Results-Oriented Conservatism: A Defence of Bostock

Should textualism lead to more “conservative” outcomes as a matter of course? No.

Those who wish to transform textualism—a methodology of interpretation—into a vessel for conservative policy outcomes are in the wrong business. Instead of being in the business of law, they are in the business of politics. For years, a small group of Canadian judges have fought hard against this tendency. As Justice Stratas, for example, notes in Hillier, at para 33:

Those we elect and, within legislative limits, their delegatees (e.g., Ministers making regulations) alone may take their freestanding policy preferences and make them bind by passing legislation. Absent constitutional concern, those who apply legislation—from the most obscure administrative decision-makers to the judges on our highest court—must take the legislation as it is, applying it without fear or favour. Their freestanding policy preferences do not bind, nor can they make them bind by amending the legislation: Euro-Excellence Inc. v. Kraft Canada Inc., 2007 SCC 37, [2007] 3 S.C.R. 20 at para.

On this account, the proper venue for political change is the legislature, not the courts. For that reason, it was always faulty to attach a political agenda to textualism. Recent “disappointments” for conservatives at the Supreme Court of the United States are a reflection of the reality: textualism was never designed to achieve certain policy ends, and rightly so. Conservatives who wish to do so, in my view, are just as unprincipled as living treeists, who would adapt the Constitution and statutes to suit their policy preferences.

To make this point, I focus on the SCOTUS’ recent decision in Bostock, which has rankled conservatives who have a political agenda (though as I will note, there are others who have principled objections to the interpretation in Bostock). I first outline why, on first principles, Gorsuch J’s interpretation in the case is justified. Then I move on to consider the perils of the approach shared by some conservatives and progressives. As Brian Tamanaha notes in his important book, this results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation is profoundly disrespectful of the Rule of Law, which presupposes law as an independent field, a closed system–even if we may only reach that result imperfectly.

Bostock—Textual Interpretation

The case of Bostock in the United States is perhaps the best example of conservatives who have been somehow “betrayed” by textualism. Here are some examples:

  • In the link above, Josh Hammer says that Bostock represents the end of legal conservativism, arguing that “[w]hat we need is a more forceful conservative legal movement, just as willing as the left to make moral arguments in court, based on principles of justice, natural law…the common good and religious and moral traditions underlying Anglo-American constitutional order.” Forget if these traditions are not represented in legislation; they should somehow subvert Congress’ choices.
  • Senator Josh Hawley spelled the end of the conservative legal movement, arguing: “And if those are the things that we’ve been fighting for—it’s what I thought we had been fighting for, those of us who call ourselves legal conservatives—if we’ve been fighting for originalism and textualism, and this is the result of that, then I have to say it turns out we haven’t been fighting for very much.”
  • Robert George argues that the case “…vindicates Adrian Vermeule’s warning to conservatives that trying to combat the longstanding “progressive” strategy of imposing a substantive moral-political agenda through the courts by appointing “originalist” and “textualist” judges is hopeless.” What is the conservative version of such an agenda? The goal is to “…advance a socially conservative moral and political vision.”

I could go on. What unites these critiques is the idea that somehow the Court, in applying a plausible textual interpretation, failed conservatives on substantive grounds. To this I say: so be it. The place for these visions of the good deserve to be aired in public, not in august courtrooms.

What was the offense caused to conservatives in Bostock? The Court (per Gorsuch J for the majority) decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. The textual problem in Bostock was, in some ways, staggering: Title VII does not include sexual orientation or identity as distinct grounds of discrimination. However, for Gorsuch J, the ordinary meaning of the term “sex” applied today just as it did when Title VII was promulgated. Applying that definition, Gorsuch J reasoned that when one discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, one must necessarily discriminate on the basis of sex. This is because when one fires someone, for example, for being gay, they are necessarily making an implicit judgment about the person’s gender. If a man is attracted to another man, and is fired on that basis, the employer is implicitly saying that she would tolerate that attraction if the employee was a woman attracted to a man. Gender plays at least some small part in the decision to fire.

Because of the text of Title VII which prohibits discrimination “because of sex,” it did not matter if gender was not the primary cause of the discrimination. The “because of” standard encompasses even a 1% causal vector of the discrimination. This was supported by precedent.

Notably Gorsuch J refused to consider the fact that post-Title VII enactment Congresses have not amended Title VII to include sexual identity or orientation. This “post-enactment legislative history,” as it is technically called, should be anathema to textualists, because there is no good reason to suppose why Congresses failed to amend the statute. Just like pre-enactment legislative history, this sort of evidence should not ground an interpretation on its own; at best, it can be used with caution, particularly where the reason why Congress failed to act is clear.

My main point here is not to defend this particular interpretation, but I cannot help but make a tentative case for Gorsuch J’s view. I do this in order to demonstrate that the real dispute here is not a political one, but a legal one, between textualists. In my view, a number of interpretive considerations support his view.

Text: Gorsuch J’s textual interpretation comes down to the plausibility of his point that sex is inextricably linked to sexual orientation and identity: or more specifically, that discrimination on these grounds are all closely related. While Alito J in dissent disputed this point, and others have as well, there is some textual logic to it. First, there are at least some cases where sex is necessarily bound up with discrimination based on orientation. If there is even a chance that an employer could tolerate opposite sex attraction, but oppose same sex attraction, then the relevant difference is sex. With that aside, more importantly, a textual interpretation of the words “because of” leads to the conclusion that these words are broad. Broad words=broad meaning. On that account, any chance that discrimination could occur on the basis of sex, in the course of discrimination based on other unlisted grounds, is encompassed in the “because of” language.

Precedent supported this conclusion. In Oncale (per Scalia J, the king of textualists), Justice Scalia held that Title VII prohibited discrimination based on same-sex harassment. Why? Because the words “because of” encompassed situations involving same sex: “…we hold today that nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a claim of discrimination “because of…sex” merely because the plaintiff and defendant…are of the same sex” (79).

This is a simple matter of dynamic interpretation. When courts interpret broad, causal language, they must apply these terms to new situations. This is not a re-writing of the statute. Indeed, both sides in Bostock agree that the meanings of “sex” and “because of” are the same when Title VII was enacted and in the present day. But where new fact situations arise, that original meaning must be applied to new situations. As Justice Scalia noted in Oncale, while male-on-male sexual harassment was not the evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, “…statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed” (my emphasis). As Justice Scalia also says in his classic A Matter of Interpretation, statutory interpretation is governed by the rule that text should be interpreted “….to contain all that it fairly means” (23). This is all Gorsuch J did in Bostock.

Some might say this is a plain meaning approach. But I don’t see it. Justice Gorsuch gave the words “sex” and “because of” the same meaning they had when Title VII was enacted. He merely interpreted those words to encompass phenomenon that reasonably fall within their ambit. The fact that a phenomenon is new does not mean that it is necessarily excluded from broad statutory language. The question then is not whether Congress anticipated particular applications to new phenomenon. The question is whether the text can cover off those applications.

