Someone’s Got to Do It

Was the Supreme Court right to change the law on the right to a speedy trial?

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, in which the Court, by a 5-4 majority and over the vigorous disagreement of the concurrence, held that criminals prosecutions in which a trial does not conclude by a set deadline will be presumed to breach the right to be tried within a reasonable time, protected by paragraph 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The deadline is of 18 months from the day charges are laid for cases that proceed without a preliminary inquiry, 30 months otherwise.) This decision, I said, raises a number of significant questions regarding constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. I addressed the first of these questions in my last post, saying that while one aspect of the majority’s decision was clearly at odds with constitutional text, I am not sure that this is true of its main feature, the fixed presumptive ceilings. Here, I address the other questions.

* * *

I will start with the one on which I have a pretty firm view ― that which concerns the court’s decision-making process. The concurrence castigates the majority for having imposed its presumptive “ceilings” ― and thereby transformed long-standing understanding of paragraph 11(b) ― without having been asked to do so by the parties and without adversarial debate. It adds that there was limited evidence in the record about both the current state of affairs ― which the majority characterized as “a culture of delay” ― and about the potential consequences of the new approach. I think that these criticisms are justified.

There is no question that the majority’s decision is a fairly radical departure from the existing law. Indeed, the majority is clear that it wants to change the way all the actors in the criminal justice system operate, and that governments may well have to spend more to meet their new constitutional obligations. Whether or not this new departure is a good idea, and whether or not it is consistent with the Court’s constitutional role ― questions to which I will come shortly ― it should not have been taken lightly. And while I have no doubt that the majority did consider it seriously, I do not think that it has done enough. Given the magnitude of the change it was considering, and the fact that it was not canvassed by the parties in argument, the Court should, it seems to me, have re-opened the argument and invited the parties to make submissions that would have addressed its concerns. Indeed, I wonder if the Court could have invited Attorneys General, only one of whom (Alberta’s) intervened, to participate in the debate.

Alternatively, the Court could have decided the case on the basis of the existing framework (perhaps modified as suggested by the concurrence), and suggested ― in its reasons ― that it would, in a future case, be willing to entertain submissions on whether that framework should be overhauled in the future. This would of course have delayed the implementation of any proposed changes, but it would also have allowed for any decision on whether these changes are a good idea to be made on the basis of a record put together and tested by the parties, and not only of the majority’s own limited research.

Speaking of the the research, Michael Spratt points out that the majority “did not do what every elementary school student is taught to do — show his or her work.” He calls the majority’s framework “a product of judicial alchemy and … entirely unprincipled.” I would not go this far, but an opinion that doesn’t show its authors’ work makes them vulnerable to such charges. As I said here after the Court’s decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, “I am happy to assume that the Court did its work, but others may not be, and neither they nor I should have to take that on faith.” Sure, the reasons in Jordan are very long, but the majority could have produced some sort of annex to explain the results of its research much better than it has done. It is a question of transparency, and arguably even simple respect for the public over which the Court is exercising a considerable power.

* * *

Put these (significant) concerns about process to one side, and the question whether the majority was right to decide the case the way it did gets much trickier. Admittedly, I am not especially well qualified to answer it, so take what follows with a generous helping of salt. And admittedly, more qualified people have been quite critical of the majority decision in Jordan. Mr. Spratt is especially scathing, arguing that “[t]he Supreme Court’s latest decision pays lip service to the constitution while doing little to improve the pace of Canadian justice.” In a very well argued interview with Jim Brown, on the CBC Radio’s The 180, my friend Joanna Baron has defended “incrementalism,” in preference to the majority’s approach that risks allowing too much time for trials in provincial courts, and not enough in the superior courts. Lauren Heuser, in a National Post op-ed, calls “the ceiling on trial times … worryingly firm,” especially in that it prevents courts from making exceptions on account of the “the depravity of an offence.” She writes that “[m]ore than a few people will be uncomfortable when suspected perpetrators of serious crimes walk free on perceived legal technicalities.”

Ms. Heuser’s suggestion, at least, is easy enough to dispose of. The Charter does not speak of “a right to be tried within a reasonable time, except for those accused of depraved offences.” The Jordan majority is quite right to say that only the complexity of the legal or factual issues, rather than the gravity of the charge, can justify a prosecution taking longer to conclude. Those who think otherwise need to amend the constitution.

But the underlying critique ― that (relatively) firm ceilings are not an appropriate response to the problem of delay due to the infinite variety of the cases to which they will be applied is serious. I do not know nearly enough to reject it. But I would like to raise a question for those who endorse it. It is, quite simply this: what makes you think that a few tweaks to an approach that appears to have thoroughly failed are enough? Ms. Heuser writes that “[w]hile one can question whether this ruling was the best way to light a fire under Canada’s court system, few would dispute that a fire needed to be lit.” The Jordan concurrence does not seem to address the majority’s claim that the system suffers from a “culture of delay” directly ― which seems like a concession. The concurrence does argue that the majority’s radical approach is unnecessary, because the case isn’t even a close one under the old one, at least as modified in its opinion. But there remains the fact that both the trial court and the unanimous Cour of Appeal thought that the delay which the concurrence thinks is clearly unconstitutional was just all right. I share Ms. Baron’s general preference for incrementalism, but I’m not convinced that the time for incrementalism on this issue has not run out.

Now, that doesn’t mean that what the Supreme Court did was right. Just because something must be done, and x is something, it doesn’t follow that x must be done. But what other options were there? Mr. Spratt agrees that “[c]hange is indeed needed,” but insists that “we should hold little hope that a cynical judgment from the Supreme Court will change anything.” Well, maybe ― though I think it’s unfair to describe the majority opinion in Jordan as “cynical,” despite its flaws, and would be unfair even the majority is ultimately wrong. But while it is easy enough for a blogging defence lawyer to rail against the practices of police and prosecutors, and the policies of governments, and accuse the courts of complicity, such tirades, even if justified, hardly answer the question of what a court ought to do when it does recognize the existence of a problem, even if belatedly.

* * *

Sometimes, though, the answer to the question of what one is to do even in the face of a situation crying out action, is “nothing.” The courts’ role, like that of other institutions, is limited. The Jordan concurrence has suggested that numerical ceilings should only be imposed, if at all, by legislation. Ms. Baron is also of that view. The concurrence has also criticized the majority for overturning settled precedent. So has Ms. Heuser. Both these critiques amount to a contention that the majority overstepped the proper judicial remit. I am not persuaded of this.

I agree that the majority’s decision is essentially legislative. The fact that it felt the need to lay out a transitional framework underscores this ― transitional provisions are common in statutes, but almost unheard-of in judicial decisions. But that alone isn’t enough to show that it is not appropriate for a court to make such a decision. Some judicial decisions are essentially legislative: one that comes to mind is Andrews v. Grand & Toy Alberta Ltd., [1978] 2 S.C.R. 229, in which the Supreme Court imposed a hard cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded for pain and suffering in personal injury cases. Pace such legal philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and F.A. Hayek, courts do on occasion introduce new rules of law that cannot be derived in any straightforward way from either legal principles or from the practices prevalent in society, and most people seem prepared to live with these decisions. Legislatures often accept them even when they could overturn them.

