic, with greater potential for news headlines and editorial commentary aiming scathing criticism at either the majority or the minority.  It conjures visions – sometimes rebuttable but often compelling – of innocent people sent to prison or guilty people freed, of honest people victimized without remedy, of perfectly valid laws rendered null and void or bad laws upheld.  Separate concurrences are less dramatic and often harder to explain, a judicial equivalent of “insiders’ baseball.”

With all due respect to both Prof. Gans andthe Supreme Court of Canada, I think their focus on “unanimous as to outcome”is a profound mistake.  Putting the pointas starkly as possible: the outcome really matters only to the immediate parties, but the reasons matter to everybody. This is because it is the reasons, not the outcome, that constitute the precedent that constrains the immediate court and instructs the lower courts.   Since there are only two possible outcomes (allow or dismiss), how can they carry any precedential message at all?  The real point about dissent is not that the judges disagreed on the outcome but that they disagreed about the content and meaning and application of the relevant law; generally speaking, to disagree with the outcome is ipso facto to disagree with the reasoning that led to the outcome, so it is easy to conflate the two.[2] But “disagreeing on the content, meaning and application of the law” is precisely what separate concurrences are aboutas well, in ways that may be less dramatic but are often as profound and as potentially impactful as many dissents.  As Scalia once said, a judgment that gets the reasons wrong gets everything wrong that it is the function of an appeal court decision to provide;[3]it follows that minority reasons identifying that species of error are just as functional, and just as important, as minority reasons that challenge the outcome as well.

To step back for a moment: there are essentially three different kinds of separate concurrence. The first is what we might call the “just one more thing” concurrence,which expresses agreement with the majority but wants to add one additional related thought about the law that the writer could not persuade their colleagues in the majority to sign on to. The second is what we might call the “one less thing” concurrence, which expresses general agreement with the majority but specifically excludes one or more elements of the majority reasons; depending how significant those elements are, and how many other judges sign on to it, this can sometimes have real implications.  But the third kind, and as it turns out (at least in Canadian practice) the most common of the three, is the “by another route” concurrence, which opens with some variant of the apparently innocuous statement “I reach the same conclusion, but for different reasons.”  This is not innocuous at all;it is as serious as judicial disagreement gets, so much so that McLachlin J. (as she then was) once described herself as “respectfully dissenting” from the majority even though she was at the time agreeing that the immediate appeal should be dismissed (in R v Potvin [1993] 2 SCR 880).  Although she seems to have repented from this terminology, I remain convinced that she was on to something.

The distinctions I am making are highlighted by two important developments on the Supreme Court of Canada.  The first is a consistent practice dating back several decades that distinguishes between unanimous (or majority, or plurality) judgments and minority(dissenting or separately concurring) reasons;this replaced the earlier practice whereby any set of reasons delivered by a judge was referred to as a “judgment”.  The term “dissenting judgment” has become an oxymoron when applied to the current Court, although it was used by the Court itself before the late 1960s and still is appropriate for jurisdictions (such as the Ontario Court of Appeal) where the parallel labeling practice has not been adopted.  The second is a decision-delivery process that highlights the judgment (or at least the initial attempt at a judgment) by systematically framing other sets of reasons as responses (“I have read the reasons”).[4]  The joint impact of these two developments is to flag the significance of non-dissent disagreement in a very transparent way,although it is only making more visible implications that apply even in the absence of such explicit signals.

When and why and how does this matter?  To simplify the context, let us take the most dramatic position and assume a nine-judge panel that has divided 5-4 on the outcome and then 4-1 on the reasons.  We have an outcome, but what do we do about the reasons for judgment?   Is there a plurality judgment, and if so which set of reasons earns the label?  Or is there no “judgment” at all?

That depends on the nature of the disagreement between the various fragments of the majority.  If the solo judge is writing reasons of the“one more thing” variety, then we have a separate concurrence that has explicitly lined itself up with and behind the four-judge reasons in such a way as to make those reasons the judgment.  If those reasons are of the “one less thing” variety, then it may well have displaced the other reasons to become the judgment itself (because the “rule” as to which fragment of a divided majority is the judgment is not “largest fragment” but“narrowest legal grounds” – for an example, see Chaoulli v Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 SCR 791).  But if the disagreement is of the “by another route” variety, then there may well be no “judgment” at all, which is to say that there is no majority position on the law that explains the outcome in way that clearly establishes precedent.  For the Supreme Court of Canada, this only happens about once a year, but the point is that it does happen – the most recent examples are Haaretz.com v Goldhar, 2018 SCC 28 and Centrale des Syndicats du Québec v Quebec (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 18. Or consider the even more recent case of Mikisew Cree First Nation v Canada, 2018 SCC 40, which was unanimous as to outcome but with four different sets of reasons, all of comparable length but none attracting more than three signatures on a nine-judge panel; the decision is either unanimous, or 7-2, or 5-4, depending which of the major issues attracts your attention.  Gans’s “great assenters” label hardly seems appropriate.

