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

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

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

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

The Real Contempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Cour, c’est qui?

Peter McCormick identifies the likely author of the “by the Court” opinion in Comeau

Peter McCormick, University of Lethbridge

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Comeau has definitely put the judicial cat among the federalist pigeons.  At first glance – we have all seen the headlines – the case is about bringing cases of cheap beer into New Brunswick (“Free the Beer!”).  On a closer look, the already enfeebled Section 121 of the Constitution Act 1867 has been effectively gutted, taking with it any realistic prospect of a major shift toward greater intra-Canadian free trade.  Along the way, the sort of trial judge’s revisiting of precedent that was so highly lauded in Bedford has been severely chastised.  An interesting case, therefore, on several levels.

The decision took the somewhat infrequent form of a “By the Court” judgment – one that is both unanimous and anonymous – which arguably makes it more emphatic while coyly veiling the identity of the judge who did the drafting.  But the curtain of anonymity can be brushed aside to identify the lead author, or at least to establish solid relative probabilities.  That identity will come as no surprise, but the methodology I will describe takes it some distance beyond simple conjecture.

That methodology is function word analysis.  Function words are the words that express grammatical or structural relationships between other words (prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs and particles), as distinct from the content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs) that convey more concrete meaning.  Function words are the words that everybody uses, but different people use with different frequencies and proportions, so much so that these frequencies and proportions provide a literary fingerprint.  There are about 300 function words in the English language; my more focused function word list is drawn from the literature, and modified to reflect the actual usages of the Supreme Court over the last twenty years.  It involves the 44 most frequently used function words, some of which are totals for related words such as “a” and “an”, or the different tenses of common auxiliary verbs like “to be” or “to have” or “to do”; together, these words accounted for a rather remarkable 40% of the total word count – overall and for every one of the judges.  This was used to generate a word-usage profile from the written reasons attributed to each judge, and these in turn can be compared with the parallel profile of any specific anonymous decision.  (The logic and procedures of the methodology are described at length in my article in the Dalhousie Law Journal.[1])  The point is to calculate a “Similarity Index”, summing for the 44 words the absolute value of the differences between that judge’s word-use frequencies and those that appeared in Comeau.  The lower the score, the more likely it is that the particular judge was the lead writer.

Language is a possible problem – because counting words within even a superbly translated version will tell us as much or more about the translator than about the original writer – but the Supreme Court Reports assures us (by describing the English reasons as “the judgment” and the French reasons as the “version francaise”) that the original language of the Comeau decision was English.  This also limits the number of “suspects” for the lead writer; I am assuming that Gascon and Cote would have written in French, such that the French language text would have been “le jugement,” and the English language text the “English version”.

Quotations are also a problem – extensive direct quotations distort the word counts by reflecting the usage patterns of the quoted writer, rather than those of the immediate writer.  My solution is to delete all direct quotations from the examined text.  Some Supreme Court justices quote very extensively, to such an extent that quotations can make up a quarter or more of the total word count.  For the Comeau decision this proved to be a negligible factor, reducing the word count by less than 4%.  As I will indicate below, this unusually low quotation count is itself a pointer to the identity of the lead writer.

Law clerks can be a problem, because they may have contributed early drafts for at least the more routine parts of the judgment.  My solution was to eliminate these more routine parts (the introduction, the background, the decisions of the lower courts) and focus only on the much longer analysis section.  This further reduced the word-count by about 20%, but it left 11,000 words and this is easily enough for the function word analysis to operate with credibility.

An adequate comparison basis is a problem; both Brown and Rowe have been appointed recently enough, and have had such a limited opportunity to write judgments or minority reasons, that there is not a large enough body of words to provide a reliable basis for comparison.  Seniority is a large enough factor in decision assignment generally, especially for major cases and especially for constitutional cases, that it would in any event have been unlikely that either of these more junior members of the Court would have been doing the lead writing.

Finally, the “circulate and revise” process pursued by the Supreme Court can be a problem.  All indications are that the other members of the panel take this very seriously, such that the lead writer’s initial draft can undergo significant revision as a result.   My “fingerprint” metaphor above should be qualified to recognize that what is available for analysis may be a smudged rather than a perfect fingerprint.  However, checking results back against the handful of By the Court decisions whose authors have actually been identified in judicial biographies has validated the methodology even for reasons that are described as having undergone major revisions. (Most dramatically, it revealed the “did not participate” Le Dain as having been the initial lead author of Ford and Devine, a finding that has been confirmed by both the Dickson biography and a recent CBC radio documentary).