So it’s not enough to say that the Court effectively made new law and thus usurped the legislatures’ prerogative. And of course, even if the legislatures had enacted statutes to impose ceilings on delays in the justice system, the courts would still have the last word on these statutes’ constitutionality. Ruling on ceilings in the context of a constitutional challenge to a statute is almost certainly better from a process standpoint, as such a case would likely feature a substantial record of the sort that was missing in Jordan. But in terms of institutional legitimacy, it would not be that different. Indeed, such a ruling would come with complications of its own, because it would confront the courts with very difficult questions under section 1 of the Charter, which are avoided when, as in Jordan, the constitutional challenge is not aimed at a rule or regulation ― most fundamentally, about whether delays that are intolerable if produced by a “culture of delay” can be saved as “reasonable limits” to the section 11(b) rights, under section 1, by a legislative ratification.

Ultimately, though, the issue is not whether, in a perfect world, the legislatures would act to limit delays, and how the courts should respond to such legislation. Rather, the issue is that legislatures have done nothing at all to remedy the problem of unconstitutional delays. If, the lack of evidence in the record notwithstanding, it is the case that delays are endemic, and that there is a “culture of delay” ― which no one denies ― the issue is the existence of widespread and ongoing violations of the constitutional rights of thousands of people. These violations have to be remedied. Sure, it’s not the courts’ job to pursue policy objectives to which the elected officials fail to attend. But we’re not talking about mere policy here. Sure, courts should beware of disregarding procedural constraints because doing so undermines the Rule law. But doesn’t systematic disregard for the constitution undermine the Rule of Law too? If the governments will not bring themselves in conformity with their constitutional obligations, shouldn’t the courts try to make them? And if the courts do not, who will?

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For all that, I am not certain that the Supreme Court got Jordan right. Its interpretation of the Charter is not beyond question; its procedural careless is disturbing; its chosen solution to what is admittedly a grave problem may be a bad one; and perhaps, all things considered, it should not have endeavoured to do more than mitigate that problem’s worst manifestations. But it is far from clear that this is so. There is more to be said in defence of the majority opinion in Jordan than most observers seem to think. Getting the government to comply with constitutional obligations is hard ― but someone’s got to do it.

Not Such a Simple Thing

A divided Supreme Court expands the powers of search incident to arrest

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a decision, R. v. Saeed, 2016 SCC 24, that was further evidence of its majority’s expansive views of the police’s powers of search incident to arrest ― and trust in judicially developed checklists to prevent the abuse of these powers. Meanwhile, by writing an opinion which, although concurring with the majority in the result, rejected its approach, Justice Karakatsanis confirmed her role as the Court’s leading ― if only in dissent ― privacy-protecting voice. To that extent, the case was a reprise of the Court’s earlier decision in  R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 621, where it considered the powers of the police to search an unlocked cell phone incident to arrest. (I commented on that case here.)

The issue in Saeed, was whether the police could conduct a penile swab on a man arrested on suspicion of sexual assault (or effectively force him to do it for them) in order to obtain the victim’s DNA ― without a warrant. In an opinion by Justice Moldaver, a seven-judge majority answered that question in the affirmative. Justice Karakatsanis disagreed, but would have admitted the evidence under section 24(2) of the Charter. Justice Abella dissented, endorsing Justice Karakatsanis’ approach to the main issue, but being of the view that the evidence was not admissible.

The friend of a victim of a brutal sexual assault having pointed to Mr. Saeed as the perpetrator, the police arrested him. Some time later, having concluded that a penile swab would potentially uncover useful evidence, the police placed Mr. Saeed, fully clothed, “in a dry cell, with no toilet or running water, to preserve the evidence. Mr. Saeed was handcuffed to the wall to prevent him from licking his hands or otherwise washing away evidence,” [18] for 30 or 40 minutes. Eventually, Mr. Saeed took the swab, under the direction of two male police officers, who were the only persons present. “The procedure took at most two minutes.” [25]

* * *

Justice Moldaver begins his reasons by asserting ― without much of an explanation ―  that “perhaps more than any other search power,” the “ancient and venerable power” of search incident to arrest “is used by the police on a daily basis to detect, prevent, and solve crimes.” [1] This power extends, he concludes, to the taking of a penile swab, although he “agree[s] that the common law power of search incident to arrest must be tailored to protect the enhanced privacy interests involved.” [42]

Despite the privacy implications, the taking of a penile swab is not, in Justice Moldaver’s view, analogous to that of a bodily sample ― which cannot be carried out as a search incident to arrest. The swab does not reveal information about the arrested person’s body ― it aim is to find the DNA of the complainant. It is also not particularly invasive ― or at any rate less invasive than the taking of dental impressions. Finally, the material it serves to collect can be removed quite quickly, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Justice Moldaver emphasizes the usefulness of collecting this material for prosecuting sexual assaults ― or indeed for exonerating an innocent suspect.  “This type of evidence,” he points out, “is highly reliable. It can be crucial in the case of complainants who are unable to testify, such as children, adults with disabilities, or those who have died or suffered serious injuries as a result of the offence or otherwise.” [59] For this reason, to require consent for a penile swab ― as the United Kingdom does ―  “effectively disregards the interests of victims of sexual assault … and all but ignores the public interest in bringing sexual offenders to justice.” [61] As for requiring a warrant, obtaining one takes time ― hours perhaps ― and thus involves “leaving accused persons to wait for an indefinite period in an uncomfortable and potentially degrading position,” “handcuffed without access to water or toilet facilities … in order to preserve the evidence.” [65]

Justice Moldaver cautions that a penile “swab must be truly incident to the arrest, in the sense that the swab must be related to the reasons for the arrest, and it must be performed for a valid purpose” [74]; that there must be reasonable grounds for conducting one; and that it must be conducted in a reasonable manner, to which end he supplies a list of 10 “factors” or guidelines, admonishing the police to proceed expeditiously, to explain the procedure to the arrested person, to respect his privacy to the extent possible, and to keep records. In Mr. Saeed’s case, the police acted consistently with these guidelines, and the evidence they collected is, accordingly, admissible.

* * *

As she had done in Fearon, Justice Karakatsanis takes a much narrower view of the power of search incident to arrest. She is much more concerned about the privacy interests of the accused, and more skeptical of the ability of courts to prevent abuses by supplying guidelines for the police.

