Abusus Non Tollit Usum

Should judges refrain from accusing their colleagues of acting illegitimately?

In a recent conversation, my friend and sometime guest here Maxime St-Hilaire argued that judges should refrain from accusing their colleagues of having overstepped the bounds of the judicial role, or otherwise acted illegitimately ― which they are mostly, although not exclusively, apt to do in dissenting opinions. Prof. St-Hilaire is especially opposed specifically to the use of the labels of “activism” and “restraint” to advance such criticism. Having long argued that these are unhelpful, muddy concepts, I agree with him to this extent. And I agree that accusations of illegitimate behaviour should not be levelled lightly, and that those who make them risk being exposed as hypocrites. However, I disagree with the point of principle: in my view, it is not inappropriate for a judge to claim that a colleague’s opinion not only misinterprets the law, but amounts to the sort of decision-making that is not open to judges acting within the confines of their constitutional role.

Prof. St-Hilaire has two reasons for his position. First, he believes that philosophizing is not part of the judicial job description. Second, he thinks that accusations of illegitimacy undermine the courts’ authority generally and judicial review of legislation specifically, and ultimately the Rule of Law itself. In my view, this is not so. Committing philosophy, as it were, is an inextricable part of the judges’ job. The scope of judicial authority is contestable and contested, and these contests are very much a part of the business of law, and not only a theoretical debate external to it. As for the Rule of Law, in my view, it does not depend on the courts presenting a united front despite existing disagreements among their members.

It is tempting to say that the controversies about the nature of law, its relationship to morality, and the proper role of the judge in respect of both law and morality, which excite the minds of legal academics, ought to be of no concern to sitting judges. Indeed, some legal academics advocate this view as a means of escaping the (admittedly often stale and always abstruse) debates about legal positivism and anti-positivism. But a judge’s theory of law matters in some cases. It matters that in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753,  a majority of the Supreme Court adhered to a legal theory that I have described in a forthcoming piece as “pusilanimous positivism ― which simultaneously insists that any rules of law that are not enacted, whose existence cannot seriously be denied, must have been made by judges, and that judges have no mandate to engage in such law-making”. Had they adhered to a different legal theory, they could have recognized the legal status of constitutional convention, or given effect to constitutional principles as Justices Martland and Ritchie would have. Conversely, if the Court remained wedded to the legal theory the majority embraced in the Patriation Reference, then its opinions in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, and perhaps most significantly Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3 and its progeny, which were also based on the idea that principles, and not just posited rules, were part of the law of the constitution, would have been quite different.

To be sure, one can be concerned that judges are not very good legal philosophers. Some legal theories ― notably Ronald Dworkin’s ― assume that they are, but this is probably a mistake. There is simply no particularly good reason to think that judges are good philosophers. But then, they are also not very good economists, political scientists, geneticists, and much else besides. A snarky person might add that they are all too often not very good lawyers, either. But judges still have to engage with these various disciplines on occasion ― especially, although certainly not only, in constitutional cases ― and they must then do it as best they can. Whether or not judges are candid about this does not change the underlying reality that these other disciplines bear on, and sometimes are decisive to, the courts’ resolution of the disputes that come before them ― and there is, surely, a great deal to be said for judicial candour.

But assuming that judicial candour is good, can there be too much of a good thing? Prof. St-Hilaire thinks so. For him (and for many others who agree with him) the contemporary understanding of the Rule of Law principle encompasses judicial review of legislation. Arguments to the effect that a court has acted illegitimately in exercising its power of judicial review legislation undermine the authority of judicial review generally, and criticism that calls the legitimacy of judicial review into question undermines the Rule of Law itself. Accordingly, judges of all people should refrain from it. (Prof. St-Hilaire is not opposed to this sort of arguments being made by academics or journalists, presumably because they do not have the same responsibilities to the Rule of Law.)

In my view, by contrast, judicial review is not an inherent part of the Rule of Law, but only one possible means to secure the Rule of Law requirement (naïve though it may be) that public authority be exercised in accordance with the law. Indeed judicial review must itself be exercised in accordance with the law ― notably, constitutional text, but also other relevant legal rules, whether or not they have entrenched constitutional status. When a court acts without legal justification, it acts every bit as illegitimately (as well as illegally) as the executive or the legislature in like circumstances. It follows that the power of judicial review can itself become destructive of the Rule of Law if used for purposes other than ensuring that the executive and the legislature stay within the bounds of their authority. If, for example, a court uses its power of judicial review to attempt to bring about the just society, then it is not upholding the Rule of Law at all. It is indulging its members’ preferences, in the same way as government that knowingly secures the enactment of unconstitutional legislation, but in a manner that is all the more pernicious because it claims the authority and respect due to law.

