SCC Skepticism

In a recent piece in Maclean’s, Adam Goldenberg explains why the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) does not suffer from the same partisan interest the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) does. He lists three main reasons: (1) the nature of partisanship in the US; (2) the American conservative movement’s incubator for legal talent; and (3) American political parties galvanizing support on the strength of controversial court rulings. I accept all of these reasons and invite those interested to read Goldenberg’s piece.

But one more should be added, without which the story is incomplete: American citizens know where law is made.  They realize (even without knowing the legalities) that winning a constitutional debate in court wins the democratic debate for all time.  The matter is put beyond the reach of the regular democratic process. Canadians should be more critical of this reality in our own country.

Two forces have led us to this point. The first is both Canada and the US courts do not shy away from deciding controversial issues. In Canada, Bedford and Carter dealt with prostitution and assisted dying, respectively. In the United States, Obergefell dealt with same sex marriage. The fact that courts often delve into these issues (or, as defenders of the courts would say, are forced into these issues by the nature of an entrenched bill of rights) makes them a lightning rod for political attention.

At the same time, opinion polls in the United States show that Americans have record low confidence in their political institutions, and Canadians are no different. Confidence in government is at all-time lows. We see this in the context of Aboriginal law, where Aboriginal groups have moved to the courts as the primary vehicle by which they can vindicate their rights. One can surmise that they have done so because of the historical ineptitude of the Government of Canada.

These forces together understandably cause citizens to make a choice. Recalcitrant politicians and a lack of confidence in institutions? The slog of convincing one’s fellow citizens? Or, a sweeping court declaration which forces legislatures to respond?

In the US, citizens largely made the latter choice to resolve their plights. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in Planned Parenthood v Casey that the SCOTUS, rather than legislatures, were increasingly subject to intense political pressure by both sides of hot-button issues—in that case, abortion. The letters, comments, and protestors directed to the SCOTUS, not the legislatures, was an odd sight to Justice Scalia, who viewed the development skeptically. To Justice Scalia’s mind, because the American people “are not fools,” they recognized that the SCOTUS had become the leading institution where these value-laden issues were decided.

While Goldenberg notes that much of this political attention focuses on what the original meaning of the US Bill of Rights means in modern America, I think this overstates the case. The political attention is just that, naked politics, not shrouded in any legality. Many people want the court to achieve their explicitly political ends.  As for originalism, originalists have not held a majority of the US Supreme Court, at least in the last twenty years. Justice Scalia himself was known as a fiery dissenter. For example, under the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), the SCOTUS developed a profoundly non-originalist test—the so-called “evolving standards of decency” approach. While Justice Kagan’s point that we are all originalists now may be true, it is not true that originalism has been a wholly successful legal project in the United States.

No matter what one thinks of originalism, it provides a limiting principle on otherwise free doctrinal reign. But because it has not been embraced consistently in the US, and no other real principle has come forward, the political parties have latched on to the SCOTUS nomination process as a means to vindicate their particular versions of the good. Since the Bork confirmation hearings, both parties in the US have used the process because they know its consequences. They know that getting the “right” people on the Court will do far more to change laws than simply electing people to the legislature. We see this sort of discussion now with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the ludicrous proposal of “court-packing” to block a Republican nomination.

The Americans have gone too far, and Goldenberg rightly decries this development. But one has to ask whether it is all that bad given the stakes. People understandably want a say in the laws that govern them. If the SCOTUS takes a bigger piece of the pie of the law-making process, then citizens should have the right and the responsibility to campaign on “the court” as an issue.

In reality, Canada’s SCC is just as central in the Canadian polity as the SCOTUS is in the American. Despite the Court’s recent ruling in Comeau, the test to revisit previous precedents is fairly relaxed, and so litigants understandably invite the SCC to do so. This approach invites members of the Court to decide when, according to them, a particular precedent no longer jibes with modern times.  Whatever the strength of the Court’s stated commitment to living constitutionalism, it generally supports its “ideological sex appeal,”   viewing its role as deciding what is best for Canadian society. As Leonid pointed out in a previous post, the SCC has an ideology, but it is probably not evident to most.

