An Empty Vessel

Thoughts on the Justice Kasirer appointment process

A few weeks back, Prime Minister Trudeau’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Nicolas Kasirer, subjected himself to questions from parliamentarians. By all accounts, Justice Kasirer is a qualified nominee for the Court, having spent a decade on the Quebec Court of Appeal. But one must separate the nominee from the process through which he was appointed. While the Government’s independent search process is probably, in theory, a step in the right direction, it is still plagued by one meaningful problem: parliamentarians have virtually no power to shed any meaningful light on the Prime Minister’s nominee.

Of course, unlike the United States, Parliament and its committees have no constitutional duty or mandate to give “advice and consent” on nominations made by the Prime Minister to the Supreme Court. Yet the fact that the Constitution does not require something does not mean that systems of government should not aspire to be better. This was the logic behind the Prime Minister’s independent appointments process, which is also not at all required by the Constitution.

But the process adopted by the government when it comes to public consultation, while not inconsistent with the Constitution, falls well short of other standards of public transparency. The judicial nomination “hearing,” if one could even call it that, was limited by a number of overriding principles. For example, Justice Kasirer could not talk about any past decisions he rendered as a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal; politicians could not ask him about any judgments he would render as a judge of the Supreme Court;  politicians could not “cross-examine” the nominee; nor ask him to take a position on “controversial” issues; and finally, the nominee could not comment on existing Supreme Court decisions, and whether he supported those decisions or not.

Some of these restrictions are understandable. Asking a nominee to pre-judge an issue presents a real judicial independence problem. But some of the restrictions, I think, end up short-circuiting legitimate questions about the role of the judge in the modern era. Particularly, asking a judge to comment on her past rulings or to comment generally about her philosophy does not present the same judicial independence concern as pre-judging a case on the merits. Indeed, there are other countervailing values that make these questions apt for answering, in the name of public transparency, and in light of the judicial role in the modern era.

The idea is this: no one denies—not even proponents of strong-form judicial review—that the Supreme Court deals with issues of great national importance. This is in part represented in the Supreme Court’s leave requirements; but it is also manifested in the cases the Supreme Court decides, and how it decides them. In the last number of years, the Court has decided cases of broad public controversy, including reading a right to assisted dying into the Constitution, doing the same for the right to strike, and similarly interpreting an existing constitutional provision to encompass a right to Wagner-style collective bargaining. All of these issues—issues over which reasonable people can disagree in the political realm—have been removed from the public sphere of debate by the Supreme Court’s constitutional rulings. While the Court has often replied that it is the people through their representatives that thrust this role upon them when enacting the Charter (see BC Motor Vehicles, at para 16), this argument does not change the basic fact that courts have taken on this role, often liberated by emancipating doctrines like a “living tree approach” and a lax standard for the admission of all sorts of social science evidence. When it comes to Charter decision-making, the judicial role takes on the character of policy, under which decisions are made by courts that at one point might have been made by legislatures.

Putting aside whether this is normatively desirable, and if this is the case, why shouldn’t the public have a window past the veil of judicial decision-making in a substantive way that sheds light on the things a judge values in the decision-making process? In other words, while there is no formal process for “advice and consent” (and perhaps there shouldn’t be) shouldn’t the public’s representatives have a right to query the judge’s overarching judicial philosophy, including how it would apply to past Supreme Court cases? The role of the Supreme Court in the modern era, if it is going to be expansive, is deserving of some sunlight.

I am alive to the criticisms. One might argue that this imports an American style advice and consent function into Canada, potentially creating the conditions for the sort of circus we see in the United States. But the function I have in mind is suited to Canadian circumstances. In reality, my prescription would amount to allowing a few more substantive questions to be asked in a hearing. Anyone who watched the Kasirer hearing was probably left sorely disappointed; the nominee’s reliance on the restrictions of the entire process was somewhat frustrating given the stakes of a Supreme Court appointment. But if the process was somewhat more substantive, with the scope of questioning somewhat expanded, perhaps there might be more interest in the entire endeavour, with Parliament taking on a real public monitoring function. On my account, the questions that could be asked could account for general judicial philosophy considerations, an account of the judge’s past decisions, and perhaps general comments about existing Supreme Court cases, always on guard for the potential for questions to go into “gotcha” territory.

