Judicial Independence, Freedom, and Duty

Judicial independence is a familiar idea, though it is also a difficult one, in more than one sense. Difficult to accept, on the one hand, because independence from political, and ultimately electoral, control seats uneasily with our notions of democracy in which political power (which judges exercise, since they make their decisions in the name of the community) must spring from and be answerable to the voters. Difficult to work out, on the other hand, because even if we agree that, democratic qualms notwithstanding, that judicial independence is a good and important thing, we are bound to disagree about what, exactly it means or requires. To what extent can the executive be involved in the administration of the courts? Can the legislature lower the judges’ salaries along with those of all civil servants? Can it fail to raise these salaries for some prolonged period of time? People, and polities, committed to judicial independence as a principle can give different answers to these questions.

There is also a more profound difficulty with judicial independence, as Fabien Gélinas points out in a short and very interesting paper. (Full disclosure: prof. Gélinas taught me constitutional law at McGill, and I worked for him as a research assistant on several projects on judicial independence, among others, though not on this one.) As prof. Gélinas says, there some confusion not only over what judicial independence is, but also over what it is for. In fact, he argues, it has two distinct purposes. One is to ensure the impartiality of ordinary adjudication. Judges need to be independent and secure in order to avoid situations where they will have or will be seen as having an interest in the case before them. No one ought to be the judge in his own case. Nemo judex in propria causa. (As prof. Gélinas observes, the maxim, in this form, is not actually Roman―he traces it to Lord Coke. The Roman law had rules to the same effect, but neither as general nor as pithy.) The second purpose of judicial independence is to guarantee that the judiciary will, along with the legislature and the executive, have what Madison called “a will of its own”, an ability to stand up to the other branches of government. Prof. Gélinas says that this is peculiarly important in the modern state, where citizens recognize the possibility that the executive, and even the legislature, will abuse their power, and must be kept in check, particularly by means of judicial review of legislation. If courts are to expose and resist the abuses of the “political branches”, they must be, and be seen to be, impartial not only as between private litigants, but also between private litigants and the government itself.

This is interesting, but I think it does not go far enough.  The focus on judicial review is unjustified. The political branches are not just involved in litigation against citizens in cases involving claims that a statute is unconstitutional. Much more frequently, citizens challenge the legality of executive, rather than the constitutionality of legislative, action, and in such cases too the judiciary must be independent in order to adjudicate impartially. But notice too that we are still speaking of impartiality here―albeit between citizen and state rather than between two citizens. I think that the second purpose of judicial independence, one that arguably goes beyond impartiality, is to avoid situations where judges become instruments of state policy, as administrative agencies can be. Even where the state is not involved in litigation, it might still want, for policy reasons, the case to come out a certain way. Depending on its political preferences, a government might like courts to favour, say, employees over employers in unjust dismissal cases, or corporate defendants over plaintiffs in product liability cases. Judicial independence is means to make sure that if a cabinet minister in such a government picks up the phone, rings the Chief Justice, and tells her about the government’s preference for these outcomes, the the Chief Justice will tell him to go to hell―and that she will not suffer for it.

Of course, the legislature can, subject to the constitution, change the law to, say, make proof of liability for a defective product easier, or to expand the definition of what constitutes just cause for dismissing an employee. But it must do so publicly, after at least a modicum of parliamentary debate, and usually prospectively, so that those affected by the change will have time to prepare for it. A change in the law is also more difficult to reverse than a change in policy, so it is less lightly to be undertaken lightly, as a matter of temporary convenience. Judicial independence does not stop the government from acting―but it forces it to act transparently, democratically and, perhaps, for good reasons rather than on a whim.

The independence of the judiciary gives judges an extraordinary freedom. Nobody can force an independent judge to decide a case one way rather than another. (Appellate courts have some control over lower-court judges of course, because the latter do not like having their decisions reversed―but they will take the chance sometimes.) They can act in ways that are deeply unpopular and retain their positions. This is precisely what is worrying about judicial independence from a democratic perspective (though if what I said in the previous paragraph is right, judicial independence is also, in some ways, democracy-enhancing). But it is worth asking ourselves what it is exactly that judges are free to do.