For Justice Karakatsanis, a genital swab (notice, by the way, the gender-neutral terminology she uses, in contrast to Justice Moldaver) are no different from “mouth swabs, dental impressions and hair samples [which] cannot be taken as part of searches incident to arrest because they represent too great an infringement of bodily integrity and affront to privacy and dignity.” [99] Indeed,  “[a] swab of the genital area is far more damaging to personal dignity and privacy than a swab of the inside of the mouth or a pluck of hair from the head,” [101] and this is especially the case for a woman. That a genital swab doesn’t serve to collect information about the individual on whom it is conducted does not matter. The affront to the person’s dignity is the key consideration. However, whatever its purpose, “an effect of the seizure is to put the individual’s DNA in the hands of the state.” [104]

Justice Karakatsanis also notes that “if there is no lawful means by which the police could collect the evidence, ever,” ― and there may not be such means to collect the evidence yielded by a genital swab, as it is not clear that a warrant to collect it can be lawfully issued under the Criminal Code

it would not matter how long the evidence lasts.  Nothing would be lost when the evidence disappeared — no state interests would be compromised —because even if the evidence had survived, the police would have had no lawful authority to collect it. [108]

Further, Justice Karakatsanis argues that although it is not clear that it is actually necessary to handcuff a person in a dry cell in order to preserve the evidence while waiting for a genital swab, if it is,

this necessity could not be used to justify the greater affront to dignity that a genital swab would represent.  One indignity cannot justify another.  It would be ironic indeed if [section 8 of the Charter] did not protect individuals from the indignity of genital swabs precisely because it protects them from the indignity of detention in dry cells. [113]

Finally, Justice Karakatsanis is unconvinced that judicially developed safeguards can effectively protect the privacy interests of all those who may come into contact with the police ― and not only the subset of suspects who will be charged and thus have an opportunity to seek to exclude evidence against them. If Parliament wants to authorize genital swabs by statute, it can do so, but the common law power of search incident to arrest does not extend so far.

Justice Karakatsanis ultimately agrees that the evidence against Mr. Saeed should be admitted, because its admission does not bring the administration of justice into disrepute, not least because “the law on this issue was unsettled at the time of this seizure and the police acted on their understanding of the law.” [129] Justice Abella, who agrees with her section 8 analysis, does not agree with this and dissents.

* * *

For my part, I’m inclined to agree with Justice Karakatsanis. She is right that the distinction which Justice Moldaver draws between the swab at issue here and the taking of other bodily samples ― that the penile swab does not yield, or rather is not intended to yield, the DNA of the person on whom it is performed rather misses the point of the prohibition on taking bodily samples. I also think that she is right to focus on preventing unconstitutional infringements of privacy, and right that this is best accomplished by having clear prospective rules, and not lengthy checklist to be applied, if at all, by judges after the fact. Beyond these specific points, I am concerned by the expansion of the power of search incident to arrest ― including to cases where, as here, those searches take place many hours after the arrest, in the secure confines of a police station rather than in the unpredictable environment in the field. It hardly needs to be said that Justice Moldaver’s paean to that “venerable” power does nothing to soothe my worries.

I will end with a couple of thoughts about judging. It is sometimes suggested, in the heat of controversies about the judicial system’s handling of cases of sexual assault, that male judges systematically fail to empathize with the victims, leading to perpetrators getting off the hook. There is no denying that this sometimes happens. But Saeed shows that one should be careful with generalizations. Here, the Court’s five men sign on to an opinion overtly driven, in significant measure, by concerns about the difficulty of prosecuting sexual assaults. Two of the women members of the Court, by contrast, dissent from their approach, in the name of respect for privacy rights.

No doubt, a judge is influenced in part by his or her background and personal experiences. But that influence is surely more complex than a reflex that causes women to react in one way and men in another. Nor is background the only thing that influences a judge. Adjudication, even in cases involving sexual assault, should not be seen through the lens of a zero-sum battle of the sexes ― unless, of course, a specific judge gives us cause to do so in a specific case. Unless the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion, we should treat judges as thinking human beings ― apt err sometimes, perhaps often ― but thinking all the same, and not mere automatons.

Absence of Evidence…

Last week, the Alberta Court of Appeal delivered an interesting decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to the province’s prohibition on private health insurance brought by way of an application. In Allen v Alberta, 2015 ABCA 277, the Court held unanimously that the applicant hadn’t provided a sufficient evidentiary basis for his challenge, and that it should have been brought by way of an action and adjudicated after a full trial. This might have been the correct result, but the route the Justice Slatter, the author of the leading opinion, took to get there is in many ways disturbing. It illustrates, I think, some worrying tendencies in Canadian constitutional law generally, and also the difficulties which challenges to the government’s healthcare monopoly specifically will face.

* * *

In a way, the case is a very simple, and also a very Canadian, one. The applicant had suffered a back injury playing hockey, and even as his pain was getting worse and worse, he was put on a two-year long waiting list for an operation. The pain was too much, and he finally decided to undergo surgery in the United States, at his own (very considerable) expense. And thereafter, he went to court, seeking a declaration that the provision of the Alberta Healthcare Insurance Act that barred private health insurance from covering healthcare services provided by the public insurance plan was contrary to s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The argument was that the government monopoly on health insurance resulted in people having to wait a long time for healthcare, and to suffer as a result, thus breaching the “security of the person” guarantee of s. 7. To support his claim, the applicant submitted “a number of medical reports and proof of expenses he had incurred,” [7] and relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Chaoulli v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 S.C.R. 791, which declared a similar restriction on private health insurance contrary to Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

For the Court, this was not good enough. After a heartfelt paean to the Canadian healthcare system, Justice Slatter went on to discuss “the importance of using appropriate procedures, and having a proper evidentiary record, when reviewing statutes for constitutionality.” [19] Constitutional cases, in his view, are not just ordinary cases:

Cases in which the appointed judiciary override the will of the democratically elected legislatures fall into a special category. Our constitution and the parliamentary system of government recognize the “supremacy of Parliament”. The presence, however, of an entrenched constitution now provides an important exception to that principle; statutes that are clearly inconsistent with the constitution are of no force or effect. [20]

For this reason, it is important that “the proper procedural safeguards [be] observed.” [21] While the citizen must have an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of a statute, “fair[ness] to the legislature” means that the government must be able to defend it, and “fair[ness] to the court” requires that it have “a reasonable record on which to exercise this important component of its jurisdiction.” [21] The record here is not sufficient. There is a “presumption … that constitutional cases will be decided on a full evidentiary record, including, where appropriate, the evidence of expert witnesses.” [23] Evidence is especially important in constitutional cases because a declaration of unconstitutionality must, pursuant to s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 determine the “extent of the inconsistency” between the impugned statute and the constitution, and “[t]he only way to know what is that “extent”, is to have a full evidentiary record with complete factual conclusions about it.” [26]

* * *

Justice Martin, in a rather terse concurrence, agrees with this reasoning, and would go no further. While Justice Slatter continues, to discuss Chaoulli and the applicant’s claim that it effectively settles the case, I will pause here and comment on this part of his reasons. As I said above, the conclusion that more evidence was required in this case may well have been correct. To be sure, it seems unlikely that the causal relationships between the prohibition on private health insurance and the existence of lengthy waiting lists established in Chaoulli are somehow not present in this case. A legislature that proceeded on the assumption that there was such a relationship would be acting rationally. But it is at least arguable that a court needs more than an assumption, no matter how plausible. It needs evidence. Allison Orr Larsen’s warnings about the dangers of “factual precedents” are apposite in the Canadian context. It may well be that a fuller record, including expert reports would have been necessary here, though I’m not sure I understand Justice Slatter’s insistence on the need for a trial to dispose of this case, as opposed to an application proceeding on a more developed record.