Running this process for the Comeau decision, restricting the enquiry to the five senior judges who normally write in English, yields the following results:

Judge Similarity Score
McLachlin CJ 8.03
Abella 8.94
Karakatsanis 9.64
Moldaver 10.17
Wagner 11.76

Lower scores pointing to a more likely author, function word analysis points to McLachlin.  Readers may initially be disappointed because the spread between individual judge’s scores are modest, but the tug of ingrained writing habits makes this meaningful.  A smoking gun this may not be, it provides a rank ordering for the likelihood of lead authorship, and McLachlin is clearly indicated.

Moreover: the middle row in the table is significant in way that allows us to ratchet up the language with which to describe the findings.  This provides the similarity score the word by comparison with an all-judge figure based on a combined total of four million words over a twenty-year period.  Karakatsanis, Moldaver and Wagner are less like Comeau than is that all-judge figure; McLachlin – and only McLachlin – is significantly closer to Comeau than is the all judge figure.  This makes the findings more decisisve than might have appeared at first glance.

Further: I mentioned earlier that eliminating direct quotations from Comeau reduced the total word count by only about 4%.  For the McLachlin Court’s constitutional cases more generally, the average figure for such quotations was 13.5%.  But this, too, is a distinctive and persisting characteristic of individual judges:  some quote extensively and some do not.  Abella, for example, frequently uses direct quotations, accounting for fully one-quarter of the words in her constitutional decisions, almost double the average.  McLachlin, however, does not; direct quotations account for only 6.5% of the total words in her numerous constitutional decisions, less than half the all-Court average.  This reinforces the suggestion of the similarity scores that McLachlin is the most likely lead writer of the Comeau judgment.

It is somewhat frustrating that one can create a large data-base, run detailed calculations, generate complex indices – and then wind up with a conclusion that simply confirms what was the most obvious guess from the beginning.  (Who needs science when hunches work so well?) Beverley McLachlin has led the Court for almost 20 years, longer than any other Chief Justice in the Court’s history.  During that time, she has delivered a disproportionate share of the Court’s constitutional decisions, and this statement remains true even if one pro-rates the counts to accommodate the fact that no other member of her Court has served the full eighteen years.   Comeau is one of the last major constitutional decisions with which she will have been involved, and arguably the most significant federalism case of her Chief Justiceship; if there is any surprise, it is that she chose to write behind the veil of “By the Court” rather than over her own name.

[1] Peter McCormick, “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 39 (2016) 77

Still Not a Conservative

A couple of comments on Chief Justice Joyal’s Runnymede Radio podcast

Back in January, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba gave a very interesting keynote address at the Canadian Constitution Foundation’s Law and Freedom conference. (A transcript is available at the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law.) Subsequently, I critiqued Chief Justice  Joyal’s argument to the effect that, in the wake of the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian constitutional culture changed, for the worse, because the judiciary acquired a disproportionate influence on the nation’s public life, at the expense of democratically elected institutions. I argued that although there is cause for concern about judicial self-aggrandizement, this concern should not be overstated, and need not translate into a celebration of the democratic process. In my view, Chief Justice Joyal articulated “a powerful and eloquent statement of what might be described as the foundation for a (small-c) conservative constitutional vision for Canada”, with the subscribers to which I might make common cause from time to time, but which I do not share.

Chief Justice Joyal elaborated on his address and very generously responded to my critique in a podcast interview with Joanna Baron, the director of the Runnymede Society (and my friend). It was an illuminating conversation, and is well worth listening to, as I have finally had a chance to do. Without re-arguing all of my differences with Chief Justice Joyal, I would like to make just a couple of points ― one about something in his position that I do not understand, and the other about what might be at the heart of much of our disagreement.

In both his Law and Freedom address and the podcast, Chief Justice Joyal repeatedly lamented the decline of “bold”, “purposive” government in Canada in the wake of the Charter’s coming into force. He is careful to note that “bold” government need not be big government. It is government acting for the community, implementing a certain political vision. But I’m afraid I have a hard time seeing what exactly this means, and in particular seeing what sorts of bold government initiatives the Charter, or even its attendant political culture in which the judiciary is both more powerful and treated with more deference than it used to be, might have thwarted. I understand that Chief Justice Joyal might be reluctant to be specific, because he might be called upon to adjudicate the constitutionality of government initiatives, bold or otherwise. But perhaps someone who agrees with him could help me out?

