How Judge Posner Thinks

Some thoughts on a recent book about Richard Posner

I have recently finished reading William Domnarski’s book on Richard Posner ― for reasons that will become apparent, I hesitate to describe it as a biography ― and want to share some thoughts on it. Be warned though: I am something of a Posner fanboy, and thus start with a favourable pre-disposition to a book that reads, at places at least, like it was written by one of my fellows. That said, as Paul Horwitz wrote in his review, for the New Rambler, of Judge Posner’s own Diverging Paths: The Academy and the Judiciary, “Posner’s greatest fans, if they take him as a model, should be his most engaged critics”. (I think this is also true any intellectual fandom; I try to apply this precept to my own, anyway.) If Mr. Domnarski’s book has a failing, it is probably that the author did not take this wise piece of advice as seriously as he might have.

In a sense, Richard Posner is of course a biography. It proceeds chronologically, from its subject’s childhood in New York, to his studies in English (at Yale) and law (at Harvard), to a Supreme Court clerkship (with William Brennan Jr.), to government work (in the office of the Solicitor General and at the FTC), to academic positions (briefly at Stanford and then in Chicago), to the bench. But after the first chapter, which covers the first three decades of Judge Posner’s life, up until his appointment in Chicago, there is no biography in a traditional sense at all. It is almost as if, having joined the Chicago faculty, Richard Posner simply lived happily ever after ― and I suppose he really has, although his happiness is often of a grumpy kind. It’s not for nothing that he loves cats and, as Mr Domnarski notes, compares himself to them.

Unlike in fairy tales, however, the happy ever after is the real story here ― albeit a purely intellectual, almost a dis-incarnate one. We learn about Judge Posner’s articles and books ― and others’ responses to them; about his questioning style on the bench ― and lawyers’ views on it; about his judgments ― and their citation rates; about how his decisions fared at the Supreme Court ― and how the Supreme Court fares in his writing (the short answer: very badly); and a little about his interactions and debates with academic colleagues (Martha Nussbaum is probably the one who is mentioned most often, but others, including Ronald Dworkin, feature too) ― and their views of him. More than a biography, then, Mr Domnarski has written a study of Judge Posner’s place in American law and legal thought in the last half-century ― the people and ideas who influenced him, his influence on others through his academic and judicial writing, and the reception that his ideas got from those who encountered them.

For a Posner fan, such as myself, this is fascinating stuff. And indeed it should be very interesting reading for anyone interested in American law, or in law tout court, which as an intellectual pursuit is now difficult to imagine without the economic analysis that Judge Posner has championed, especially in the first few decades of his career. Judge Posner has been many things to different people: an object of admiration (albeit tempered with criticism) to some, and a bogeyman to others; a heartless arch-conservative and a “deeply moral” progressive hero. That’s partly because his views have long been too complex for any caricature, but also because they have changed considerably over time, and Mr. Domnarski’s book does us all a service in re-tracing their evolution.

In one way, however, it does come up short. As mentioned above, I think Mr. Domnarski is not always living up to a Posner fan’s duty to be also a critic. He is critical sometimes, to be sure, as when he discusses some of Judge Posner’s adventures in looking for information outside the record, extending even to staging experiments in his chambers (which Josh Blackman has mocked as “judicial fashion shows“). But there might be more to be said about, and against, Judge Posner’s self-styled pragmatism, his admitted lack of regard for constitutional text and other conventional legal authority, and his criticisms of the legal profession’s hidebound ways, then is to be found in Mr. Domnarski’s book.

Alone, Judge Posner is often the child who is willing to cry out the truth about the nakedness, or at least the raggedness of the clothing, of the legal system’s majesty. (In a joint interview that Tom Ginsburg conducted with Mr. Domnarski and Judge Posner this week, the Judge mentioned that he was “brattier” than his classmates at Harvard Law School. He still is brattier than anyone in the legal world, as the interview itself demonstrates.) But what would happen to the legal system if all judges acted as he does, elevating policy at the expense of law? As a critic, Judge Posner scores painful hits when lambasting his colleagues, and lawyers, for a lack of scientific literacy or even curiosity. But what has he really offered in the way of solutions to a problem he eloquently identifies? Mr. Domnarski does not engage with, and mostly does not raise, these difficult questions, and that’s too bad.

These questions however reinforce a point that Mr. Domnarski does make (underscoring it with a running comparison between Judge Posner and his colleague, first at the University of Chicago and then on the 7th Circuit, Frank Easterbook). Judge Posner, in a word, is unique. Perhaps for the better, but mostly I think for the worse, there is not his like, and perhaps never will be. Mr. Domnarski’s study of Judge Posner’s thought and its place in American law is a reminder of what a force this thought has been, and remains.