That said, if Justice Slatter is right, his conclusion ought to be disquieting. It confirms the worry that Sonia Lawrence expressed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, and that I have been dwelling on ever since, that mounting a constitutional challenge to a statute may be becoming prohibitively complex and expensive. Marni Soupcoff, of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is mounting a challenge of its own to government healthcare monopoly, makes this case in a compelling op-ed in the National Post. Constitutional litigation is at danger of becoming the preserve of (relatively) well-funded public interest litigation outfits (such as the CCF). The Charter was supposed to be “the people’s package” of constitutional reform, but the people risk being prevented from bringing Charter cases by the requirement that such cases be supported by expert reports and proceed by way of trial rather than a less expensive procedure. Justice Slatter’s claim that there exists a “presumption” to this effect is particularly worrisome ― all the more so since he provides no indication as to how this presumption might be rebutted.

I want to comment on a couple of other points in the part of his reasons I have been discussing. The first one has to do with the nature of judicial review of legislation and the courts’ role in constitutional cases, on which Justice Slatter expounds in the excerpt of par. 20 quoted above. That passage contains a number of serious mistakes. For one thing, the constitution does not “recognize the ‘supremacy of Parliament'” ― those words appear nowhere in the Constitution Acts, and while Parliamentary sovereignty is arguably one of the constitution’s underlying principles, it is subject to the limits imposed by constitutional text and other such principles. For another, it is wrong to speak of an entrenched constitution that limits Parliamentary sovereignty as something new, something that only “now” exists. Canada has always had an entrenched constitution, and Canadian courts have always invalidated Canadian laws inconsistent with it, although the legal rationale for this practice did indeed change in 1982, from the supremacy of Imperial law to the supremacy of the (Canadian) constitution. Last but not least, Justice Slatter misrepresents the courts’ role on judicial review when he says that “statutes that are clearly inconsistent with the constitution are of no force or effect” ― there no such “clear inconsistency” requirement either in s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 or in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Constitutional cases, like all civil cases, are decided on an ordinary “balance of probabilities” standard.

The other point that I found disturbing is Justice Slatter’s unabashed celebration of the Canadian healthcare system, of which he says that it

is perceived by many as the crowning achievement of Canadian social policy. The majority of Canadians support the public funding of health care and oppose attempts to shrink or compromise the system. At the same time, many Canadians criticize the system; they would like it to be even better than it is. [14]

Justice Slatter also praises the Canadian healthcare system as “an example of co-operative federalism in action,” though the Canada Health Act, which threatens provinces with the loss of their federal healthcare transfers if they do not comply with its conditions, seems like a rather dubious example of “co-operation.” In any event, Justice Slatter is apparently oblivious to the irony of making unsupported empirical claims in an opinion that dismisses a constitutional challenge for want of evidence. But in the absence of support for these claims, it is somewhat difficult to avoid the suspicion that Justice Slatter is attributing his own views to the indistinct “majority” of which he speaks. After reading these lines, I would rather that he (and indeed his colleagues) not sit in judgment on a constitutional challenge that would, in effect, be an “attempt to … compromise the system,” to change it radically and not merely to make it “even better than it is.”

These two points together lead me to an additional observation. Justice Slatter’s approach is clearly very deferential to legislative choices. That would make him a “conservative” on the definitions that have been floating around of late, for example in some of Sean Fine’s “Tory judges” articles. But, as I’ve said before, “there is nothing inherently conservative about such an approach. It can serve to validate left- or right-leaning policies, depending on the politics of the policy-makers.” This case shows that this is indeed so. If anything, it shows that judges may be able to adopt a strategically deferential posture in order to achieve “progressive” results just as easily as to achieve “conservative” ones.

* * *

I will comment on just one passage from the remainder of Justice Slatter’s reasons. Justice Slatter observes that constitutions, including the Charter, are written in broad terms and

say nothing about the difficult social issues that come before the courts … Controlling this vague language falls to the courts, and an absence of institutional self-restraint by the judiciary makes the problem worse, not better. The Supreme Court has recast the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” with even less precise terms like overbreadth, disproportionality and arbitrariness, none of which have been comprehensively defined. It is, unfortunately, sometimes difficult to discern the difference between these concepts and a simple disagreement by the judiciary with the public policy decisions of democratically elected officials.

The text of s. 7 signals that the drafters of the Charter never intended it to be applied to the review of social and economic policies. … As Prof. [Peter] Hogg has pointed out, the intention of the framers of the Charter to restrict judicial review to procedural matters has been “totally disregarded by the Supreme Court of Canada” with dramatic consequences. [31-32]

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Canadian court reverse-benchslap the Supreme Court in this way. Justice Slatter’s attack is pretty vicious, and in my view largely uncalled for.

It is true that s. 7 was not intended to be applied in the way it does, but it is, to say the least, not obvious that “original intent” is an appropriate criterion for interpreting it. Even if, contrary to the Supreme Court of Canada, one is inclined to be originalist, an “original public meaning” interpretation might support the Supreme Court’s conclusion, in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 that “fundamental justice” is not a matter of procedure only. Anyway, it seems to me that it is a bit late to re-litigate that particular issue.

Beyond that, I don’t think it’s at all fair to reproach the Supreme Court for invoking principles such as overbreadth, disproportionality and arbitrariness in applying s. 7. They are, surely, not more open-ended than the expression “principles of fundamental justice.” The Court has tried, in cases such as Bedford and Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, to give them a relatively specific meaning, and in my view has been at least somewhat successful in this endeavour. Justice Slatter’s dismissal of this jurisprudence as “a simple disagreement by the judiciary with the public policy decisions of democratically elected officials” looks not unlike the expression of a simple disagreement by one judge with the constitutional policy decisions of his hierarchical superiors.

