Delusions of Grandeur

Justice Abella sets out a vision of the Supreme Court as arbiter of national values

I didn’t realize that writing op-eds for the media was part of the judicial job description, but apparently it is. There was of course Brett Kavanaugh’s instantly-notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And, ten days ago, Justice Abella followed in now-Justice Kavanaugh’s footsteps, with an op-ed of her own, in the Globe and Mail. The op-ed is an adaptation from a speech given on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Israel; but Justice Abella, presumably, thinks that it deserves a Canadian audience as well as an Israeli one.

Why that ought to be the case, I am not quite sure. Part of the op-ed is meaningless twaddle: we have, Justice Abella tells us, of instance, a “national justice context” that is “democratically vibrant and principled”. Part is rank hypocrisy: the Supreme Court’s “only mandate is to protect the rule of law”, says the person who has devoted many a talk to criticizing the very idea of the Rule of Law and arguing that it had to be replaced by something called the rule of justice. Part is rotten grammar: “human rights is [sic] essential to the health of the whole political spectrum” (emphasis removed). But all of it is a self-assured presentation of a role for the judiciary that has nothing to do with the Rule of Law, and this bears commenting on.

Justice Abella begins by proclaiming that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out “a uniquely Canadian justice vision, a vision that took the status quo as the beginning of the conversation, not the answer”. One might be tempted to think that this is a reference to section 33 of the Charter (which, for all its flaws, is indeed “uniquely Canadian”), or at least to some version of the “dialogue theory”, according to which courts and legislatures both participate in the elaboration of constitutional rights. But this would be a mistake. Justice Abella likes her judges “bold”, and her legislatures obedient. The “conversation” to which she refers only involves the members of the Supreme Court.

And while she begins by seemingly conceding that “[t]he Charter both represented and created shared and unifying national values”, Justice Abella then argues that it is the Supreme Court that has developed “a robust new justice consensus for Canada”. It is the Supreme Court that serves as “the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”. (Wait… didn’t the Charter already represent and create shared values? How come these values are, after all, contested?) Fortunately, says Justice Abella, the Canadian public and its elected representatives have fallen into line and followed the Supreme Court’s moral leadership: “[c]riticisms and questions were of course raised, but usually with civility.” If Canada is committed to “pluralism and diversity”, rather than “obliteration of the identities that define us”, that’s because “[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court”, and its teachings were accepted by both “the public” and “the legislatures”.

Hence the empowerment of the Supreme Court, coupled with its independence, is all to the good. “[D]emocracy, Justice Abella insists, “is strengthened in direct proportion to the strength of rights protection and an independent judiciary”. Indeed, the very “humanity” of a country would be imperiled by attacks on judicial power. Hence Justice Abella’s plea in defence of the Supreme Court of Israel, delivered, she says, in her capacity not only “as a judge”, but also “as a citizen of the world”. (I assume Justice Abella has not been shy about criticizing the feebleness of the judiciary in countries like Russia and China, too, though I don’t think she has published op-eds about them. Perhaps she has even criticized the backward ways of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which haven’t seen it fit to remit the adjudication of contested values in their societies to the courts, though I can recall no op-eds on that subject either.)

I have no firm views about whether Canadian judges should go around the world lecturing other countries about how to organize their constitutional arrangements, whether in their capacities as citizens of the world or as public officials. (How many ordinary citizens of the world are, after all, invited to give pompous speeches, and allowed 1200 words of op-ed space in a national newspaper to bring them to hoi polloi?) I do, however, have some thoughts on the substance of Justice Abella’s views regarding the role of the Supreme Court in Canada’s constitutional structure. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already presented his, but my take is somewhat different, so I hope the readers will forgive a measure of repetition.

Mark stresses the fact that, if the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter of national values, it is not at all clear why it should be staffed by judges—that is to say, by former lawyers, who are not trained for or especially good at this task. Why not economists and philosophers instead? Mark writes that

if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole…—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

And if the courts are not, after all, to be replaced by philosophical-economic colloquia, that’s probably because what we really want is for judges to stick to law.

I largely agree with this, but there is an additional move in Justice Abella’s argument that Mark does not address: the claim that adjudication by the independent Supreme Court is somehow democratic and that, indeed, democracy is strengthened the more powerful the court is. I think it is a crucial argument. After all, legislatures, which Mark doesn’t want to “sell down the river”, are also staffed by people who tend to have no particular expertise in either economics or philosophy, and who are subject to all manner of perverse incentives to boot. Why should they be making value judgments for society? The generally accepted (which isn’t necessarily to say correct) answer is, because they are democratic institutions. That’s why Justice Abella wants to claim the democratic mantle for the institution that she extols (as do others who make similar arguments).

How successful is the claim? In my view, not very successful at all. It starts from the premise that there is more to democracy than elections. Let us grant that. Still, there are important question that need answering. What is this “more” that a polity ought to have, beyond periodic elections, to be counted as democratic? Jeremy Waldron would mention things like separation of powers, meaningful bicameralism, and “legislative due process”, rather than judicial review of legislation. Justice Abella doesn’t even consider these possibilities, and thus does not explain why they are not sufficient. She thus does little to justify judicial review of legislation at all, let alone the robust, value-defining version that she favours. Others would add federalism and federalism-based judicial review, but not necessarily the rights-enforcing variety.  And even granting the insufficiency of structural devices to foster and protect genuine democracy, one can doubt whether it is this form of judicial review that we should favour. Aren’t more limited versions, along the lines of John Hart Ely’s “representation reinforcement” or the Carolene Products footnote 4‘s special protection for “discrete and insular minorities”) sufficient? Justice Abella has no answer to this objection either.

Instead, Justice Abella is content to assert that more judicial power is better, including for democracy. Surely, this isn’t necessarily so. Justice Abella herself, and most Canadian lawyers, would likely be horrified at the idea of judicial review enforcing property rights and freedom of contract against democratic majorities. They would insist, as Justice Holmes did in his dissent in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … It is made for people of fundamentally differing views”. (75-76) (The only exception to this, of course, concerns labour unions; fundamentally different views regarding their role in the economy have been read out of the Canadian constitution by the Supreme Court, led by Justice Abella.) On reflection, everyone—including Justice Abella—would agree that the protection of rights by an independent judiciary is not, in fact, always good. At the very least, it matters which rights are protected—and if it is the judiciary that effectively decides this, then it matters how it uses its power to do so.