Constraint and Candour

The case for a constrained judiciary ― but also candour about adjudication

At the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law (ARL), Asher Honickman has posted a reply to my post here on “How to Do Constitutional Adjudication” (which was itself a reply to some of his arguments in a previous ARL essay making “The Case for a Constrained Approach to Section 7” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). I would like to respond, focusing mostly on what I have been referring to as “democratic process failures” and their relevance to constitutional adjudication. I think that Mr. Honickman mis-characterizes my arguments on this point, but perhaps that’s because they were not clear enough to begin with.

* * *

First, though, a note on what is, as I know from conversation, a persistent but perhaps unimportant disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me. I wrote that

law generally, and constitutional law in particular, contains an ineradicable moral and ideological element, so that there is nothing wrong with perceiving judges as being ― in part ― moral agents and political actors. [Moreover], the Charter‘s text itself makes it inevitable that that judges will be making decisions touching on morality and politics.

Mr. Honickman responds by conceding that “[t]he judge can no more divorce herself from her subjective experiences, beliefs and values than can the historian, the economist, or the physician,” but arguing that “it does not follow that judges should embrace their fallibility.” He wants judges to be “constrained by a ‘rule of law’ culture” that will limit, if not altogether remove, the negative consequences of the judges’ inability to be entirely objective.

I have no quarrel with this, but think this misses the point I was trying to make, which is that moral values and ideology are not just something that judges bring into the law because they are fallible, but something it is built into the law ― perhaps into the very concept of law. Mr. Honickman’s example is a telling one: history, economics, and medicine are supposed to be amoral. They describe the world and suggest ways to change it, but whatever values their practitioners bring to their craft are external to the disciplines themselves. Law is different. It has, Lon Fuller argued, an “internal morality.” It is, Jeremy Waldron says, inherently protective of human dignity. The Rule of Law, which Mr. Honickman wants judges to uphold, is itself a moral concept. (This view is not universal ― Joseph Raz, in particular, famously challenged it. But I find it quite persuasive.)

What I meant, then, when I wrote that law is necessarily moral and ideological was not only, and not so much, that judges will inevitably fail to avoid bringing their subjective values into their work ― though they will, and I agree with Mr. Honickman that this is regrettable. What I meant is that even when judges perform their work to perfection and only apply such principles as can be readily inferred from the constitutional text (the Rule of Law, federalism, and democracy, say) and many of the text’s explicit guarantees (I mentioned freedom of religion, equality, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure), they are already engaged in a moral and ideological endeavour. The proper response to the unreconstructed Marxist or the social justice warrior who dismisses the Rule of Law and the rest of it as bourgeois ideology is not to say that it’s not, but to admit that it is, and that you will keep sticking to that ideology because it helps prevent Gulags instead of building them. That said, in practice, little turns on the difference between these two responses.

* * *

Coming back to the issue of democratic process failures, my contention was not ― as it seems to me that Mr. Honickman took it to be ― that these provide a self-standing ground for judicial intervention, regardless of constitutional text or doctrine. The text, in particular, remains the overarching limit on judicial power, the law to which this power is subordinate. Doctrine is a more complicated case, and perhaps the ground of some disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me, because I would favour a somewhat less stringent approach to stare decisis than he might prefer. Still, I share Mr. Honickman’s belief in the importance of constraint.

My reference to democratic process failures ― as well as that to pervasive political ignorance ― was specifically in response to Mr. Honickman’s insistence that the legislatures’ ability to resolve moral issues means that judges do not need to do so. Legislatures, I argued, will often fail to address moral issues, or will address them in ways that have little to do with the voters’ preferences or interests, and much to do with those of the legislators. The point is not that courts have a roving commission to find out and correct cases when this occurs, but that they should not hesitate to make moral judgments ― when authorized or required to do so by the constitutional text (and doctrine) ― under the pretext that the legislatures will take care of this.

I originally spoke of democratic process failure in my comment on Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, where the Supreme Court held that a blanket prohibition on medically-assisted suicide was inconsistent with section 7 of the Charter. Although there were problems with the way the Supreme Court articulated that decision, its interpretation of section 7 was at least plausible ― and in my view correct ― in light of the constitutional text and the doctrine as it had developed in the years since the Court first answered that question in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 519. The point of my discussion of democratic process failure was to address concerns about the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” said to be inherent in judicial review. Because of such failures, it is not the case that judicial review is always counter-majoritarian (though of course it often is).

