Dark Vision

A critique of a “vision” of the courts as moral authorities.

In a post over at Slate, Omar Ha-Redye sets out what his title describes as “A Judicial Vision of Canada at 150 and Beyond“. The post is a rather rambling one, but insofar as I understand its overall purpose, it is meant to highlight the centrality of the Supreme Court to our constitutional framework, as illustrated in particular by the Court’s role in re-setting Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples on a more respectful basis. Mr. Ha-Redeye opens his post by confidently asserting that “[f]or most of us today, the Supreme Court of Canada is the arbiter of the most complex questions of law, and the definitive authority for morality in our democracy.” He concludes as follows:

At Canada 150 the Charter, and the Supreme Court of Canada that enforces it, is as much of our democratic institutions belonging to us, if not even more so, than Parliament or the executive. Its autonomy, and insulation from the winds of popular change, may actually provide greater stability and greater effect to individual rights than the right to an individual vote.

In 1867, the vision of Canada could hardly be said to be a judicial one. In 2017, it’s difficult to envision a rule of law without it. [Sic]

Again, it is not fully clear what this is supposed to mean. Who are the “we” of the introduction? What is it difficult to envision “a rule of law” without? But I would like to offer a response, because Mr. Ha-Redeye’s “judicial vision” is, to me, a gloomy one ― and I say this as someone who believes in what is often disparagingly termed “judicial supremacy”.

First, this vision seems to me to reflect a certain confusion of principles, not to mention history. As I have argued here, it is a mistake to claim that the Charter and its enforcement by the courts are democratic. Asking unelected and largely unaccountable institutions to make decisions of public importance, including decisions concerning the powers of democratic majorities, is not what democracy is about; it is not “the government of the people, by the people”, although it may well be “for the people”. If “for the people were enough, then an enlightened monarch or a benevolent dictator would be able to call himself democratic too. Of course, to say that the judicial enforcement of entrenched constitutional rights is not democratic is not to say that it is bad; only that it has a democratic cost. This cost may be, and I think it is, worth incurring ― democracy, as I wrote in the post linked to above, is not the only thing that matters ― but we should not attempt to mask this cost by verbal gymnastics.

As for the Rule of Law, it would have been just as difficult to conceptualize it without a robust judicial role in 1867 as it is now. To be sure, the Fathers of Confederation did not provide protections for individual rights that were as deep or wide-ranging as those that we acquired with the Charter. But they structured the federation they were creating so as to provide some protections for individual rights. For instance, they attributed legislative powers to that order of government which was more likely to respect the rights, customs, and desires of its constituents in respect of the particular subject matter ― Parliament for criminal law, the provinces for most of private law. They set up a judiciary over which no legislature had undivided power, the better to ensure its independence. They provided special safeguards for those rights, notably in the realm of education, which they singled out for protection against legislative majorities. And they knew that these structural protections would mostly be enforced by the courts. The contrast that Mr. Ha-Redeye, like so many others, purports to draw between 1867 and 2017 is exaggerated in order to support the authority of today’s judiciary at the expense of that, not merely of our constitution’s supposedly backward framers, but of the constitution itself.

Most importantly, however, I am dismayed by the characterization of the Supreme Court as “the definitive authority for morality in our democracy”. Like Benjamin Oliphant, I suspect (and certainly hope) that the Court itself would disclaim this grandiose title. But it is distressing that a citizen of a free country thinks it appropriate to bestow it, and is convinced that many, even “most” of “us” ― whoever “we” may be ― would do likewise. In a free society, there can be no “definitive authority for morality” ― even political morality. Morality is a matter, ultimately, of individual conscience ― whether or not directed by God, religion, or anything of the sort.

Here is what Lord Acton (who did believe that conscience was a religious matter ― but I don’t think we need to agree with him on that) had to say about this, in discussing the “Beginning of the Modern State” in his Lectures on Modern History:

With the decline of coercion the claim of Conscience rose, and the ground abandoned by the inquisitor was gained by the individual. There was less reason then for men to be cast of the same type; there was a more vigorous growth of independent character, and a conscious control over its formation. The knowledge of good and evil was not an exclusive and sublime prerogative assigned to states, or nations, or majorities. When it had been defined and recognised as something divine in human nature, its action was to limit power by causing the sovereign voice within to be heard above the expressed will and settled custom of surrounding men. By that hypothesis, the soul became more sacred than the state, because it receives light from above, as well as because its concerns are eternal, and out of all proportion with the common interests of government. That is the root from which liberty of Conscience was developed, and all other liberty needed to confine the sphere of power, in order that it may not challenge the supremacy of that which is highest and best in man.

Mr. Ha-Redeye says he wants to protect individual rights, and is wary of majoritarian institutions’ failings in this regard. And yet, at the same time, he anoints another institution of the state as the definitive moral authority, thereby denying what Lord Acton saw as the very basis for individual rights in the first place ― the fact that there can be no definitive moral authorities (at least on Earth) outside of each person’s conscience. Mr. Ha-Redeye claims that states and nations, if not also majorities, enjoy “the sublime prerogative” of “the knowledge of good and evil”. But if they do, why would they not impose their views on the citizens (or rather, the subjects) ― by inquisitorial means if need be?

Now, Mr. Ha-Redeye and those who agree with him, if anyone really does, might argue that by exalting the Supreme Court as the “definitive moral authority” they do not mean to give power to the state. They may well share what I have described here as the Canadian tendency not to think of courts as being part of the state at all, but to see them as the citizens’ agents and protectors against the state. To a greater extent than I did in that post, I now think that this tendency is an error. As I said then, courts are of course different in important ways from the state’s other components in that they give individuals more opportunities to be heard. Nevertheless, they are a part of the state’s machinery of coercion, and those who forget this only increase the courts’ power over them.

