Offspring of Depravity

The origins of the administrative state, and why they matter

To a degree that is, I think, unusual among other areas of the law, administrative law in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada is riven by a conflict about its underlying institution. To be sure there, there are some constitutional lawyers who speak of getting rid of judicial review of legislation and so transferring the constitution to the realm of politics, rather than law, but that’s very much a minority view. Labour unions have their critics, but not so much among labour lawyers. But the administrative state is under attack from within the field of administrative law. It has, of course, its resolute defenders too, some of them going so far as to argue that the administrative state has somehow become a constitutional requirement.

In an interesting article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” recently published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson challenge the defenders of the administrative state by pointing out its intellectual origins in what they persuasively argue was

a time, worldwide and in the United States, of truly awful ideas about government, about humanity, and about the fundamental unit of moral worth—ideas which, even in relatively benign forms, have institutional consequences that … should be fiercely resisted. (828)

That time was the 1930s.


Professors Calabresi and Lawson point out that the creation of the administrative state was spearheaded by thinkers ― first the original “progressives” and then New Dealers ― who “fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions”. (829) At an extreme, this rejection of the belief in equality led them to embrace eugenics, whose popularity in the United States peaked in the 1930s. But the faith in expertise and “the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls” (829) is a less radical manifestation of the same tendency.

The experts, real or supposed ― some of whom “might well be bona fide experts [while] [o]thers might be partisan hacks, incompetent, entirely lacking in judgment beyond their narrow sphere of learning, or some combination thereof” (830n) ― would not “serve as wise counselors to autonomous individuals and elected representatives [but] as guardians for servile wards”. (830) According to the “advanced” thinkers of the 1930s, “[o]rdinary people simply could not handle the complexities of modern life, so they needed to be managed by their betters. All for the greater good, of course.” (834) Individual agency was, in any case, discounted: “the basic unit of value was a collective: the nation, the race, or the tribe. Individuals were simply cells in an organic whole rather than ends in themselves.” (834)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson are careful to stress that the point of their argument is not condemn the administrative state by association with the worst excesses of the times in which it originated. Rather, they want to push back against the trend, exemplified in articles such as Gillian Metzger’s “1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege“, of treating the foundation of the administrative state as deserving of particular deference or respect. They explain that

[b]ecause there is no authoritative constitutional text emanating from the 1930s, any reasons for treating that decade as interpretatively sacrosanct must focus on the moral goodness of the ideas that grounded that period. Many of the intellectual currents that dominated the 1930s were, frankly, very bad. As a starting point for thinking about human affairs, one’s first instinct should be to run as far away from that decade as quickly as one can. More fundamentally, the bad ideas of the 1930s that specifically drove the construction of certain parts of the modern administrative state—belief in omnipotent government by socially superior experts under broad subdelegations of legislative power, with a formal (or rote) separation of powers seen as an anachronistic hindrance to modern scientific management of people, who are not ends in themselves but simply means to the accomplishment of collective nationalist or tribalist ends—are at the intellectual core of just about everything bad that occurred during that decade. (839)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson conclude that, instead of looking to the 1930s as a source of public law we should ― even on purely moral grounds, in addition to fidelity to law ― we should look to the 1780s and the 1860s. The former decade was marked by “libertarian and egalitarian commitments to replace European feudalism with something new and better”, (842) as well as to separation of powers; the latter, by important progress in the implementation of those libertarian and egalitarian commitments, initially admittedly honoured in the breach in many ways. Professors Calabresi and Lawson also appeal to another historical point: the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, to which they trace what they call “the principle of legality, which says that executive and judicial actors can only act in accordance with preexisting law”. (863)


While I think it is a little, and perhaps more than a little, optimistic to connect this principle ― this formulation of the Rule of Law ― to the Magna Carta, it is supposed to be central to Canadian, and not only American, administrative law. As the Supreme Court said in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, “[b]y virtue of the rule of law principle, all exercises of public authority must find their source in law.  All decision-making powers have legal limits”. [28] But the belief in the superiority of administrative power wielded by alleged experts for what is deemed, by them, to be the public good is very much a part of our administrative law too, and it goes back to the same roots as that of the American champions of the administrative state. As co-blogger Mark Mancini has argued here,

the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. … For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean [the] school of thought[] dominant in the New Deal era.

As Mark notes, “in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives” ― though of course they looked to the United States for inspiration. (There’s anything wrong with looking to the United States, of course; that’s what I’m doing here!) But then again, we had also had our own band of eugenicist progressives too, some of whom have statues on Parliament Hill. And we had our more peculiar rotten ideas about government too. The 1930s were a bad time ― arguably an especially bad time― in Canada, as well as in the United States and, for this reason, the argument made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is relevant to Canadians.

Of course, the Canadian constitution is not the same is the American one. In particular, it does not incorporate as strong a conception of the separation of powers. Arguments to the effect that the administrative state in its current form is unconstitutional are much less straightforward in Canada; perhaps they are wrong. Certainly the case against the delegation of legislative power is more difficult to make under the Constitution Act, 1867, than under the U.S. Constitution. But all this means is that the moral case made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is that much more significant. If the modern administrative state is the misbegotten offspring of an especially depraved epoch, then it should be dismantled, even if it is not unconstitutional. (The case for it being constitutionally required, however, is that much weaker ― not that it had much strength to begin with.)

And the advice to look to the 1780s or the 1860s is applicable to Canada too. Admittedly, the 1780s do not hold the same significance for our constitutional history as they do for our neighbours. But the ideas of what Jeremy Waldron calls “enlightenment constitutionalism”, which Professors Calabresi and Lawson associate with the 1780s, are relevant to Canada. Indeed, our own constitutional arrangements implement some of what, as I suggested in my critique of Professor Waldron’s arguments here, were the Enlightenment’s signal contributions to constitutional thought ― federalism and judicial review of legislation. As for the 1860s, sapienti sat.