This example shows that any court empowered to review the constitutionality of legislation is ipso facto “empowered to correct ‘democratic process failures,'” ― and thus that Mr. Honickman need not worry that such correction “will necessarily be ‘instrumentalist,’ finding and affirming rights that are not supported by the Charter itself, but which, in the judges’ view, make for good social policy.” To repeat, the Charter‘s provisions remain the source of the court’s authority and at the same time the constraint on this authority, while democratic process failure is the reason for which that authority is invoked. Accordingly, when faced with what it thinks is a democratic process failure, the Court’s role is not to figure out the preferences of a majority ― which, as Mr. Honickman correctly points out, may not be determinate ― but simply to do the usual judicial task and invalidate the impugned statute or government decision if it is contrary to the constitution. At most, the presence of a failure obviates the case, if any, for judicial deference to the other branches of government.

I agree with Mr. Honickman that the questions that I raised about democratic process failures ― most basically, how do we know, and how can a court know, that one has occurred ― are difficult to answer, though it’s not clear to me that there can be “no objective standard” to help in the enterprise. But this difficulty does not undermine the case for judicial intervention, because, and so long as, that intervention is justified on another ground ― namely that of inconsistency between the government’s action and the constitution. Whether a democratic process failure has occurred might influence the deference that the court ought to show the government’s decision-making process, but the basic propriety of judicial intervention does not turn on the answer to this question.

Ultimately, Mr. Honickman and I might be disagreeing less about the judicial role than about democratic theory. Where I see “persistent inability of the democratic process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable,” Mr. Honickman sees “legislatures [that] do not base their decisions on the polls at any given time and look instead to the national interest.” The fact, which he acknowledges, that a passionate (or, I would add, strongly self-interested) and well-organized minority can prevail over the majority is not a bad thing in his view ― and, I suppose, fully consistent with the national interest. Even if democracy malfunctions, we should recall that it is “the worst system except for all the others” and correct its “imperfections … from within.” To me, this sounds like saying that because a free market is better than any alternative, we should not bother trying to correct market failures and hope that the market will correct itself, or that because government is necessary, our only response to government failure should be to improve regulatory mechanisms, instead of privatizing and deregulating. A few people accept the former argument, and many the latter, but to me, both seem fallacious. Democracy is indeed better than the alternatives, but if its shortcomings can be mitigated by means external to its normal processes ― such as judicial review ― then so much the better.

* * *

I share Mr. Honickman’s concerns about judges exercising their power without the constraints of constitutional text and legal doctrine. However, I do not think that the proper response to these concerns is to say that judges ought to be entirely non-ideological, and that they should leave matters of moral judgment to the legislative process, however flawed that process is. Like Mr. Honickman, I believe that judges should be enforcing constitutional rules, but I do not mind acknowledging the moral and ideological dimensions of many of these rules as well as the shortcomings of democracy, which judicial review can help remedy.

Not Such a Simple Thing

A divided Supreme Court expands the powers of search incident to arrest

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a decision, R. v. Saeed, 2016 SCC 24, that was further evidence of its majority’s expansive views of the police’s powers of search incident to arrest ― and trust in judicially developed checklists to prevent the abuse of these powers. Meanwhile, by writing an opinion which, although concurring with the majority in the result, rejected its approach, Justice Karakatsanis confirmed her role as the Court’s leading ― if only in dissent ― privacy-protecting voice. To that extent, the case was a reprise of the Court’s earlier decision in  R. v. Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 621, where it considered the powers of the police to search an unlocked cell phone incident to arrest. (I commented on that case here.)

The issue in Saeed, was whether the police could conduct a penile swab on a man arrested on suspicion of sexual assault (or effectively force him to do it for them) in order to obtain the victim’s DNA ― without a warrant. In an opinion by Justice Moldaver, a seven-judge majority answered that question in the affirmative. Justice Karakatsanis disagreed, but would have admitted the evidence under section 24(2) of the Charter. Justice Abella dissented, endorsing Justice Karakatsanis’ approach to the main issue, but being of the view that the evidence was not admissible.

