Small is Beautiful

How many judges should a country’s highest court have? Those of Canada and the United States both have nine, but Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University, argues in an op-ed in the Washington Post that that’s not nearly enough. Although made with the U.S. context in mind, his argument, if persuasive, would be relevant to Canada since our supreme courts happen to be of the same size. But it is not persuasive, and instead, it illustrates the dangers of what might be called casual comparativism – the use of half-baked, half-ignorant comparisons between legal systems, which are more often than not misleading, and can be used to reach and justify unwarranted conclusions.

Prof. Turley is concerned that the Supreme Court of the United States often decides cases of the greatest importance by 5-4 votes. The problem with this is that the “court is so small that the views of individual justices have a distorting and idiosyncratic effect on our laws.” A nine-member court is bound to endure bitter splits into two camps, with one or two swing voters in the middle.

This is something that countries with larger high courts manage to avoid: Germany (16 members), Japan (15), United Kingdom (12) and Israel (15). France uses 124 judges and deputy judges, while Spain has 74. These systems have structural differences, but they eliminate the concentration-of-power problem that we have in the United States.

The current number of the Supreme Court’s members is, he points out, an historical accident and, he adds, “one of the worst numbers you could pick.” He thinks a 19-member court, similar in size to circuit courts in the United States, would be much better. Such courts

are often divided … [y]et, it is rare that one or two of those judges consistently provide the swing votes on all issues when they sit “en banc,” or as a whole. Appellate courts of this size have proved to be manageable while allowing for more diversity in their members. More important, the power of individual judges is diluted.

Prof. Turley expects other benefits from an expansion of the Supreme Court’s membership, including the possibility to have its judges ride circuit again, as they did until the Civil War in the United States, and serve as temporary additions to intermediate appellate courts, breathing in the real air of legal practice, to supplement the rarefied atmosphere (to borrow an expression from Lord Denning) of the highest court.

As I said above, I do not find this a compelling argument.

There are no guarantees of a larger court not being split of course, perhaps quite evenly, just as there is nothing in the number nine that condemns a nine-member court to a permanent 5-4 split. Indeed, even the U.S. Supreme Court decides many cases unanimously, and others by large majorities. And as the Supreme Court of Canada’s statistical report on its work from 2001 to 2011 shows, its decisions are, more often than not (in around 75% of the cases), unanimous despite its having nine members. Indeed I wonder if a larger court would not be susceptible to more complex, three- or four-way splits, which are a bigger problem for the certainty and clarity of the law than a clear-cut 5-4 (though in 1990s, the Supreme Court of Canada was much more fractured than now – despite having only nine members).

As  for the reference to “countries with larger high courts,” it is quite misleading. It ignores obvious comparison points – Canada and Australia – whose judicial systems are most like that of the United States, and whose supreme courts have nine and seven members respectively. It refers to the very large French Cour de cassation, but ignores the Conseil constitutionnel, which has nine appointed members (in addition to former presidents, who are entitled to sit there as well). It refers to the total membership of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, but ignores the fact that it sits in smaller panels, typically of five judges. The same is true of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, which typically sits in panels of three or eight. (Now in fairness, it is not entirely clear whether prof. Turley proposes that his 19-member Supreme Court to sit in full or in smaller panels – but smaller panels would arguably cancel out the reduction in the power of individual judges which he advocates.) So the examples invoked seem to disprove, rather than to support, his claims.

As the comparison with the Supreme Court of Canada suggests, to the extent that the Supreme Court of the United States is “dysfunctional” as prof. Turley believes (which I doubt), the solution to the problem must be in changing the legal and political culture in which it is embedded. This is perhaps even more difficult than changing the number of judges, but will be more effective. As for Canada, our nine-member court seems to serve us just fine.

La primauté de la législation

La semaine dernière, la Cour supérieure du Québec a rejeté la demande visant, entre autres, à faire déclarer inconstitutionnelle la “Loi 204”, qui exempte rétroactivement l’entente sur la gestion du futur amphithéâtre de Québec, conclue entre la ville de Québec et Qubecor, de l’exigence d’un appel d’offre (dans la mesure où cette exigence s’y appliquait, ce que la ville a toujours nié), dans De Belleval c. Québec (Ville de), 2012 QCCS 2668. Les demandeurs avaient formulé une multitude d’arguments constitutionnels à l’encontre de la loi. Ils soutenaient qu’elle violait la primauté du droit, notamment en raison de son caractère rétroactif, ainsi que la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés et la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne (québécoise), en enfreignant leurs droits à la liberté de conscience et à la liberté d’expression, à la sécurité, à un procès équitable, et aussi en étant vague et excessive. Une si longue liste de prétentions est généralement un mauvais signe – un signe de désespoir sinon d’incompétence de l’avocat – et elle l’a été en l’espèce. Le juge Jacques n’a pas été persuadé.

