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.

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.

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.

An Empty Vessel

Thoughts on the Justice Kasirer appointment process

A few weeks back, Prime Minister Trudeau’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Nicolas Kasirer, subjected himself to questions from parliamentarians. By all accounts, Justice Kasirer is a qualified nominee for the Court, having spent a decade on the Quebec Court of Appeal. But one must separate the nominee from the process through which he was appointed. While the Government’s independent search process is probably, in theory, a step in the right direction, it is still plagued by one meaningful problem: parliamentarians have virtually no power to shed any meaningful light on the Prime Minister’s nominee.

Of course, unlike the United States, Parliament and its committees have no constitutional duty or mandate to give “advice and consent” on nominations made by the Prime Minister to the Supreme Court. Yet the fact that the Constitution does not require something does not mean that systems of government should not aspire to be better. This was the logic behind the Prime Minister’s independent appointments process, which is also not at all required by the Constitution.

But the process adopted by the government when it comes to public consultation, while not inconsistent with the Constitution, falls well short of other standards of public transparency. The judicial nomination “hearing,” if one could even call it that, was limited by a number of overriding principles. For example, Justice Kasirer could not talk about any past decisions he rendered as a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal; politicians could not ask him about any judgments he would render as a judge of the Supreme Court;  politicians could not “cross-examine” the nominee; nor ask him to take a position on “controversial” issues; and finally, the nominee could not comment on existing Supreme Court decisions, and whether he supported those decisions or not.

Some of these restrictions are understandable. Asking a nominee to pre-judge an issue presents a real judicial independence problem. But some of the restrictions, I think, end up short-circuiting legitimate questions about the role of the judge in the modern era. Particularly, asking a judge to comment on her past rulings or to comment generally about her philosophy does not present the same judicial independence concern as pre-judging a case on the merits. Indeed, there are other countervailing values that make these questions apt for answering, in the name of public transparency, and in light of the judicial role in the modern era.

The idea is this: no one denies—not even proponents of strong-form judicial review—that the Supreme Court deals with issues of great national importance. This is in part represented in the Supreme Court’s leave requirements; but it is also manifested in the cases the Supreme Court decides, and how it decides them. In the last number of years, the Court has decided cases of broad public controversy, including reading a right to assisted dying into the Constitution, doing the same for the right to strike, and similarly interpreting an existing constitutional provision to encompass a right to Wagner-style collective bargaining. All of these issues—issues over which reasonable people can disagree in the political realm—have been removed from the public sphere of debate by the Supreme Court’s constitutional rulings. While the Court has often replied that it is the people through their representatives that thrust this role upon them when enacting the Charter (see BC Motor Vehicles, at para 16), this argument does not change the basic fact that courts have taken on this role, often liberated by emancipating doctrines like a “living tree approach” and a lax standard for the admission of all sorts of social science evidence. When it comes to Charter decision-making, the judicial role takes on the character of policy, under which decisions are made by courts that at one point might have been made by legislatures.

Putting aside whether this is normatively desirable, and if this is the case, why shouldn’t the public have a window past the veil of judicial decision-making in a substantive way that sheds light on the things a judge values in the decision-making process? In other words, while there is no formal process for “advice and consent” (and perhaps there shouldn’t be) shouldn’t the public’s representatives have a right to query the judge’s overarching judicial philosophy, including how it would apply to past Supreme Court cases? The role of the Supreme Court in the modern era, if it is going to be expansive, is deserving of some sunlight.

I am alive to the criticisms. One might argue that this imports an American style advice and consent function into Canada, potentially creating the conditions for the sort of circus we see in the United States. But the function I have in mind is suited to Canadian circumstances. In reality, my prescription would amount to allowing a few more substantive questions to be asked in a hearing. Anyone who watched the Kasirer hearing was probably left sorely disappointed; the nominee’s reliance on the restrictions of the entire process was somewhat frustrating given the stakes of a Supreme Court appointment. But if the process was somewhat more substantive, with the scope of questioning somewhat expanded, perhaps there might be more interest in the entire endeavour, with Parliament taking on a real public monitoring function. On my account, the questions that could be asked could account for general judicial philosophy considerations, an account of the judge’s past decisions, and perhaps general comments about existing Supreme Court cases, always on guard for the potential for questions to go into “gotcha” territory.