This brings me to Justice Abella’s most remarkable claim—that it is indeed the Supreme Court that defines not just our constitutional rights, but Canadian values more generally. Mark characterizes this is “judicial supremacy”, but I prefer using this term to mean unyielding judicial control over constitutional meaning (the way Professor Waldron does here, for example). Justice Abella’s ambition is not so limited; she is not content to decide what our supreme law means; she wants to be the ultimate authority on what Canadians believe in. This is shocking stuff. In a free society, there can be no such authority, whether in the Supreme Court or elsewhere. In a free society, one cannot point to the constitution and say, Thatcher-style, “this is what we believe”. Citizens in a free society disagree, including about fundamental values. A constitution is only a judgment, albeit one reached by a super-majority—not, mind you, an actual consensus—about which of these values will be translated into legal constraints that will be imposed on the government until the constitution is amended. The courts’ job is to interpret these legal constraints, as they interpret other law; it is not to dictate “which contested values in a society should triumph”.

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority. It is unfortunate that a person so utterly misguided holds an office with as much power and prestige as that of a Supreme Court judge. Still, as important as this office is, it is less significant than Justice Abella imagines. We remain free to reject the values the Supreme Court would have us subscribe to. When these values amount to uncritical polite deference to philosopher-kings in ermine-collared robes, we have very good reason to do so.

Judicial Supremacy Defrocked

Justice Abella’s recent speech should remind us that courts are fallible.

In a recent speech reprinted in the Globe and Mail, Justice Abella of the Supreme Court again offered a robust defense of the judicial role and the profoundly benevolent impact of the Supreme Court in Canadian constitutional history:

Integration based on difference, equality based on inclusion despite difference and compassion based on respect and fairness: These are the principles that now form the moral core of Canadian national values…the values that make our national justice context democratically vibrant and principled…[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court.

She goes further:

A Supreme Court must be independent because it is the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph. In a polarized society, it is especially crucial to have an institution whose only mandate is to protect the rule of law.

On one hand, it is good to see that Justice Abella no longer finds the Rule of Law annoying. But on the other hand, her comments should give us pause. She presents a vision of a Supreme Court that decides what Canadian values are, and then imposes them on the society generally. We should first call this for what it is: judicial supremacy, in which rights are not recognized as much as they are created out of whole cloth at the discretion of the Supreme Court. Abella J seems to accept this in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, where she “gives benediction” to a right to strike. “Benediction” is defined as “the utterance or bestowing of a blessing, especially at the end of a religious service.” True to form, the Supreme Court is the high priest, bestowing us with rights as only a supreme institution can.

Glibness aside,  I do not mean to use the term “judicial supremacy” in a bombastic way, but rather in a technical legal sense. I mean it in the sense that Justice Abella clearly views the role of the Supreme Court as having the last word on constitutional matters. But her view goes even further: she thinks that the Supreme Court is a freestanding arbiter that is institutionally capable of rending final judgments on contests between values for the society on the whole.

I’m not sure this is normatively justifiable or whether it’s even a structural or textual feature of the Canadian Constitution. The legislature still has an important role to play in vetting laws for their constitutionality and making important value judgments that may impact constitutional rights—in most cases, the legislatures are probably better at this than courts. But this is a bigger fish to fry. Assuming for my purposes that Justice Abella’s description of what courts do and should do is accurate, maybe this state of affairs could be justifiable on the basis that courts are comparatively better at making the sorts of value judgments that arise in constitutional matters. If Justice Abella’s framing is true, so the argument goes, the essence of constitutional adjudication is value judgment; courts adjudicate constitutions, and therefore courts, over time, will be expert in value judgments.

But no one has ever presented evidence that this is empirically true, and I am not sure anyone ever could. Justice Abella herself recognized this in Doré, when she developed a doctrine of deference premised on the concept that courts are worse at constitutional decision-making than administrative decision-makers. In fact, courts are not institutionally suited to balance the sort of polycentric considerations that go into difficult and resource-laden value judgments. And judges are trained in the law, which on many modern accounts, is not even the purpose of law school. There are good reasons to doubt the ability of the courts to even begin to understand the weight of the task at hand.

If we are to have judicial supremacy, and judicial supremacy is fundamentally about final value judgments, I am not sure why we solely appoint legal practitioners to the Supreme Court. I only half-joke when I say that we could populate the court with people trained in the different perspectives through which value judgments could and should be made. Economic reasoning, for example, could be extremely helpful here. As Lon Fuller said, there is a point at which we could trade-off certain values in favour of others. We should attempt to develop theories by which we can anticipate and calculate the costs of adopting one right over another; or the reliance interests associated with this precedent over that one. What’s more, philosophy could be helpful. Moral and normative reasoning about how people should live is clearly within the interest of Justice Abella when she judges cases.

I think that the Justice Abellas of the world who argue that law is simply about “balancing values” are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, if they make that argument, they should accept that law has no claim to empire over adjudication. Adjudication is not what is taught in training for lawyers; and there are people who are better qualified to assess the different tradeoffs of values and the practical impact those changes have. But if they reject this proposition, then they must accept that there is a locus of “law” somewhere to be found in adjudication. It follows that we should train lawyers and judges to first, do no harm; determine the meaning of constitutional terms according to objective standards.  Values may be instantiated in the law, but one must first interpret that law to determine those values. It shouldn’t be the case that judges enter legal inquiries with an idea of the values they seek to advance.

The task of judging was supposed to be defined by “passive virtues,” with courts possessing neither force, nor will—only judgment (The Federalist, No. 81). Justice Abella evidently believes in a vision of courts that are not only supreme but confidently so. Judgment has turned into arrogant finality that decides not only the narrow constitutional issue before the court, but the larger value judgment which is settled for all time.  There is no democratic recourse to the ever-expanding domain of constitutional empire if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole.  If courts are going to do this—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

Bell/NFL: The Second Dunsmuir Redux Case

Two weeks ago, I summarized and analyzed the arguments in Vavilov, one of the Dunsmuir redux cases that will be heard at the Supreme Court in December. I’ll now do the same for the second case, Bell/NFL, which similarly focuses on an important conceptual difficulty in the law of judicial review: the presence and implications of a category of “jurisdictional questions.”

