Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

End of a Scandal

An attempt to criminalize criticism of New Zeand’s judges is rejected by a parliamentary select committee

Last year, the New Zealand Parliament took up a bill to update and reform the law of contempt of court. A worthy endeavour, but one that was seriously flaw in at least one very important way, as I argued at the time: one of the ways in which the bill changed the law was that it not only codified but seriously expanded the common law offence of “scandalizing the court” ― that is, according to a classic definition in R v Gray, [1900] 2 QB 36, doing or saying something “calculated to bring a Court or a judge of the Court into contempt, or to lower his authority”. (40)

Obviously, the common law offence, if understood broadly, might have applied to vast amounts of perfectly legitimate criticism, including of the sort that is this blog’s trademark, so the courts applied it sparingly and with an eye ― indeed both eyes ― towards preserving the freedom of expression in this context. Even so, the offence has been abolished by statute in the United Kingdom, and left in a zombie-like state in Canada following the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v Kopyto, which held that, in its current form, the law of scandalising the court was not consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

By contrast, the bill before the New Zealand Parliament would have expanded the offence, notably by criminalizing the expression of opinion ― including opinion honestly held on the basis of publicly known or fairly stated fact ― if that opinion could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of a judge or court. The bill would also have criminalized the true statements of fact having that tendency, unless the accused were able to prove their truth on a balance of probabilities ― thus trenching on the presumption of innocence. And, in addition to this, the bill would also have created enforcement powers that would have made it possible for the prosecutors to exact apologies and retractions from people merely suspected of having committed the “scanadalizing” offence.

In addition to blogging about this, I co-wrote (with Edward Willis) a submission to the Justice Committee of Parliament, which studied the bill. Dr. Willis and I were joined by a number of scholars from across New Zealand. We also presented our views to the Committee in person (we come in at ca. -1:04:07). Our submission recommended that the offence of “scandalizing the court” be abolished, but it also set out alternative provisions that could have ameliorated the worst abuses of the original bill, should the Committee have been inclined to preserve the offence. Of course, our submission was not the only one (though not all the submissions were directed at the issues that interested us).

The Committee delivered its unanimous report last week, and I am happy to say that the expanded offence and created in the original bill is now gone, as are, mostly, the novel enforcement mechanisms. The common law offence, as it now stands, remains, if I understand correctly. (Subclause 29(2) of the Bill provides that “[n]othing in [it] limits or affects any authority or power of a court … to punish any person for contempt of court in any circumstances to which [the Bill] does not apply”, which I think would encompass the contempt of “scandalizing the court”.) There is also a provision, a new Clause 25, allowing the High Court to order a person “to take down, or disable public access to” “a false statement about a Judge or court [such that] there is a real risk that the statement could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, impartiality, or authority of the judiciary or a court”. An interim order can be made on a showing of an “arguable case”, but a final order requires the government to prove the falsity of the statement concerned on a balance of probabilities.

This is not perfect. It would have been better for the offence of “scandalizing the court” to have been abolished altogether. And while, in this second-best of all possible second-best worlds, take-down orders for information which has actually been shown to be false (with the burden of proof, albeit the civil one, being on the government) are not the biggest freedom of expression concern there is, I’m also not a fan of the low threshold for the making of interim orders. Still, much worse has been averted.

As Andrew Geddis ― one of the scholars who have joined Dr. Willis’ and my submission ― has put it,

the system works as you would hope it does. A well intentioned, but overly punative, proposed legislative measure is identified and criticised by those with some expertise in the matter, with MPs having time to reflect and recommend changes in response.

The system has, indeed, worked remarkably well in this case, though when we say “the system”, we should also give credit to the individual members of the Justice Committee. We should also, however, recognize that this is a technical bill of a sort that neither triggers any strong partisan reactions nor makes for good political point-scoring. As Professor Geddis explains, the system isn’t working nearly well enough with the gun control legislation being currently rammed through the New Zealand Parliament; nor did it work especially well in the case of a recent bill to ban some offshore drilling, about which I have written elsewhere.

Professor Geddis also points out that, while the Justice Committee has recognized that it is wrong to punish people for expressing unpleasant opinions about the judiciary, or to make them apologize for it, the New Zealand House of Representatives still takes a different view where it is itself concerned:

 Basically, saying rude things about an MP (even true rude things about an MP) can be regarded as a contempt by the House and punished accordingly.