Context and Legislative History: If the text is clear—or at least clear enough—then there is no need or warrant to deviate from it. The Canadian Supreme Court accepts this reality (see Celgene, at para 21, and more, and more). And so does the American Supreme Court: see Milner. What this means is that legislative history, and post-enactment legislative history, cannot enter the interpretive task. This means that the fact Congress did not act to explicitly adopt certain explicit prohibitions is irrelevant.

Why should these be considered irrelevant? Post-enactment legislative history is a dangerous tool, on both principled and pragmatic grounds. On the former, legislative history goes to the intent of lawmakers, not to the natural import of the words they adopt in legislation. The latter matters. Whatever Congress did or didn’t do is of no relevance to the meaning of the words adopted. But the problems mount on pragmatic grounds. Legislative history, as Justice Scalia always noted, is not probative, because whatever people say may not be reflected in text. Post-enactment legislative history is even worse. Now we are trying to draw inferences based on what Congress did not do. That is a fool’s errand. As Justice Gorsuch notes, we will never know why Congress did not act to amend Title VII. This is not interpretation, but rather arm-chair psychology about what Congresses may have thought.

Results-Oriented Conservatism

Before continuing, I want to clearly acknowledge that there are plausible textual interpretations that run counter to Gorsuch J’s view. Some could argue that Gorsuch J’s analysis is a literalist approach, rather than one based on ordinary meaning. One could even say that Gorsuch J’s interpretation is itself compelled by results oriented reasoning, rather than the law. But this latter attack would only be strong if Gorsuch J’s approach was not plausibly based on text and precedent. Since, I hope, most would concede that this is a close call (in the name of humility), it is difficult to say anyone was results-oriented in Bostock. Better to keep politics out of it—after all, lawyers have no special political views warranting special treatment—and view the matter as a textual disagreement. I would characterize Bostock as a debate about legal interpretation, not political aims.

But there are exogenous, conservative forces that want to introduce this phantom into Bostock. Conservatives often get angry at progressives who invoke living constitutionalism (in Canada, the living tree metaphor) to adapt the Constitution to present realities. In Canada, we are familiar with this interpretive trick. How else to explain what Justice Abella did in SFL, where she, in all her wisdom, decided that it was now the time to grant “benediction” to a right to strike in Canada’s Constitution? The same phenomenon is at play when conservatives seek to use the law to achieve policy aims that should be achieved in the legislature.

Both attempts by ideologues to subvert law should be rejected. This is no longer a popular view, but law is an autonomous field, within reason, in the realm of statutory interpretation. The methods of interpretation are just that: methodologies. They are designed to reach the authentic meaning (contrast this with intent or expected application) of legislation. If a Congress passes legislation that is socialistic, then it should be authentically applied, leading to socialistic outcomes. If Congress passes legislation cutting back on social benefits, that legislation should be applied leading to its natural outcome. Judges do not bring special moral or political wisdom to the interpretive task. If lawyers are upset about the terms of legislation, they can speak out about it in the political realm. But that’s all.

The flaws of adopting a political approach to interpretation are not only present on a principled basis. If the political aims of legislation become the sole basis on which interpretation is conducted, then the incentive is to simply appoint people based on their substantive political views, not on the quality of their legal craft. To some extent, this is already happening in the United States. In that context, all we will see is a flat-out war between progressives and conservatives who seek to subvert law to their own aims. Nothing, not even law, which is supposed to be a fetter on political wishes, will be sacred anymore. From a strategic perspective, this is bad for either side. Victories achieved by one side in the courtroom can easily be overturned once the “other side” achieves power. And the merry-go-round goes on.

Better, in my view, to hone our arguments to legal ones, applying neutral methodologies, as best we can. Interpretation is designed to determine the meaning of legislative texts. Let the legislature legislate, and let courts interpret. Believe it or not, lawyers and their political views are not particularly enlightened.

The Continued Relevance of “Jurisdiction”

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota

One of the innovations of Vavilov was its dispatch of so-called “jurisdictional questions” from the standard of review analysis. A long-time feature of Canadian administrative law, jurisdictional questions were said to arise “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (see Vavilov, at para 65; Dunsmuir, at para 59). These questions would attract correctness review. But as the Vavilov majority acknowledged, “…majorities of this Court have questioned the necessity of this category, struggled to articulate its scope and ‘expressed serious reservations about whether such questions can be distinguished as a separate category of questions of law” (Vavilov, at para 65; Alberta Teachers, at para 34).   As a result, the Court decided that it would “cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 65), satisfied in the knowledge that the robust reasonableness review it articulated would solve a potential problem of decision-makers arrogating power to themselves they were never intended to have (Vavilov, at para 68; para 109).

We question whether matters are so simple. While the Court purported to rid Canadian administrative law of “jurisdictional questions,” clearly the concept of jurisdiction remains. In this post, we outline the four ways in which it remains relevant in Canadian administrative law, despite its absence from the standard of review analysis. This happens (1) in the course of statutory interpretation under Vavilov itself; (2) in the presence of certain statutory rights of appeal; (3) when drawing the boundaries between the remits of two or more tribunals; and (4) when determining whether a tribunal is empowered to consider Charter questions.

A note before beginning: between us, we view questions of jurisdiction differently. One of us (Mancini) has previously argued that jurisdictional questions should simply attract reasonableness review, since jurisdictional questions are merely a subset of a larger category of questions of law; in his view, there is no meaningful difference between jurisdictional questions and other questions of law, for the purposes of the standard of review (see the reasons of Stratas JA in Access Copyright (2018) at para 75). The other (Sirota) disagrees with this position, and instead believes that questions of jurisdiction must attract a correctness standard of review, and that if this means that most or all questions of law, being jurisdictional in some sense, require correctness review, so much the better. This difference is not material for the purposes of this post. We only mean to argue that the Vavilov judgment should not be read as dispensing with the existence of all questions of jurisdiction, let alone with the concept of jurisdiction writ large. Indeed, jurisdiction still remains an important and relevant concept in distinct areas of Canadian administrative law, an idea recognized in some respects by Vavilov itself.

Statutory interpretation under Vavilov

As noted above, Vavilov ceases to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review (Vavilov, at para 65). This is not a surprise, as majorities of the Court had previously thrown doubt on both the concept of jurisdiction (see CHRC, at para 38) and the means used to identify jurisdictional questions (McLean, at para 25).

And yet: chassez le naturel, et il revient au galop. When the Court goes on to describe the statutory context within which a particular decision-maker operates as an “obvious and necessary constraint” on administrative power (Vavilov, at para 109),  the Court’s explanation harkens back to the language of jurisdiction. The Court says that

Reasonableness review does not allow administrative decision-makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it (Vavilov, at para 109, our emphasis).