This case concerned an interpretation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission [CRTC] of its own statute and regulations. The Appellants, Bell and NFL, claim that the interpretation raises a jurisdictional issue; the Respondent government resists this claim, arguing that the concept of jurisdictional questions inviting a different standard of review should be jettisoned. For reasons I’ve explained before, I do not think jurisdiction is a helpful category in the law of judicial review. All administrative law is confined to statute, and so whether an issue is “jurisdictional” or not is simply a function of an enabling statute.

The interpretive difficulty

The interpretive difficulty in Bell/NFL centres around the broadcast of the Super Bowl in Canada. For many years, the Super Bowl had been broadcast in Canada under the “simultaneous substitution regime,” set out in the regulations [Sim Sub Regulations] under the Broadcasting Act. Under the simultaneous substitution regime, a Canadian television station is required (unless the CRTC determines otherwise) to substitute a Canadian feed for a non-Canadian programming service—the result being that Canadians watching the Super Bowl see Canadian commercials whether they watch the Super Bowl on a Canadian or American channel (see Sim Sub Regulations, s.4(1))). The CRTC, under the Sim Sub Regulations, can apply an exception to the simultaneous substitution requirements if the “deletion and substitution are not in the public interest” (s. 4(3)). The CRTC can make this decision under s.18(3) of the Broadcasting Act, which allows it to make any decision “within its jurisdiction” if it is satisfied it is the public interest.

In this case, after consultations, the CRTC decided that the simultaneous substitution of Canadian content would no longer be in the public interest.  The key provision is s.9(1)(h) of the Broadcasting Act, under which the CRTC is entitled to require a licensee to “carry…programming services specified by the Commission.” Under this provision, the CRTC decided that it had jurisdiction under s.9(1)(h) to apply the exception to the simultaneous substitution regime in the public interest.

At the Federal Court of Appeal (a direct statutory appeal), Bell and the NFL argued that the CRTC “only has jurisdiction to make orders and regulations regarding programming services and does not have jurisdiction to single out an individual ‘program’” [15]. While the Broadcasting Act does not define programming services, the appellants argued that other provisions in the statute used the term “programming services” to refer to television channels. So, since the Super Bowl is a single show, the CRTC did not have “jurisdiction” under s.9(1)(h) to make the order it did.

The Federal Court of Appeal decided otherwise. First, the Court concluded that the standard of review is reasonableness, but rejected the “margin of appreciation approach” that the Court adopted in Vavilov [9].  It ultimately decided that the term “programming services” is contextual in nature; it could mean a single “program” (ie) the Super Bowl in certain circumstances [19]. A number of factors supported this conclusion: (1) previous interpretations of the CRTC held that the term was contextual [16]; the Sim Sub Regulations adopted the definition of “programming services” under the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations, which defined a “programming service” to mean a singular program [17]; while the legislative history demonstrated that “programming services” was used in reference to television channels, it was not determinative, and there was no evidence that the legislature intended to exclude a singular program from the term “programming services.” All of this meant that the CRTC’s decision was reasonable.

While there were other issues in this case, this core issue is the one that is most relevant to current debates in administrative law and judicial review.

The Parties’ Submissions on Standard of Review

Bell and NFL filed a factum each before the Supreme Court; Bell’s focused on the standard of review, while the NFL’s focused on the application of the standard of review to the issues in the case.

Bell’s factum reads as an attack on the administrative state. In the opening paragraphs of the factum, Bell notes that s. 9(1)(h) is juxtaposed with s.26(2) of the Broadcasting Act, which gives the power to Cabinet to require the broadcast of “any program.” This, to Bell, was the only provision of the statute that permitted the targeting of an individual program. This made sense—the Cabinet is “a democratically accountable body” [5]. And Bell does not pull punches, calling the CRTC’s exercise of power “Orwellian,” “conferring upon itself the ability to dictate the particular television programs that broadcasters distribute…” [5].

This assault on administrative power informs Bell’s standard of review proposal. To Bell, it is “inconceivable” that Parliament would have wanted the CRTC to have the last word on its own “jurisdiction” on this matter. To prevent this reality, Bell argues that a separate category of “jurisdictional questions” inviting correctness review is required. At risk are three principles: legislative supremacy, the separation of powers, and the rule of law [paras 42, 45, and 63-69]. When the fundamental question concerned “executive accountability to legal authority,” it would undermine the intent of the legislature to allow its creation to run beyond its statutory limits; the separation of powers is at risk if the executive could “decide for itself what powers were delegated to it by the legislature” [47]; and if the CRTC could single out a program when the statute expressly left that task to Parliament, the rule of law is impacted [69].

Without correctness review on “jurisdictional questions,” Bell alleges that we have an administrative state untethered to statute, making law as it goes along. And for Bell, even if the presumption of reasonableness was applicable, other statutory signals rebutted the presumption, including a statutory right of appeal [87-88].

The government, in its submissions, reiterated the focus on a general standard of deference for all administrative decision-makers that it set out in its Vavilov submissions and that I addressed in my previous post. It argues that the category of jurisdictional questions should be eliminated [34], and that the mere fact of delegation creates a presumption of deference [48]. To the government, there should be no search for other implicit signals of legislative intent to rebut this presumption.

Analysis

The Bell/NFL case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to review its approach to that unicorn of judicial review, “jurisdictional questions.” In a forthcoming paper entitled “Two Myths of Administrative Law,” one of the myths I tackle is the idea of jurisdictional questions. In my view, both Bell and the government get this issue wrong. A category of jurisdictional questions (but not necessarily the concept of “jurisdiction”) is not helpful to the task of determining the standard of review; but neither is an always-applicable presumption of deference, which the government seems to believe necessarily follows from the rejection of the category of jurisdictional questions.

Starting at the beginning, Dunsmuir defined a true question of jurisdiction as one that concerned the decision-maker’s authority to make the inquiry in the first place [59]. This is, to be clear, is a very narrow sort of jurisdiction that can be distinguished from a pre-CUPE notion of jurisdiction. Under pre-CUPE law, every decision of an administrative decision-maker that runs afoul of its statutory boundaries could be considered as beyond its jurisdiction. Dunsmuir rejected this broad notion of jurisdiction.

