Guest Post: Andrew Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Empty Vessel

Thoughts on the Justice Kasirer appointment process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five-Judge Myth

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

By Peter McCormick

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

The Cruel Ritual of the Ontario Bar Exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental Sustainability is Not An Unwritten Constitutional Principle

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, the environmental crisis needs a better answer.

“Clear Enough”

Some thoughts on statutory interpretation.

As I finish my graduate studies at  Chicago, it struck me that a major theme of legal design is the degree of perfection (if any) we should expect from legal rules. Drafted legal rules—whether by the legislature or judiciary—will always be over and underbroad, because rules of general application cannot foresee every idiosyncratic individual application. In such a case, the extent to which a perfect rule can be created is dependent on the extent to which we balance the error rate of application with the ease of administrability of a straightforward rule. Here, we will never come to a perfect balance, but we can try to come to something that is defensible and workable.

The same sort of consideration applies in the field of statutory interpretation. The most important issue in statutory interpretation is the clarity exercise—how clear is clear enough? Finding that a statutory text is clear on its face leads to a number of important consequences. For one, the Supreme Court has said that where text is “precise and unequivocal, the ordinary meaning of the words play a dominant role in the interpretive process” as opposed to purpose (Canada Trustco, at para 10). Additionally, the use of Charter values in statutory interpretation to gap-fill only arises where there is ambiguity in the ordinary textual meaning (BellExpressVu, at para 28). And, as Gib Van Ert points out, the Federal Court of Appeal seems to be adopting a similar rule in the context of international law.

Some may object at the outset to a consideration of “clarity” as a means of discerning legislative intent on a particular subject. This line of opposition is deeply rooted in the idea of legal realism, with its skepticism of judicial modes of reasoning and the rejection of abstract legal thought as a means to come to clear answers on the law. Representative works in this regard include John Willis’ “Statutory Interpretation in a Nutshell,” where he argues that, in modern legislation which uses wide language (often to delegate authority to others), literal interpretation does no good, essentially because the language is broad and unclear. And he notes that even if interpretation could be  clear or plain on its face, there are differences between judges as to what “plain” constitutes (see 10 and 11). Additionally, Karl Llewellyn’s classic article on the “dueling canons of interpretation” sheds doubt on the use of the canons of statutory interpretation to come to any clear meaning that is not inspired by motivated reasoning. Underlying each of these important critiques is a belief in the relativism and contingency of language. Clarity, on this account, is probably a fool’s errand, in part because ascribing an intent to the legislature is difficult with open-textured language, and in part because language itself is inherently unclear. If this is true, it will be the rare case indeed where a court should be convinced that a text is clear.

While this might sound good to a lawyer’s ear—especially a lawyer that is paid money to exploit ambiguities—it does not comport with the way we use language in the majority of cases. And this is where the example of crafting legal rules comes into handy. One might wish to craft a legal rule to cover all of the interstitial, idiosyncratic applications—ones that are weird or abnormal. But then we create a rule that might work well in the individual case, and not in the general run of cases. Instead, we should craft legal rules based on the 98% of cases, not the 2%: see Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World on this score. In the realm of statutory interpretation, this means that we should start with the going-in, commonsense presumption that language is generally clear in the majority of circumstances, after a bit of listening and synthesis. People transact in the English language everyday with no major kerfluffles, and even conduct complex business and legal dealings without requiring a court to opine on the language they are using. This underlying mass of cases never makes it to court precisely because English works. The problem with statutory interpretation cases, then, is the major selection effect they present. The cases that make it to court, where the rules are developed, are the cases that are most bizarre or that raise the most technical questions. Those are not the cases on which we should base rules of general application. Instead, the rule should simply be that English works in most circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that each of us can generally communicate—with only small hiccups—in the day-to-day world.