What is this if not an invocation of the concept of jurisdiction, albeit in plain English? Whether we frame the issue as one of statutory authority or jurisdiction, the point is the same: administrative decision-makers only have the power that is explicitly or impliedly delegated to them by legislation (or that they hold under the royal prerogative). If they go beyond the scope of the delegation, the decision-makers lose their authority to act. Far from doing away with the concept of jurisdiction, then, the Court embraces it in its articulation of the legal limits of reasonableness review.

Moreover, the Court explains that “[i]f a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision” (Vavilov, at para 110). In such cases, “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority … may support only one” permissible interpretation (Vavilov, at para 110), by contrast with others where the statutory language is more open-ended. While the Court resists the analogy, it is difficult to distinguish single-answer “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority” from pre-Vavilov questions of jurisdiction. What is new, perhaps, is the implicit recognition that even open-ended grants of authority must have their limits.

This is not something to be worried about―even though, as the Vavilov majority noted, every question regarding an administrative decision-maker’s statutory limits can be conceived as a question of jurisdiction (see Vavilov, at para 66), and is so conceived elsewhere (see Peters v Davison (NZCA) explaining that UK case law, followed in New Zealand, has served to “render redundant any distinction between jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional error of law”). Indeed, the Court is correct in saying that jurisdiction (or statutory authority) is a natural limit on administrative discretion. Although it does not serve as the lynchpin for a distinct category of legal questions for the purposes of standard of review analysis, the concept remains in the articulation of the limits on administrative decisions.

Statutory Rights of Appeal and Privative Clauses

Under Vavilov, different standards of review apply on statutory appeals and on judicial review. On appeal, when a case involves a question of law, the standard will be correctness; when a case involves a question of fact or mixed fact and law, the standard will be palpable and overriding error. On judicial review, by contrast, most questions of law, as well as questions of fact and policy, attract reasonableness review.

Hence the scope of statutory rights of appeal, and thus whether a given issue can be appealed or must be judicially reviewed, may be decisive for the outcome of a case. This scope can be circumscribed; one common way in which this is done is by limiting the right of appeal to “questions of law and jurisdiction” as, for example, in the Broadcasting Act provision at issue in Vavilov’s companion case, Bell/NFL.

How are such provisions to be interpreted? Vavilov could be read in one of two ways on this score. First, one could read Vavilov to suggest that when a legislature provides an appeal on a question of law or jurisdiction, jurisdiction means the same thing as “law.” This appears to be what the Court did in Bell, when it did not mention the difference in legislative language between questions of law or jurisdiction. Secondly, one could read Vavilov as retaining the concept of jurisdiction, but simply concluding that for standard of review purposes, the distinction between law and jurisdiction does not matter. This retains the concept of jurisdictional questions.

But what if the appeal right only extends to questions of jurisdiction, not to non-jurisdictional questions of law?  (See, for a version of this in Quebec, Mancini’s article on the subject). If this happens, there are three options. If Vavilov is read as saying that the concept of jurisdiction has no distinct meaning, courts can safely ignore the privative clause and simply consider the right of appeal as either extending to questions of law, or perhaps as covering a null set of cases. We find either of these solutions to be undesirable. If a legislature uses the term “jurisdiction” in a right of appeal, in contrast to the term “law” in a privative clause, the legislature’s use of that term must be given effect: this is simply an application of the presumption against tautology, endorsed in Vavilov itself (see para 45). If the legislature uses the term jurisdiction in a statutory right of appeal, it must mean something over and above a question of law, however much courts and scholars might disagree with its implicit determination that there exist non-jurisdictional questions of law.

This means that courts, in determining whether a particular matter falls within such a right of appeal, must come to its own determination about whether the subject matter is “jurisdictional.” Jurisdiction, then, continues to rear its head in these scenarios.

Jurisdictional Boundaries Between Two or More Administrative Bodies

The Vavilov majority retained, as a category of question attracting correctness review, the determination of “jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies” (Vavilov, at para 53).  This happens when it is unclear which body must resolve a given issue, and one body attempts to address a matter that may be considered to fall within a comprehensive legislative regime administered by another.

The Court says that “[a]dministrative decisions are rarely contested on this basis” (Vavilov, at para 64). This observation is true, but the category is not without controversy. In fact, the Court will hear a case, Horrocks, which considers the demarcation of the respective spheres of authority of human rights tribunals and labour arbitrators, and the governing test for determining which actor should assume jurisdiction in a particular case (see Weber, Figliola). In these cases, the Court uses “jurisdiction” in its standard sense: as the power to hear and decide certain matters. If a tribunal proceeds erroneously on this score, it would incorrectly assume jurisdiction.

It might seem puzzling that Vavilov retained this category of review while purporting to rid Canadian administrative law of other “jurisdictional questions.” And yet, what choice did the Court have? As it pointed out, litigants (and indeed tribunals themselves) need to know which administrative body is tasked with resolving a given question.

Jurisdiction to Consider Charter Questions

The question of whether a decision-maker can consider the Charter is also a question of jurisdiction in the classic sense. It is noteworthy that the term “jurisdiction” appears 89 times in the Supreme Court’s reasons in Martin, which set out to re-appraise the rules governing whether a decision-maker has the authority to consider Charter issues. This is a preliminary question that must be asked before dealing with the merits of a particular constitutional challenge. The Court in Martin concluded that where there is jurisdiction to decide questions of law, there is also jurisdiction to consider the Charter (see Martin, at para 36). For the Martin Court, jurisdiction is defined as “the power to decide” (Martin, at para 36). It will be a “jurisdictional question,” therefore, whether a decision-maker has power to determine how the Charter applies to a matter on which it is required to rule. When a court reviews a decision-maker’s conclusion on this front, the court will owe the decision-maker no deference (see Martin, at para 31).  In this manner, the concept of jurisdiction will continue to inform whether a decision-maker has power to decide a Charter matter, and such questions will function much the same way as they did pre-Vavilov.

This isn’t to say that this category of review is justified from a perspective of first principles or precedent. The Constitution is always a limitation on government action, whether that action is legislative or administrative. That is, legislatures should not be able to “delegate out” of the Constitution by empowering an administrative actor. While it is true that administrative decision-makers are creatures of statute, constitutional constraints circumscribe statutory grants of authority whether they are mentioned or not. Indeed, the better view is that a legislature cannot preclude a decision-maker from considering the Constitution even by saying so. And from the perspective of precedent, Martin is difficult to reconcile with Doré, which held that “…administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” (Doré, at para 35). While we both consider Doré to be unjustified in every other respect, this aspect of Doré―at least if for the extra-constitutional “values” we substitute the more appropriate “law”―is supported by the fundamental idea that the Constitution is supreme in the hierarchy of laws: s.52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (see also Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Tennant, 2018 FCA 132).