But the Court has struggled with this conceptually difficult category. In subsequent cases, it has rolled back its application. In Halifax, it did away with the notion of “preliminary” or “entry” jurisdictional questions. In Alberta Teachers, a majority of the Court remarked that the category served little purpose. In CHRC, it reaffirmed the idea that a category of jurisdictional questions is unhelpful. Some spirited dissenters argue that the category is necessary, as Bell argues, to ensure that administrative decision-makers stay within their lawful boundaries (see also dissents in Guerin and CHRC).

I can understand the worry of the Court’s dissenters and Bell about the need to keep the administrative state in check. The real question is if meaningful checks and balances can be applied to a decision-maker by a judicial review court in absence of this category. To my mind, the answer is yes—but not under the current presumption of reasonableness, nor the extended version sought by the government in this litigation.

How is this so? In CHRC, the majority cited the City of Arlington case at the Supreme Court of the United States, per Scalia J. In that decision, a majority of the United States’ apex court rejected the idea that jurisdictional questions deserve a special, more intensive review than other questions of law. At the root of the argument for the category of jurisdictional questions, Scalia J reasons, is a misapprehension of the notion of “jurisdiction” in administrative law. For example, in Canada, s.96 courts have “inherent jurisdiction” that is constitutionally significant. This power to hear and decide cases is fundamentally different from the idea of administrative law jurisdiction—the jurisdiction of s.96 courts is constitutionally entrenched, whereas the jurisdiction of administrative decision-makers is defined by their statutes. This fundamental concept was described by the Court in Ocean Port, at para 23, with respect to independence. Constitutional guarantees of independence do not transfer over to an administrative decision-maker, even if they are requirements in the context of superior courts. While we would jealously guard constitutional independence, independence in the administrative context is completely different—it can be traded away.

The same is true of “jurisdiction.” In administrative law, the idea of “jurisdiction” is purely statutory. The power of a tribunal to hear and decide cases is circumscribed by statute, unlike in the s.96 context; so are the remedies that the decision-maker can grant, and whether a particular claimant can even have standing to challenge a particular decision. Whether the tribunal can act at all on a particular matter is a matter of statute. At the most extreme end, whether we have an administrative state to even review is a matter of statute. In a sense, everything and nothing is jurisdictional (Nolan, at para 33) because a decision-maker has no independent reserve of powers on which to rely outside the statute.

If one supports the idea that the level of deference owed to a decision-maker is a function of statute (which the Supreme Court does), then there is no reason to apply a different standard of review over questions going to the tribunal’s power to hear and decide cases, as opposed to its power, say, to grant a certain remedy. If a tribunal hears a case it is not statutorily empowered to hear, it is as much an affront to legislative supremacy and the rule of law as if the tribunal granted non-pecuniary damages when its enabling statute gave it no authority to do so. Both are instances in which the decision-maker has assumed power it has not been specifically assigned—and at heart, this is Bell’s fundamental concern with the CRTC’s action here. Nothing turns on the label of “jurisdiction.”

While the Court’s invocation of City of Arlington in CHRC supports the government, the Court doesn’t cite City of Arlington for its other, parallel proposition; that it is the job of courts to intensively police the boundaries of the administrative state, no matter the standard of review. For Scalia J, every case turns on the vigorous enforcement of statutory boundaries, not the artificial imposition of a particular category. And this is where Bell’s submissions are preferable to the government’s.  Under the government’s formulation of deference without an investigation of statutory signals, it is possible that a decision-maker could have (essentially) the last word on its statutory boundaries. This is not only problematic when we speak of the decision-maker’s power to hear and decide cases; it is a problem in every permutation of decision-making that could abridge the enabling statute. A judicial review court must review, and in our system of laws, this means determining whether there is any daylight between potentially correct interpretations of statutory language and what the decision-maker did in a particular case.

This case provides an example of how this could work in practice. In any given case, there should be two inquiries: (1) is the decision barred by the text, context, and purpose of the statute? (2) is the process of reasoning sound with respect to these principles of statutory interpretation?

On the first question, whether the term “programming services” can refer to the Super Bowl is a question of law. That means that a court reviews the text, context, and purpose of the statute—and the “open-textured” language therein—to determine the level of deference owed and whether the substantive result is legal. Here, the text is undefined in the statute, and is reasonably open-textured, meaning it could support more than one option. Sometimes, the tools of statutory interpretation require this result—there may be more than one answer. The context supports the CRTC’s interpretation and the breadth of options; the definition of programming services in the Sim Sub Regulations supports the CRTC’s decision. While I am alive to the concern that the Cabinet may have the power under s.26(2) to specify particular programs, that power seems to be of a different nature—based on the “urgency” of the program specified.  And even though a statutory right of appeal is present in the legislative context, that does not change the legality of the CRTC’s reasoning on the specific interpretive difficulty. Finally, the CRTC’s decision does not run counter to any of the Broadcasting Act’s purposes.

If I had my druthers, this is how we would deal with questions of law. There would be no presumption of “reasonableness.” Any deference is inherent in the language, the context, and the purpose of the statute. Here, the CRTC’s decision is not reasonable, or correct, but legal—it is supported by the tools of statutory interpretation and its process of reasoning is adequate (this point was not central). Nothing more or less.

Jurisdictional metaphysics, while interesting, is the province of lawyers. Bell/NFL provides an opportunity for the Court to get out of the game.

Vavilov: Doing the Administrative State’s Dirty Work

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking some time in this space to summarize the submissions in the upcoming Dunsmuir review: the cases of Vavilov and Bell/NFL. Today I will focus on Vavilov, and the proposals offered by both the Appellant (the Government of Canada) and the Respondent (Vavilov) for the standard of review of administrative action. As I’ll explain, on balance, the Respondent’s formulation is most consistent with the fundamental function of judicial review.

I should note at the outset that I am the Vice-President of the Advocates for the Rule of Law group, which is intervening at the Court in the Vavilov and Bell/NFL appeals. My comments below should be read as only my view on the merits of the parties’ submissions.