Another concern is judicial independence, as I alluded to above. We do not want prospective Supreme Court judges pre-judging cases. But setting out a general philosophy—including generally reflecting on Supreme Court cases or to reflect on one’s own judicial tenure—is hardly pre-judging particular cases on the merits. Indeed, one can criticize a past Supreme Court decision and still resolve to apply it because it is the law—this would be the ultimate in honest and transparency. The truth is that every judge has some system or guiding star for deciding cases that the public deserves to know. Judicial independence should not be a prophylactic reason to prevent all questioning of judges, especially in a system where the Court carries so much power.

The goal of the entire nomination process should be to balance the selection of qualified jurists with the protection of their independence and the public’s legitimate interest in knowing who is nominated. A Kabuki theatre nomination hearing, like the Kasirer one, fails to create the conditions for the public to actually know a judge. This is far from ideal in a situation where the Supreme Court, as Justice Abella once said, is the apparent arbiter of Canadian moral values. If the Court arrogates this role to itself, its members should at least be accountable through some mechanism.

The Five-Judge Myth

How many Supreme Court judges does it take to decide a civil law appeal?

By Peter McCormick

A defining aspect of the Canadian legal system is its bijuralism: Quebec’s civil law system is distinctly different from the English-derived common law of the other provinces. The federal-provincial division of powers which assigns to the provincial legislatures jurisdiction over “property and civil rights within the province” is its formal entrenchment. There are also structural accommodations, one of the most important of which is the composition of the Supreme Court.  Alone among the provinces, Quebec is guaranteed a minimum share of the Court’s membership. One third of the judges (two of six in 1867, three of nine since 1949) must be appointed from the bar or the judiciary of Quebec, which is to say that they must be experienced in the civil law.

On the face of it, this is not enough; it does not preclude the possibility of a common law majority that persistently out-votes its civil law minority and steadily erodes this bijuralism. Its impact has therefore been reinforced by a long-established practice. Peter Hogg describes it as follows: “since 1949 … it has been possible to assemble a quorum of five judges with a majority of civilians” with the result that “(t)his is now the usual composition of the bench when the Court hears a civil law appeal from Quebec.” (Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (various editions), Chapter 8.5(a).) Assuming a unified trio of civilian judges – a single defection can be decisive – it is both an acknowledgement and an effective protection of Quebec’s civil law uniqueness.  The recent controversy over the Nadon appointment served once again to highlight the importance of demonstrable and recent civil law experience for those Quebec judges.  As a student, years ago, I was impressed by the elegance of this “five-judge” solution; as a professor, I tried to ensure that my students appreciated it as well.

However, there is another story that we have been telling about the Supreme Court, and that is the story of a steady move toward larger panels.  The Supreme Court Act permits panels of various sizes, but five judge panels continued to dominate even after the enlargement of the Court to nine members in 1949.  In this context, a slight tweak of the rules for striking the panels for civilian appeals was procedurally simple, almost invisible, and reliably consequential.  Ever since the great watershed of the Laskin Court, however, panels have been getting steadily larger.  On the Lamer Court, the default was already seven judges, with the more important issues (such as the growing number of constitutional cases) assigned to larger panels and only the more routine cases (such as appeals by right) going to smaller ones.  Under McLachlin, this trend has continued, such that nine-judge panels are now the most common and five-judge panels have become unusual, used for only one reserved judgement in every thirty.


It is not easy to reconcile this long-term trend toward large panels with a five-judge rule for civil appeals.  This post reports on my own investigation of these two on-the-face-of-it contradictory generalizations, focusing initially on the McLachlin Court.  On my findings, it is the “larger panels” generalization that very much prevails.  The “five-judge” practice of Quebec exceptionalism has all but disappeared.