To be clear, I believe that the courts have a very important role to play in ensuring that “states, nations, and majorities” cannot constitute themselves into supreme arbiters of morality; that the voice within is more important than what W.H. Auden so aptly described as “the loud, angry crowd/ very angry and very loud/ [saying] law is we”; and that the sphere of power must accordingly be confined. But the sphere of judicial power must be confined no less than the spheres of its legislative and executive brethren. The courts have no more title than parliaments or kings to the prerogative of the knowledge of good and evil. If we grant them this title, then we will well and truly have a “juristocracy”, and the rights we claim for ourselves will be no more than serfs’ boasts about the wonders of life under the heel of their beneficent lord.

Clash of Courts

Senior Superior Court judges are suing Québec over its provincial court’s jurisdiction; other provinces will be affected if they succeed

I don’t think the story has received much attention outside of Québec yet, but it’s not because it doesn’t deserve to be noticed: as La Presse reports, the Chief Justice, Senior Associate Chief Justice, and Associate Chief Justice of Québec’s Superior Court are suing the provincial government, arguing that much of the civil jurisdiction of the Court of Québec is unconstitutional. More specifically, they are seeking declarations that Québec could not, consistently with section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, grant its provincial court exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount at issue is more than $10 000 or any powers of judicial review over provincial administrative tribunals, because these powers are reserved for federally-appointed judges.

Currently, the upper limit of the Court of Québec’s jurisdiction in civil matters is set at $85 000. Should the Superior Court judges prevail, their court’s workload is bound to increase very substantially, though I haven’t yet seen any clear data on this point. But repercussions  will be felt well beyond Québec’s borders. British Columbia has set the upper limit on its provincial court’s jurisdiction in civil disputes at $35 000; Alberta, at $50 000. The principles on which the applicants rely apply across Canada, of course, and the boundaries between the jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts would need to be re-drawn in several provinces, if not quite to the same extent as in Québec.

Though I am sure that much more will be said about this dispute as it develops, my initial impression is that the Superior Court judges have a strong case. Although it says nothing of the sort, section 96 has long been understood to stand for the proposition that the courts to which it refers, including Québec’s Superior Court, have a protected “core” of jurisdiction. This core jurisdiction ― that which they exclusively had at the time of Confederation ― cannot be taken away from them or transferred to other courts (which is to say the Federal Court or provincial courts created pursuant to section 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, such as the Court of Québec). As the Superior Court judges’ application shows, in Québec, the exclusive jurisdiction of (what at Confederation became) section 96 courts started at $100, which, adjusted for inflation, is said to be less than $10 000. (The application does not go into any detail as to exactly how this inflation adjustment proceeds ― the exercise is bound to be an inexact one over 150 years ― but let’s assume that the figures given are at least roughly correct.) As Québec expanded the jurisdiction of its provincial court over the last 50 years (for the most part, when it was governed by the Parti québécois), it took more and more out of the former exclusive jurisdiction of the Superior Court, impinging ever more on what the Supreme Court, in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, described as its “historic task … to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law”. [32]

Indeed, the Superior Court judges’ argument is not new. Frédéric Bachand, then a professor at McGill and now himself a Superior Court judge, mentioned it in my civil procedure classes ― 10 years ago. And, while I’m not sure about this, I doubt that the point was a novel one even then. Prof. Bachand, as he then was, also pointed out that no litigant had a good reason to raise the issue, and he was right about that too ― but the wonders of public interest standing, which the Superior Court judges very plausibly claim, mean that the matter will have to be addressed regardless.

Just how it will be addressed is still a troubling question. The prospect of Québec’s Superior Court adjudicating, even in the first instance, a claim about its own jurisdiction brought by its three most senior judges is unsettling. The judges’ Application details their fruitless attempts to get the provincial government interested in the matter. For a while now, they have pushed for the issue to be referred to the Court of Appeal. A reference would indeed have been the preferable procedural vehicle, both to avoid casting the Superior Court in the unseemly position of being judge in its own cause, and also because the questions to be addressed are not of such a nature as to require a trial to be held, while appeals all the way to the Supreme Court are certain in any event. I’m not sure exactly why the Québec government has so far refused to take this course. Perhaps it was daring the judges to sue in their own court, and hoping that they would not compromise themselves in this way. But now that, rightly or wrongly, its dare has been taken, there is nothing to be gained from continued obstinacy.

Indeed, I wonder if the federal government would not do well to intervene and refer the issues directly to the Supreme Court, should Québec’s obstinacy continue. While federal references on the constitutionality of provincial legislation are uncommon, Québec itself has no compunctions about referring questions regarding the constitutionality of federal policies to the courts. And of course the issue of the respective jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts directly concerns the federal government, which would have to pick up a substantial tab for the salaries of additional section 96 appointees if Québec’s Superior Court judges are successful. Even more importantly though, because these judges are appointed and paid by the federal government, I think it has a direct interest in helping them maintain their continued impartiality and good standing, and arguably a duty to do so (a political duty, of course, not a legal one).

Whatever exactly happens, one has to hope that it happens quickly. An important question has been raised, with strong arguments to support the proposition that the way the court  systems of several provinces are organized is unconstitutional. This question deserves to be answered, but having it litigated by senior judges in their own court is surely not the right way to go about it. Yet if the judges are looking bad, the provincial government that seemingly dared  them to do it is even worse. It is not taking its constitutional responsibility for the administration of justice ― on which it purports to rely to justify its allegedly unconstitutional legislation ― seriously at all. It is high time for it to come to its senses ― and perhaps for the federal government to intervene if it refuses to do so.

Why I am Not a Conservative Either

Thoughts on Chief Justice Joyal’s very interesting speech on the Charter and Canada’s political culture

Glenn D. Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, gave the keynote address at last January Canadian Constitution Foundation’s recent Law and Freedom Conference. His talk, “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture: Are We All Ambassadors Now?”, was interesting and thought-provoking. Although the prepared text has been available on the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law for some time, the CCF only posted the recording of his remarks yesterday, so now is the time for me to comment. Chief Justice Joyal sought to attract his audience’s attention to fact that Canadians have come to believe that courts, rather than legislators, are the forum in which important social issues must be settled. This is both a consequence of our lack of respect for legislatures, and a reason for why elected institutions find themselves in a weak position vis-à-vis the courts. Chief Justice Joyal would like to change our political culture. I am not persuaded that change in the direction he envisions would be for the better.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to thank Chief Justice Joyal for referring to my exchange with my friend Asher Honickman on the scope and judicial approach to section 7 of the Charter in the Q&A. (My posts are here, here, and here.) After Justice Stratas on the same occasion last year, Chief Justice Joyal is the second sitting judge to mention my blogging, and this is, needless to say, most gratifying for me personally, but also as a believer in the value of this still-underappreciated medium.