* * *

In a sense, this decision is just sound and fury, signifying nothing ― except, of course, that the applicant spent a significant amount of time and money on a litigation that proved fruitless. As Justice Watson rightly observes in his concurrence, “[d]ismissal of a declaration on the grounds that it was not made out in the pleadings and evidence is not the same thing as saying that an action properly pleaded, fairly proceeded with, and backed by sufficient evidence would be impossible.” [60] Perhaps the CCF will succeed in its own efforts to bring such an action. Yet the Court’s mistakes and dubious assertions about its role (about which I might have more to say separately) are cause for worrying, and the possibility that it is right about the high evidentiary threshold that a constitutional challenge must get over before even being considered on the merits is, if anything, even more distressing.

What the Judge Googled for Breakfast

A recent decision of an American appellate court provides a vivid illustration of the complexity of the issues surrounding the courts’ treatment of scientific information that I have been blogging about here. The case is a prisoner’s suit against the medical staff at his prison, alleging that their refusal to let him take medication against reflux oesophagitis prior to his meals ― rather than on a schedule seemingly arbitrarily determined by them, or indeed at all ― amounted to cruel and unusual treatment. In Rowe v. Gibson, a divided panel of the federal Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit dismissed the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in their favour. The main opinion, by Judge Richard Posner, is most interesting for its liberal citation to online sources not in the record ― and for addressing directly the objection’s to this practice.

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The defendant doctor, who apparently doubled as an expert witness (despite not being specialized in the sort of medical problems the plaintiff was suffering from), claimed that it did not matter when the plaintiff took his medications. Indeed, at some point shortly after the plaintiff sued, he came to the conclusion that it did not matter whether the plaintiff took his medications at all, and so refused to prescribe them ― though he relented a month later, as a “courtesy” to the plaintiff. (A particularly gruesome detail: the prison authorities consistently stressed that the plaintiff was free to buy the medications from the commissary, if he wanted to take them on his own schedule ― but he didn’t have even a fraction of the money this would have required, and wouldn’t have been allowed to buy more than a few days’ supply per month anyway.) And since the plaintiff did not supply an expert opinion of his own, the doctor’s stood uncontradicted ― until Judge Posner took to the internet.

What Judge Posner found there, crucially, is that the doctor’s assertions about the effectiveness of the medication at issue were flatly contradicted by the information provided by the drug companies manufacturing the medication, as well as other sources of medical information. The defendants’ expert suddenly looked incompetent, self-interested, or both. There was, after all, a genuine issue for trial.

But was it appropriate for Judge Posner to start looking for the medical information that the plaintiff did not provide him with? The judge makes no apologies: “When medical information can be gleaned from the websites of highly reputable medical centers, it is not imperative that it instead be presented by a testifying witness.” (13) This is particularly so when there is little relevant information in the record, and when it is only used to establish the existence of a genuine issue for trial, not to determine the outcome of the case.

And there is more. After a rather bizarre reference to the Magna Carta, Judge Posner asks:

Shall the unreliability of the unalloyed adversary process in a case of such dramatic inequality of resources and capabilities of the parties as this case be an unalterable bar to justice? Must our system of justice allow the muddled affidavit of a defendant who may well be unqualified to be an expert witness in this case to carry the day against a pro se plaintiff helpless to contest the affidavit? (14)

And further:

[T]o credit [the doctor’s] evidence … just because [the plaintiff] didn’t present his own expert witness would make no sense—for how could [he] find such an expert and persuade him to testify? He could not afford to pay an expert witness. He had no lawyer in the district court and has no lawyer in this court; and so throughout this litigation (now in its fourth year) he has been at a decided litigating disadvantage. He requested the appointment of counsel and of an expert witness to assist him in the litigation, pointing out sensibly that he needed “verifying medical evidence” to support his claim. The district judge denied both requests. (15)

In short:

It is heartless to make a fetish of adversary procedure if by doing so feeble evidence is credited because the opponent has no practical access to offsetting evidence. (16)


[H]ow could an unrepresented prisoner be expected to challenge the affidavit of a hostile medical doctor (in this case really hostile since he’s a defendant in the plaintiff’s suit) effectively? Is this adversary procedure? (17; emphasis in the original)

(Sorry for the block quotations, by the way. With Judge Posner, the temptation irresistible.)

Judge Posner adds that the trial court should consider appointing a lawyer for the plaintiff and a neutral expert when it hears this case ― though he does not order it, and acknowledges that the budgets both of the court and of the defendants (who might be made to pay for it all) are limited.

Judge Hamilton, dissenting in part, is not impressed with Judge Posner’s approach to this case. For him, it is “an unprecedented departure from the proper role of an appellate court [that] runs contrary to long-established law and raises a host of practical problems.” (29) He faults Judge Posner for “hav[ing] created an entirely new, third category of evidence, neither presented by the parties nor properly subject to judicial notice.” (37) Although Judge Hamilton acknowledges that “[w]hen a prisoner brings a pro se suit about medical care, the adversary process that is the foundation of our judicial system is at its least reliable,” (39) he thinks that Judge Posner’s remedy is worse than the disease. For one thing, it “turns the court from a neutral decision-maker into an advocate for one side.” (40) For another, it is not clear when or how the courts are supposed to supplement the parties’ research with their own. Judges, says judge Hamilton ― relying on an old, but on-point, quotation from Judge Posner himself ― lack the resources for acting as their own experts, and should not try.

There is still more to the opinions, including a brief concurrence arguing that the internet research is not as central to the majority opinion as it might seem, and an “appendix” by Judge Poser responding to Judge Hamilton’s critique. If you want more excerpts, Josh Blackman’s has got them. For my part, I close with a few comments.

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A few months ago, I blogged about a very interesting paper by Lisa Kerr about challenging the prison authorities’ assertions of expertise in order to secure prisoners’ rights. It was, I said, “an almost Posnerian plea for judges to be attentive to facts and, in particular, to the information that various experts can provide about prisons, when they adjudicate constitutional claims brought by prisoners, as well as for lawyers to provide judges with such information.” The reason for the epithet was that Judge Posner has long been an ardent advocate for more fact-heavy litigation.

But as I also said in a (friendly) critique of prof. Kerr’s argument, one problem with such appeals for more evidence, especially expert evidence, is that it can be very hard to come by, especially in “ordinary” cases rather than those that are designed and litigated by specialized public-interest advocacy organizations. (I also took up this point here.) Rowe is the epitome of such “ordinary” cases, because it was brought not by a prisoners-rights advocate, of the sort to whom prof. Kerr’s article is first and foremost addressed, but by a self-represented prisoner who, as Judge Posner notes, is no position to take prof. Kerr’s and Judge Posner’s advice, sound though it is in theory.

Is it right, then, for courts to effectively substitute themselves for the missing experts in such cases? Or are the dangers of partiality and unreliability too high? I’m not sure that partiality is as serious an issue as Judge Hamilton makes it out to be. In this case, neither party presented anything like solid scientific evidence. Was Judge Posner taking the plaintiff’s side when he started googling for it? I’m not convinced. Besides, for better or worse, it is already the case that judges (and their clerks) might be going the extra mile, or at least putting in the extra hour, to find plausible legal arguments in the self-represented parties’ submissions. If this is a problem ― and I’m not convinced that it is, though perhaps I’m just trying to wish away the sins of my clerkship ― it is by no means unique to scientific issues.