As I noted at the outset, the moral worth of the administrative state is not just a matter for political philosophers to debate. It is an issue that is tied up with the ongoing fights about the details of administrative law doctrine. Perhaps this worth is unconnected to its sinister origins. But I think that it is for pro-administrativists to make this case. And I am quite skeptical that they can succeed. As have noted a number of times, most recently here, “[t]he administrative state is the state of prisons, of border control, of professional regulators determined to silence their members if not to impose official ideology on them”. It has come rather less far from its smug, authoritarian beginnings than its defenders would have us believe.

A Small Win on Admin Law Expertise

I’ve written before how the Supreme Court’s approach to expertise is wrongheaded in a number of ways. Practically, by saying that expertise “inheres in a tribunal as an institution,” (Edmonton East, at para 33), the Court has simply asserted a fact that is unlikely to be empirically true across the mass of varied decision-makers. Rather, “a tribunal” is not “an institution.” The administrative state consists of many institutions, some expert, some inexpert, deciding many different questions. This is all in addition to the formal point that, in absence of legislative language specifying expertise as a reason for deference, courts do not have carte blanche to make up reasons for deference that the legislature—which created the decision-maker—would not have approved.

The Federal Court of Appeal’s recent case in CPR v Univar, without taking as hard of a line on expertise as I have above, did interestingly justify the assertion of expertise in the particular case. I view this as a positive development from the Supreme Court’s neo-Cartesian  “I-say-therefore-it-is” reasoning in Edmonton East.

CPR v Univar involved a “level of service” complaint under the Canadian Transportation Act. Univar is a distributor company located on the island of Richmond in BC. Richmond is connected to CP’s rail system through a bridge. That bridge was damaged by a fire, and CPR instituted an embargo prohibiting movement of rail over the bridge. It later denied service at all to Univar because, to CPR, “the fire was a force majeure event” causing irreparable damage. Univar claimed that this denial of service breached the level of service obligation under the Act.

The Canadian Transportation Agency [CTA] found in favour of Univar, concluding that CPR breached its level of service obligations “except for two ‘reasonable pause’ periods arising from force majeure events” [9]. In reviewing this decision, the Federal Court of Appeal (which hears direct statutory appeals from the CTA), concluded that the standard of review applicable to the CTA’s decision was reasonableness. In part, this was because of the hornbook law statement that “decision-makers’ interpretations of their home statue, with which they have particular familiarity call for deference when judicially reviewed” [14].

The Court could have stopped there, as the Supreme Court does. Luckily, it did not. It is worth reproducing the Court’s explanation of why the home statute presumption makes particular sense in this case [15]:

This Court has recognized on a number of occasions, and in various contexts, the Agency’s expertise (Canadian National Railway Company v. Richardson Limited, 2015 FCA 180 at paras. 25-31; Canadian National Railway Company v. Canadian Transportation Agency, 2010 FCA 65 at paras. 27-29; Canadian National Railway Company v. Greenstone (Municipality of), 2008 FCA 395 at para. 52). Such expertise is particularly obvious when adjudicating level of service complaints under the level of service provisions of the Act. As this Court stated in Canadian National Railway Company v. Emerson Milling Inc., 2017 FCA 79 at para. 72 (Emerson Milling), the assessment of the service level obligations “lies at the very bullseye of its regulatory know-how and mandate, the very reason why Parliament has vested the Agency with jurisdiction over the merits of cases like this and has left us with just a reviewing role.

This sort of analysis is clearly an improvement over the Edmonton East approach. To be fair, it does stop short of endorsing the formal notion that expertise should be specified by the legislature, as Rennie J and Nadon J did in their reasons in Bell. Nonetheless, the Court in CPR v Univar at least does some work on the practical criticism of expertise.

This is an important development. One of the flaws of the institutional expertise justification advanced by Karakatsanis J is its lack of empirical justification when considering the sorts of questions a decision-maker might have to confront. In a statutory scheme like the Act, the Agency assesses many sorts of claims, some that are closer to its core mandate. There is no reason to presume that because a tribunal is expert in one particular area of its statutory mandate that it will be expert in all of the areas of its mandate. CPR v Univar seems to implicitly endorse this proposition, if only by suggesting that the level of service question is a core question of adjudicative policy that clearly engages the CTA’s expertise.

By at least explaining the reason why it afforded deference with reference to some empirical benchmark, the Court of Appeal significantly improved the Supreme Court’s justification-wanting reasoning for deference. That’s a small win, in my book.

The Limits of Legal Expertise

What kind of experts are legal experts ― and is their authority in danger?

In an interesting article on “The Limits of Expertise” published on Quillette last month, Alex Smith attempts to explain the seemingly generalized loss of faith in expertise, and to offer some solutions. While Mr. Smith doesn’t discuss the law, I think that his analysis is applicable to legal systems. After all, lawyers and judges are ― or are supposed to be ― experts too, and they, like others, are arguably vulnerable to a loss of faith in their expertise. The New Zealand Parliament, indeed, is so concerned about this that it is considering imprisonment and forced abjurations as remedies to what it deems excessive criticism of the judiciary, something I and others are trying to push back against. Seeking to understand the causes of the loss of faith in legal experts seems more likely to be productive response to this issue than criminalization.

Mr. Smith observes ― like many others ― an unpleasant fact: “smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result”. “It” might be the path of the economic cycle, the outcome of an election, or even, says Mr. Smith, the next “[a]pocalyptic deadline[] for climate change devastation”. There has been no shortage of misguided forecasting in the last few years. And yet, “[n]obody says, ‘I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.’ Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot.” Skepticism of experts isn’t as pervasive as some might think. How to make sense of this?

Mr. Smith argues that the key to this puzzle is a distinction between “closed systems” and “open” ones. The former ― like “a car engine or a knee joint” ― “are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world”. They can be understood, and even controlled. Experts in such systems have no public trust problem. Open systems, by contrast, ― things like “the economy”, “politics”, and “climate” ― “have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp”. They are impervious to (complete) human understanding, let alone control. And it’s the overconfident experts in open systems, who thought they understood them much better than they really did, and even imagined that they might be able to control them, and have been discomfited, who have spectacularly lost the confidence of the public.