If that is the rule adopted, and if legal language is really no different in kind (only in degree of specificity and technicality), then a court should not be exacting in its determination of the clarity of a statutory provision. That is, if language generally works on first impression, then there is no need for a court to adopt a presumption that it doesn’t work, and hence that something greater than “clear enough” is required to definitively elucidate the meaning of a text. We should merely assume that language probably works, that legislatures know language, and that courts have the tools to discern that language. While we should not assume that language is perfect, we should at least assume that it is workable in an ordinary meaning sense.

This approach also has the benefit of commonsense. Perfection is not of this world.  The legal realists put way too high a standard on the clarity of language, to something approaching perfect linguistic clarity rather than semantic workability. We should not craft legal rules around the fact that, in some far-off circumstances, we can imagine language not working.

What does this mean in operation? The American debate over Chevron deference supplies a good example. Chevron holds that where Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue, courts should not afford deference to an agency’s interpretation of law. This is Chevron Step One. If Congress has not spoken clearly, the court moves to Chevron Step Two, where it will defer to the interpretation and uphold it if it constitutes a reasonable interpretation of law. In a recent case, Justice Gorsuch concliuded at Chevron Step One that the text was “clear enough,” so that deference should not be afforded. The clear enough formulation is reminiscent of Justice Kavanaugh’s article, where he explains the various divisions among judges about clarity:

I tend to be a judge who finds clarity more readily than some of my colleagues but perhaps a little less readily than others. In practice, I probably apply something approaching a 65-35 rule. In other words, if the interpretation is at least 65-35 clear, then I will call it clear and reject reliance on ambiguity-dependent canons. I think a few of my colleagues apply more of a 90-10 rule, at least in certain cases. Only if the proffered interpretation is at least 90-10 clear will they call it clear. By contrast, I have other colleagues who appear to apply a 55-45 rule. If the statute is at least 55-45 clear, that’s good enough to call it clear.

Kavanaugh’s approach is probably closer to the right one, if we accept the general proposition that language will be workable in the majority of cases. If there is no reason to doubt language, then clarity will be easier to come by. It is only if we go in assuming the case of unworkability that clarity becomes a fool’s errand. But from a perspective of legal design, this is not desirable.

Law has a reputation for being a highly technical field, with a laser focus on commas, semicolons, and correcting the passive voice. But at the level of designing legal rules, including rules governing language, the best we can hope for is workability, not technical precision. This is because designing rules involves tradeoffs between incentives, administrability, and fit. And because humans are not perfect, we cannot design rules at this level of abstraction that are perfect. As a result, in the language context, the best we can and should do is workability in the general run of cases.

Two-Headed Judges

By Peter McCormick

If several judges on the Supreme Court of Canada suddenly sprouted two heads in their annual official photo, we would certainly take notice and would be looking for an explanation. But something similar has actually taken place in Supreme Court decisions without attracting either focused attention or a search for the reason why. More specifically – a significant number of Supreme Court decisions now routinely attribute judgments or minority reasons not to a single judge but to a pair (more rarely a trio) of judges. I leave aside for the moment the perhaps-not-unrelated phenomenon of the hydra-headed “By the Court” judgments,[1] which have been around for longer but are rather less frequent; my focus here is on the more numerous examples of this narrower form of co-authorship.

The practice is frequent enough and important enough to deserve attention.  Co-authored judgments are a recent development – the earliest significant example was R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075.[2] It rose beyond the sporadic only in the closing years of the Lamer Court, becoming more frequent and more routine (multiple examples every year) for the McLachlin Court.  To the Lamer Court’s 26 examples we can now add the 127 of the McLachlin Court and the 6 of the Wagner Court to date. Co-authorship involves minority reasons as well, with 46 examples for the Lamer Court, 72 for the McLachlin Court, and 11 for the Wagner Court. The total count is therefore 159 judgments and 129 sets of minority reasons in 30 years, for a Court that delivers about 60 reserved decisions a year. The practice only started in the late 1990s, but co-authorship has now become an ongoing feature of how the Supreme Court handles its business.