The somewhat paradoxical, but reassuring answer is that, by and large, judges are free simply to do their duty. This is not to deny the existence of judicial discretion in hard cases. But even in those cases,  the judge has and keenly feels a duty to decide the case, according to what the law requires, or at least to a rule that fits with the law as it stands, after having respectfully listened to the parties and taken their arguments into account, and to give the reasons for his decision. A judge who is not independent―a judge, for example, who takes orders from the government, or who worries about being confirmed in his job by the legislature, or who is underpaid and seeks to ingratiate himself with a powerful litigant―is not free to do his judicial duty.

Almost Arbitrary

On the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Eugene Volokh has a post about an interesting case just decided by a federal district court in California. The case, Hebrew University of Jerusalem v. General Motors LLC, concerns GM’s right to use the image of Albert Einstein if an advertisement for one of its gas-guzzlers.

Einstein died in 1955 in Princeton, NJ. Eventually, the Hebrew University inherited Einstein’s property under his will. In the meantime, New Jersey’s courts recognized a common law “right of publicity,”  a sort of intellectual property right in one’s image and “persona,” and in particular in the commercial exploitation of such things. In 2009, GM ran an ad using Einstein’s picture to try to persuade us that buying one of its SUVs is an oh-so-brilliant idea. The Hebrew University sued, claiming that it had inherited Einstein’s right of publicity, and that GM has appropriated the old man’s image without its consent.

(Full disclosure: there is a print of Einstein, from an engraving by a distant relative, hanging on the wall in front of me as I’m typing this.)

The decision just released deals with a motion by Hebrew University for a ruling that the right of publicity which it inherited lasted long enough for its suit to be effective. It proposed that the right ought to last at least 70 years, in line with the federal term of copyright and the duration of California’s statutory right of publicity. The court rejected the motion and held that the right of publicity lasted only 50 years as a matter of New Jersey law, which is applicable to the case because Einstein died in New Jersey, conveniently just short of what the Hebrew University needed for its lawsuit to go ahead.

This case is a nice illustration of what Lon Fuller described as the ineradicable “antinomy of reason and fiat” in the common law (“Reason and Fiat in Case Law”, 59 Harv. L. Rev. 376 (1946)). The court’s decision is at once at a development of the principles and logic of the law surrounding the “right of publicity”―reason―and an arbitrary decision to set the right’s term at 50 years, rather than at some other number that would have suited these principles and logic just as well―fiat.

Among the reasons that bear on the court’s decision are the origin of the “right of publicity” in privacy rights and its inherent connection with the personhood and dignity of its original holder, which weakens over time after that person’s death, suggesting that the right should not be of unlimited duration; the resemblance, which is yet not an identity, of the “right of publicity” with copyright, which makes the copyright term a useful guideline, but not a firm mark, for the duration of the right of publicity; the choices of other states, which split about half and half between allowing a right of publicity longer than 50 years after the person’s death (indefinite in one case, up to 100 years in  a couple of others) and 50 years or shorter (sometimes as short as 20 years); and freedom of expression and the need for a rich public domain. Considering these reasons together and individually, the court concludes that 50 years is a reasonable middle ground, a compromise between allowing a person to exploit his image and fame and transmitting the benefits of his life’s work to his heirs, and letting the public use images that become part and parcel of our culture.

Perhaps so. Yet surely, 49 years or 51 would have been just as reasonable as 50; the number, after all, has relatively little, except its neatness, to recommend itself. (It was the old term of copyright protection in the US, to be sure, but it is no longer, and in any case the court pointed out that the copyright term, which it qualified as “extremely lengthy” (p. 11) is not determinative.) More to the point, a term of 55 or even 60 years would have struck much the same balance between the reasons at stake―but it would have made all the difference to the parties, since it would have allowed Hebrew University’s lawsuit to proceed.

As the court noted, citing a scholarly work, “the determination of the right’s duration [is] ‘by nature almost arbitrary'”  (p. 4). It noted, too, that “[a]n ‘almost arbitrary’ ruling is unacceptable, however” (4). It did its best to give reasons for its conclusion, so as to make it non-arbitrary. But the reasons, I think, cannot close the deal. They can, at best, point to a ballpark of reasonableness, a murky area in which any outcome will be defensible―but none incontestable. As Fuller warned,

[w]hen we deal with law, not in terms of definitions and authoritative sources, but in terms of problems and functions, we inevitably see that it is compounded of reason and fiat, of order discovered and order imposed, and that to attempt to eliminate either of these aspects of the law is to denature and falsify it. (382)

The existence of cases such as this is, nonetheless, something of an embarrassment to courts, who tend to cling to pure reason as the source of their legitimacy. It is also an embarrassment to those whom I described here as “right-answer romantics” who think that common law adjudication can always yield a definite right answer to any legal question. But for the rest of us, it need only be a fact about the law that we ought to be clear-eyed about.