L’argument le plus étoffé des demandeurs portait sur la rétroactivité de la Loi 204. La plupart des philosophes du droit qui se sont penchés sur  la primauté du droit considère la non-rétroactivité du droit comme un élément essentiel de ce principe. Le droit est censé guider l’action de ses sujets. Or, une loi rétroactive, qui applique certaines conséquences à des actions déjà commises, ne saurait le faire. De plus, comme l’a fait remarquer notamment Lon Fuller, elle remet en cause l’intégrité des autres lois en vigueur, laissant entendre qu’elles sont susceptibles d’amendement rétroactif. Même une loi rétroactive qui accorde des bénéfices ou écarte les sanctions (plutôt que d’en imposer), comme la Loi 204, peut être problématique à bien des égards, comme le soutient Jeremy Waldron dans un article intitulé “Retroactive Law: How Dodgy Was Duynhoven“. La rétroactivité est une des critiques les plus communes de la common law ou du droit prétorien en général, par exemple dans la célèbre formulation de Jeremy Bentham, qui comparait la common law à la “loi” qu’un homme donne à son chien en le battant pour une transgression quelconque (dont le chien n’avait évidemment pas idée qu’il s’agissait d’une transgression), et les défenseurs de la common law, tels que Ronald Dworkin et F.A. Hayek, font beaucoup d’efforts pour repousser cette attaque.

Cependant, la jurisprudence canadienne est claire. Outre la garantie de la non-imposition de sanctions criminelles rétroactives à l’alinéa 11(g) de la Charte canadienne, rien n’empêche les législatures canadienne de légiférer de façon rétroactive. C’est l’enseignement, par exemple, de l’arrêt de la Cour suprême Colombie‑Britannique c. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltée, 2005 CSC 49, [2005] 2 R.C.S. 473, où la Cour à jugé constitutionnelle une loi créant rétroactivement un recours permettant au gouvernement de recouvrer les dépenses causées par le tabagisme. Le juge Jacques rejette donc l’argument fondé sur la rétroactivité – avec raison, eu égard à la jurisprudence qui le liait (et qu’il ne manifeste, du reste, aucune envie de remettre en question).

Cette jurisprudence, à mon avis, est un désastre. Le grand A.V. Dicey qui, à la fin du 19e siècle, faisait l’éloge à la fois de la “souveraineté du Parlement” et de la primauté du droit (qu’il a été le premier à étudier de façon systématique), s’en serait félicité. (Ce n’est pas une coïncidence que Dicey était plutôt favorable aux “indemnity acts” – des lois rétroactives écartant des sanctions que le droit normalement en vigueur attache à certains actes, similaires la Loi 204.) Cependant, les opinions académiques sur la primauté du droit ont bien changé depuis un siècle. Or, les tribunaux canadiens ont toujours une compréhension très étroite de la primauté du droit, la limitant à l’exigence de l’existence de règles de droit et d’une autorisation juridique pour toute action gouvernementale, mais excluant – sauf garantie constitutionnelle explicite – tout autre exigence de forme, de procédure ou de fond que la primauté droit, telle que comprise par les philosophes du droit, impose aux législatures (et que le professeur Waldron revoit, par exemple, ici).

Les autres arguments des demandeurs sont rejetés encore plus facilement. La Loi 204 ne limite pas leur liberté de conscience ou d’expression, puisqu’elle ne les empêche pas de s’exprimer. Elle ne menace en rien leur sécurité. Elle ne les prive pas de leur droit d’ester en justice, même si elle change le droit applicable au litige qu’ils ont amorcé. Elle n’est ni vague ni excessive. Il est difficile de voir sur quoi étaient fondées ces prétentions, et il n’est pas surprenant qu’elles soient rejetées.

Le problème de la Loi 204, sur le plans des principes juridiques, c’est bien sa rétroactivité, et aussi son manque criant de généralité, une autre exigence classique de la primauté du droit que les tribunaux canadiens ne reconnaissent pas. On pourrait dire qu’au lieu de la primauté du droit, la jurisprudence canadienne, très réticente à censurer les législatures, donne effet à la primauté de la législation.