The friend of a victim of a brutal sexual assault having pointed to Mr. Saeed as the perpetrator, the police arrested him. Some time later, having concluded that a penile swab would potentially uncover useful evidence, the police placed Mr. Saeed, fully clothed, “in a dry cell, with no toilet or running water, to preserve the evidence. Mr. Saeed was handcuffed to the wall to prevent him from licking his hands or otherwise washing away evidence,” [18] for 30 or 40 minutes. Eventually, Mr. Saeed took the swab, under the direction of two male police officers, who were the only persons present. “The procedure took at most two minutes.” [25]

* * *

Justice Moldaver begins his reasons by asserting ― without much of an explanation ―  that “perhaps more than any other search power,” the “ancient and venerable power” of search incident to arrest “is used by the police on a daily basis to detect, prevent, and solve crimes.” [1] This power extends, he concludes, to the taking of a penile swab, although he “agree[s] that the common law power of search incident to arrest must be tailored to protect the enhanced privacy interests involved.” [42]

Despite the privacy implications, the taking of a penile swab is not, in Justice Moldaver’s view, analogous to that of a bodily sample ― which cannot be carried out as a search incident to arrest. The swab does not reveal information about the arrested person’s body ― it aim is to find the DNA of the complainant. It is also not particularly invasive ― or at any rate less invasive than the taking of dental impressions. Finally, the material it serves to collect can be removed quite quickly, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Justice Moldaver emphasizes the usefulness of collecting this material for prosecuting sexual assaults ― or indeed for exonerating an innocent suspect.  “This type of evidence,” he points out, “is highly reliable. It can be crucial in the case of complainants who are unable to testify, such as children, adults with disabilities, or those who have died or suffered serious injuries as a result of the offence or otherwise.” [59] For this reason, to require consent for a penile swab ― as the United Kingdom does ―  “effectively disregards the interests of victims of sexual assault … and all but ignores the public interest in bringing sexual offenders to justice.” [61] As for requiring a warrant, obtaining one takes time ― hours perhaps ― and thus involves “leaving accused persons to wait for an indefinite period in an uncomfortable and potentially degrading position,” “handcuffed without access to water or toilet facilities … in order to preserve the evidence.” [65]

Justice Moldaver cautions that a penile “swab must be truly incident to the arrest, in the sense that the swab must be related to the reasons for the arrest, and it must be performed for a valid purpose” [74]; that there must be reasonable grounds for conducting one; and that it must be conducted in a reasonable manner, to which end he supplies a list of 10 “factors” or guidelines, admonishing the police to proceed expeditiously, to explain the procedure to the arrested person, to respect his privacy to the extent possible, and to keep records. In Mr. Saeed’s case, the police acted consistently with these guidelines, and the evidence they collected is, accordingly, admissible.

* * *

As she had done in Fearon, Justice Karakatsanis takes a much narrower view of the power of search incident to arrest. She is much more concerned about the privacy interests of the accused, and more skeptical of the ability of courts to prevent abuses by supplying guidelines for the police.

For Justice Karakatsanis, a genital swab (notice, by the way, the gender-neutral terminology she uses, in contrast to Justice Moldaver) are no different from “mouth swabs, dental impressions and hair samples [which] cannot be taken as part of searches incident to arrest because they represent too great an infringement of bodily integrity and affront to privacy and dignity.” [99] Indeed,  “[a] swab of the genital area is far more damaging to personal dignity and privacy than a swab of the inside of the mouth or a pluck of hair from the head,” [101] and this is especially the case for a woman. That a genital swab doesn’t serve to collect information about the individual on whom it is conducted does not matter. The affront to the person’s dignity is the key consideration. However, whatever its purpose, “an effect of the seizure is to put the individual’s DNA in the hands of the state.” [104]

Justice Karakatsanis also notes that “if there is no lawful means by which the police could collect the evidence, ever,” ― and there may not be such means to collect the evidence yielded by a genital swab, as it is not clear that a warrant to collect it can be lawfully issued under the Criminal Code

it would not matter how long the evidence lasts.  Nothing would be lost when the evidence disappeared — no state interests would be compromised —because even if the evidence had survived, the police would have had no lawful authority to collect it. [108]

Further, Justice Karakatsanis argues that although it is not clear that it is actually necessary to handcuff a person in a dry cell in order to preserve the evidence while waiting for a genital swab, if it is,

this necessity could not be used to justify the greater affront to dignity that a genital swab would represent.  One indignity cannot justify another.  It would be ironic indeed if [section 8 of the Charter] did not protect individuals from the indignity of genital swabs precisely because it protects them from the indignity of detention in dry cells. [113]

Finally, Justice Karakatsanis is unconvinced that judicially developed safeguards can effectively protect the privacy interests of all those who may come into contact with the police ― and not only the subset of suspects who will be charged and thus have an opportunity to seek to exclude evidence against them. If Parliament wants to authorize genital swabs by statute, it can do so, but the common law power of search incident to arrest does not extend so far.

Justice Karakatsanis ultimately agrees that the evidence against Mr. Saeed should be admitted, because its admission does not bring the administration of justice into disrepute, not least because “the law on this issue was unsettled at the time of this seizure and the police acted on their understanding of the law.” [129] Justice Abella, who agrees with her section 8 analysis, does not agree with this and dissents.