It might be suggested that perhaps the Court does this only for its more routine and less important decisions (although the count above already excludes the “from the bench” decisions that continue to make up about one-sixth of the caseload even after 1999 amendments limited appeals by right).  As I have elsewhere demonstrated at some length,[3] this “minor cases” reservation cannot be sustained.  Co-authorships are used proportionately most often for constitutional cases (Charter, federalism and aboriginal cases alike) and public law cases, most often for cases that have drawn larger numbers of interveners, and most often for cases with higher subsequent citation frequencies.  None of this says “routine” or “unimportant”.

Let me expand on this criterion of citation frequency.  Several different factors bear on how often a case is cited by the Court in later decisions, but citation counts remain a useful indicator of the ongoing impact of a decision.  More to the point, they provide a measure of how a specific judge’s influence endures beyond their own service on the Court, also showing the specific areas of law within which that persisting influence is the most important.  These are useful indicators indeed for assessing a judicial career.  It is therefore striking that the four most frequently cited decisions of the McLachlin Court (measured in “times cited per year since delivery” to level the playing field for the more recent decisions) are co-authored decisions; the four cases are Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, Housen v Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33, Bell ExpressVu v Rex, 2002 SCC 42, and R v Grant 2009 SCC 32.  Three further cases (R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, Canadian Western Bank v Alberta, 2007 SCC 22, and Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12) join them in the McLachlin Court “top ten.”

The blog of the Osgoode Hall law school TheCourt recently reinforced this point from another angle.  In a “where are they now?” post about the ten most recently retired Supreme Court justices, they reminded us of each judge’s most frequently cited decision.  For full half of them, including McLachlin herself, that involved a co-authored judgment.  The practice of co-authorship is not at the margins; it is right at the center.

These two-headed decisions clearly matter; how are we to account for their emergence? There are several possible reasons, none of which provides a completely satisfactory answer.

One explanation might be an unusually close partnership between judges who agree extensively on a range of issues, such that close collaboration flows naturally from this recurring congruence of views. This description clearly captures Cory and Iacobucci, who effectively invented the practice in the late 1990s. During their shared service on the Court, they posted the highest level of two-judge agreement of any pairing of judges; it is reasonable to see co-authorship as growing from this fertile soil of extensive agreement. But this explanation does not work for the complex network that has emerged more recently – on the McLachlin Court, every single justice was involved in some degree of co-authorship, most with several different partners.

A slightly more systemic answer might couch it in terms of alliances on a court that tends to fragment along predictable lines, with co-authorship reinforcing the solidarity of both “in-group” and “out-group” in the face of its chronic adversaries. But this explanation does not work either, simply because the network has been so extensive – there were no fewer than 45 different combinations of two or three judges who produced co-authored judgments on the McLachlin Court (slightly more if we extend the count to minority reasons). This is “bloc-eroding” behavior rather than “bloc-reinforcing” behavior.

A third explanation might be that it salvages a strong majority decision from multiple possible defections to an emerging separate concurrence.  In a private conversation some years ago, a former justice of the Supreme Court explained his own participation in at least some co-authorships in precisely these terms. This would make co-authorship part of the reason for McLachlin’s success in sharply reducing the frequency of separate concurrence compared with the preceding Lamer Court. This is perhaps mildly problematic given that such compromise can involve less a genuine meeting of minds than a degree of calculated ambiguity on central points of disagreement and a careful avoidance of problematic subsidiary issues; at least co-authorship does the service of highlighting this possibility.

A fourth explanation might be that it has a socializing function, with co-authorship linking established members of the Court with more recently appointed colleagues. Even for experienced judges elevated from provincial courts of appeal, the transition to the Supreme Court can be daunting.  However, such a disparity of experience between a pair of co-authors is much too infrequent to make this a pervasive explanation, although it may sometimes be a factor.