But my concerns apply more broadly than these dramatic and unusual developments.  More generally we might say that behind every dissent, especially one that draws multiple signatures, lurks a disagreement deep enough that it might one day grow into a dramatic explicit abandonment of the majority’s jurisprudential position – like the reversal of the 1987 Labor Trilogy (Reference re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alberta), [1987] 1 SCR 313PSAC v Canada [1987] 1 SCR 424RWDSU v Saskatchewan [1987] 1 SCR 460) twenty years later in B.C. Health Services (Health Services and Support-Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391) on the status of collective bargaining under the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of association, or Carter’s 2015 repudiation (Carter v Canada (Attorney General) 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331) of the 1993 Rodriguez decision (Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney General) [1993] 3 SCR 519) on the constitutional status of the ban on assisted suicide.  By a similar logic, behind every separate concurrence (but especially those of the “different route” variety, and especially those joined by several other judges) lies the potential for a less visibly dramatic but comparably significant evolution, perhaps to the extent of having the separate concurrence gradually displace the one-time majority incitation frequency (which again is something which has happened more than once).

Differences over reasons matter because reasons are what judicial decisions are all about; the evolution of the reasons explaining outcomes is what brings about much of the incremental change in the law.  This makes it a serious mistake to assume that some judicial disagreement is necessarily less important simply because it does not involve disagreeing on the outcome as well as on the reasons that justify that outcome.   When is it that judicial disagreement doesn’t matter?  Only when we are so shortsighted as to ignore it.


[1] I admit that I wrote both of them: see Peter McCormick, “The Choral Court: Separate Concurrences on the McLachlin Court 2000-2004Ottawa Law Review, Vol. 37 (2005-6); and Peter McCormick, “Standing Apart: Separate Concurrence and the Supreme Court of Canada 1984-2006McGill Law Journal Vol. 53 (2008).

[2] That said, I think it is not impossible for judges to disagree on the outcome without disagreeing on the central legal issues and their precedential implications; my leading candidates would be R v Therens, [1985] 1 SCR 613 and Andrews v Law Society of British Columbia [1989] 1 SCR 143, the point being that for both of them the major precedential finding on the constitutional issue is made and explained in the dissenting reasons.

[3] Antonin Scalia, “The Dissenting Opinion” 1994 Journal of Supreme Court History p.33

[4] Peter McCormick, “Structures of Judgment: How the Modern SupremeCourt of Canada Organizes Its Reasons” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 32 (2009)

Reading from a Palimpsest

The Supreme Court of New Zealand holds that declarations of inconsistency are available when Parliament disregards the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act

I have previously written about the litigation concerning the power of New Zealand courts to make formal declarations to the effect that an Act of Parliament is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This litigation has now reached its conclusion with the New Zealand Supreme Court’s decision in Attorney-General v Taylor, [2018] NZSC 104. The Court holds, by a bare 3-2 majority, that this power does indeed exist. The decision is interesting for what the judges say, what they suggest, and what they do not say; at least from a theoretical perspective, it might be of some interest to Canadians, as well as New Zealanders.

The case concerns a 2010 statute that disenfranchised prisoners serving sentences of less than three years. (Longer-term prisoners were already disenfranchised by then, and the consistency of denying them the ability to vote with the Bill of Rights was not in issue.) The Attorney-General, having told Parliament that this statute was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act before its enactment, conceded the inconsistency, but denied the ability of the courts to issue a formal declaration to the effect that such an inconsistency existed. He had lost at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

There are three sets of reasons: what might be described as a quasi-majority opinion by Justice Ellen France, joined by Justice Glazebrook; a concurring opinion by Chief Justice Elias, who largely shares Justice Ellen France’s approach (hence my labelling the latter a quasi-majority); and a dissent by Justice O’Regan, joined by Justice William Young. (For the purposes of writing about New Zealand, I shall follow the local convention of mentioning the first name of a judge to distinguish her or him from a colleague—not necessarily from the same court—who shares that judge’s surname.)

Justice Ellen France starts from the well-established proposition that, even though the Bill of Rights Act contains no provision authorizing remedies for its breach (equivalent, say, to section 24 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), “in order for the Bill of Rights to be effective, the courts had to provide remedies for breaches”. [29] For Justice Ellen France, declarations of inconsistency are just an additional remedy that can serve this purpose. There would need to be “statutory language” to prevent the courts from granting this particular remedy; [41] in its absence, they can do so. Justice Ellen France points out that, by its own terms, the Bill of Rights Act applies to Parliament, and that while it explicitly prevents the courts from refusing to apply inconsistent legislation, the specificity of the provision doing so suggests that other remedies against inconsistent statutes are not categorically excluded.

Moreover, Justice Ellen France rejects the Crown’s submission that legislation inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act effectively changes the contents of the rights the latter “affirms”, and thus cannot be regarded as inconsistent with it. Rather, “the Bill of Rights remains as the standard or palimpsest albeit Parliament has exercised its power to legislate inconsistently with that standard”. [46] Justice Ellen France also rejects the argument that a declaration should not be made since it is inconsistent with the judicial function and it will have no further consequences. A declaration “provides formal confirmation” of the “rights and status” of the person to whom it is granted, of his or her legal position, even in the absence of any further relief. (On this point, Justice Ellen France refers to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in Mikisew Cree First Nation v. Canada (Governor General in Council), 2018 SCC 40.) In any case, a declaration provides vindication for the infringed right, and might be useful should the matter be revisited by an international instance or by Parliament itself.