Facts

In many ways, Vavilov is a perfect case to test the merits of Dunsmuir. It is a case of pure legislative interpretation. Under the Citizenship Act, persons generally born on Canadian soil receive Canadian citizenship (under the principle of jus soli embedded in s.3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act). There are, however, exceptions contained in s.3(2)(a), (b), and (c) of the Citizenship Act:

(2) Paragraph (1)(a) does not apply to a person if, at the time of his birth, neither of his parents was a citizen or lawfully admitted to Canada for permanent residence and either of his parents was

(a) a diplomatic or consular officer or other representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government;

(b) an employee in the service of a person referred to in paragraph (a); or

(c) an officer or employee in Canada of a specialized agency of the United Nations or an officer or employee in Canada of any other international organization to whom there are granted, by or under any Act of Parliament, diplomatic privileges and immunities certified by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be equivalent to those granted to a person or persons referred to in paragraph (a).

The Vavilov case turns on s.3(2). Vavilov was born in Canada to Russian parents who were spies for the Russian government. The parents lived in Canada under assumed identities. But for Vavilov, he was always Canadian. He did not have any suspicion that his parents were covert agents.

In 2010, while living in the US with his family, the FBI arrested his parents. This was the first time that Vavilov was made aware of his parents’ identities. Subsequently, the Registrar of Citizenship cancelled Vavilov’s citizenship, on the conclusion that s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act applies. To the Registrar, since Vavilov’s parents were not citizens or lawfully admitted to Canada, and because they were “employees of a foreign government” under s.3(2)(a), Vavilov was not entitled to citizenship.

The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the Registrar’s conclusion. On the standard of review, the Court noted that this is a case where the margin of appreciation was exceedingly narrow for the Registrar, for three reasons: (1) the interests of the individual affected were elevated in this case; (2) the Supreme Court had conducted searching review of immigration matters in its recent cases and; (3) the reasons were inadequate.

On the merits, the Court concluded that the words “…employee in Canada of a foreign government” must be read ejusdem generis with the words preceding it. According to the Court, the common theme underpinning the s.3(2)(a) category was the concept of diplomatic privileges and immunities. Section 3(2)(a) was designed to apply only “to those employees who benefit from diplomatic privileges and immunities” [45]. This conclusion was supported by the context of the provision. Sections 3(2) (c), for example, referred to privileges and immunities granted to persons referred to in s.3(2)(a), indicating a legislative intention that persons in s.3(2)(a) are only those with privileges and immunities. International law also supported this conclusion—the Citizenship Act “borrows many of the same phrases that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations uses in the context of diplomatic immunity” [74]. Under the Vienna Convention, certain employees of a foreign government have immunity, specifically persons connected with the diplomatic mission. Persons not associated with the diplomatic staff are outside of the Convention, and to the extent that Convention is adopted into Canadian law, Vavilov’s parents were therefore outside the Citizenship Act exception to jus soli citizenship [58].

For our purposes, the Federal Court of Appeal’s concerns also extended to the process of reasoning by the Registrar. The Court noted that “[O]n the central statutory interpretation issue before us, the Registrar said nothing” [38]. The Registrar, as is common in administrative law, apparently relied on a report prepared by an analyst. But that report “contains only one brief paragraph on the statutory interpretation issue, and a very limited one at that” [39]. The Court was concerned that the decision was immunized from review, because it could not be sure that the central statutory interpretation issue was even considered.

The Government’s Submissions

With the facts of the case in the backdrop, the Government began its submissions by outlining its proposal for revisions to the standard of review framework set out in Dunsmuir. The government set out its proposal clearly in the first paragraph of its factum:

The standard of review should be deferential, subject only to limited exceptions where the foundational democratic principle and the rule of law make it clear that the courts must have the final word.

The motivation behind this proposal is the mere fact that the legislature granted authority to an administrative body [49]. To the government, delegation=deference.

So, we have a rule (rather than a presumption) of deference for even more matters than Dunsmuir and its progeny prescribed. Notably, no longer do we have the correctness categories of true jurisdictional questions or the category of questions of central importance to the legal system and beyond the expertise of the decision-maker.  This general category of deference applies not only to the result reached by the decision-maker but its process of reasoning. For the government, administrative decision-makers under the ambit of government should not be expected to undertake the type of statutory interpretation analysis that courts undertake [4]. And, the decision-makers should not be expected to make explicit findings on matters of statutory interpretation [60].

The only exceptions to this general rule of deference are constitutional questions (where a law is challenged before a decision-maker on constitutional grounds) and on issues of procedural fairness.

On the merits, the government argues that there was a cogent basis for the Registrar’s decision. The government highlighted that in previous versions of the Citizenship Act, there was a requirement embedded in the citizenship exception that representatives or employees of foreign governments have official accreditation, or any connection to a diplomatic mission [84]. That requirement no longer exists, and the Registrar pointed this out, concluding that the wording in s.3(2)(a) was meant to encompass additional individuals beyond just those with immunities and privileges. Since the decision-maker canvassed this legislative change, some case law bearing on the problem, and other factors, the government argues that this is a sufficient basis to uphold the legality of the decision on its deferential standard.

It appears, for the government, that this alone is enough on its prescribed intensity of review. The government argues that if there are “additional relevant interpretive factors which the administrative decision-maker did not consider, a court may examine such factors in order to discover whether the administrative decision-maker’s interpretation can be sustained” [89]. These “additional relevant interpretive factors” are the text, context, and purpose of the statute that the Registrar was tasked with interpreting. On an interpretation of these factors, the government argues that the decision is legal.

Vavilov’s Submissions

The Respondent’s proposed standard of review framework is from a different world than the government’s. He proposes a two-part framework. First, so-called “discretionary decisions” are reviewed for reasonableness. Second, questions of law are reviewed on a correctness standard. On this second prong, the Respondent concedes that the view of the decision-makers on the “purpose and policy of its own statutes will continue to deserve respect” [59]. However, courts will still have to review the administrative decision-makers’ view of its enabling statute, independently.

The Respondent also, instructively, responds to the government’s proposed standard of review framework. He first notes that while deference to administrative decision-makers presumes trust on the part of these decision-makers, “It is worth recalling that some of the most regretted episodes in Canadian history were the work of federal statutory decision-makers exercising delegated authority” [33]. And, the Respondent also notes that the government’s submission was basically an attempt to insulate its statutory decision-makers from review. Under the government’s formulation, for example, expertise is also always presumed—“no matter how limited the statutory discretion that Parliament gave to the decision-maker or how insubstantial their real expertise” [53]. Particularly on this front, the Respondent notes that the Registrar under cross-examination said that she was “not a lawyer” and therefore did not know the legal “significance” of words in the provision [102].