Rights and Disagreement

Charles Krauthammer has an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post discussing President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, and accusing him of taking an intellectually incoherent approach to this matter. Mr. Obama has said that marriage – including of the same-sex variety – is a right; he has also said that the issue of allowing same-sex marriage (or not) should be for each state to decide. Mr. Krauthammer charges that this is contradictory: rights are rights are rights, and if something is a right, then it’s a right everywhere, and not state by state. It is the same argument that Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West made in an op-ed on Slate (which I criticized here on other grounds). Mr. Krauthammer’s colleague Ruth Marcus also raised this issue a few days ago. It seems like a compelling argument, but it is wrong.

It is fine to say, in the abstract, that if something is a right it is a right everywhere and is not negotiable. (Actually, that too is a very controversial position, but let’s assume it.) The problem, as Jeremy Waldron likes to remind us, is that we don’t have any agreed upon means of verifying, to the satisfaction of everyone, the claim that something is a right, the way we have agreed upon ways of verifying the veracity of a claim made by a scientific theory. Thus even assuming that there exists a truth of the matter regarding rights, we can never be sure that we are, at any given moment, in possession of the truth about a claim of right. We think, of course, that our opinions about rights are correct; but if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot trivialize the possibility that we are mistaken.

We must recognize, therefore, that disagreements about right are can be reasonable. And that means recognizing – a possibility for which Mr. Krauthammer does not allow –  that someone who does not share our views about a certain claim of rights is not, for that reason, a bigot. I suspect that, if we think of the international realm, we mostly share that view. We do not think that every country that does not share our views about rights is bigoted. We might think them wrong, but not immoral. And we do not think that we ought to impose our views on them. We recognize that these are matters over which good faith disagreement is possible, and it is not wrong for each polity to resolve this disagreement as it thinks best – because it just might that they, rather than us, will get at the right answer.

Mr. Obama’s position might simply the application of this line of thinking inside the United States. He thinks that same-sex marriage is a right. But he acknowledges the possibility of good-faith disagreement on the matter (after all he, supposedly, until recently had doubts ), and thinks that this disagreement is best resolved in each state separately. This is not contradictory or incoherent.

There might be one more problem with that position. Where rights are codified in an authoritative document, like the U.S. Constitution, it seems strange to accept that it might mean different things to different people. But we know it does; people disagree about what the Constitution means just like they disagree about the underlying issues of rights. Unless one accepts the Dworkinian “one right answer” view, it need not be particularly troubling that the same document is interpreted differently by different people.

For once, left, right, and centre are united at criticizing Mr. Obama. And the irony is that this criticism is quite unfair.

Rights and Votes

Is it ever ok to put people’s rights to a democratic vote? Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West are adamant that it is not, as they make clear in an article in Slate on the subject of same-sex marriage. But their argument is wrong, and indeed dangerous.

Ms Lithwick and Ms West argue that “marriage equality … is a constitutional and not a democratic issue.” So is equality generally – as they put it, “[e]quality is not a popularity contest,” – and so are other “essential liberties.” They conclude their article with a reference to slavery – the biggest rhetorical sledgehammer except for Hitler – claiming that “[j]ust as [the U.S.] couldn’t go on with a mix of free states and slave states, we cannot continue with this jumble of equal marriage states and discriminatory states. Recognizing a federal constitutional right is the only, and the best, method to put this issue to rest.”

Ms Lithwick and Ms West might mean that when democratically enacted laws have the effect of defining the scope of citizens’ constitutionally protected rights and liberties, it is legitimate for courts, exercising the power of judicial review of legislation, to overrule these definitions and to impose their own. That would be an argument about what Jeremy Waldron, in his article on “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” calls “process-related reasons” for choosing a procedure for settling disputes about rights. Prof. Waldron believes  that the democratic, legislative procedure is much the better one, because it respects the views of every citizen on these matters. Ms Lithwick and Ms West think otherwise because of their contemptuous view of democracy as a popularity contest.

But it is not what the argument they actually make. What Ms Lithwick and Ms West say is that issues are either democratic or constitutional – and this implies that rights and liberties are simply outside the purview of the democratic process. This suggests not just that courts are better than legislatures at dealing with disputes about rights, or that they should be called in as a last result to correct legislative failures or oversights, but that legislatures and voters have no business pronouncing on issues defined as constitutional at all.

Contrary to Ms Lithwick and Ms West’s assertion, this is a radical argument. It is also an absurd one. Legislatures and voters engage with arguments about rights all the time – and they don’t always do it badly. Legislatures made same-sex marriage legal in Canada and in some of the states where it is legal in the U.S., including New York. Legislatures decriminalized homosexuality in Canada, the U.K., and much of the U.S. (though courts did end up sweeping the remaining prohibitions there). They abolished the death penalty in Canada, all of Europe, and those U.S. states where it no longer exists. Yet if one accepts that voting is not a legitimate procedure for settling disputes about right, as Ms Lithwick and Ms West contend, then one is committed to saying that all these votes were illegitimate – legislatures had no business addressing these issues at all. And one cannot say that legislation that advances rights is legitimate whereas that which restricts them is not; process-based arguments against a decision-making procedure remain whether or not the outcome is good. If flipping a coin to decide whether same-sex marriage ought to be legal is a bad idea, it remains a bad idea even if the result is one we agree with. Winning a popularity contest has the same moral significance as losing one – that is, none.

