Don’t Know What You’re up to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Will Be Good

I wrote last summer about the issue whether a federal legislature could enact a statute in order to implement a treaty despite the fact that, absent the treaty, the statute would be ultra vires (because provincial or state, rather than the federal legislatures have jurisdiction over its subject matter. If so, I said, this would give states the ability to act “like a child who, denied by one parent, asks the other to let them stay up late,” with other states playing the role of the lenient parent. I think that, in public policy (as, I suppose, in parenting) this is a bad idea. And, in Canada, the constitution has been interpreted as preventing such schemes, in the Labour Conventions Reference

The leading case on this issue in the United States is Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920), I always thought that it stood for the contrary proposition, that Congress can legislate to implement a treaty regardless of whether its subject-matter is within its enumerated powers. But now people better-informed and wiser than I, namely Nick Rosenkranz and NYU’s own Rick Pildes, will take up the question of whether this is right over at the Volokh Conspiracy, in anticipation of, maybe, the US Supreme Court eventually hearing a case where it arises. (Their first stab at it is here.)

It should be very interesting, and too much for any effective summary here, so I thought I’d alert however many (or, more likely, few) readers I have.

 

Go Ask Your Mom!

Is it conceivable that states, like a child who, denied by one parent, asks the other to let them stay up late, ask around for permission to do something they would not normally be permitted? Lord Atkin enlisted the threat of such a course of action as an argument in his famous opinion for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in The Labour Conventions Reference, writing (at p.9 in the document linked to) that “it would be remarkable that while the Dominion could not initiate legislation however desirable which affected civil rights in the provinces, yet its government … need only agree with a foreign country to enact such legislation.”

The judgment, denying Parliament the ability to enact social legislation it felt was necessary to respond to the Great Depression on the ground that such legislation was for the provinces to adopt, made a lot of people furious and, if I remember well, F.R. Scott for example criticized this suggestion as being fanciful fear-mongering. Justice Holmes, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court of the United States in Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920), a case that presented much the same issue as Labour Conventions, did not even consider this question, and went on to hold – contrary to Lord Atkin and the Privy Council – that the federal legislature could legislate to implement an international treaty regardless of its (dis)ability to enact the same legislation in the absence of a treaty.

But recent developments suggest that Lord Atkin’s worry it is not so crazy anymore, if it ever was. On intellectual property for example, states (and supranational organizations such as the European Union) have apparently taken to using free-trade agreements as vehicles for smuggling into their domestic legislation restrictive rules on intellectual property which they would might find politically impossible to enact in stand-alone statutes visibly devoted to this purpose, as University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist has detailed in a series of blog posts.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between this example and the Labour Conventions case. The impediments to legislative expansions of IP rights are (mostly) purely political, not constitutional. In such cases, Lord Atkin’s “watertight compartments” (p. 10) are of no assistance. Nonetheless, his insistence that the existence of an international treaty should not prevent us from insisting that the usual constraints, be they constitutional or political, on government power ought always to be be upheld. Foreign governments should not be able to play the lenient parent if domestic courts, or voters, are inclined to be strict.

Humpty Dumpty

Last week, the Globe’s Neil Reynolds blamed all the troubles, real or imaginary, of Canadian federalism on the “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Undeterred by his failure last time around to grasp the actual constitutional law he was bewailing, which I pointed out here, Mr. Reynolds is at it again, albeit with a new culprit: subsection 2A of s. 91, which authorizes Parliament to legislate with respect to “[u]nemployment insurance.” A week ago, Mr. Reynolds was ignorant of that provision’s existence, and castigated Employment Insurance (EI) as an abuse of the POGG power. It’s nice to know he might actually have read the Constitution Act, 1867. It would have been even nicer if he had acknowledge his previous mistake, but never mind.

