En Français S.V.P./In English Please

In 2008, the Township of Russel, just outside Ottawa, passed a by-law requiring any new commercial sign to be bilingual. An angry activist and a shopkeeper challenged the validity of the by-law. The Court of Appeal for Ontario has rejected their challenge, in Galganov v. Russel (Township), 2012 ONCA 409, released last Friday.

Before getting to the challenge itself, the court addressed the preliminary issue of Howard Galganov’s standing to bring it. Mr. Galganov neither lives nor carries on a business in the township, and is not personally affected by the by-law. At common law, he does not have standing. But subs. 273(1) of Ontario’s Municipal Act, S.O. 2001 c. 25, provides that an illegal by-law can be quashed on application of “any person”. That’s great, says the court, but “any person” isn’t just any person. “The words ‘any person’ in s. 273(1) of the Act mean ‘any person who has standing under the common law relating to standing'” (par. 15). The old presumption that legislation will not be intepreted to depart from the common law unless clear language indicates that it does still has some life in it.

Be that as it may, another applicant, Jean-Serge Brisson, has a shop in the township, which carries a unilingual French sign, so there is no question about his standing to challenge the by-law. His first claim was that the by-law was ultra vires the township, essentially because the Municipal Act does not include an explicit grant of power over language to municipalities. The court rejected that submission, saying that these days, grants of powers to municipalities are broad and general, and there is no need to look for such a specific authorization as Mr. Brisson claimed was necessary, and holding that the by-law at issue was authorized by par. 11(2)(5) of the Municipal Act, which provides municipalities with the power to make by-laws “respecting the … [e]conomic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality.” Mr. Brisson argued

that, instead of promoting the economic or social well-being of the municipality, the By-law detracts from it.  This argument is based on the supposition that a commercial establishment with a bilingual exterior sign signals that it will be able to serve customers in both languages.  If a commercial unilingual English establishment is compelled to post an exterior bilingual sign, customers will be misled and upset if they cannot be served in French (par. 33).

The court gave this claim short shrift, on the ground that it was not supported by evidence; indeed, there was expert evidence to the contrary. Actually, one can question whether it is the court’s role to venture on such an inquiry at all. No court would question whether an act of Parliament really tended to promote the “Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada” – it is enough that Parliament thinks it does. However, Parliament is sovereign within the competence defined by division of powers provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867, and subject to the Charter. A municipality only exercises limited delegated powers, so courts are justified in ascertaining whether municipal by-laws are within the bounds of the delegation. The problem here is that delegation is so vast that its terms cannot be policed without the courts’ inquiring into the wisdom of the legislation, which is something courts are not very good at, and ought to be (though perhaps they are not) uncomfortable with doing.

Mr. Brisson’s second claim was that the by-law was unconstitutional because it contravened the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford v. Québec, [1988] 2 S.C.R. 712, which struck down Québec’s prohibition on commercial signs in languages other than French, the court accepted that the by-law did infringe freedom of expression as guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Charter. However, it held that the by-law was saved by s. 1 of the Charter. Its objective, “the promotion of the equality of status of both French and English,” is pressing and substantial, and it is rationally connected to the objective. As usual, the real question is that of proportionality. Apparently, Mr. Brisson’s main argument on this point was that the by-law prevented people from having signs in a language other than French or English. But the by-law does no such thing, the court points out. “Persons engaged in commerce can use any language of their choice along with French and English (par. 80). Indeed it is rather shocking that much Mr. Brisson and his lawyers placed much reliance on this claim.

The court went on to add that “in the past, Brisson has chosen to express himself only in English; he now chooses to express himself only in French on his exterior sign while continuing to employ English in other aspects of his business. To require him to employ English on his sign in addition to French is a minimal impairment of his right to freedom of expression” (par. 83). That, it seems to me, is bad reasoning. What does it matter that Mr. Brisson chose to express himself in English in the past, if now he wants to express himself in French only? The court seems to be questioning his good faith, or to be contradicting its own holding that his freedom of expression has been infringed. But that is not its role. It has nothing to do with answering the question that the case actually raises: does forcing shopkeepers to express themselves in French and English, whether they want to or not, the least restrictive means open to the township of achieving its pressing and substantial objective of promoting the equality of status between French and English. The court’s judgment, in my view, does not actually answer that question.