Another concern is judicial independence, as I alluded to above. We do not want prospective Supreme Court judges pre-judging cases. But setting out a general philosophy—including generally reflecting on Supreme Court cases or to reflect on one’s own judicial tenure—is hardly pre-judging particular cases on the merits. Indeed, one can criticize a past Supreme Court decision and still resolve to apply it because it is the law—this would be the ultimate in honest and transparency. The truth is that every judge has some system or guiding star for deciding cases that the public deserves to know. Judicial independence should not be a prophylactic reason to prevent all questioning of judges, especially in a system where the Court carries so much power.

The goal of the entire nomination process should be to balance the selection of qualified jurists with the protection of their independence and the public’s legitimate interest in knowing who is nominated. A Kabuki theatre nomination hearing, like the Kasirer one, fails to create the conditions for the public to actually know a judge. This is far from ideal in a situation where the Supreme Court, as Justice Abella once said, is the apparent arbiter of Canadian moral values. If the Court arrogates this role to itself, its members should at least be accountable through some mechanism.

The Five-Judge Myth

How many Supreme Court judges does it take to decide a civil law appeal?

By Peter McCormick

A defining aspect of the Canadian legal system is its bijuralism: Quebec’s civil law system is distinctly different from the English-derived common law of the other provinces. The federal-provincial division of powers which assigns to the provincial legislatures jurisdiction over “property and civil rights within the province” is its formal entrenchment. There are also structural accommodations, one of the most important of which is the composition of the Supreme Court.  Alone among the provinces, Quebec is guaranteed a minimum share of the Court’s membership. One third of the judges (two of six in 1867, three of nine since 1949) must be appointed from the bar or the judiciary of Quebec, which is to say that they must be experienced in the civil law.

On the face of it, this is not enough; it does not preclude the possibility of a common law majority that persistently out-votes its civil law minority and steadily erodes this bijuralism. Its impact has therefore been reinforced by a long-established practice. Peter Hogg describes it as follows: “since 1949 … it has been possible to assemble a quorum of five judges with a majority of civilians” with the result that “(t)his is now the usual composition of the bench when the Court hears a civil law appeal from Quebec.” (Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (various editions), Chapter 8.5(a).) Assuming a unified trio of civilian judges – a single defection can be decisive – it is both an acknowledgement and an effective protection of Quebec’s civil law uniqueness.  The recent controversy over the Nadon appointment served once again to highlight the importance of demonstrable and recent civil law experience for those Quebec judges.  As a student, years ago, I was impressed by the elegance of this “five-judge” solution; as a professor, I tried to ensure that my students appreciated it as well.

However, there is another story that we have been telling about the Supreme Court, and that is the story of a steady move toward larger panels.  The Supreme Court Act permits panels of various sizes, but five judge panels continued to dominate even after the enlargement of the Court to nine members in 1949.  In this context, a slight tweak of the rules for striking the panels for civilian appeals was procedurally simple, almost invisible, and reliably consequential.  Ever since the great watershed of the Laskin Court, however, panels have been getting steadily larger.  On the Lamer Court, the default was already seven judges, with the more important issues (such as the growing number of constitutional cases) assigned to larger panels and only the more routine cases (such as appeals by right) going to smaller ones.  Under McLachlin, this trend has continued, such that nine-judge panels are now the most common and five-judge panels have become unusual, used for only one reserved judgement in every thirty.


It is not easy to reconcile this long-term trend toward large panels with a five-judge rule for civil appeals.  This post reports on my own investigation of these two on-the-face-of-it contradictory generalizations, focusing initially on the McLachlin Court.  On my findings, it is the “larger panels” generalization that very much prevails.  The “five-judge” practice of Quebec exceptionalism has all but disappeared.

