In a recent piece published in the Western Journal of Legal Studies, Justice Martineau of the Federal Court puts forward a concept of “judicial courage” as a descriptive and normative claim about what judges do in a democracy. Judicial courage, to Justice Martineau, is an ideal that stands in contrast to judicial “conservatism” under which law is the complete answer to most or all cases . To Justice Martineau, law is a necessary but insufficient condition for the flourishing of justice and democratic institutions. Instead, we also need a shared ethic or commitment towards a culture of constitutionalism, which judges help along by displaying “courage” in particular cases. Justice Martineau is drawn by a “liberal” version of the judiciary, imbued with moral authority rather than simple legal authority.
While Justice Martineau’s piece demonstrates a clear reflection of the issues at stake and his status as an eminent legal thinker, allow me to be skeptical of his core claim, as I read it: that courage can be a helpful descriptive and normative organizing principle. To me, judicial “courage” is far too subjective, and could ultimately give rise to unconstrained faith and power in a judiciary unbound by doctrine. There would need to be some limiting principle and definition to the ideal of “courage” to ensure that judges exercise it in proper cases.
This is not to say that the problem Justice Martineau addresses in his piece is unimportant. The piece uses the concept of judicial courage as an answer to a perennial problem: how do we deal with internal threats to the legal system from those sworn to uphold it? To Justice Martineau, courts are central in preventing the rise of these sorts of actors
I have no difficulty in endorsing his point of view. Judges have a duty to act responsibly. Detractors of “judicial activism” dismiss elitist thinking—particularly as it is opined by unelected members of the judiciary. People should put their faith in Congress or Parliament, who know better. But their optimistic reliance on the positive side of political virtue and wisdom ignores the transformative action of fortuna when power has become corrupted or concentrated in the hands of a sociopath. This can happen in any democracy .
My concern is the faith this puts in courts to almost always do the right thing. Just because the legislative branch can be manipulated does not mean that the judiciary cannot be, or that strong-form judicial review is necessarily the best remedy. As Vermeule argues, much of constitutional law can be construed as a form of risk management. Part of the risk of constitutional design is the risk posed by imperfect humans. For example, in designing the American constitution, some of the Federalist framers began from the presupposition that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” of the system (The Federalist Papers, No. 10). To Hamilton, in fact, “No popular Government was ever without its Catalines & its Caesars. These are its true enemies.” Constitutionalism must start from the premise that there will be bad actors in the system, like a Caesar or Hitler, who might seek to use internal democratic channels to subvert the rights of others. This observation extends equally to the judiciary.
The Americans responded to this problem by adopting a strict separation of powers, in which no one branch could accumulate all power. The judiciary is obviously included in that system of limited government, restrained just as much as the legislature and executive. Why should we bank on such a system? Ex ante, the separation of powers is the best organizing principle on which to base a Constitution. A bill of rights will only be a “parchment guarantee” if any actor in the system can accumulate all the power. Before doing anything in a constitutional democracy, we’d want to insure against this risk.
We should be careful about tinkering with this machinery. For that reason, in a system of separation of powers, there should be good reasons for one branch to step into the territory of the others. Hamilton alluded to this possibility when he said that in cases of a weak government, it may need to “overstep the bounds” (on this point, see Vermeule’s recent paper) in cases of emergency. But the same goes for the judiciary. Extraordinary constitutional circumstances should exist before an unelected judicial branch interferes with the elected process if the separation of powers is a main organizing principle–and if we care about guarding against the risk of overreach.
And this is the rub of the matter. If it is “courageous” for courts to interfere with democratically-elected mandates that may be unfair, it is perhaps even more courageous for courts to stay their hand and let the democratic process unfold in service to the separation of powers. Which is true in a given situation should be subject to clear rules that guard against judicial overreach and limit the role of the judiciary to real instances of constitutional concern. But we are so far from this reality in Canada. I need not go over the Supreme Court’s sins in this regard, but the Court has failed to apply a consistent set of rules governing its judicial review function; sometimes tacitly accepting originalism, sometimes trotting out the living tree, all the while relaxing its approach to precedent.
To this comes Justice Martineau’s objection. A wholly rules-bound judiciary is likely to allow grave democratic injustices to stand. Hitler, after all, was a product of a democracy. Justice Abella has gone as far as to eschew the rule of law, instead proposing a “rule of justice.” To Justice Abella, the rule of law is “annoying” because it sanctioned the Holocaust, segregation, and other democratic evils. On her account (and Justice Martineau’s) courts always pursue justice, whereas the legislature will only do so if “justice” coincides with its own political interest
Direct democracy alone is an insufficient condition for a good society, if only for practical reasons. In fact, courts play an integral role in a properly separated system. This system, to Justice Martineau, must be vindicated by a culture of constitutionalism, in which the people agree to be bound by law . The American framers agreed. But the real question is who should foster this belief. Justice Abella and Justice Martineau seem to think it is the role of courts to encourage this culture of constitutionalism; and even more, they seem to think that courts are uniquely suited to do so.
At risk of sacrilege, I think this puts too much faith in humans–the very risk the separation of powers guards against. To trust that the judiciary will always display “courage,” properly calibrated to the legal rule under consideration, is unrealistic. Judges will make mistakes, sometimes grievously so. This is a clear risk that is managed by the separation of powers. To be sure, the risks posed by legislative or executive abuse are different than those posed by courts, but they are no less concerning. Executive or legislative recalcitrance will be obvious, but judicial overreach is less so.
Instead, putting too much faith in the judiciary and expanding judicial power is much like eating chocolate cake. The cake is good at the moment, but later on it takes its toll. A court making up its own law will vindicate particular groups in the moment. But over the long term, a court unmoored by clear rules, directed only by “courage” or “justice,” could slowly eat away at the separation of powers and the role of elected legislatures until the culture of constitutionalism sought by Justice Martineau is really just a culture of court worship. Under this culture, courts take an expanded role, and citizens look to the courts to vindicate their particular versions of the good.
I fear we have come to this point in Canada. One need only look at the recent retirement of Chief Justice McLachlin as an example. Veneration of the Court is a veritable academic pastime, and too many view the judges as celebrities rather than fallible humans with a restricted role in the separation of powers. This is an implication of Justice Martineau’s invocation of “courage.” Without guiding rules, courage could mean many things to many different people. It could end up being a dangerous theory of judicial review that further politicizes and expands the role of courts.
In our system, there is no doubt that we need courageous judges, but what courage means in a system of separated powers is a complicated question. Without accounting for institutional realities, courage lacks definition as a descriptive and normative idea. Rather than putting our faith in judges, all should insist that actors within the political system stay true to their defined roles. Accordingly, for courage to be a helpful concept rather than a vessel for judges to fill with their own worldview, we’d need to develop clear doctrinal parameters on the concept.