On the merits, the Respondent argues that the Federal Court of Appeal’s interpretation was right, particularly noting that the Registrar/analyst interpretation did not address the legislative context of s.3(2), particularly s.3(2)(c).

Analysis

In my view, the Respondent accurately describes the implications of the government’s view. Particularly, the Respondent’s proposal is better than the government’s on a number of fronts if we view the matter from the basis of the fundamental function of judicial review—quite aside from any constitutional mandate for superior courts to police the boundaries of the administrative state.

First, most of Canadian administrative law doctrine is premised around the idea that the administrative state is a collection of virtuous experts creating good public policy and fairly adjudicating disputes. But the Respondent points out that this is far from the case. In fact, the state’s statutory creations have been perhaps the greatest purveyor of discriminatory treatment in the history of Canadian society. Far from being “flexible and expert,” (Edmonton East, at para 22) sometimes administrative decision-makers have been unfair, discriminatory, and even racist: particularly, the examples cited by the Respondent of the deportation of Japanese Canadians and the experience of Aboriginal peoples with residential schools are apposite. This is not to say that government agencies today have designs to discrimination. But it does mean that government agencies can make irrational decisions—particularly ones that are inconsistent with enabling law or the facts and record before it.

So, contrary to current scripture, it is not unreasonable that some would question the lawfulness of state action at the outset. And this is where the idea of a going-in rule of deference loses its force. The government wishes to create a system where state action is presumably lawful; where the mere fact of delegation speaks to the degree of deference owed by courts to a decision-maker. But on simple logical terms, a decision of a government to delegate to a satellite decision-maker says nothing about the degree of deference owed to that decision-maker by courts. Governments delegate to administrative decision-makers for a whole host of reasons: (1) the legislature does not want to spend the time setting up a complex regulatory scheme ex ante; (2) the legislature doesn’t care about the intricacies of the particular issue at hand, and wants someone else to deal with them; (3) the government legitimately feels that it does not have expertise in a particular matter; (4) the government does not want to make politically-charged decisions and wants to foist the political heat on someone else. More reasons abound. But the very fact of delegation says nothing about how courts should view that delegation, given that the reasons motivating delegation are so variable.

Quite the opposite from the traditional story, the potential for legislatures to shirk responsibility for important matters may invite scrutiny by courts. Delegation creates a form of distance between legislatures and decision-makers that makes it difficult for courts to conduct review. The idea is that a law passed by the legislature sets a standard—and decision-makers, relying on their own practices or ideas of what is right, and the informational asymmetry that they enjoy, can “drift” from the text of the law by which they are bound. This principal-agent problem invites, rather than counsels against, the scrutiny of courts.

On this front, the government’s standard of review proposal makes it more difficult for courts to determine whether a decision-maker is acting lawfully. Perhaps the most pernicious of the proposals is the idea that courts should presume deference on implied interpretations of law. One of the most common rationales for deference, put forward by the government above, is the idea that Parliament’s decision to vest power in an administrative decision-maker in the first place is legally significant. Even if we accept this logically deficient rationale, deferring to “implied” interpretations of law raises the prospect that the court is deferring to nothing. This is because it will be difficult for courts to determine whether the interpretive difficulty faced by the decision-maker was even addressed, let alone in a substantive way, if there is only an “implied determination.” Not to mention, of course, that if Parliament delegated to a decision-maker the power to make a decision, we should expect that a decision be made, not merely “implied.”

This is even more so where there are multiple analytical paths to a particular result. It may be easy in some cases for courts to draw a direct line to a particular analytical path from a result—in such cases, it may be easy to say what sort of interpretation is “implied” (putting aside the objection that it is the job of the decision-maker to positively pronounce on the matters it has been entrusted with by the legislature). But in most cases, if it is truly the case (as most argue) that statutes can fairly bear more than one meaning, then the reasoning employed to get to a certain result is quite important on judicial review. Where the decision-maker has multiple options, and has failed to pronounce on its reasoning, the court is left in the unenviable position of having to guess. In all cases, the quality of the reasoning adopted by the decision-maker—whether it addressed the text, context, and purpose of the statute, which cabins its discretion (McLean, at para 38)—is key. For the government to claim that these are mere “additional interpretive factors” is simply incorrect when it is the quality of the reasoning that determines whether a particular interpretation is lawful.

Vavilov shows why the government’s proposal is so flawed on both of these fronts. Even though we always presume expertise by decision-makers, the decision-maker in Vavilov basically admitted that she had no idea about the central interpretive difficulty in the case. She said she did not understand the terms of legal significance. The result she reached evinced this lack of understanding; she failed to take account of the whole of s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act and barely pronounced on the key interpretive difficulties. Yet, the text, context, and purpose of statutes are key to determining the range of reasonable outcomes available to the decision-maker. So, it is not true to say hers was a decision that fell within a range of reasonable outcomes, as Justice Gleason at the Federal Court of Appeal did in dissent. Quite the contrary, her decision was flawed precisely because her reasoning was flawed and wanting. It was unclear whether she took a proper analytical path to her decision. And yet, the government asks courts, on a hope and a prayer, to defer to this sort of reasoning merely because it is implied.

As Justice Stratas said in Bonnybrook, it is not the job of courts on judicial review to impersonate the decision-maker and fill in the gaps in deficient decisions. Yet the government’s proposal asks courts to do just that. Putting aside the constitutional objections to this posture, it fundamentally misconceives what courts are supposed to do on judicial review. Judicial review is designed to ensure decision-makers act rationally and according to law.

Courts cannot be conscripted into service by the administrative state to do its dirty work.

 

 

10 Things I Dislike About Administrative Law

A perspective from a skeptic

Inspired by Leonid’s post on the Constitution, I’ve decided to list the 10 things I dislike about administrative law in Canada in advance of the planned revisit of Dunsmuir.

One’s personal list of problems with administrative law will inevitably reflect one’s views of what administrative law is and should be, and indeed, what law is and should be. Reasonable people will disagree on this, but perhaps we could agree on two fundamental starting points (even if we disagree on their interaction). First is the idea that absent constitutional objection, legislative delegation to administrative decision-makers should be respected, and courts should give effect to legislative language using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation (set out in cases like RizzoCanada Trustco). Second is the Rule of Law; courts must survey the  statutory boundaries of inferior tribunals to determine (1) the level of deference owed and (2) whether the decision is legal. On this account, administrative law can be understood as a form of control over the diffused form of decision-making the administrative state has wrought.