It seems to me that, if they see this happening in a decision made by their colleagues, judges can ― and even should ― speak out. For very good reason, judges are not accountable for their exercise of their powers, except in the limited but still very important sense of having to give reasons for (most of) their decisions. Among other benefits, reason-giving exposes judges to scrutiny and criticism, starting with scrutiny and criticism by their colleagues who, in the common law tradition, have generally (the occasional resistance of some Chief Justices notwithstanding) been allowed to publish dissenting or concurring opinions.The possibility of criticism, starting with criticism in a separate opinion, is the only check on the power of a judicial majority in a case, beyond the restraint that individual conscience may or may not impose. So this check should be applied vigorously in order to ensure that the judicial power, and especially the power of judicial review, is exercised so as to further, not to undermine, the Rule of Law. As the Rule of Law’s first line of defence, dissenting judges must undertake, not shirk, this responsibility.

Of course, as I wrote here not long ago, those who criticize judges, including other judges, should do so “without resorting to taunts, insults, and sloganeering”. Accusations of “activism”, unless elaborated and supported by argument, amount to sloganeering at best. But as I wrote in that post,

[i]f we are to have, in John Adams’s celebrated phrase, a government of laws not of men, judges, like legislators and ministers of the Crown, must obey the law ― and be called out when they fail to do so. It is for this reason that I am wary of, and do my best to contradict, those who would shut down criticism of the judiciary on the pretense that it risks undermining the Rule of Law.

Sure, “juristocracy” or “gouvernement des juges” can be used as taunts and empty slogans ― and are so used by people who do not for a second care for the Rule of Law. But as the Romans put it, abusus non tollit usum. That something can be abused does not mean that it should not be used properly.

Their Eminences

Commenting on the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down a mandatory minimum sentence in R. v. Nur, 2015 SCC 15 in the National Post, John Ivison joins the list of commentators lamenting the Supreme Court’s “political” decision-making. The dissent by Justice Moldaver, joined by Justices Rothstein and Wagner, makes him say that

[w]hen three such eminent jurists … warn in such forceful terms that the Court has overstepped its bounds, we are in precarious constitutional territory.

Now Nur (on which I commented here) strikes me as a strange case from which to draw such alarmist conclusions. The majority and the dissent agree on the alleged dangers of guns and gun crime ― the statistics showing such to be rare and declining notwithstanding ― and that Parliament is entitled to impose harsh penalties on people who commit crimes of that sort. They also agree, however, that applying a three-year mandatory sentence to a person who commits a licensing-type infraction would be grossly disproportionate. They disagree on the best way of avoiding this unjust and unconstitutional result ― on the means, that is, not the ends. True, the dissent argues that its proposed means are more respectful of Parliament’s choices. But it is quite clear that if the dissenters did not think that the statute itself provided a way of avoiding the injustice that they, no less than the majority, are concerned about, they would have struck it down. It is worth noting that they do not advocate abandoning altogether the approach of using hypothetical cases to assess the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences, but only say that it should not be used when the statute makes it possible ― and, in their view, virtually certain ― that the mandatory minimum will not be imposed. In short, there is no great confrontation of constitutional philosophies here.

In any case, what I find even more puzzling is Mr. Ivison’s “three eminent jurists” phrase. It’s not that I think it doesn’t describe Justices Rothstein, Moldaver, and Wagner well. But weren’t there six eminent jurists on the other side of the case, disagreeing with them? It’s not that the majority must necessarily be right, of course. But when one says ― as I myself do often enough ― that the dissenters’ position is the better one, one should have a reason for this claim. And, at the risk of reading too much into Mr. Ivison’s words, they strike me as at least a hint that these three jurists were somehow more eminent, more deserving of our attention, than their colleagues. But why would that be?