* * *

For my part, I’m inclined to agree with Justice Karakatsanis. She is right that the distinction which Justice Moldaver draws between the swab at issue here and the taking of other bodily samples ― that the penile swab does not yield, or rather is not intended to yield, the DNA of the person on whom it is performed rather misses the point of the prohibition on taking bodily samples. I also think that she is right to focus on preventing unconstitutional infringements of privacy, and right that this is best accomplished by having clear prospective rules, and not lengthy checklist to be applied, if at all, by judges after the fact. Beyond these specific points, I am concerned by the expansion of the power of search incident to arrest ― including to cases where, as here, those searches take place many hours after the arrest, in the secure confines of a police station rather than in the unpredictable environment in the field. It hardly needs to be said that Justice Moldaver’s paean to that “venerable” power does nothing to soothe my worries.

I will end with a couple of thoughts about judging. It is sometimes suggested, in the heat of controversies about the judicial system’s handling of cases of sexual assault, that male judges systematically fail to empathize with the victims, leading to perpetrators getting off the hook. There is no denying that this sometimes happens. But Saeed shows that one should be careful with generalizations. Here, the Court’s five men sign on to an opinion overtly driven, in significant measure, by concerns about the difficulty of prosecuting sexual assaults. Two of the women members of the Court, by contrast, dissent from their approach, in the name of respect for privacy rights.

No doubt, a judge is influenced in part by his or her background and personal experiences. But that influence is surely more complex than a reflex that causes women to react in one way and men in another. Nor is background the only thing that influences a judge. Adjudication, even in cases involving sexual assault, should not be seen through the lens of a zero-sum battle of the sexes ― unless, of course, a specific judge gives us cause to do so in a specific case. Unless the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion, we should treat judges as thinking human beings ― apt err sometimes, perhaps often ― but thinking all the same, and not mere automatons.

Permanent Problems

The law’s ideals and problems have not changed too much in 400 years

I have only now read Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Judicature.” Bacon seems not to enjoy anything like the reputation of his rival Coke, in the law schools anyway ― I suspect that they haven’t heard much of Coke in the science faculties, where Bacon is regarded as “the father of the scientific method.” Still, his essay is fascinating, because it shows just how little the law’s aspirations and failings have changed in the 400-odd years since it was published.

Bacon’s essay is essentially a collection of advice to judges about how to discharge their office. A good deal of it could still be repeated today. My point, in drawing attention to it, is not to say that all of this advice is good, at least in an unqualified form. It is, first and foremost, to remind the reader of the remarkable historical continuity which, for better and for worse, characterizes the law as a field of human activity.  Here are a few of Bacon’s recommendations, with some accompanying thoughts or comments of my own.

* * *

Judges ought to remember, that their office is jus dicere, and not jus dare; to interpret law, and not to make law, or give law.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If and when there is at last a confirmation hearing for the next judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, you will hear this exhortation repeated ad nauseam; you might even hear it if there is any sort of public hearing involving the next judge of the Supreme Court of Canada. John Finnis quoted Bacon’s appeal in his very interesting recent lecture on “Judicial Power: Past, Present and Future” (whence I learned about Bacon’s essay). But the very fact that this limitation on the judicial role has for so long, and so often, been reiterated should alert us to the habitual futility of the appeal. The Supreme Court’s equivocation over  whether it discovers or makes up the legal rules which it articulates for the first time seems to the suggest that the ideal of the law-saying judge has some appeal to those already holding judicial office ― but not as much as Bacon would have liked.

[W]hen there appeareth on either side an high hand, violent prosecution, cunning advantages taken, combination, power, great counsel, then is the virtue of a judge seen, to make inequality equal; that he may plant his judgment as upon an even ground.

This is also a familiar idea in 2016. Richard Posner, to give but one ― perhaps unexpected ― example has been very vocal about the need for active judicial intervention “to make inequality equal” by correcting the disparities of resources between parties to litigation, whether in his judgments or in a recent extra-judicial indictment of “What Is Obviously Wrong with the [American] Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable” (see 190-91). There are situations, it is worth noting, where judges might be making things worse, not better. I have been arguing for a while now that this may be happening in constitutional law, as judges increasingly expect expert evidence to support Charter challenges, and thus increase the inherent disparity of resources between citizens and government. (In a recent post over at The Court, Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw seems to share this concern.)

Patience and gravity of hearing, is an essential part of justice; and an overspeaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal. It is no grace to a judge … to prevent information by questions, — though pertinent. 