That said, Justice Ellen France pointedly explains that, while “the Court of Appeal canvassed the relationship between the political and judicial branches of government and the role of the higher courts under the New Zealand constitution”, she does not “undertake a similar exercise”. The purpose of the declaration is to provide such vindication as can be provided consistently with the Bill of Rights Act to the person whose rights have been infringed—not to goad or guide Parliament. While the Court of Appeal had embraced the view that declarations were part of a constitutional dialogue between the legislative and the judicial branches of government, no judge of the Supreme Court so much as mentions the word “dialogue” in his or her reasons.

As noted above, Chief Justice Elias largely agrees with Justice Ellen France. In addition, she emphasises the courts’ inherent jurisdiction (recognized by statute) to “administer the law”, and their statutory power to declare what the law is even if they cannot grant any additional relief. The Chief Justice also stresses “the fundamental nature of the enacted rights (declared as such in the legislation)”, [102] and says that while Parliament is free to legislate in disregard of these rights, their scope can only be modified by an amendment to the Bill of Rights Act, not merely “by inconsistent action”. [103] Indeed, the declaration of inconsistency is address “to those whose rights are affected”, instead of “serving “to assist Parliament in its function, as the Court of Appeal suggested”, [107] a position with which Justice Ellen France expresses her agreement (n87).

The majority judges leave a number of significant issues unresolved—notably that of just when a declaration, which is a discretionary remedy, ought to be granted in response to an infringement of a right protected by the Bill of Rights Act. But they do not endorse the Court of Appeal’s suggestion that formal declarations should be a last resort. While they provide little guidance beyond that, this suggests that declarations may now become a relatively unexotic feature of New Zealand’s constitutional landscape.

Justice O’Regan is none too pleased. He accepts “that effective remedies should be available for breaches of the Bill of Rights Act”. [124] The question, though, is whether a standalone declaration of inconsistency can be such a remedy. It is one thing for a court to point out, in the course of deciding other issues, that a statute is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act — this has been done before; it is another to address the question of inconsistency if it is the only issue between the parties, and when nothing else follows an affirmative answer.

In such circumstances, Justice O’Regan says, there simply isn’t anything for the courts to do. Although the Bill of Rights Act provides that it applies to Parliament, it also prevents the courts from refusing to apply inconsistent legislation, and thus is not truly a

limitation on Parliament’s power to legislate. It is at least arguable that to the extent that there is a breach of the Bill of Rights resulting from the passing of inconsistent legislation, it is not of a character for which the courts are required to fashion a civil remedy. After all [the Bill of Rights Act] removes the only truly effective remedy from consideration. [133]

In any case, the bare declaration of inconsistency might not even count as a “remedy” at all, let alone an “effective” one. Justice O’Regan worries that such a declaration “may be simply ignored, with the consequential danger of the erosion of respect for the integrity of the law and the institutional standing of the judiciary”. [134] He is also concerned about “the considerable expenditure in money and resources” [143] that might result from what he sees as pointless litigation about abstract questions of consistency with the Bill of Rights Act. And, after all,

We have had the Bill of Rights Act now for 28 years and a declaration has never been made. … It can hardly be said that this has undermined the objective of the Bill of Rights Act to affirm, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in New Zealand. [144]

I don’t think that Justice O’Regan is right about this. He sees the matter in absolute terms: in the absence of declarations of inconsistency, the Bill of Rights Act has already provided some level of protection for rights and freedoms; at the same time, even if declarations are available, the level of protection will remain low, since “the only truly effective remedy”, which is to say invalidation of inconsistent legislation, is still off the table. The majority, by contrast, approach the matter in relative terms. For Justice Ellen France and the Chief Justice, what matters is that the availability of declarations will improve the protections provided by the Bill of Rights Act. Considering that essentially symbolic remedies exist elsewhere—for example, very low damages awards that are supposed to “vindicate” rights violated by the executive—the view that another such remedy constitutes a real reinforcement of rights-protection is, I think, more coherent with the big picture of public law.

The majority are also right to reject the Attorney-General’s arguments based on implied repeal of the Bill of Rights Act by inconsistent legislation. Although neither Justice Ellen France nor the Chief Justice raise this point, in my view the interpretive role of the Bill of Rights Act—section 6 of which provides that “[w]herever an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning”—strongly suggests that it must have a meaning independent both of prior and of subsequent legislation. (Of course, legislation that explicitly amends the Bill of Rights is possible, and only requires a simple majority in the House of Representatives to pass; but the parliamentary majority must, nevertheless, at least be willing to go to the trouble of enacting it).

Justice Ellen France’s palimpsest metaphor is apt. Legislation inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act adds another layer to the pages of the statute book, but they do not fully erase the rights and freedoms inscribed underneath them. Depending on the purpose for which one reads the statute book, one must sometimes focus on the inconsistent statute (applying it notwithstanding the inconsistency) and sometimes on the Bill of Rights Act (when ascertaining and declaring the inconsistency), but both layers continue to exist.