No New Thing in the Cloud

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry on “Information Technology and Moral Values,” by John Sullins, a professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University. It is a useful summary of (many of) the moral issues that information technology raises, and a reminder that issues that we are used to considering from a policy standpoint also have moral dimensions. At the same time, it is a reminder that there is no new thing under the sun – itself an old observation.

Generally speaking, the moral issues which prof. Sullins thinks information technology are pretty much the same moral issues that you would expect a left-leaning intellectual to worry about in just about any context – income inequalities, gender inequality, “justice”. (I might be wrong to attribute these leanings to pof. Sullins of course; I have no other ground for this attribution than the article. And yet it feels like ground enough.) A libertarian or a conservative would probably have written a substantially different-sounding piece on the same topic; different-sounding, but equally predictable. New technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.

A couple of specific examples seem also to confirm the timeless cynicism (or is it wisdom?) of Ecclesiastes. One is given by prof. Sullins himself:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down.

Socrates worried that writing would cause people to stop learning stuff – why bother when you can look it up a book? Just imagine what the grumpy old man would have said about Google and Wikipedia.

The second example came to mind when reading prof. Sullins’ discussion of the concerns raised by the “Moral Values in Communicating and Accessing Information.” Among the concerns he explores under this rubric are that with “[w]ho has the final say whether or not some information … is communicated or not” and that over the accuracy of the information communicated about someone or something (and the problem of who bears the burden of ensuring accuracy, or perhaps of dealing with the consequences of inaccurate information being communicated).  This reminded me of the passage in The Master and Margarita where Yeshua Ha-Notsri – Jesus – tells Pilate that he “is starting to worry that this whole confusion” about what he told the people “will go on for a very long time. And it’s all because he is writing down my words incorrectly.” “He” is the Levi Matvei – Matthew. As Yeshua goes on to explain, Matvei follows him “with a goat-skin and writes all the time. But I once looked at this goat-skin, and was horrified. I never said anything, anything at all of what’s written there. I begged him: for God’s sake, burn your goat-skin! But he tore it from my hands and ran away.” He might as well have been trying to get Facebook to delete some information about him, right? As the ensuing confusion shows, there are indeed dangers in recording information about someone without his consent, and then communicating it to all sorts of not always well-intentioned people.

So there is nothing new in the cloud, where this text will be stored, any more than under the sun, on goat-skins, or anywhere else, is there? Yet it is just possible that there is nothing new only because we do not see it. Perhaps new technologies really do create new problems – but we are so busy trying to deal with old ones that we do not notice.

A Reasonable Opinion

The Supreme Court delivered an interesting decision in Halifax (Regional Municipality) v. Canada (Public Works and Government Services), 2012 SCC 29, yesterday. On the surface, it is a rather dull, or at least purely technical, case about the proper method of assessing the value of land occupied by a historical monument. But it has much broader implications, because it is a useful reminder of the way in which courts ought to approach discretionary decision-making by the government, something of which the government of the day is very fond.

The case concerns the application of Payment in Lieu of Taxes Act, which authorizes the Minister of Public Works and Government Services to make “payments in lieu of [municipal] taxes” to municipalities in which federal property is situated. Federal property is constitutionally exempt from provincial (and hence municipal) taxation, but as a matter of fairness, Parliament authorizes payments to municipalities that are meant to replace municipal taxes that would otherwise be levied on most federal property. Nonetheless, the statute confers a great deal of discretion on the Minister: he decides whether to make payments; the amount of the payment is calculated using the taxation rate which would be applicable “in the Minister’s opinion” if the property were taxable; and the value to which this rate is applied is also one which “in the Minister’s opinion” would be assessed if the property were taxable.