The first question is how to objectively identify the set of civil law appeals, and the Supreme Court itself has provided the most obvious solution: the judge-written headnotes that lead off every decision.  If those included specific mention of either or both of the Civil Code of Quebec and the Code of Civil Procedure, then I treated it as a civilian appeal.  (A further forty cases listed these statutes among their citations without any headnote notation, but I did not treat citation alone as justifying their inclusion.)  Limiting the inquiry to reserved judgments only, this gave me fifty-five civil law cases, for an average of about three per year.

How many of these were decided by five judge panels?  Only five – one in every eleven, which is to say one every three or four years.  Thirty-two went to seven judge panels, and nineteen to full-court nine judge panels. The average panel size was 7.5, only slightly below the McLachlin Court average of 7.9 for all reserved judgments.  The fact that it is lower at all may suggest a residual tug of the older “five-judge” rule, but if so it is a small tug indeed.

Even more surprising, only a single one of those five judge panels included all three Quebec judges, guaranteeing that a united set of Quebec civilians would prevail over their common law colleagues.  More remarkably yet, this was balanced by a single example at the opposite extreme — a panel with no Quebec judges at all.  A panel small enough that the Quebec judges can make up a majority is of course also small enough that the Quebec judges can be left out altogether.  The five-judge rule would have led us to expect that these five panels would have included a total of fifteen Quebec judges and ten of their common law colleagues; in practice, they included only eight, well below the common law total of seventeen.  Further to punctuate the point, four of the five examples were from the first four years of the McLachlin Court, and the single more recent example was the “no Quebec judges” panel.


Comparing eighteen years of McLachlin with eighteen months of Wagner calls for caution, but there has been no sign of a reversal of the above patterns.  To date, the Wagner Court has dealt with seven civilian appeals, some of which were consequential; five were decided by panels of nine and two by panels of seven.  There was no sign of the five-judge practice, no indication that these appeals are treated differently in this respect from the broad run of reserved decisions.  The five-judge rule is dead; it seems to have breathed its last in 2004.

But all is not lost.  Quebec judges may have been under-represented on the vanishing smaller panels and risk being outvoted on the larger ones, but they do deliver most of the judgments – fifty-one of the McLachlin Court’s fifty-five and five of the Wagner Court’s seven for an overall total of fifty-six out of sixty-two, about ninety per cent. There has long been a significant “homer” tendency on the Supreme Court in assigning the judgment – an appeal coming from your own province roughly doubles your chances – but the tendency is even stronger for Quebec civil appeals.  Compared with the five-judge rule, this may well be a less robust and less compelling institutional recognition of Quebec exceptionalism, but it is where the empirical evidence takes us.  We should remember, however, that when the Supreme Court was first established it was the spectre of common law judges deciding civil code issues that worried Quebec. “It only happens one time in every ten” may not be a completely reassuring response now that civilian judges are now outnumbered on every panel.

Two-Headed Judges

By Peter McCormick

If several judges on the Supreme Court of Canada suddenly sprouted two heads in their annual official photo, we would certainly take notice and would be looking for an explanation. But something similar has actually taken place in Supreme Court decisions without attracting either focused attention or a search for the reason why. More specifically – a significant number of Supreme Court decisions now routinely attribute judgments or minority reasons not to a single judge but to a pair (more rarely a trio) of judges. I leave aside for the moment the perhaps-not-unrelated phenomenon of the hydra-headed “By the Court” judgments,[1] which have been around for longer but are rather less frequent; my focus here is on the more numerous examples of this narrower form of co-authorship.

The practice is frequent enough and important enough to deserve attention.  Co-authored judgments are a recent development – the earliest significant example was R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075.[2] It rose beyond the sporadic only in the closing years of the Lamer Court, becoming more frequent and more routine (multiple examples every year) for the McLachlin Court.  To the Lamer Court’s 26 examples we can now add the 127 of the McLachlin Court and the 6 of the Wagner Court to date. Co-authorship involves minority reasons as well, with 46 examples for the Lamer Court, 72 for the McLachlin Court, and 11 for the Wagner Court. The total count is therefore 159 judgments and 129 sets of minority reasons in 30 years, for a Court that delivers about 60 reserved decisions a year. The practice only started in the late 1990s, but co-authorship has now become an ongoing feature of how the Supreme Court handles its business.