* * *

Political culture, according to Chief Justice Joyal’s definition is the set of

attitudes and beliefs that citizens and its specific institutional actors hold about the political system. Political culture can also be seen as the conglomeration of ideas and attitudes which set the parameters in which debate over policy justifications take place.

(The quotes, here and below, are from the text published by ARL)

Historically, Canada’s political culture was a mix of “liberal” and “non-liberal” (partly “Tory” and partly “social-demoratic”) ideas, which were bound together by a belief in Parliament and the legislatures as the arbiters of social conflict and makers of common rules for the common weal. Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force, however, the belief in legislative authority has been eroded. Instead, “a broad cross-section of the Canadian citizenry and its institutional actors” have developed

an almost unconditional willingness to accept or endorse the idea of judicial adjudications in respect of what are often complex and even insoluble social and political problems. What were once political issues are now frequently transformed into legal issues.

This, in turn, has created a “new and imbalanced relationship between the judiciary and the legislative branch”.

According to Chief Justice Joyal, these developments were not contemplated by those who made the Charter. It was, after all, a compromise between Pierre Trudeau’s federal government, which insisted on an entrenched set of protected rights, and provinces that were wary of restrictions on Parliamentary sovereignty and the “innovations” introduced by an “extremely potent judiciary” in the United States. Measures were taken to prevent a repetition of the American experience in Canada. The Charter contains section 1, which allows rights to be limited, and section 33, which

was meant to signal to the courts, a caution, a caution in respect of any misconception that the judiciary might have were they, the judiciary, inclined to give the absolutely most expansive scope to the enumerated Charter rights.

For its part, section 7 was drafted

to avoid any language that would mandate substantive review and that would have the effect of permitting s. 7 to be interpreted to mean just about anything that could attract five votes on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Yet these “common expectations” about how the Charter would be applied and what role it would play have not been fulfilled. The Supreme Court read section 7 to require substantive review of legislative choices. It engaged in interpretation and re-interpretation of the Charter that expanded the set of rights that its framers had chosen to protect. It loosened the rules of standing and justiciability, causing more claims to be brought. It weakened precedent, allowing issues to be re-litigated just a decade or two after they were (we thought) settled. It applied section 1  by engaging in the “traditionally legislative function” of “ad hoc interest balancing and cost benefit analysis”. The notwithstanding clause, meanwhile, turned into a “nuclear option” ― and a dead letter.

Chief Justice Joyal worries that this all has caused legislatures to be marginalized. Indeed, there has been a “flight from politics toward the zero-sum game of Charter litigation”, which

often leaves the broader citizenry on the sidelines in a potentially disempowered state[,] not always able to understand, discuss or debate, the highly technical and legalistic formulations and tests which now often form the basis of a final determination concerning a significant societal issue.

This trend ought to be reversed, in part through “continuing efforts at renewal of parliamentary and political institutions”, so as to “restor[e] a peculiarly Canadian institutional balance in the judicial/legislative relationship”, featuring “a resuscitated and bold legislative branch [able] to once again assertively shape attitudes and policies”, and even to “articulat[e] and promot[e] its own interpretation” of the Charter. The traditional Canadian political culture, with its mix of liberal and non-liberal sensitivities and belief in the public good as expressed in legislation ought to prevail over the

more American liberal / rationalist approach to rights protection, [which] gives expression to what used to be a very un-Canadian distrust of government [and] arguably removes more and more areas from legitimate spheres of government action and influence.

* * *

I am, I’m afraid, part the problem that Chief Justice Joyal identifies. I distrust government ― partly because I believe that power corrupts, partly because I democratic government is subject to ineradicable problems of political ignorance (and courts might not be much of a solution), partly because of what public choice theory has taught us. I am a (classical) liberal, an unapologetic one. Whether this is un-Canadian, or indeed peculiarly American, I hesitate to say. I do, however, reiterate my belief that one should not fall for the old trope of reading differences of national psyche into the alleged contrast between “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” and “peace, order, and good government”. My friend Alastair C.F. Gillespie and Brian Lee Crowley pointed out, in introducing what is looking to be a fascinating series of papers on Confederation by Mr. Gillespie, that “[c]omparisons of American revolutionary ideals and Canada’s supposedly ‘Tory’ Constitution have sometimes been too crudely made” and argue that “Canadians should … take pride that our founders’ speeches breathe an atmosphere of liberty, even if that liberty was not yet wholly realized.” (4-5) But be that as it may, I am rather skeptical that a return to politics would do us much good.

Now, unlike the dominant tide in Canadian political culture against which Chief Justice Joyal wants to push back, I am not uncritical of the courts ― of their power and of the manner in which they exercise it. But when I argue that courts overstep the bounds of their constitutional role, it is not out of any special solicitude for legislatures. It is because I believe that all power must be limited, and that those who wield it must not fancy themselves the saviours of society, when they are only its servants. This applies to the judicial power ― and also to the legislative and the executive. So I share Chief Justice Joyal’s discomfort at some of the post-Charter jurisprudential developments ― at the excessive ease with which courts have sometimes granted public interest standing, the creation of constitutional “rights” out of whole cloth, the often unprincipled application of section 1 balancing.