And what can the House do in response to some contempt? Well, it can censure the person responsible. It can fine them up to $1000. It can imprison them for a period up until the next election. And … it can require that they apologise to an MP and to the House itself for committing a contempt.

This power is still used from time to time ― and not just against MPs, but against members of the public too. So there is still some way to go before the evil of compelled apologies is banished from the land. But the Justice Committee has, at least, taken a stand against allowing it to fester.

And I would like to think that, in some small part, this is because I raised hell, and encouraged others to raise hell with me. And of course others still engaged in their own hell-raising activities with which I had nothing to do. Some people, it appears, are not fans of this blog’s rabble-rousing ways. That’s their right, of course. But if the rabble is of the right kind, it can help do great things. As Boris Vian told us, en protestant/quand il est encore temps/on peut finir/par obtenir/des ménagements ― by protesting while there is still time one could end up getting some concessions.

Our Pythic Judges: SNC-Lavalin

In Ancient Greece, travelers from far and wide descended upon the Oracle at Delphi. Known collectively as the Pythia, these priestesses or women of Delphi, over generations, provided advice and counsel to anyone wishing to seek it. The Pythia were thought to channel the god Apollo. As the mythology of the Pythia grew, with kings and leaders of armies seeking counsel, no major decision was made before consulting the Pythia. 

We seem to be in a Pythic reality in Canada these days. All in the last month, we have been told that former Chief Justice McLachlin would investigate impropriety in the British Columbia legislature; that former Chief Justice McLachlin was also considered as a potential font of advice for Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s ne’er-do-well former Principal Secretary in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal; and that former judges of the Supreme Court of Canada Justice Cromwell and Iacobucci were involved in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin case, representing former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin, respectively.

This state of affairs attracted considerable commentary on Twitter, and I truly think it is a live question that should be debated in the Canadian legal community: what expectations should we have for retired Supreme Court judges (or judges generally)  in Canada?

One can think of two issues that this question invites: the ethical question and the democratic question. First, consider the ethics of the situation. No one denies that judges should be able, like all people, to have a productive and fulfilling post-retirement life. That could include work. After all, these judges have considerable talents that could be brought to bear in any number of situations. Work as a commercial arbitrator, counsel to a law firm—the opportunities are potentially endless.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate question whether judges should be doing certain kinds of work post-retirement. Judicial independence is not only about actual independence but the perception of independence. Though retired, it is certainly possible that a member of the public, objectively and reasonably looking at a particular former judge, could conclude that there is an independence problem if a former judge is using his or her talents in a way that impacts the perception of impartiality. There is at least an implicit recognition of this principle in the generous pensions we provide for those who have served Canada on the bench.

These principles are reflected in the scheme for mandatory retirement. The upshot of Canada’s mandatory age of retirement for judges is that, eventually, judges have to retire, even if they are not ready. In the United States, there is no mandatory retirement age such that judges—most recently Justice Antonin Scalia—sometime pass away while on the bench. There are benefits and drawbacks to the American approach. On one hand, when judges leave the United States Supreme Court, they are probably ready to truly retire, and there is less of a concern about independence. On the other hand, the Canadian approach “cycles” judges in and out of the system, and one might reasonably think that this cycling is for the better.

It’s hard to resolve this question, but I think it is probably best to err on the side of protecting the integrity of the judicial office. The role of the judiciary is too important in modern day Canada—perhaps more important than it should be, mind you—to risk even a perception of partiality. This does not mean that judges should be barred from work, far from it. It simply means we desperately need rules to govern the situation.

My larger concern is with the democratic side of the equation, and this is where modern-day retired judges seem to resemble the Pythia. I think it is unwise for questions about the law within the political branches to be referred to retired judges as if they are some standing committee to  resolve legal disputes in the abstract. This is not the role of the courts in the first place: courts require concrete facts connected to legal causes of action that are ripe for adjudication before they can weigh in. It should most certainly not be the role of retired judges, however eminent.

The effect of making a retired judge like former Chief Justice McLachlin or otherwise “an eminent Canadian jurist or panel of jurists” a first port of call in a case like SNC-Lavalin has corrosive pragmatic and legal effects. Consider the legal effect, first. Gerald Butts mentioned that the former Chief Justice was a potential option for advice, because of the fact that the law governing remediation agreements was new.  The goal was to consult the Pythic judges before the Attorney General would make a decision on SNC-Lavalin. This tendency—to punt the result to some advisory panel—erodes the role that the political branches of government should play in the interpretation and application of law, especially where the law is new. Novelty is no reason to punt the task of law-elaboration within the executive branch. Even if an advisory panel of retired judges was a legitimate idea—and it is not—questions like the ones posed in SNC-Lavalin are not easily amenable to judicial scrutiny. In this realm, the political branches of government should wear the responsibility and burden of making important decisions.