Right Answer Romantics

I was re-reading F.A. Hayek’s discussion of the common law in Chapters 4 and 5 of Rules and Order, the first volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, and was struck by something I had missed when I first read it four years ago while working on a thesis on common-law constitutionalism. When deciding a case in which the applicable rule of law is not readily supplied by prior judicial decisions  (or by a statute), says Hayek,

The judge may err, he may not succeed in discovering what is required by the rationale of the existing order, or he may be misled by his preference for a particular outcome of the case in hand; but all this does not alter the fact that he has a problem to solve for which in most instances there will be only one right solution and that this is a task in which his will or his emotional response has no place. (119-20)

This is strongly reminiscent, of course, of the (more familiar to most legal philosophers) “right answer thesis” defended by Ronald Dworkin, according to which there is a right answer to every legal question, no matter how difficult, which a proper interpretation of the law should yield.

There are minor differences in the qualifications Hayek and Dworkin make for their right-answer claims: the former concedes, it seems, that there are at least some cases in which it does not hold―though he does not say what these are. The latter is willing to allow that the right answer cannot “be proved right to the satisfaction of everyone” (Law’s Empire, ix, emphasis in the original). Still, the two clearly believe in the essential truth of the one right answer claim.

They also come to it in roughly similar ways, arguing that, while the sources of law recognized by legal positivists (statutes and judicial decisions) do not provide all the answers to all legal questions, more general principles do. They differ somewhat on where these general principles come from and how they are to be found. For Dworkin, one gets at them by interpreting and making sense of prior political decisions of the community, notably the constitution, statutes, and judicial decisions. For Hayek, they are rules of conduct observed unconsciously by members of the community, unbeknownst perhaps to its rulers. But the first place to look for them is in prior judicial decisions (and perhaps also in legislation, though Hayek does not say so, because he recognizes that some legislation corrects aberrant judicial decisions). So these positions are not actually all that different.

In addition to the right answer thesis, Hayek and Dworkin draw another common conclusion from their view that the law’s “seamless web” (to use Dworkin’s expression) or “going order” (to use Hayek’s) is complete and ready to supply a sufficiently skilled and conscientious judge with right answers to all his questions. Both claim that judges do not “make law” in the way legal positivists think they do. Dworkin says that while

judges unquestionably ‘make new law’ every time they decide an important case. They announce a rule or principle or qualification or elaboration … that has never been officially declared before,

this can really be said to be law-making “in a trivial sense.” (6) They do not really make new law―they actually say what the law, properly understood, already was. Hayek makes a greater allowance for the judge’s creative role, but he is adamant that

even when in the performance of [his] function [the judge] creates new rules, he is not a creator of a new order but a servant endeavouring to maintain and improve the functioning of an existing order. (119)

And there, I suspect, is the key to this at first sight unlikely unison between the classical liberal Hayek and the New Dealer Dworkin. They are both trying very hard to legitimize the judges’ work, because they mistrust legislatures. They do so for opposite reasons: Hayek thinks they are over-eager to ride roughshod over the economic liberty and property rights of people; Dworkin, that they are likely not to respect individual rights, the chief of which is equality (not liberty). Their legal utopias are very different: Hayek’s ideal law a morally neutral framework in which each person is free to pursue his own ends, and in which the state’s values have no place at all; Dworkin’s is a legal system thoroughly permeated by a single, coherent set of values. But the upshot is the same. Legislatures are likely to impede the attainment of utopia. Judges, on the contrary, hold the values that can bring it about. (Of course Dworkin and Hayek can’t be both right about this, and perhaps neither of them is, but each thinks that he is.) So both idealized the judges’ law, and join in an almost indistinguishable common law romanticism.

The Forms and Limits of Persuasion

There was a very interesting piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker yesterday in New York Times magazine, about the ways in which we make up and change our minds. The immediate context to which it is directed is U.S. presidential campaign, in which both contenders (though especially Mitt Romney) have had some notorious “flip-flops.” But of course the issues it explores are relevant beyond the field of politics;  for example, they are of great importance to the law.