But, to repeat, these matters worry me because they, and other things, like extra-judicial statements that call into question judges’ commitment to the Rule of Law, raise the spectre of a judiciary that denies any constraint on its power ― and not because they portend an erosion of legislative power or mark a departure from the “common understandings” of 1982. Constitutional texts have a way of not working out the way their framers expect them to (my go-to example on this is the upending of the mechanism for electing the president set up by the Constitution of the United States), especially of course when the framers rely on “understandings” instead of actually writing down what they mean. So I am not bothered by the development of the norm, perhaps even the convention, against the use of section 33 of the Charter (which, as I have argued even in the face of some decisions that I would desperately like to see undone, has served us well ). Nor am I bothered by the Supreme Court’s reading of section 7 as encompassing substantive as well as procedural principles of justice, which ― as Benjamin Oliphant and I show in our recent Queen’s Law Journal article ― was at least a defensible interpretation of that provision’s original public meaning, even though it clearly contradicted its framers’ intent. It is only the meaning, in my view, that is binds the courts. (Chief Justice Joyal suggested, in the Q&A, that we might distinguish between “garden-variety” cases in which meaning might be controlling, and other, especially important ones, in which we must refer to intent. I do not see how such a distinction could operate.)

Ultimately, I do not share Chief Justice Joyal’s concern that

judicial incursion into subject areas and issues of profound political, moral and social complexity[] has the potential effect of removing these issues from the civic and political realms where ongoing and evolving debate and discussion may have taken place.

A very similar concern motivates Jeremy Waldron’s critique of (strong-form) judicial review of legislation. The critique is a powerful one, but here is, I think, the “principled” objection to it. (Ilya Somin’s objection based on political ignorance is also an important one, but it is more contingent, in theory anyway.) The concern with what Chief Justice Joyal describes as the “de facto constitutionalization of political and social issues” assumes that some issues are inherently “political” and/or “social”, and must therefore be resolved through society’s political institutions. Prof. Waldron’s position is, in effect, that every conceivable issue is of this sort, though Chief Justice Joyal’s views do not extend so far. (Chief Justice Joyal said, in his talk, that we must “respect” the Charter.) But I am not persuaded by the claim, whether in its more radical Waldronian form, or in Chief Justice Joyal’s more moderate one.

The frontiers between law’s empire and that of politics are not immutable. There is no reason to believe that the position that every social issue is by default subject to politics is entitled to be treated as a baseline against which a polity’s constitutional arrangements ought to be measured, and any departure from it justified and limited. It is the position of some political cultures ― say that of post-New Deal political culture in the United States, which reached its peak in the 1940s before declining in the subsequent decades, as the U.S. Supreme Court started vigorously enforcing guarantees of (non-economic) individual rights, or of New Zealand even to this day. But these political cultures have no automatic claim to superiority or to permanence. They are liable to be supplanted, just as they supplanted their predecessors.

The defenders of these political cultures,think that pervasive economic regulation is the legislatures’ prerogative, should they choose to exercise it. (Prof. Waldron is explicit about this, in some of his work on the Rule of Law.) To be clear, I am not suggesting that they would support any given form of regulation as a matter of policy ― only that they think that legislatures are entitled to regulate, wisely or not. But previously, many economic issues would not have been considered to belong to the domain of politics at all; the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 would likely have been shocked to learn about the extent of the economic regulation in which the institutions they created now engage. They would have thought an employee’s wages a matter to be settled between him and his employer, not a concern for society at large and thus not a fit subject for legislation. Of course, they did not provide mechanisms for courts to enforce these limits on legislative power, in part, one may suspect, because they did not expect them to be necessary. But that does not mean that they thought the legislatures were entitled to interfere in people’s lives in the ways that came to be increasingly accepted half a century later. The political culture changed ― not for the better in this instance, in my opinion. But why should we accept this change, and foreclose or resist subsequent change that reduces instead of expanding the domain of the political?

* * *

Chief Justice Joyal’s address is a powerful and eloquent statement of what might be described as the foundation for a (small-c) conservative constitutional vision for Canada. (This is not to say that he would accept this label, or perhaps even that it is an especially accurate one. But insofar as any label can be useful, this one is as good as any I can think of.) Having, along with Andrew Coyne and Bob Tarantino, complained about the (big-c) Conservative government’s failure to articulate such a vision in its near-decade in power, I welcome this statement. Moreover, I happen to share some of Chief Justice Joyal’s concerns about the acquiescence of the mainstream Canadian legal and political culture in the increasingly unbridled exercise of the judicial power by the Supreme Court.

However, although I may learn from conservatives, and sometimes make common cause with them, ― and am particularly happy to do so when they are as intelligent and articulate as Chief Justice Joyal ― I am not a conservative myself. I do not share the conservative vision of the constitution. Like Hayek, “I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake” (2) on whatever (constitutional) innovation might be put forward in the name of “progress”. As a liberal, I want “to go elsewhere” (2) ― not back to the 1970s, or indeed even to the 1870s ― but to a never-yet seen political culture in which, in Lord Acton’s words, “[l]iberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” If, as Chief Justice Joyal suggested in the conclusion of his speech, this ideal is at odds with the Canadian identity, so much the worse, I say, for that identity.

Don’t Know What You’re up to

Thoughts on Ilya Somin’s take on the consequences of political ignorance for judicial review

I have recently finished reading Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (2nd ed). Although I was familiar with the gist of Prof. Somin’s argument from his numerous blog posts on the subject of political ignorance as well talks, such as this one, one of which I had the good fortune of attending at NYU, I found it a rewarding read. Even if you know where the argument is going, it is still well worth your while. That said, since prof. Somin has so frequently summarized his case himself, there is no need for me to do so here. Rather, I will volunteer some observations on an issue which he addresses in the book, but not, for the most part, in his blog posts: the impact of his findings on political ignorance on the issue of judicial review of legislation.

In a nutshell, prof. Somin’s general argument is that, as extensive survey evidence shows, most people are profoundly ignorant about both the organization and the activities of government. They are also unaware of crucial facts relevant to assessing these activities. Meanwhile, most of those who are not as ignorant as the rest are still incapable of correctly assessing the government’s performance because they are “fans” who are more interested in the success of their political “team” than in the search for truth. The reason this problem persists is that the costs of acquiring information and processing it in good faith are too high  compared to the benefits one might get from doing so, given that it does not matter whether one’s vote is well-informed or not: it still counts for virtually nothing. In a word, ignorance is rational. By contrast, people are remarkably able and willing to acquire information when they are considering a decision that would assuredly have an impact on them, such as where to live or what to buy. The most effective solution to the misgovernment caused by the pervasive and persistent ignorance of voters is, therefore, to devolve decision-making powers from large, centralized governments to more local ones among which people are more easily able to choose by “voting with their feet” and from all governments to the market.