This is connected to the ultimate pragmatic effect of permitting this advisory practice to go unabated. As we know, Ministers of the Crown are politically accountable (or answerable, in other contexts) in the House of Commons for their actions. This concept of responsible government has the effect of providing a focal point for political accountability. But if a Minister, facing political heat, seeks to essentially delegate the power of making a tough decision to a retired judge, that delegation deflects democratic responsibility. Should other politicians disagree with whatever decision the judge renders and then the Minister adopts, the Minister can simply say that she followed the recommendation of the eminent retired judge. It is unlikely that those in the general public will wish to question the opinion of such an esteemed person, asked by the Minister to consider the situation and provide an answer. So, we have a diversion of political accountability, with a politically irresponsible judge essentially making tough decisions for a Minister. The incentive effect will be more of this advisory work sought by governments seeking to duck the hard decisions.

In a modern democracy, there is no Pythia to which we should appeal. Judges serve a defined and circumscribed role, and retired judges an even more circumscribed role. I do not think it is a best practice, except in certain situations, to ask judges to resolve politically difficult issues simply because the law on the issue is unsettled.

The Canadian Legal Mandarinate

Why we ran the 12 Days of Christmas symposium

On behalf of Leonid and I, I’d like to thank all of our readers for their interest in our recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium, which featured contributions from scholars on their five least favourite Supreme Court cases of the last fifty years. What started as a festive and fun holiday feature has made, I think, a much broader point: rather than glowing coverage of what the Supreme Court does, there is an audience and a need for more biting, critical commentary in Canadian law.

I say this because a not-infrequent response to our symposium asked why we needed to be so pessimistic. Why not ask people for their favourite Supreme Court cases? Doesn’t the world need more positivity?

Maybe it does, but I’m not sure there is a lack of it towards the Supreme Court in Canadian law. Of course, I don’t have empirical evidence to show that Canadian scholars are too deferential towards the Supreme Court and its judges. But it is interesting why our symposium struck a chord in the first place.   Over on profsblawg, Paul Horwitz explains why this might be. Horwitz received his law degree in Canada (University of Toronto), and notes that he practiced and published there as well. It’s worth reproducing a large part of what he said about his impressions of Canadian legal academic culture. It isn’t good:

 

I left Canada, where I received some of my legal education and practiced and published a little, long enough ago now that I am hopelessly out of date, despite following cases in some areas of law. But when I was there, the norms of the profession or society, the degree of consensus among a fairly small legal elite or Canadian mandarin class, and/or some other set of factors were such that there was little serious criticism of the Supreme Court of Canada and its decisions, and the criticism that did exist was treated more or less as coming from outliers.

[…]

I find the series educational and refreshing, and very different from anything I could have imagined reading in the period in which I studied and practiced in Canada. (Indeed, I remember publishing an article some years ago in a Canadian law journal–faculty-run and peer-reviewed, as most of them are–and being asked by the faculty editor of that journal to add some kinder and more complimentary text to balance my criticisms of a recent Supreme Court of Canada judgment.) That change is for the better. Although it might not be thought of in those terms by some of the existing and remaining legal and socio-cultural mandarinate in my native country, it enhances not only the ideological and philosophical diversity of the country and its legal profession, but also its regional and cultural diversity.

[…]

If strong criticisms of judicial opinions are acceptable, and I think Canadians, however politely, would agree that they are, then surely there must be room to criticize the words of individual justices who make extrajudicial statements about their rather grandiose role as the first and last word on their country’s “national values.”

This a powerful anecdotal account of how Canadians tend to react to those in judicial authority, and in response to those who do engage in critical analysis. Speaking for myself, I am unsurprised by Horwitz’s comments after writing this post on the reaction to Justice Abella’s comments about the role of the Supreme Court as the definitive font of authority on “Canadian values.” Many argued that Leonid and I went too far by drawing particular attention to Justice Abella’s specific comments. Others suggested that we should always tread carefully when criticizing judges, that we should always presume good-faith, and that we should speak about decisions and institutions rather than personalities.

