Much Ado About Context: A Note in Anticipation of Vavilov et al

A short post today about the role of “context” in administrative law. Many speak about “context” in the law of judicial review as if it is some inherent element of the law. In Khosa, Justice Binnie, for example, noted that in applying the reasonableness standard of review, the standard “takes its colour from the context” (Khosa, at para 59). But nowhere did Justice Binnie describe what context matters, or how it matters. In Dunsmuir itself, Bastarache and LeBel JJ said that “[t]he analysis must be contextual in applying the standard of review (Dunsmuir, at para 46). They said this in the context of discussing the “pragmatic and functional” factors that still, nominally, exist under the Dunsmuir framework. Whatever these quotes actually mean, the role of context in the law of judicial review is a distinct school of thought worthy of its own blog post (see Dean R Knight’s Vigilance and Restraint in the Common Law of Judicial Review for more discussion of contextual approaches to the law of judicial review).

Nonetheless, I am always puzzled by generic calls to “context.” Floating on a sea of “context” does nothing to guide litigants or judges in applying the law. What is required are simple, clear rules that are attuned to the fact that decision-makers arise in different statutory contexts, that can guide the parties and judges involved in applications for judicial review (for a contrary view about the search for simplicity in the law of judicial review, see Justice Cromwell’s “What I Think I Have Learned About Administrative Law” in the CJALP).

How can one have simple rules that adequately capture the vast array of decision-makers? This is, I think, the core dilemma facing the Supreme Court in the Vavilov case and perhaps in the law of judicial review more generally. For me, the key in enshrining the role of context is to look to the varied statutory contexts in which administrative decisions are made. Clearly, when speaking about context, we cannot mean that the standard of review analysis must encapsulate how decision-makers empirically act on a day-to-day basis. That is, courts cannot afford more or less deference based on how administrators actually act in the context of their day-to-day jobs. This would be an information-intensive exercise that judicial review courts are, obviously, ill-equipped to handle. So we need some proxy for context that takes into account the varying ways in which administrative decision-makers exercise their powers.

Of course, administrative decision-makers live in a world where their powers are “themselves confined” by statutes (Dunsmuir, at para 29). This means that administrative powers are delegated in the context of broader statutory schemes that set out when, how, and under what circumstances delegated powers are to be exercised. For example, are administrative decisions covered by a strong privative clause, impliedly signalling that Parliament wanted to limit judicial oversight? This is a sign, perhaps, that deference should be afforded. Has Parliament set out a list of factors that a decision-maker must consider (see Farwaha, at para 91)? This means that the decision-maker must consider these factors, not ones extraneous to the legislation—all things equal, this is a sign that the court must only consider whether the decision-maker considered these factors. Every statute is different, and each statute will affect the way in which courts review particular exercises of delegated power.

Practically, this means that what we require are meta-rules for courts to apply in analyzing statutes in service of deciding and applying on a standard of review—in other words, we need rules for deciding what statutory context matters. Luckily, we have those meta-rules: the rules of statutory interpretation. The Supreme Court has recognized that the principles of statutory interpretation are key in discerning the scope–and therefore the intensity of review–of delegated power (Bibeault, at para 120; also recognizing the difficulty of the task). And this is the key: if statutory context is the best evidence we have of what the legislature meant when it delegated power to a decision-maker, then the rules of statutory interpretation are all we need to discern how much deference is owed a particular decision-maker.

What is to be avoided, on this line of thought, is the Supreme Court’s generic approach that institutes a rule that clearly ignores statutory context. The presumption of deference on home statute interpretation increasingly applies without viewing any statutory context (see my post on CHRC, for example). And as I wrote earlier, the Court rarely pays attention to implicit signals from the legislature, through statutory rights of appeal and other legislative mechanisms (though the Court did so admirably in Tervita and Rogers). This seems contrary to the whole search for legislative “intent” that characterizes this area of the law.

If context is truly to mean context, then the Supreme Court should pay attention to the varied statutory contexts in which administrative decision-making occurs, by giving effect to the legislature’s meaning.

Upcoming Talks

Following in my co-blogger Leonid Sirota’s footsteps, I am posting a list of the talks I am giving across Canada this fall. My list is much shorter than Leonid’s, but if you are at any of these events, please feel free to come say hello. As Leonid says, it is always great to meet readers of the blog in person:

September 19: University of Saskatchewan College of Law, 11:30-1pm, “The Extreme Intoxication Defence” with Professor Sarah Burningham. I will discuss my recent paper on the McCaw case and declarations of invalidity in superior courts.

September 20: Canadian Law and Economics Association Annual Conference, University of Toronto Faculty of Law, 12:00pm: “An Economic Theory of Immunization in the Canadian Law of Judicial Review.” My paper deals with the problem of immunization adverted to in a number of Federal Court of Appeal decisions, and advances an informational explanation for the causes of immunization.

More information on the conference here. 

October 18: Université de Montréal (Symposium of the Journal of Commonwealth Law): “The Political Problem with Human Rights Tribunals,” a discussion of the norm of independence in administrative decision-making and the tension between political accountability and independence.

Hope to see you at one of these events!