Now, Mr. Smith is not calling for such experts to be put out of work. If anything, he wants there to be more of them ― or at least more viewpoints among them. Individually, such experts need to be humble and remember that there is no chance of their coming into the possession of the whole truth. Collectively, “over time,” they can “mitigate[] the chaos of the open system” by letting individual opinions confront one another and known mistakes to be weeded out, albeit only to be replaced by new ones. But the failure recognize the necessity of, and enable, such confrontation leads straight to “inevitable excesses of hubris, that attract us like moths to a flame” ― and to the inevitable discrediting of experts that results.

There are valuable insights here, the more so because they are not new. Mr. Smith’s distinction between open and closed systems does not exactly track F.A. Hayek’s line between “nomos” and “taxis” ― order spontaneously evolved and order designed ― but it is not entirely dissimilar. Mr. Smith’s message about the need for humility and the impossibility of controlling open systems is as Hayekian as it gets, extrapolating from Hayek’s admonition in The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism that “[t]he curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”. To be sure, there can be some dispute about where the line between open and closed systems lies, and whether particular areas of knowledge might move from one category to the other as scientific knowledge expands. Mr. Smith suggests that “climate” is an open system ― but even if he is right that our current level of knowledge is such that we cannot fully understand, let alone control it, the same might have have been true of knee joints a couple of centuries ago. In any case, these questions, and some over-generalizations in Mr. Smith’s argument (notably, the claim that all “open” systems are “natural”) do not detract from its essential soundness. But how does the law fit into it?

There are those who think that the law is largely a closed system, which technical and perhaps observational skills allow one to master and so to provide right answers to the questions that arise within it. In a post some years ago I described Hayek and Ronald Dworkin  as “right answer romantics” who are mostly convinced that judges can do this.

More realistically, perhaps, it seems plausible to think of law as a “semi-open”, rather than a completely closed, system. Mr. Smith applies this term to medicine, though without explaining why, or quite what it means. With respect to law, it might refer to the view that, while the law often provides right answers that a sufficiently skilled person can discover, it does not always do so, and leaves some questions to the realm of what Lon Fuller, in “Reason and Fiat in Case Law”, referred to as “fiat” ― “order imposed” when reason and technical skill in interpreting the law provide no adequate guidance. (Fuller was describing judicial fiat, but we can also think of legislative and executive fiat in constitutional law, and perhaps even administrative fiat in statutory interpretation.)

But we might also think of law as an open system ― open, that is, to influences of the social sciences, of morality (not identified, as in Dworkin’s work, as the one true interpretation of the morality expressed in the pre-existing political decisions of the community, but understood as something more personal), perhaps even of more subjective factors. Richard Posner’s “pragmatism” is an unusually forthright expression of this view, but it is also associated with various “legal realist” and “critical legal studies” schools of thought.

Importantly, the Supreme Court of Canada seems increasingly to favour the view of the law as an open system. It insists that there are no judicially discoverable right answers to questions of statutory interpretation or even of constitutional justification of restrictions on rights and freedoms, and that in answering such questions administrators ― regardless of whether they are legally trained ― can be “experts” to whose judgment courts ought to defer. It believes that an undefined balance, rather than the interpretation of the constitutional text, ought to guide the resolution of constitutional disputes. It even claims that acquaintance with “social values” is as if not more important to its own legitimacy as is legal skill.

Now, the view that the law is an open system, exposed to outside influences and impervious to purely technical understanding and control, is not inherently implausible ― no more so than the opposite view that the law is a fully closed system. (I agree with neither of these views ― but I don’t think they are crazy.) The trouble is that the Supreme Court and its (too) numerous fans in the Canadian legal profession and beyond want to have it both ways: they want to treat law as an open system in which the influence of extra-legal, non-technical considerations is inevitable and legitimate, while claiming for the Court the authority to which experts in closed, but not open, systems are entitled. Hence the decisions signed “by the Court” or by improbably large numbers of purported authors that present legally dubious holdings as oracular pronouncements; hence the attempts to delegitimize criticism of the Supreme Court as a danger to the Rule of Law. Such behaviour would be understandable, perhaps even defensible, if the law were entirely a matter of technical skill. But if the law is seen as the product of judgments based not on technical craft, but on policy considerations or morality, they can only proceed from what Mr. Smith rightly describes as hubris.

The position of legal academia is worth considering too. In the good old days, whenever those were, it may have been thought that law professors, like other lawyers, were closed-system experts. Some might still defend this view, but it is not a popular one these days. Rather, law professors like to present themselves not just as the systematizers of and commentators upon legal craft, but as teachers of, and writers on, “history, culture, economics, and political economy” ― as Lisa Kelly and Lisa Kerr wrote in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail earlier this year. While, as I noted in my comment on this op-ed (which is generally relevant to the issues discussed in this post) I am skeptical of the ability of most law professors to be true experts in such a variety of areas, I take the point that academic law, no less (actually, rather more) than adjudicative law, is at least a semi-open, if not a fully open system.

What follows from this? I think it would be wrong to wish to close down the legal system, as it were. I do not think that it is possible, or indeed desirable, to insulate the law entirely from external influences ― whether those of the (social) sciences or even, to some extent at least, those of ideology. (Of course, the permissible scope of outside considerations is a difficult question, as is that of the manner in which they must be integrated with the law’s more technical aspects.) However, whether we view the law as an entirely open system (and, as noted above, I think that this too is a mistake) or as a semi-open one, we cannot insist that legal experts are entitled to the unquestioning deference that experts in closed systems can expect and still receive. As Mr. Smith says, when experts deal with open ― or, I would add, to the extent that they deal with open elements of semi-open ― systems, they ought to be humble about what they can know and what they can achieve, and they ought to make sure that a diversity of views informs their opinions and decisions. Neither condition obtains to anything like a sufficient degree in Canadian law, and in the Canadian legal academy, right now. This, as Mr. Smith suggests, is likely to undermine confidence in expertise ― and for those who care about the Rule of Law, that outcome is not a desirable one at all.