There has been much discussion of this point following the recent death of Justice Scalia. He was a famously active interrogator of the lawyers who appeared before the US Supreme Court. Surviving him is his colleague Justice Stephen Breyer, whose solliloquies questions occupying entire pages in the oral argument transcript Josh Blackman lovingly (?) documents. By contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas, of the same court, had spent a decade without asking a single question until finally doing so recently. Justice Thomas, one supposes, would agree with Bacon. Those who derided him for his self-imposed silence presumably would not.

[T]hose, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction, … are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage.

Here at least, I agree with Bacon wholeheartedly. Those who, in the pursuit of their own ― these days usually political ― agenda, seek to draw the courts beyond their proper remit are not the courts’ friends, though they may present themselves as such. I have said as much in response to a call for the Supreme Court to decree, by judicial fiat, the “depoliticization” of judicial appointments. I wish I’d known the phrase parasiti curiae then, but I will make sure to use it on the next appropriate occasion.

Judges ought above all to remember the conclusion of the Roman Twelve Tables; Salus populi suprema lex.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Canadian judges applying Bacon’s prescription is the Supreme Court’s opinion in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 721, where the Court sought to avoid “chaos” that its finding of unconstitutionality of Manitoba’s entire statute book by the expedient of suspending this finding’s effect. But beyond such exceptional situations, Bacon’s advice gets tricky fast. For one thing, the Latin salus is ambiguous. It can mean “health,” “safety,” or “welfare” ― making salus populi not one single objective, but a complicated programme. Still it is often said that judges ought to have regard for the public safety (“the Constitution is not a suicide pact”) or even welfare ― Judge Posner being a foremost advocate for the latter position. But isn’t there a tension between making public welfare into supreme law, and renouncing judicial legal innovation? Bacon says, “let no man weakly conceive, that just laws and true policy have any antipathy,” but even if true, this point doesn’t really address the issue of the judicial role. And Bacon’s concrete recommendations for achieving the salus populi ― frequent consultations between the three branches of government, and a demand that judges “be lions, but yet lions under the throne” would run afoul of our views on judicial independence, which are quite different from his.

* * *

In the essay I mention above, prof. Finnis writes that “[t]he problems about the nature and reach of judicial power, about which Bacon and Coke disagreed, are with us today in forms much shifted in occasion and location but still recognizably the same.” That is because they are “permanent problems, capable it seems of only provisional rather than permanent solutions.” (3) The relevance of Bacon’s prescriptions, and the fact that they would be contested now as they were contested when given (and again, except as specified above, I do not fully agree with them), suggests that prof. Finnis is right about that.

How to Get It Right on Wrongs

Ontario’s Superior Court has created a new tort. But should it have, in the circumstances?

In Doe 464533, 2016 ONSC 541, a delivered a couple of weeks ago, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice awarded substantial damages to a person whose ex-boyfriend posted an intimate video of her online, in addition to showing it to some mutual acquaintances. He had previously coaxed her into making the video, promising that he would be the only one to see it. The promise was a lie, since he shared the video as soon as she had sent it to him. Justice Stinson finds the defendant liable for breach of confidence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and public disclosure of private facts. The latter ground of liability had never before been recognized in Canadian common law, prompting David Fraser, at the Canadian Privacy Law Blog, to write that “[t]his is a huge deal.” It may indeed, as Mr. Fraser implies, be a hugely positive development. Certainly in Doe the Court was able to give the plaintiff redress for a blatant and vicious injustice that the defendant had done to her. Nevertheless, I want to ask whether, in the circumstances, recognizing or creating this new cause of action was the right thing to do. I hasten to add that, in asking the question, I do not mean to suggest that it must be answered in the negative ― only that it is worth thinking about.

One reason why I wonder whether Justice Stinson was right to develop the common law of privacy in this case is that, as David Canton has pointed out over at Slaw,

[t]he defendant did not file a statement of defence, and this decision was based on a motion for default judgment. So while the decision is well reasoned, there was no contrary position presented. 

Courts are normally dependent on hearing arguments from both sides of a case. Indeed, Jeremy Waldron has argued compellingly that the clash of competing arguments is an essential component of what law is, at a conceptual level. Needless to say, if one the parties chooses to forego his or her right to make an argument, as the defendant did here, this should not stop a court from ruling and, where appropriate, making an order against that party. But I wonder whether the absence of one of the parties from the litigation is not a reason, a very good reason even, for a court to be reluctant to make its ruling a precedent-setting one.