Ignoring Legislative Intent: Deference in Quebec and s.96

The constitutionality of a regime of deference is not something much explored in the wider context of Canadian administrative law. But in Quebec, the question is a live one because of particular statutory and judicial arrangements. The Quebec Court of Appeal just released a case [the Reference] that dealt with the question head on: does a statutory court’s statutory review of administrative decision-makers become unconstitutional if that court is required to apply principles of deference?

In this post, I first review the set-up of the Court of Quebec and its relationship with various statutes that nourish it with appellate review power. Then I address the controversy surrounding the way the Court is arranged. I argue that deference in these circumstances is, indeed, unconstitutional based on first principles. It deprives the Superior Court of Quebec of a core element of its jurisdiction—its ability to review, without impediment, inferior tribunals. But I argue that there is a way around the constitutional problem. Courts should begin to recognize, and give full effect, to statutory rights of appeal as elements of legislative intent. Doing so largely eliminates deference questions and is more aligned with the task of judicial review: to discover what the legislature means when it delegates power.

The Court of Quebec, Established Law, and the Quebec Court of Appeal’s Conclusion

The Court of Quebec is a statutory court. It has been given, through a number of statutes, appellate review jurisdiction over a number of administrative tribunals in the province of Quebec. This is a key point that I will return to later: appellate, statutory review jurisdiction should be fundamentally different from an application for judicial review.

In the reference before the Court of Appeal, the chief justices of the Superior Court challenged eight separate legislative schemes that provide for appeals to the Court of Quebec. Their challenge was based on s.96 of the Constitution Act 1867, which, among other things, guarantees a core jurisdiction for the superior courts of the provinces. The challenge concerned not the establishment of a statutory court/tribunal per se (which has typified the jurisprudence around s.96), but the requirement imposed doctrinally that the Court of Quebec must apply principles of judicial deference when they review the decisions—via statutory appeal—of administrative decision-makers.

Administrative law buffs might immediately recoil at the argument, because the Supreme Court has long made clear that judicial review principles apply regardless of whether a case comes to the court via an application for judicial review or statutory rights of appeal (see Dr. Q, at para 20; Saguenay, at para 38). The Court has even held, with respect to the Court of Quebec, that it is required to apply principles of judicial deference (Proprio Direct, at paras 19-21). But recall that this argument is constitutional in nature—that the status of the Court of Quebec, coupled with the requirement of deference, runs afoul of the protections afforded in s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 for superior courts. This is a unique argument because it is both the jurisprudential requirement of deference and the Court of Quebec’s statutory status which, together, create an alleged unconstitutional effect.

The Quebec Court of Appeal, though, rejected this argument in whole. It held (1) that the Court of Quebec must apply common law principles, with Dunsmuir standards of review as the governing tests (see para 280); and (2) although there was a transfer of authority to the Court of Quebec that, at first glance, usurps the Superior Court’s s.96 role, this was insufficient to cause a s.96 problem, because “…all of these legislative schemes maintain the Superior Court’s superintending and reforming power” (324). In other words, there was no privative clause ousting the Superior Court’s power on “jurisdiction,” even if the Court of Quebec was to apply deferential principles of review. Since what was envisioned was not an exclusive transfer of jurisdiction (as exemplified in the s.96 cases, see MacMillan Bloedel), there was no constitutional problem.

Avoiding the Constitutional Problem: Statutory Rights of Appeal

In my view, and putting aside for the moment the constitutional concerns, whether the Quebec Court of Appeal got this right is dependent on how one characterizes a statutory right of appeal. If a statutory right of appeal is characterized as a legislative signal for a reviewing court—even a statutory court like the Court of Quebec— to simply apply the ordinary principles applicable on appeal, what basis is there for a court to apply the principles of deference? It is only by accepting that the common law principles of judicial review override clear statutory signals that we get into this problem of constitutionality, at least in the context of this case.

As noted above, though, the Court has been content to permit uniformity in the way courts review administrative decision-makers, through the application of the typical common law tests. In a variety of contexts, the Court has either treated statutory rights of appeal as non-determinative (see Pezim, at 591 and Southam, at para 54) or has specifically said that the common law principles of judicial deference apply, even in the face of a clear legislative regime governing a statutory court (Khosa, at para 25).

While the Quebec Court of Appeal rightly followed this jurisprudence, it seems to me completely wrong in principle. Under no circumstances should common law principles of judicial review apply if the legislature has specified, in the relevant statutes, a right of appeal to a statutory “court of justice” (see para 363). This is because a statutory right of appeal is an implicit legislative signal that, on questions of law, the statutory court should simply intervene in a lower administrative decision as it sees fit. Statutory rights of appeal stand for this proposition unless they contain some wording that would imply deference, or unless there are other signals in the statute, like a privative clause.  Forcing these courts to apply common law principles of judicial review ignores this implicit legislative signal.

What’s more, the theoretical underpinnings of the Supreme Court’s maintenance of the common law rule are wanting. The basic point is that the very act of delegation to (apparently) “specialized” and “expert” administrative tribunals justifies deference. But there are two problems with this justification. On one hand, it is completely unjustified to impute a legislative intent of deference to the legislature when it merely delegates power. The reasons why a legislature delegates power are many, but there is no evidence to assume that it does so because it wants the decision-maker to receive deference. Why should courts assume so? Secondly, the across-the-board expertise presumption is not necessarily empirical true. In this sense, it is a classic overbroad rule.