Mr. Reynolds is manifestly distressed by what he perceives as the downfall, apparently in 1943, though I’m not sure why then, of the “limited, decentralized government” the Constitution Act, 1867 set up. Notwithstanding Lord Atkin’s “prescient warning” in the Unemployment Insurance Reference about the dangers of a federal spending power which “would afford the Dominion speedy passage into the provincial domain,” provinces and the federal government agreed to a constitutional amendment which transferred the competence to legislate with respect to unemployment insurance from the provinces to Parliament. Mr. Reynolds thinks this was catastrophic:

As Lord Atkin anticipated, the program led, a single surrender of provincial jurisdiction at a time, to a notional constitution that lets federal governments collect taxes and distribute the proceeds to any person, organization or corporation it wants.

We now think it absurd that a British aristocrat could have blocked – as illegal – a national unemployment insurance program in Canada. In retrospect, Lord Atkin proved more perceptive than this country’s determined centralizers. He perceived that the [Constitution Act, 1867] protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.

Mr. Reynolds then goes on to follow Lord Atkin (dissenting in Liversidge v. Anderson) in invoking Alice’s question to Humpty Dumpty:  “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty thought he could. Mr. Reynolds apparently is Humpty Dumpty himself, thinking as he does that he can make our constitution mean so many different things.

For it is absurd to blame the alleged abuses of the federal spending power (the power to collect taxes and distribute the proceeds however it sees fit, without regard to exclusive provincial jurisdiction) on EI. The power to implement EI is narrow, clear, and grounded in a specific constitutional provision; the problem of the federal spending power is precisely that it is unlimited in scope, vague, and has no clear constitutional basis. EI and the federal spending power are polar opposites.

And it is equally absurd to claim that the Constitution Act, 1867 “protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.” For one thing, property rights are no less vulnerable to provincial than to federal invasion. The most economically radical government in Canadian history was the Social Credit one that came to power in Alberta in 1935. Its repressive legislative programme was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] S.C.R. 100, because it infringed the broad economic powers of Parliament. And the extent of these powers – over taxation, over the banks, over interest rates, over bankruptcy – means that if Parliament set about undermining property rights, it could very well have done it. Of course, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867, rejected the American example and refused entrenching protections for property rights in the constitution (as did the framers of the Charter).

More broadly, Mr. Reynolds’ belief that Canada is an absurdly centralized country with a federal government of unlimited power is groundless. Canada might be the most decentralized federation in the world; it is certainly less centralized than the United States, Australia, or Germany. Just last year, in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down – to the consternation and disbelief of many centralizers in the business and academic communities – the proposed federal securities legislation. Canadian federalism is alive and kicking – too much for some. Mr. Reynolds would really do well to find another topic on which to fulminate.

One’s Day in Court: Priceless?

In 1998, British Columbia started charging litigant stiff “hearing fees” for each day of a civil trial. Last week, Justice McEwan of the B.C. Supreme Court issued a monster of a judgment declaring them unconstitutional. The decision is very interesting for all sorts of reasons, but it is also abusively long. Fortunately for you, I have read it – well, much of it – so you don’t have to.

Before getting into the substance of the case, I want to say a few words about the decision; specifically, about its length. First, the facts: about 175 pages; 432 numbered paragraphs, many of them including multi-paragraph block quotations; more 70 000 words. That’s the length of a mid-sized novel. For a judgment, well, jugement-fleuve is a polite way of saying it. Perhaps it is a severe case of ‘I didn’t have the time to write a short decision so I wrote a long one’, except that it took Justice McEwan more than two years to produce it. Be that as it may, judges impose limits on the length of written submissions by lawyers. They should impose the same limits on their own work. Justice McEwan  makes much of the courts’ work being for the benefit of the public. It’s not when the product is of such length that no reasonable member of the public can be expected to read it. (I’m not exactly a reasonable member of the public. But I must admit that I barely skimmed the restatement – I cannot call it a summary – of the parties’ submissions, which runs for something like 250 paragraphs. I did read all of the judge’s analysis though.)