The law, as Ronald Dworkin, Jeremy Waldron, and others like to remind us is (in prof. Waldron’s words) “an argumentative practice.” A huge part of it involves two sides arguing their cases in front of an adjudicator or a group of adjudicators, who must then make up their minds about the decision. The parties are required to present evidence in support of their arguments, and the adjudicators’ decision is expected to be responsive to that evidence. What Lon Fuller might have called the forms and limits of persuasion matter enormously to lawyers and all those interested in the law’s operation.

But is persuasion just a pipe dream? In the final sentence of the article, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business says that “the truth is that our minds just aren’t set up to be changed by mere evidence and argument presented by a ‘stranger.’” That doesn’t bode well for the enterprise of law. Fortunately, what the article says before reaching this grim conclusion suggests that it is, in fact, misleading.

For one thing, the tendency to ignore evidence and argument manifests itself more or less strongly depending on context. “In some cases,” says Ms Koerth-Baker, “if we want to think of ourselves as thoughtful and open-minded — we can adopt identities that actually encourage flip-flopping” – or, less contemptuously, changing our minds in response to facts and arguments. “This is why juries function,” – and judges, too, of course – “and it’s what places pressure on scientists to form opinions based on reliable data.” The ethos of a dispassionate, careful decision-maker, one who must consider and respond to facts and arguments and, if necessary, change one’s mind, can apparently go to great lengths to overcome our natural inclination to decide on the basis of emotions and partiality to our own kind.

For another, knowing that one will be giving reasons for a decision changes the way one approaches making it. “Simply having to articulate why you believe what you do can also end up changing your attitude.” Not always in entirely desirable ways. People who know they must explain their decisions will sometimes take the decision that is easiest to explain, even though they might feel it is not quite right substantively. We might guard against the danger But, suggests a psychologist from the University of Virginia, ” if you have to explain your preferences, you’re likely to adopt an attitude that makes sense to your interlocutor, even if it conflicts with your emotions.”

The way our justice system is set up helps ensure that our judges are open to persuasion by evidence and arguments. Judges believe in and are committed to the impartial decision-maker’s ethos, which suggests that they are likely to do a decent job living up to it. In order to help them do so, and also in order to verify whether they do, there is a strong expectation, increasingly taking the form of a legal rule, that judges will give reasons for their decisions. These reasons typically summarize the parties’ main arguments, and respond to them. This forces judges “to adopt an attitude that makes sense to” the parties, as well as to consider the parties’ views. This, turn, is one of the ways in which law protects human dignity, as Jeremy Waldron points out. (Perhaps, in this limited sense, reason-giving can in fact exercise a  “pull towards goodness,” on judicial decisions, a possibility about which I have otherwise expressed skepticism, assuming a more substantive meaning of “goodness.”) And perhaps our judicial selection mechanism, which means that judges are recruited from the ranks of experienced litigators and legal academics, two professions which prize and help develop one’s ability to articulate one’s thinking, helps limit the risk that judges will give insincere but easy-to-state reasons for their decisions.

Despite my usual gloomy disposition (including a lack of faith in judges, at least when it comes to their ability to develop legal rules, as for example here), I am inclined to conclude on an optimistic note today. Our courts are organized in ways that counteract human beings’ poor decision-making skills, which psychologists are now describing in ever more depressing detail. And it is noteworthy that this is the result of a gradual development of the court system, rather than of its deliberate organization on scientific lines. (Those who hear an echo of Hayek here are right.) Our individual decision-making might be bad, but the accumulated intuition of generations is surprisingly good.

Yes, Minister, But…

According to the Globe and Mail, the federal Justice minister, Rob Nicholson, was recently asked about the propriety of a hypothetical (actually, rumoured) appointment of a cabinet minister to the bench. The Globe reports that

“[h]e said he did not believe that certain individuals should be ruled out as judges. ‘I’ve never gone out of my way to say that certain groups of individuals – people who have served, for instance, in political office – that they should be eliminated or sit out or anything else.'”