A good example is the SCC’s opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. There, the SCC majority spoke of giving “benediction” to the right to strike. The full quote by the SCC majority is instructive: “[T]he right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right. It seems to me to be the time to give this conclusion constitutional benediction” [3]. In this example, it was the SCC that decided that now, rather than some past time, was the right time to expand a constitutional right, forever removing it from the realm of democratic debate. This is a political conclusion at heart, more an assessment of what modern times demand rather than what the law does.

And so, it is understandable that political groups should want to have a role in moving the Dworkinian Hercules. But as Goldenberg points out, Canadians have not latched on to these developments as a political matter. In fact, many of the criticisms I’ve advanced to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour case are common in the US, but less common in Canada. Canadians seem to be  sluggish in response to these tendencies in our own SCC. I can’t speak to why this is; but perhaps it is true to say, as the National Post did, that Canadians are simply “different” than Americans—more trusting of government institutions.

In light of the stakes, Canadians could learn from Americans in taking an active, critical interest in what the SCC does. While I do not advocate a full-blown American approach to judicial nominations, there are various ways Canadians should respond to this phenomenon. Justice Scalia’s prescription was a rigorous application of original meaning originalism, which he thought was the antidote to the excesses of living constitutionalism. I am partial to this approach, but I need not argue this point to make the following assertion: Canadians should first fully reckon with what the SCC is actually doing, whether one thinks its good or bad. If the SCC makes law, as so many legal realists believe, we should hold them to the same standards we hold legislatures. We should, in short,  become Supreme Court skeptics, rather than fawning admirers of our nation’s highest jurists.

This is a distinctly second-order response to the issue, but the most realistic one in the intellectual and legal climate in which we find ourselves.  Canadian academics certainly engage vigorously with SCC decisions, but the extent to which this filters into the larger society (or the extent to which it is representative of all potential critiques) is an open question. We should be concerned with fostering a healthy skepticism of the SCC, similar to the skepticism we hold for legislatures.

This means fostering an open climate of academic, cultural, and political discussion about the SCC, and viewing judges as humans, rather than celebrities—no more capable of coming to conclusions about the nature of human rights than any Joe or Jane Six-Pack. This is a more radical proposition than one might think; consider Leonid’s comments in his recent post about New Zealand’s anti-court criticism bill.

This could also involve a more open nomination process. I saw nothing particularly wrong with the selection process of Justice Marshall Rothstein. His “confirmation” hearings, while in reality non-binding, at least gave those interested a look into the mind of a man who would serve on the SCC. We can have these hearings without devolving into an American three-act-play, or a challenge to the independence of the institution. The fact that Justice Rothstein’s hearing was a model of decorum is an example of this working well.

Goldenberg’s piece underlines the problems with the American approach, but I think it paints far too rosy a picture of our courts.  The Americans understand the consequences of their system and are taking part in it. Canadians, as Goldenberg seems to admit, do not. This is not a fact of which we should be proud.



Trinity Western: Is this the price of good doctrine?


In Trinity Western, the Court confirmed (to undoubted cries of agony) that its approach to judicial review of administrative decisions implicating Charter rights, set out in Doré, is nominally still good law. But in application, the Court significantly changed Doré.  It applied the typical tests developed in the context of constitutional challenges to legislation, not the new approach set out in Doré. One is forced to ask whether the ambitious Doré project worked out, or if it is one more example of the Supreme Court saying one thing and doing the opposite.

As a refresher, Doré held that the typical “two-step” approach to Charter adjudication does not apply in the case of an administrative decision engaging Charter rights. The typical approach, to the Court, was an awkward fit to the varied context of administrative decision-making [6]. Instead, the Court’s new approach started from the unassailable proposition that all administrative decision-makers are bound by law, most notably the Charter. Because administrative decisions are “always required to consider fundamental values” under the Charter, [35] a decision-maker is supposed to balance “Charter values with the statutory objectives” [55].  This was its answer to what courts should do when administrative decisions “implicate” Charter values [34].

