Read Edward Willis’ and my submission on legislation that would censor criticism of the judiciary

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a bill, currently before the New Zealand Parliament, which would codify ― and expand ― the law of contempt of court, in particular as it relates to criticism of the judiciary. (At common law, this is known as the offence of “scandalizinig the court”.) I argued that the offence the bill would create is overbroad, that the defences to it are insufficient, and that the bill, if enacted, would unjustifiably violate the freedom of expression, the freedom of conscience, and the presumption of innocence.

Well, for once, I thought that just ranting on my blog was not enough, so Edward Willis and I started to work on a submission to the Justice Select Committee, which will be studying the bill. We have been joined by my boss, Charles Rickett, my colleagues Warren Brookbanks and Vernon Rive, as well as Andrew Geddis and Eddie Clark, in arguing that, if the provisions related to criticism of the judiciary are not removed from the bill entirely, they need at least to be amended to be more compliant with fundamental constitutional principles and rights. In particular, we propose making the falsity of any statement punishable as contempt an element of the offence, to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution, rather than a defence to be proven the accused; introducing a defence of honest opinion; and removing the ability of the Solicitor General to request, or of the High Court to order, that a person correct, retract, or apologize for a statement that has not been proven to constitute contempt of court; indeed we are proposing getting rid of forced corrections and apologies entirely.

You can read our submission here. Working on it with Dr Willis has been great fun, and I’m very grateful to our co-signatories for their help and support.

The Real Contempt

New Zealand’s Parliament considers legislation that would shield courts from criticism ― and make them instruments of censorship

I do not write about New Zealand very much, although I have been living here for a year and a half. Perhaps it is as well. If the Administration of Justice (Reform of Contempt of Court) Bill currently before the Justice Select Committee of New Zealand’s Parliament is enacted into law without substantial amendments, a blog post making “an allegation or accusation … against a Judge or a court [of New Zealand]” and deemed to create “a real [to] undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” could land me in prison for up to two years, or get me fined $50,000.

Now, much of the Contempt Bill, developed by the New Zealand Law Commission as part of an effort to clarify and update the law of contempt of court, seems to be a worthwhile project. But the provisions relating to criticism of the judiciary are dangerous. They are overbroad, infringe the presumption of innocence and freedom of conscience as well as freedom of expression, and rely on a dangerous amount of discretion in their enforcement.  Even if they are not applied to the fullest extent of which they are capable ― and, as I will explain below, I think they are meant not to be ― these provisions will have a chilling effect on lawyers and laypersons alike who might want to comment on the courts, whether in the media, on blogs, or in scholarship. They ought be amended or indeed abandoned altogether.

In a recent post, for instance, I argued that the Supreme Court of Canada had a “pro-regulatory bias”; previously, I criticized Chief Justice McLachlin for “tak[ing] up a partisan slogan” ― Pierre Trudeau’s “just society” ― “and try[ing] to make it into a constitutional ideal”, and mused about the corrupting effects of power on chief justices generally. If I criticize New Zealand’s courts and judges in similar ways, I think it would be fair to say that I would be making “accusations or allegations” that could, at least if read more widely than this blog normally is, “undermine public confidence in the … integrity or impartiality” of their targets. And while I know that not everyone is a fan of my sometimes strongly-worded opinions, I wouldn’t be the only one to fall foul of the Contempt Bill. The cover article of the New Zealand Law Society’s magazine this month is called “Bullying from the bench“, and its very first sentence is: “Bullying judges are identified and discussed whenever lawyers get together”. The same Law Society, meanwhile, is investigating a lawyer, Catriona MacLennan, for calling a judge unfit for the bench after he let off a man accused of domestic violence on the basis that “many people … would have done exactly” the same. Perhaps if the Contempt Bill is passed the Law Society will have a chance to rethink its position as it joins Ms MacLennan among those charged with undermining public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.

These examples make clear, I hope, that the criminalisation of “accusations or allegations” that “could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” can capture a vast range of perfectly legitimate, indeed absolutely necessary, criticism. While the Contempt Bill (and the Law Commission’s report) seem to suggest that only “untrue” statements are being targeted, this word appears only in the headings of Subpart 6 of Part 2 and of Clause 24 of the Bill  ― not in the text of subclause 24(1) which defines the offense. Rather, the truth (or material truth) of an “allegation or accusation” is, by subclause 24(3), made a defence to a charge under subclause 24(1) ― if the accused can prove the truth of the “allegation or accusation” “on the balance of probabilities”.