Actually, there is a reason why someone concerned about the Supreme Court’s “politicization” and “overstepping its bounds” might find Justices Rothstein, Moldaver, and Wagner more “eminent” than their colleagues. They are the three who have arguably been the most likely to adopt a more deferential stance, or to refuse to go along with the Court’s expansive readings of the constitution. Thus Justice Rothstein castigated the majority’s broad reading of s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and reliance on the unwritten principle of the Rule of Law to strike down hearing fees in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 31. He also dissented from the constitutionalization of the right to collective bargaining in Mounted Police Association of Ontario v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 1 and, jointly with Justice Wagner, from that of the right to strike in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4. Justice Moldaver, for his part, wrote a forceful dissent in l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 433, denouncing the majority’s invocation of Québec’s “social values.” Perhaps there are other cases too, but these are the ones that come to mind most readily.

Is it the case, then, that ― whether or not they are more “eminent” than their colleagues ―Justices Rothstein, Moldaver, and Wagner are some sort of a distinct, deferential or “restrained” faction on the Supreme Court? Hardly. Nur is, so far as I recall, the first time that they have been united in urging greater “respect” for legislative or governmental choices than their colleagues showed. In Trial Lawyers, Justice Moldaver was part of the majority, and probably an enthusiastic part, if his questions at the hearing are anything to go by. (Justice Wagner wasn’t part of the panel that heard the case.) Justice Wagner was part of the majorities in both l’Affaire Nadon and in the Mounted Police decision. Justice Rothstein is perhaps a more doubtful case, because he was recused in l’Affaire Nadon and not part of the panel in the Mounted Police and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour cases either. Would we have seen the Rothstein-Moldaver-Wagner alignment in the latter case if he had been? In any event, the three of them joined all of their colleagues in the “by the Court” judgment in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 704, which added “constitutional architecture,” whatever that is, to the ever-growing list of sources of constitutional law. That’s hardly the stuff of deep commitment to “judicial restraint” ― whatever that too may be.

One can certainly criticize the Supreme Court for going too far in its decisions, for stretching the bounds of the constitution and of its authority, for not respecting Parliament enough. And one can commend judges for blowing the whistle on their colleagues when they do this sort of thing. But so far as the Supreme Court of Canada is concerned, I remain of the view that it is best to make such criticisms on a case-by-case basis, and not as part of some grand narrative about “activism,” “politicization,” or something like that. Just like the eminent jurists who sit on that court are doing, in fact.

For a Formidable Opposition

The CBA National Magazine’s blog published a new post of mine yesterday, in which I argue that it is important that courts and their decisions be scrutinized and, on occasion, criticized. As the debate debate about “judicial activism” has been playing out in the last month or so (there are, at this point, too many articles and posts, quite a few of them on this blog, to link to any one in particular), a part of the Canadian legal community has responded by claiming, in effect, that the role of courts in the Canadian constitutional arrangements, and the issue of whether courts overstep the bounds of that role, should not really be discussed. The courts, on this view, are just doing their job, and calling that into question risks undermining their standing or independence. This view, I contend, is wrong.

Judges themselves are not shy about debating the extent of their proper remit’s boundaries of their proper remit, and that, if nothing else, should convince those who seek to protect them from outside criticism that there is nothing wrong with doing that. But, more importantly, the work of courts cannot be off-limits to criticism because courts exercise power over citizens and institutions. In doing so, they are ― quite rightly ― not subject to many of the constraints that apply to other institutions. But it does not follow from that independence that courts should not be accountable in any way whatever. Criticism, even harsh criticism, is a form of accountability.

Indeed, I conclude my post by claiming

that Benjamin Disraeli’s well-known suggestion that no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition applies to courts as well as to cabinets. The danger of not being formidably opposed is that one grows complacent. One starts asserting instead of arguing. One comes to take trust and respect for granted. For an institution whose only real strength lies in its ability to persuade, these are deadly sins and potentially fatal weaknesses and … the Supreme Court is not immune to them. Those who seek to shore up the Court’s position by peremptorily dismissing instead of answering its critics are not doing it a service.

Only after my post was published did I come across another fine example of the genre that I have been criticizing, in the shape of a statement by the CBA’s president, Michele Hollins, Q.C, who warns that the Supreme Court is vulnerable in the face of criticism, which it is in her view not allowed to rebut, and that criticizing it endangers not only the institution that protects our constitutional rights, but also the other institutions of our democracy. Emmett Macfarlane has a great response  over at Policy Options, pointing out that

criticism of the Court and its decisions is every bit as fundamental to democracy as free and open discourse about ordinary politics. It is the simplistic view of an independent Court, immune from politics, “just doing its job” that is in fact dangerous to democracy.