A fifth explanation might be that it sometimes represents an ambitious attempt to solve very large and deep-rooted problems in the Court’s jurisprudence.  The obvious example is Dunsmuir, with its ambitious recasting of the standards of review for administrative tribunals.  Double Aspect, in cooperation with the Administrative Law Matters blog, published an extended multi-part discussion of the case on its tenth anniversary last year.  Not only the most frequently cited decision of the McLachlin Court, it is also the most widely criticized; this and other blogs continually share expectations (which are just as continually frustrated) that some current case before the Court will provide the opportunity to revisit and adjust the Dunsmuir precedent, but this makes the point about how ambitious the undertaking was.

The search for a “why” is complicated by the fact that we do not even know the “when” of the formation of the writing partnership. Does it occur spontaneously during the post-hearing judicial conference, with the initial assignment of the writing of majority reasons? Nothing in the descriptions of this process either specifically mentions or specifically excludes the possibility of a joint assignment, and in a recent interview McLachlin suggested that at least some co-authorships emerge this way. Or does it occur after such an assignment, during the “circulate and revise” process and possibly under some prodding from the Chief Justice, like the salvage efforts described above? Clearly, this sometimes happens as well, but nothing in the physical appearance of the decision in the Supreme Court Reports gives any real hint as to which happens how often.

The benefit of the co-authorship practice is clear: it results in a more genuinely and visibly collegial court that presents an institutional face rather than an individualist one, that emphasizes pervasive agreement rather than division, that shows us a Court of persuasion and cooperation rather than polarization. As practised by the McLachlin Court, it eliminated the predictable blocks of the Lamer Court. Recall the “gang of five” who dominated the Court’s most important decisions for much of the 1990s, with the other judges (most notably L’Heureux-Dube and McLachlin) obliged to do much of their own writing in minority reasons.  No such persisting fragmentation has been seen for the past twenty years. There was more to the McLachlin Court’s unity and collegiality than co-authorship, but co-authorship was definitely part of it.

However, such benefits are always purchased at a price. For one thing, it is harder for lower courts or academics to unravel the nuances. We can sometimes clear up some ambiguities in the wording of a judgment by comparing the immediate decision with earlier reasons written by the same judge, or we can track the evolution of a judge’s thinking (with hints of where it might go next) by seeing how it is cited and applied in the same judge’s later reasons. This becomes more difficult if we cannot be sure which of a pair of judges might have written the particular passage or might be making the later citation. By the same token, the device depersonalizes the decision and diffuses the assignment of criticism or blame.

For another, it undercuts the venerable common law tradition of accountability, of the clear responsibility of the specific individual judge to which those reasons are attributed.  This is already attenuated by the “circulate and revise” procedures of the Supreme Court, such that a collegial dimension already pervades the final version – but even if we are looking at “lead authorship” rather than genuine “solo authorship”, the accountability dimension is real, and traditionally it has been important.[4]  It is clearly eroded by a pervasive co-authorship practice focused on the Court’s more important (in terms of subject matter), more controversial (in terms of interveners), and more influential (in terms of citation counts) decisions. 

Where is co-authorship taking us, and should we welcome the journey? The next time a two-headed judge raises its head in the Supreme Court Reports, these are the questions to ponder. We can debate whether it is taking us to a better place, but it is certainly taking us to a different place, all the more intriguing because no comparable court seems to be embarking on anything similar.


[1] Shameless plug: to know more about “By the Court’ judgments, keep an eye out for a fall 2019 UBC new release entitled By the Court: Anonymous Judgments at the Supreme Court of Canada.

[2] Or, one might suggest, Irwin Toy in 1989, although I have been assured that this was actually a “By the Court” judgment that “went sideways” at the last moment rather than an intentional three-judge-shared set of reasons.

[3] Peter McCormick, “Duets, Not Solos: The McLachlin Court’s Co-Authorship Legacy” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 41 (2018), 479.

[4] Mitchel Lasser makes this point very forcefully in his excellent Judicial Deliberations: A Comparative Analysis of Transparency and Legitimacy (OUP, 2004)