This is nowhere near enough to circumscribe the scope of the offence. For one thing, many “accusations or allegations” against the judiciary (such as my claims about pro-regulatory bias, or arguably Ms MacLennan’s views about the unfitness of the nothing-wrong-with-domestic-violence judge) are matters of conjecture or opinion: they are inherently incapable of being proven true. For another, ostensibly factual statements that could in theory be true or false can be made for rhetorical effect, and fail to be “materially true” even though they make a legitimate and easily discernable point (such as the claim about lawyers always talking about bullying judges). Besides, the requirement that an accused prove the truth of a statement when only “untrue” ones are thought to be worthy of being criminalized sits uneasily, to say the least, with the presumption of innocence (protected by paragraph 25(c) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). To be sure, in Canada, a similar truth-as-a-defence provision was upheld as a justified limitation on the right to be presumed innocent in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697. But what is justified in the context of a very narrow proscription of hate speech might not be in the context of a much broader ban on criticizing a branch of government and its officials.

Moreover, it seems to me that asking judges to rule that “allegations or accusations” calling into question the impartiality or integrity of colleagues, let alone hierarchical superiors, are true is putting both them and the accused forced to make that case in an exceedingly difficult position. (Of course, any suggestion that judges might be reluctant to impugn the impartiality or integrity of fellow-judges into question is itself an “accusation” that could “undermine public confidence” in their impartiality and integrity ―  and one that is inherently incapable of being proven true.) In Canadian law, there is a principle of fundamental justice according to which any defence to a criminal charge “should not be illusory or so difficult to attain as to be practically illusory”: R v Morgentaler, [1988] 1 SCR 30 at 70 (per Dickson CJ);  R v St‑Onge Lamoureux, 2012 SCC 57, [2012] 3 SCR 187) at [77]. While the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act does not require such principles to be followed before a person can be imprisoned, this still seems like a sensible moral guideline. The Contempt Bill does not comply with it.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions on criticism of the judiciary have other serious problems, besides the breadth of the offense it creates and the narrowness if not the illusory character of the defence of truth. Instead of, or in addition to, prosecuting a person for having made “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary, the Solicitor-General is empowered, under subclause 25(2) to “request” a retraction or an apology ― including a retraction pending the determination of that person’s guilt. The Solicitor General can also apply, under subclause 26(1), for an order of the High Court requiring, among other things, a retraction or an apology. Such an order is to be granted if the Court is “satisfied that there is an arguable case that” prohibited “allegations or accusations” have been made. Such orders must, under subclause 26(5) be consistent “with the rights and freedoms contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”, but non-compliance can, under clause 27, lead to stiff fines ― and “knowing or reckless” non-compliance to imprisonment too.

This, in my view, is inconsistent with the freedoms of expression and conscience, as well taking further liberties with the presumption of innocence. The Solicitor-General’s “requests”, backed by the implicit threat of hauling a non-compliant person before the High Court, will at least produce a chilling effect, if not be outright coercive. “Requests” to retract statements that have not yet been judged to be illegal ― with perhaps, wink wink, nudge nudge, the possibility to avoid prosecution as an inducement ― are especially disturbing. But the prospect of court-ordered apologies is even worse. Persons who are being coerced, by threat of imprisonment, into apologizing are being made to say something they do not believe in and, in an affront to freedom of conscience, also to express a moral judgment about their own culpability which they presumably do not share. A liberal state cannot extort such moral judgments from its citizens. As Justice Beetz, speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in “additional reasons” in National Bank of Canada v Retail Clerks’ International Union, [1984] 1 SCR 269, said of a labour arbitrator’s order that a bank sign a letter endorsing the objectives of labour legislation, “[t]his type of penalty is totalitarian and as such alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada,” ― or New Zealand ― “even for the repression of the most serious crimes”. (296) Whatever the Contempt Bill might say about respecting the Bill of Rights Act, it is not possible to make such orders with violating the freedom of expression and the freedom of conscience of their targets.

The fact that these orders could be made, not upon a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or even on a balance of probabilities, but merely if there is an “arguable case” that a person has published “an allegation or accusation” that creates “a real risk” of “public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” being “undermined” only compounds the iniquity of the Contempt Bill. To be sure, the orders are, ostensibly at least, a form of civil remedy ― though note Justice Beetz’s description of the arbitrator’s letter as a “penalty”. Thus the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act’s protection for the presumption of innocence, which only extends to persons “charged with an offence”, does not apply. Yet the low burden of proof required for a retraction or an apology order means that rights can be interfered with on the basis of a weak showing by the government, even one that is less likely than not to be justified, and so go against the principle of respect for individual rights if not the right to be presumed innocent itself.