As prof. Macfarlane rightly argues, democracy is stronger when citizens have a clear picture of their institutions. I would only add that a political system whose supposed strength lies in the obfuscation of its true nature would not only be weaker than its defenders might imagine, but also hardly worth having at all. As I say in the National Magazine post, we would all profit from a formidable (and a loyal) opposition to the Supreme Court ― including the Court itself.

Leaving a Dragon Out

Emmett Macfarlane has a piece in Maclean’s today, in which he replies to both those who accuse the Supreme Court of being activist, and to those, like me, who argue that the accusations are misguided or unhelpful. I have repeatedly, including last week in response to Andrew Coyne, compared judicial activism to the “dragon of constitutional theory,” which doesn’t exist, albeit in a number of different ways. But, as Tolkien remarked in The Hobbit, “[i]t does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” Prof. Macfarlane reiterates that advice.

Although he acknowledges that often enough “complaints about activist decisions are simply complaints from someone who disagrees with a particular outcome,” prof. Macfarlane insists that the concept of activism can be meaningful and useful. He is distinctly unimpressed with lawyers for whom “the Court literally cannot err in its interpretation of the law” because the law is whatever the Court says it is, as well as with those who, although they acknowledge the theoretical possibility of the Supreme Court being wrong, insist that there’s nobody out there to correct it. Prof. Macfarlane reminds us of “the enormous amount of discretion Supreme Court justices have when interpreting the constitution,” as well as of the ineradicable part (albeit that it is only a part!) that politics play in constitutional adjudication. And so

we have to recognize that the meaning of the constitution itself is independent, in an important sense, from what the Court says it is; the Court doesn’t always get it right, and the other branches of government may have a legitimate interpretation of the constitution that diverges from it. We also have to recognize that judicial activism is real.

Prof. Macfarlane suggests two definitions of judicial activism, quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative definition is simply “the frequency with which the Court invalidates laws or impacts government policy.” Importantly, so defined, “activism” isn’t a normative concept, because deploying it in this way “does not make a claim about whether this level of activism is inappropriate or desirable.” As for the qualitative definition, it seems to be about the breadth or narrowness of the grounds of a given judicial decision (presumably one striking down a statutory provision or executive decision, though that’s not entirely clear) ― the broader the grounds (for example, if an executive decision is invalidated based on the Charter and not merely on administrative law grounds), the more activist the decision.

Those who renounce the use of the concept of activism, says prof. Macfarlane,

deny that judges have the discretion—which they invariably exercise—to act with more or less deference to the decisions of democratically elected governments.

Yet this is an important fact, which should not be obscured in public debates about the judicial role, and whether the Supreme Court is overstepping its proper bounds.

My disagreement with prof. Macfarlane is, it seems to me, only about words ― and how to use them. Substantively, I have no quarrel at all with his claim that politics are an inextricable part of constitutional law ― indeed I have defended this claim both in the abstract and in its application to Canadian constitutional adjudication. I do not deny that judges can be and choose whether to be more or less deferential to elected officials (or civil servants) ― indeed I have blogged repeatedly about various factors that would make deference more or less justified in a given case. And I’d be the last person in the world to say that the Supreme Court cannot go wrong in its interpretation or application of the constitution ― I have argued that it did just that too many times to count, and with a vehemence which occasionally seems to make even this blog’s fans uneasy. But I think that it is possible to make all these arguments without invoking “judicial activism,” and indeed that we are better off making them in that way.

The problem with the concept of activism is that the way in which it is actually used in the public discourse. It is an invariably evaluative concept, not a merely descriptive one. Political scientists use it in that way, but I do not think that they have succeeded, or are about to succeed, in making journalists, or legal academics for that matter, imitate them. In both general public discourse and in legal academia the phrase “judicial activism” is invariably evaluative. (Indeed, it is invariably pejorative, because those who like their courts to be activist (in the descriptive sense) tend to speak of “judicial engagement” instead.)

And so it seems to me that to insist on speaking of “activism,” in the hope that people will actually use the term in its “proper,” descriptive sense is very optimistic. Those who persist in doing so risk generating more confusion than clarity. If there were no other ways of describing the phenomena at issue, we wouldn’t have a choice. But I really don’t understand why the rate of invalidation of legislation or executive decisions couldn’t be usefully described as, simply, the rate of invalidation; or the breadth of the grounds of a particular decision as, simply, the breadth of grounds.