As I’ve said before, if judges are going to assume the mantle of constitutional guardians, we all have the right (and the duty) to monitor their decisions. Given the heightened role that court has arrogated to itself, I see no quarrel with concerning ourselves with what the judges think and say, as well. But this isn’t strictly the point. Instead, it is enough to say that we already do a lot of celebrating of judges and judicial decisions in Canada. There was, of course, the rather drawn-out farewell tour for Chief Justice McLachlin, with growing tributes and nary a peep about her judicial missteps. Academic articles were written celebrating her as the “expositor of our constitutional values.” Justice Abella has also received her fair share of celebration, among academics and the bar alike. I think there is probably an interesting correlation between this judicial idolatry and the rather depressing statistics on ideological uniformity in law schools, but I need not explore that connection here.

I view the 12 Days Symposium as a product of supply and demand principles. If we take Horwitz seriously, and my own experience is consistent with his, then we have an abundant supply of “positive,” more deferential legal commentary in Canada. What is missing, and what our 12 Days contributors arguably provided, was a breaking point from the consensus. And judging from our readership and the spirit of the contributions, I think there is a real demand for this sort of work in Canadian legal academic circles.  Of course, I think this is broadly consistent with the entire premise of Double Aspect to begin with.

To be fair, a lot legal scholarship can’t and shouldn’t be put into the “positive” or “negative” column. Some work is empirical, and that work is in low supply in Canada, at least when it comes to public law. Robert Danay has done us a great service, in this respect, with his empirical work on Dunsmuir. But there is a decidedly normative bent to Canadian legal scholarship, and to that extent, there is such a thing as critical work.  Though I cannot purport to speak from great experience (and so I qualify my statements to a large degree), I view legal scholarship is something like calling balls and strikes. Sometimes, the Court gets it right, and we try to highlight that on Double Aspect when we can. Others do so too. But there is a distinct lack of critical commentary, and our contributors supplied the demand.

This answers the question of why we chose not to run a symposium focusing on the Supreme Court’s best cases—this is already out there if you look hard enough. And it’s also the reason why, speaking for myself, there is no need for an endless veneer of deference towards the judiciary. I can’t speak from experience to definitively conclude that there is a Canadian legal mandarinate. But I can say that there appears to be reticence about criticizing decisions and judges.

Delusions of Grandeur

Justice Abella sets out a vision of the Supreme Court as arbiter of national values

I didn’t realize that writing op-eds for the media was part of the judicial job description, but apparently it is. There was of course Brett Kavanaugh’s instantly-notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And, ten days ago, Justice Abella followed in now-Justice Kavanaugh’s footsteps, with an op-ed of her own, in the Globe and Mail. The op-ed is an adaptation from a speech given on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Israel; but Justice Abella, presumably, thinks that it deserves a Canadian audience as well as an Israeli one.

Why that ought to be the case, I am not quite sure. Part of the op-ed is meaningless twaddle: we have, Justice Abella tells us, a “national justice context” that is “democratically vibrant and principled”. Part is rank hypocrisy: the Supreme Court’s “only mandate is to protect the rule of law”, says the person who has devoted many a talk to criticizing the very idea of the Rule of Law and arguing that it had to be replaced by something called the rule of justice. Part is rotten grammar: “human rights is [sic] essential to the health of the whole political spectrum” (emphasis removed). But all of it is a self-assured presentation of a role for the judiciary that has nothing to do with the Rule of Law, and this bears commenting on.

Justice Abella begins by proclaiming that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out “a uniquely Canadian justice vision, a vision that took the status quo as the beginning of the conversation, not the answer”. One might be tempted to think that this is a reference to section 33 of the Charter (which, for all its flaws, is indeed “uniquely Canadian”), or at least to some version of the “dialogue theory”, according to which courts and legislatures both participate in the elaboration of constitutional rights. But this would be a mistake. Justice Abella likes her judges “bold”, and her legislatures obedient. The “conversation” to which she refers only involves the members of the Supreme Court.

And while she begins by seemingly conceding that “[t]he Charter both represented and created shared and unifying national values”, Justice Abella then argues that it is the Supreme Court that has developed “a robust new justice consensus for Canada”. It is the Supreme Court that serves as “the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”. (Wait… didn’t the Charter already represent and create shared values? How come these values are, after all, contested?) Fortunately, says Justice Abella, the Canadian public and its elected representatives have fallen into line and followed the Supreme Court’s moral leadership: “[c]riticisms and questions were of course raised, but usually with civility.” If Canada is committed to “pluralism and diversity”, rather than “obliteration of the identities that define us”, that’s because “[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court”, and its teachings were accepted by both “the public” and “the legislatures”.