Speaking of metaphors, I think that the majority do well not to follow the Court of Appeal’s embrace of the “constitutional dialogue” theory. In an article published in the New Zealand Universities Law Review, I argued that, despite its superficial attractiveness as a means to address a “majoritarian malaise”—the worry about a  sovereign Parliament’s ability to define or deny the rights of minorities—, this theory is not well-suited to the constitutional context of New Zealand (or any polity that adheres to Parliamentary sovereignty. It makes little sense to speak of dialogue when one of the supposed interlocutors is free to simply ignore what the other has to say, as a sovereign Parliament is free to ignore the courts’ pronouncements about rights.

I concluded that article by writing that

New Zealand’s constitution is one that makes Parliament supreme, and the courts cannot mitigate this fact. They can only point out the abuses of this supremacy that sometimes occur, and they will do so more clearly and with more force if they do not pretend that what they are faced with is a provisional, revisable opinion stated as part of a conversation among equals rather than an abuse of power.  (917)

This is what the Supreme Court has done. So much the better.

Upcoming Canadian Talks

Events at Calgary, McGill, and Queen’s

After my little tour of Western Canada in September, I am back for some more events.

I start tomorrow at the University of Calgary, with a discussion of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the Notwithstanding Clause. While I can’t promise any new and brilliant ideas—I think everything that there is to say on section 33 has been said long ago—the issue has been, and is likely to remain, in the news, and there seems to be a good deal of interest in it, however puzzling I personally might find it. The event, organized by the Runnymede Society, is scheduled for 12 noon, at the Faculty of Law, in room MFH3320.

On November 21, at 1PM, Geoff Sigalet and I will be debating section 33 at McGill Law. Dr. Sigalet and I have done this before (on that occasion, alongside Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire respectively), but perhaps recent developments will add some interest to the discussion. This too is a Runnymede event.

Finally, on November 26, I will be at Queen’s, joining Grégoire Webber and Dr. Sigalet for a discussion on constitutional dialogue and Commonwealth constitutions, co-organized by Queen’s Law and Runnymede. This will take place in Queen’s Moot Court room (300) from 1 to 2:30PM. Constitutional dialogue isn’t exactly a novel topic either, but, for my part, I might have some news to report regarding a decision of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in the prisoner voting case, in which the Court of Appeal explicitly referred to the notion of dialogue, a decision on which I blogged here, and then published a paper questioning the relevance of the notion of dialogue in polities where the constitution is not the supreme law of the land.

I hope that some of my readers will be able to make it to one (or more!) of these events. As always, come say hi if you are there!

Delusions of Grandeur

Justice Abella sets out a vision of the Supreme Court as arbiter of national values

I didn’t realize that writing op-eds for the media was part of the judicial job description, but apparently it is. There was of course Brett Kavanaugh’s instantly-notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And, ten days ago, Justice Abella followed in now-Justice Kavanaugh’s footsteps, with an op-ed of her own, in the Globe and Mail. The op-ed is an adaptation from a speech given on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Israel; but Justice Abella, presumably, thinks that it deserves a Canadian audience as well as an Israeli one.

Why that ought to be the case, I am not quite sure. Part of the op-ed is meaningless twaddle: we have, Justice Abella tells us, of instance, a “national justice context” that is “democratically vibrant and principled”. Part is rank hypocrisy: the Supreme Court’s “only mandate is to protect the rule of law”, says the person who has devoted many a talk to criticizing the very idea of the Rule of Law and arguing that it had to be replaced by something called the rule of justice. Part is rotten grammar: “human rights is [sic] essential to the health of the whole political spectrum” (emphasis removed). But all of it is a self-assured presentation of a role for the judiciary that has nothing to do with the Rule of Law, and this bears commenting on.

Justice Abella begins by proclaiming that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out “a uniquely Canadian justice vision, a vision that took the status quo as the beginning of the conversation, not the answer”. One might be tempted to think that this is a reference to section 33 of the Charter (which, for all its flaws, is indeed “uniquely Canadian”), or at least to some version of the “dialogue theory”, according to which courts and legislatures both participate in the elaboration of constitutional rights. But this would be a mistake. Justice Abella likes her judges “bold”, and her legislatures obedient. The “conversation” to which she refers only involves the members of the Supreme Court.

And while she begins by seemingly conceding that “[t]he Charter both represented and created shared and unifying national values”, Justice Abella then argues that it is the Supreme Court that has developed “a robust new justice consensus for Canada”. It is the Supreme Court that serves as “the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”. (Wait… didn’t the Charter already represent and create shared values? How come these values are, after all, contested?) Fortunately, says Justice Abella, the Canadian public and its elected representatives have fallen into line and followed the Supreme Court’s moral leadership: “[c]riticisms and questions were of course raised, but usually with civility.” If Canada is committed to “pluralism and diversity”, rather than “obliteration of the identities that define us”, that’s because “[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court”, and its teachings were accepted by both “the public” and “the legislatures”.