To use these more specific terms is, once again, not to deny that Courts can invalidate more or fewer of the decisions of the legislative and executive branches, or that, in doing so, they can often (although perhaps not always) choose more or less expansive grounds to justify their conclusions. It is not to deny that these choices, and many others that courts make, are influenced ― although, as prof. Macfarlane rightly insists, not determined ― by politics, in a broad (that is, ideological rather than partisan) sense. It is not to deny, finally, that we can and should speaking about these things (which I have been trying to do, at this blog and anywhere else where they’ll let me). It is simply to try to rid our public discourse of a phrase that is, in its actual use, to confusing, and too often abused, and which there is particular necessity to persevere in using. It may not do to live a live dragon out of our calculations; but nor will it do to burden them with dragons mythical, chimerical, or purely hypothetical.

UPDATE: Over at It’s Politics, All The Way Down, Stewart Prest also has a response to prof. Macfarlane, which is worth reading.

Expecting Too Much?

I have recently responded here, in some detail, to Andrew Coyne’s article claiming, in essence, that some of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions were not mere wrong, but altogether unreasonable, and therefore “activist.” Over the Policy Options blog, I briefly take on Gordon’s Gibson’s attack on the Supreme Court’s alleged activism, which I think is quite gratuitous, and nowhere near as interesting as Mr. Coyne’s. Jamais deux sans trois, they say. So here’s a response to another example of this genre ― an op-ed by Brian Lee Crowley, originally published behind an impenetrable paywall by the Globe, but now conveniently available on the website of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Mr. Crowley argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decisions ― he refers to those on “the right to strike, assisted suicide, national securities regulators, Senate reform or who is entitled to sit on the Court” ― are responsible for an “insidious corruption of purpose of the law, the legal profession and the courts.” Behind some (unnecessarily, in my view) combative rhetoric, his argument is quite interesting. It can, I think, be summarized as follows:

1. “One of the most basic purposes of the law” is to generate stable expectations about people’s entitlement and liabilities;
2. The courts’ application of (and, more broadly, the legal profession’s and academia’s thinking about) the Charter, however, has produced a jurisprudence that is unstable and disrupts instead of fostering expectations;
3. More, and worse, it has produced a mindset that does not care for stability, and on the contrary finds virtue in “turning the law into an instrument of social change” ― not just in constitutional cases but across the board, including, for example, in contract law.

The first point is a staple of the Rule of Law discourse, and few lawyers will disagree with it. The following two, however, are overstated, in my opinion. There is something to them but rather less than Mr. Crowley claims.

It is true, for instance, that the Supreme Court’s Charter jurisprudence is not a paragon of stability. The Court’s high-profile decisions on prostitution, labour rights, and assisted suicide were reversals of earlier precedents. That said, some context is in order. The previous decisions on prostitution and assisted suicide dated from the first decade of Charter jurisprudence. Neither the Court itself nor the litigants had yet had the time to work out the way to argue and decide such cases. The relevant legal principles were in their infancy; the factual records which proved crucial to the more recent decisions were not available. Criticizing reversals of such early decisions is not altogether fair. The labour law cases are a different matter, because they reversed much more recent decisions, and there was no evidentiary record to justify their reversal either.

The other cases which Mr. Crowley alludes to, by contrast, simply aren’t reversals of existing precedent. L’Affaire Nadon was a case of first impression. The Senate Reference, as I have argued, for example, here, fits in a consistent pattern of the Supreme Court’s rejection of unilateral constitutional reform, as does Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837. The latter case also builds, straightforwardly in my view, on a long line of cases interpreting the federal “trade and commerce” power narrowly. If anything, the way to criticize it is by saying that the Court was wrong to apply these precedents in a changed economy. (I don’t think it was, but that at least would be a strong critique.) Indeed, at first glance, it seems rather strange that Mr. Crowley has listed these decisions as examples of the Supreme Court’s destabilizing legal expectations ― though I think there is an explanation, to which I will shortly come.

Before doing so, let me address Mr. Crowley’s third claim, which is that the Charter has had a broader destabilizing influence. Indeed, it is worth noting that none of the cases I discuss in the previous paragraph was based on the Charter. To the extent that they did in fact generate instability, they would arguably be examples of that influence ― but I don’t think they are very convincing examples. Mr. Crowley’s main concern, though, seems to be with private law. He is, for instance, visibly annoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Bhasin v. Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71, which incorporated a general duty of good faith into the Canadian common law of contract.