Reliability is a bigger worry, for me anyway. Judge Posner himself has long pointed out that most judges aren’t very good at doing science, or social science. In his “Appendix” he points at errors in Judge Hamilton’s reading of the scientific evidence in Rowe. He may well be right. But if a thoughtful appellate judge can so easily err, is it a good idea to entrust judges with this responsibility? Not every judge has Posnerian talents (and his own scientific endeavours have sometimes been criticized too).

At the same time, we have to weigh the risk of unreliability against that of manifest injustice. Judge Posner has a point when he says that the adversarial process may not be functioning when the parties’ resources are as unbalanced as they are in this case. The judges who end up “helping” self-represented litigants in one way or another, are all aware of this point, as indeed is Judge Hamilton. Is the solution in some sort of reform that would explicitly set out the rules for the judges to follow? Judge Hamilton is right that Judge Posner’s approach offers no real guidance to either litigants or judges. But perhaps the trouble is that we are still very far from having figured out what these rules should look like. And perhaps, then, it is better to let the cases develop, to let the judges argue it out, before rushing to either reaffirm the traditional rules or formulate new ones.

Legal realists said, derisively, that the law depends on what the judge who declares it ate for breakfast. That would be troubling, if true. And it seems troubling, too, that the outcomes of cases should be dictated by what the judge googled (at breakfast or any other time). But if the realists were right, the solution surely was not to prevent judges from having breakfast. A hungry judge isn’t obviously better than a satiated one. Similarly a judge who meticulously follows a diet of neutral ignorance might not be better than one sated on Google.

Judges, Lawyers, and Science

It might have looked like an essentially technical matter, but the Supreme Court’s recent decision in R. v. Tatton, 2015 SCC 33 turns out to be full of interesting things to discuss. I have already written about what it might suggest about the Court’s views on mandatory minimum sentences, and what it tells us about the respective roles of the courts and Parliament in law reform. I come back to it again to follow up on Lisa Silver’s very interesting post over at Ideablawg about the lack of scientific foundations beneath Justice Moldaver’s opinion for a unanimous court.

The narrow question the Court faced in Tatton was whether intoxication can be a defence to a charge of arson ― on the theory that an intoxicated person who puts something (in this case, the house in which he was living, but which belonged to someone else) on fire lacks the requisite “mental element” for the offence. The broader question on which the Court tried to provide guidance was how to distinguish offences for which intoxication can be invoked as an excuse, and those for which it cannot, somewhat confusingly known, respectively, “specific intent” and “general intent” offences. As Ms. Silver notes,

Liberally sprinkled throughout the decision is reference to the inextricable connection between intoxication and crime. …  Despite this heavy reliance on what appears to be scientific truths, at no time did the Court refer to or support the position with scientific study or research.

While a precedent the Court considered did rely on scientific literature, it was, Ms. Silver points out “was rendered in 1994, twenty-one years ago, with the studies coming from the mid to late 1980s.” Ms. Silver discusses ― and links to ― a considerable number of studies carried out since then. Her takeaway from them is that

that the issue is has not been empirically determined and the relationship between alcohol, mental processes, and crime is highly complicated and variable.

Justice Moldaver’s opinion, by contrast, makes things look very simple. Ms. Silver concludes that

Mr. Justice Moldaver relied upon the court’s perception of the “science” … in reiterating a long held position that intoxication is not a defence to a general intent offence without referencing any recent empirical studies … By proceeding on this basis, the Court missed the opportunity to provide some rational basis for the general/specific distinction. Instead, the Court has simply perpetuated a legal fiction.

The Court’s “empirical turn,” most recently exemplified by its decision in  R. v. Smith, 2015 SCC 34, which relied on research regarding the therapeutic effects of various forms of medical marijuana, has not exactly followed a consistent trajectory. There have been missed opportunities such Tatton along the way, or R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 621, where Justice Cromwell claimed that armed robberies had “become depressingly routine,” despite crime statistics ― to which he did not refer ― suggesting that their incidence was falling. In the rest of this post, I would like to venture some observations on the context in which these missed opportunities and outright misstatements occur.

For instance, it is important to note that the Court is not the only party to ignore the science relevant to its cases. In Tatton, only one of the three facta (that of the Ontario Crown) submitted to the court referred to scientific studies ― and only as a additional support for the claim that “[i]t is well known that many people do foolish and dangerous things when drinking.” [79] The “common sense observation” is what matters in that passage; the scientific evidence is almost an afterthought. The accused and Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario, which intervened to support him, did not manage even that. They were content with citing cases and, at most, reports of law-reform commissions. As Richard Posner says in his Reflections on Judging, the bench and the bar share a lack of familiarity with the sciences, whether social or natural and, worse, a lack of curiosity that results in an unwillingness to investigate the backgrounds against which legal rules operate, to go beyond the “common sense” assumptions which may bear little, if any, resemblance to the scientific truth.

At the same time, it is not enough to blame the lawyers’ narrow-mindedness. The “empirical turn” suggests, after all, that some of them can overcome it at least some of the time. Why not in Tatton though? The nature of the case, I suspect, is an important factor here. In commenting on Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, Sonia Lawrence observed, vividly, that the Charter challenges emblematic of the “empirical turn” “aren’t cases that walk into your office one day. They are cases put together piece by painstaking piece.” Tatton, by contrast, was a case that “walked in the office” of small-town law firm ― perhaps literally. Mr. Tatton was facing a criminal charge. He probably had little money. It’s not quite fair to expect that his lawyers, with his and their limited time resources, would have done as thorough a job of mounting an empirical case as an interest group pursuing a constitutional challenge on its own terms. (Still, not being able to mount a perfect empirical case is no excuse for not even trying to inject at least some scientific background into one’s argument.) In my own take on Bedford, I wrote that “[t]he government, as the best funded and most powerful interest group of them all, is more likely to have the resources to put together a solid record than those who challenge it.” It is perhaps not just coincidental that the only references, however minimal, to scientific literature in this litigation appeared in the Crown’s factum.

Now given the limitations on the lawyers’ willingness and ability to provide judges with the scientific background relevant to the cases they argue, the question arises of whether judges should just find it themselves. Ms. Silver, I suppose, thinks that they should. Judge Posner certainly does, and he actively practices what he preaches. But, in the United States at least, he has a considerable number of critics, who warn that judges who turn to Google to find background information missing from the record built up by the parties are not only acting unfairly by not giving parties notice of their concerns, but also risk committing serious mistakes. (I wrote about a very interesting article by Allison Orr Larsen exploring these issues here.) In Reflections on Judging, Judge Posner retorts that “no one should be so naïve as to believe that the determination of facts by the familiar adversary process at trial is proof against error.” (140) That’s true so far as it goes, but tu quoque isn’t always a very compelling argument. Why should we, one might ask, compound the errors of the courtroom with further errors made in the judge’s chambers? Ultimately, Judge Posner acknowledges these concerns and admits that

[t]here is a danger that judicial recourse to secondary literature, and to the Internet more broadly, will often be rhetorical rather than substantive. I have no solution to this problem—other than to suggest trying through judicial training and other means to increase the intellectual sophistication of the judiciary. (142)

That, as he points out elsewhere in that book, is no easy task.