Hence the empowerment of the Supreme Court, coupled with its independence, is all to the good. “[D]emocracy, Justice Abella insists, “is strengthened in direct proportion to the strength of rights protection and an independent judiciary”. Indeed, the very “humanity” of a country would be imperiled by attacks on judicial power. Hence Justice Abella’s plea in defence of the Supreme Court of Israel, delivered, she says, in her capacity not only “as a judge”, but also “as a citizen of the world”. (I assume Justice Abella has not been shy about criticizing the feebleness of the judiciary in countries like Russia and China, too, though I don’t think she has published op-eds about them. Perhaps she has even criticized the backward ways of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which haven’t seen it fit to remit the adjudication of contested values in their societies to the courts, though I can recall no op-eds on that subject either.)

I have no firm views about whether Canadian judges should go around the world lecturing other countries about how to organize their constitutional arrangements, whether in their capacities as citizens of the world or as public officials. (How many ordinary citizens of the world are, after all, invited to give pompous speeches, and allowed 1200 words of op-ed space in a national newspaper to bring them to hoi polloi?) I do, however, have some thoughts on the substance of Justice Abella’s views regarding the role of the Supreme Court in Canada’s constitutional structure. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already presented his, but my take is somewhat different, so I hope the readers will forgive a measure of repetition.

Mark stresses the fact that, if the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter of national values, it is not at all clear why it should be staffed by judges—that is to say, by former lawyers, who are not trained for or especially good at this task. Why not economists and philosophers instead? Mark writes that

if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole…—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

And if the courts are not, after all, to be replaced by philosophical-economic colloquia, that’s probably because what we really want is for judges to stick to law.

I largely agree with this, but there is an additional move in Justice Abella’s argument that Mark does not address: the claim that adjudication by the independent Supreme Court is somehow democratic and that, indeed, democracy is strengthened the more powerful the court is. I think it is a crucial argument. After all, legislatures, which Mark doesn’t want to “sell down the river”, are also staffed by people who tend to have no particular expertise in either economics or philosophy, and who are subject to all manner of perverse incentives to boot. Why should they be making value judgments for society? The generally accepted (which isn’t necessarily to say correct) answer is, because they are democratic institutions. That’s why Justice Abella wants to claim the democratic mantle for the institution that she extols (as do others who make similar arguments).

How successful is the claim? In my view, not very successful at all. It starts from the premise that there is more to democracy than elections. Let us grant that. Still, there are important questions that need answering. What is this “more” that a polity ought to have, beyond periodic elections, to be counted as democratic? Jeremy Waldron would mention things like separation of powers, meaningful bicameralism, and “legislative due process”, rather than judicial review of legislation. Justice Abella doesn’t even consider these possibilities, and thus does not explain why they are not sufficient. She thus does little to justify judicial review of legislation at all, let alone the robust, value-defining version that she favours. Others would add federalism and federalism-based judicial review, but not necessarily the rights-enforcing variety.  And even granting the insufficiency of structural devices to foster and protect genuine democracy, one can doubt whether it is this form of judicial review that we should favour. Aren’t more limited versions, along the lines of John Hart Ely’s “representation reinforcement” or the Carolene Products footnote 4‘s special protection for “discrete and insular minorities”) sufficient? Justice Abella has no answer to this objection either.

Instead, Justice Abella is content to assert that more judicial power is better, including for democracy. Surely, this isn’t necessarily so. Justice Abella herself, and most Canadian lawyers, would likely be horrified at the idea of judicial review enforcing property rights and freedom of contract against democratic majorities. They would insist, as Justice Holmes did in his dissent in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … It is made for people of fundamentally differing views”. (75-76) (The only exception to this, of course, concerns labour unions; fundamentally different views regarding their role in the economy have been read out of the Canadian constitution by the Supreme Court, led by Justice Abella.) On reflection, everyone—including Justice Abella—would agree that the protection of rights by an independent judiciary is not, in fact, always good. At the very least, it matters which rights are protected—and if it is the judiciary that effectively decides this, then it matters how it uses its power to do so.