Hence the empowerment of the Supreme Court, coupled with its independence, is all to the good. “[D]emocracy, Justice Abella insists, “is strengthened in direct proportion to the strength of rights protection and an independent judiciary”. Indeed, the very “humanity” of a country would be imperiled by attacks on judicial power. Hence Justice Abella’s plea in defence of the Supreme Court of Israel, delivered, she says, in her capacity not only “as a judge”, but also “as a citizen of the world”. (I assume Justice Abella has not been shy about criticizing the feebleness of the judiciary in countries like Russia and China, too, though I don’t think she has published op-eds about them. Perhaps she has even criticized the backward ways of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which haven’t seen it fit to remit the adjudication of contested values in their societies to the courts, though I can recall no op-eds on that subject either.)

I have no firm views about whether Canadian judges should go around the world lecturing other countries about how to organize their constitutional arrangements, whether in their capacities as citizens of the world or as public officials. (How many ordinary citizens of the world are, after all, invited to give pompous speeches, and allowed 1200 words of op-ed space in a national newspaper to bring them to hoi polloi?) I do, however, have some thoughts on the substance of Justice Abella’s views regarding the role of the Supreme Court in Canada’s constitutional structure. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already presented his, but my take is somewhat different, so I hope the readers will forgive a measure of repetition.

Mark stresses the fact that, if the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter of national values, it is not at all clear why it should be staffed by judges—that is to say, by former lawyers, who are not trained for or especially good at this task. Why not economists and philosophers instead? Mark writes that

if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole…—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

And if the courts are not, after all, to be replaced by philosophical-economic colloquia, that’s probably because what we really want is for judges to stick to law.

I largely agree with this, but there is an additional move in Justice Abella’s argument that Mark does not address: the claim that adjudication by the independent Supreme Court is somehow democratic and that, indeed, democracy is strengthened the more powerful the court is. I think it is a crucial argument. After all, legislatures, which Mark doesn’t want to “sell down the river”, are also staffed by people who tend to have no particular expertise in either economics or philosophy, and who are subject to all manner of perverse incentives to boot. Why should they be making value judgments for society? The generally accepted (which isn’t necessarily to say correct) answer is, because they are democratic institutions. That’s why Justice Abella wants to claim the democratic mantle for the institution that she extols (as do others who make similar arguments).

How successful is the claim? In my view, not very successful at all. It starts from the premise that there is more to democracy than elections. Let us grant that. Still, there are important question that need answering. What is this “more” that a polity ought to have, beyond periodic elections, to be counted as democratic? Jeremy Waldron would mention things like separation of powers, meaningful bicameralism, and “legislative due process”, rather than judicial review of legislation. Justice Abella doesn’t even consider these possibilities, and thus does not explain why they are not sufficient. She thus does little to justify judicial review of legislation at all, let alone the robust, value-defining version that she favours. Others would add federalism and federalism-based judicial review, but not necessarily the rights-enforcing variety.  And even granting the insufficiency of structural devices to foster and protect genuine democracy, one can doubt whether it is this form of judicial review that we should favour. Aren’t more limited versions, along the lines of John Hart Ely’s “representation reinforcement” or the Carolene Products footnote 4‘s special protection for “discrete and insular minorities”) sufficient? Justice Abella has no answer to this objection either.

Instead, Justice Abella is content to assert that more judicial power is better, including for democracy. Surely, this isn’t necessarily so. Justice Abella herself, and most Canadian lawyers, would likely be horrified at the idea of judicial review enforcing property rights and freedom of contract against democratic majorities. They would insist, as Justice Holmes did in his dissent in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … It is made for people of fundamentally differing views”. (75-76) (The only exception to this, of course, concerns labour unions; fundamentally different views regarding their role in the economy have been read out of the Canadian constitution by the Supreme Court, led by Justice Abella.) On reflection, everyone—including Justice Abella—would agree that the protection of rights by an independent judiciary is not, in fact, always good. At the very least, it matters which rights are protected—and if it is the judiciary that effectively decides this, then it matters how it uses its power to do so.

This brings me to Justice Abella’s most remarkable claim—that it is indeed the Supreme Court that defines not just our constitutional rights, but Canadian values more generally. Mark characterizes this is “judicial supremacy”, but I prefer using this term to mean unyielding judicial control over constitutional meaning (the way Professor Waldron does here, for example). Justice Abella’s ambition is not so limited; she is not content to decide what our supreme law means; she wants to be the ultimate authority on what Canadians believe in. This is shocking stuff. In a free society, there can be no such authority, whether in the Supreme Court or elsewhere. In a free society, one cannot point to the constitution and say, Thatcher-style, “this is what we believe”. Citizens in a free society disagree, including about fundamental values. A constitution is only a judgment, albeit one reached by a super-majority—not, mind you, an actual consensus—about which of these values will be translated into legal constraints that will be imposed on the government until the constitution is amended. The courts’ job is to interpret these legal constraints, as they interpret other law; it is not to dictate “which contested values in a society should triumph”.

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority. It is unfortunate that a person so utterly misguided holds an office with as much power and prestige as that of a Supreme Court judge. Still, as important as this office is, it is less significant than Justice Abella imagines. We remain free to reject the values the Supreme Court would have us subscribe to. When these values amount to uncritical polite deference to philosopher-kings in ermine-collared robes, we have very good reason to do so.