The first question is how to objectively identify the set of civil law appeals, and the Supreme Court itself has provided the most obvious solution: the judge-written headnotes that lead off every decision.  If those included specific mention of either or both of the Civil Code of Quebec and the Code of Civil Procedure, then I treated it as a civilian appeal.  (A further forty cases listed these statutes among their citations without any headnote notation, but I did not treat citation alone as justifying their inclusion.)  Limiting the inquiry to reserved judgments only, this gave me fifty-five civil law cases, for an average of about three per year.

How many of these were decided by five judge panels?  Only five – one in every eleven, which is to say one every three or four years.  Thirty-two went to seven judge panels, and nineteen to full-court nine judge panels. The average panel size was 7.5, only slightly below the McLachlin Court average of 7.9 for all reserved judgments.  The fact that it is lower at all may suggest a residual tug of the older “five-judge” rule, but if so it is a small tug indeed.

Even more surprising, only a single one of those five judge panels included all three Quebec judges, guaranteeing that a united set of Quebec civilians would prevail over their common law colleagues.  More remarkably yet, this was balanced by a single example at the opposite extreme — a panel with no Quebec judges at all.  A panel small enough that the Quebec judges can make up a majority is of course also small enough that the Quebec judges can be left out altogether.  The five-judge rule would have led us to expect that these five panels would have included a total of fifteen Quebec judges and ten of their common law colleagues; in practice, they included only eight, well below the common law total of seventeen.  Further to punctuate the point, four of the five examples were from the first four years of the McLachlin Court, and the single more recent example was the “no Quebec judges” panel.


Comparing eighteen years of McLachlin with eighteen months of Wagner calls for caution, but there has been no sign of a reversal of the above patterns.  To date, the Wagner Court has dealt with seven civilian appeals, some of which were consequential; five were decided by panels of nine and two by panels of seven.  There was no sign of the five-judge practice, no indication that these appeals are treated differently in this respect from the broad run of reserved decisions.  The five-judge rule is dead; it seems to have breathed its last in 2004.

But all is not lost.  Quebec judges may have been under-represented on the vanishing smaller panels and risk being outvoted on the larger ones, but they do deliver most of the judgments – fifty-one of the McLachlin Court’s fifty-five and five of the Wagner Court’s seven for an overall total of fifty-six out of sixty-two, about ninety per cent. There has long been a significant “homer” tendency on the Supreme Court in assigning the judgment – an appeal coming from your own province roughly doubles your chances – but the tendency is even stronger for Quebec civil appeals.  Compared with the five-judge rule, this may well be a less robust and less compelling institutional recognition of Quebec exceptionalism, but it is where the empirical evidence takes us.  We should remember, however, that when the Supreme Court was first established it was the spectre of common law judges deciding civil code issues that worried Quebec. “It only happens one time in every ten” may not be a completely reassuring response now that civilian judges are now outnumbered on every panel.

The Cruel Ritual of the Ontario Bar Exam

Every June, lawyers-to-be in the province of Ontario make the pilgrimage to one of a few cities to undergo the ritualistic exercise of writing the bar exam. For many, the bar exam—otherwise known as the lawyer licensing exam—represents a large part of the process to become a lawyer in the province of Ontario. Students migrate into convention halls with their little Ziploc baggies of highlighters and granola bars, and carry in large bags their heavily indexed binders of material. But the Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) bar exam is not an exercise in actually demonstrating competence. Instead, the regulator has imposed a search-and-destroy style exam on students, in which the charges must find the right answer buried in their indexed binders. If the goal of the bar exam process is to ensure that students have a minimal level of competence in the profession, it is hard to see how the bar exam achieves that goal.

More to the point, it appears that the only good justification for a bar exam of this sort is to teach students how to take a timed examination under strict conditions. But what purpose does this justification have in terms of competency for a lawyer? Indeed, other that imposing needless anxiety and pressure on already debt-burdened students, how does this ritual do anything for competency? Maybe it could be justified as a tradition that all lawyers should have to bear—but this seems like a thin reed on which to charge students for the pleasure of it.

