Purely Hypothetical Dragons

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. …  The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.*

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Much of the Conservative government’s legislative programme seems driven by fear and distrust of judges. Such reactions to judicial decisions are often justified by concern about “judicial activism.” But judicial activism is something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways. Or so I am tempted to conclude after reading an exchange at the Volokh Conspiracy (which, by the way, is 10 years old today) between prof. Orin Kerr and prof. Randy Barnett.

Prof. Kerr argues that the expression “judicial activism” can have a variety of meanings, some of them more interesting than others. A decision can be described as activist if 1) it rests on the judges’ personal (including political) views; 2) it expands the power of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other branches of government; 3) it departs from settled precedent; 4) it strikes down a statute or an administrative decision; or 5) it is wrong. Prof. Kerr believes that the meanings 1) to 3) are useful because “the terms allow us to have a useful debate about the proper role of the courts.” On the other hand, 4) and 5) are to be avoided; the former, because everyone (in the US, but I suppose this is mostly true for Canada too) agrees with (some) judicial review, the latter, because we don’t agree about what decisions are right.

Prof. Barnett responds by arguing that given its multiplicity of meanings, useful or otherwise, the term “judicial activism” is best avoided – but not without venturing yet another meaning for it, applying it to describe any decision which contradicts clear constitutional text.

(I have given the bare bones of both posts, which are very interesting, especially if you are conversant with or curious about US constitutional debates.)

It seems to me that prof. Barnett is right that we ought to avoid using the term “judicial activism” if at all possible, since it can mean so many things to different people. Prof. Kerr’s categories of judicial activism are very interesting, and no doubt capture much of what people mean when they use the term, but why use the vague, and vaguely pejorative, “judicial activism,” even in one of the useful meanings prof. Kerr identifies, when we can say more precisely what we mean? Judicial activism does not really exist, but we should keep in mind that it does not really exist in a number of different ways.

* As I recall it, in the Russian translation of the Cyberiad which I read, the three distinct kinds of dragon were said to be the nil, the negative, and the imaginary. If anyone knows what the Polish original was, I would love to hear about it.

Federal Court Roulette

Professor Sean Rehaag of Osgoode Hall has recently posted on SSRN a disturbing statistical analysis of the Federal Court of Canada’s decisions on applications for judicial review of refugee protection determinations by the Immigration and Refugee Board. His main conclusion, based on a study of more than 20,000 cases filed between 2006 and 2010, is that there shocking variations in the rates at which individual FCC judges grant leave for such applications to be heard on the merits (with one judge granting almost 80% of leave applications, and several in over 25%, while for some others, the rate is below 5%), or allow the applications on the merits (with several judges allowing over half of the applications they hear, while many others allow less than 20%). Having clerked at the FCC (for a judge who, on both scores, is somewhat less favourable than average to the applicants), I have to admit that I had no idea that these variations would be so large. I knew that different judges had different approaches to these (as well as any other) cases, but the extent of the disparities is startling.

Prof. Rehaag thinks that leave is not granted often enough, and that in the perfect world the requirement to seek leave would be abolished legislatively or, failing that, declared unconstitutional. If that’s not possible, he suggests a number of other reforms that would make obtaining leave easier. My anecdotal experience makes me wonder if he is right. The experience is one-sided, because I was not at all involved in leave decisions (nor were, I believe, any other clerks). But among the couple dozen merits cases I worked on (including reviews both of refugee status determinations and of other IRB decisions), there certainly were some where the leave grants looked very soft. Nonetheless, prof. Rehaag’s numbers show that applications on which leave is granted by “generous” judges are not necessarily less likely to succeed on the merits than those granted by more “stringent” ones, which means that he seems to be right that many applications that have merit are thrown out simply because the judge reviewing them at the leave stage was a “stringent” one.

Whatever one thinks of the FCC’s overall treatment of immigration cases – whether one is convinced that it is insensitive to the immigrants’ and refugees’ plight, or that its judges are a bunch of pro-fraudster obstructionists, as Jason Kenney apparently believes, one ought to be distressed at these findings of inconsistency between the court’s members. For my part, having had the privilege of interacting with some of them and helping in their work, I am convinced that they are decent, conscientious, and hard-working people. But the fact that conscientious, hard-working people seem to fail so miserably at producing consistent results, to which, I am sure, they would all agree they aspire, is all the more disturbing.  As prof. Rehaag writes, judges are only human, and some discrepancies between individual approaches are inevitable, but surely not such glaring differences.

The Court of Public Opinion

What is the place of the court of public opinion in the judicial hierarchy? Sometimes, courts of justice are in effect sitting in appeal of judgments of the court of public opinion. This is perhaps the case in defamation cases, and most obviously in cases involving judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation. But sometimes the court of public opinion is higher than the highest courts of justice. A story  reported by Radio-Canada is instructive.