And as for the slavery argument, it is deeply ironic and ought to be embarrassing to Ms Lithwick and Ms West. When it confronted the issue of slavery, the Supreme Court of the United States not only upheld this evil, but extended it, holding that a law – enacted by a legislature, the U.S. Congress – prohibiting slavery in the U.S. territories was unconstitutional. This decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, ought to be a reminder to those who defend judicial review that courts are not immune from doing evil and letting wrong prevail over right.

Unlike prof. Waldron, I think that judicial review has a legitimate place in resolving questions about rights in democratic polities. But so do legislatures – and their engagement with these questions is something to be celebrated, not denigrated. I do hope that same-sex marriage becomes legal everywhere (unless, that is, governments at last get out of the marriage business altogether, which would be even better). And if courts need to step in to make this happen, so be it. But the more involved legislatures are in this progress, the better it will be.

Don’t ask, don’t tell?

No, it’s not a post about gays in the U.S. armed forces. That’s so passé anyway. Actually, what I want to talk about is co-operative federalism again, the fascinating topic of the least-read post on this blog. (To the one brave soul who did read it: I love you, whoever you are!)

More specifically, it is about the question whether one level of government in a federation has to accede to the demand of the other for information in its possession. (My title is not totally gratuitous.) This question was raised in the recent judgment of the Superior Court of Québec on the validity of a subpoena issued by a provincial commission of inquiry demanding that the RCMP hand over large amounts of information it collected while investigating organized crime in Québec’s construction industry. Coincidentally, it is also the topic of an interesting forthcoming article by Robert Mikos, of Vanderbilt University Law School.

As prof. Mikos points out, for one government (that of a U.S. state in his paper) to hand over information it has collected to the other government has certain costs. The most obvious, albeit often not a large one, is the direct cost of the time government employees spend working, in effect, for someone other than the people paying them. More subtly, citizens might be discouraged from handing over information to one government if they know that it can end up in the hands of the other. Most importantly, the government which complies with the request for information thereby participates in the enforcement of the policies of the other government, which might be at odds with its own. For example, if a state which allows the medical use of marijuana hands over information about its users  to the federal government, which does not, it possibly helps the federal government arrest and imprison the people who in the state’s opinion are entitled to use the drug. Finally, “such commandeering of the states’ information-gathering apparatus blurs the lines of accountability for unpopular enforcement actions.”

Yet so far, American courts have not accepted these arguments, explains prof. Mikos. He argues that they are wrong, and that federal requests for information held by the states should be considered equivalent to the “commandeering” of their executives by federal authorities, which the U.S. Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. This would allow states to resist federal policies with which they disagree and better to give effect to their own.

Compared to these high-minded concerns, the questions at issue in the Québec case, Canada (Procureur général) c. Charbonneau, 2012 QCCS 1701, might be rather pedestrian. At least it does not appear from the judgment that the federal government or the RCMP are opposed, as a matter of principle or policy, to Québec’s inquiry into the shady dealings in its construction industry and that industry’s unsavoury links with the provincial government. (Might this change if the inquiry uncovers links between that industry and the federal government, as a report by the Globe & Mail suggests it well may ?) But given the sheer volume of the information it is asked for, the RCMP is probably concerned about the costs of complying with the request, as it is with preserving the secrecy of its inquiry methods and sources. The court, however, suggests that these concerns are overstated and/or capable of being addressed by the RCMP’s co-operation with the commission of inquiry and with provincial police. As for the constitutional position, the court holds that a commission of inquiry set up pursuant to provincial law can validly subpoena the RCMP and request information in its possession, so long as it does not inquire about the RCMP’s administration. The RCMP, as the Supreme Court has held, is not part of the civil service, and does not enjoy the same immunities from provincial inquiries as the federal Crown or its servants.