This brings me to Justice Abella’s most remarkable claim—that it is indeed the Supreme Court that defines not just our constitutional rights, but Canadian values more generally. Mark characterizes this is “judicial supremacy”, but I prefer using this term to mean unyielding judicial control over constitutional meaning (the way Professor Waldron does here, for example). Justice Abella’s ambition is not so limited; she is not content to decide what our supreme law means; she wants to be the ultimate authority on what Canadians believe in. This is shocking stuff. In a free society, there can be no such authority, whether in the Supreme Court or elsewhere. In a free society, one cannot point to the constitution and say, Thatcher-style, “this is what we believe”. Citizens in a free society disagree, including about fundamental values. A constitution is only a judgment, albeit one reached by a super-majority—not, mind you, an actual consensus—about which of these values will be translated into legal constraints that will be imposed on the government until the constitution is amended. The courts’ job is to interpret these legal constraints, as they interpret other law; it is not to dictate “which contested values in a society should triumph”.

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority. It is unfortunate that a person so utterly misguided holds an office with as much power and prestige as that of a Supreme Court judge. Still, as important as this office is, it is less significant than Justice Abella imagines. We remain free to reject the values the Supreme Court would have us subscribe to. When these values amount to uncritical polite deference to philosopher-kings in ermine-collared robes, we have very good reason to do so.

The Joke’s On Us

Canadians ought to care about who gets on the Supreme Court

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Beaverton ― Canada’s version of the Borowitz report ― ran a piece called Canadians thankful they can’t name single Canadian Supreme Court Justice. Remarkably enough, a number of lawyers in my social media feeds shared it ― with apparent approval. And of course a more reputable outlet published a rather similar story in all seriousness just a few months ago. I suppose one ought to be grateful that Canada has so far avoided the sordid spectacle of American “confirmation battles” generally, and that over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh in particular. The ability of the Canadian governments to simply get their preferred candidates on the bench is, on the whole, a good thing. But it doesn’t follow that it is of no consequences who the judges of the Supreme Court are.

The Beaverton, parroting the national myth (aren’t they, like, suppose to make fun of things?), claims that “many Canadians were happy their court was quietly and deliberately applying the constitution”. This is, to use a technical term, bollocks. Just this year, the Supreme Court read the guarantee of free trade out of the constitution in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15; proclaimed, in defiance of fundamental principle, that administrative agencies can enjoy “plenary”, “unrestricted powers” in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22 (at [10] and [11]); and gutted religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32. This is not a court “quietly applying the constitution”; this is a court re-writing the constitution as its suits its fancy. Nor is this some sort of new development. Back in 2015, Grégoire Webber wrote that

Over the past year, the people of Canada have undertaken an important remaking of our constitution. We have given constitutional status to the Supreme Court, created a constitutional right to strike, and created a constitutional right to assisted death, among other changes. …

How have we done so? … We have … appealed to that straightforward constitutional amendment process called the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, both in West Fraser and Trinity Western, and in some of the cases to which Professor Webber refers ― notably Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245, which “gave benediction” to the right to strike ― the Supreme Court was not unanimous in its rewriting or shredding of the constitution. There were fierce, and compelling, dissents. While no Supreme Court judge has taken a very consistent position in opposition to the Court’s majority view of its powers of constitutional amendment ― the Court was unanimous in Comeau, for instance ― some have been more forceful than others in resisting the trend. Justice Côté, in particular, has been a strong voice in favour of upholding the Rule of Law by opposing the empowerment of lawless administrative decision-makers.

And so it matters that there is only one Justice Côté on the Supreme Court; and that even with Justices Rowe and, especially, Brown, who sometimes join her in whole or in part, she is far from commanding a majority of the Court. It matters whether or not you agree with me that Justice Côté tends to be right (she isn’t always) and that most of her colleagues tend to be wrong. If you think that the majority of the Court is generally correct, and that Justice Côté and others who resist its assertions of judicial and administrative power are wrong, it also matters that there not be more Justices Côté, or even Justices Brown or Rowe. Indeed, the enthusiasts of judicial power in Canada understand this very well, which is why some were sufficiently upset when Justice Brown was appointed to the Supreme Court to demand that the Court prevent politicians from choosing judges in the future.

Smug self-satisfaction is, of course, Canada’ national disease, and self-congratulation at not being Americans is a widespread complication. Canadian lawyers are as susceptible to these things as their other compatriots. But we should know better. We should realize that Canadian judges are no more oracles than their American colleagues ― indeed, unlike some American judges, they don’t even pretend otherwise; witness Justice Abella’s repeated rejections of the Rule of Law as even an ideal to aspire to. We should understand that the Supreme Court’s relative anonymity, which it is only too happy to foster with “by the court opinions”, is part of what allows it to exercise powers with which, as even the Beaverton inadvertently suggests, many Canadians would not, in fact, be especially comfortable. If we cannot figure this out, the joke really is on us.