Lassonde, The makers of the Oasis juices sued the makers of “Olivia’s Oasis” soaps to try to prevent them from using this name and to recoup their profits from such use as had already occurred, alleging that the mark was confusing. It lost. But the trial judge not only rejected the suit; in addition, upon a request made by the defendant’s lawyer at the end of the trial, the judge ordered Lassonde to pay the defendant $125,000 – $25,000 in punitive damages, and $100,000 in extra-judicial fees – on the basis of a provision of the Code of Civil Procedure which allows courts to sanction “improper” actions or pleadings. The trial judge found that

[p]laintiffs, using their economic power and experience used a shotgun approach to attack Defendant simultaneously on several fronts with their full might, attempting by the present proceedings to intimidate and thwart Defendant from its legitimate use of its trade name and trade-mark. Obviously Plaintiffs expected that, given the threat which the action represented to Defendant’s very corporate existence, given that Defendant was still a fledgling business, given the projected cost of such proceedings and, given the obvious disparity in the respective power and resources of the parties, that Defendant would retreat and succumb to their demands, and cease using its mark and change its corporate name or, perhaps would ensure its survival and avoid an economically and resource draining battle by signing a licensing agreement with Plaintiffs – as others have done in the past.

Lassonde appealed against this portion of the judgment, and won, in a unanimous decision by the Québec Court of Appeal. The court points out that there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of the appellants, who simply acted consistently with the usual practice in such cases. Besides, there was no evidence to justify the amounts of the damages set by the trial judge (who, indeed, went beyond what the plaintiffs had asked on this point).

End of story? No. La Pressed seized on the story, in a “David against Goliath” report unabashedly sympathetic to the soap-maker which does not once present Lassonde’s position or the views of a lawyer on what constitutes standard practice in such cases. Lassonde’s Facebook page, says Radio-Canada, was deluged with negative comments and even calls for boycott by minor celebrities. Whereupon it swiftly capitulated, and agreed to pay the $125,000.

Thus 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.

How to Argue about the Death Penalty

The NY Times has an interesting story today about two men who are leading a campaign in support of a ballot initiative that would abolish the death penalty in California – and who, in 1978, played key roles in the adoption of a ballot initiative that was meant to increase the use of the death penalty. They have changed their minds, and hope the people of California will, too. What is remarkable, beyond this change of heart, is that the reasons they give for it have only to do with the costs of the death penalty system: as one of them puts it, “$185 million a year … to lawyers and criminals.” Not a word about the morality of the death penalty, including the risk of killing innocents. Apparently, it is not a political winner, although this post by Janai Nelson at Concurring Opinions suggests otherwise.

It might seem wrong, perhaps even perverse, to argue about the death penalty without discussing its justice. But such argument actually has a very long history. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides  describes the deliberations of the Athenian assembly on the question of what to do with the Mitylenians, who had revolted against them, and whom the Athenians had again subdued. The first debate on the matter was dominated by Cleon, who argued that the entire male population of Mitylene ought to be butchered (a word Thucydides – or his translator – repeatedly uses; no euphemisms here). His argument was in part consequentialist – “teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death” – but mostly appealed to the people’s sense of justice, offended by the Mitylenians’ revolt and clarmouring for treason to be punished with death. The next day, however, the opponents of the butchery succeeded in re-opening the debate. Their case was made by Diodotus, on purely consequentialist grounds. Indeed Diodotus argued strenuously that justice had nothing to do with it: “we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but [expediency].” Justice might say the Mitylenians are guilty and deserve capital punishment, but that would serve no useful purpose, contrary to Cleon’s claim. Death penalty is not a good deterrent: “It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless.” On the other hand, mercy would induce future rebels to lay down arms rather than to resist to the bitter end, and thus save Athens blood and treasure. Diodotus’ arguments prevailed, and only the leaders of the Mitylenian rebellion were executed, rather than the entire people.

Perhaps this story need not change our intuitions – if we have any – about the value of purely consequentialist arguments about the death penalty. But they can work in the political arena if not in philosophy seminars, and in cases where the issues of justice are too politically explosive, they might be the only ones about which rational deliberation and changes of mind among the opposing sides’ supporters are possible.