Normative Implications

In our view, the holding in Vavilov on jurisdictional questions must be considered quite limited. The Court must not be taken as saying that “jurisdictional questions” do not exist as a conceptual matter. Nor is the Court saying that, in other contexts, courts must defer on questions that can be identified as jurisdictional.

Rather, the situation is much more nuanced. Jurisdiction remains a relevant principle in Canadian administrative law, in at least four areas where courts will be called upon to delineate the scope of the authority of particular decision-makers, whether in the ordinary process of statutory interpretation, in demarcating jurisdictional lines, construing statutory rights of appeal, and in relation to Charter questions. Courts will need to return to a stable definition of jurisdiction. It will do no good to suggest that “jurisdictional questions” have been banned from the world of Canadian administrative law. Horrocks is an example: there, the Court will need to decide whether its test for determining which particular body has jurisdiction is adequate.

In our view, this narrow reading of Vavilov is normatively desirable. Jurisdiction is not the will-o’-the-wisp some make it out to be. Scholars obsessed with the “bad old days” of pre-CUPE administrative law always speak of jurisdiction as if it is some major impediment to administrative decision-making. But that is only so if administrators must, contrary to basic constitutional principles requiring all public power to be constrained by law, be allowed to roam free of legal fetters. Such claims by the defenders of the administrative state are an admission against interest, and quite an unnecessary one. Administrative decision-makers function just fine in jurisdictions where their jurisdiction and, indeed, the correctness of their legal interpretations are fully policed by the courts.

It is true that judges of a particular era were pre-disposed to view administrative power with skepticism. But they had good reason: the rise of administrative power was not an inevitability or a phenomenon that was totally consistent with fundamental constitutional principles. Jurisdiction—the idea that a law (typically statute but sometimes the common law) that exists outside the administrator’s subjective preferences and is subject to judicial interpretation determines whether the administrator can hear or decide a matter—is merely a constitutionally required limit on administrative power (see Vavilov, at para 109). No amount of tinkering with standards of review can change this. Courts trying to flee from constitutional principles will find that they cannot outrun them. They must reckon with this reality and devote their energy to working out how these principles are to be applied, rather than to futile escapades.

 

 

Through Which Glass, Darkly?

Introducing a new article on the Rule of Law in two decisions of the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom

I followed the challenge to the “hearing fees” that British Columbia imposed on litigants who wanted to have their day in court ― or at least their days, since an initial period was free of charge ― from its beginning as Vilardell v Dunham, 2012 BCSC 748 and to its resolution by the Supreme Court of Canada as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, writing almost a dozen posts in the process. And then the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided a case that was remarkably similar to Trial Lawyers, R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor, [2017] UKSC 51, [2017] 4 All ER 903, which involved a challenge to fees charged for access to employment law tribunals. I blogged about that decision too.

The two supreme courts came to similar conclusions: the fees were invalidated in both cases, out of a concern that they prevented ordinary litigants who could not afford them from accessing the forum where their rights would be ascertained. In Trial Lawyers this was said to be a violation of section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867; in Unison, of a common law right of access to court. Yet there was a striking contrast between the two decisions, and specifically between the ways in which they treated the Rule of Law. Trial Lawyers discusses this constitutional principle, but as something of an embarrassment, in the face of a scathing dissent by Justice Rothstein, who argues that it should not have discussed the Rule of Law at all. (He still does ― in his keynote address at this year’s Runnymede Conference, for example.) Unison‘s discussion of the Rule of Law, as a foundation of the right of access to court, is much more forthright, and sophisticated too.

This got me thinking. The result is an article that has been accepted for publication in the Common Law World Review, and which I have already posted on SSRN: “Through Which Glass Darkly? Constitutional Principle in Legality and Constitutionality Review“. The main idea is that what explains the difference in the depth and confidence with which the two courts treated the Rule of Law is that constitutional review, despite its power, is bound to be precarious in the absence of an on-point text, while legality review, although seemingly weak in that its outcome can be overturned by statute, actually makes compelling discussion of unwritten principle possible. Here is the abstract:

This article seeks to draw lessons from a comparison between the ways in which the Rule of Law is discussed in cases decided by the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom on the issue of allegedly excessive fees levied on litigants seeking to access adjudication. After reviewing the factually quite similar cases of Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General) and R (Unison) v Lord-Chancellor and it detailing these decisions’ respective constitutional settings, the article argues that, in contrast to the cursory treatment of the Rule of Law by the Supreme Court of Canada, the UK Supreme Court’s discussion is sophisticated and instructive. This suggests that legality review based on common law rights, which is not focused, and does not try to establish a connection, however tenuous, to an entrench constitutional text, may well allow for a more forthright and enlightening discussion of the principles at stake. Thus it follows that, in constitutional systems that feature strong-form judicial review based on entrenched texts, when regulations and administrative decisions are at issue, legality review should not be neglected. In those systems where strong-form judicial review is not available, legality review should not be regarded as an anomalous ersatz.

While I have argued here that Canadian courts can legitimately base their constitutional decisions on unwritten principles, rather than explicit textual provisions, in some circumstances, I do think that legality review (which, of course, Justice Cromwell favoured in Trial Lawyers) should be considered more often. Our law would be the richer for it.

Expertise in Pandemic Life

 

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, many (for example, Phil Lagasse) have written about the role of experts in public life. The controversy seems to centre around a few points of contention: (1) the degree to which quintessentially political decisions should depend on expert guidance (2) the degree to which the public can and should criticize experts in the midst of a public health dilemma; and (3) the degree to which politicians should or do use experts as the public face of political initiatives.

COVID-19 is an apt phenomenon through which to analyze the role of experts in public life. The pandemic is a health crisis at its core, which invites the contribution of public health officials, doctors, and other experts. At the same time, the health crisis is interwoven with decisions of a political nature: what sorts of programs will best ameliorate the economic strife that many are facing, when and how to “re-open” the economy, and what are the rules that should govern how people interact with one another during the pandemic? In turn, those questions raise this one: what is the proper province of the experts?

Finding this line is no easy task.  But there are, at the very least, a number of important considerations we should keep in mind as we try to find the proper approach to dealing with expertise in public life.

First, we should remember that speaking generally of expertise can belie the complications associated with applying expertise to particular problems. That is, we have to be clear about what sort of expertise we are speaking about. Expertise in public health or epidemiology is not expertise in public policy or program delivery and evaluation. We are familiar with this phenomenon in the law of judicial review. For some time, the Supreme Court presumed that administrative decision-makers in government were “experts” on all matters that came before them (see Edmonton East). But this was always a logically faulty assumption. There was never any evidence offered that experts in government policy—for example, in deciding whether someone is eligible for a certain benefit—ever translated into, say, legal expertise in interpreting statutes or the Constitution. So we must be clear about what sort of “expertise” we are speaking of when we judge the role of experts. Usually, it is not expertise in all things; but rather, it is expertise in some narrow, technical area. And so long as the expert remains confined to that specialized area, there is no reason to worry about over-extending expertise as a concept.