Dealing with Delegation

Thoughts on a proposal for a judicial crackdown on the delegation of law-making powers to the executive

The explosive growth of legislation made by various government departments, boards, and other entities ― rather than enacted by Parliament, as legislation ought to be on the orthodox understanding of separation of powers ― is quite likely the most understudied aspect of contemporary constitutions, in Canada and elsewhere. In “Reassessing the Constitutional Foundation of Delegated Legislation in Canada“, an article that will be published in the Dalhousie Law Journal and is now available on SSRN, Lorne Neudorf sets out to shed light on and proposes means of reining in delegated legislation ― that is, rules made by the executive branch of government pursuant to a legislative authorization, often a very vague one. It is a worthwhile endeavour from which we have much to learn, even though Professor Neudorf’s arguments, and some of his recommendations, strike me as just as problematic, in their own way, as the phenomenon he criticizes.

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This phenomenon’s importance is out of all proportion to the attention it receives. Professor Neudorf notes that “[b]y volume, delegated legislation is made at a rate of nearly 5-to-1 as compared to primary legislation”. (3) Yet the text of the constitution seems to say nothing at all about the executive being able to make law. On the contrary, the Constitution Act, 1867, endows Parliament and provincial legislatures with “exclusive” law-making powers. Still, the courts have recognized that the legislative bodies are able to mandate the executive to make rules having the force of law, and indeed even rules that override the provisions of laws enacted by legislatures. This, Professor Neudorf argues, is a mistake that needs to be reversed.

Professor Neudorf traces the mistake to a misguided introduction into Canadian constitutional law of orthodox, Diceyan, notions of Parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that “Parliament can make or unmake any law whatever” has always been out of place in a federation, where the Dominion Parliament and provincial legislatures were always subject to limits on their powers. In any event, the enactment of “[t]he Charter” in 1982 “cemented the location of Canadian sovereignty in the Constitution as opposed
to a single lawmaking institution”. (9) Judicial decisions emphasizing the plenitude of legislative powers (subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution Act, 1867)

should be understood as less about transplanting a robust vision of parliamentary sovereignty into Canada and more about the courts prodding along and encouraging the development of new country with a distinct identity. (9)

Yet the leading precedents on the scope of Canadian legislatures’ ability to delegate its legislative powers to the executive, notably In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150, recognize no obvious limits on delegation. In Gray, Chief Justice Fitzpatrick held that, since no limitation on delegation was expressed in the Constitution Act, 1867, “within reasonable limits at any rate [Parliament] can delegate its powers to the executive government” (157) ― provided that it be able to terminate and resume the powers it temporarily cedes. Professor Neudorf argues that sweeping delegation of the kind at issue in Gray “might not be viewed as reasonable outside the context of an exceptional national security threat”, (16) but the subsequent cases did not elaborate on the constraints that this reasonableness requirement might impose.

Professor Neudorf insists that Gray rests on a “narrow and technical interpretation of the
Constitution”, an “outmoded interpretive approach”, (18) long superseded by “living tree” constitutional interpretation. Applying this approach, the courts ought to

engage with how the Constitution sees Parliament: as a key part of the basic constitutional architecture: possessing democratic, representative and accountable qualities, and the key player in bringing together different constituencies to formulate national policy and resolve pressing questions facing the country as a whole. (23)

Delegation imperils Parliament’s position, envisioned by John A. Macdonald, as the constitutional cornerstone. It hands law-making over to persons and bodies that are not representative and often operate behind the thick veil of cabinet secrecy. Delegation also undermines the Rule of Law (which provides additional reasons to favour transparent lawmaking) and the separation of powers.

Therefore, Professor Neudorf proposes a number of ways of curtailing the use of delegation. To begin with,

courts should adopt a stricter interpretation of statutory provisions that delegate lawmaking power and strengthen the rigour of the vires review of regulations to overcome the current weaknesses that allow for the delegation of broad powers
through generic words and exceptionally wide latitude for the exercise of delegated power. (30)

If Parliament wants to delegate broad legislative powers, courts ought to make it say so very clearly ― especially if these powers are meant to be exercised retroactively, punitively, or in a manner that is at odds with the Charter. Courts should also drop their deference to the executive’s interpretation of its authority to enact delegated legislation. Nothing less than constitutional principle compels this change of approach, which “will better safeguard Parliament’s constitutional role and give effect to the principle of legality and the rule of law”. (32) But sometimes, the courts should go further still:

when generic words are used in enabling legislation, which are incapable of intelligent qualification by the text, context or purpose of the statute, the court should hold the grant of authority invalid on the basis that it is impermissibly vague. (33)

Indeed, the grant of authority ought to be “narrower than the general purposes of the legislation, with some specificity for the kinds of regulations contemplated”. (33)

Professor Neudorf’s other set of proposals concerns the process by which regulations are reviewed in Parliament. He calls on Parliament to take its inspiration from the review systems that exist in the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf describes in some detail), and look into both the delegation provisions of bills as they are enacted, and the already existing regulations that may be flawed or ineffective. But here too, Professor Neudorf envisions a role for the judiciary:

If needed, a court may issue a declaration of the constitutional obligation as the impetus for Parliament to take the necessary action. In an extreme case where the scrutiny system is totally ineffective, the court may seek to enforce this constitutional obligation by holding inadequately scrutinized regulations as legally ineffective. (40)

Professor Neudorf concludes that, while the delegation of some legislative powers is desirable and necessary, and particular bodies (such as the legislatures of territories) can be quite different from the ordinary executive delegates, reform ― and judicial intervention to implement it ― is constitutionally justified and necessary.