The difficulty with Mr. Crowley’s argument here is that even the good old common law fields of tort and contract were never quite as immutable and predictable as he makes them out to be. I will give just one example here:

Faced with this abuse of power – by the strong against the weak – by the use of the small print of the conditions – the judges did what they could to put a curb upon it. They still had before them the idol, “freedom of contract.” They still knelt down and worshipped it, but they concealed under their cloaks a secret weapon. They used it to stab the idol in the back. This weapon was called “the true construction of the contract.” They used it with great skill and ingenuity. They used it so as to depart from the natural meaning of the words of the exemption clause and to put upon them a strained and unnatural construction. In case after case, they said that the words were not strong enough to give the big concern exemption from liability; or that in the circumstances the big concern was not entitled to rely on the exemption clause.

Lord Denning, to whose unmistakable pen these words belong (in George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd. v. Finney Lock Seeds Ltd. [1983] Q.B. 284 (C.A.)), is the judge who, for many generations of law students throughout the Commonwealth, arguably was the incarnation of the common law itself. He also drove lawyers mad with his jurisprudential innovations, even prompting a distraught student to write an open letter to the Times asking him to please not change the law any more before her bar exam (an incident which he gleefully recounts here). And, needless to say, he plied his trade in a blissfully, or sadly, Charter-free legal system.

For all that, it is not impossible that the Charter has contributed to a professional mindset that questions the old adage that it is more important for matters to be settled than to be settled right. It may well have made the legal profession into a less conservative and more activist group. But I don’t think that Mr. Crowley has demonstrated this. Such a demonstration would require rigorous comparison and attempts to isolate the influences of a single constitutional document from those of broader, and independent, cultural trends. It would be a difficult task.

Even if it could be accomplished, would Mr. Crowley’s normative claim ― that the use of law to bring about social change, to settle matters “right” even at the risk of upsetting expectations, is a form of “corruption” ― be justified? The claim is reminiscent of F.A. Hayek’s views in Law, Legislation and Liberty, according to which “the only public good with which [a common law judge] can be concerned is the observance of those rules that the individuals can reasonably count on” (vol. 1, Rules and Order, p. 87). Yet Hayek acknowledged that “law arising out of the endeavour to articulate rules of conduct … may not develop in very undesirable  directions” (88). In such cases, he thought that the best remedy was a legislative intervention. Like Mr. Crowley, he was not keen on judicial overturning of precedents, arguing that “[t]he judge is not performing his function if he disappoints reasonable expectations created by earlier decisions,” (88) even if misguided ones.

The problem with this approach is that legislatures aren’t always ready to intervene to correct undesirable developments in the law. What I recently described here as “democratic process failures” ― “persistent inabilit[ies] of that process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable” ― are a real problem, and possibly an even more pressing one in the realm of private law, which just doesn’t attract the attention of legislators a great deal, than with salient constitutional issues. And so it is not obvious to me that judges should not sometimes intervene and change the law, even at the risk of upsetting established expectations. After all, legislative intervention disrupts expectations as much as judicial intervention does.

And then, there is another problem too, which neither Hayek nor Mr. Crowley really address: expectations are sometimes not as stable as they seem to believe. Quite apart from legal change, social change happens, and settled law can, instead of conforming to, and confirming, social expectations, come into conflict with them. This, I suspect, is what accounts for Mr. Crowley’s inclusion of l’Affaire Nadon, the Senate Reference, and the Securities one in his list of expectation-upsetting cases. They did not, I have argued, upset any reasonable legal expectations. But they may have upset the expectations actually held by a large number of people ― without reference to the law.

It is fine to say that the law must uphold expectations ― it usually must, and it is usually clear enough what must be done in order to achieve this. But not always. A good theory of law must account for the occasional difficulties of this task. It must account, in a realistic way, for the need to correct the mistakes made in this process. And it must account for the possibility of social expectations diverging, sometimes quite quickly, from legally settled ones (which is arguably what happened with assisted suicide). Mr. Crowley’s argument is interesting, but it probably expects too much from the law.

Here Be No Dragons

Andrew Coyne, with whom I am often inclined to agree, has written an angry column arguing that the current Supreme Court is “the most liberal-activist … in our history.” Mr. Coyne claims the Court’s decisions in l’Affaire Nadon, the Senate Reference, the collective-bargaining and right to strike cases, and above all Carter, the assisted suicide case, show that it has broken free of any constraints imposed by the constitution’s “written text, the historical record, precedent, [or] logical consistency.” Readers will remember that I have been sharply critical of the Court’s decisions in l’Affaire Nadon and in the labour rights cases (here and here), and that I have expressed some doubts about the reasoning both the Senate Reference and in Carter. And yet the charge of activism does not move me.