Is Deference Possible Here?

The Supreme Court’s latest administrative law decision shows why disguised correctness is the default standard of review

In Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 27, decided last week, the Supreme Court of Canada once again fractured over the approach to take to the judicial review of an administrative decision ― and, once again, the majority chose correctness review disguised as reasonableness as its methodology. The substantive issue in Groia was whether the Law Society was entitled to discipline a lawyer for advocacy that took “the form of personal attacks, sarcastic outbursts and allegations of professional impropriety, grinding the trial to a near standstill”. [12] I have no articulate views on this, except a general sense that the fewer powers law societies have, and the more circumscribed these powers are, the better. But I do want to comment on the administrative law aspects of the decision.

* * *

As Justice Moldaver, writing for the majority, describes its decision, the Law Society’s

Appeal Panel grappled with the issue of when in-court incivility amounts to professional misconduct under the Law Society’s codes of conduct in force at the relevant time. It reasoned that incivility “capture[s] a range of unprofessional communications” and ultimately settled on a multifactorial, context-specific approach for assessing a lawyer’s behaviour. [36; references omitted]

The Panel then applied this test to Mr. Groia’s case. The issue for the Supreme Court is twofold: first, it must review the approach devised by the Panel; second, the Panel’s application of this approach. However, although all distinguish the two questions they must answer, the majority, Justice Côté, who concurs, and Justices Karakatsanis, Gascon, and Rowe, who jointly dissent, all consider that the Panel’s decision on both must be reviewed on the same standard. The majority and the dissent opt for reasonableness, though they apply it differently. Justice Côté goes for correctness.

As Justice Moldaver notes, the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions “establish that law society misconduct findings and sanctions are reviewed for reasonableness”. [43] This is because both the elaboration of the applicable analytical framework and its application “involve the interpretation of the Law Society’s home statute” ― or, as in this case, rules enacted under this statute ― “and the exercise of discretion”. [45] While the question of “the permissible scope of [lawyers’] in-court behaviour is arguably of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, [51] it is not “outside the Law Society’s expertise”. [51] Indeed, “Law Society disciplinary panels are composed, in part, of other lawyers”. [52] Justice Moldaver also rejects the claim, advanced by a dissenting judge at the Court of Appeal for Ontario and accepted by Justice Côté, that sanctions for lawyers’ behaviour in the courtroom are different in that imposing them risks trenching on judicial independence. In Justice Moldaver’s view, this is simply not so: “a trial judge is free to control the conduct in his or her courtroom irrespective of the degree of deference accorded to a law society’s disciplinary decision by a different court”. [55]

Having established reasonableness as the standard of review, Justice Moldaver considers the arguments advanced against the framework developed by the Panel in detail. I will not describe his reasons, partly because I have little to say on their substance, and partly because this part of them alone runs for almost 60 paragraphs. What matters for my present purposes is this: on each point and sub-point, after reviewing the Panel’s decision in at most a single paragraph, Justice Moldaver gives extensive explanations of what the Panel’s decision means, and why it is appropriate. Though these explanations are occasionally couched in the language of reasonableness, there is no doubt that Justice Moldaver provides his own views on the approach to judging alleged incivility by lawyers, instead of merely ratifying the Panel’s.

As for the application of the framework to Mr. Groia’s conduct, Justice Moldaver concludes that the Panel’s  decision was unreasonable. In Justice Moldaver’s view ― explained over the course of over 30 paragraphs ―, the Panel failed to apply the test it had itself articulated, and to take into account the factors that, on its own stated approach, ought to have mattered. For Justice Moldaver, “there is only one reasonable outcome in this matter: a finding that Mr. Groia did not engage in professional misconduct on account of incivility”. [125] (Now, here’s a question: would it be good if someone could reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions when they don’t follow the Court’s stated approach?)

As already noted, Justice Côté is of the view that the applicable standard of review is correctness, because lawyers’ in-court behaviour must be subject to the ultimate control of the judiciary. She insists that

An inquiry by a law society into a lawyer’s in-court conduct risks intruding on the judge’s function of managing the trial process and his authority to sanction improper behaviour. It does so by casting a shadow over court proceedings — in effect, chilling potential speech and advocacy through the threat of ex post punishment, even where the trial judge offered the lawyer no indication that his or her conduct crossed the line. And it permits an administrative body to second-guess the boundaries of permissible advocacy in a courtroom that is ultimately supervised by an independent and impartial judge. [168]

Justice Côté agrees with Justice Moldaver on the application of the test for misconduct, and thus concurs in the result.

The dissenters, by contrast, agree with Justice Moldaver that the standard of review is reasonableness, and also that the Panel’s approach was reasonable. However, they disagree with the way Justice Moldaver applied this standard, accusing him of

fundamentally misstat[ing] the Appeal Panel’s approach to professional misconduct, and reweigh[ing] the evidence to reach a different result. This is inconsistent with reasonableness review as it substitutes this Court’s judgment for that of the legislature’s chosen decision maker. [177]

The dissent faults Justice Moldaver with being insufficiently deferential to the Panel. “[D]eference”, they write, “recognizes that delegated authorities will have greater expertise in matters under their scope of authority”, [178] and when the applicable standard of review is reasonableness, it “is not optional”. [179] In particular, “deference bars a reviewing court from conducting an exacting criticism of a decision in order to reach the result that the decision was unreasonable”, or from “supplement[ing] the decision maker’s reasoning for the purpose of undermining it”. [180]

The dissenters “consider that Justice Moldaver reformulates” [188] the framework articulated by the Panel. As a result, they disagree with Justice Moldaver’s application of this framework too: “[i]t is not a respectful reading of the … Panel’s reasons to articulate a novel test … then fault the Panel for failing to apply it”. [199] The Panel’s decision is intelligible and defensible, and this is not a case where only one outcome could be reasonable. Indeed, such cases will be anomalies, because