The one specific point that Chief Justice Joyal  does mention in the podcast is the inculcation of certain values, especially I take it in the education system. Now, the idea of inculcation of values by the government makes me quite uneasy, and it would make me uneasy even if I trusted the government to inculcate the right values and not collectivism and deference to authority. Blame it on my having been born in what was then still a totalitarian dictatorship ― or on my excessively American values, if you prefer. Whatever the cause, Chief Justice Joyal’s support for this sort of policy is one reason why, although he disclaims the “conservative” label, I do not resile from applying it to him. But regardless of whether his position on this is better than mine, I’m not sure how the Charter stands in the way of what Chief Justice Joyal has in mind. The closest encounter between it and what was arguably a governmental effort to inculcate values happened in the litigation that arose out of Québec’s “ethics and religious culture” curriculum. The Supreme Court upheld most of that curriculum, first in SL v Commission scolaire des Chênes, 2012 SCC 7, [2012] 1 SCR 235, and then in Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613, only invalidating the requirement that a Catholic school teach Catholicism from a neutral (instead of a Catholic) standpoint. Surely, that particular requirement was not the sort of bold policy the decline of which Chief Justice Joyal laments.

As for the crux of my disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal, I think it concerns our different takes on the incentives that apply to political actors on the one hand, and the courts on the other. Chief Justice Joyal charges me with inconsistency, because, while I distrust elected officials and the political process, I have more confidence in the courts. Incentives, I think, are the reason why there is, in fact, no inconsistency. Political actors have an incentive to exploit the ignorance of the voters, and their irrationality (including the voters’ fear of the unknown and distaste for non-conformity). All too often, that is how they come to and remain in power. If there are political points to be scored by attacking an unpopular minority, politicians will want to score these points ― even the comparatively decent ones. Judges are not entirely immune to the incentive towards self-aggrandizement, of course, and I have often noted as much. But they have less to gain from exploiting others’ ignorance and irrationality, and are embedded in an institutional structure that at least tries to steer their own decision-making towards rationality and, in particular, towards an equal consideration of the claims of the unpopular. As a result, I think it is possible to distrust courts less than legislatures without being inconsistent about first principles.

In any case, I am grateful to Chief Justice Joyal for his contribution to the discussion about the role of the Charter and the courts in Canada’s constitutional order ― and of course for the kindness with which he treats my own position. He has not persuaded me to adopt his position, or indeed to stop describing it as conservative (without, in case that needs to be clarified, meaning to disparage it by this description!). But I think it is entirely a good thing that this approach is being articulated in such a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, way. Whatever our individual views, we are all enriched when the discussion includes voices such as Chief Justice Joyal’s.

Still Unhappy

The Canadian Judicial Council’s report on the former Justice Camp does little to ease my concerns

First of all, my apologies for the silence in the last couple of weeks. Let me return to something that happened during that period: the Canadian Judicial Council issued its Report to the Minister of Justice in the matter of Robin Camp, the “why didn’t you keep your knees together?” judge. The Council confirmed the recommendation of the Investigative Committee it had previously set up that the judge be dismissed, and Justice Camp finally resigned ― which, as I argued in my post on the Committee’s report he should have done long ago. Unfortunately, Justice Camp’s failure to do so gave the Committee the occasion to issue a report that was, in my view, seriously flawed. The Judicial Council’s own Report does little to remedy these flaws.

My general objection to the Committee’s report was that it was not clear on what basis it recommended that Parliament dismiss Justice Camp. Perhaps it was his (inconvertible) sexism. Perhaps it was his “antipathy” towards, indeed his “bias” against, the law he was applying, or maybe not the law itself but the values underlying it, though it is possible that that was only because this law was “laden with concerns about gender equality bias and discrimination”. Perhaps it was because Justice Camp’s behaviour contributed to a public impression that the system is rigged against the victims of sexual assault. All of these factors were present in Justice Camp’s case, but what about some future one where they would not be? Parliament’s power to remove a judge from office is too grave to be exercised on an uncertain basis.