Indeed, there are no easy solutions to the problems I have tried to canvass in this post. Judicial decision-making that doesn’t try to address empirical evidence or scientific research risks going astray, but so do attempts to take stock of such information. There are longstanding prejudices of all the branches of the legal profession ― including, I’m afraid, the academic branch ― as well as resource constraints to contend with. If Judge Posner has no solution for these problems, I will certainly not pretend to have one either. But perhaps if more of us start thinking about them, we will be able to come up with something.

The Two Halves of the Glass

Much has already been written about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, which holds that, at least in some circumstances, the state cannot prohibit a person from seeking assistance in order to end his or her life. At the CBA National Magazine’s blog, Yves Faguy has up a roundup of some of the reactions; Andrew Coyne had a skeptical take on the decision in the National Post; Emmet Marfarlane had a great post for Maclean’s; and there are others.  As a result, there is no point in a full summary-and-comment post from me. Instead, I will only outline two of the many possible ways of looking at the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision ― one optimistic, the other pessimistic.


The optimistic take on Carter is that it is an excellent illustration of one important function of judicial review of legislation, which its opponents, such as Jeremy Waldron, tend to ignore: the correction of what we might call democratic process failures. Crudely, a market failure is a situation in which, for one of a variety of reasons, the market misallocates goods and services, for example by persistently failing to satisfy demand. Just as crudely, a government failure is a situation where, again for one of a variety of reasons, government regulation creates inefficiencies, including situations where the government persistently fails to regulate in a way that would be socially desirable. Similarly, what I mean by a democratic process failure is a persistent inability of that process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable.

The existence of a democratic process failure obviates, at least to some (substantial) extent, the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” which judicial review is often said to present. The difficulty is real when the laws being invalidated actually reflect majoritarian preferences. If they do not, however, then their invalidation by courts, can force democratic institutions to act in accordance with majoritarian preferences which they previously ignored. This is, arguably, what happened in Carter. As prof. Macfarlane points out,

[d]espite strong public opinion against an absolute ban on assisted suicide, Parliament and consecutive governments have long shied away from revisiting the issue. The deeply moral nature of the debate, and the complexity in crafting rules to permit anything less than an absolute ban, no doubt played a role in this inaction. However, the inescapable truth of the matter is clear: Political cowardice has played a key part in Parliament’s intransigence, and the only way the issue was going to get back on the policy agenda was for another case to reach the Supreme Court.

Indeed the Supreme Court, in Carter, alluded to this problem, pointing out that “[b]etween 1991 and 2010, the House of Commons and its committees debated no less than six private member’s bills seeking to decriminalize assisted suicide,” [6] none of which passed.

Seen from this angle, Carter is obviously a happy story, a win for democracy as well as for individual rights. Yet the democratic process failure view raises questions which we might not have thought through very well. (Or it least I, in my ignorance, am not aware of their being addressed.) For instance, how do we know that we are dealing with a democratic process failure, rather than a mere temporary misalignment between the voters’ preferences and legislation? Can we identify, in advance, areas in which the democratic process is (most) likely to fail? (Michael Pal argues, convincingly in my view, that the law of democracy is one such area. Are there others?) Or, if we seek to identify democratic process failures ex-post rather than ex-ante, how do we do that? Is the failure of a number of bills on a topic a sign that the democratic process is malfunctioning or simply that the majority does not, in fact, support changing the law? And then,  inevitably, there is the question of whether courts are able to identify democratic process failures successfully and objectively, especially in the absence of much of a theoretical framework.


The institutional competence question brings me to the pessimistic take on Carter. The Supreme Court’s opinion can be seen as evidence that some of the predictions I made in commenting on the Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, about the dangers of what Kerri Froc would later describe as “the empirical turn in Charter jurisprudence,” are coming to pass. I worried, then, about the loss of transparency and accountability that would result from requiring appellate judges, including those of the Supreme Court itself, to defer to trial-level fact-finding, including in the area of “legislative facts” consisting largely of complex social science evidence. I wrote that

[t]rial decisions, even in important constitutional cases, attract less attention than appellate ones, especially those of the Supreme Court. … Yet under the Supreme Court’s approach in Bedford, by the time a case comes up for appeal, and eventually reaches the highest ― and most visible ― court, it may well already be effectively decided. The Supreme Court can then avoid responsibility for controversial decisions, saying that “the trial judge made us do it.”

Carter is a perfect example of this tactic, which I called “judicial leading from behind.” The Supreme Court’s decision is dependent on the trial judge’s findings regarding the effects of the prohibition on assisted suicide ― not only its effects on the parties who brought the case (the traditional province of the trial judge), but also those other, more or less similarly situated, persons. It is also ― and, crucially ― dependent on the trial judge’s conclusion “that a permissive regime with properly designed and administered safeguards was capable of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and error” [105]. These conclusions, in turn, are dependent on the trial judge’s study of the evidence put before her. But the Supreme Court barely refers to that evidence. It merely restates and endorses the trial judges findings, with little if any explanation of what evidence they are based on or why they are correct. As a result, the opinion reads as a long series of assertions more than an argument for the result it reaches.

Now I do not mean to suggest that the Court did not carefully consider the trial judge’s conclusions. My point is, to a considerable extent, about transparency. I am happy to assume that the Court did its work, but others may not be, and neither they nor I should have to take that on faith. And then, there is the question of whether the trial judge’s conclusions are, in fact, right. Again, I do not mean to suggest that they are not, but others ― Mr. Coyne, for instance ― disagree. Yet under the Supreme Court’s deferential approach, these conclusions could not be disturbed unless they are based on a “palpable and overriding error,” a high standard to meet in any case, and perhaps an impossible one when the evidence consists of inherently uncertain social science.

As I said in commenting on Bedford, the attraction of “leading from behind” is that it allows the Supreme Court to make its decisions look inevitable and unassailable. It seems to be an effective short-term tactic. Yet it is questionable as a long-term strategy. The less transparent judicial review appears to be; the more it looks like a dictation of the judges’ views rather than a rational argument for them; the less legitimate it will become. The Supreme Court is hoping that we will trust it indefinitely. But trust has to be earned and preserved. It cannot be taken for granted.


So there you have it, a cautiously happy view of Carter and a brooding one. You can pick whatever half of the glass that most appeals to you. Or maybe even both.