[t]he existence of reasonableness review is, rather, premised on the fact that “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result”. [215, quoting Dunsmuir v New-Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]

The dissent then describes ― at some length, and with limited reference to the Panel’s decision ― what it expects to be the pernicious consequences of the majority’s decision. The majority, the dissent fears, “sends the wrong message to those who look to this Court for guidance”. [227]

* * *

Therein, it seems to me, lies the rub. People look to the Supreme Court for guidance ― not for mere affirmation that an administrative decision-maker’s reasons were good enough and that in any event there is no right answer to the question they addressed. The whole point of having what the Constitution Act, 1867 foreshadows as a “general court of appeal for Canada” is that such an institution can explain what the law is. If such a court does not say what the law is, but only indicates that an administrative decision is within the bounds of what the law will tolerate ― without explaining where these bounds actually are ― then it is not doing its job.

It is no surprise, then, that Justice Moldaver’s reasons show little sign of deference to the Panel. What lawyers across Canada are interested in is what the Supreme Court itself thinks about their standards of conduct ― not in whether it thinks that the opinion of a single provincial disciplinary body on this subject was “within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”. [Dunsmuir, [47]]  Indeed, the dissenters, for all the bitterness with which they chide Justice Moldaver for his failure to defer, and despite their own ostentatious display of deference, cannot help but enter the debate with their own comments about the appropriate standards of civility. If the question the Court is deciding is indeed one of central importance to the legal system, as Justice Moldaver concludes (and the dissent specifically agrees with this part of his reasons), this is entirely comprehensible.

Hence the question that, with apologies to Ronald Dworkin, I ask in this post’s title. Earlier this year, I wondered whether “the Court is growing disenchanted with deference to administrative decision-makers’ decisions on questions of law”, and perhaps even trying to kill off reasonableness review without telling anyone. The cases decided since then only provide more evidence for the proposition that the default standard of review in Canadian administrative law is disguised correctness, not reasonableness as the Supreme Court would have us believe. But perhaps the Supreme Court has a defence of  necessity to the charge of attempted murder. No court in its position could do otherwise.

Yet even if this be so, the Rule of Law issues I raised earlier do not go away. Law should be clear, and the fact of its change, transparent. The law of judicial review applied by the Supreme Court is opaque and hidden. And there is a further issue to think about: is it permissible for an apex court to apply a different law than the one it instructs other courts to apply, just because of its position within the legal system? It is, to say the least, not obvious that this is so ― which presumably is precisely why the Supreme Court engages in so much obfuscation. Once again, I conclude that it would be better ― more transparent, more conducive to the coherence of our legal system ― for the Supreme Court to (openly and publicly) abandon reasonableness review on questions of law in most or in all cases.

* * *

Groia illustrates a couple of additional problems with reasonableness review, as theorized and practised by the Supreme Court. On a theoretical level, it exposes the deficiencies in the Court’s justifications for deference, which I have already discussed at some length. Justice Moldaver explains that, while of central importance, the issue of lawyers’ behaviour is within the expertise of law society adjudicators. Indeed these adjudicators are themselves lawyers! But what, one would like to ask Justice Moldaver, are judges? Aren’t they lawyers too, and aren’t they, in principle (though, granted, not necessarily in practice) more eminent lawyers than those who sit on law society tribunals? As the dissenting opinion in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, co-written by Justice Brown ― who joined Justice Moldaver’s majority opinion in Groia ―, and joined by Justice Moldaver himself, pointed out, “expertise is a relative concept. It is not absolute.” [84] Sometimes administrative decision-makers are more expert than courts, which might be at least a practical reason for deference ― though not a legal one, as Mark Mancini’s contribution to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium pointed out. But this justification is implausible here.

For their part, the dissenters appeal to a different justification for deference: “reasonableness review is premised” on the existence a multiplicity of possible answers to questions to which it applies. Yet, as I noted in the posted linked to in the previous paragraph, deference is the presumptive standard of review for any question concerning the interpretation of administrative decision-maker’s “home statute”, and

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers. Perhaps the suggestion is that the very legislative choice of setting up administrative tribunals to address these questions means that legislatures think that these questions lack definitive answers, but that too seems implausible.

Indeed, the dissent’s reasoning is circular: reasonableness “is premised” on there being multiple possible answers, and since reasonableness applies, it follows that the question under review must have multiple answers.

The practical concern with reasonableness review that Groia illustrates has to do with the supplementation of an administrative decision-maker’s reasons by a reviewing court. The dissent says that Justice Moldaver is wrong to do this to “undermine” the Panel’s review. Yet one of its author’s, Justice Karakatsanis wrote, and another, Justice Gascon, joined, the majority judgment in Edmonton East, which did not so much supplement as outright made up the administrative decision in order to uphold it. Both of these positions ― no supplementation to undermine, any amount of supplementation to uphold ― seem consistent with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. But they are quite inconsistent with one another.

A clarification: what I’ve said above primarily concerns the first issue in Groia, that of the applicable framework. On the second one, the application of that framework, without entering into the substance of the debate between majority and dissent, and subject to my comments regarding the supplementation of reasons, I think that reasonableness is the appropriate standard of review. To me, Justice Côté’s concerns about judicial independence seem misplaced, for the reasons given by Justice Moldaver. Besides, while this case did not turn on a credibility issue, other, similar ones may well do so. How are courts supposed to engage in correctness review on that? It seems to me that the two issues in Groia should have been addressed on different standards of review. But no opinion takes that approach.

* * *

Groia provides further confirmation, if any were yet needed, that the Canadian law (if it may be called law at all) of judicial review of administrative action is in a dire state. Its theoretical foundations, which have long been weak, are being eroded decision by decision; its practical construction is falling apart. Perhaps these concerns are soon bound to be a thing of the past, as the Supreme Court’s coming review of the Dunsmuir framework simplifies what is abstruse, clarifies what is opaque, and cuts through what is impenetrable. Perhaps. But considering the confusion and the acrimony that seem to be the most remarkable features of the Court’s latest administrative law pronouncements, I suggest that you should not hold your breath.