Unfortunately, the Judicial Council does not clarify matters. Its own report, beyond assertions that it has carefully considered that of the Committee, consists mostly of and of responses to Justice Camp’s objections. The responses are arguably sufficient so far as they go, but while they may have persuaded Justice Camp to finally fall on his sword, they provided little guidance for future that may be somewhat, but not entirely, similar to his. We still do not know whether the various factors identified by the Committee are all necessary, or which of them are, for a judge to be removed. As I did in my earlier post, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of being precise here. Each case is unique and calls for a judgment on its own fact. But I still believe that more clarity about the circumstances in which it is permissible to interfere with judicial independence would have been in order.

The Council might have tried to address one specific point tried to make ― not that I think it did so because I made it! ― about the potential chilling effect of the Committee’s report on judges who might be less than enamoured with the law as it happens to stand from time to time. The Council wants us to know that it is

mindful that any criticism Council levels against a judge must not have a chilling effect on the ability of judges, generally … to call attention to deficiencies in the law in appropriate cases. Indeed, judges have a duty to be critical of existing legislation in specific circumstances, for example where a judge forms a view that a specific provision contravenes our Constitution or otherwise operates in a deficient manner. We do not in any way intend to deter judges from asking the hard questions and taking the difficult positions that are sometimes necessary to discharge their judicial responsibilities. [35]

This is a useful clarification, although in my view it does not go far enough. It does not address the Committee’s confusing, and in my view unsustainable, attempt to distinguish (permissible) criticism of a law’s practical effects and (impermissible) criticism of values underpinning the law. Nor does it address the unjustified asymmetry between judicial commentary that criticizes the law and that which goes out of its way to approve it, though admittedly the latter sort of commentary was not in issue here. Be that as it may, the Council notes that “some of the Judge’s comments in this case were not in the nature of legitimate legal inquiries or comment” [36], perhaps because they were irrelevant to factual and legal issues before him. But again, this strikes me as too vague to provide useful guidance for the future about the scope of “legitimate … comment”.

It is said that hard cases make bad law ― not hard in the sense of intellectually challenging, but hard in the sense of emotionally difficult. But perhaps so do easy ones. Justice Camp’s case was easy ― in the sense that it was easy to want him gone from the bench. But that may well have encouraged the people who decided it ― thoughtful jurists though they are in their day jobs ― to spare themselves some difficult line-drawing exercises. I can only hope that we do not come to regret this.

Justice in Masks

(Some) French judges want their names removed from the decisions they make

In the traditional iconography, Justice wears a blindfold. When we come before her, she must listen to our arguments, but not see us. But should justice also wear a mask, so that we do not see her face? This is the question raised by a report by Caroline Fleuriot for Dalloz Actualité. Ms. Fleuriot writes that the French judges’ union is demanding their names be removed from their decisions, in anticipation of these decisions being made freely available online ― although a number of judges who she quotes are opposed to this idea. And this demand might, of course, seem rather astonishing to us in the common law world. But then again, as Peter McCormick’s recent articles on decisions “by the Court” issued by the Supreme Court of Canada, about which I blogged here, suggest, the concept of judicial anonymity is not entirely foreign to us either. I think the French proposal is a good occasion to further our reflection on it.

As best I understand Ms. Fleuriot’s report, the French judges make two arguments in favour of removing their names from their decisions. They say, first, that failing to do so would encourage increased criticism and even formal complaints aimed at judges personally rather than at their decisions, potentially compromising trial fairness. Second, it would allow the performance of each individual judge to be assessed, including “to identify judges who do not issue decisions that follow the wishes of the government of the day”.

To some extent,these justifications ring hollow. In the common law world, the authors of judicial decisions are routinely identified, and while this does open the door to sometimes personal, and occasionally outright vicious and distasteful criticism, and occasionally formal complaints, this is not generally seen as imperilling judicial independence or impartiality. Neither is the existence of statistics about the decisions of individual judges, even though such statistics are routinely (at least in the United States) pressed in the service of attaching rather crude and sometimes unfair ideological labels to members of the judiciary.

To be sure, I am not at all an expert on the French judiciary; I do not know how strong the protections for judicial independence are in France. If they are much weaker than in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States (in the federal judiciary), perhaps the judges’ union’s concerns are more justified. But if the French judiciary is sufficiently independent now, its worries seem rather overblown, if they are sincere. Indeed, one might wonder whether what is really going on is not simply an attempt to escape criticism ― whether from the government or from parties and civil society.