Now to the case. The facts are simple. A couple separates, and there is a dispute over whether the plaintiff, who wants to move back to Spain, can take their daughter with her. They go to trial, unrepresented by lawyers, and the trials takes up 10 hearing days. The plaintiff is hit with a “hearing fees” bill of over 3500$ (some of which the defendant might have to cover). The fees are so high, in part, because they are imposed on a sliding scale – the longer a trial is, the higher the fee imposed for each additional day. She cannot pay, and asks the court to relieve her. The court might do this by finding her to be “indigent”. Indigent litigants have traditionally been exempt from having to pay court fees. But, Justice McEwan insists, ‘indigent’ means really, really poor. So poor one can’t afford to pay a $100 filing fee, for instance. “It is an awkward word to use to describe a middle class family’s inability to pay a month’s net salary for the two-week ‘rent’ of a courtroom” (par. 26). The exemption does not apply. The only way the plaintiff can get out of having to pay is if the fee is unconstitutional. That’s what the decision is about.

There are at least three strands of argument running through Justice McEwan’s reasons. He does not distinguish them, but they are in fact quite different. One is that the fees infringe an individual right – access to justice, the right to have one’s day in court. Another is that there is something wrong with a chooser-user-payer model of government services; a court is a public service, and should be available to all, regardless of ability to pay. The third – and I think the most significant for Justice McEwan – is that the imposition of the fees proceeds from and results in a redefinition of the courts’ role by rationing access to courtrooms and trying to steer dispute settlement to other venues. This, in Justice McEwan’s view, subordinates courts to the legislature and violates the separation and equality of the branches of government.

All of these reasons lead Justice McEwan to conclude that hearing fees are unconstitutional because they violate unwritten constitutional principles and the federal division of powers. Limiting access to courts runs counter to the Rule of Law. It is also undemocratic because court participate in the elaboration of law, and going to court thus amounts to participating in the democratic process (which is not limited to voting). A redefinition of the courts’ role, especially one that limits people’s access to courts, is beyond of provincial powers over “the Constitution, Maintenance, and Organization of Provincial Courts” under subs. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Justice McEwan did not consider the applicability of the Charter, which was also raised in argument.

Well, that’s enough for a summary, though this only skims the surface of the judgment. I will have some comments tomorrow.

It’s Not a POGGrom!

Canada’s “newspaper of record” has published an ignorant rant by Neil Reynolds, savaging alleged abuses, rhetorical, legislative, and jurisprudential, of  the “Peace, Order, and Good government” (a.k.a. POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which sets out the powers of the federal Parliament. While the words “peace, order, and good good government” are indeed sometimes used to draw, or rather to provide rhetorical cover for, expansive and unwarranted conclusions about Canada and its constitution, most of Mr. Reynolds’ claims about the clause’s use by Parliament and courts are flat out wrong.

Mr. Reynolds’ first target is a “Canadian myth[] [that] holds that our constitutional mandate for peace, order and good government has made Canada a kinder, gentler place than the United States – debauched by its licentious pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  I’ve heard that line before, and I agree that it is silly. Mr. Reynolds is right that “POGG … was imperial boilerplate,” a perfunctory introduction to a clause vesting the legislative power in Parliament. It certainly does not give courts the right he strike down laws on the basis that they are not conducive to peace, order, and good government. (We might not have much of a statute book if it did.) It does not tell us much of anything about the sort of country we are. (I will have more to say about this in another post shortly.) [UPDATE: that post is here.]

Beyond that, however, Mr. Reynolds’ argument does not disclose much of an understanding of Canadian constitutional law. He claims that “POGG has been used from the very beginning to override” the division of powers between Parliament and provincial legislatures. Apart from bald assertions, his evidence for this claim consists of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Anti-Inflation Act, Pierre Trudeau’s application of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis, Parliament’s creation of Employment Insurance, and its use of the spending power to  “fund everything (or almost everything) and disperse it directly and indirectly, hither and yon, as they deem fit.” This is almost entirely wrong. Continue reading “It’s Not a POGGrom!”

Don’t ask, don’t tell?