As I hope to show (quite tentatively, I might add), the Supreme Court has moved away from these first principles, often at the expense of the Rule of Law. The main point of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine is an acceptance of deference to the “unrestricted” power of administrative decision-makers (see West Fraser, at para 11). By limiting the circumstances in which courts can review the propriety of the administrative state, the Court has “read in” a doctrine of deference that may not be prescribed by the enabling statute or the role of courts to enforce constitutional precepts as “guardians of the Constitution” (Hunter v Southam). The Court has constructed its own administrative law rules to operationalize its vision of deference.

  1. Selecting the standard of review

The standard of review is the obsession of Canadian administrative lawyers. The Supreme Court has fed this obsession by creating an overly complex standard of review analysis that is tenuously connected to the overall principles of the Rule of Law and legislative supremacy. The sine qua non of the analysis is a presumption of reasonableness on issues of home statute interpretation that is virtually irrebuttable (see Edmonton East, at para 22). This presumption is the imposition of judicial preference on a statute that may not agree with that preference, contrary to the hierarchy of laws. It is profoundly inconsistent with the idea that courts must enforce the law as they find it (see Justice Brown’s comments in CHRC on this front). At the same time, the Court has failed to explain or justify the relationship between the presumption, the categories inviting correctness review, and other legislative factors. Lower courts understandably struggle with this superstructure that might work in Supreme Court chambers but do not work in the context of judicial review.

I prefer a doctrine that puts the onus to defer on legislatures. Otherwise, the default position (especially on questions of law) should be de novo review by courts–consistent with their constitutionally defined supervisory jurisdiction (see point 7).  If legislatures want to constrain decision-makers, they will prescribe—for example—a “statutory recipe” that the decision-maker must follow (Farwaha, at para 91; Boogaard, at paras 43-44).  If not, on certain matters, the legislature may use open-textured language, directing the decision-maker to act “in the public interest” for example. The former will force a more searching standard of review, the latter a lesser one. The point is that we no longer need the labels of “reasonableness” or “correctness.” After all, administrative law is very simply a specialized branch of statutory interpretation (Bibeault, at para 120), recognizing the fundamental fact that the administrative state is statutory in nature.

  1. Applying the standard of review of “reasonableness” on questions of law

To the parties, whether a decision is reasonable (or, I prefer to say, simply “legal” ) is the central question on judicial review. But the Supreme Court has not explained what constitutes a “reasonable” decision, particularly when it comes to determinations on questions of law.  It simply says that reasonableness takes the colour of the context (Khosa, at para 59) with the range of outcomes expanding or contracting based on the “context”. All of this is metaphorical and unhelpful to litigants and lower courts.

At one level, we can question whether the decision-maker’s interpretive process for determining the content of the law is “reasonable”—does the decision-maker engage with the text, context, and purpose of the statute? This may impose a “lawyerly” methodology on decision-makers, inconsistent with a commitment to legal pluralism that nominally defines the Supreme Court’s deference doctrine.

That being so, I think we should expect decision-makers to articulate their decisions in ways cognizable to the rest of the legal system, if we value uniformity in the way these decision-makers deal with disputes. But I think this is a pipe dream. We can’t expect, for example, all “line decision-makers” to understand the finer points of statutory interpretation. All we might expect is that a decision is actually made by a decision-maker with cogent reasons so that courts can evaluate it. When faced with an administrative decision, say, interpreting an enabling statute, a court simply has to decide whether the decision fits within the statute. Courts apply the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation to do this. I say more about this process here, but suffice it to say that whether a decision “fits” with an enabling statute can be answered by asking whether the decision renders a result at odds with the purpose of the statute (properly construed); whether the decision is precluded by other parts of the statute; and whether the text of the statute precludes the interpretation undertaken by the decision-maker. This is not far from what the Newfoundland Court of Appeal did in Allen, a commendable decision.

  1. Expertise

Courts assume that expertise is, at the very least, a practical reason for deference—legislatures delegate to decision-makers because of their expertise. In fact, expertise is a key reason undergirding the Supreme Court’s presumption of reasonableness on questions of home statute interpretation. But there is never an investigation into whether this expertise exists in reality, nor is there ever an explanation of the sort of expertise that would be relevant to trigger deference. The Court assumes that “…expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal [which tribunal?] itself as an institution” (Edmonton East, at para 33).

Putting aside this mysterious statement, if expertise is a good practical reason for deference, the Court should move away from the general assumptions and explain in each case (1) the relevant sort of expertise required to trigger deference and (2) whether there is any statutory evidence that such expertise exists in practice.  As I have written before, this was the general approach used by the Supreme Court in the pragmatic and functional era (Pushpanathan is a good example). Why this approach is no longer appropriate is a puzzle.

  1. Lack of academic and judicial focus on agency procedures and policies

In law schools, administrative law almost exclusively is taught as the law of judicial review. Little attention is paid to the bowels of administrative law—the different sorts of decision-makers in the “administrative state,” their policies and procedures, the effect of “guidelines” (binding or non-binding) on individual litigants, and the profound democratic challenge posed by the adoption of policy guidelines imposed without the consent or consultation of the people subject to the guidelines.  While Lorne Sossin has done some important work in this regard, academics would do well to examine and further define the taxonomy of potential internal policies that could impact individual litigants, and the extent to which they could deviate from the statutory grant given to the decision-maker.

  1. Jurisdictional Questions

The perennial unicorn of administrative law, the concept of the jurisdictional question continues to haunt the law of judicial review. These are (largely hypothetical) questions on which a decision-maker is afforded no deference, because they go to the authority of the decision-maker to respond to the case in front of it at all.

In CHRC, the majority of the Court rightly noted that the concept of the jurisdictional question is quite indistinguishable from other questions of law a decision-maker is asked to address. Dissenters on the Supreme Court (particularly in CHRC and its predecessor, Guerin) think that the concept of jurisdictional questions is important to the role of courts on judicial review to enforce the Rule of Law. Essentially, to the dissenters, the Rule of Law requires correctness review because deferring to administrative decision-makers on their own jurisdictional limits allows the “fox in the henhouse”—virtually unreviewable administrative authority over legal limits.