Instead of taking the bar exam as a given, perhaps Ontario should start from first principles. What is the goal of the licensing process? Starting from the highest level of abstraction, the Law Society Act states that a goal of the LSO is to ensure that “all persons who practise law in Ontario or provide legal services in Ontario meet standards of learning, professional competence and professional conduct that are appropriate for the legal services they provide.” In its “Options for Lawyer Licensing: A Consultation Paper,” the LSO noted the following:

Lawyer candidates are required to demonstrate proficiency in respect of competencies that reflect the minimum requirements of both barristers and solicitors entering the profession in the seven areas of law that are most frequently practised. The current barrister and solicitor examinations provide a means of testing candidates’ abilities in core knowledge, application and critical thinking competencies, irrespective of their educational background.

With this connection to the competency requirement in mind, the LSO also defended its licensing process, citing only one article from American scholars:

The LSO’s licensing examinations are internationally-recognized as high-quality, psychometrically-defensible professional qualification assessments.

That relatively unsupported assertion aside, the LSO to its credit recognized in its consultation paper that the licensing process needed some amendment. In fact, the LSO outlined four options for the licensing process. Two of those options would add a “skills-based” examination to the existing bar exams. Indeed, the option ultimately chosen by the LSO would involve ”[c]onsideration of some form of skills testing in the licensing process.” But there did not appear to be a serious appraisal of whether the bar exam—from a common-sense, regulatory perspective—really advances the goals of competency. In other words, while some form of skills-testing is probably tied closer to a regulatory goal of ensuring competency, I fail to see how the mode of the existing licensing examinations does anything to even basically ensure that competency.

The Ontario mode is not the only one that could be followed. In Manitoba, for example, the focus of the process is almost entirely skills-based rather than examination-based. Instead, through the CPLED program, students are exposed to different tests in oral advocacy, writing, and other areas that are more directly related to lawyer competency. One can at least make the regulatory business case for this mode of testing as connected to testing lawyer competency.

I cannot say the same for Ontario’s whack-a-mole-style licensing examinations. While the LSO tries to suggest that its licensing exam is acclaimed internationally (simply on the basis of one US article), I truly would like to know, at the level of regulatory policy, the justification for a bar exam of Ontario’s sort. From where I am standing, it appears as nothing more than a cruel joke to already-burdened students.

Environmental Sustainability is Not An Unwritten Constitutional Principle

On the IACL-AIDC Blog, Professor Lynda Collins (Ottawa) suggests that “ecological sustainability [should be recognized] as an Unwritten Constitutional Principle (UCP)—a foundational, binding norm to provide guidance to courts and legislators as we navigate the difficult waters of our current environmental crisis.” This argument also appeared in a joint article by Prof. Collins and (now Justice) Lorne Sossin, where the authors link this nascent principle of environmental sustainability to the Constitution’s apparent status as a living tree. In short, without the UCP of ecological sustainability, or whatever the principle is defined as, “the Constitution would become ‘self-defeating’; to extend the metaphor, it would be a dying tree rather than a living tree” [318].

I strongly disagree with the thrust of both the blog post and the article. While environmental sustainability is a noble objective, and I commend the authors for saying so, interpretation of legislation or assessment of the legality of discretionary decisions cannot be driven by our own personal policy preferences (Hillier, at para 33) . Simply because environmental sustainability is a good idea does not make it a constitutional mandate. Accepting it as such would continue a dangerous trend in constitutional law—a desire to transform the Constitution into a vessel for popular modern policy objectives, thereby making it a document of majoritarian rule rather than a counter-majoritarian restriction on governmental action.

I first wish to show why environmental sustainability cannot be a UCP. Then I assess the dangerous implications of recognizing such a principle.