NOTE: As some readers have pointed out, I had initially mixed up Justices Karakatsanis and Côté at one point. Correction made, and apologies!

FURTHER NOTE: It wasn’t just at one point. More corrections made.

The Dark Art of Deference

Dubious assumptions of expertise on home statute interpretation

Mark Mancini, Clerk at the Federal Court of Canada

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not reflect, in any way, the views of the Federal Court of Canada.

The 10th anniversary of Dunsmuir presents an opportunity to revisit perhaps its most controversial aspect: the seeds it planted for a presumption of deference on home statute interpretation. As Professor Daly notes, the presumption is a “black hole” which engulfs questions of statutory interpretation in administrative law: Paul Daly, “Unreasonable Interpretations of Law” in Judicial Deference to Administrative Tribunals in Canada at 235-36. To the Supreme Court, the presumption exists because  “expertise …inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution” (Edmonton East, at para 33).

In this contribution, I will engage with what I call the “dark art of deference” that Dunsmuir entrenched: the seamless transfer that courts make from expertise in policy to expertise in other matters, including statutory interpretation (Edmonton East, at para 83). The mere fact of membership in a shadowy guild of expertise does not a legal expert make.

Here, I aim to: (1) demonstrate that expertise writ large does not provide a sound justification for deference on questions of law, unless incorporated into the decision-maker’s enabling statute and (2) relatedly, argue that deference is not prescribed by extralegal justifications such as expertise, but only by statutory language, which determines the leeway a court should afford to a decision-maker. The presumption of deference, which could run against statutory language, should be abandoned.

My comments start from three propositions which are rooted in constitutional theory: (1) absent constitutional objection, legislation binds; (2) administrative decision-makers enabled by statute can only go so far as their home statute allows (3) it is a court’s job, on any standard of review, to enforce those boundaries; in American terminology, to “say what the law is” (Marbury v Madison; Edmonton East, at para 21).

***

As early as the seminal case of CUPE v NB Liquor, “expertise” has been used to justify deference on questions of home statute interpretation. Yet beyond this general proposition, Canadian administrative law history “reveals…that little work has been done to pinpoint exactly what the concept of expertise means…”: Laverne Jacobs and Thomas Kuttner: “The Expert Tribunal.” Perhaps as a result, the problems associated with expertise as a basis for deference have not been extensively explored.

Most basically, expertise may be a valid practical justification for deference, but it is hardly doctrinally valid. To treat a decision-maker’s decision as binding on the basis of expertise abdicates the role of courts in enforcing statutory boundaries. While the court still nominally retains this power under the presumption of reasonableness, the presumption is virtually irrebuttable.  As Justice Scalia once wrote:

If I had been sitting on the Supreme Court when Learned Hand was still alive, it would similarly have been, as a practical matter, desirable for me to accept his views in all of cases under review, on the basis that he is a lot wiser than I, and more likely to get it right. But that would hardly have been theoretically valid. Even if Hand would have been de facto superior, I would have been ex officio so. So also with judicial acceptance of the agencies’ views…

This criticism, compelling as it is, has not been so for Canadian courts, with Edmonton East as proof positive. Courts on judicial review do view expertise as a valid doctrinal reason for deference, and are willing to put aside their own interpretation of a statute in favour of a decision-maker’s. This could be defensible, at least practically, if courts deferred on the basis of expertise which existed empirically. But in the post-Dunsmuir world, courts do not investigate expertise empirically before determining whether the presumption of deference applies. The presumption, though justified by expertise, can exist despite it. Yet as Professor (now Premier) MacLachlan says, if expertise is to support a presumption of deference, interrogation of a decision-maker’s expertise cannot be avoided indefinitely.

In the “pragmatic and functional era” which predated Dunsmuir, the courts did not avoid the question of expertise in determining the standard of review. Even though privative clauses were given less emphasis as clear statutory signals (see Pezim and the discussion in Khosa, at para 87), there was still a focus on determining relative expertise. For example, in Pasiechnyk, the Court was faced with a question of home statute interpretation. The Court considered the composition, tenure, and powers of the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board before holding that the decision-maker was expert on the matter before it. In Pushpanathan, at para 33, the Court noted that “expertise must be understood as a relative, not an absolute concept” and reasoned that courts must conduct an analysis in each case to compare its expertise to the decision-maker’s on the matter before it.

Contrast Edmonton East, where there was an assumption of the decision-maker’s expertise, but no actual analysis. Professor Sirota calls this “post-truth jurisprudence” and justifiably so—the dissent noted that the decision-maker did not have expertise in matters of statutory interpretation, and noted that expertise acted as an unjustified “catch-all” for deference (Edmonton East, at paras 82-83).

The Edmonton East dissent points out the problem with an automatic presumption of deference.  The role of courts on judicial review, to have the last word on the statutory boundaries of administrative decision-makers, is limited to reviewing whether the presumption is rebutted. Unfortunately, Dunsmuir, let alone Edmonton East, gave little guidance on when the fortified presumption of home statute interpretation could be rebutted: see Justice Cromwell’s reasons in Alberta Teachers. If legislative intent is the “polar star” of judicial review (CUPE v Ontario (Minister of Labour), at para 149), the search for that intent is attenuated by a game of categorical whack-a-mole with the correctness categories set out in Dunsmuir.

A presumption could be a useful legal device if it were true that most administrative decision-makers were expert in matters of statutory interpretation. Perhaps, it could be argued, decision-makers develop “field sensitivity” in legal decision-making even if they are not expert at the outset.  As Professor Green notes, a presumption along these lines could save judicial review courts the transaction costs associated with conducting an exhaustive review of the expertise of decision-makers in every case.