This conclusion was forcefully expressed by Rothstein J in Khosa. In that context, the Supreme Court majority held that the ordinary principles of judicial review apply when the Federal Court reviews decisions of federal decision-makers. But the Court gave no effect to the Federal Courts Act, which establishes certain grounds of review that could also be said to imply standards of review (see s.18.1(4)). Rothstein J noted that “a common law standard of review analysis is not necessary where the legislature has provided for standards of review” (Khosa, at para 99).  Instead, where the legislature has done so,  the common law idea of deference melts away. It is for the legislature to evaluate expertise, and include a privative clause, if it sees fit to mandate deference; it is not for the court to simply override legislative language in service of some court-created ideal of deference.

Rothstein J’s position is on better footing. Rather than buying into the expertise presumption, and the subversion of the relationship between common and statutory law that it creates, his position expresses support for the typical relationship between these two types of law; statutory law takes priority over the common law. It is for the legislature to prescribe the relevant standard of review. And in the context of the Court of Quebec—at least the relevant statutes in the case—the legislature has. Of the eight statutes at play in the Quebec case, all of them contain a statutory right of appeal. Some even contain language specifying that “The Court can confirm, alter or quash any decision submitted to it and render the decision which it considers should have been rendered in first instance (see para 217; s.175 of the Professional Code). This is strong, “correctness”-type language.  Even in absence of such language, a statutory right of appeal ousts the common law rule of deference, and removes any constitutional doubt from the issue. In each case of a statutory right of appeal, it is a sign that deference should not be the modus operandi.

Addressing the Constitutional Problem: The Core of Judicial Review

But, whether or not my preferred position is adopted, there could still be cases where deference arises—either by legislative language or judicially imposed doctrines. In such a case, was the Quebec Court of Appeal right to hold that there is no constitutional problem with deference?

In my view, it was not. The starting point is the Supreme Court’s comment in MacMillan Bloedel that it is not permissible for the legislature to remove any “core” powers of the superior courts in the provinces (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 37). As the Court noted, “ [d]estroying part of the core jurisdiction would be tantamount to abolishing the superior courts of general jurisdiction.” Therefore, even abolishing part of the core jurisdiction is tantamount to destroying it all, according to the Supreme Court. This conclusion was cited by the Quebec Court of Appeal (at para 46).

What is protected in the core jurisdiction? For our purposes, as the Quebec Court of Appeal noted, “the exercise of a superintending and reforming power over the provincial courts of inferior jurisdiction and provincial public bodies” is part of the core (at para 45, citing MacMillan Blodel at paras 34 and 35). This is an aspect of the core jurisdiction which can never be removed—even in part. Yet the effect of asking the Court of Quebec to apply deference is to dilute this reviewing function. As Professor Daly notes in his “Les appels administratifs au Canada” (2015) 93 Canadian Bar Review 71:

This power of the Superior Court to correct certain types of illegalities committed by inferior tribunals in the exercise of their jurisdiction was an integral part of the Court’s supervisory authority as it existed in 1867; it is therefore clear that such control power cannot be validly transferred by the Legislature from the Superior Court to a court that is not comprised within the enumeration contained in s. 96 of the B.N.A. Act.

Attorney General (Que.) et al. v. Farrah [1978] 2 SCR 638 at p. 654. See similarly Séminaire de Chicoutimi v. City of Chicoutimi, 1972 CanLII 153 (SCC), [1973] S.C.R. 681.

The requirement of deference significantly dilutes this role, to the point where the core power of the superior court is imperiled. This is because of a “double deference” problem, as Professor Daly argues. The Court of Quebec will apply deference to the administrative tribunal’s legal findings. Then, the Superior Court will defer to the Court of Quebec. When the Superior Court defers, though, it simply asks whether the Court of Quebec’s decisions is reasonable or not. It does not get a first instance glimpse of the legality of the decision. This double deference problem significantly limits, if not fundamentally changes, the task of the Superior Court.

The Court in the Reference responds to this problem by saying that:

[W]hen the Superior Court hears an application for judicial review of a judgment of the Court of Quebec, it must begin by focusing on the administrative decision in order to first determine whether the Court of Quebec identified the appropriate standard (which, in Superior Court, is a question of law subject to the correctness standard, and then determine whether it applied the standard properly. Thus, strictly speaking, the judgment of the Court of Quebec is set to one side and the impugned administrative decision is the one under review.

This might solve the double deference problem, but it creates a whole other issue: it deprives the Court of Quebec of the appellate jurisdiction that the legislature intended it to have (see Professor Daly’s post here). Now, the Court of Quebec’s ruling is set aside. Here again is another example of courts failing to respect legislative intent.

This is a less-than-ideal solution to the constitutional problem of double-deference.

Conclusion

This is a complex case, and my views are necessarily tentative. But I think, in the first place, that the constitutional problem can be avoided in many cases by simply giving effect to the appellate jurisdiction that the legislature granted to the Court of Quebec. In cases where the problem does arise, I think the Quebec Court of Appeal’s solution to the problem is less than ideal, because it again ignores legislative intent.

