Ideology and Canadian Judges

In case you missed my self-promotion yesterday, my new post a the CBA National Magazine’s blog is up. It argues that we need to change the ways in which we think about and study judicial ideology in Canada. Simply importing American models, which rely on using the party of the president who appointed a judge, or on the perceived ideological valence of judicial decisions, as a proxies for the individual judges’ ideological leanings does not work well in Canada, because our legal culture lacks parallels to “liberal” and “conservative” legal worldviews that have in the last few decades been so familiar south of the border.

One consequence of this is that Liberal and Conservative prime ministers draw on pretty much the same pool of candidates when picking their judicial appointees, making the prime minister’s party a (nearly?) useless proxy for judicial ideology. The other is that classifying case outcomes as “liberal” or “conservative,” already a fraught exercise in the United States ― think, for example, of the way in which freedom of religion, and especially religious exemptions, have gone from being a “liberal” cause along with other civil rights to a conservative one in recent years ― is an almost impossible one in Canada. In addition to my own examples from the Supreme Court’s federalism jurisprudence, Emmett Macfarlane ― who has studied and written about the ideological influences on the Supreme Court of Canada ― provided more solid evidence of this in his tweets responding to my post:

And yet, Canadian judges do have ideological preferences. Of course they do ― I have argued here that constitutional law in particular is inescapably ideological and, perhaps to a lesser degree, this is true of any other area of the law is well, although judges may be more constrained in areas where the applicable texts are more precise and the precedents more settled. It’s just that we tend not to notice these ideological preferences because most all Canadian judges share them ― again, because there are no “alternative” legal worldviews with any purchase in the Canadian legal community; in particular, as I have explained here, the Conservative party has not even tried developing a constitutional theory of its own.

In this recent essay, Bob Tarantino argues that Canadian conservatives and libertarians really need to do so, because

the law develops in an impoverished way if only “progressive” views dominate and inform decisions from the bench. For the vitality of the law to be maintained, judicial decision-making must be a crucible of debate over what the law is, its purpose and its application, from a variety of perspectives. When it is possible to immediately identify “progressive” judges, but impossible to identify “conservative” or “libertarian” judges, the bench and the law risk myopia and stagnation.

He is probably right, although more ideological diversity on the bench has costs as well as benefits, as we can see by looking at the American example. At a certain point, ideological conflict crosses the line between vitality and feverishness, and the law will suffer if it is seen, as American constitutional law may be in danger of being seen, as little more than a battleground for ideological and, worse, partisan conflict.

In any case, before we start advocating, we need to understand. And in order to understand the effects of ideology on Canadian courts, we need to change the ways in which we think about it.

L’amour des deux citrons

J’ai déjà eu l’occasion de dénoncer les grossières exagérations et le simplisme époustouflant, le tout assaisonné d’une bonne dose d’ignorance et même de mensonge, de Frédéric Bastien, un historien qui passe ses temps libres à pourfendre le juges canadiens qu’il croit être des tyrans assoiffés de pouvoir. Il en remet dans son plus récent billet sur le Blogue Politique de L’Actualité, dénonçant le contrôle judiciaire de la constitutionnalité des lois et ce qu’il considère comme l’inconstance et l’hypocrisie du gouvernement conservateur en la matière. Ce n’est pas vraiment la peine de revenir ici sur le fond du débat concernant le contrôle judiciaire, puisque je l’ai fait à maintes reprises sur ce blogue, et que, de toute façon, M. Bastien n’y ajoute rien de nouveau ou d’intéressant. En revanche, son attitude envers Stephen Harper et son gouvernement mérite un commentaire.

Cette attitude est un mélange de dénonciation, de regret et de plaidoyer. Certes, M. Bastien en veut à M. Harper de ne pas avoir davantage cherché à s’affranchir de qu’il dénonce comme un « gouvernement des juges », notamment en invoquant la clause non-nonobstant (suite à l’arrêt Bedford, par exemple),  et plus encore d’avoir menacé d’invoquer la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés pour faire invalider la « Charte des valeurs » péquiste. Cependant, il conclut sur ce qui a l’air d’un appel :

S’ils étaient restés plus fidèles à leurs idéaux, les conservateurs auraient pu ratisser bien plus large au Québec, où l’on compte beaucoup d’électeurs opposés à la Charte, au multiculturalisme et au gouvernement des juges. Cet appui potentiel leur fera cruellement défaut lors de la prochaine élection.

Reviens, Stephen, tout est pardonné!