This argument, which, to be clear, I find very compelling (though I should perhaps note that ― like prof. Somin, I take it ― I would support the prescriptions of smaller and more decentralized government even quite apart from the existence of political ignorance) has a couple of important consequences for debates about judicial review of legislation. For one thing, it strengthens the case for judicial review.  Enforcing limits on the power of government, as judicial review does, and perhaps especially enforcing limits set up by federal constitutions, insofar as they circumscribe the powers of centralized governments, helps preserve foot-voting and market-choice opportunities. It can also help limit the number of issues to which the government attends and thus the amount of information that voters need to acquire and process in order to keep tabs on it. For another, persistent and pervasive political ignorance undermines the case against judicial review. This case rests on the courts’ lack of democratic legitimacy vis-à-vis the legislatures whose work they check. But if voters are largely ignorant about what it is that the legislatures are up to anyway ― and prof. Somin observers that “[f]or most legislation, the vast majority of voters will not have heard of its existence, much less have an informed opinion on its merits” (184) ― then legislation’s claim to democratic legitimacy is weak if not non-existent, except in unusual circumstances.

This too is largely compelling. Even the Waldronian argument about the legitimacy of legislatures arising out of the (roughly) equal say that elections (if run fairly) give to voters in public affairs loses much of its bite if we think, as prof. Somin shows we ought to, that the voters largely do not know enough to choose their representatives reasonably well. The equality argument remains, of course, but it is a hollow one. Still, I think that prof. Somin’s arguments raise a number of questions that his book does not answer ― which is not to say that they are unanswerable.

One such question is what can be done to ensure that judicial review actually works to counteract, rather than worsen, the problem of political ignorance. Judicial review can, after all, serve to expand rather than limit the powers that the government is called upon to exercise, or to obscure the exercise of existing powers instead of making it more transparent. It will do so if courts are merrily enforcing “social and economic rights”, requiring governments to create or expand social programmes instead of leaving issues to be dealt with in the markets. It will also do so if courts blur the lines between federal and state or provincial authority, making it more difficult for citizens to know what government is responsible for what law or social programme, or give private unaccountable actors, such as civil servants’ unions, power to influence public affairs.

The Supreme Court of Canada has already done some of these things, and its parasiti ― who are, in reality, just one species of the rent-seeking genus that afflicts all specialized expert agencies, as prof. Somin notes in his discussion of delegation of power to experts ― are urging it do more. Should these suggestions be taken up, the problems of ignorance resulting from the vast scope of and difficulty of monitoring government will likely become that much worse. (This does not conclusively prove, of course, that none of these things ought to be done; perhaps there are reasons why increased ignorance is a price worth paying. The point is simply that the ignorance-related costs must be taken into account.) The answer, presumably, is some combination of “write a constitutional text that does not lend itself to ignorance-promoting interpretations” and “appoint judges who will not engage in such interpretations when not required to do so by the text”, but I wonder whether prof. Somin might suggest something more specific.

More specific solutions would be particularly important because relying on judicial appointments is really not much of a solution at all. Prof. Somin notes, elsewhere in the book, that the American public pays little attention to presidents’ performance in choosing judges, even though this is one area where (unlike in many others, such as economic policy, on which presidents are often judged) a president wields decisive influence. The problem is, if anything, much worse in Canada. Appointments to the Supreme Court attract attention only insofar as they conform to or depart from conventions about representation, whether established (i.e. regional/provincial representation) or emerging (demographic representation) and expectations about bilingualism. Other judicial appointments pass entirely unnoticed. The voters are not going to put any sort of pressure on Canadian governments to appoint judges who could enforce constitutional limits on the power of government, or otherwise contribute to counteracting the ill effects of political ignorance.

This makes me wonder whether much of anything can be done about this problem. Prof. Somin addresses some of the proposals that have been made to increase the voters’ levels of political knowledge generally, and concludes that none are likely to succeed to any substantial degree. He does not, however, consider the feasability of improving voter knowledge about specific issues, rather than as a general matter. Can something be done to make the electorate more aware of the importance of the judiciary and of the elected officials’ role in shaping it? The Federalist Society might have been somewhat successful at this in the United States, though I am not sure if even its determined efforts over the last several decades have changed popular opinion, as opposed to that of a certain section of relatively well-informed (and intensely partisan!) elites.

Last but not least, as prof. Somin also notes in his discussion of experts, ignorance is not only a problem for hoi polloi. “Expert regulators face serious knowledge problems themselves”, (215) he points out. Prof. Somin has in mind the experts’ lack of knowledge of people’s preferences and local circumstances, but another type of knowledge problem from which many experts, and perhaps especially the courts, suffer is the narrow scope of their expertise. Judges are (one hopes) experts in legal analysis, but they are as ignorant as the next person when it comes to all manner of facts and scientific theories that are relevant to policy-making ― including that which occurs in the course of policy-making. When adjudicating a trade union’s claim that its alleged right to extract above-market wages for its members is an instance of the freedom of association, it would help judges to have a basic understanding of labour economics. But they do not. When adjudicating claims about the police’s power of search incident to arrest, it might help judges not to think that crime rates are going up when they are in fact going to do. But they do. In many ways, judges are every bit as ignorant as the rest of us. So are lawyers, who thus cannot enlighten the judges before whom they litigate. Here again, I wonder if prof. Somin has any suggestions about relieving ignorance.

Prof. Somin’s discussion of expert decision-makers concludes that, while delegating decision-making powers to them may help counter some of the effects of the voters’ ignorance, it is no panacea. Although this discussion only mentions courts in passing, the conclusion, I am afraid, is applicable to them. Prof. Somin has put his finger on a very significant problem and it might be, if anything, even more intractable than his (already rather gloomy) account suggests. Still, if we are to do anything about, we must start by understanding what the problem is, and for helping us do so, we owe prof. Somin greatly.