That said, if we are indeed right be skeptical of the French judges’ seemingly self-serving claims, we should also ― as prof. McCormick urges us ― take a hard look at our own. The Supreme Court is in the habit of issuing decisions signed by “the Court”, without attribution to one author (or several authors, as is increasingly common). Insofar as there is a common thread to these decisions, it is that many (although by no means all) of them involve potential confrontations between the Supreme Court and either a government, whether federal (say l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 433) or provincial (say Quebec (Attorney-General) v Blaikie, [1979] 2 SCR 1016), whether on issues concerning the judiciary or on other politically salient topics, from the death penalty to language rights. In these cases, the Supreme Court may well be concerned, rightly or wrongly ― often wrongly, I suspect ― about deflecting criticism from its individual members and even with preserving its independence.

Admittedly there are important differences between this practice and that which the French judges’ union is looking to institute. In France, appellate decisions (rendered by multi-member panels) already are anonymous in the sense that “by the court” decisions are: they do not identify an individual author, though first instance decisions rendered by a single judge necessarily are not. If I understand the point of the judges’ union’s demands correctly, so far as appellate courts are concerned, they seek to hide the composition of the panels, as well as the identity of the actual authors of the decision. When the Supreme Court (or, on occasion, provincial courts of appeal) issue “by the court” decisions, we are always told who was on the panel. And of course, the practice of “by the court” decisions is quantitatively marginal ― although qualitatively significant ― one. On average, the Supreme Court issues only one or two decisions a year without attribution.

Indeed, these differences are a good starting point in thinking about whether the anonymity of judicial decisions is a problem, as prof. McCormick argues it is, and as I am now inclined to think too. Does it matter that we know the composition of the panels that render unattributed decisions? I suppose some information is better than none. And of course, in a very important sense, judges should be accountable, or amenable to criticism, not just for the decisions they happen to write, but also for those with which they agree ― at least in the common law world, where concurring and dissenting is (almost) always possible, if sometimes unpopular with one’s colleagues on the bench. Still, the composition of the panel ― especially a large panel at the Supreme Court ― seems insufficient. Does it matter whether only a few, or many, or all decisions are unattributed? I think it does. If the practice of “by the Court” decisions were really sporadic (and it is now a bit more than that), it would arguably matter very little. If it were clearly reserved for decisions where the Courts feel the very separation of powers, or indeed the future of the country, is at stake (as the Supreme Court may have felt in, say Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 SCR 44, and in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217), it would be more readily understandable. But it is neither, and as prof. McCormick shows, it is difficult to establish a coherent narrative that would account for all of the “by the court” decisions.

Thus it may well be that the French judges’ proposal is, from our standpoint, not exactly an entirely alien idea, but rather something like a reductio ad absurdum of our own Supreme Court’s practice. It is possible to criticize the former and accept the latter, of course. But perhaps we should not be too quick to do so. Whatever we might think of justice in robes, justice in masks does not seem like a very attractive ideal.

H/t: Pierre Trudel

Says Who, Again?

Peter McCormick on why “by the Court” decisions matter – and who wrote them.

A few years ago, I blogged about an attempt to unmask the authors of “per curiam” opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States by having a computer identify individual judges’ word use patterns. Although I was skeptical about the value of the exercise, I noted that if, as its authors suggested, the attribution of opinions to the Court rather than to individual judges is indeed cause for concern, then

we in Canada have a problem ― and need somebody to replicate their study for our own Supreme Court a.s.a.p. [because] [f]or over 30 years, it has had the habit of issuing opinions ‘by the Court’ in the most important and controversial cases”.

In a couple of articles published last year, Peter McCormick takes up the double challenge of identifying the authors of the anonymous decisions of Supreme Court of Canada issued since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice, and of describing the overall history of such decisions (including those signed by all of the judges in a majority, such as the one in l’Affaire Nadon), going back to when they first became a significant factor in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

Prof. McCormick details this history in  “‘By the Court’: The Untold Story of a Canadian Judicial Innovation“. Although the device of unanimous and anonymous decisions has been in use for almost as long as the Court has existed, it is only in the 1960s that it was deployed in significant cases, rather than minor procedural ones. And it was, prof. McCormick suggests, something of an accident. The Court issued its first anonymous opinion, signed by the eight members of the majority, in Reference Re: Steven Murray Truscott, [1967] SCR 309, in which, as prof. McCormick puts it, the government was asking the court, “Had you heard the appeal that you denied leave to eight years ago, would you
have allowed it?” (1057) In an “extraordinary” (1058) attempt to save face and resist the accusation implicit in the question, the majority issued a “joint opinion” signed by each of its members. Shortly thereafter, the precedent was applied when the Court delivered its opinion in Reference Re: Offshore Mineral Rights, [1967] SCR 792, signed this time as “the joint opinion of the Court”, and again a dozen years later, in Att. Gen. of Quebec v. Blaikie, [1979] 2 SCR 1016 ― a “revival” that prof. McCormick credits to Justices Martland and Ritchie.