Judicial activism, I wrote a while ago, is “something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways.” The trouble is that there are too many definitions of what judicial activism is floating around for the concept to be very useful. Too often, it is used as a mere rhetorical bludgeon, a pejorative label intended to reject any interference by courts with policies enacted by legislators, or even simply to dismiss a decision one disagrees with.

Mr. Coyne is too sophisticated to indulge in such simplistic tactics. He proposes what might seem like a plausible definition of activism:

What makes a decision “activist” … is not merely that it results in this or that law “passed by a democratic Parliament” being overturned, but whether it does so in accordance with Parliament’s own previously expressed wishes: that is, whether the grounds for the decision can in fact be found in a sensible reading of the Constitution, or whether the court made it up. Even allowing for some difference of opinion over what is reasonable, it is clear that not every such reading can be defended, as it is sometimes  clear that no reading was even tried.

I don’t suppose that this is deliberate, but it sounds not unlike the Supreme Court’s definition of reasonableness in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190:

reasonableness is concerned mostly with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process. But it is also concerned with whether the decision falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law. [47]

An activist decision, we might say, is not a merely mistaken, but an unreasonable one. But as students of administrative law will know, this is not always a straightforwards standard to apply. Reasonable people can disagree about what is unreasonable. And so it is with the Supreme Court’s decisions about which Mr. Coyne complains.

Let me begin with those that trouble me less than Mr. Coyne.

The Senate Reference has its flaws. I have myself argued that the notion of “constitutional architecture” on which the Supreme Court rests its decision is obscure at best, and will need to be developed in subsequent cases if it is to become a working part of our constitutional law. But it is, in my view, hard to deny that the Court’s decision fits perfectly a line of cases going back to the original reference Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, and the Patriation Reference, which have consistently prevented both Parliament and the provinces from making important changes to the constitution unilaterally. Although its connection to written text is sometimes tenuous ― not least, in my view, because the text itself proved woefully inadequate to the task of guiding the Court (and the politicians to whom it is, in the first instance, addressed), the Senate Reference is not divorced from logic or precedent. Quite the contrary.

As for Carter, I have suggested that the way in which the Court presented its decision, justifying it largely by deference to the trial judge’s factual findings which it barely explained in its own opinion, is insufficiently transparent. It is an attempt to lead from behind the trial judge’s back, and this tactic is bound, in the long run, to undermine the trust people are willing to place in the Court. Yet the Supreme Court used the same approach in the prostitution case, Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, which Mr. Coyne specifically holds up as an example of justified exercise of judicial power to invalidate legislation. His concerns with Carter lie elsewhere. He is annoyed that the decision “finds a right to death in a section of the constitution devoted to the right to life.” But that provision is also devoted to a right to the security of the person, understood, pretty uncontroversially it seems to me, as a right not to be subjected to unnecessary physical or psychological suffering ― and there was compelling evidence that this was the effect of the assisted-suicide ban. And as for the fact that the Supreme Court reversed its own earlier decision upholding that ban, pace Mr. Coyne, it is true that we now know a great deal more about how an assisted-suicide regime might work than we knew 20 years ago. The Court may not have explained itself nearly well enough, but it didn’t make this up either.

I turn now to the decisions my assessment of which is closer to Mr. Coyne’s. Indeed, regarding l’Affaire Nadon, I know that he agrees with my criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision, since he said as much on Twitter. In my opinion, unlike the Senate Reference or Carter, that decision is unambiguously bad. It is poorly argued and will have (indeed, it is already having) unfortunate consequences. But is it really unreasonable, an indefensible decision for all that? Well, Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen had made a strong argument for it (which I critique here). The statute which the Supreme Court had to interpret was ambiguous, and the purposes behind it less than fully clear. The Court’s reading of the statute was wrong and pernicious. But as much as I disagree with it, I cannot bring myself to consider it as entirely divorced from the materials the Court had to work with, or absurd.

As for the collective-bargaining and right to strike cases, Omar Ha-Redeye has argued (here and here) that they are a plausible, although in my view not an obvious, still less a desirable, evolution of the Court’s jurisprudence on the Charter’s freedom of association guarantee. Certainly there were plenty of labour law scholars who urged the outcome to which the Court came. Yes, as Mr. Coyne suggests, this outcome is divorced from economics and reality. But then there will be people who will argue that it is adverting to economics instead of only legal sources that would constitute activism. Here, I think that the Court’s decisions are utterly unreasonable from a policy standpoint. But as a matter of law? Wrong, yes. Unreasonable, indefensible? I’m not so sure.