Permanent Problems

The law’s ideals and problems have not changed too much in 400 years

I have only now read Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Judicature.” Bacon seems not to enjoy anything like the reputation of his rival Coke, in the law schools anyway ― I suspect that they haven’t heard much of Coke in the science faculties, where Bacon is regarded as “the father of the scientific method.” Still, his essay is fascinating, because it shows just how little the law’s aspirations and failings have changed in the 400-odd years since it was published.

Bacon’s essay is essentially a collection of advice to judges about how to discharge their office. A good deal of it could still be repeated today. My point, in drawing attention to it, is not to say that all of this advice is good, at least in an unqualified form. It is, first and foremost, to remind the reader of the remarkable historical continuity which, for better and for worse, characterizes the law as a field of human activity.  Here are a few of Bacon’s recommendations, with some accompanying thoughts or comments of my own.

* * *

Judges ought to remember, that their office is jus dicere, and not jus dare; to interpret law, and not to make law, or give law.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If and when there is at last a confirmation hearing for the next judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, you will hear this exhortation repeated ad nauseam; you might even hear it if there is any sort of public hearing involving the next judge of the Supreme Court of Canada. John Finnis quoted Bacon’s appeal in his very interesting recent lecture on “Judicial Power: Past, Present and Future” (whence I learned about Bacon’s essay). But the very fact that this limitation on the judicial role has for so long, and so often, been reiterated should alert us to the habitual futility of the appeal. The Supreme Court’s equivocation over  whether it discovers or makes up the legal rules which it articulates for the first time seems to the suggest that the ideal of the law-saying judge has some appeal to those already holding judicial office ― but not as much as Bacon would have liked.

[W]hen there appeareth on either side an high hand, violent prosecution, cunning advantages taken, combination, power, great counsel, then is the virtue of a judge seen, to make inequality equal; that he may plant his judgment as upon an even ground.

This is also a familiar idea in 2016. Richard Posner, to give but one ― perhaps unexpected ― example has been very vocal about the need for active judicial intervention “to make inequality equal” by correcting the disparities of resources between parties to litigation, whether in his judgments or in a recent extra-judicial indictment of “What Is Obviously Wrong with the [American] Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable” (see 190-91). There are situations, it is worth noting, where judges might be making things worse, not better. I have been arguing for a while now that this may be happening in constitutional law, as judges increasingly expect expert evidence to support Charter challenges, and thus increase the inherent disparity of resources between citizens and government. (In a recent post over at The Court, Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw seems to share this concern.)

Patience and gravity of hearing, is an essential part of justice; and an overspeaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal. It is no grace to a judge … to prevent information by questions, — though pertinent. 

There has been much discussion of this point following the recent death of Justice Scalia. He was a famously active interrogator of the lawyers who appeared before the US Supreme Court. Surviving him is his colleague Justice Stephen Breyer, whose solliloquies questions occupying entire pages in the oral argument transcript Josh Blackman lovingly (?) documents. By contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas, of the same court, had spent a decade without asking a single question until finally doing so recently. Justice Thomas, one supposes, would agree with Bacon. Those who derided him for his self-imposed silence presumably would not.

[T]hose, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction, … are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage.

Here at least, I agree with Bacon wholeheartedly. Those who, in the pursuit of their own ― these days usually political ― agenda, seek to draw the courts beyond their proper remit are not the courts’ friends, though they may present themselves as such. I have said as much in response to a call for the Supreme Court to decree, by judicial fiat, the “depoliticization” of judicial appointments. I wish I’d known the phrase parasiti curiae then, but I will make sure to use it on the next appropriate occasion.

Judges ought above all to remember the conclusion of the Roman Twelve Tables; Salus populi suprema lex.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Canadian judges applying Bacon’s prescription is the Supreme Court’s opinion in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 721, where the Court sought to avoid “chaos” that its finding of unconstitutionality of Manitoba’s entire statute book by the expedient of suspending this finding’s effect. But beyond such exceptional situations, Bacon’s advice gets tricky fast. For one thing, the Latin salus is ambiguous. It can mean “health,” “safety,” or “welfare” ― making salus populi not one single objective, but a complicated programme. Still it is often said that judges ought to have regard for the public safety (“the Constitution is not a suicide pact”) or even welfare ― Judge Posner being a foremost advocate for the latter position. But isn’t there a tension between making public welfare into supreme law, and renouncing judicial legal innovation? Bacon says, “let no man weakly conceive, that just laws and true policy have any antipathy,” but even if true, this point doesn’t really address the issue of the judicial role. And Bacon’s concrete recommendations for achieving the salus populi ― frequent consultations between the three branches of government, and a demand that judges “be lions, but yet lions under the throne” would run afoul of our views on judicial independence, which are quite different from his.

* * *

In the essay I mention above, prof. Finnis writes that “[t]he problems about the nature and reach of judicial power, about which Bacon and Coke disagreed, are with us today in forms much shifted in occasion and location but still recognizably the same.” That is because they are “permanent problems, capable it seems of only provisional rather than permanent solutions.” (3) The relevance of Bacon’s prescriptions, and the fact that they would be contested now as they were contested when given (and again, except as specified above, I do not fully agree with them), suggests that prof. Finnis is right about that.

The Judges’ Law

Did you always want to know what my dissertation is about? Let me tell you!

I have occasionally mentioned the doctoral thesis I have been working on for the past four and a half years, and even posted a few tidbits (here, here, and here). But I don’t think I’ve ever even explained what the damned thing is about. Yet it is ― until I defend it, hopefully this spring ― after all, my “day job.” Anyway, I was recently asked to produce an abstract of the thing, and I figure that, having done so, I might as well share it. Here it is.

The Judges’ Law

As citizens of democratic polities we mostly share an ideal of self-government, according to which the laws under which we live ought to be made by legislatures which we elect and which act on our behalf. Yet rules articulated by courts in the course of adjudication―which I refer to as “adjudicative law”―form a non-negligible, and in common law jurisdictions a very significant, part of the law of the law of such polities. This is a study of these rules: of the context in which they are articulated, of their origins, and of their legitimacy in a democracy.