As a general principle, I think that’s right. There are fine lawyers serving in political office, and it would be too bad if we deprived ourselves of their services on the bench. During my clerkship at the Federal Court, I have had the privilege of working on some cases for Justice Yvon Pinard, who had been a cabinet minister and the government’s Leader in the House of Commons during Pierre Trudeau’s last cabinet, immediately prior to his appointment to the court (at the ripe old age of 36). I believe he is a fine judge. Indeed I’ve been told, though I haven’t verified this, that he is the judge of the Federal Court whose decisions are least often reversed by the Federal Court of Appeal. (This is surely not the only, maybe not even the best, benchmark by which to measure a judge’s performance, but it is worth something.) And there are many other examples of former politicians who went on to have fine, or even distinguished, judicial careers, in Canada and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous of them was Earl Warren, governor of California, vice-presidential candidate, and later  an iconic Chief Justice of the United States.

The counter-argument, the basis for claims about the impropriety of appointing a politician to the bench, implies that such a judge would be partisan, biased, or insufficiently independent. But many lawyers are political partisans even without serving in political office. If we assume that they are capable of relinquishing partisanship upon appointment to the bench, I think we should also afford the same presumptive trust to former active politicians. Lawyers work for firms that appear before them when they become judges; or they work in government positions in which they consistently take the same side of an issue (as prosecutors for example), but we expect them to be able to serve as impartial judges. Again, there is no reason to treat politicians any differently.

That said, there is a qualification which, although valid for any lawyer aspiring to the bench, might be worth special emphasis in the case of active politicians. A lawyer’s conduct, especially his or her conduct in his or her chosen profession, can obviously be scrutinized for signs that the lawyer may not be able to live up to the standard of conduct expected of a judge. As the Canadian Judicial Council explains,

    • Judges should, at all times, exhibit and promote high standards of conduct so as to reinforce public confidence. Judges should strive to conduct themselves in a way that will sustain and contribute to public respect and confidence in their integrity, impartiality and good judgment.
    • Judges should perform their duties with diligence while treating everyone before the court with courtesy and equality, being careful to avoid stereotyping or discrimination. Judges should avoid comments, expressions, gestures or behaviour which may be interpreted as showing insensitivity or disrespect.
    • In making their decisions, judges must be and must appear to be impartial at all times. Judges must be mindful of how inappropriate comments, improper remarks or unjustified reprimands can undermine the appearance of impartiality and actively work to avoid them.

Prior to their appointment to the bench, lawyers are not held to the same standard, and some deviations from it should not be disqualifying from a judicial appointment. But a lawyer who has a history of treating opponents as enemies, of going beyond the normal bounds of partisanship, of refusing to acknowledge contrary viewpoints, or of being hateful or contemptuous is, in my view, not qualified to serve as a judge. And, arguably, politicians are especially at risk of committing these deadly sins. A politician who claims that the opponents of his policy “stand … with child pornographers” probably should not become a judge. Yes, Minister, it is your colleague Vic Toews I am talking about.

Googling Justice

Law review articles don’t make newspapers very often. But they do sometimes, as I noted in a post discussing the use of a certain four-letter word by Supreme Courts in the U.S. and Canada. Another example is a very interesting forthcoming paper by Allison Orr Larsen, of the William & Mary School of Law, called “Confronting Supreme Court Fact Finding,” which is the subject of a recent Washington Post story.

What seems to have piqued the Post‘s interest was the reference, in a fiery dissent by Justice Scalia in Arizona v. United States, to an newspaper article published after the oral argument in that case. The article was obviously not referred to by any of the submissions to the court. Justice Scalia, or one of his clerks, found it himself. Never mind the political controversy around Justice Scalia’s comments; “let’s … focus on a different lesson,” says the Post. “[U.S.] Supreme Court justices Google just like the rest of us.”

Indeed they do, writes prof. Larsen, and very frequently. She found more than 100 examples of judicial citations of sources not referred in the record in the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court issued in the last 15 years; and such citations might be especially frequent in high-profile cases. While the rules of evidence require judges to keep to the evidence put to them by the parties, and appellate courts to the facts found at trial, for the “adjudicative facts” of a case – who did what, where, when, to whom, with what intention, etc. – these limits do not apply to “legislative facts” – general facts about the world or, more specifically, the social (and scientific) context in which legal rules operate.