Now, this concern should probably be heavily discounted if not ignored if the question on which a precedent may be set is unavoidable on the path to a decision on the facts of the case. However, this is not the case in Doe. As I note above, Justice Stinson found the defendant liable for three different torts arising out of the same set of facts. The first two are familiar, although I take it that they had not previously been applied to similar circumstances. Had Justice Stinson “only” concluded that the defendant had committed a breach of confidence and deliberately inflicted emotional distress on the defendant, he could and surely would have awarded the same damages against him. So there was no pressing need for the judge to address the question of whether public disclosure of private facts should be a distinct ground of liability. Of course, we can imagine circumstances where the other causes of action would not be made out, and the new tort would be the only conceivable ground of liability. It is arguable that Justice Stinson’s thoughtful analysis is a service to future litigants. But again, the value of that analysis is lessened by the fact that it does not rest on a full, contradictory argument by the parties.

And then, quite apart from the unusual circumstances of this case, there is the perennial question of the relative roles of courts and legislatures in developing the law and creating new causes of action. Justice Stinson notes, early on in his reasons, that Parliament has criminalized the “publication of an intimate image without consent,” and that one province, Manitoba, has passed legislation to make it tortious. Should the law of other provinces move in the same direction by way of common law development, or should the courts wait for the legislatures ― which presumably are well aware of the problem ― to act? There are certainly good reasons for the courts not to wait. At least so long as any new causes of action are carefully circumscribed, there is probably something approaching a social consensus in favour of granting the victims of cruelty such as that suffered by the plaintiff in Doe a civil remedy. The issues involved are not ideologically controversial, and do not concern complex policy questions on which courts might lack expertise. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that, seeing how clumsy and pernicious legislative attempts to deal with online miscreants can be, courts would do well to act first, so as to remove the temptation to act that legislators would otherwise feel. All the same, it might have been useful for the court to address the question. Justice Stinson’s reasons do not.

To repeat, all that is not to say that Justice Stinson was wrong to develop the law in the way he did, or that his reasoning on the substantive issue of whether to create a tort of public disclosure of private facts could or should not be endorsed by a court considering the matter in a subsequent case. My point is only that we should take his decision as an occasion for a reflection on the courts’ when faced with novel legal issues.

What’s the Big Deal?

The Globe and Mail’s Sean Fine has for months been pushing a “conservative judicial appointments” narrative, and he was back at it this weekend, with a lengthy piece on “Stephen Harper’s Courts.” We are, I take it, supposed to be worried about a “judiciary [that] has been remade” by ideologically shaped appointments. Mr. Fine quotes quite a few people who are worried and further reports on calls for the appointment process to be revamped to purge it of nefarious ideological influences. But for my part, I see very little that is objectionable in what Mr. Fine reports. Not only is there, as Emmett Macfarlane has pointed out, very little evidence of a conservative remaking of the judiciary, but if or to the extent that a remaking has occurred, there is nothing objectionable about it.

The one disturbing fact that Mr. Fine presents is that some sitting judges actively lobby the government for promotions. Such lobbying, it seems to me, creates a real danger that the judge will try, whether consciously or not, to ingratiate himself with the government in his or her decisions. In other words, it creates an appearance of bias if not actual bias. Judges should strive to remain above such suspicions. The possibility of promotion is a weak spot in the arrangements protecting judicial independence, and judges themselves should not be exploiting it.

There is nothing improper, however, in a government seeking to appoint judges with whose ideological leanings it is comfortable. Of course, judicial appointments should be merit-based ― in the sense that every person appointed to the bench should deserve to be, by virtue of his or her accomplishments and character. But that’s just a threshold. Ideology, in my view, can properly be taken into account in deciding whom to appoint among the candidates who can get over that threshold. (It’s worth noting that, as Mr. Fine points out, the committees that screen applicants for judgeships rate many more as “recommended” ― and used to rate more as “highly recommended” when that was an option ― than there are positions available).

Now we should keep our sense of perspective about this. As prof. Macfarlane has pointed out, Mr. Fine mentions a grand total of two judges (Grant Huscroft and Bradley Miller) who can fairly be described as ideological conservatives. The rest of Mr. Fine’s “remaking the judiciary” case is built on the appointment of judges said to be not so much conservative as deferential, to Parliament and to precedent. But there is nothing inherently conservative about deference. A deferential judge will give way to Parliament or precedent regardless of whether they are “conservative” or “liberal” or something else.