 Justice Cromwell, writing for a unanimous Court, summarizes the case very effectively at par. 5:

The Minister … decided that a national historic site is effectively valueless if it does not support economically beneficial uses. He therefore concluded that roughly 40 acres of the [Halifax] Citadel site are worth ten dollars. This conclusion, in my view, is unreasonable for two reasons. First, the property value is to be the value which, in the Minister’s opinion, the local assessment authority would apply to the property … However, in valuing the property the Minister adopted an approach which the record discloses no example of a Canadian assessment authority using, and which significantly differs from the approaches that the record suggests assessment authorities in provinces across the country do use.  The Minister’s opinion that the value he arrived at “would be attributable by an assessment authority” has no basis in and is contrary to the evidence.  Second, the Minister’s decision is inconsistent with the Act’s purpose.  The Act permits payments for national historic sites. To decide that these sites have no value for taxation purposes except to the extent that they could support commercial uses negates the very purpose of their inclusion in the PILT scheme.  For these two reasons the Minister’s decision was unreasonable.

So, the Supreme Court reminds us – and, more importantly, the federal government, – the exercise of discretionary powers is judicially reviewable, and even though the standard of review is reasonableness, it is a meaningful review. The phrase “in the Minister’s opinion” which Parliament uses seems to confer a very wide discretion on the Minister. But this discretion has to be exercised on the basis of evidence and in a logical way. The Minister cannot act on a whim or just because a certain decision suits him better than its contrary. Nor can he act in a way that frustrates the purpose of the legislation he is applying.

None of this is exactly new – these themes go back at least to Justice Rand’s judgment in Roncarelli v. Duplessis, [1959] S.C.R. 121, for example his famous statement that “[i]n public regulation … there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion”, that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator” (p. 140). But the reminder is timely. Recent federal legislation has taken to delegating considerable powers to the executive, and also, it seems, to trying to insulate executive action from review, by adding discretion-conferring catchphrases such as “in the Minister’s opinion” to already-existing grants of discretionary power. As the Supreme Court’s latest decision shows, however, delegation and conferral of apparent discretion does not free the executive to do whatever it pleases.

The Chinese Court of Public Opinion

In one of my first posts, I asked the question “[w]hat is the place of the court of public opinion in the judicial hierarchy?” I was concerned at a story in which, as I described it, “in a few hours the court of public opinion heard and allowed an appeal from the Québec Court of Appeal, without minding such troublesome technicalities as listening to the other side or looking for evidence of allegations on which a claim is based. And in this instance, its judgment is not subject to appeal.” Now comes an interesting variation on this problem, casting a somewhat different light on my concerns, in the form of a story in the Globe & Mail about the court of public opinion in China.

Chinese courts cannot or will not hold the powerful to account – they are not independent, and perhaps also corrupt. “Thankfully,” writes the Globe,

the Internet – and specifically China’s wildly popular Weibo microblogging services – has rushed in to create a court of public opinion that now presides over cases that the country’s judiciary refuses to. And those public judgments are forcing government officials to reluctantly deal with cases they’d rather not.

Stories that would never have made it into the Chinese media spread on the internet, despite the censors’ best efforts. And sometimes, when online fury is intense enough, official media take up stories that the internet makes hard to ignore. In some cases, abusive officials even face sanctions. Yet even in these – rare – cases, “[j]ustice has yet to be fully served … and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it ever will be.”

In countries where the judiciary cannot or will not do its job of applying the law to both private parties and the state, the court of public opinion is the only one in which any semblance of justice can be done, and my worries about it may seem out of place. And yet they are not. Hearsay is not evidence; passion is not expertise; suspicion is not proof. Natural justice does not prevail on microblogs. Those whom public opinion accuses stand little chance of defence. The court of public opinion will do justice in some cases, but is bound to err in others. This is not to defend any of the Chinese officials – at the very least, they are helping maintain a system of brutal repression, and many of them are personally responsible for egregious abuses. But, while the court of public opinion is better than no court at all, it is no substitute for a real justice system.