On judicial review, the question was whether the balance was proportionate, nothing more or less. In effect, the Court merged administrative and constitutional review. But importantly, Doré said nothing else on when a Charter value arises, who has the burden of demonstrating the application of a Charter value on the facts, or what test a court applies to determine when a Charter value is engaged.

Specifically, the Court did not say that the tests which apply to Charter challenges of legislation apply in the context of administrative discretion. For example, Doré did not consider whether the typical test for s.2(b) of the Charter (the right at issue in Doré) applied on the facts.  While this may be because the test for freedom of expression is quite permissive, I think there is something else at play. The Court did not explain how a claimed Charter value becomes constitutionally cognizable in the context of a case. In fact, arguably, the application of the typical Charter breach tests would be contrary to the Doré project; the Court expressly said that its “more flexible administrative approach” was “more consistent with the nature of discretionary decision-making” and its varied contexts [37]. The application of court-made tests would be contrary to the supposed “deeply democratic” nature of Doré, which embraced a diffused form of constitutional decision-making, rejecting the idea that courts should undertake a de novo review of constitutional values on judicial review [51].

In the Court’s next case, Loyola, it introduced a new requirement.  Loyola concluded that the first question in the case of a constitutional challenge to the exercise of discretion is “whether the decision engages the Charter by limiting its protections” [39]. This first step was a prerequisite to a consideration of whether the statutory objectives and Charter rights were proportionately balanced by the decision-maker.  But this “preliminary question” was not alluded to in Doré. In other words, the Doré Court did not make it a prerequisite to determine whether a right was “limited.” Doré used the term “implicated.”

This might be semantic, but I tend to think otherwise. There is a qualitative difference between a right being “limited” and a right being “implicated.” The former implies a prima facie assessment of merit—an analysis of whether there is some element of disproportionality. On the other hand, rights can be implicated without a finding of a limitation requiring justification. In fact, the Court put the question in Doré as which approach to apply when “a party argues that Charter values are implicated on judicial review” [52] (my emphasis). Implication seems to simply mean an argument.

In a likely attempt to make this distinction clearer, lower courts after Loyola added a new bug: the application of the tests typically used by courts to analyze constitutional challenges to legislation.  In many ways, this is an understandable extension on the Loyola limitation requirement; these tests provide some doctrinal method by which to determine if a right is limited requiring justification.

Take E.T. v Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. The context was a freedom of religion claim against the decision of a school board. The typical test to determine a freedom of religion infringement under s.2(a) provides that: (1) the claimant must demonstrate that he has a sincere religious belief (2) the claimant must show that the impugned law interferes with these beliefs in a manner that is more than trivial and insubstantial (see Hutterian Brethren, at para 32). The Court of Appeal for Ontario concluded that while the claimant made out a sincere religious belief (the subjective component of the test), the claimant failed to satisfy that the infringement at play interfered with that sincere belief [33]. Justice Sharpe concluded that “[a]s I have found no interference with the appellant’s freedom of religion that would engage the protection of s.2(a), it is unnecessary for me to consider whether, under the Doré/Loyola framework” the decision was reasonable [35]. While Lauwers and Miller JJA concurred in result with respect to the first part of the framework, they dissented in the reasoning, pointing out a number of challenges with the Supreme Court’s framework–and actually declining to apply the second step of the framework at all. But they did not dissent on the bifurcated nature of the analysis, and at any rate, the comments on the framework were likely obiter. For the record, E.T. does not stand alone.

In Trinity Western, the Court conducted the same analysis as in E.T. It first cited the two-step test for freedom of religion claims [63], and then concluded that “[i]f, based on this test, s.2(a) is not engaged, there is nothing to balance.”

E.T. and Trinity Western basically introduce the typical bifurcated Charter analysis which applies to legislation to the judicial review context. A right must be engaged/infringed before moving to the s.1 justification analysis.  But this was not what Doré prescribed. It seemed to introduce a more holistic exercise, based around proportionality. In this way, Trinity Western seems like something qualitatively different than the balancing test employed in Doré—even if it does not embrace Oakes fully. In fact, it seems closer to Multani, a decision invoking the typical Charter tests applied to legislative challenges. That case predated Doré, and was roundly criticized by the Court.