***

For a UCP to be recognized by a court, it must meet general certain criteria. In the Quebec Secession Reference, at para 49, the Court generally described these criteria as follows:

Behind the written word is an historical lineage stretching back through the ages, which aids in the consideration of the underlying constitutional principle. These principles inform and sustain the constitutional text: they are the vital unstated assumptions upon which the text is based….These defining principles function in symbiosis.

But these principles are not free-standing licences for judges to read-in modern “values” into the Constitution that is designed to be resistant to change. In fact, the principles are institutional or structural in nature. They “inform and sustain the constitutional text…” (my emphasis). Consider some of the commentary from the Quebec Secession Reference:

These supporting principles and rules, which include constitutional conventions and the workings of Parliament, are a necessary part of our Constitution because problems or situations may arise which are not expressly dealt with by the text of the Constitution. In order to endure over time, a constitution must contain a comprehensive set of rules and principles which are capable of providing an exhaustive legal framework for our system of government. Such principles and rules emerge from an understanding of the constitutional text itself, the historical context, and previous judicial interpretations of constitutional meaning [32].

[…]

The principles assist in the interpretation of the text and the delineation of spheres of jurisdiction, the scopes of rights and obligations, and the role of our political institutions [52].

Consider also the Court’s comment in the Patriation Reference, at 874:

[The Constitution of Canada includes] the global system of rules and principles which govern the exercise of constitutional authority in the whole and in every part of the Canadian state.

These comments are clearly related to the role of unwritten principles in interpreting textual ambiguities in the constitutional text, which itself is designed to set out the institutional capacities of the state. The goal is to provide a “legal framework for our system of government.” This restriction means that unwritten constitutional principles, to be recognized, must bear some “vital” relationship to the constitutional structure and the history. These are not freestanding policy preferences: indeed, the Court said as much in the Quebec Secession Reference, when it opined that “the recognition of these constitutional principles…[cannot] be taken as an invitation to dispense with the written text of the Constitution” [53].

Some of the principles recognized thus far reflect this theory of unwritten principles as central to structural or textual concerns. Take, for example, federalism. A federal structure is established by ss.91-92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Federalism, then, is “inherent in the structure of our constitutional arrangements” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 56, my emphasis). Federalism responds to “underlying social and political realities” that are implicitly reflected in the “diversity of the component parts of Confederation, and the autonomy of provincial governments to develop their societies within their respective spheres of jurisdiction” (Quebec Secession Reference, at paras 57-58). The limiting principle to all of this is the use of an unwritten principle to provide meaning to unstated assumptions or ambiguities inherent in the text or structure of the Constitution. Unwritten principles are not at-large.

So, in all of this, where does ecological sustainability stand? For Collins, either of “ecological sustainability,” “respect for the environment” or “environmental protection” “…meets all of the criteria the Supreme Court has set out for “Unwritten Constitutional Principles.” This is because—picking up on language in the Quebec Secession Reference—sustainability is the “lifeblood” of the Constitution, and a
“vital unstated assumption underlying the Canadian state.” Historically, Collins relies on various documents that show that sustainability is an unwritten constitutional principle. The Charter of the Forest (1217) apparently “guaranteed to British subjects rights of access to vital natural resources” and under Roman Law, the Justinian Code enshrined a version of the public trust doctrine. The Supreme Court itself has recognized that the environment is an important fundamental value (see British Columbia v Canadian Forest Products).

But there is a problem with all of this. It is one thing for environmental sustainability—whatever that means—to be a fundamental societal value. But what is the fundamental structural link back to the Constitution? One does not appear in either Collins & Sossin’s article or Collins’ blog post. As a legal matter, environmental sustainability appears separate and apart from fundamental institutional features that are either a part of British Westminster parliamentary democracy, or are otherwise central to Canada’s particular legal arrangements. Environmental sustainability may be a bedrock societal principle, but whether it is fundamental to the Constitution—which is not necessarily co-extensive with “society,” whatever that is—is a completely different question altogether.