Thoughts on Québec’s Bid for Gun-Registry Data

As promised, a few thoughts on Québec’s claim that the destruction of the long-gun registry data is unconstitutional,In no particular order:

  1. This case forces the courts to grapple with the constitutional issues presented by co-operative federalism, of which the working of the gun registration regime seems to have been an example. Québec’s claim is based on its participation in the administration of the federal regulatory scheme; it would not hold up, or at least would be very weak, if Québec had not been involved in its running. If the long-gun registry had been a purely federal venture, there would have been no reason why Parliament, which had started it up, could not also put an end to it. But it is at least not crazy to say, as Québec now does, that provincial involvement in the regime’s operation means that the venture was not an exclusively federal one, so that provincial interests have to be taken into account in considering and implementing its termination.I don’t think our federalism jurisprudence, as it now stands, can sustain this claim. Perhaps the most relevant Supreme Court decision is the now-20 year old Reference Re Canada Assistance Plan (B.C.), [1991] 2 SCR 525, which dealt with the unilateral modification by Parliament of an agreement to help pay the costs of provincial social programmes. The Supreme Court stressed parliamentary sovereignty, and concluded that Parliament could do what it pleased. If that precedent applies to this case, Québec’s odds do not look good (and I do not recall Québec addressing it at all in its argument). But there might be a distinction between pure-cost sharing and a programme where the federal and provincial administrations are both involved. And in the last few years the Court has been emphasizing the importance of co-operative federalism, which, arguably, cannot work particularly well if either side is able, on a whim and despite protests from its erstwhile partner, to end its involvement in a co-operative project. Perhaps the questions about the best workings of a system of co-operative federalism are purely political; that seems to be the result of the Canada Assistance Plan case. But maybe it is time for Courts to start working out a legal framework.
  2. The claim that the government holds its property – which in this case means data rather than physical assets – more or less as a trustee for the people sounds interesting and quite possibly right as a matter of political morality, but it is not so clear what it entails in practice. Even if we agree that the government has to use its property in the public interest, there is presumably no higher authority than Parliament in deciding what the public interest is. If Parliament decides that it is in the public interest to destroy the long-gun registry data, how can courts second-guess it?
  3. If Québec succeeds in getting s. 29 of the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act declared unconstitutional, no long-gun registry data can be destroyed. The federal government is stuck with this data, which it does not want. What happens then?

Québec Tries to Save the Long-Gun Registry

With the angrily named Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, formerly known as Bill C-19, now law, Québec is fighting a rearguard battle to try to save “its” part of the registry. It is asking the Superior Court to declare unconstitutional s. 29 of Act, which provides for the destruction “as soon as possible” of the registry data, and to order the federal authorities to transfer to it the data relative to the firearms owned by Québec residents.

Radio-Canada has posted a copy of Québec’s lengthy application for an injunction (en français, bien entendu); it also reports that Québec has succeeded  in obtaining a safeguard order which will prevent, at least until the argument on the merits next week, the destruction of the data Québec is trying to obtain.

Very briefly, the basis for Québec’s argument is that firearms legislation has both federal and provincial aspects, so that it is constitutionally competent to create its own registry. Instead of doing so, it participated in the administration of the federal one, so long as it existed; but now, if the federal government does not want to keep its registry, Québec wants to have one of its own. The destruction of the data, which it helped amass and transferred to the federal government, would thus frustrate its legitimate legislative objective; indeed, the real purpose of s. 29 is to prevent provinces from constituting their own registries, and thus to prevent the exercise of a legitimate provincial power. S. 29 goes beyond what is justified by Parliament’s criminal law power, because it is an attempt to “cover the field” of long-gun registration regulation. Furthermore, the long-gun registry data belongs to Québec as well as to the federal government, and the latter is not entitled to destroy it. If it has no use for it, it must transfer the data to Québec, because in keeping with its obligations as a fiduciary of the data (as of any other government property).

The claim as a whole and Québec’s arguments in its support raise some very interesting constitutional questions, some of which I hope to outline in a post tomorrow.

Introduction: Why I Blog

Anyone who considers starting a blog must ask him- or herself whether there is really a need, or at least a remotely decent reason for doing it. There are (almost) hundreds of millions of blogs out there, so why add to this mass? Shameless self-promotion is tempting of course, but it’s not a very good reason, is it? And yet, after searching for some time now, I am unable to find a blog that would present commentary on Canadian constitutional law in the way, say, The Volokh Conspiracy does in the United States. If such a blog existed, I would probably have been content to follow it. But there seems to be a hole in the blogosphere, and perhaps I can, in a very modest way, try to fill it.

What makes me think so? I certainly have nothing like the credentials or the expertise of the people at Volokh, or at other American blawgs that I follow. I am still a student, in the NYU JSD programme, and have published a grand total of one article. Still, I like to think that I know a thing or two about Canadian constitutional law, and maybe a few other subjects, such as legal and political philosophy, which are the focus of my doctoral work. So hopefully I will have something intelligent and/or interesting to say every now and then.

Well, that will be justification enough for now for me. If others think it’s not, I’ll make up some righteous reasons as I go along.