Finally, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Contempt Bill quite clearly contemplates that the enforcement of its proscription on “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary will be highly discretionary. Prosecutions are required to be “in the public interest”, (subclause 25(4)) and “may consider” the existence of any complaints about a judge and “any explanation provided by the Judge” (subclause 25(5)). This, I think, is a tacit admission of drafting failure. The Contempt Bill’s authors implicitly recognize that it is overbroad, and hope that the good judgment of prosecutors can be relied on to avoid fining or imprisoning people for legitimate criticism of the judiciary. This is not good enough. The chilling effect of the criminalisation of such criticism will be felt even if there are no abusive prosecutions, as those who write about the courts constantly watch their words and wonder whether they are crossing the line that exists in the prosecutors’ minds. And there is something perverse for a bill that sets out to clarify the law and give citizens fair notice of their responsibilities vis-à-vis the justice system to rely on prosecutorial discretion to avoid these responsibilities becoming a crushing burden.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions restricting criticism of the judiciary must not be enacted in their current form. Whether any such provisions should be enacted at all is something I still need to think through. If enacted, however, they ought at a bare minimum to make room for what Lord Denning MR described, in R v Com’r of Police of the Metropolis, Ex parte Blackburn (No 2), [1968] 2 QB 150 (CA) as “the right of every man, in Parliament or out of it, in the Press or over the broadcast, to make fair comment, even outspoken comment, on matters of public interest”, including by saying that a court is “mistaken, and [its] decisions erroneous, whether they are subject to appeal or not” (155) ― and including, too, if the commenter him- or herself is in error. New Zealand’s Parliament should take the advice of Lord Denning when he said that his court would not invoke its powers to find a person in contempt “as a means to uphold [its] own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations.” (155) That this power would now  come from statute rather than the common law does not change matters. New Zealand’s courts are independent, and therefore should, just like the English Court of Appeal, “not fear criticism, nor …  resent it”. (155) If anything, it seems to me that the courts’ dignity is more endangered by legislation that would make them into instruments of censorship than by criticism.

Chicane de cours, bis

La querelle constitutionnelle entre la Cour supérieure et le gouvernement du Québec mérite le sérieux, pas la dérision

Plus d’un mois après qu’on en eut appris l’existence, la requête des  juges de la Cour supérieure visant à faire déclarer inconstitutionnelles les compétences exclusives sur les poursuites civiles de 10 000$ à 85 000$ et sur le contrôle judiciaire de certains tribunaux administratifs assignées par le législateur québécois à la Cour du Québec commence à faire parler d’elle. La fin de semaine dernière, Yves Boisvert y est allé d’une chronique vitupératrice dans La Presse et Robert Dutrisac, d’un éditorial un peu plus sobre, mais tout aussi indigné et un peu parano de surcroît, dans Le Devoir. Au-delà des erreurs juridiques qu’elles contiennent, ces élucubrations sont surtout remarquables par le peu de cas qu’elles font de la constitution et leur empressement à blâmer une seule partie dans une dispute où l’autre mérite tout autant, sinon davantage, comme je l’expliquais déjà lorsque les procédures ont été amorcées, d’être condamnée.

M. Boisvert compare la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure à celle du « gars qui a réclamé 67 millions à son nettoyeur pour avoir perdu son pantalon ». Il reconnaît pourtant ― au 17e paragraphe sur les 24 que compte son chef-d’oeuvre ― que « [t]echniquement, l’argument est sérieux ». Cependant, il n’en a cure, de ces détails techniques. Que la Cour supérieure, censément tribunal de droit commun, se trouve presque sans dossiers civils dans plusieurs régions du Québec n’est qu’un « “problème” » ― avec des guillemets. Que l’enjeu soit « discuté depuis des années par des experts et par des juges » (c’est au moins une décennie, comme je l’indiquais dans mon premier billet sur le sujet), c’est apparemment sans importance. Tout ça ne serait qu’ « [u]ne façon comme une autre de célébrer le 150e anniversaire de la Constitution », voire même de « ramener à 1867 » notre système judiciaire. Et que le gouvernement du Québec ait été au courant de tout ça, pressé par les juges d’éviter une confrontation inconvenante dans leur propre cour, et n’ait pas pris éviter l’apparence de conflit en renvoyant la cause devant la Cour d’appel est bien normal, puisqu’il ne saurait être question de « faciliter ce débat oiseux ».