Unlike, it would seem, in the U.S., such immunities do exist in Canadian law, and there seems to be no reason for their not applying to provincial, as well as federal government, since provinces and the dominion are constitutionally equal. As the Supreme Court held in A.G. of Québec and Keable v. A.G. of Canada et al., [1979] 1 R.C.S. 218, provincial law cannot authorize a provincial commission of inquiry to force the federal Crown, its ministers or servants, to answer questions or to hand over information. I would assume that the limits that apply to commissions of inquiry also apply, a fortiori, to the federal or provincial civil administration. But this is an area of the law with which I am not familiar, so I have many questions that I do not the answer to, and cannot, at the moment, investigate. For example, if the RCMP is not a part of the civil service, what other federal and provincial agencies could be forced to hand over information? How frequently does this happen? Are issues of policy disagreement between provincial and federal authorities as serious in Canada as in the U.S.?

Two observations in conclusion. First, the gun-registry data litigation, about which I have blogged profusely, is in a sense an example of a government trying to get information from another, albeit with a (big) twist, in that its claim is largely (but not entirely!) based on its own contribution to the collection of this information. And second, whatever limits there might be on what one government can force another to do, there are probably none on what they can agree to.

Constitutional Structure and Economic Outcomes

A few days ago, F.H. Buckley, a professor at the George Mason School of Law (and McGill law graduate and former professor) published in the National Post an op-ed arguing that the Canadian constitutional system, and in particular its lack of separation of powers, serves us rather well by helping maintain a free economy and a fiscally prudent government, especially compared to “America’s second-rate constitutional system.” His colleague, Ilya Somin, has a reply at The Volokh Conspiracy, arguing that those economic outcomes would, on average, be more secure in a “separation of powers system” like that of the United States. I am skeptical of both claims. Continue reading “Constitutional Structure and Economic Outcomes”

Judicial Review and Co-operative Federalism

I would like to return to Justice Blanchard’s reasons for judgment granting the injunction preventing destruction of Québec-related gun-registry data pending judgment on the merits in this case, about which I posted here a couple of days ago.

The case, says Justice Blanchard, is “exceptional,” “a first in Canadian judicial history” (par. 21). The reason it is exceptional is the opposition between the “diametrically opposed views of what is usually called the common good.” I think this is wrong. While the conflict between the federal and a provincial governments’ views of the common good might be especially clear in the gun-registry data litigation, there is nothing exceptional about it. Most federalism cases, certainly all cases that pit a province against the federal government, involve a similar conflict between views of the common good. For example, the federal government thinks that the common good requires a national securities regulator; Québec and Alberta think that it is best served by provincial regulators. The result is a court case. When the two levels of governments agree on a vision of the common good, the co-operate and don’t go to court, the constitution be damned. Healthcare is the prime example: neither s. 91 nor any other provision of the Constitution Act, 1867 give Parliament any role regulating and paying for healthcare, but it does both, because (and perhaps only so long as) the provinces share its view of the public good in this area, and have no inclination to challenge it in court.

What is in fact (almost) unique in the gun-registry litigation is that, as I argued in my first comments on the topic, it actually stems from a co-operative relationship – but one that has broken down. “Normal” federalism cases involve conflicts over who has the power to decide whether and how to regulate certain areas of human activity. Who, of Parliament and provincial legislatures, for example, has the power to decide (whether and) how the securities industry should go about its business. (Not, by the way, who should have this power, as a matter of economic policy; but who actually has it under the specific constitutional arrangements we have in place.) In these cases, courts are called upon to regulate the competitive aspects of federal-provincial relations. The gun-registry litigation is different because what it really is about is not competition for the power to regulate (indeed it is acknowledged that, on the one hand, Parliament has the power not to regulate gun registration if it does not want to, and provincial legislatures have the power to regulate gun registration if they feel like it); it is about “fair terms of co-operation” between the two levels of government, to borrow a phrase from John Rawls (who of course uses it in a different context).

Courts are not often called upon to police the fairness of the terms of co-operation between the federation and its constituent units, and it seems not to be sufficiently theorized. For example, critics of federalism-based judicial review (who are many in the United States, including for example Larry D. Kramer in this article) do not pay any attention to it; Jeremy Waldron’s criticism of judicial review, which is primarily (but not exclusively) directed to rights-based judicial review, is similarly incapable of addressing it. (Some judicial and academic attention in the United States has been directed at one specific problem which arises from co-operative federalism: the tendency of the federal government to attach stringent conditions to grants of funds to sub-federal units, which the Supreme Court of the U.S. addressed in South Dakota v. Dole and will address again in ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare.”) Yet judicial review of the fair terms of federal co-operation deserves attention as a distinct constitutional phenomenon. To give but one example, and return, in conclusion, to the gun-registry litigation, Justice Blanchard’s incredulity at the idea of an award of damages as a remedy in a federalism dispute would probably be appropriate if the dispute were, as usual, about competitive federalism; but it might be unfounded in a dispute about the fair terms of federal co-operation.