CARL v Canada, 2019 FC 1126: Administrative Delegation and Guidelines

How far can an administrative agency go before it fetters its decision-making discretion? This is an important practical question. On one hand, the Federal Court of Appeal has recognized that agencies can issue guidelines—even in absence of any legislative authorization to do so (Thamotharem, at para 56), in part because agencies are masters in their own house (Prassad, at 568-569). One might argue that such a power is important and necessary for good government. But on the other hand, agencies cannot bind their own decision-makers through non-legal, non-binding policy guidelines—this impinges on the necessity, at common law, for decision-makers to exercise their functions independently. How do we square this impossible circle? How does independence—central to the Rule of Law, subject to statutory constraints—govern the efficiency of the administrative state?

The case of CARL v Canada, a recent Federal Court case, attempts to address this problem. In this post, I first address the issue at play in CARL. Then I address implications of the decision for good administration. Specifically, I argue that the Parliament should resile from broad-based delegations that empower decision-makers to issue guidelines; instead, these delegations, in order to respect the common law principle of independence, should clearly delineate when and where it is appropriate for decision-makers to bind themselves. The desire should be for more specificity in delegation.

Issue

CARL involved a challenge by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) against four so-called “jurisprudential guides” [JG] issued by the Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board [the Board], purporting to guide other members of the Board. Under s.159(1)(h) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act [IRPA], Parliament has authorized the Chairperson of the Board to issue JGs, which are guidelines based on model decisions by other decision-makers on the IRB. CARL challenged four JGs (Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China) on different grounds, only one of which is relevant for us here: “Do the impugned JGs unlawfully fetter Board members’ discretion and improperly encroach upon their adjudicative independence?” (para 55).

After concluding that the JGs in question permissibly specify issues of fact for decision-makers to consider, the Federal Court turned to the main issue of fettering. The Court, after considering the principle of adjudicative independence at common law (there was no Ocean Port argument about statutory ousting; see para 147), started the analysis by stating that there was no authority which permitted a decision-maker “to issue a JG or other “soft law” instrument that constrains the complete freedom of quasi-judicial decision-makers to make their own factual determinations, free from pressure or inducement from others” (102). The Court distinguished this sort of guideline from other situations, such as where a Minister issued his own policy guidelines (see Maple Lodge), and a situation where an adjudicative decision-maker bound itself as to its own procedures (Thamotharem).

The question of whether a guideline impermissibly fetters the discretion of a decision-maker turns on a basic distinction; whether a guideline purports to specify factual circumstances beyond the circumstances before a decision-maker (see para 172). It is fair game, in other words, for a guideline to set out general considerations that a decision-maker should undertake. It is not fair game for guidelines to impose “…an expectation that factual conclusions will be adopted or a requirement to provide reasoned justification as to why such conclusions were not adopted” (see para 150). A lack of indication in a guideline, for example, that each case should be judged on its own merits could be a significant problem (para 139). On the basis of these principles, the Court found that three of the four JGs presented a fettering problem.

Analysis

One might say that this case is largely a run-of-the-mill, administrative law case. One could be right. But normal cases sometimes present an opportunity to grapple with difficult and fundamental issues in administrative law. On that front, there are two main issues that this case raises: (1) the proper balance between administrative efficiency and Rule of Law concerns and (2) the specificity of Parliamentary delegation on these issues.

In my view, the Court in CARL basically outlines the correct principle at the outset when it said that

As far as factual determinations are concerned, the principle that “s/he who hears must decide” is sacrosanct. It is a fundamental pillar of the rule of law. It cannot be sacrificed on the altar of achieving greater consistency and efficiency in administrative decision-making (at para 1).

In absence of statutory ousting, the Court is absolutely correct—independence is an important virtue, connected to the Rule of Law. Where statutes are truly ambiguous, the courts should guard against encroachments on the principle of independence which at common law is extended to administrative decision-makers (see Matsqui). This is because of the Rule of Law itself. For example, Joseph Raz argued in his “The Rule of Law and its Virtue” that an independent judiciary is an integral component of the Rule of Law. It is impossible for all to be subjected equally to the law if the arbiter of the law is not separated from all the parties in front of it. This has particular resonance in administrative law. If an administrative decision-maker is to administer the law through delegated power, it should remain separate and apart from its controller, a particular executive actor. This is all subject, of course, to statutory constraint; the principle of parliamentary sovereignty takes priority over common law independence.

This seems easy enough in the abstract. But the problem becomes more difficult when we are speaking about when administrative decision-makers themselves purport to bind their own discretion in the name of efficiency. Here, the Court’s concern is right on point. The delegation of power to agencies is motivated, in large part, by efficiency concerns. The argument runs something like this: Parliament cannot make, and the executive cannot administer, all of the law required to run a country at any particular point; so Parliament delegates power away to do these things to so-called expert tribunals to take advantage of their expertise, and so that the laws can be administered and made efficiently in order to keep up with modern necessities. I have significant problems with this traditional story, but let us assume it is true. The delegation of power to publish JGs is important from an efficiency perspective, because it creates economies of scale. These economies of scale are particularly directed towards issues of fact, which might arise across factual contexts—this is true with regard to refugee determinations, where the same conditions and facts may frequently arise in relation to specific countries. Those who might view administrative decision-makers as repositories of expert efficiency could say that the frequent issuance of JGs under appropriately delegated authority is highly desirable. The creation of economies of scale in the administrative state—a foundational principle of efficiency—is exactly what we expect from administrative decision-makers.