It might be suggested that perhaps the Court does this only for its more routine and less important decisions (although the count above already excludes the “from the bench” decisions that continue to make up about one-sixth of the caseload even after 1999 amendments limited appeals by right).  As I have elsewhere demonstrated at some length,[3] this “minor cases” reservation cannot be sustained.  Co-authorships are used proportionately most often for constitutional cases (Charter, federalism and aboriginal cases alike) and public law cases, most often for cases that have drawn larger numbers of interveners, and most often for cases with higher subsequent citation frequencies.  None of this says “routine” or “unimportant”.

Let me expand on this criterion of citation frequency.  Several different factors bear on how often a case is cited by the Court in later decisions, but citation counts remain a useful indicator of the ongoing impact of a decision.  More to the point, they provide a measure of how a specific judge’s influence endures beyond their own service on the Court, also showing the specific areas of law within which that persisting influence is the most important.  These are useful indicators indeed for assessing a judicial career.  It is therefore striking that the four most frequently cited decisions of the McLachlin Court (measured in “times cited per year since delivery” to level the playing field for the more recent decisions) are co-authored decisions; the four cases are Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, Housen v Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33, Bell ExpressVu v Rex, 2002 SCC 42, and R v Grant 2009 SCC 32.  Three further cases (R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, Canadian Western Bank v Alberta, 2007 SCC 22, and Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12) join them in the McLachlin Court “top ten.”

The blog of the Osgoode Hall law school TheCourt recently reinforced this point from another angle.  In a “where are they now?” post about the ten most recently retired Supreme Court justices, they reminded us of each judge’s most frequently cited decision.  For full half of them, including McLachlin herself, that involved a co-authored judgment.  The practice of co-authorship is not at the margins; it is right at the center.

These two-headed decisions clearly matter; how are we to account for their emergence? There are several possible reasons, none of which provides a completely satisfactory answer.

One explanation might be an unusually close partnership between judges who agree extensively on a range of issues, such that close collaboration flows naturally from this recurring congruence of views. This description clearly captures Cory and Iacobucci, who effectively invented the practice in the late 1990s. During their shared service on the Court, they posted the highest level of two-judge agreement of any pairing of judges; it is reasonable to see co-authorship as growing from this fertile soil of extensive agreement. But this explanation does not work for the complex network that has emerged more recently – on the McLachlin Court, every single justice was involved in some degree of co-authorship, most with several different partners.

A slightly more systemic answer might couch it in terms of alliances on a court that tends to fragment along predictable lines, with co-authorship reinforcing the solidarity of both “in-group” and “out-group” in the face of its chronic adversaries. But this explanation does not work either, simply because the network has been so extensive – there were no fewer than 45 different combinations of two or three judges who produced co-authored judgments on the McLachlin Court (slightly more if we extend the count to minority reasons). This is “bloc-eroding” behavior rather than “bloc-reinforcing” behavior.

A third explanation might be that it salvages a strong majority decision from multiple possible defections to an emerging separate concurrence.  In a private conversation some years ago, a former justice of the Supreme Court explained his own participation in at least some co-authorships in precisely these terms. This would make co-authorship part of the reason for McLachlin’s success in sharply reducing the frequency of separate concurrence compared with the preceding Lamer Court. This is perhaps mildly problematic given that such compromise can involve less a genuine meeting of minds than a degree of calculated ambiguity on central points of disagreement and a careful avoidance of problematic subsidiary issues; at least co-authorship does the service of highlighting this possibility.

A fourth explanation might be that it has a socializing function, with co-authorship linking established members of the Court with more recently appointed colleagues. Even for experienced judges elevated from provincial courts of appeal, the transition to the Supreme Court can be daunting.  However, such a disparity of experience between a pair of co-authors is much too infrequent to make this a pervasive explanation, although it may sometimes be a factor.