Contesting Expertise in Prison and at Large

I wrote on Thursday about a very interesting article by Lisa Kerr, “Contesting Expertise in Prison Law,” which argues that courts should be less deferential to prison administrators and should take facts, especially social science evidence about the real-life operation of prisons and the lives of prisoners into account, as well as that lawyers need to provide judges with such facts. As promised in that post, I would like to offer a (friendly) critique of Ms. Kerr’s article, trying to put the trend of deference which she decries, as well as the strategy of enlisting social science evidence to counter this trend, which she advocates, in their broader context.

The lack of this broader context is the one thing I didn’t quite like about Ms. Kerr’s article. Although it is not an entirely fair reproach to make to a piece that is 50 pages long without being prolix, I still think that considering it might have been useful, for it would have shown that the problems that the article describes ― excessive judicial deference to supposedly expert administrators, and failure to consider the evidence of the real-life effects of these administrators’ decisions ― are not unique to the prison law context.

Start with deference. Some ― uncertain ― measure of deference is, rightly or wrongly, a standard feature of most Charter litigation. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be like that. In a passage from R. v. Oakes, [1986] 1 S.C.R. 103, which now seems to have been largely forgotten, Chief Justice Dickson wrote that

any s. 1 inquiry must be premised on an understanding that the impugned limit violates constitutional rights and freedoms ― rights and freedoms which are part of the supreme law of Canada.

Contrast this with, say, Chief Justice McLachlin’s statement of the general approach to s. 1 in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 567, according to which

[s]ection 1 of the Charter does not demand that the limit on the right be perfectly calibrated, judged in hindsight, but only that it be “reasonable” and “demonstrably justified”. [37]

And then, there’s the trend towards generalized deference to administrative decision-makers, including of course correctional authorities, including increasingly in Charter cases. Contrast, again, the words of Justice Charron, writing for the majority in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 256, 2006 SCC 6, rejecting an

approach could well reduce the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter to mere administrative law principles, [16]

and the Court’s unanimous decision in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 S.C.R. 395, which held that administrative decisions were not subject to the Oakes test at all, further that discretionary, individualized decisions (although not decisions as to the constitutionality of a law) were to be reviewed for their compliance with “Charter values” on a standard of reasonableness, not correctness.

Now this trend need not be an insuperable obstacle for the attempt to make courts rein in prison administrators. In Hutterian Brethren, the Chief Justice pointed out that courts will generally defer more to “a  complex regulatory response to a social problem” than to “a penal statute directly threatening the liberty of the accused.” [37] One of the reasons Ms. Kerr’s article is important is that it shows that many decisions of the prison authorities belong less in the former category than courts may tend to suppose, and more in the latter. Indeed, Ms. Kerr suggests that using expert evidence can help the prisoners’ lawyers make these decisions appear less complex, and more penal, than judges, who are not familiar with the prison environment, are inclined to believe. This is a most interesting ― and somewhat subversive ― suggestion.

Unfortunately, it may not be easy to get lawyers to adopt it, and judges to go along. Lawyers’ and judges’ reluctance to deal in facts is also a tendency that affects much more than prison law. Richard Posner bemoans it in his recent book of Reflections on Judging ― which is why I described Ms. Kerr’s article as “an almost Posnerian plea for judges to be attentive to facts and, in particular, to the information that various experts can provide about prisons, when they adjudicate constitutional claims brought by prisoners, as well as for lawyers to provide judges with such information.” Indeed, Judge Posner specifically notes that “[f]ew federal judges, or for that matter prosecutors and defense attorneys, are familiar with … studies” dealing with the economics of imprisonment and alternative forms of punishment, including the costs and benefits to society and offenders. (68) But that is just one example, one complaint in a litany. Judge Posner makes a compelling argument that “[w]e need evidence-­based law across the board, just as we need evidence-­based medicine across the board,” (62) but his book offers no easy paths to get there. As he points out, judges tend to share

a professional mind-set that often includes — along with impartiality, conscientiousness, and other traditional attributes of a good judge — lack of curiosity, a feeling of intimidation by science and technology, and a lack of interest in obtaining an empirical rather than merely intuitive grounding for one’s beliefs. These attitudes communicate themselves to the bar , [creating] an unfortunate feedback effect because of the dependence of judges on lawyers in our adversarial legal system. (92-93)

This is the problem Ms. Kerr’s argument is up against and, to repeat, it is not unique to prison law. What is more, as Judge Posner points out, the two trends of deference to administrative decision-makers and reluctance to engage with complex facts are related. “[W]hen they don’t understand the activity from which a case before them has arisen,” (85-86) he writes, judges often seek to avoid deciding it themselves. One way to do that it is to let it

be answered by administrative agencies to which judges defer on the often fictitious ground that the agencies have “expertise,” even if their adjudicators are poorly trained, horribly overworked, highly politicized, or all these things at once. (86)

These trends can be overcome. Ms. Kerr holds up the Supreme Court’s decision in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, 2002 SCC 68, which granted all prisoners their voting rights under s. 3 of the Charter, as a hopeful example and model. Yet as Michael Pal’s study of the role of social science evidence in the Supreme Court’s law of democracy cases shows, its rejection of deference is unusual not only in the prisoners’ rights jurisprudence but also in that on democratic rights and freedoms. This jurisprudence, not coincidentally, is also largely characterized by judicial unwillingness to engage with relevant facts and social science evidence. “[L]ogic, reason and some social science evidence” are enough, the Supreme Court’s majority said in Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, 2004 SCC 33, at par. 78, even as it blithely ignored the dissent’s warnings about the speech-stifling real-life effects of the provisions of the Canada Elections Act whose constitutionality it was upholding. The fight for evidence-based law will have to be fought on all fronts ― in prisons and outside.

For this reason, Ms. Kerr’s article’s showing how a sufficiently well-prepared case may be able to overcome these obstacles is perhaps even more important than she lets on. Of course, there are other examples too. In the area of the law of democracy (and in the United States), Judge’s Posner’s recent opinion ― albeit one dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc ― in Frank v. Walker, a voter-ID case is another. (It is also proof that even individual judges can be made to change their mind when presented with compelling evidence.) The Supreme Court’s recent decisions regarding the rights of injection drug users and sex workers, to which Ms. Kerr refers, are two more. They are, just like the recent prisoners’ rights cases Ms. Kerr extols, part of what Kerri Froc described as an “empirical turn in Charter jurisprudence,” on which I have been writing quite a bit here.

The “empirical turn” creates many problems, not the least of which is the length and expense (quite apart from the difficulty) of putting together a compelling record. In Sonia Lawrence’s words,

these aren’t cases that walk into your office one day. They are cases put together piece by painstaking piece. It’s a long road to justice this way around, folks.

Ms. Kerr’s article is a reminder that it might also be the only road there is. And a suggestion as to how to travel it that little bit faster.