M. Dutrisac, lui, écrit que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice », et que puisque « la Cour du Québec […] en mène plus large que les autres cours provinciales[,] en matière de justice, le Québec est en quelque sorte une société distincte ». Il soutient que la requête des juges serait un « coup de force » visant à « remettre le Québec à sa place en matière de justice, dans un esprit de soumission constitutionnelle ».

Autant M. Boisvert que M. Dutrisac s’insurgent face à la décision des juges de lancer ces procédures alors que le système de justice s’ajuste encore aux exigences en matière de délais édictées par la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt R c Jordan, 2016 CSC 27, [2016] 1 RCS 631. Cependant, leurs arguments à l’effet que tout le débat sur la limites de la compétence de la Cour du Québec serait « oiseux » sinon une sinistre tentative d’éradiquer la différence québécoise en matière de justice s’appliquerait tout autant en l’absence de ces ajustements. Il est vrai que, si les juges de la Cour supérieure ont gain de cause, d’importants changements devront être faits au système de justice. Or, ces changements auraient dérangé peu importe quand il aurait fallu les faire, et plus on attend, plus ils seront dérangeants le moment venu.

Car, comme M. Boisvert finit bien par l’admettre, l’argument des juges est sérieux. La constitution, n’en déplaise aux journalistes, n’est pas qu’un détail technique ou une curiosité intellectuelle. C’est encore moins un instrument de « soumission » pour le Québec. Le respect de la constitution c’est la condition même de légitimité de l’État québécois, comme de l’État canadien, bien sûr, ou de n’importe quel autre. Quand l’État déclare, par sa conduite (y compris sa législation) ou les paroles ou le silence de ses représentants, que le respect de la constitution l’indiffère, il y renonce, du moins en partie. Et il lance un avertissement à ses citoyens : hier, ce n’était que le partage des compétences en matière du système judiciaire que l’État québécois négligeait ; aujourd’hui, c’est aussi l’indépendance de la magistrature, à laquelle il a le devoir de contribuer, et qu’il aurait dû préserver en renvoyant cette question du partage des compétences à la Cour d’appel ; qu’est-ce que ce sera demain? En reconnaissant ses obligations constitutionnelles, l’État ne fait pas preuve de soumission (envers qui, au juste, M. Dutrisac?), mais bien de respect envers ceux et celles qu’il est censé servir ; ou, si tant est qu’il s’agit de soumission, c’est de cette soumission que les juristes médiévaux imposaient déjà aux rois d’Angleterre, en disant que Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege ― le Roi ne doit point être le sujet d’un autre homme, mais de Dieu et de la loi.

Je mentionnais plus haut les erreurs juridiques de MM. Boisvert et Dutrisac. Elles sont plutôt flagrantes ― et diamétralement opposées. Le premier dit que « [l]a Constitution de 1867 réserve au fédéral le pouvoir de créer les cours de droit commun »; le second, que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice ». Les deux ont tort. Le fédéral ne crée pas les tribunaux de droit commun, même s’il nomme leurs juges. Toutefois, la compétences des provinces en matière d’administration de la justice, même si elle est décrite comme exclusive à l’article 92(14) de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, est limitée par ce pouvoir de nomination du fédéral, et par les restrictions supplémentaires que la jurisprudence a dérivées de ce pouvoir. Ce schéma constitutionnel est (délibérément) complexe, mais il est troublant que l’on veuille dénigrer les efforts visant à le préserver sans même en comprendre le fonctionnement.

Pour sa part, M. Dutrisac exagère aussi le caractère unique du Québec en matière de la compétence de la cour provinciale. Comme je le mentionnais dans mon premier billet, cette compétence va jusqu’au seuil de 50 000$ en Alberta. C’est certes moins qu’au Québec, mais l’ordre de grandeur est le même, et démontre bien que le Québec est, ici encore, moins « distinct » du reste du pays que les nationalistes ne le prétendent, et que la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure n’est pas une attaque contre la spécificité québécoise, mais soulève au contraire des questions d’un vif intérêt pour le pays tout entier.

Et c’est pourquoi je reviens à ma suggestion, formulée le mois dernier, que le gouvernement fédéral devrait intervenir dans le débat en formulant un renvoi à la Cour suprême pour le trancher. L’enjeu est d’importance nationale, sa résolution ne nécessite pas l’établissement d’une trame factuelle, et le fédéral aussi a une responsabilité de préserver les apparences d’impartialité de la magistrature. Puisque le gouvernement du Québec ne veut pas faire sa part, et que même les journalistes québécois semblent disposés à louer son attitude et à ne condamner que les juges, le fédéral, qui peut agir, doit le faire.

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.