But the cost of efficiency could come against the judicial independence component of the Rule of Law. If, in the name of efficiency, administrative decision-makers purport to limit the right of individuals to a common law, independent decision-maker, it is clear that the administrative efficiency concern must give way. In this sense, there is no real balance to be had between efficiency and independence. Independence must govern, absent a statute saying otherwise. Experts should be on tap, not on top.

This is particularly true in refugee contexts. Refugee determinations are not a place to experiment with economies of scale. These determinations must be based on the inherent qualities of a refugee claimant’s circumstances. It is an individual assessment. In that context, independence takes on even greater importance. Attempting to completely stultify that process through internal guidelines is profoundly corrosive of a refugee’s right to determination on the facts.

This relates to the second concern. When Parliament delegates power to create JGs in s.159(1)(h), it does so in capacious and ambiguous language:

s.159(1) The Chairperson is, by virtue of holding that office, a member of each Division of the Board and is the chief executive officer of the Board. In that capacity, the Chairperson

[…]

(h) may issue guidelines in writing to members of the Board and identify decisions of the Board as jurisprudential guides, after consulting with the Deputy Chairpersons, to assist members in carrying out their duties.

Such a delegation illustrates the broader point about efficiency that characterizes the act of delegation itself. Parliament saw fit, in this delegation, not to specify the kinds or scope of JGs that would be permissible or impermissible. For example, the Court in CARL had to decide whether JGs could be issued in respect of issues of fact. Further, it is unclear just how far a JG should be able to go, if indeed such an instrument could be used to specify issues of fact. Rather than specifying these matters, the delegation is broad-based, purporting to clothe the Chairperson of the IRB with authority to issue guidelines of any sort. But clearly, such guidelines could be problematic from an independence perspective. These sorts of broad delegations, while lawful and constitutional, are undesirable from a good governance perspective. They fail to adequately state up front the sorts of considerations that decision-makers and courts should take into effect when issuing and reviewing JGs. The failure to do so rests a great deal of authority in administrative decision-makers to issue any number of JGs, with the only control an application for judicial review.

The weight of controlling administrative discretion cannot be borne by the courts alone. Parliament, too, has a role to play in good governance; by issuing clear, legislative rules that bind these decision-makers in the exercise of their authority. The goal of such rules would be to clearly demarcate where common law protections begin and end. Put differently, administrative decision-makers should not be able to, internally, subvert the common law of independence without Parliament’s express imprimatur. Otherwise, the game is rigged from the inside.

The First Year of Law School

For many, the coming of September signals the start of a new school year. More specifically, law schools will be kicking into full gear in the coming days and weeks, and nervous 1Ls will occupy the halls of law schools the country over. 1L can be a scary time; meeting new people, overcoming the challenges of a rigorous academic education, and simply learning a new legal language can all appear daunting. I write today to try to assuage some concerns, and in general, make a few recommendations about how to approach life, law, and law school. Of course, my views are simply based on my experiences. But I am in the position of being about 2 years out of the law school experience, and in that time, I have gained some perspective about how to get the most out of one’s time at law school. I present these ideas in no particular order.

The first thing that is important, I think, is to recognize for whom the law is designed. I had a professor in my first year of law school tell us that we were now separate and apart from the man or woman  on the street, who could not understand legal language. Of course, this is strictly true; people who aren’t trained as lawyers are not lawyers. But I think it is important to retain perspective. The law is not designed to separate the intelligentsia from the rest of us. It is designed for the people, and lawyers are there to communicate complex legal concepts to the people. Once one becomes a lawyer, they do not stand separate and apart from the rest of society. And one is no better than anyone else simply because they have chosen a life of the law.

This is why I urge students to learn plain-language writing, and to not take prose tips from the old judges you read in 1L. Far be it from me to dole out writing tips, but I think that learning to write for one’s audience is such an important skill that should be inculcated in the first year of law school. This takes practice. But it will make you a better, more relatable lawyer in the long run, especially if you wish to practice law.

Secondly, I think it is important to enter law school with an open mind. One might have an idea as to the sort of career path in the law that one will take once entering the law school. But it is important to recognize that that path should not be set in stone. At the stage of entering law school, it is hard to fathom the ways in which you will grow; the passions you will develop; and the skills you will learn. You may very well be a different person at the end of the experience. So, if you really want to be a criminal lawyer now, nurture that interest. But do not stop thinking about the other possible avenues.

Third, I would view law school as a time to intellectually feast. This is true even if you do not want to be an academic. There will likely never be another time (unless you pursue graduate studies) where you can sit back and learn for the sake of learning. You will be surrounded by smart students and professors. Take advantage of that opportunity. It will also make you a better lawyer in the long run.

Connected to this is the ever-present issue of grades. Grades are the necessary evil of law school. Indeed, it is true that one needs good grades in order for certain doors to open. But keep in mind that you will have an impoverished law school experience if you only take courses in which you think you will do well in your upper years. Take courses that will challenge you. Do so for two reasons. First, a course that challenges you is, in its own right, a benefit to you. You will learn something you didn’t know before, in a way that forced your mind to operate in different ways. Second, if you put in enough work, a challenging course could end up being a sparkling A on your transcript.