M. Bastien n’est pas vraiment meilleur politologue que constitutionnaliste : la campagne anti-Charte, anti-multiculturalisme et anti-juges qu’a menée le PQ pour vendre sa charte de la honte ne l’a guère aidé aux dernières élections provinciales, un fait que, comme tant d’autres, M. Bastien passe sous silence. Toutefois, il y a bien une part de vérité dans ses affirmations. Cette vérité, c’est que, si tant est que les Conservateurs ont articulé quelque chose comme une théorie constitutionnelle, celle-ci s’approche de celle articulée par certains constitutionnalistes québécois : une théorie constitutionnelle hostile au pouvoir judiciaire et, notamment, aux interventions des tribunaux pour protéger les droits individuels contre les politiques gouvernementales.

À première vue, il y a là quelque chose de profondément ironique. Comme le rapportait Sean Fine dans le Globe and Mail, les Conservateurs se sont engagés dans l’aventure ― et ils savaient que c’en était une ― qu’était la nomination du juge Nadon à la Cour suprême parce qu’ils étaient persuadés de ne pas pouvoir trouver, dans le milieu juridique québécois, un juge partageant leur philosophie. Or, c’est précisément au Québec qu’on trouve, plus qu’au Canada anglais, un courant de pensée juridique en sympathie avec les Conservateurs. Cependant, en y regardant de plus près, on se rend compte que l’ironie n’est pas une, et on constate aussi l’hypocrisie de la position de M. Bastien et de ses acolytes.

Les juristes (et les non-juristes, tels que M. Bastien) québécois qui pourfendent la Charte et le « gouvernement des juges » sont, autant que je sache, généralement sinon tous fortement nationalistes, voire séparatistes. Et s’ils sont d’accord avec M. Harper sur le sujet du pouvoir judiciaire, ils ne partagent point ses opinions sur la place du Québec dans la fédération canadienne et ses institutions ou, plus généralement, les relations entre le gouvernement fédéral et les provinces. Ceci les disqualifie sans doute comme juges potentiels aux yeux de M. Harper, peu importe les points communs qu’ils peuvent avoir avec lui.

Mais cette divergence d’opinions a aussi une autre conséquence. Sur les questions relatives au fédéralisme et à la place du Québec dans le Canada, la Cour suprême a, ces dernières années, rendu de nombreuses décisions qui coupant court à l’action unilatérale du gouvernement fédéral ― on n’a qu’à penser au Renvoi relatif à la Loi sur les valeurs mobilières, 2011 CSC 66, [2011] 3 R.C.S. 837, au Renvoi relatif à la réforme du Sénat, 2014 CSC 32 ou encore, justement, à la décision dans l’affaire Nadon, le Renvoi relatif à la Loi sur la Cour suprême, art. 5 et 6, 2014 CSC 21, [2014] 1 R.C.S. 433. En fait, ce sont ces décisions qui, plus encore que celles fondées sur la Charte, qui ont entraîné le conflit entre le gouvernement de M. Harper et les tribunaux. Or, ces décisions devraient confronter les constitutionnalistes nationalistes opposés au contrôle judiciaire de constitutionnalité des lois au fait que ce sont justement les tribunaux qui protègent le Québec (ainsi que les autres provinces) des tentatives du gouvernement fédéral de s’arroger les pouvoirs que la constitution ne lui confère pas et de diminuer le rôle des provinces (y compris du Québec) au sein de la fédération.

Il est donc intéressant de constater que M. Bastien n’a rien écrit au sujet du renvoi sur le Sénat ou de l’affaire Nadon. Pourtant, ces jugements posent de façon très aiguë la question, si chère à ce dernier, du pouvoir judiciaire. En constitutionnalisant la Loi sur la Cour suprême dans l’affaire Nadon et en inventant la notion d’ « architecture constitutionnelle », qui inclut possiblement les conventions constitutionnelles, dans le renvoi sur le Sénat, la Cour suprême a carrément ré-écrit la constitution canadienne. Quelle cible, en apparence, pour M. Bastien! Or, il demeure silencieux.

Qu’il me soit permis de croire, donc, que son opposition au pouvoir judiciaire en est une de circonstances plus que de principe. Qu’elle ne vaut que lorsque la Cour suprême prend des positions qu’il déteste. Et que M. Bastien est un hypocrite qui se ferme les yeux sur des faits cruciaux ― et qui essaie tant bien que mal de les cacher à ses lecteurs. Certes, son accusation d’hypocrisie à l’endroit de M. Harper n’est pas sans fondement. Mais ils se valent l’un l’autre. À quelque part, il est dommage que l’amour entre eux soit impossible.