I begin by describing the environment in which adjudicative law emerges. First, I survey some constraints that judicial adjudicators face: a duty to attend to the arguments put forth by the parties, to decide the dispute, to do so in accordance with a general rule, to give reasons for their decision, and to uphold and preserve the law’s coherence. Second, I consider a number of characteristics of courts as institutions, including judicial independence, judicial training, and collective decision-making on appellate courts. Third, I review the rules of justiciability and evidence, insofar as they influence the articulation of adjudicative law.

I then examine the sources from which the rules of adjudicative law are drawn. After reviewing of the some academic writings on this point, I consider the reasons given by courts in a number of important, precedent-setting cases drawn from a variety of areas of the law. The main sources of adjudicative law I describe are underlying legal principles, social practice, and judicial fiat implementing a court’s policy judgment.
Having thus described some salient characteristics of adjudicative law, I turn to the question of its legitimacy in a democratic polity, focusing on four themes. The first is democracy, in connection with which I address the issue of the democratic deficit of adjudicative law and the argument that it can claim a democratic legitimacy that does not rest on the ballot box. Second, I consider the quality of adjudicative law, its fitness for purpose. Under this heading, I assess some issues with the courts’ institutional competence, on the one hand, and the claims that adjudicative law stands in a privileged relationship with reason, on the other. Third, I address the question of whether adjudicative can satisfy the requirements of the Rule of Law. Finally, I consider the relationship between adjudicative law and the past, focusing on the principle of stare decisis.

The outcome of this re-assessment is a nuanced one. Adjudicative law suffers from undeniable weaknesses, when compared with legislation―or at least with legislation as it might be, and not necessarily as it actually is. But the gravity of these weaknesses varies across areas of the law and depends on the specific institutional arrangements used in each legal system. It is best, I conclude, to refrain from across-the-board condemnations or endorsements of adjudicative law, and consider each case in its own context and on its own merits.

We are, I explain in conclusion, bound to live with adjudicative law, flawed though it may be. Yet its flaws can be addressed to some extent, even within the framework of our current institutional arrangements. These remedies, which I briefly outline, will not make the problems of adjudicative law disappear, but they may somewhat improve the situation. Since adjudicative law is with us to stay, even slight improvements would be worthwhile.

 

In Defence of Judicial Majorities

First of all, apologies for my silence of late. Partly, I just couldn’t find anything interesting to write about. Partly, I have been much more diligent about my dissertation-writing, and that hasn’t helped with the blogging. Actually, as I’m trying to finish a draft over the next couple of months, I’ll compensate by occasionally posting on some of the topics I write about, hoping they may be of at least some interest to my readers. Here goes.

* * *

In a paper published last year, Jeremy Waldron asks: “why do bare majorities rule on courts?” Why is it that five judges prevail over four, for instance? The question, he points out, hasn’t been asked much, and indeed people tend simply to assume that majority voting among judges is somehow natural. It’s not, says prof. Waldron. In political theory, people are often asking why a majority of votes (whether among the electorate or among legislators) prevails over the minority. And we know of other decision-making procedures used by courts, too. A couple of States in the U.S. require supermajorities of their Supreme Courts to declare a statute unconstitutional, while civil law courts (such as the French Cour de cassation) ostensibly require their judges to be unanimous, although it seems clear enough that, behind the scenes, their judges do not necessarily reach unanimous agreement on every case, and vote when they do not. So what accounts for the common law courts’ normally using simple majority decision? Prof. Waldron examines four possible explanations, and finds all wanting.

The first is simply that allowing a simple majority to prevail is a relatively efficient way of settling disputes. That is true, says prof. Waldron, but it is not enough for a decision procedure to be efficient. After all, nobody would accept deciding cases by tossing a coin, which is even more efficient than a majority vote. This would not, prof. Waldron insists, be a legitimate decision procedure, no matter how efficient it is. Legitimacy requires “fairness” and “responsiveness” to the merits of the case the court is considering.

The second argument prof. Waldron examines addresses this concern about responsiveness to the merits. It is the claim, based on Condorcet’s jury theorem, that the majority of a panel is more likely to be right than the minority (and indeed that, as we progress in the court hierarchy and move towards larger panels, the likelihood of the majority’s being right increases). Prof. Waldron, however, is unpersuaded that the claim holds up not only for overwhelming majorities (an 8-to-1 vote, say), but also for “bare” ones ― notably, for 5-4 votes. Must we really believe that five judges are more likely to be right than four? Condorcet’s theorem says so, but “[t]here is something gimmicky about [this result],” says prof. Waldron; the theorem “is just arithmetic” and “has nothing to do with objective truth or right answers” (1716; emphasis in the original). Prof. Waldron’s concern seems to be that we cannot really know whether judges, although they are supposed to be experts, are more likely than not to get at a right answer, which is the necessary condition for the Condorcet theorem to work. Prof. Waldron points out that in politically charged matters, people tend to ascribe rather abysmal levels of expertise to the judges with whom they disagree, so that the theorem cannot make these judges’ decisions legitimate to them.

The third argument prof. Waldron considers addresses the demand that the decision procedure courts use be fair. In his view, it is not clear that elements of fairness that are often thought to justify majority decision-making in democratic contexts ― its neutrality as between the options presented, and its giving an equal weight to all the voters ― apply to judicial decision-making. Perhaps we shouldn’t want judicial decision-making to be neutral ― witness the supermajority requirements to invalidate legislation referred to earlier. And it’s not so clear that the votes of different judges are entitled to an equal weight, as the votes of different citizens are. Why aren’t more experienced judges entitled to more voting power, for instance? We seem to have just stipulated that the judges’ votes should be treated equally, and that stipulation, prof. Waldron suggests, is a weak argument for demanding that those on the losing side of close judicial votes put up with them.