As prof. Larsen notes, “[i]ndependent judicial research of legislative facts is certainly not a new phenomenon” (6). But new technologies are game-changers, because they make it so much easier. “Social science studies, raw statistics, and other data are all just a Google search away. If the Justices want more empirical support for a factual dimension of their argument, they can find it easily and without the help of anyone outside of the Supreme Court building” (6). If the parties (and interveners) to a case did not provide them with as much contextual information as they would have liked, judges used to have to rely on their own knowledge of the world, or guess, in order to figure out the context in which the rules they applied operated, and present their conclusion as, essentially, bald assertions. No longer. Now they can easily find what someone else has written on whatever topic interests them, and provide that person’s work as a source – an authority – for their assertions.

Prof. Larsen argues that this raises several problems, which the law at present fails to address. One is the risk of mistake. What if the information judges find is wrong or unreliable? Normally, we trust that the adversarial process will allow the parties to point out mistakes in the evidence submitted by their opponents. But if the judges engage in “in-house” fact-finding, there is no one to call them on the errors they might – and surely will – make. What makes the problem even worse is that human psychology and, possibly, technology, can conspire to make the results of judicial investigations biased. It is well-known that we tend to look (harder) for information that supports our hunches (rather) than for that which disproves it. But now, in addition, it is possible for search engine algorithms to supply us with information that suits our (likely) biases as inferred from our previous online activity. There is, apparently, debate over whether Google actually does this, but at least the possibility is there and ought to be worrying. Last but not least, in addition to the problems of error and bias, judicial reliance on “in-house” research is unfair to the parties, who have no notice of what the judges are doing and no opportunity to challenge their findings or even to address their concerns.

In fairness, it’s not as if the old common sense, logic, and bald assertion way of “finding” legislative facts were problem-free. Perhaps, at some point in the past, their experience as litigators was sufficient to teach future judges all they needed to know about the world (though that’s very doubtful). It surely isn’t anymore (as I wrote, for example, here). And bald assertions of judicial common sense are hardly less unfair to the parties, or less affected by bias (class bias for example), than their autonomous research. I don’t know if it is possible to establish with any sort of confidence whether the problems the new resources at the judges’ disposal are creating are worse than those they are displacing. But perhaps it is worth trying.

Another thing I don’t know is whether these problems might be less acute in Canada than they are in the United States. I don’t have any hard numbers, but my impression is that our Supreme Court might cite fewer problematic sources for its legislative-fact-finding. It often relies on the governmental studies, which I suppose are easily available to the parties and surely are (or really, really ought to be) part of the record. I may be wrong about this though. That would be a feasible study, and an interesting one to undertake, but for now, I do not have the time to do so. I would love to hear from those in the know though, former Supreme Court clerks for example.

Independence Enough Day

Ontario’s Small Claims Court relies on the work of 400 “deputy judges” – practising lawyers who take up part-time judging gigs, for an average of 19 sitting days a year. Subs. 32(1) of the the Courts of Justice Act provides that they are appointed by “[a] regional senior judge of the Superior Court of Justice … with the approval of the Attorney General,” for a three-year term if the deputy judge is younger than 65, or a one-year terms if he or she is older (subss. 32(2) and 32(3)). Subs. 32(4) provides that the appointments are renewable “by a regional senior judge of the Superior Court.” The Ontario Deputy Judges’ Association challenged the constitutionality of the reappointment provision, arguing that it compromised the court’s independence. Last week, Ontario’s Court of Appeal issued reasons for its rejection of the challenge, in Ontario Deputy Judges’ Association v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2012 ONCA 437.

The deputy judges’ sole argument was that the process of reappointment at the discretion of a regional senior judges did not appear to be sufficiently independent. Although it is not clear whether the argument was exactly the same on appeal, at trial, they had argued that the problem with this arrangement was that it did not grant deputy judges  “input from an independent body, the right to participate in some form of hearing or inquiry and the provision of reasons” (Ontario Deputy Judges Association v. The Attorney General of Ontario, 2011 ONSC 6956, par. 23).

As the court of first instance had done, the Court of Appeal rejected this argument. It held that, as the Supreme Court suggested in Valente v. The Queen, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 673, reappointment of a judge at the discretion of a member of the judiciary, unlike reappointment at the discretion of a member of the executive (such as the Attorney General), raises no concerns over independence sufficient to make it unconstitutional. It may or may not make the judge perfectly independent, but it makes him or her independent enough.

That sounds right to me as a matter of constitutional law. The constitution sets only a minimal standard, in judicial independence as in other matters. Whether a system that relies consistently on ad hoc deputy judges – who, presumably, are much cheaper than full-time ones – is the sort of civil justice system we want to have is another question, which should be addressed to legislatures, not courts.