This is not to undermine the importance of expertise in technical areas. Expertise in epidemiology, it turns out, is incredibly important at this time. But once we have narrowed down the scope of an expert’s particular knowledge, it becomes incumbent on the expert to demonstrate that her expertise somehow translates into some other field.

Secondly, and relatedly, using experts to make judgments that affect all of society could lead to certain pathologies. I am often reminded, these days, of Harold Laski’s famous piece “The Limitations of the Expert” (see also Professor Daly’s post here). In the piece, Laski outlines a number of pathologies associated with expertise, all of which are relevant today. For one, experts, even in their own fields, may “tend to neglect all evidence which does not come from those who belong to their own ranks” [4]. More generally, in relation to other fields, experts cannot claim finality for their views because “[e]very expert’s conclusion is a philosophy of the second best until it has been examined in terms of a scheme of values not special to the subject matter of which he is an exponent” [6].  That is, expertise itself in a technical area cannot be the sole means by which social problems are solved, particularly problems that are evasive of empirical analysis. Sometimes—most times—political judgment about social values or norms is required to round out an expert’s rather narrow or technical focus.

Deeper pathologies that affect the fundamental values of our constitutional order may run together with expertise. In an interesting study of the nature of expertise in decision-making, Sidney Shapiro argues: “A central reason why critical inquiry over expert decisions is necessary is that the expert rarely factors democratic liberal values into her decisions. Expertise tends to be narrowly focused and highly specialized, and the expert does not make her judgments in light of democratic liberal values” [1013].  Put differently, experts can tend to focus on their own narrow area of expertise without considering broader social norms or legal values. Health officials may suggest a particular response that maximizes health outcomes, but that does not take into account other constitutional or legal values. The two are not necessarily co-extensive, given the constitutional challenges that exist in respect of the COVID-19 response.

Third, the public has a role in evaluating the evidence, justifications, and reasoning underlying expert decisions. As Shapiro aptly notes, some “[d]ecisions within government institutions often occur within the shadows, concealed from public view” [1015]. This reality has two takeaways. First, experts should not be considered to be cloistered servants away from public scrutiny. If experts are indeed central to decision-making, those responsible for decisions should offer the public a chance to scrutinize the assumptions and reasoning underlying particular decisions. This is all a function of the theory, endorsed in Vavilov, of a “culture of justification” for administrative decision-makers in which the legitimacy of a particular decision depends on the way in which it is justified to the public. Secondly, to this end, the public should not shy away from criticizing the approach of experts when it does not jibe with common sense or experience. The public can legitimately ask, through their representatives, whether the World Health Organization adequately discharged its mandate in protecting the public; whether politicians were right to not close the border at the outset, based on expert judgment; and whether Dr. Theresa Tam’s about-face on masks was justified. These are all areas in which the public can play a role.

Finally, overreliance or trust in experts risks deflecting political responsibility.  This is a point made by Lagasse in his piece. In our system, the COVID response will be judged in political terms by the electorate at the next election(s). But if politicians stand behind experts, allowing them full rein to craft policy (and/or take responsibility for it), there is a risk that this responsibility can be deflected onto the experts. This is a worry that should be constantly guarded against. As Laski notes, experts should be on tap, but not on top. Putting them on top—allowing them to lead the charge, rather than take an assisting role in the public health crisis—undermines democratic accountability.

These are some rough-and-ready considerations to keep in mind as we think through the role of experts in this public health crisis.

 

 

 

One Does Not Simply

Ensuring access to justice isn’t simply a matter of the legal profession’s being more open to “experiments”

Justice Abella has published an op-ed (paywalled) in The Globe and Mail ― yes, another one. It’s being widely shared, with apparent approval, on Canadian law Twitter ― which may or may not reflect the sentiment of the profession more broadly. Justice Abella argues, in a nutshell, that the justice system is hidebound and in dire need of root-and-branch reform to be able to actually provide justice to ordinary litigants. Wanting to improve access to justice is, to be sure, a fine sentiment. However, Justice Abella’s analysis of the system’s problems ― which are real enough ― is remarkably simplistic, and she proposes no solution at all.

Justice Abella writes that the “public [has] been mad for a long, long time” about access to justice and, apparently taking the mad public’s side, wonders “why we still resolve civil disputes the way we did more than a century ago”. Her evidence for the claim that we do so is that in 1906 “Roscoe Pound criticized the civil justice system’s trials for being overly fixated on procedure, overly adversarial, too expensive, too long and too out of date”, and a claim that a an early 20th-century barrister “could, with a few hours of coaching, feel perfectly at home in today’s courtrooms. Can we say that about any other profession?”

Justice Abella attributes this situation to the fact that “the legal system … resist[s] experimenting with justice in order to find better ways to deliver it?” and keeps doing things the way it does for no other reason than “Because we’ve always done it this way”. Comprehensive reform ― not “incremental change” but “a whole new way to deliver justice to ordinary people with ordinary disputes and ordinary bank accounts” ― is necessary.


I have no courtroom experience, let alone ability to judge the public’s mood with any accuracy, so I cannot speak to the accuracy, if any, of what Justice Abella’s description of the justice system’s current state and of the popular reaction to it. I will reiterate that I do not believe that Supreme Court judges can, or should try to, channel “social values” or otherwise make themselves the purported spokespersons of the people. That’s not their job, and a good thing too, because they are supremely unqualified for it. But be that as it may, even if we grant, for argument’s sake, that Justice Abella’s descriptive claims are accurate, it is still the case that her analysis is devoid of all perspective. It considers the issue neither across time, nor in comparison with the state of affairs elsewhere in society. The resulting take is insular and unsound.

A historically informed view of the problem that Justice Abella discusses would have to acknowledge that it is very, very old. I’m no great historian, sadly, but as best I can tell access to justice and the remoteness of the courts from the common people were an issue going at least as far back as the English revolution in the 17th century. The expense and the incomprehensibility of legal proceedigns exercised Jeremy Bentham at the turn of the 19th. And then, as Justice Abella herself observes, they frustrated Roscoe pount in the early 20th, and any number of people in the 21st. People put forward various solutions too ― the puritans tried to establish courts outside London; Bentham was convinced that writing down the common law “into one great book (it need not be a very great one)” that would be “read through in churches, and put into boys’ hands, and made into exercises when they are at school” would do the trick. None of that worked.

One might of course conclude from this that the legal profession and the judiciary are, if anything, even worse than Justice Abella imagines. But isn’t the more plausible explanation for the persistence of access to justice problems that they are genuinely very difficult to solve, rather than that they are caused by laziness and obduracy? I will return to this issue shortly.

