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, of instance, 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 question 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.

Scandalizing!

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

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

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

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

The Real Contempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Cour, c’est qui?

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

Peter McCormick, University of Lethbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Similarity Score
McLachlin CJ 8.03
Abella 8.94
ALL JUDGES 8.95
Karakatsanis 9.64
Moldaver 10.17
Wagner 11.76

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

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

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

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

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

Still Not a Conservative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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