Fourth, work hard—but do not shun your friends and family. This is a grave mistake that can sometimes be made by those who feel they need to work 24/7 to do well or to be an ideal lawyer. The assumption is not true. It is more important to work smart rather than hard. By this, I mean adopt a method for reading cases that works for you; decide what the most important parts of the case are and focus on those parts. In class, consider the possibility that it is bad for your overall education to transcribe pages of notes, much of which might be irrelevant come exam time. By listening intently and writing down what is important, you end up leaving more time at the back-end to study the material, rather than creating some master document of the material that is 100 pages long. Hopefully, with this sort of method in place, you have time to retain connections with those that matter to you. Because law school is only three years, but friends and family are forever.

The final point that I can raise is something that is of the utmost importance to me, personally: dare to be different. If you don’t agree with something your professor or fellow classmate says, and have an intelligent critique to offer, speak up. Of course, this is not an invitation to interrupt a lecture with uninformed commentary. No one likes that. But if you have an informed disagreement with a professor that is material to the class discussions, let him or her know. This will help you to learn the language of argument in the law, not to mention that it will force you to understand the material from different perspectives. Being different can come at a cost. But it is worth standing up for what you believe in.

Overall, take law school for what it is; a glorious opportunity to learn and to grow. Do not take it as an opportunity to be competitive, or to prove you are the smartest. You will lose out in the end. Remain humble, eager to learn, and be proud of what you stand for and believe. In my view, these are the tickets to a fantastic law school experience.

Madison and Canadian Constitutional Law

Because we are in the slow days of summer, and I have a bit more time on my hands than I would usually have, I picked up a copy of Richard Matthews’ 1995 book, If Men Were Angels: James Madison & the Heartless Empire of Reason. Immediately, one’s Canadian eyes might begin to glaze over. Why should one care about an American Founding Father, specifically one that is somewhat more obscure in the common eye than Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton? To my mind, Madison raises a number of implications for contemporary debates in Canada about the nature of our government and the interpretation of our Constitution. In this post, I’d like to address two of those implications. First is the idea of deference to legislatures, and how Madison’s views serve as lighting rods for debate on the relative institutional capacities of courts and legislatures. Secondly, and more controversially, is the idea of to whom the Constitution “belongs” and whether it matters for the interpretive approach one adopts in relation to the Constitution.

First, a bit of background about the book and its subject. Matthews paints a picture of Madison as a “quintessential liberal,” who continues to, today, impact the way Americans view their government. Madison, who was a chief architect of the Constitution’s structural provisions and the Bill of Rights, is often placed on a lower rung than Thomas Jefferson in the hierarchy of American founders. And yet, for Matthews, it is Madison who has come to typify modern American government and life. This reality lies, for Matthews, in a quintessential difference in Madisonian and Jeffersonian politics. Matthews paints Madison, at heart, as a Hobbesian; or perhaps a Malthus. Either way, Madison does not view political life as a teleological good as the ancients did. Rather, political life is nasty, brutish, and short; and humanity leans inexorably towards degeneration. Madison is a political skeptic. To him, left to their own devices, humans will inevitably turn on one another, no matter how good or virtuous they might be. Hence, democracy had to be tempered because “had every Athenian Citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob (see The Federalist Papers, No. 55). For Matthews, “[f]rom Madison’s view of the individual, democracy was a fool’s illusion; in the long run, little could be done, beyond playing for time, to forestall the decline or to improve the human condition” [51] because “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason” (The Federalist Papers, No.50).

Madison’s prescription for this natural state of affairs was republican constitutionalism. If the human condition could not be improved, and if virtue could not be instilled, the least one could do is preserve a peaceful status quo. For Hobbes, the method to do this was the Leviathan. But for Madison, the separation of powers was the preferred prescription. By making “ambition counteract ambition” through the mutual jealousy of the branches of government, the worst vices of humanity could be tempered. And, by making a republic that extended over a large geographic area rather than a classic Athenian demos, the risk of factionalism decreased.

On the other hand, Jefferson’s political philosophy reveals a different sort of view of the human condition and political organization. For Jefferson, politics is a constitutive act of citizenship, in which the people constantly reinvent their laws to suit their circumstances. Hence Jefferson’s frequently-cited admonition that “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” And Jefferson operationalized this reality: he believed that the Constitution and the laws should renew every generation, so that the dead do not bind the living in their constant fulfillment of democratic, civic republicanism. Jefferson obviously viewed humans as far less fallible than Madison did.

Matthews views the matter differently than Madison, adopting a Jeffersonian position on the matter. For Matthews, “Madison’s liberal dream has, as he knew it would, turned into a nightmare for an increasing number of marginalized Americans” [279]. And this rings somewhat true: even more so than in 1995, the ability of people to connect over the Internet and to peddle in fake news and “deep fakes” has made it much easier to bypass republic protections and create mob rule.

This political theorizing seems far off from the world of Canadian law, and so how does any of it apply? As I noted above, I think there are real reasons why Madison’s thinking, Jefferson’s philosophy, and Matthews’ book all have something to say about contemporary debates in our own institutions. Take first the question of judicial deference to legislatures. In Canada, courts will defer to legislatures on constitutional questions under the Oakes test. If one adopts the Madisonian position, why is there any reason to defer to legislators? The question rings powerfully in the context of Canadian law, where there is a more closely-tied legislature and executive, and where the executive is responsible to the legislature. In such a case, there are no separation of powers protections to prevent the worst human vices. Couldn’t the legislature or executive simply channel mob rule?