Before I do so, though, let me note that it’s simply not true that the rest of society has evolved beyond all recognition while the law has allegedly stood still. The work of academics and (perhaps even more so school teachers) looks much as it did not only 100, but 800 years ago. So does that of people in any number of other trades, if we put to one side the accumulation of technical knowledge, in the same way as Justice Abella puts to one side the evolution of substantive law. Even in medicine, to which Justice Abella appeals as an example of a forward-looking profession unafraid to “experiment with lives”, things are more complicated than she allows. The work of many specialist doctors has no doubt by transformed by all manner of gadgets. But what about that of general practitioners? Is it really so unrecognizable from a century ago?

The thing is, this is not because GPs, or chefs, or professors, are ― like lawyers ― hidebound and smug. Justice Abella simply implies that new and radically different is better, it is not clear why that should be. New can be better, but it need not be. If things are the way they are for some important reason, then ― so long as the reason is still present ― it is wise to keep them as they are, unless some weightier reason impels change.

And this brings me back to the question of why access to justice problems are genuinely difficult to solve. There is, in fact, a good ― although perhaps not a decisive ― reason for having those procedures whose existence so annoys Justice Abella. They are widely thought to promote more accurate decision-making, and they support the human dignity of the people who find themselves in front of the courts by giving them a chance to be heard and, no less importantly, to test and challenge the case that is being made against them. It is for these reasons that some or all of these procedures are required when people’s rights and obligations are being determined not by conventional courts, but by administrative decision-makers. Go back to 1906, and these tribunals often operated very differently, with no procedural safeguards to speak of. Yet this aroused criticism, and the critics prevailed; change came, partly through legislation and partly through decisions of the courts, widely celebrated now although they would have been anathema to the champions of experimentation and efficiency of the Progressive era.

In my last post I wrote about the trade-offs involved in designing administrative procedures. If procedure is good, there can be too much of a good thing. Additional procedural safeguards eventually yield little improvement in terms of more accurate or even more dignity-respecting adjudication, yet their cost, both to the taxpayer and to the parties, can become intolerable. Gerard Kennedy (whom I thank for his kind words about my post) has suggested that Justice Abella made just this point about trade-offs. But, respectfully, that’s not how I read her op-ed. There is no acknowledgment of trade-offs in Justice Abella’s argument; she does not recognize that there are reasons, beyond simple resistance to change and unwillingness to “experiment”, for the system being as it is. She blames the legal profession’s conservatism, and has no time for other considerations.

All that is not to say that there need be no reforms. My own preference, expressed since the earliest days of this blog, is for deregulating the legal profession. Justice Abella, I rather suspect, might not be on board with this particular experiment, but I would love to see it. Lack of competition is bound to make the legal system less innovative than it might be, so bringing about more of it is likely to ameliorate the problems Justice Abella is concerned about. But we should not delude ourselves about how much this, or any other, reform might accomplish. For one thing, so long as the state exists, the court system, if not the legal profession, is bound to remain a monopoly. Sure, alternative dispute resolution exists, but it is not suitable for resolving certain kinds of disputes. And, beyond that, those trade-offs, and the need for a system that provides substantive justice and procedural fairness, and not only expediency, is not going away.


Put to one side the question of whether a person who is sitting at the apex of the legal system, and has been for 16 years, who has been a judge for almost 45, who has accepted innumerable plaudits from the legal profession and academy, should really be criticizing the system as if she is not part of it. Leave it to moral philosophers. But we need not wait for their judgment to say that Justice Abella’s argument is driven by the conceit that solving the problems she identifies would be easy if only the system were less stuck in the past and more willing to try new approaches. The fact that she does not even begin to tell us what these approaches might be ― that she proposes no new idea, even one as daft as Bentham’s public readings of the not-very-great law book ― should be a hint: things aren’t as simple as she would like us to think.

There is a word for this tactic of setting up an alleged conflict of “the public” or “the people” against some obstructionist, and probably self-interested, elites standing in the way of change; of denying the difficult trade-offs that change would require; of claiming that a transformation of society, such that trade-offs can be dispensed with altogether, is around the corner if only the resolute leaders in communion with the enlightened people were in change. It’s a word that one would not have associated with Justice Abella, but one has to, given that this rhetoric is precisely what she deploys in this op-ed. The word is, of course, “populism”. In the previous op-ed, linked to at the beginning of my post, Justice Abella, denounced populism, arguing that “[m]any countries around the world … have made Faustian bargains, selling their democratic souls in exchange for populist approval.” This was, she wrote, “unconscionable.” But that was then, I suppose, and this is now.

Just as she does with the Rule of Law, alternatively disparaging and extolling it as suits the circumstances or the taste of her audience, Justice Abella can castigate populism or engage in it. One might think this is, indeed, unconscionable. But, perhaps, things are not so bad. As I wrote in commenting on that previous op-ed,

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority.

She might simply not understand what she is doing. I’m not sure about this, but she really might. Either way, July 1, 2021, when she must at last retire from the Supreme Court, cannot come soon enough.

Rafilovich: A Textualist (or Quasi-Textualist) Turn?

Since Telus v Wellman, the Supreme Court of Canada has moved towards a sort of “textually constrained” purposivism in statutory interpretation cases. To my mind, textually constrained purposivism involves two parts: (1) a focus on the text over abstract purposes in determining the meaning of text and (2) if there are conflicting purposes at the same level of abstraction, choosing the purpose most local to particular provisions, rather than abstract purposes of statutes. Telus v Wellman involved (1). The Supreme Court’s recent opinion, R v Rafilovich, addressed (2). It teaches that courts should not look to abstract, overall purposes of a statute in place of more particular, local purposes. The latter purposes actually shed light on the text at issue, rather than using abstract (perhaps unenacted) purposes to divine text.

In this comment, I briefly address the setup of Rafilovich. Then I address why Rafilovich demonstrates a sort of textually constrained purposivism, threading together Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich.

Setup

Rafilovich involved the proceeds of crime provisions of the Criminal Code and the provisions in the Criminal Code for the return of seized property for the purposes of legal fees. The issue was whether property that was returned to the accused to pay for “reasonable legal fees” could later be subject to a fine by the Crown, if the property was not available for forfeiture (because it was already spent). Martin J wrote the opinion for the majority, in which she outlined the process by which these two sets of provisions worked (para 22 et seq):

  • The accused is charged with a “designated offence,” under s.462.3(1) of the Criminal Code.
  • Property is seized under Criminal Code provisions that allow the state to take property from an accused on the basis of reasonable and probable grounds that the property may eventually be proven to be proceeds of crime.
  • The accused makes an application for the return of the seized property for the purpose of paying for reasonable legal fees (s.462.34(4) to (6) of the Criminal Code). Seized property can only be returned “if the judge is satisfied that the applicant has no other assets or means available” to pay for legal expenses (s.462.34(4)(c)(ii)).
  • The onus shifts to the Crown to prove that certain property meets the statutory definition of proceeds of crime. Only property determined to be “proceeds of crime” is subject to forfeiture or a fine in lieu of forfeiture.
  • If the property which=proceeds of crime is no longer available for forfeiture, the judge may order a fine instead of forfeiture (s.462.37(3) and (4)).