That said, even to the extent that some of the judges appointed by the Conservative government are indeed ideologically conservative, there is nothing wrong with that. As I have argued repeatedly here and elsewhere, judging is in part an ideological activity, and Canadian judges, whether appointed by Mr. Harper or by any of his predecessors, are not free from ideology. We might like to think that they are, and that the core tenets of our legal system, such as the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation, on which Mr. Fine dwells in his article, are somehow natural and value-free. But that is an illusion. “Living tree” interpretation is no less of an ideological commitment than originalism, albeit one that most Canadian lawyers share most of the time (though by no means always, as I have pointed out here and Benjamin Oliphant, more recently, at Policy Options).

Given that no matter what judges the government appoints, it will  always be appointing judges whose decisions will, in part, be influenced by their ideology, I don’t see anything wrong with governments wanting to appoint judges who will be influenced by what they see as the right ideology. Indeed, like prof. Marfarlane, I think that it is a good thing that the current government has been able to inject at least a modicum of ideological diversity into the Canadian judiciary. As I wrote in response to one of Mr. Fine’s earlier articles,

[t]he lessons of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues’ work on the mischiefs of ideological uniformity, about which I recently wrote over at the National Magazine’s blog, are relevant to courts as well as to the social sciences. Precisely because ideology affects adjudication, more ideologically diverse courts will produce better argued decisions, in the same way, as prof. Haidt et al. show, as an ideologically diverse academy will produce more solid research.

As I also wrote in that post, an individual judge actually has very little power except that of persuading his or her colleagues or, in the case of lower court judges, hierarchical superiors. Are the people who decry the appointment of some judges seen to be ideological outliers actually worried that these few judges, despite being a small minority, will convince other judges that they are right?

What would indeed be worrying is evidence to support David Dyzenhaus’s assertion, quoted by Mr. Fine, that “that the appointment of judges is from a very small pool of lawyers,” resulting in a lower-quality bench. Now it is no doubt true that, as prof. Dyzenhaus says, “people of considerable ability are being passed over.” But that in itself is not a problem, so long as are more able candidates than positions on the bench. And Mr. Fine presents no proof that that is not so. That said, it is worth noting that the Conservative government and the broader conservative movement have done nothing at all to broaden the pool of genuinely conservative lawyers whom they could appoint to the bench. As I pointed out here, they neither articulated much of an ideology, nor created any sort of organization that might do so, like the Federalist Society did in the United States. But those from whom ideological diversity on the bench is a source of concern can take comfort in the Conservatives’ laziness.

In short, there is little evidence of impropriety in the Conservatives’ handling of judicial appointment, at least Mr. Fine describes it. (Ironically, his piece does not even mention what is arguably the most serious charge against them in this regard ― their notorious reluctance to appoint women to the bench.) Similarly, there is no evidence in Mr. Fine’s piece that we need to change the judicial appointments process. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that attempts to “depoliticize” that process are a bad idea insofar as they will prevent a government from pushing back against the ideological homogeneity of the judiciary. Such pushback, far from being a problem, is a good thing that will improve the quality of the bench and of the decisions Canadian courts render.

Politicians in Robes?

I have a new post up at the CBA National Magazine’s blog, in which I summarize and discuss a most fascinating study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project. The study tried to establish, empirically, whether judges, lawyers, law students, and members of the general public would be influenced in the same way by their ideological inclinations in solving hypothetical legal problems (both of which involved statutory interpretation).

What it found was that while the members of the public are indeed swayed by politically salient but legally irrelevant facts introduced into the hypotheticals, lawyers and judges are not. Law students fall somewhere in between the public and the professionals. The study hypothesizes, persuasively in my view, that it is professional training and experience ― of whose effects it provides a very useful account for those of us not schooled in psychology and cognitive science ― that explain this difference.

The study is also valuable for making clear a difference that too often goes neglected by both the critics and the supporters of judges. It points out that its findings do not mean that judges and lawyers approach legal problems free from any ideological influences whatever. Rather, it is important to distinguish ideological commitments that are an inextricable and perfectly legitimate part of the law, and those that are not. The study provides the view that competition law should be oriented towards consumer welfare as an example of the former. This view is, or was at a certain time, not uncontested; it can be meaningfully described as ideological. But competition law must have some view of its ends if it is to function, and any such view is ideological in that sense, so saying that a judge is influenced by “ideology” as a description of his or adopting one such view isn’t actually all that interesting. By contrast, a judge resolving the same issue differently due to the identity of the parties to the case could be a sign of improper ideological influence. Existing “empirical” scholarship tends to focus on, or largely detects, ideological influences of the former, less interesting sort. This one tries to pick out the latter ― and fails, concluding that judges are not, contrary to an all-too-common stereotype, just “politicians in robes,” which should be source of great relief to those of us who believe in the Rule of Law.

There is a lot more to the study though and, I dare say, even to my comment on it. Please give them a read.