All in all, this is good news for critics of Doré, but not for the predictability of the law on the whole. Doré was a dog of a decision, and much has been written criticizing it.  I have previously attacked Doré because it undermined the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, and the symbiotic relationship between the tests developed in particular Charter provisions and the Oakes test. In fact, this was a feature of Rowe J’s opinion in Trinity Western. Other critics abound.

Perhaps this is an example of the law working itself pure.  Doré was unworkable, so lower courts (and the Supreme Court itself), simply relied on the existing tools of constitutional interpretation. This avoids many of the problems with Doré pointed to by critics, including the indeterminacy of a Charter “value” and what constitutes appropriate “balancing” under the Doré test.  The development also introduces a screening device for Charter claims. While all decision-makers have a requirement to consider Charter arguments, there should be no requirement to conduct a proportionality analysis in every case where a litigant invokes the Charter, because the Charter simply may not arise on the facts. In short, the approach puts the focus back on specific Charter rights and their purposes.

At the same time, Doré was supposed to solidify a completely revised relationship between administrative law and the Charter [30]. It was supposed to be a reflection of the anti-Diceyan approach to administrative law, allowing administrative decision-makers to “infuse” Charter values in the context of their statutory context and expertise [29]. Judicial review courts were not supposed to impose their understandings of constitutional law, their own tests, on administrative decision-makers.

I see this as yet another example where the Court has failed to clearly instruct lower courts and litigants. This is its modus operandi in administrative law. It fails to pick a lane and stay in it, and accordingly, it routinely says one thing and does another. Doré is no different—it counsels a merger of constitutional and administrative law, yet in practice it retains the classic approach it derided in Doré.  Lower courts are, understandably, relying on the analysis with which they are more familiar. A half-hearted balancing approach which is unclear on what must be balanced is unhelpful.

I am firmly on the side of letting Doré die. Its problems are evident, and the reliance interests are minimal—especially given the movement in lower courts and Trinity Western. But whatever the Court does with the case, it should do so convincingly. Doré is (almost) dead, but it comes at the cost of predictability. Is this the price of good doctrine in Canada?


A Respectful Dissent From the Khadr Consensus: Ward Revisited

The case of Omar Khadr gives scholars a rare opportunity to question the fundamentals of public law damages. Such damages are notoriously difficult to quantify. As Lord Shaw once put it, “the restoration by way of compensation is therefore accomplished to a large extent by the exercise of a sound imagination and the practice of a broad axe.” This is doubly true respecting violations of rights and freedoms.

Despite these difficulties, most observers have made near-conclusive and wide-ranging claims about damages in the context of the Khadr case. For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued that $10.5M is the invariable cost, in this case, of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms violation. Prof. Audrey Macklin similarly argued that the settlement is justified because the Government of Canada’s actions were “morally reprehensible”; and what’s more, a damages award at trial would have “dwarfed” the settlement figures. Prof Craig Martin simply argues that a restoration of “Canadian values” justifies the Khadr settlement. Other examples abound.

Whether the settlement and its quantum are justified in comparison to a damages award at trial is a fraught question. There are no easy answers provided by the law of constitutional damages. Yet the observers above reason from political premises about the importance of the Charter to Khadr’s “human rights” to wholly justify the settlement, without considering the legal justifications and difficulties associated with awarding Charter damages in this case. Indeed, much of the analysis has not engaged with Ward v Vancouver (City), in which the Supreme Court of Canada discussed the legal considerations directly relevant to Khadr.  In this post, I use the Ward analysis to critique two of the main claims used to support the settlement and its quantum: (1) that a sizeable settlement is appropriate based on the circumstances (2) quantum: that a damages award at trial would have “dwarfed” the settlement figures. Instead, it is just as likely that a damages award may not have reached $10.5M at all.

As we shall see, uncertainty is the watchword. That is what the law, not politics, prescribes–and why I dissent from the orthodoxy on this issue.