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I have mixed feelings about Professor Neudorf’s article. It addresses a real problem that deserves much more attention than it usually receives. I agree to a large extent both with the values underlying Professor Neudorf argument (notably, the empowerment of legislative institutions and the limitation of the power of the unaccountable executive) and with his specific proposals, as I shall explain. But, as noted at the outset, I think that the way in which Professor Neudorf makes his case, and indeed some aspects of his proposals, which follow from his approach to constitutional law, are deeply problematic.

Let me begin with the bad, to finish on a more positive note. Professor Neudorf’s general approach is an excellent illustration of what I recently described as “constitutionalism from the cave“:

On this view, the Canadian constitution … is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts; it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution.

Professor Neudorf refuses to attach any real consequence to the constitutional text’s apparent silence on the question of delegation; on the contrary, he chides the Gray court for having done so, declaring this an “outmoded” way of doing constitutional law. Professor Neudorf argues that, regardless of what the text says or doesn’t say, the courts should implement the ideal conception of Parliament and of its place in a democratically accountable system of government. As I explained, this amounts to a license for the courts to re-write the constitution, in defiance of its own provisions, which quite clearly do not contemplate its amendment by the judiciary.

The fact that I am sympathetic to the policy objectives that this re-writing would be designed to achieve is irrelevant; it’s illegitimate all the same. Professor Neudorf’s appeal to the so-called “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), to prove otherwise ― to show that good courts re-write constitutions to suit their policy preferences ― fails resoundingly. He faults the Supreme Court in that case for having been “disinterested [sic] in the question of the desirability of women Senators” (18) and believing that “giving meaning to the Constitution was a simple and neutral exercise in statutory interpretation”. (19) Yet Lord Sankey, whose opinion for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council Professor Neudorf extols, similarly insisted the case did not involve “any question as to the rights of women”. (DLR 107) Lord Sankey’s opinion, as, for example, I have argued here, is a master class in statutory interpretation techniques ― not a policy judgment about the desirability of women Senators. And Professor Neudorf’s invocation of the wishes of John A. Macdonald ― odd in an article otherwise extolling living constitutionalism, but of a piece with the strategic (mis)use of original intent originalism by Canadian legal academics that co-blogger Mark Mancini described here ― is no more convincing. Macdonald was interested in the federal division of powers, not the question of delegation.

In short, I don’t think that Professor Neudorf succeeds in justifying the role he sees for the judiciary in implementing his more far-reaching proposals. A more robust judicial review of the vires of delegated legislation, including by the application of the principle of legality (which prevents the executive from trespassing on constitutional and common law rights with clear authorization by the legislature) only requires the courts to abandon their absurdly deferential, pro-regulatory posture. But it is much more difficult to make the case for the courts’ power to nullify vague delegations. (I don’t know whether this is impossible, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Professor Neudorf appeals to the doctrine developed under the Charter for determining whether a limitation of a constitutional right is “prescribed by law”. This is not satisfactory, because the courts have tended to treat even vague laws as sufficiently clear, and even more so because the Charter‘s requirements simply do not apply unless one of the rights it protects is at stake. And as for the idea that courts can order Parliament how to structure its review of regulations ― suffice it to say that it creates much greater separation of powers problems than it is likely to solve, and undermines the very autonomy and authority of Parliament as a democratic decision-making body that Professor Neudorf seeks to restore.

Behind the embrace of constitutionalism from the cave is a belief, which I think is not only misguided but also counterproductive, that supreme constitutional law must have an answer to any and all constitutional concerns. Professor Neudorf is quite right to characterize the rise of delegated legislation as a constitutional issue. But it simply does not follow that it is an issue that the courts must be able to fully address. As the experience of polities such as the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf cites as a model!) and New Zealand reminds us, it is possible to think intelligently about the constitution that is not supreme law at all. Indeed, these polities often pay much closer attention to the governance aspects of their constitutions than does Canada. Instead of calling on the courts to twist and stretch our supreme constitutional law, undermining their own commitment to the Rule of Law and indeed their credibility as impartial constitutional arbiters in the process, we should emulate these polities’ commitment to getting the constitution right as a matter of ordinary law and political process.

Professor Neudorf’s recommendations will, mostly, be very helpful in this regard. Greater judicial vigilance in reviewing the legality of the executive’s exercise of its delegated legislative powers is essential ― and it need not rest on dubious appeals to living tree interpretation. The principle of the Rule of Law, as developed by Canadian courts at least as far back as in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, means that the executive’s authority, even if delegated by the legislature in ostensibly, indeed ostentatiously, broad terms, cannot be unlimited, and that the courts are not only authorized, but required to ensure that the executive doesn’t overstep the bounds of this delegation. Professor Neudorf is right to be concerned that Canadian courts are in serious danger of abdicating this responsibility. Recent decisions which he does not mention, notably West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, provide further demonstration of this point, as I argued here and here. The Supreme Court appears to see no issue what it described in West Fraser as “broad and unrestricted delegation of power”. This needs to change.