Finally, prof. Waldron briefly examines a hybrid argument, according to which the judges’ equality suggests that the majority is more likely than the minority to be right. The judges of a court are equal, on this account, because they are all experts and all represent the law in the same way. But here again, prof. Waldron is skeptical “about the significance of a very narrow majority among Justices, to each of whom we have reason to defer.” (1725)

Prof. Waldron stresses that the point of his questioning is not “to embarrass defenders of judicial review” (1727) by calling into question the legitimacy of courts. On the contrary, he says,

[t]he fact that courts address matters of principle by voting tells us that there is nothing inherently inappropriate about these issues being decided in institutional contexts that are more notorious for their majoritarianism. (1727)

Voting is not something to be embarrassed about. It should be acknowledged, and integrated into our thinking about trying to resolve disagreements.

* * *

I am not persuaded that the weaknesses that prof. Waldron sees in the arguments in favour of majoritarian decision-making by courts as serious as he suggests they are. His reasoning, it seems to me, is somewhat distorted by a focus on constitutional adjudication. The legal dispute that prof. Waldron seems to have in mind throughout his essay is a challenge, probably a rights-based challenge, to the constitutionality of a statute. But cases of this sort are, of course, a small minority, and they have some unusual features that distinguish them from much of the universe of justiciable disputes. Even if he is right that majority decision is a problematic mechanism for resolving constitutional controversies ― and, while his challenge is at its strongest there, I am not persuaded that he is ― it would not necessarily follow that it is similarly problematic for adjudication in general.

Now, I agree with prof. Waldron that efficiency alone does not justify the use of majority decision (or of any other decision-making formula) by courts. However, it is important be aware of the stakes here. Achieving super-majority consensus (or, a fortiori, unanimity) can be difficult. As I explained here, the price to pay may consist of opinions that are either extremely narrow or very vague and, either way, fail to adequately guide litigants and judges in future cases. And it may of course be impossible for judges to achieve the requisite degree of consensus even on those terms. This might not be a fatal problem for an intermediate appellate court, where the case could be remitted to a different panel, much like a case left unresolved by a hung jury is then adjudicated by a different one. But there is no s such solution (simple, but still quite costly for the parties!) available to a court of last resort where all the members hear every case. The only way for such a court is simply to silence the dissenters and hypocritically pretend that they do not exist, like the civilian courts may be doing.

This efficiency issue is directly connected to one of fairness. In the constitutional cases which Waldron seems mostly to have in mind, neutrality as between the possible outcomes might not be obviously necessary. There is at least an argument to be made that there is nothing wrong with the proposition that the impugned statute, being democratically enacted by a legislature, ought to stand unless its unconstitutionality can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of a super-majority of judges. (Actually, this argument might only make sense in the case of rights-based constitutional challenges. It is much less obvious why there ought to be a preference in favour of legislation enacted by one or the other democratically elected legislature in federalism-based disputes, or in favour of one or another democratically elected branch of government in separation of powers controversies.) But it is not at all clear why there ought to be an in-built preference for a given outcome in, say, ordinary civil litigation.

Prof. Waldron’s approach to fairness seems to more or less ignore the parties to the dispute which the court is asked to resolve. Perhaps we can question the equal authority or the “political equality” of that court’s judges. Prof. Waldron is surely right that this equality is a matter of stipulation. But what about the citizens who come before the court? Again, prof. Waldron may argue that a citizen is not the equal of a government that acts in the public interest ― though that proposition would be very controversial. But surely there is no reason to question the equality of the parties in ordinary private law disputes by telling one of them that he or she can only win by persuading a super-majority of the judges, while conversely the opponent need only persuade a blocking minority.

Focusing too much on constitutional cases may also be affecting prof. Waldron’s take on the issue of expertise. It way well be that the expertise of judges, and thus their ability to get the right answer in more than half the cases, required by the Condorcet theorem, is questionable when it comes to fundamental issues of rights. (I should note, though, that other strands in prof. Waldron’s work might seem to commit him to resist this claim. What I have in mind is his defence of a global judicial consensus on such issues as ius gentium. As my friend Maxime St-Hilaire suggests in a very interesting recent paper, it seems logical to suppose that judges should be experts in that.) However, must we push the cynicism about judges to other realms, including those in which they have long been developing the law, such as contract and tort? And if judges are really that incompetent, then their use of majority voting is really the least of our problems. We should probably put the courts out of business altogether, and certainly to put them out of the business of developing the law, at least until we are able to re-educate the judges to a minimal standard of competence. Indeed, this is exactly what prof. Waldron advocates doing with issues of rights. But I’m not sure that he is prepared to expand this approach much beyond the realm of constitutional law.

None of that might provide a very convincing answer to the person who disagrees with a five-to-four judicial decision. As an empirical matter, prof. Waldron is obviously right that such people will often not trust the competence of judges who rejected their claims. For that matter, they might not trust the competence of judges in near unanimous decisions either. I, for one, do not trust the competence of the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada when it comes to basic economics, even though they are in overwhelming agreement on the matter.

But surely the fact that the losers might not accept the legitimacy of a decision procedure isn’t enough to conclude that it really is illegitimate. Prof. Waldron himself has little sympathy for those who reject the legitimacy of the decisions of bare majorities of legislatures and argue that such decisions cannot override their natural, or constitutional, rights. He is content to tell them that majority decision is the best we can do in politics, and to admonish them that “the imposition of the disadvantage on the minority by a majority decision is not necessarily tyrannical.” (1728) I’m not sure why something like that could not be said about a judicial decision. (Indeed, prof. Waldron does apply this reasoning to judicial decisions ― but he only addresses it to the dissenting judges.)

It thus seems to me that, at least when it comes to ordinary litigation, there very good reasons ― mostly fairness considerations, but perhaps also those of expertise ― to have courts decide cases by simple majority vote. These reasons may or may not be applicable in constitutional litigation, or at least in rights-based constitutional litigation. Prof. Waldron does, I think, show that we need to make the argument for the proposition that they are. Contrary, perhaps, to his intention, his essay thus adds an important element to his challenge to the legitimacy of judicial review of legislation; it does not, however, in my view, succeed at calling into question the legitimacy of the courts’ more conventional adjudication practices.