I will start with the former claim.  Let’s begin with what is true. The Charter must apply for a damages award to be available. Contrary to Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, the Charter does apply extraterritorially in this case. While there is a complex set of cases on Charter application abroad (see the recent episode of The Docket for a solid analysis), the Supreme Court held in Khadr 2010 that the Charter applied. That is now a decided legal point. The fact that Khadr could be characterized as a jihadist is also irrelevant for the purposes of Charter application—constitutional rights exist to afford protection  to those who the majority may not consider worthy of protection.

But it is not enough for the supporters of the settlement to draw a direct line from a Charter violation to the settlement. In Ward, the Supreme Court held that a complex analysis is required after a Charter breach is found in order to determine whether damages are an “appropriate and just remedy,” as per the text of s.24(1) of the Charter. The Court outlined the functional justifications for a Charter damages remedy which a claimant must trigger in order for damages to be appropriate: the remedy must compensate, deter future unconstitutional government action, or vindicate Charter rights.

It follows that whether a Charter damages remedy qua settlement is “appropriate” writ large is the wrong question. Instead, we must ask what the functional justification for the Khadr settlement is in the context of Ward. The settlement could be justified from different perspectives. This is a question of legal policy.

Compensation and vindication in this case are near-impossible to achieve. Though separate justifications, both vindication and compensation seek to resolve the intangible loss associated with a Charter violation. Millions of dollars will not put Khadr in the position he would have been in but-for the narrow Charter breaches, because his loss (the violation of Charter rights) cannot be measured. It will differ from judge to judge, court to court. It is true in the private law context (see Andrews) that courts routinely award for intangible, non-pecuniary loss.   It is also true that damages in the private law context are primarily justified by the Supreme Court on a compensatory basis: Blackwater v Plint, para 81. Much of this thinking informed the reasoning in Ward, where the Court held that the difficulty of measuring a harm should not be a bar to the availability of constitutional damages.  But both private and public law recognize the limitations of compensation for immeasurables by controlling for mass recovery in such circumstances.  For example, Andrews introduced a cap for non-pecuniary loss. On the other hand, Ward holds that even if a functional justification is identified, “good governance” concerns may militate against the award of Charter damages. If one cannot conclude that damages would properly compensate Khadr’s loss, Ward provides appropriate guidance, at para 53: “Large awards and the consequent diversion of public funds may serve little functional purpose in terms of the claimant’s needs and may be inappropriate or unjust…” In other words, we should not throw good money after bad, even to vindicate Charter rights in an abstract sense. This does not mean  that the law should not compensate when it is difficult—private law is fundamentally about compensation in such circumstances. It simply means that, especially in the Khadr case with no pecuniary loss, compensation may be a weaker justification than the alternatives—especially when the law itself recognizes the limitations.

Deterrence is a more promising function in this particular case. Law and economics theory tells us that the goal of damages-as-deterrent seeks to affect the incentives of future defendants by forcing them to internalize the costs of their tortious actions. Opponents claim that deterrence theory requires defendants to be perfectly rational economic actors, and that the empirical evidence is weak to support such a claim. However, as Professor Norman Siebrasse essentially claims in one of a series of blog posts, perfection is not of this world.  Damages fail on the deterrence rationale only if a defendant is perfectly irrational. If a defendant has some regard to consequences, deterrence theory can provide an explanation and justification for damages, including Charter damages where the compensatory rationale is exceedingly weak. This is because the possibility of liability affects, in some regard, the choices presented to a defendant in a given circumstance.

On this argument, the Khadr settlement might be justified on a deterrence basis. While government actors may not be cost-conscious, they are creatures of politics. They seek to avoid Khadr-type news cycles which obsess over multi-million dollar awards. Government actors may avoid violation of constitutional norms simply because it is in their interest to do so, having regard to the settlement consequences. Awards based on deterrence, for example, might be likely in respect of discriminatory police conduct based on race. The recent Elmardy case at the Ontario Divisional Court demonstrates how the Ward analysis is used to affect the incentives of future governments on a deterrence rationale, especially given the newsworthy nature of such police misconduct (see also Gabriella Jamieson’s recent analysis of Ward in the context of race, and the importance of deterrence).