The Best and the Rest

A friend has drawn my attention to what seems like an interesting book, Laughing at the Gods: Great Judges and How They Made the Common Law by Allan C. Huntchinson, a professor at Osgoode Hall. I haven’t had a chance to start reading it yet but I will eventually, because prof. Hutchinson’s topic is directly relevant to my doctoral dissertation’s topic – judges and the way in which they shape the law. But while my idea is that such a study has to start with systemic factors – the ways in which the environment in which judges work (generally accepted ideas of what a judge ought to do, the institution of courts, rules of procedure) constrain them and influence their work, the sources of the rules judges apply, the differences of the judges’ approaches to various areas of the law – prof. Hutchinson’s study is about individuals.

As the blurb on the publisher’s website says, “[a]ny effort to understand how law works has to take seriously its main players – judges. Like any performance, judging should be evaluated by reference to those who are its best exponents.” The book is about “candidates for a judicial hall of fame,” “game changers who oblige us to rethink what it is to be a good judge” – starting with Lord Mansfield, and on to mostly predictable greats such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lord Atkin, and Lord Denning. The only Canadian in the list is Justice Bertha Wilson.

As I wrote here a while ago, “judicial greatness, as greatness in anything else, is probably impossible to define in any way that would not generate serious disagreement. But that’s precisely what makes trying to define it, and coming up with lists of greats, so entertaining.” So I’m sure that a book trying to understand judicial work by defining and selecting case studies of judicial greatness was good fun to work on, and has the potential of being good fun to read. And yet I wonder if it is a profitable way of achieving its stated aim of understanding how the law works.

That’s because I doubt that “any performance …  should be evaluated by” looking at the best performers. For one thing, understanding any human activity is, arguably, a study in mediocrity more than in greatness. If you want to understand tennis, it is not enough to watch Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. That will teach you how it ought to be done, but tells you nothing at all about how tennis is in fact played by everyone else on the planet. And the point is starker still if we leave the realm of activities that are pursued primarily for the sake of excellence, such as competitive sports and performing arts. Other activities – think of cooking for example – are mostly pursued not for the sake of excellence, but in order to satisfy some practical need. By studying examples of excellence in such activities, one does not even learn what people who undertake them typically aim for, even in their dreams, still less what they usually achieve.  Judging is like that. Its primary purpose is not to achieve greatness, but simply to settle disputes, many of them quite trivial. A lot of it happens every day, most of it good enough to do the job, but by no means remarkable. Studying great judges tells you little descriptively about what judging usually is, and perhaps not much normatively about what it ought to be.

The other point that any study of a human activity through the examination of its outstanding representatives misses is the rule-bound nature of most human undertakings. To return to my tennis example again, a book about it surely has got to start with a description of the rules of the game, not with the biographies of great players. Of course you might be able to figure out some (in the case of tennis, probably most) of the rules by watching great matches, but understanding the rules of the game first will help you appreciate and understand what is going on and what is so great about it. You will also need some understanding of the means at the players’ disposal  – their equipment, say, or even the human body. Suppose you’re an alien with teleportation abilities who doesn’t understand how human beings move around. Chances are you won’t admire Rafa Nadal’s running – you’ll think he’s an idiot. It is a rather convoluted example, but when it comes to judging, we are to some extent in the position of that alien. Most legal thinkers seem not to have much of an appreciation for the rules of the judicial game or for the limits the judges’ position imposes on what they can do. Of course these rules are controversial and these limits are uncertain. But it seems to me that a truly informative study of judging has to begin by discussing them.