Quis Custodiet?

If judges are the guardians of our constitutional values, they need to be guarded too, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s example shows

There has been no shortage of panegyrics on the occasion of Beverley McLachlin’s retirement. Richard Albert‘s is particularly interesting to me, though, because it is largely based on the former Chief Justice’s extra-judicial output, mostly speeches, and I once toyed with the idea of writing a piece based on such materials myself. (Disclosure: Professor Albert and I are working on an edited collection project together.) Indeed, I have critiqued individual speeches that Chief Justice McLachlin has given on a couple of occasions (here and here).

These explanations of how the former Chief Justice saw her role are significant ― if not always informative, as I will also suggest below ― yet bound to attract less interest, and less critical attention, than her judgments. Professor Albert’s paper is thus a useful contribution to our understanding of the former Chief Justice ― even if we dissent from its tone and disagree with its assessment of its subject, as I do. This is all the more so since the papers on which Professor Albert draws are not as easily accessible as one might wish. The Supreme Court’s website offers only a selection of the former Chief Justice’s speeches (which includes neither of those I have commented on, for instance), and virtually nothing from any for her colleagues, or even her successor.

According to Professor Albert, the former Chief Justice has been a towering figure in early 21st-century Canada. Prime Ministers and Governors General came and went, but the Chief Justice remained, rising almost to the stature “of Conscience-in-Chief
that Americans have sometimes seen fulfilled by their presidents”. (7) You might think it’s a bit too much for a person who writes thrillers, not treatises, in her spare time, but Professor Albert is unrelenting in his praise:

Chief Justice McLachlin … has made Canada a better, fairer and more equal place, and our Constitution the envy of the world. She leaves an equally important legacy as an expositor and guardian of our constitutional values. (1)

As mentioned above, Professor Albert draws on the for Chief Justice’s extra-judicial pronouncements to make his case. In my view, however, the light he shines on her exposes a rather unflattering image.

The earliest speech Professor Albert describes concerned “The Role of Judges in Modern Society“. It is part of that role, the former Chief Justice said, to “be sensitive to a broad range of social concerns” and to “be in touch with the society in which [judges] work, understanding its values and its tensions” ― while at the same time “attain[ing] a level of detachment” from their personal views “which enables [them] to make decisions which are in the broader interests of society”. In another speech discussed by Professor Albert, this one on “Defining Moments: The Canadian Constitution“, Chief Justice McLachlin added that “as a nation’s values and expectations change over time, so its constitution is applied in a way that reflects those changes”.

The idea that judges must maintain a connection of some kind to “their” society is, of course, reminiscent of the discussion of the role of “social values” in l’Affaire Nadon, a.k.a.  Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 ― delivered just five weeks after the “Defining Moments” speech. In his article “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”, Peter McCormick suggested that Chief Justice McLachlin likely wrote the majority opinion in that reference, and thanks to Professor Albert’s investigation of her extra-judicial pronouncements we arguably have additional evidence in support of this suggestion. What we lack, either in l’Affaire Nadon or in the “Defining Moments” speech, is an explanation of the mechanisms by which judges are to maintain sensitivity to social concerns or understand social values, let alone make decisions in the broader interests of society.

This is impotant. Never mind the normative question of whether deciding in the broader interests of society is in fact the judges’ job. (It’s not.) Ought implies can, and the suggestion that the judges can do these things is implausible and betrays an arrogance that is quite incompatible with maintaining “an attitude of ‘active humility'” for which Chief Justice McLachlin also called in the same speech. The matter of the “social values” that Québec judges on the Supreme Court of Canada purportedly channel is illustrative. The joint dissent by Justices Lebel, Wagner, and Gascon in the gun registry litigation, Quebec (Attorney General) v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, referred to an alleged consensus in Québec in favour of the (now-defunct) long-gun registry ― yet as I noted here, polls showed that this consensus only existed among the media and political elite, but not among the general population.