Blaikie was followed by the trickle of “by the Court” opinions that has not stopped to this day: prof. McCormick counts “fifty of these in the forty-eight years since 1967, a number
that shrinks to forty-five if we treat companion cases … as single examples”. (1059) Not all of these opinions are very significant; there have been cases where the choice of unanimity was “clearly less a matter of strategic choice than of administrative convenience … where a judgment simply could not be attributed in the normal way” (1064) due to the death or health problems of its true author. But most of the anonymous decisions were in important cases, largely in various areas of constitutional law. Many unanimous opinions were delivered in response to reference questions asked by the federal government, especially when the Supreme Court was unanimous. Others arose in “cases that deal with issues that relate directly to the judiciary as an institution”, (1075) or indeed specifically with the Supreme Court ― although, as prof. McCormick notes, there have also been many cases dealing with judicial independence that were not anonymous, including the notorious Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3. And, under the long leadership of Chief Justice McLachlin, the Supreme Court’s use of anonymous opinions is arguably more vigorous than ever.

Does this matter though? Prof. McCormick insists that it does. The “packaging” of court decisions, as well as their “content”, is significant;  “the mode of presentation” of the Supreme Court’s decisions is “the product of conscious and shared choices” (1052) by the judges, not an accident. Because the Court matters, these choices matter too. The choice to present a judgment as the opinion of the “the Court” itself, rather than any individual judge, represents the extreme case of the Court’s collective ethos prevailing over the individual ambitions of its members, and is inextricably linked to the Court’s positioning itself as an institution to be reckoned with, especially in references where the Court acts as “a unified institution providing the other half of a conversation about national governance with the federal government”. (1074) Moreover, such a choice “flatly repudiates [the] expectation”, nearly universal in common law jurisdictions, that a judge will take responsibility for his or her decisions and can be praised or criticized for them: “the whole point is that no single judge is identified and no individual accepts responsibility”. (1054)

But prof. McCormick’s other article, “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”(2016) 39 Dal LJ 77 (not freely available, alas), seeks to make sure that the judges face the music, if only belatedly. Like the American paper on which my original post about “by the Court” opinions was based, it uses linguistic analysis to identify the likely authors of anonymous opinions ― in prof. McCormick’s case, those of the Supreme Court of Canada since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice. This should give us an insight into “how the Court is evolving in its decision-making and equally important decision-explaining process”. (84) Is the process of reaching decisions attributed to the Court as a whole the same as with other cases, or is it somehow different (for example, with an even more important role for the Chief Justice)?

The attempt isn’t entirely successful: prof. McCormick is only able to identify a “probable” author for a little more than a third of the decisions that he has analyzed. For most of the others, he points to two, and in a couple of cases to three “possible” authors. (It is of course possible that these decisions were jointly written, as some of the Court’s attributed decisions are, but it seems unlikely that all were.) And even when prof. McCormick points to a single “probable” author, this is not always a clear finding. Still, it’s an impressive achievement. For instance, prof. McCormick points to Chief Justice McLachlin as the “probable” author of both the majority opinion in l’Affaire Nadon and the Court’s opinion in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. The Chief Justice is likely to have written or co-written many of the other “by the Court” decisions too, with a few other judges also more regular likely authors than others. Prof. McCormick concludes that more research would be warranted into the issue and, given both his partial but real success and the remaining uncertainties, it is hard to disagree.

Overall, prof. McCormick has persuaded me that my previous rather casual dismissal of the importance of this issue was misguided. “By the Court” decisions matter, as he says, because it matters how power ― including judicial power ― is exercised. While I often accept the need for confidentiality, even secrecy, in the working of government (including the courts), any given instance where government seeks to withdraw information ― perhaps especially information that it normally makes available, such as the identity of the author(s) of judicial opinions ― deserves scrutiny. An institution engaged in information-withholding should be prepared to justify itself. The Supreme Court does not do that. So long as it does not, at the very least, it should not be surprised at receiving some extra scrutiny, welcome or otherwise.