Of course, one might say that ecological sustainability is the basic starting point for any society with a Constitution. That is, it is so fundamental that without it, there would be no world to begin with, hence no Constitution. This argument appears absurd to me, and though Collins seems to make it at some points, it never appears as a full-fledged contention—probably for good reason. For one, the argument as taken would make “ecological sustainability,” a goal without any limiting principle, the dominant organizational principle of the entire society. This would be on the assumption that without ecological sustainability, we’d all die. While protecting the environment is an admirable and necessary goal, no one would suggest that it is a goal to be achieved at all costs. Certainly regulators would not accept this proposition because regulation often involves an eclectic mix of performance standards, design standards, and other incentives that might delay the accomplishment of pure and complete “ecological sustainability.” And yet no one would deny that these measures are somehow unconstitutional because they are not sufficiently strong command-and-control regulation. The unlimited scope of the authors’ nascent principle is a significant problem for its own sustainability.

But more importantly, the Constitution could still exist in a world ravaged by climate change. And that is the key distinction between the principle of ecological sustainability and the other so-far-recognized unwritten principles of constitutional law. The other principles are essential to the workings of the Constitution as such—and I mean this in the most strictly construed manner possible. The Constitution could not exist in any meaningful way without these principles, such that they are “vital” to its operation. Federalism gives life to the textual division of powers. Respect for minorities supports federalism. The Rule of Law is fundamental to any constitutional system. Ecological sustainability is an admirable goal to be achieved by legislatures, but it is not related to the fundamental architecture of the Constitution, such that the Constitution (not society more generally) could continue to work without it. In fact, situations of climate emergency might be the most apt circumstances for the Constitution to work its magic.

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I want to close by outlining some of the pernicious legal and practical effects of the sort of argument advanced by Collins and Sossin. On the legal front, the correlation that the authors draw between “ecological sustainability” and the “living tree” doctrine continues to prop up this dying metaphor as a doctrine of constitutional law. Take the authors’ footnote 70, which outlines this tenuous connection in the context of the Quebec Secession Reference;

Note the recurrence of biological language in this passage (“symbiosis,” “lifeblood,” “living tree”). This language arguably reflects an implicit understanding that all our human structures depend on our biological survival. In this sense there is no principle more fundamental than that of a healthy environment.

This footnote, more than any other argument I’ve seen, illustrates at least one problem with the living tree mode of thinking. Not only is that mode completely inconsistent with the overall perspective in the Persons Case, in this context, it allows enterprising scholars to draw connections and make arguments that are based primarily on the status of sustainability as an ideal policy goal. But that is not the concern of the Constitution, properly interpreted. The living tree is a constitutional aberration, not a constitutional doctrine.

And courts have been increasingly concerned with preventing judges—let alone scholars—from pouring their preferred policy outcomes into the Constitution. I cited Justice Stratas’ comments in Hillier, above. But consider also his opinions in Williams and Cheema, where the same principle was used to the same effect in the context of statutory interpretation. We always have to be on guard for the imposition of one’s personal policy preferences into the law, when those policy preferences do not represent the duly-enacted law of the responsible legislature. How would the people who believe in environmental sustainability like it if those on the opposite side of the spectrum sought to impose a principle of “resource development” in the Constitution, tying it to tenuous constitutional signals like the fact that the federal government has the power under s.91(2) to regulate trade and commerce? The question needs no answer.

Practically, it continues to be my view that there are certain things that are best addressed and constitutionally assigned to legislatures—not courts. Courts are not designed to vindicate the policy goals of the moment. And, for those sympathetic to the idea that environmental sustainability is a fundamental value of Canadian society, it would seem odd to suggest that courts in the adversarial system should be the ones to vindicate that value. Instead, wide study and a nuanced regulatory response seem to be the best options from a practical perspective. And yet the blunt force of an unwritten constitutional principle—that remains undefined, unclear, and unhelpful—emerges as the regulatory response in Collins and Sossin’s article.

Clearly, the environmental crisis needs a better answer.