No, it’s not a post about gays in the U.S. armed forces. That’s so passé anyway. Actually, what I want to talk about is co-operative federalism again, the fascinating topic of the least-read post on this blog. (To the one brave soul who did read it: I love you, whoever you are!)

More specifically, it is about the question whether one level of government in a federation has to accede to the demand of the other for information in its possession. (My title is not totally gratuitous.) This question was raised in the recent judgment of the Superior Court of Québec on the validity of a subpoena issued by a provincial commission of inquiry demanding that the RCMP hand over large amounts of information it collected while investigating organized crime in Québec’s construction industry. Coincidentally, it is also the topic of an interesting forthcoming article by Robert Mikos, of Vanderbilt University Law School.

As prof. Mikos points out, for one government (that of a U.S. state in his paper) to hand over information it has collected to the other government has certain costs. The most obvious, albeit often not a large one, is the direct cost of the time government employees spend working, in effect, for someone other than the people paying them. More subtly, citizens might be discouraged from handing over information to one government if they know that it can end up in the hands of the other. Most importantly, the government which complies with the request for information thereby participates in the enforcement of the policies of the other government, which might be at odds with its own. For example, if a state which allows the medical use of marijuana hands over information about its users  to the federal government, which does not, it possibly helps the federal government arrest and imprison the people who in the state’s opinion are entitled to use the drug. Finally, “such commandeering of the states’ information-gathering apparatus blurs the lines of accountability for unpopular enforcement actions.”

Yet so far, American courts have not accepted these arguments, explains prof. Mikos. He argues that they are wrong, and that federal requests for information held by the states should be considered equivalent to the “commandeering” of their executives by federal authorities, which the U.S. Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. This would allow states to resist federal policies with which they disagree and better to give effect to their own.

Compared to these high-minded concerns, the questions at issue in the Québec case, Canada (Procureur général) c. Charbonneau, 2012 QCCS 1701, might be rather pedestrian. At least it does not appear from the judgment that the federal government or the RCMP are opposed, as a matter of principle or policy, to Québec’s inquiry into the shady dealings in its construction industry and that industry’s unsavoury links with the provincial government. (Might this change if the inquiry uncovers links between that industry and the federal government, as a report by the Globe & Mail suggests it well may ?) But given the sheer volume of the information it is asked for, the RCMP is probably concerned about the costs of complying with the request, as it is with preserving the secrecy of its inquiry methods and sources. The court, however, suggests that these concerns are overstated and/or capable of being addressed by the RCMP’s co-operation with the commission of inquiry and with provincial police. As for the constitutional position, the court holds that a commission of inquiry set up pursuant to provincial law can validly subpoena the RCMP and request information in its possession, so long as it does not inquire about the RCMP’s administration. The RCMP, as the Supreme Court has held, is not part of the civil service, and does not enjoy the same immunities from provincial inquiries as the federal Crown or its servants.

Unlike, it would seem, in the U.S., such immunities do exist in Canadian law, and there seems to be no reason for their not applying to provincial, as well as federal government, since provinces and the dominion are constitutionally equal. As the Supreme Court held in A.G. of Québec and Keable v. A.G. of Canada et al., [1979] 1 R.C.S. 218, provincial law cannot authorize a provincial commission of inquiry to force the federal Crown, its ministers or servants, to answer questions or to hand over information. I would assume that the limits that apply to commissions of inquiry also apply, a fortiori, to the federal or provincial civil administration. But this is an area of the law with which I am not familiar, so I have many questions that I do not the answer to, and cannot, at the moment, investigate. For example, if the RCMP is not a part of the civil service, what other federal and provincial agencies could be forced to hand over information? How frequently does this happen? Are issues of policy disagreement between provincial and federal authorities as serious in Canada as in the U.S.?

Two observations in conclusion. First, the gun-registry data litigation, about which I have blogged profusely, is in a sense an example of a government trying to get information from another, albeit with a (big) twist, in that its claim is largely (but not entirely!) based on its own contribution to the collection of this information. And second, whatever limits there might be on what one government can force another to do, there are probably none on what they can agree to.