There is of course a danger in methodological critiques such as this one. Instead of engaging with the story a scholar tells, the critic in effect tells him that he ought to have written a different kind of story, which (almost) invariably happens to be just the kind of story the critic himself is working on. That’s exactly what I’ve done here. Yet if that caveat is right, then perhaps there us substantive value in my criticism, despite its dubious and self-serving methodology!

Can the Viceroy Do Wrong?

Radio-Canada reports that Québec’s former Lieutenant-Governor, Lise Thibault, is trying to avoid having to stand trial on charges of fraud, forgery, and breach of trust, by invoking the common law rule that the Queen can do no wrong. As her lawyer puts it, criminal proceedings oppose the sovereign and the subject, and the sovereign cannot possibly sue herself. And since the charges against Mrs. Thibault relate to her time in office as the Queen’s representative in Québec, that’s what would happen if the case is allowed to go ahead.

Mrs. Thibault’s previous lawyer is apparently skeptical of the odds of her motion succeeding. So is professor Henri Brun, from Laval, whom Radio-Canada quotes saying that the principle applied in civil law―75 years ago―but criminal law is different. “As soon as a public officer commits a criminal act, he is no longer acting within his mandate; he cannot hide behind the government, behind the state” (translation mine).

That seems a little too quick. My own (admittedly quick and probably cursory) research shows that the rule that the Queen―or King―can do no wrong is, in principle, one of civil as well as one of criminal law. The Queen can do no criminal wrong, just as she can do no civil wrong. That’s the traditional common law rule, as it stood in, say, Blackstone’s time. But its import is limited in two important ways.

One is that mentioned by prof. Brun – public officers―or, to use older language, the Crown’s servants―can be sued in their personal capacity for committing criminal or tortious acts. But the question, it seems to me, is whether a Lieutenant-Governor is a public officer. This is not an area in which I am very knowledgeable, but I think that the Queen herself is not―she is not a servant of the Crown. That her servants can be criminally liable does not mean that she can. Mrs. Thibault’s argument is that she is in the same position―that she is, as it were, the Queen’s alter ego rather than her servant. I do not know whether that is correct.

The second limitation on the rule that the Queen can do no wrong has come mostly from statutes adopted by all (to the best of my knowledge) common law jurisdictions, allowing lawsuits against the Crown itself as if it were an ordinary person. Courts too have chipped away at the Crown’s immunity. But these developments, both statutory and common law, have concerned civil proceedings, not criminal.  The Criminal Code, for example, does not contain a provision making it applicable to the Crown.

So if the Lieutenant-Governor is more than a mere servant of the Crown, but rather its full-blooded personification, Mrs. Thibault might have a case. If the question has never been decided though, there are surely very good reasons to opt for a restrictive interpretation of what the Crown really is. “The Queen can do no wrong” is an anachronistic rule, and its development over the last century has been a course of consistent narrowing of its ambit.

Indeed, even if there is precedent standing for the proposition that the rule protects the Lieutenant-Governor from criminal liability, the courts might want to overturn it.

Although there is something worrying in courts abolishing defences that shield the accused from liability, which is necessarily retroactive as to the accused in whose case it happens, they have sometimes done it. Two examples are the British decision of R. v. R., [1992] 1 A.C. 599, in which the House of Lords abolished the common law rule according to which a husband could not be guilty of rape against his wife, and the American case of Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 541 (2001), in which a sharply divided Supreme Court did away with the rule pursuant to which an accused could not be guilty of murder if the victim died more that one year and one day after the accused injured him, even though the injuries were the cause of the death. The grounds for these two rules disappeared thanks to the evolution of social morality in the first case and of medical science in the second, so that despite a certain queasiness, courts felt themselves justified in changing the common law to reflect these developments.

The common law rule that “the Queen can do no wrong” is arguably ripe for judicial intervention. Not perhaps in civil matters, where legislatures have made their own choices, which courts must respect, especially since state liability has considerable policy implications which courts might not be able to grasp. But in the narrow field of criminal offences committed by viceroys, these considerations do not apply, and there is no reason for the courts to stay their hand.