Who Plays on a Level Field?

Any regulation of the democratic process reflects a certain normative view of an idealized democracy. For example the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), to allow corporate and union spending on electoral campaigns reflects a (stated) view that democracy functions best when the quantity of political speech speech is maximized, and is impaired if any category of speakers is silenced. Canadian electoral legislation and the leading cases in this area decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, Libman v. Québec (A.G.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569, and Harper v. Canada (A.G.), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, reflect a different normative view, which Colin Feasby, the most prolific writer on the law of democracy in Canada, has called an “egalitarian model” of elections. But such ideals leave much unsaid. The Supreme Court of the United States says that it maximizes freedom and the amount of information available to voters, but pays little attention, for example, to the likely detrimental effects the need to raise funds for an unlimited-expenses campaign has on the performance of elected officials (and candidates for office).

What does the Canadian “egalitarian model” leave unsaid? A metaphor that the Supreme Court uses in Harper, that of “a level playing field for those who wish to engage in the electoral discourse” (par. 62) is helpful to try to understand. The Supreme Court probably invoked it for no reason beyond its feel-good appeal to our sense of fair play (though the appeal is lost on some, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, who, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, (2011) 131 S. Ct. 2806, at 2826, Chief Justice Roberts has observed that although “‘[l]eveling the playing field’ can sound like a good thing … in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.” But I would like to extend the metaphor a little, and explore the implications of describing electoral debate as a football game (or a chivalry tournament – or, perhaps less romantically, a duel – for those who read the French version of the judgment, which speaks of debate “à armes égales”; the imagery is somewhat different, but still amenable to the interpretation I am about to suggest) because it reveals more than the Court probably intended about the roles of those involved in the political process under the egalitarian model.

If the electoral process as envisioned by the Supreme Court is a football game played on an “even playing field,” political parties are of course the teams playing on that field. According to the adherents of the egalitarian conception of democracy, they are the primary competitors for the prize of political power. Political parties are like professional sports teams, with coaching and scouting staff of consultants and opposition researchers, their farm clubs of youth organizations, their practice rosters of backbenchers and, of course, their fans among the voters. These fans, along with less interested spectators, are seating in the stands around the playing field. A few of them might unfurl some home-made banners to make their opinion of the proceedings or the competitors known, but for the most part they will, at most, cheer their favourites and boo the opponents. There are even cheerleaders around the field, although they wear suits, as befits members of editorial boards. Neither players nor spectators, they try to stir up the enthusiasm of the latter for the former.

This extended metaphor highlights some salient features of the egalitarian model of elections implemented by Parliament in the Canada Elections Act, and endorsed by the Supreme Court, such as the special status of the media and, most importantly, the central role of political parties in electoral discourse and the relative passivity of the voters. The metaphor only breaks down on Election Day, when the voters are at last allowed to leave the stands, and to choose the winner of the game they have (or have not) been watching.

I think this is a rather less rosy picture than that which the Supreme Court would like us to see. Metaphors, even old and stale ones, are dangerous that way.

The Best and the Rest

A friend has drawn my attention to what seems like an interesting book, Laughing at the Gods: Great Judges and How They Made the Common Law by Allan C. Huntchinson, a professor at Osgoode Hall. I haven’t had a chance to start reading it yet but I will eventually, because prof. Hutchinson’s topic is directly relevant to my doctoral dissertation’s topic – judges and the way in which they shape the law. But while my idea is that such a study has to start with systemic factors – the ways in which the environment in which judges work (generally accepted ideas of what a judge ought to do, the institution of courts, rules of procedure) constrain them and influence their work, the sources of the rules judges apply, the differences of the judges’ approaches to various areas of the law – prof. Hutchinson’s study is about individuals.

As the blurb on the publisher’s website says, “[a]ny effort to understand how law works has to take seriously its main players – judges. Like any performance, judging should be evaluated by reference to those who are its best exponents.” The book is about “candidates for a judicial hall of fame,” “game changers who oblige us to rethink what it is to be a good judge” – starting with Lord Mansfield, and on to mostly predictable greats such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lord Atkin, and Lord Denning. The only Canadian in the list is Justice Bertha Wilson.