All that to say that there is plenty to criticize about the merits of the Supreme Court’s decisions, and Mr. Coyne should by all means do so. But an argument about judicial activism, even if the concept is carefully, perhaps even sensibly, defined is unhelpful. There are no dragons in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Only some questionable, and some rotten, judicial decisions.

Coyne on Lazy Revolutionaries

In his latest Postmedia column, Andrew Coyne has some harsh and cogent observations about the Tories’ failure to come to terms with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and (Canadian) constitutional law more broadly. Mr. Coyne’s column is well worth reading, and some of his observations are similar to my own.

Mr. Coyne points out that despite their purported embrace of the principle of limited government, the Tories “get surprisingly antsy, once in office, about having their own discretion circumscribed.” In the face of recent judicial decisions having gone against the federal government, they complain about judges making policy in Parliament’s place (one suggestion that if judges want to make policy, they ought to get themselves elected even coming― to Mr. Coyne’s justified mirth ― from a Conservative Senator) and frustrating the will of the majority.

These complaints, Mr. Coyne argues, rest on a profound misunderstanding of the role of law (and, let us add, in more technical terms, of the Rule of Law):

[a]ll laws, not just constitutions or charters of rights, constrain government discretion. That’s the point. We want governments to act in predictable, non-arbitrary ways, confined to the powers we explicitly grant them through our elected representatives.

Constitutional law, Mr. Coyne adds, is no different, except in that changing it requires not only a decision of Parliament, but also the agreement of the provinces. And constitutional law, supreme over laws enacted by Parliament, has always been with us in Canada, and courts ― first the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and later the Supreme Court of Canada ― have always been enforcing it. The Charter expanded the scope of judicial review but did not invent it; nor was it the beginning of “judicial activism.” Furthermore,

The point of judicial review is not, as it is sometimes said, to give judges the last word. It is to hold Parliament to its word. If the law is to serve its intended role of constraining government discretion, you can’t simply leave it to governments, or even Parliament, to interpret it for themselves.

Besides, although courts (as well as other branches of government) sometimes get it wrong, Parliament can often achieve its objectives in ways that comply with their interpretations of the constitution. And if that’s not possible?

Amend the constitution. Appoint better judges. Make the case for a more restrained theory of jurisprudence. Change how the law is taught. Conservatives used to pride themselves on taking the long view of things.

Parliament can also put much more effort into screening the laws it enacts for constitutionality, thus avoiding conflict with the courts in the first place. And if people are concerned about the erosion of Parliament’s powers, they should worry more about the executive’s taking over its role, than about the courts.

This is largely right. One can quibble with a couple of things Mr. Coyne says. For instance, he is not quite right that pre-Charter constitutional litigation “usually involved disputes between different levels of government, each vigilant that the other not intrude on its prerogatives.” There was some of that, but also plenty of cases where individuals or, perhaps more frequently, businesses challenged the ability of a government to regulate them, arguing that the regulation in question breached the federal division of powers. But of course this only reinforces Mr. Coyne’s broader point, which is that the imposition of limits on elected officials by courts at the behest of citizens is not an innovation brought forth by Pierre Trudeau. Indeed, Mr. Coyne should perhaps have noted that many of the recent Supreme Court decisions that are so angering the Conservative government ― notably the Senate reference and the invalidation of Justice Nadon’s appointment to the Court ― have nothing to do with the Charter. In any case, a few details aside, Mr. Coyne’s article is impressively thoughtful and very persuasive.

One particular point of Mr. Coyne’s which I want to emphasize because it echoes some observations I made here is that the Conservatives have failed to “take the long view of things” and undertake any serious effort to fundamentally change Canadian constitutional law. Beyond vague and, as Mr. Coyne shows, contradictory or meaningless if not actively pernicious claims that judges should let Parliament make policy, they have not articulated anything like a constitutional theory that might be compelling enough for courts to embrace. They have not even tried to do so. This government, as I put here, is one of “lazy revolutionaries” ― unwilling to accept the world as it is, lacking respect for established institutions, and at the same time unwilling to do the long-term work necessary to change them. It is reassuring that it is finally being called out on it.