But such a presumption is only useful if (1) the facts supporting its existence are generally, empirically true; (2) courts themselves actually conduct the analysis to determine whether the presumption is rooted in fact, as in the Pushpanathan analysis (assuming that something like “field sensitivity” could be measured empirically) and (3) there is clear guidance on how to rebut the presumption. None of these exist with the current presumption of reasonableness.

***

What is the alternative if expertise writ large is simply a bad proxy for deference in the post Dunsmuir world? The answer is that expertise could be a justification for deference, but it must be based in a statute which recognizes it with respect to the precise legal issue before the court. Professor Martin Olszynski argues that the court should adopt a presumption of correctness for home statute interpretation, based on the principle of legislative supremacy. I agree that legislative supremacy is a better justification for deference than an unsupported concept of expertise, but the simple fact that a decision-maker has been delegated statutory power is not enough to justify deference, and it is not enough to demonstrate that a decision-maker is expert. What matters is what the legislature says about the merits of the matter before the court, including whether the enabling statute codifies any indication of expertise on that matter.

The Supreme Court does not accept this position. In Khosa, at para 25 the Court noted that the mere fact of  delegation to a decision-maker justifies deference on the basis of generalized expertise. But this is imprecise. Simply because the legislature delegates power to a decision-maker says nothing about how intensely a court should review that exercise of power and it says nothing about the expertise of the delegated decision-maker. Any logical leap from the mere fact of delegation to deference is a legal fiction. As Professor Vermeule notes in his splendid book Law’s Abnegation: “The delegation fiction is modern administrative law’s equivalent of the fiction that the Queen-in-Parliament still rules England—although she is bound always to act on the advice of her ‘ministers’ ” (30).

While the legal fact of delegation is irrelevant to deference, the terms of the delegation itself are relevant. This is because a legislature may speak in capacious terms, setting out requirements for expertise in a decision-maker and justifying a wide scope of options for a decision-maker. It may also speak in narrow terms, implying the opposite. In other words, the legislature can mandate deference through language, and the court on judicial review can recognize this deference, and apply that range to the decision taken by the decision-maker. This is nothing more or less than statutory interpretation by the judicial review court; and there is no need for a complex standard of review analysis to determine the intensity of review. The Supreme Court in McLean recognized as much: sometimes, statutory language will only permit one reasonable outcome. But in other situations, where the court finds that there are multiple permissible outcomes available, a decision within the range will be legal.

This approach is consistent with the role of courts on judicial review to have a final say on the law. It is also consistent with the notion of deference “itself a principle of modern statutory interpretation” (McLean, at para 40), because a court will not interfere with an administrative decision unless the principles of statutory interpretation honestly say so. This is demonstrated on the facts of McLean. The Court upheld the interpretation of the British Columbia Securities Commission’s home statute because it fell within the range of alternatives which the statutory language could bear. On the interpretation undertaken by the Court of the text, context, and purpose of the statute, a number of reasonable options were available to the Commission, and it chose one. This meant its decision was reasonable.

The McLean approach moves us away from imputed expertise in the post-Dunsmuir world to a real analysis of the intent of the legislature. Under this analysis, there is no need for an abstracted notion of expertise justifying a lawerly presumption of deference; nor is there a need for the labels of “reasonableness” or “correctness.” There is only a need for a court to defer where there is some indication in language to do so, including a statutory indication of expertise.

This is similar to the approach to judicial review of agency determinations of law in the United States under Chevron. Under Chevron, unlike Canada’s current standard of review framework, there is no specific analysis to determine the standard of review. For all its warts, Chevron at least avoids the protracted standard of review analysis, with its attendant standards, presumptions, categories, and factors which are confusing for the most learned of administrative lawyers. Its focus is properly on the enabling statute.

In fact, Dunsmuir and its progeny complicate the fact that judicial review on questions of law is fundamentally about statutory interpretation, nothing more or less. While there may be some trepidation associated with using the principles of statutory interpretation to discern whether deference is due, this is unavoidable. If administrative decision-makers are set up by statute, we cannot avoid an analysis of the decision-maker’s statutory powers, and the principles of statutory interpretation are the best we have. The key point is that the principles should not be used to determine if the statute is ambiguous or not, à la Chevron—they should be used to determine whether the statute’s language is sufficiently “open textured” to justify deference.

To come full circle, how does this approach square with the problem of expertise? In Edmonton East, the Court listed a number of justifications for a presumption of deference, including “access to justice” and expertise. These justifications exist outside of the statutory context, in the abstract. They are not necessarily tethered to the scope of the delegation afforded to the decision-maker. However, if statutory language is the focus, expertise can be a supporting justification for deference if represented in statutory language. The problem with the current presumption of deference is that it is based on expertise which may or may not be represented in statute.

Dunsmuir, 10 years on, has instantiated the dark arts of deference into the fabric of the Canadian law of judicial review in a manner untethered to statute. This is not a welcome development. Expertise should not be a “free standing” justification for deference (Khosa, at para 84). Perhaps it is time to pull back the curtain on the dark arts and drill down to the root of the law of judicial review: statutory interpretation.

Law in La-La-Land

The post-truth jurisprudence of Canadian administrative law

Last month, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Edmonton (City) v. Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd., 2016 SCC 47, which deals with the evergreen issue of determining the standard on which a court must review the decision of an administrative tribunal. I wasn’t able to comment on this case at the time, because 240 exam papers landed in my office a couple of days thereafter, but I would like to return to it now, because in my view the majority opinion shows quite clearly what a fantastical creature Canadian administrative law has become.

Justice Karakatsanis, writing for the majority, describes the circumstances of the dispute as follows:

Alberta residents may dispute their municipal property assessment before a local assessment review board. When one Edmonton taxpayer did so, the assessment review board decided to increase the assessment the taxpayer had disputed. [1]

The question is whether the board in question had the authority to increase ― or could only decrease or refuse to change ― the assessment disputed before it. The board obviously concluded that it did, but did not explain the decision ― admittedly because the taxpayer did not deny that it had the requisite authority. It is only on a subsequent appeal to the courts that it did so. How, then, must the board’s tacit, unexplained, decision be treated? Is it entitled to judicial deference, or can the courts simply substitute their own view of the matter?