As I wrote here a while ago, “judicial greatness, as greatness in anything else, is probably impossible to define in any way that would not generate serious disagreement. But that’s precisely what makes trying to define it, and coming up with lists of greats, so entertaining.” So I’m sure that a book trying to understand judicial work by defining and selecting case studies of judicial greatness was good fun to work on, and has the potential of being good fun to read. And yet I wonder if it is a profitable way of achieving its stated aim of understanding how the law works.

That’s because I doubt that “any performance …  should be evaluated by” looking at the best performers. For one thing, understanding any human activity is, arguably, a study in mediocrity more than in greatness. If you want to understand tennis, it is not enough to watch Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. That will teach you how it ought to be done, but tells you nothing at all about how tennis is in fact played by everyone else on the planet. And the point is starker still if we leave the realm of activities that are pursued primarily for the sake of excellence, such as competitive sports and performing arts. Other activities – think of cooking for example – are mostly pursued not for the sake of excellence, but in order to satisfy some practical need. By studying examples of excellence in such activities, one does not even learn what people who undertake them typically aim for, even in their dreams, still less what they usually achieve.  Judging is like that. Its primary purpose is not to achieve greatness, but simply to settle disputes, many of them quite trivial. A lot of it happens every day, most of it good enough to do the job, but by no means remarkable. Studying great judges tells you little descriptively about what judging usually is, and perhaps not much normatively about what it ought to be.

The other point that any study of a human activity through the examination of its outstanding representatives misses is the rule-bound nature of most human undertakings. To return to my tennis example again, a book about it surely has got to start with a description of the rules of the game, not with the biographies of great players. Of course you might be able to figure out some (in the case of tennis, probably most) of the rules by watching great matches, but understanding the rules of the game first will help you appreciate and understand what is going on and what is so great about it. You will also need some understanding of the means at the players’ disposal  – their equipment, say, or even the human body. Suppose you’re an alien with teleportation abilities who doesn’t understand how human beings move around. Chances are you won’t admire Rafa Nadal’s running – you’ll think he’s an idiot. It is a rather convoluted example, but when it comes to judging, we are to some extent in the position of that alien. Most legal thinkers seem not to have much of an appreciation for the rules of the judicial game or for the limits the judges’ position imposes on what they can do. Of course these rules are controversial and these limits are uncertain. But it seems to me that a truly informative study of judging has to begin by discussing them.

There is of course a danger in methodological critiques such as this one. Instead of engaging with the story a scholar tells, the critic in effect tells him that he ought to have written a different kind of story, which (almost) invariably happens to be just the kind of story the critic himself is working on. That’s exactly what I’ve done here. Yet if that caveat is right, then perhaps there us substantive value in my criticism, despite its dubious and self-serving methodology!

Not for Sale

On to the third (and maybe last) part of my comments about the the BC Supreme Court’s judgment striking down hearing fees the province imposed on litigants who wanted to go to trial, which I summarized here. On Thursday I wrote about the separation of powers aspect of the judgment; on Friday about its suggestion that there is a right to go to court. I turn now to the idea that the imposition of hearing fees is wrong not (just) because it infringes the judicial branch’s prerogatives or the rights of the citizens, but because it departs from a certain idea of what government and public services ought to be like.

This argument is related to the one about separation of powers; indeed, although Justice McEwan’s rhetoric suggests otherwise, I think it is necessary to make the separation of powers argument plausible. Taken on its own, the claim that the judiciary must be master in its own house and the legislature has no business interfering with the role of the courts by enacting rules that encourage people to settle disputes otherwise than through adjudication is incredibly far-reaching. It would make rules designed to encourage settlement (like Rule 49 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure) or legislation providing for recognition and enforcement of arbitral awards constitutionally suspect ― but I don’t believe any court in Canada would think this a plausible constitutional principle. What might make the claims of impermissible interference with courts plausible here is the nature of the change imposed, rather than the mere fact that the legislature intervened in the working of the judicial branch.

The hearing fees imposed by British Columbia had the purpose and effect of “rationing” courtroom time and of making the people who actually go to court pay for the upkeep of the civil justice system. They reflected a conception of the civil justice system as a service of which people choose to avail themselves, and which benefits those who make this choice. If that’s what civil justice is, it is logical enough to make its “users” pay for it. That’s how arbitration works, for instance. But it’s not what civil justice is, says Justice McEwan. Continue reading “Not for Sale”