A fifth explanation might be that it sometimes represents an ambitious attempt to solve very large and deep-rooted problems in the Court’s jurisprudence.  The obvious example is Dunsmuir, with its ambitious recasting of the standards of review for administrative tribunals.  Double Aspect, in cooperation with the Administrative Law Matters blog, published an extended multi-part discussion of the case on its tenth anniversary last year.  Not only the most frequently cited decision of the McLachlin Court, it is also the most widely criticized; this and other blogs continually share expectations (which are just as continually frustrated) that some current case before the Court will provide the opportunity to revisit and adjust the Dunsmuir precedent, but this makes the point about how ambitious the undertaking was.

The search for a “why” is complicated by the fact that we do not even know the “when” of the formation of the writing partnership. Does it occur spontaneously during the post-hearing judicial conference, with the initial assignment of the writing of majority reasons? Nothing in the descriptions of this process either specifically mentions or specifically excludes the possibility of a joint assignment, and in a recent interview McLachlin suggested that at least some co-authorships emerge this way. Or does it occur after such an assignment, during the “circulate and revise” process and possibly under some prodding from the Chief Justice, like the salvage efforts described above? Clearly, this sometimes happens as well, but nothing in the physical appearance of the decision in the Supreme Court Reports gives any real hint as to which happens how often.

The benefit of the co-authorship practice is clear: it results in a more genuinely and visibly collegial court that presents an institutional face rather than an individualist one, that emphasizes pervasive agreement rather than division, that shows us a Court of persuasion and cooperation rather than polarization. As practised by the McLachlin Court, it eliminated the predictable blocks of the Lamer Court. Recall the “gang of five” who dominated the Court’s most important decisions for much of the 1990s, with the other judges (most notably L’Heureux-Dube and McLachlin) obliged to do much of their own writing in minority reasons.  No such persisting fragmentation has been seen for the past twenty years. There was more to the McLachlin Court’s unity and collegiality than co-authorship, but co-authorship was definitely part of it.

However, such benefits are always purchased at a price. For one thing, it is harder for lower courts or academics to unravel the nuances. We can sometimes clear up some ambiguities in the wording of a judgment by comparing the immediate decision with earlier reasons written by the same judge, or we can track the evolution of a judge’s thinking (with hints of where it might go next) by seeing how it is cited and applied in the same judge’s later reasons. This becomes more difficult if we cannot be sure which of a pair of judges might have written the particular passage or might be making the later citation. By the same token, the device depersonalizes the decision and diffuses the assignment of criticism or blame.

For another, it undercuts the venerable common law tradition of accountability, of the clear responsibility of the specific individual judge to which those reasons are attributed.  This is already attenuated by the “circulate and revise” procedures of the Supreme Court, such that a collegial dimension already pervades the final version – but even if we are looking at “lead authorship” rather than genuine “solo authorship”, the accountability dimension is real, and traditionally it has been important.[4]  It is clearly eroded by a pervasive co-authorship practice focused on the Court’s more important (in terms of subject matter), more controversial (in terms of interveners), and more influential (in terms of citation counts) decisions. 

Where is co-authorship taking us, and should we welcome the journey? The next time a two-headed judge raises its head in the Supreme Court Reports, these are the questions to ponder. We can debate whether it is taking us to a better place, but it is certainly taking us to a different place, all the more intriguing because no comparable court seems to be embarking on anything similar.


[1] Shameless plug: to know more about “By the Court’ judgments, keep an eye out for a fall 2019 UBC new release entitled By the Court: Anonymous Judgments at the Supreme Court of Canada.

[2] Or, one might suggest, Irwin Toy in 1989, although I have been assured that this was actually a “By the Court” judgment that “went sideways” at the last moment rather than an intentional three-judge-shared set of reasons.

[3] Peter McCormick, “Duets, Not Solos: The McLachlin Court’s Co-Authorship Legacy” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 41 (2018), 479.

[4] Mitchel Lasser makes this point very forcefully in his excellent Judicial Deliberations: A Comparative Analysis of Transparency and Legitimacy (OUP, 2004)

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.