There is some evidence of this, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota and I wrote about here in reference to the SNC-Lavalin affair. The example shows that humans—of which politicians are a special class—will not act properly when the incentives aren’t right. The lure of winning an election and doing whatever it takes to do so might be too great a Madisonian evil. After all, it was Justin Trudeau’s justification in the SNC-Lavalin affair that “jobs” were the driving force behind his attempted interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. This leaves us wondering whether there is any reason for courts to defer to legislatures controlled by calculating executives.

But one must take the situation as it is. In this sense, Hart and Sacks and the legal process school had something right: institutional competency matters. And while legislatures are apt to turn into ineffectual mobs (look at the US Congress and the issue of gun control), or to focus on their own electoral futures, we are talking here about deference to legislatures on constitutional questions. Constitutional questions are more questions of policy-resolution than legal interpretation in the modern day. Of course, this is not normatively desirable or necessary. But it is the state of the world. And if that is the case, legislatures should have a legitimate say—if not a final one, because that responsibility is the judiciary’s—in how issues of policy are resolved. This says nothing of the fact that the people are the ultimate control on government, and for that reason, are always the best control on legislatures appealing to the worst of us.

Finally, I want to say a note about Jefferson’s living constitutionalism. Madison, I think, provides a response that is still apt today:

Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favour which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age?

Madison advances a valid epistemological reason for refusing to throw away the past, one I find convincing instinctively. But there is an additional reason why the principle of constitutionalism means that we cannot escape the past. As Hayek notes, the distinctive American contribution to the Rule of Law was the addition of the principle of constitutionalism, explained by Madison as the idea that the Constitution is supreme over ordinary law; that it is “fundamental.” The choice to make supreme certain elements of law is an intentional one, taken by a people after the expense of extensive political capital and energy. It is a sacred act. When it comes to bills of rights, the choice to make certain rights and freedoms beyond the reach of ordinary legislation is a deliberate choice to remove from the sphere of political debate those rights and freedoms. That, too, is a sacred act. The reason why the Constitution cannot be automatically renewed every generation—short of the amending procedure—is that to do so would disrespect the original choice to remove certain, important rights from the sphere of debate. This is an important formal act that should be presumptively respected because it represents the democratic choice of the people at a select time. That choice, absent the amending procedure, should not be abridged by an extralegal “renewal” of the Constitution; especially by courts. This, of course, is slightly different than saying that the people made the choices they did for good reasons.

I could write more, but this post is long enough. It is enough to say that Madison’s politics do view humans as inherently flawed, and these flaws reverberate through all of our institutions. It is fundamentally a question, though, of asking with respect to a particular legal question who is worse. Sometimes courts are best suited to deal with issues, but other times they are decidedly not.

Guest Post: Andrew Bernstein

A response to Mark Mancini’s post on Supreme Court appointments

About every 15 months, a vacancy arises in the Supreme Court of Canada. There is then a search process that lasts somewhere between a few weeks and a few months, which recommends certain candidates to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then selects the candidate and the Governor-in-Council makes the formal appointment “under the Great Seal.”

Since the appointment of Justice Marshall Rothstein in 2006, the process has had an additional step: the “Parliamentary hearing.” At this point, the Prime Minister’s selection is named, but instead of simply being appointed to the Court, s/he is as the “nominee.” This “nominee” then to appears before a Parliamentary committee and answers questions (or as Mark Mancini noted in his recent post, not answer questions) about various things, including his or her record, bilingualism, and even judicial philosophy. After these proceedings, the “nominee” is formally appointed to the Court.

The concept of the “hearing,” which neither exists in Canada’s constitution nor the Supreme Court Act was put in place 24 years after the Charter was enacted, as the result of decades of demands by media, academic and some conservative political figures. The concept was that since the Supreme Court now has a greater influence on Canadians’ lives, we should demand greater transparency and accountability from its judges. As a result, the logic went, Parliament should have a greater role in selecting Supreme Court judges, akin to the “advise and consent” function of the United States Senate. We have even adopted the language of the American process, where the President selects a “nominee,” and the Senate can choose to confirm or not confirm that nominee to the position.

Mark’s post points out a number of flaws in the hearings as they currently stand. He suggests that these hearings could be made more useful if they were opened up to a broader array of questions and answers While I agree with his diagnosis, I differ on the prescription and prognosis. In my view, this patient is terminal and should be put out of its misery. For reasons that are institutional, constitutional and functional, my own view is that these “nomination hearings” will never serve any useful purpose, and this 13 year long experiment should be considered a failure.