In short, whether the Khadr settlement is justified is a question of legal policy. Different theories of public law damages can provide different perspectives. As of now, however, no proponent of the settlement has engaged with deterrence theory in a fulsome way. In other words, simply reasoning from abstract principles of “human rights” does not justify Charter damages as a legal matter, and provides no answers as to the suitability of the Khadr settlement or Charter damages.

The second point, on quantum, is one which admits of no easy answers. Yet most observers do not seem to question the Prime Minister’s assertion that the litigation of Khadr’s suit would have cost the government up to $40M. For at least two reasons, this is an impossible prediction to make or accept. Even if awarded, a damages award consisting of Charter damages might not have reached even $10.5M. I should note that I do not address liability in tort respecting quantum. While that is a relevant consideration, I am responding primarily to the commentators who have focused their analysis on the Charter breaches and damages flowing from same. Much of the uncertainty respecting Charter damages applies to the relationship between common law and constitutional damages, at any rate.

First, there is a paucity of Charter damages case law with which to analogize and compare the Khadr settlement in order to make these conclusions. Ward holds that quantum is governed in deterrence and vindication cases (such as Khadr) by a number of factors, including precedent and the seriousness of the breach: see paras 51-52. Since 2010, when Ward was decided, only a handful of cases have awarded Charter damages awards in the millions. Henry involved a case of wrongful imprisonment for a period of around 27 years. The BC Supreme Court awarded $7.5M in Charter damages, designed to vindicate Henry’s rights; an additional $530 000 was awarded for pecuniary loss. In BCTF v British Columbia, a trial court awarded $2M for bad-faith legislation—a rarity in constitutional remedies. Finally, in Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Brittanique v British Columbia, the BC Supreme Court awarded $6M in Charter damages for the underfunding of a minority education transportation system. The facts, quantum of damages, and justifications for the remedy in each of these cases diverge wildly—making it difficult to draw any legal conclusions or precedential value for the Khadr case.

Moreover, few Charter damages awards since Ward have come close to $10.5M, with most cases awarding nominal damages. This is true even of recent solitary confinement cases which might be analogized to Khadr. In Ogiamien, Justice Gray held that $85 000 would compensate for the losses of two plaintiffs who suffered under conditions which “outraged standards of decency.” In that case, the court found that the conditions violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment contained in s.12 of the Charter. If that amount of money satisfied the judge’s “outrage” in that case, it might very well satisfy any outrage in Khadr. This goes to the basic premise—compensation will be in the eye of the beholder, a trial judge. Reasonably, there is enough for a judge to conclude that $10.5M is not justified because of the limited breach.

This connects to the second point: because damages require an imaginative judiciary, and because there is little case law on the matter, much depends on how a trial judge would have analyzed the facts and the evidence respecting the “seriousness of the breach.” Michael Spratt argues that the breach was quite serious, given Khadr’s youth and circumstances. But Professor Macklin characterizes Khadr 2010, which found the breaches, as a “narrow” ruling, simply based on questioning and interrogation—no cruel and unusual punishment as in Ogiamien, torture, or otherwise (though, as noted above, Macklin supports the settlement). However a judge would resolve this debate will tell the tale. There is enough doubt, though, to question confident predictions of any “dwarfing”–and to support the opposite conclusion.

This is an unsatisfying conclusion. But there is no problem in stating what the law and the facts dictate: one cannot claim in any probabilistic sense that the damages award at trial would have “dwarfed” the settlement figure. There are simply too many variables to make that conclusion—there is at least some reasonable doubt.


At the end of the day, while the Charter protects the fundamental rights of those like Khadr, that does not mean that a violation of a particular right leads inexorably to any particular remedy. It does not mean that compensation follows, or that it is justified from a legal policy perspective. Much nuance has been left out of the public comments on the Khadr settlement. Many have found it appropriate to simply say that a damages award, no matter the quantum, is justified because of the violation of Khadr’s rights. That may be a sound political argument. But the law requires more. It would be appropriate to see observers engage with the legal justifications for Charter damages rather than political justifications. Moreover, it would be helpful for analysts to recognize the limitations of the law in predicting the ceiling on an award of Charter damages. Engaging on those terms will improve the state of constitutional remedies and provide more convincing analysis.