Martin J then outlined the purposes of the proceeds of crime provisions, including the “return for the purposes of legal fees” provisions. The overall purpose of the proceeds of crime section of the Criminal Code is to ensure that “ ‘crime does not pay’ and to deter offenders by depriving them of their ill-gotten gains” (at para 2). But this overall purpose did not run through, at full force, all provisions of the section. Martin J outlined purposes particular to the legal fees provisions, including (1) ensuring access to counsel and (2) upholding the presumption of innocence (at para 53). To Martin J, these particular provisions must be “balanced with the primary objective of the proceeds of crime regime” (ibid). Permitting the Crown to take a fine amounting to the cost of legal fees spent during the course of the proceedings would run counter to these two objectives.

Moldaver J, in dissent, took a different view of the statute. He would have prioritized the “crime does not pay” overall purpose of the statute: “…I am of the view that the statutory regime’s primary objective of ensuring that crime does not pay need not and should not be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘secondary purposes’ relied on by my colleague” (at para 92). Moldaver J went to pains to note that all of the primary and secondary purposes of the statute could be achieved by prioritizing the primary purpose (ibid).

Analysis

In my view, Martin J’s majority opinion gives effect to explicit text in the Criminal Code that sets out “safety valve” provisions from the general proceeds of crime provisions governing reasonable legal expenses. These provisions, setting out different text, must emanate from a different purpose. In other words, these provisions on a plain reading have little to do with ensuring crime does not pay. For that reason, the provisions must reflect a different purpose than the overall one. Giving effect to Parliamentary meaning in language means recognizing this different purpose.

The starting point for this argument is a description of the general problems that plague Canadian statutory interpretation. As I wrote in my piece “Statutory Interpretation from the Stratasphere,” there are two basic problems in statutory interpretation: vertical abstraction and horizontal frequency. Vertical abstraction is the problem of, in one particular statutory provision, choosing the appropriate level of abstraction for the purpose which governs in relation to particular text. Horizontal frequency involves choosing the purpose most local to the dispute/legislative provision at hand among purposes at the same level of abstraction. Telus v Wellman involved the former issue, but Rafilovich involves the latter: do we choose the “primary” purpose of “crime does not pay” to resolve the dispute, or the more local purposes of access to justice and the presumption of innocence?

The Federal Court of Appeal has already dealt with this problem in the context of the Williams case, in which Justice Stratas sensibly isolated the horizontal frequency issue. As I wrote in “Statutory Interpretation from the Stratasphere”:

Williams shows a way to properly select the purpose. In that case, Justice Stratas identified the different purposes bearing on the interpretive difficulty; under s.3, the Act was aimed at “keeping track of cross-border flows” of currency, which fulfills larger public safety concerns. However, under s.13, the Act was directed at concerns of privacy. Those concerns were manifested in specific statutory text aimed at this “very limited” function.

There is a duelling tension between these statutory provisions, but Justice Stratas resolved the issue by focusing on the statutory purpose which bore most heavily on discovering the meaning of the statute. It would do no good to discovering the meaning of the provision at issue in Williams to frame the purpose at the level of public safety and end the matter. Instead, Justice Stratas sensibly isolated the purpose bearing on the problem by referencing specific statutory text supporting that purpose.

Applying this sort of thinking to Rafilovich, Justice Martin is clearly in the right. In this case, the most local purposes to the dispute at hand were the purposes speaking of access to justice and the presumption of innocence, assuming these purposes were identified correctly. Why must these purposes be prioritized over the general purpose? Because of the principle of democracy. The use of different language to express Parliament’s law in the legal fees provisions should lead to different interpretive outcomes. By this, I mean that ensuring crimes does not pay may be an overall purpose of the proceeds of crime provision, but Parliament clearly used different language and a different approach in the legal fees provisions. This different approach must, consequently, reflect different legislative purposes, as the legislative history in the case outlines (see para 39 et seq—though I cringe at the reliance on legislative history writ large). The court must give “purpose and meaning to each provision” (at para 20).

Moreover, ensuring crime does not pay is an odd purposive fit for the language under interpretation here. The availability of a fine for money spent on legal fees hinges on the fact that the money spent on legal fees is no longer available—it was spent. One could hardly say that an accused is benefitting from crime because of the mere fact that he paid for his legal defense with fees that, at the time of their spending, have not been shown to be proceeds of crime definitively. Furthermore, as Martin J notes, an accused may simply forego counsel, fearing a fine—which would undermine the so-called “secondary purposes” of the legal fees provisions. Instead, it is more natural to read the legal fees provisions as meaning something different and reflecting different purposes of access to justice and the presumption of innocence. These purposes, as in Williams, bear most heavily on discovering the meaning of the particular legislative provisions under interpretation—in other words, they are the most helpful to solving the interpretive difficulty. “Crime does not pay” does not, practically, get us any closer to solving the interpretive difficulty.

True, it would be right to note that money returned for legal fees could later be determined to be proceeds of crime; from this perspective, the accused “benefitted” from crime because he used tainted money to pay for his legal fees. But there are two responses to this position. First, at the time the accused spends the money on legal fees, one does not know whether the fees constituted “proceeds of crime”; “the accused may never be convicted, or the property may never be proven to be proceeds of crime. Thus, when accused persons spend returned funds on reasonable legal fees, they are spending their own money on their legal defence” (at para 45). Secondly, when balanced with the local purposes—access to justice and the presumption of innocence—it is more likely that Parliament intended a carve-out from the general “crime does not pay” principle in the distinct circumstances of legal fees. This is because of the centrality of counsel in our constitutional system. It is not absurd to suggest that when Parliament enacted these provisions, it had the backdrop of the important role of counsel in mind, as a limited carveout from the general crime does not pay principle (see the legislative history at paras 40-41). With that role in mind, coupled with the important role of the presumption of innocence, it is not a far leap to suggest that Parliament wanted different purposes to drive these particular sections of the Criminal Code.

Overall, and as I mentioned above, textually-constrained purposivism has two parts. Telus v Wellman focused on the importance of text vis-à-vis purpose. Rafilovich solves the other problem associated with purposivism: how do we decide which purpose governs? Martin J’s opinion selects the most local purposes to the interpretive dispute, explicitly giving meaning to Parliament’s language in the legal fees provisions. This, to my mind, is a positive step.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pipeline…

The Rule of Law need not be exclusively the rule of courts. But in order for a society to be governed by the Rule of Law, even those who advocate a “thick” conception of the Rule of Law say that we need an impartial system of courts (see Tom Bingham, “The Rule of Law”; and relatedly, Trial Lawyers, at para 38). Concomitantly, the Rule of Law is not simply Rule by Law; I posit that the Rule of Law also requires a culture of respect for the law by those engaging in the court system. What happens when litigants try to, in service of their own goals, get around orders of a court?