Professor Neudorf is also right to call for the development of Parliamentary procedures for the review of regulations. I wonder if the smaller number of parliamentarians in Canada in comparison with the UK might be an obstacle to copying the British system of three Select Committees devoted to the study of subordinate legislation (and the problem would, of course, be even more pressing in much smaller and unicameral provincial legislatures), but even if the UK system cannot be perfectly emulated in Canada, it seems to offer a source of inspiration if not a model for imitation.

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To repeat, it is a mistake to think that judicially enforceable supreme  law must have a solution to every constitutional problem. Yet the problem Professor Neudorf identifies is real. Precisely because supreme law may be unable to help us, it is important to get ordinary law and legislative process right. Judicial review and parliamentary procedure might be less glamorous than what Canadians usually think of as constitutional law. Yet Professor Neudorf’s article should be taken as a reminder that these are properly constitutional preoccupations, and that Canadian constitutional lawyers ought to devote more of their energies to them than to the development of exotic theories about what the ideal Canadian constitution would look like.

Oliphant on the Constitutionality of Twitter Blocking

Announcing an upcoming guest-post

My friend, co-author, and occasional guest here Benjamin Oliphant will be back soon to give us his perspective on a constitutional challenge to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s blocking of citizens on Twitter. This is a novel case in Canada ― though American citizens have succeeded, for now at least, in a similar one involving Donald Trump’s Twitter feed ― and I am very much looking forward to Mr. Oliphant’s thoughts on it.

 

The Joke’s On Us

Canadians ought to care about who gets on the Supreme Court

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Beaverton ― Canada’s version of the Borowitz report ― ran a piece called Canadians thankful they can’t name single Canadian Supreme Court Justice. Remarkably enough, a number of lawyers in my social media feeds shared it ― with apparent approval. And of course a more reputable outlet published a rather similar story in all seriousness just a few months ago. I suppose one ought to be grateful that Canada has so far avoided the sordid spectacle of American “confirmation battles” generally, and that over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh in particular. The ability of the Canadian governments to simply get their preferred candidates on the bench is, on the whole, a good thing. But it doesn’t follow that it is of no consequences who the judges of the Supreme Court are.

The Beaverton, parroting the national myth (aren’t they, like, suppose to make fun of things?), claims that “many Canadians were happy their court was quietly and deliberately applying the constitution”. This is, to use a technical term, bollocks. Just this year, the Supreme Court read the guarantee of free trade out of the constitution in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15; proclaimed, in defiance of fundamental principle, that administrative agencies can enjoy “plenary”, “unrestricted powers” in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22 (at [10] and [11]); and gutted religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32. This is not a court “quietly applying the constitution”; this is a court re-writing the constitution as its suits its fancy. Nor is this some sort of new development. Back in 2015, Grégoire Webber wrote that

Over the past year, the people of Canada have undertaken an important remaking of our constitution. We have given constitutional status to the Supreme Court, created a constitutional right to strike, and created a constitutional right to assisted death, among other changes. …

How have we done so? … We have … appealed to that straightforward constitutional amendment process called the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, both in West Fraser and Trinity Western, and in some of the cases to which Professor Webber refers ― notably Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245, which “gave benediction” to the right to strike ― the Supreme Court was not unanimous in its rewriting or shredding of the constitution. There were fierce, and compelling, dissents. While no Supreme Court judge has taken a very consistent position in opposition to the Court’s majority view of its powers of constitutional amendment ― the Court was unanimous in Comeau, for instance ― some have been more forceful than others in resisting the trend. Justice Côté, in particular, has been a strong voice in favour of upholding the Rule of Law by opposing the empowerment of lawless administrative decision-makers.

And so it matters that there is only one Justice Côté on the Supreme Court; and that even with Justices Rowe and, especially, Brown, who sometimes join her in whole or in part, she is far from commanding a majority of the Court. It matters whether or not you agree with me that Justice Côté tends to be right (she isn’t always) and that most of her colleagues tend to be wrong. If you think that the majority of the Court is generally correct, and that Justice Côté and others who resist its assertions of judicial and administrative power are wrong, it also matters that there not be more Justices Côté, or even Justices Brown or Rowe. Indeed, the enthusiasts of judicial power in Canada understand this very well, which is why some were sufficiently upset when Justice Brown was appointed to the Supreme Court to demand that the Court prevent politicians from choosing judges in the future.

Smug self-satisfaction is, of course, Canada’ national disease, and self-congratulation at not being Americans is a widespread complication. Canadian lawyers are as susceptible to these things as their other compatriots. But we should know better. We should realize that Canadian judges are no more oracles than their American colleagues ― indeed, unlike some American judges, they don’t even pretend otherwise; witness Justice Abella’s repeated rejections of the Rule of Law as even an ideal to aspire to. We should understand that the Supreme Court’s relative anonymity, which it is only too happy to foster with “by the court opinions”, is part of what allows it to exercise powers with which, as even the Beaverton inadvertently suggests, many Canadians would not, in fact, be especially comfortable. If we cannot figure this out, the joke really is on us.