* * *

Defer, says the majority. In the Supreme Court’s administrative law jurisprudence, deference is the presumptive stance, including on questions of law such as the one at issue.

This presumption of deference on judicial review respects the principle of legislative supremacy and the choice made to delegate decision making to a tribunal, rather than the courts. A presumption of deference on judicial review also fosters access to justice to the extent the legislative choice to delegate a matter to a flexible and expert tribunal provides parties with a speedier and less expensive form of decision making. [22]

Only when the question at issue falls within one of a few exceptional categories is the “presumption of deference” rebutted. In the majority’s view, none apply here. In particular, the fact that the legislation involved specifically provides for an appeal from the administrative decision on a question of law, as was the case here, does not matter. The administrative law framework, with its presumption of reasonableness, is to be applied regardless.

As Justice Karakatsanis notes, this framework acknowledges that “[t]he presumption of reasonableness may be rebutted if the context indicates the legislature intended the standard of review to be correctness” [32]. The dissenting judges would have found that this is the case here, because the board’s expertise lies not in the interpretation of its enabling legislation, which is at issue here, but rather in property valuation, which is not. Justice Karakatsanis is unmoved by this:

Expertise arises from the specialization of functions of administrative tribunals like the Board which have a habitual familiarity with the legislative scheme they administer. … [A]s with judges, expertise is not a matter of the qualifications or experience of any particular tribunal member. Rather, expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution. [33]

Having concluded that she must defer to the board’s decision, Justice Karakatsanis then face the question of how to defer to a decision that is entirely unexplained. After all, as the still-leading (although perhaps increasingly from behind) case on reviewing administrative decisions,  held, “reasonableness ‘is … concerned with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process'” [36; citing Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]. But not to worry: in that same case, the Supreme Court went on to say it is enough to consider the reasons that could have been given for the decision, even though they were not, and to defer to them. This is what Justice Karakatsanis does, for 20 paragraphs. She concludes that board’s decision was reasonable.

* * *

If this is not post-truth jurisprudence, it’s pretty close. The Oxford English Dictionary, which recently chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, says that it describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The Supreme Court’s vision of administrative law might not be the product of appeals to emotion, but there is certainly a great deal of personal belief unburdened by a reckoning with objective facts there.

Start with the claim that the presumption of deference is all about respecting legislative intent to grant decision-making authority to administrative tribunals rather than courts. If the Court really cared about legislative intent, wouldn’t it ask itself what the purpose of providing a statutory right of appeal on questions of law, as the legislature had done in this case, is? The majority does no such thing. It is content to affirm the irrelevance of either the text or the purpose of such provisions and holds that even if the statute says “appeal”, the courts must read “judicial review” and defer. Yet as the dissent cogently points out, the statutory text is pretty clear that the legislature wanted some questions of law (those deemed important enough by a judge) to be resolved by the courts. For all its show of deference to the legislature, the majority only cares about its own views about how administrative law should operate.

Next, consider the claim that the administrative decision-maker’s expertise entitles it to judicial deference. The majority does not discuss the expertise of the board whose decision is at issue here. It does not meaningfully respond to the dissent’s argument that the board has no particular expertise on the question before the Court. It is content to state an airy generality: the very existence of a specialized tribunal is enough to make it an expert. Why? It seems almost as if the Supreme Court is embracing that pop-psychology staple about 10,000 hours of doing something being enough to make one master it. Here’s news for the Court: that’s not true. The dissent’s take on this issue is, once again, more realistic:

an administrative decision maker is not entitled to blanket deference in all matters simply because it is an expert in some matters. An administrative decision maker is entitled to deference on the basis of expertise only if the question before it falls within the scope of its expertise, whether specific or institutional. [83]

As mentioned above, the dissent would have found that the question at issue here was not within the scope of the board’s expertise. The majority, once again, is uninterested in facts or, as the dissent also notes, in legislative intent (which in some case may well be to create a decision-maker without legal expertise), and ignores them the better to apply its beliefs about the proper relationships between courts and administrative decision-makers.

And all that for what? Not to actually defer to the supposedly expert board’s reasoning ― but to make up a reasoning that the board may or may not have come up with on its own, and defer to that. As Paul Daly put it (aptly, it goes without saying),

Karakatsanis J. points to multiple features of the elaborate statutory scheme that might be said to support the alternative interpretation and explains how each of them is nonetheless consistent with the Board’s interpretation (if one can call it that), much of which is supported by reference to a decision made by another body that “formerly” had appellate jurisdiction from the Board [44]. This, frankly, is quite bizarre. Who knows what the Board would have said if these points had been made to it? Indeed, who knows what the Board will say in future cases when these points are made to it? (Paragraph break removed)

It’s as if Justice Karakatsanis were playing chess with herself, and contriving to have one side deliberately lose to the other. This, admittedly, is not a post-truth reasoning. It is outright fiction.

* * *

As you can probably guess, I do not like any of it one bit. Perhaps this is not a very educated feeling. I have not thought about administrative law as much as prof. Daly, for instance, or many others. (I do have plans to get more serious about it, but it’s a medium- or even a long-term project.) I hope, however, that there may be some value in even an uneducated person stating the view that the emperor has no clothes, and that his proceeding any further in this state is offensive to public decency. What is more difficult for an uneducated mind is to say what dress the emperor ought to put on. Prof. Daly argues

that the only way to move the law forward within the existing framework without starting again from scratch is to apply reasonableness review across the board, with the important caveat … that the range of reasonable outcomes will be narrower in cases featuring an appeal clause.

I cannot comment on this suggestion, beyond saying that I am, in my uneducated state, extremely uneasy with deferential review of administrative decisions on questions of law. I will say, though, that I’m not at all sure that starting again from scratch is not the right thing to do, or even the only possible thing to do.

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.

* * *

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)

Besides:

[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.

* * *

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.