Judicial inability to channel social values not only calls into question particular opinions, such as the majority in l’Affaire Nadon or the gun registry dissent, but undermines the foundations of the Supreme Court’s professed (though not always followed) approach to interpreting the constitution. Professor Albert, referring to the former Chief Justice’s insistence that the Canadian constitution is “applied in a way that reflects … changes” in social values, writes that

[t]his raises a telling contrast with the United States, whose revolutionary traditions have invited dramatic reorientations in law and society. Our evolutionary model would certainly not embrace Thomas Jefferson’s famous suggestion that each American generation should discard the existing constitution, break legal continuity with the prior regime, and author its own new constitution according to the values of the time. (12)

This may be true at a wholesale level ― though of course the Americans have been no more keen on Jefferson’s suggestion for constitutional replacement than Canadians, which suggests that we are not all that different from one another. But of course the idea that the constitution can be applied ― by judges ― to reflect social change even in the absence of actual amendment amounts to a discarding of constitutional provisions in detail. Legal continuity is not shattered all at once, but weakened hairline fracture by hairline fracture, one constitutional benediction at a time.

Professor Albert asks “by what means are judges to determine how and when the country’s values have changed or are in a period of evolution from old to new?” Yet having dismissed constitutional amendment as a guide due to its difficulty, he simply accepts that “[j]udges … must themselves drive the evolution of the Constitution”. (13) Professor Albert suggests that the former Chief Justice thought so too; for her “judges must be guided by society but not directed by it”. (13) Indeed, it is the judges who must help direct society towards greater justice ― and specifically towards the “just society” promised by Pierre Trudeau. Professor Albert notes that Chief Justice McLachlin referred to this slogan in a speech she gave in 2007. She returned to the subject in 2016 (both speeches, coincidentally or not, were given to the same audience, the Empire Club of Canada; I suppose they are big fans of Pierre Trudeau there). Commenting on the latter speech, I wrote that it is “quite inappropriate for a judge to take up what was, for better or for worse, a partisan slogan and try to make it into a constitutional ideal”. I worried that this gave “grist for the mill of those who already think that the Charter, and the courts that enforce it, are essentially Liberal self-entrenchment devices.” My views on this haven’t changed, and my worries are only strengthened now that I realize that theme was not a one-off.

Another theme that Professor Albert highlights is the former Chief Justice’s professed commitment to “diversity” ” in speech, thought, origin and orientation, to name a few” (18-19). In another speech Professor Albert quotes, Chief Justice McLachlin insisted that her Court “focused not on ‘seek[ing] to erase difference, nor [sought] to impose conformity’ but to make it possible for ‘each group … to maintain its distinctions'”. (21) I’m afraid that Chief Justice McLachlin’s belief in diversity of thought and in allowing groups to maintain their distinctions will be news, and not very credible news at that, to Trinity Western University, whose law school the former Chief Justice voted to allow law societies to can, lest accrediting it be seen as a stamp of approval for Trinity Western’s (discriminatory) beliefs. But then, extra-judicially saying one thing and judicially doing another one was something of a theme for the person who joined an opinion disparaging “the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution” only months before jetting off to New Zealand to deliver a noted lecture encouraging judges to invalidate legislation for inconsistency with such principles, declared for the occasion to be tantamount to natural law. And in yet another lecture to which Professor Albert refers, Chief Justice McLachlin stressed that “the law … requires lawyers to take unpopular stands, judges to make unpopular decisions”. (20) Yet for all that she was willing to take on the Prime Minister when occasion called for it, how willing was the former Chief Justice to take a stand that would have been truly unpopular among the bien-pensant intelligentsia? Her change of heart on hate speech criminalisation ― which she opposed early in her career, but eventually accepted ―, and of course her opinion in Trinity Western, are not exactly evidence in her favour here.

Professor Albert has, it will be obvious, a very high opinion of Chief Justice McLachlin. He writes that “the key ingredient … to the success of Canada’s modern Constitution—and the reason why it is so admired abroad—has been how the Supreme Court has interpreted, elaborated and defended it”. (23) To my mind, though, his paper illustrates and explains not so much the successes as the failures of the Supreme Court and of its departing Chief: their rashness in choosing to deal in values rather than in law alone; their arrogance in disregarding legal constraints; their lack of principle and courage. If this is what other countries admire, let them. Canada deserves better.

If, like Professor Albert, I believed that judges can serve as the guardians of our constitutional values, I would not hold up Chief Justice McLachlin as the epitome of that role. But, for my part, I think we ought to heed Learned Hand’s famous warning:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.

The successes, and even the failures, of individual judges in the defence of our constitutional values are, ultimately, less significant than our own. It is our job to uphold these values, including against our public officials ― even the Chief Justice of Canada.