Institutionally, the committee conducting the hearing is a toothless tiger. It has a power to ask questions, but no power to do anything with the answers. It does not get to vote at the end of the process. So instead, the most it can do is harass or try to embarrass the candidate (as some non-government members tried to do with one candidate’s lack of fluency in French – it was a one-day story which no doubt harmed Justice Moldaver). But a Prime Minister with two vertebrae to rub together will know that almost no one is paying attention. Unless the candidate gives an answer that will make persistent negative headlines, his or her “confirmation” (by the same Prime Minister that “nominated” them in the first place) is guaranteed. So the candidates know that they have one job: don’t embarrass the Prime Minister. Not exactly a tall order for someone with the brains and experience of a typical SCC nominee. And if that’s not enough, the whole thing is “moderated” by a trusted legal luminary, who presumably understands that her role is to ensure that things don’t get too interesting. So what results is a very bland hearing where the people conducting it don’t have any decision-making power. The only way that could ever change is to give the Parliamentary committee an effective veto by allowing it to vote on the nominee. But no PM will do this because it means giving up one of his or her most important prerogatives. In fact, both Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau have occasionally skipped this “nomination” process altogether (for Justices Cote and Rowe, respectively) and simply inserted their pick on the Supreme Court (as the Supreme Court Act contemplates). So what exists is an optional hearing, before a powerless committee. As Mark says, this is not a process, it’s Kabuki theatre.

My second reason for eschewing the nomination hearing is that it is contrary to the structure of Canada’s (written and unwritten) Constitution, and, as a result, misapplies the notion of political accountability which it is intended to serve. In the United States, the strict separation of powers means that there can be sharp political divisions between the Executive and the two houses of Congress. A President neither requires the confidence of either house to form a government nor must maintain it. As a result, he (or maybe, some day, she?) has no structural accountability to the legislative branches, with one major exception: executive appointments must typically be approved by the Senate as part of its “advise and consent” function. This is in no way limited to the Supreme Court. It is true for lower Federal courts, cabinet departments, agencies, and any number of other roles selected by the Executive to perform various government functions. In other words, Senate approval was designed to be a check on executive power.

In Canada, of course, the separation of powers is blurrier and political accountability works very differently. Confidence of the legislature is a crucial prerequisite to forming a government, and a requirement for keeping that government in office. A Prime Minister that loses the confidence of the House of Commons for any reason must immediately resign. Conversely, a Prime Minister can be presumed to have the confidence of the House for all purposes, including making governor-in-council appointments. Some of these appointments have an enormous effect on the lives of Canadians; potentially much greater than any Supreme Court judge. The most notable of these are federal Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers (the political and civil service heads of federal departments, respectively), as well as the Clerk of the Privy Council (the head of the federal civil service). In all cases, the Prime Minister must answer to the legislature for his choices, not by putting these people through a nomination process, but rather by answering questions in Parliament about who he selected and why. If enough MPs believe that the Prime Minister is being reckless in his or her choices, they can vote no confidence and trigger an election. That is what political accountability looks like in a Parliamentary democracy. There is no reason in principle to have a different process for Supreme Court.

My third and related point is functional: by having a fake hearing for the purposes of fake accountability, we are missing an opportunity to have a real hearing with real accountability for the person who should actually take responsibility for the appointment. I wholly endorse the portion of the process by which the Minister of Justice and the head of the independent search process appear before the committee to answer their questions. I would add that since the Prime Minister has the final word, he or she should also appear, and be prepared to answer real questions about the process, the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate, and any other question that Parliamentarians want to ask him. This could include tough questions like “this is your third Supreme Court selection, why haven’t you selected an indigenous judge?” It could explore the PM’s philosophy of judicial selection, including what his or her priorities are (demographics, experience, credentials, political involvement, geography, etc.) and how s/he intends to implement them. This is useful information: in an election, different parties might contrast their priorities with the current government’s and voters can make a more informed decision, if this matters enough to them.

Because it’s never a good idea to publish anything without letting someone you trust read it first, I should say that I ran a draft of this piece by my colleague Jeremy Opolsky. In addition to making some excellent edits, challenging some weaker points, and greatly improving the arguments, he made one point that I found persuasive (if not quite persuasive enough to change my mind). Jeremy pointed out that getting to know a Supreme Court candidate could have real value separate and apart from asking the government questions, and even if the committee cannot change the result. He points out that the hearings provide an informational function about the judge which is, at a minimum, interesting. So if the hearings can accomplish this and do no harm, he posits, why not hold them? However, I remain unpersuaded, for one essential reason: perhaps uniquely among important decision-makers, we actually do get to know our judges, through their written reasons for judgment. In fact, they reveal a lot more about themselves in their judicial writing than we could ever learn about them in a nomination hearing, and without the political theatre that goes with it.

In sum, I suggest we let the political actors deal with the politics of judicial appointments. It is, after all their job. Little that happens at a nomination hearing actually allows us to know how judges are going to do their job, or really anything useful about them at all. So let’s skip the part where the judges get grilled and move to asking questions of the person who could actually be held accountable for their nomination. The whole institution of the Canadian “nomination hearing” was invented to assuage the demands of legal academics and the media, who no doubt were suffering a little excitement envy from the U.S. even before the events of 2018, as well as conservative political figures who have criticized the perceived liberal bent of Canada’s judiciary. When it comes to the Supreme Court, the practicing bar is primarily concerned about the Court providing coherent and well-reasoned decisions that can actually be applied to future cases so we can properly advise our clients on their rights and obligations. So to many of us, the real question for any new appointment process is whether it will improve the overall quality of the Supreme Court’s adjudication. There is reason to believe that the current Prime Minister’s independent search process will actually do that; certainly the first two “outputs” from this process look extremely promising. However, in the 13 or so years since Justice Rothstein first appeared, the existence of these nomination hearings, appear to have made no difference one way or the other.