A saga in the Federal Court of Appeal is showing the results. The Trans-Mountain expansion project is a controversial pipeline expansion project that has caused a great deal of consternation among environmental and Aboriginal groups. A number of these groups challenged the legality of the government’s decision to approve the expansion project in the Federal Court of Appeal. In Raincoast Conservation Foundation v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 224 [Raincoast Conservation I],the Court granted leave to some of these groups to launch a judicial review of the Governor in Council’s approval only on certain issues; other groups were denied leave altogether. The order in Raincoast Conservation I was clear.

And yet, some groups sought to get around the order. Namely, Tsleil-Waututh First Nation tried to raise issues that were not included in the “permissible issues” that Raincoast Conservation I allowed. Tsleil-Waututh explained that it was attempting to appeal Raincoast Conservation I (on restricted issues) to the Federal Court of Appeal, even though the decision in Raincoast Conservation I was rendered by a judge of that same court (Stratas JA). In Ignace v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 239, Stratas JA held that appeals cannot be made from the Federal Court of Appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal, because there was no statutory mechanism to allow for such appeals.

But Raincoast attempted to appeal Raincoast Conservation I (on denial of leave) in the face of Ignace, to the Federal Court of Appeal. In Raincoast Conservation Foundation v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 259 [Raincoast Conservation II], the Court (sitting in a panel of three) rebuffed Raincoast’s attempt to basically relitigate issues already decided by the Court.

The Court rested its conclusions on three main premises. First, the appellants argued that the Federal Court of Appeal, as a statutory court, has all the powers necessarily implied in order to exercise its jurisdiction. This, said the appellants, entitled the Federal Court of Appeal (a statutory court) to hear an appeal from itself. But the Court rejected this somewhat bizarre assertion, holding that the Federal Court of Appeal, as a statutory court, would have to be vested with “some statutory language to support an implication that this Court can somehow hear an appeal from itself…” [8]. There was no such language. Second, the Court chastised the appellants for attempting to bring its own policy views into the appeal [10-12]. Namely,

 In their representations, the appellants set out policy views, some of which they unsuccessfully asserted in Raincoast Conservation, above, and urge them again upon us, perhaps in the hope that we might depart from Ignace. They want the National Energy Board’s environmental reports to be brought to court immediately by way of judicial review rather than waiting for the Governor in Council’s overall decision on approval. They want the standards in the Species at Risk Act, S.C. 2002, c. 29 and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, S.C. 2012, c. 19, s. 52 to foreclose the Governor in Council from approving a project, rather than to be just factors the Governor in Council weighs in its public interest decision. They want to appeal from this Court to this Court because the Supreme Court seldom grants leave to appeal. They want the decision of a single judge “in a case of this importance” to be fully reviewable, not “immunized from appeal”.

To the Court, none of these policy views “are the policies Parliament has chosen to implement in its law. We must apply Parliament’s law, not the personal policy views urged by the parties or our own personal views…” [11]. As the Court said, “[t]he policy choices expressed by Parliament in its 2012 law no doubt frustrate the appellants and others. But they should express their frustration in at the ballot box or by other lawful and democratic means—not by relitigating points already decided” [16].

Finally, the Court sensibly tied all of this to the Rule of Law:

I appreciate that the appellants and others are passionate about their causes and dedicated to them. But passion and dedication can never justify disrespect for the rule of law. The rule of law requires those seeking the judgment of the Court to accept the judgment of the Court even when it is not to their liking.

The Court, for these reasons, terminated the appeal.

Why does any of this matter? I think there are a number of reasons why the Court’s order here is important. For one, it is an important statement about creative arguments that attempt to add-on to powers that are statutory in nature. Indeed, it is true that the Supreme Court has said that statutory actors such as the Federal Courts require certain powers “beyond the express language of its enabling statute” to perform its intended functions: see Bell Canada, [1989] 1 SCR 1722. This is just common sense. Courts require certain implied powers to manage process, for example. But this does not entitle the appellants in this case to say that a right of appeal—a statutory creation—exists where it clearly and simply does not in the relevant statutes. To make this argument invites courts to supplement clear statutory omissions with whatever the Court might feel is right and proper. This is an unwelcome twist on the basic hierarchy of laws—especially since the Supreme Court has held that a right of appeal is purely a matter of parliamentary will (Kourtessis, at 69: “Appeals are solely creatures of statute”), not a constitutional requirement of the Rule of Law: see Medovarski, at para 47.

Second, the Court sensibly rebuffed arguments by the appellants that would, in essence, replace Parliament’s law governing pipeline approvals with an alternative system. Such a system would permit, among other things, (1) early challenges to environmental reports, rather than the current system, which only permits judicial review of the Governor-in-Council’s final decision to approve; and (2) the introduction of standards set out in other statutes as mandatory considerations that could “foreclose the Governor-in-Council from approving a project” [10]. These might all be good ideas. But all of these proposals run counter to the law Parliament chose to instantiate the approval process for pipelines. The remedy for the appellants is not a collateral attack on Parliament’s process, but the ballot box, where they can vote in people who wish to make their preferred policy proposal a reality.

One could argue that the Federal Court of Appeal’s own jurisprudence permits the appellants’ preferred approach. In Alberta Wilderness, the Court apparently held that environmental reports “should be seen as an essential statutory preliminary step required by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.” More to the point, Tsleil Waututh 2018 apparently held (according to the linked ablawg post cited above) (at para 189) that a reference in Gitxaala Nation (paras 119-127) that environmental reports cannot be judicially reviewed was misconceived.

With respect, Stratas JA dealt with this matter in Ignace, at para 36. The fact that the appellants were trying to relitigate this point speaks to the issue overriding this entire saga: a respect for orders of the court duly issued. But even on the merits, this argument is somewhat misconceived. Reading Tsleil-Waututh 2018 in whole and in context, it seems that the Court, relying on Gitxaala, ultimately concluded that “the report of the Joint Review Panel constituted a set of recommendations to the Governor in Council that lacked any independent legal or practical effect. It followed that judicial review did not lie from it” (Tsleil Waututh 2018, at para 180). And this would find accord with basic administrative law principles, to the effect that only final decisions of administrative authorities are judicially reviewable (Budlakoti, at paras 56 et seq in the context of the doctrine of exhaustion).

Finally, a note on the Rule of Law. One might argue—quite ambitiously–that attempting to relitigate an order of a Court is justified by the policy proposals that a particular litigant seeks to advance. The weight of this argument is dependent, indeed, on how much one identifies the Rule of Law with the rule of courts. To some, court orders may not represent the totality of the Rule of Law. But a system of the Rule of Law is dependent on the respect owed to neutral arbiters of the law and their orders. Those neutral arbiters, in a system of courts, are components of the Rule of Law. They should be owed respect.

That said, we can and should criticize court decisions that we find undesirable. But as litigants acting in the system, there are defined ways to legally change the effect of a decision: by appeal, rather than relitigation.

 

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.