Lazy Revolutionaries

The CBC’s Chris Hall already had a story along those lines a short while ago, but today the Globe and Mail contains Sean Fine’s masterful in-depth account of the back-story to the failed appointment of Justice Nadon to the Supreme Court and the government’s recent attempts to portray Chief Justice McLachlin as having acted improperly on this the matter when it was being considered by the Supreme Court. On this issue, we already knew that the Chief Justice’s attempts to alert the government to the doubtful legality of appointing a judge from one of the federal courts to a Québec seat on the Supreme Court came well before there was any court case, and indeed well before Justice Nadon’s appointment. But we now learn from Mr. Fine’s story the context in which the Chief Justice acted: no fewer than four of the six names on the short list from which the eventual nominee would be chosen, which was shown to her, were those of judges sitting on the federal court of appeal or the federal court. Quite clearly, this was the direction in which the government wanted to go. The Chief Justice’s warning made even more sense than we knew so far.

The reason why the government was so keen on appointing a judge from the federal courts rather than one from the Québec Court of Appeal or even a practising lawyer, was purely ideological. As Mr. Fine describes it,

the government, though aware of the risks, worked the selection process to find a more conservative judge than it believed was available in Quebec. The province’s top judges and lawyers were largely ignored…

Mr. Hall’s earlier article tells much the same story, in less detail. The government wanted a “conservative” judge, whatever exactly that means in Canada, and could not find one in Québec, so they went for the dubious gambit of appointing a judge whose eligibility and qualifications for a position on the Supreme Court were both doubtful. As we now know, the ploy backfired.

Now I don’t think that a government trying to find a judge with whose (perceived) ideology it is comfortable is necessarily improper. To be sure, “everybody does it” is not always a justification, although it does tell us something about the practicability of alternatives. But, as I have argued here, constitutional law, on which a government’s assessment of potential Supreme Court judges is likely to focus, is bound up with ideology, and it would be absurd to expect a government to ignore it altogether in appointing a judge. And a judge whom the government considers to be somewhat of an ideological ally can still be an independent and critical thinker, perfectly capable of ruling against it, as Justice Wagner’s example demonstrates.

However, choosing the ideologically closest among a group of qualified candidates (as the Harper government may have done in appointing Justice Wagner) is one thing; deeming the entire memberships of a province’s bench and bar unqualified because ideologically suspect is something else. It seems to me that the Harper government’s conduct leading up to the failed appointment of Justice Nadon, and after its rejection by the Supreme Court, is reprehensible not merely because it considered the ideological leanings of potential judges, but because of its outright refusal to take the situation in Québec, including the views prevalent among its bench and bar as it is. It is not just a childish tantrum, but a failure to take seriously the diversity of Canada (and not only, by the way, the “Québec values” of which the Supreme Court speaks; a hypothetical NDP government that refused, for months on end, to appoint a judge from Alberta because it considered that province’s legal community too right-wing would be committing the same sin).

There is also a broader point here, beyond the government’s mishandling of one (and perhaps soon two) appointments. Although it has endeavoured to change Canada in any number of ways, the Conservative government hasn’t even tried to articulate anything like a coherent constitutional theory which might attract the support of some fraction of the legal community ― the most we have got from it are vague platitudes about judicial restraint and being tough on crime. Nor has it helped develop any sort of organization or forum into which a Tory constitutional narrative or theory could be developed. This is in contrast to the conservative movement in the United States, which has invested considerable energy into the development of legal, and especially constitutional, theories, and which has, in the Federalist Society, an influential and vibrant organization where these theories can be debated and refined. Whether the creation of a conservative constitutional narrative in Canada and the polarization of the legal community that may well follow or accompany it would be good things is, of course, debatable. But if, for better or worse, the Canadian right wants to leave a lasting imprint on the country’s legal institutions, it is not optional.

The Harper government’s behaviour is thus a somewhat curious mix of stubbornness and laziness; of discontent with the world and of unwillingness to undertake the work necessary to change it in a durable rather than accidental way. Not that this is surprising ― this laziness is of a piece with the government’s approach to Senate reform, for instance, which similarly combined a lack of intellectual foundations (explicit ones at any rate) with an unwillingness to take the time to achieve the desired changes in the proper way, relying on shortcuts of dubious legality instead, only to be stopped by the Supreme Court. This government is sometimes described as a revolutionary one; it certainly shares the lack of respect for established institutions typical of revolutionaries of all ideological stripes. But if the Tories are revolutionaries, they are strangely and remarkably lazy ones.