But as Justice Stratas noted in a recent Access Copyright case (and before him, as Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court of the US noted in City of Arlington,), a judicial review court  interpreting an enabling statute on any legal question inevitably deals with the issue of its limits to enter the inquiry in the first place. These issues are all matters of legislative interpretation. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington  “The fox-in-the-henhouse syndrome is to be avoided not by establishing an arbitrary and undefinable category of agency decision-making that is accorded no deference, but by taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agencies’ authority.”

The jurisdictional questions doctrine only makes sense if the Rule of Law mandates more searching review for questions of jurisdiction opposed to all other legal questions—assuming that a clear division can be drawn between these questions. But when it comes to administrative law, there is no meaningful distinction between legal questions and questions of jurisdiction—authority to make a decision in either category rests wholly on the statutory grant given to the decision-maker. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington, a better descriptor for the concept is simply “statutory authority.” On this account, jurisdiction is not a concept that adds anything of substance.

  1. Charter Values

The religion of deference has even extended to constitutional issues. Truth be told, more ink has been spilled on the idea of Charter values than I think is necessary. Others have written about the doctrinal problems with Charter values as originally understood in Doré. These problems were exhaustively explored in Rowe J’s judgment in the Trinity Western case, and I need not revisit them here.

I will simply say that the benefits of Charter values that were promised by the Court’s judgment in Doré have yet to come to fruition. As I wrote here, the Supreme Court (and lower courts)  cite Doré without applying its key holdings, basically applying the same tests associated with legislative challenges and particular Charter provisions than the “Charter values” (whatever they are) themselves. Even defenders of Charter values acknowledge that they have been applied inconsistently.

One wonders if there is any promise to the use of Charter values, or whether these values are unknowable, useless, and unhelpful in judicial review. To my mind, it is for the defenders of Charter values to move beyond the abstractions and lay out how—exactly—Charter values are fundamentally different from Charter rights, warranting a different analysis and relaxed standard of review.

  1. There are unexplored constitutional issues with aspects of administrative law

Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 has been interpreted as the foundation of the power attributed by the Constitution to courts of inherent jurisdiction. The test described in Residential Tenancies (NS) determines whether or not a particular power can be transferred from Parliament and legislatures to statutory tribunals.  But there is separately a “core” of s.96 powers that cannot be transferred (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 15) to statutory tribunals.

To my mind, the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts over inferior tribunals—on questions of law, specifically— is included in this core of superior court jurisdiction (MacMillan Bloedel, at paras 34-35).The concept of a core is a useful connection to the original purpose of s.96 courts to provide uniform interpretation of law.

Professor Daly has written on this issue, particularly on the issue of transferring judicial review functions to intermediate statutory tribunals. But I think more work should be done to square the constitutionality of the administrative state with the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts. For example, full privative clauses could be unconstitutional if they block the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts–on all questions of law, not just “jurisdictional” issues as noted in Crevier. I also would not concede that deference doctrines on questions of law—which dilute the supervisory function—are consistent with the role of superior courts. The list goes on, and it’s a list that could be explored with reference to the original meaning of s.96.

  1. The Supreme Court’s reasons doctrine

The Supreme Court tells us that we should pay attention to the “reasons that could be offered” by an administrative decision-maker before concluding that reasons are insufficient, warranting review (Dunsmuir, at para 48). This doctrinal innovation was based on a line taken from an academic article that did not speak to the mechanics of judicial review.

While the Supreme Court walked back this development in Delta Air Lines, it still remains the case that courts can supplement the reasons of decision-makers. This is problematic on a number of fronts. First, it was the legislature that delegated the decision-maker the power to make “justifiable, transparent, and intelligible” decisions. That power was not vested in the courts. Second, it is profoundly inconsistent with a notion of deliberative deference for a court to gin up reasons for a decision that the decision-maker may not have provided. Third, by abiding a culture of unjustified decision-making in the administrative state, the Court incentivizes decision-makers to limit the provision of reasons in their decisions, basically immunizing their decisions from meaningful review (see the discussion in Tsleil-Waututh Nation). But because the Court has stated that insufficiency of reasons is not a standalone basis for allowing a judicial review (Newfoundland Nurses, at para 14), a judicial review court is left in the unenviable position of having to defer to a potentially unjustified decision.

If a decision is unreasonable because of a lack of justification, it should be remitted. It is  the remedial stage of the judicial review in which the court determines whether the decision can be maintained, looking to the record, for example (see Lemus, at para 33). Otherwise, courts may inadvertently allow unjustified decision-making.

  1. Deference to implied interpretations of law

The same comments I made in (8) apply here. Agraira holds, for example, that courts can defer to determinations of law that are “necessarily implied” within an ultimate decision (at para 48). Relying again on the magic line from the academic article, the Court concluded that it could consider the reasons that could be offered in support of a decision. But in Agraira itself, the Court noted that it could not “determine with finality the actual reasoning of the Minister.” I fail to see how a judicial review court, in those circumstances, can  determine whether the reasoning and outcome fit within a range of reasonable outcomes.

  1. The standard of appellate review

This is a technical but important point. On an appeal of a judicial review court’s determinations, the Supreme Court insists that appellate courts should apply the judicial review standards of review–reasonableness and correctness–rather than the typical standards of appellate review set out in Housen. The appellate court is to “step into the shoes” of the lower court to determine whether that court selected and applied the proper standard of review (Agraira, at para 46). The effect of this is the same review, twice, of an administrative decision.

There are a number of problems with this. The first rests in the distinction between a first instance judicial review court and an appellate review court. If, as I posit above, judicial review is fundamentally a task of statutory interpretation (on both standard of review and the merits), then the appellate court is looking at particular legal issues raised in that interpretation by an appellant. This is fundamentally no different than the typical fare of appellate courts in most instances; determining whether a lower court interpretation of law is correct according to Housen.

Also, it makes little sense for an appellate court to redo a first instance court’s interpretation of a statute for reasons of judicial economy. Further, judicial review is supposed to be a summary procedure. Even at the appellate level, this should hold true.

 

CHRC: The Presumption of Reasonableness and the Rule of Law

Worries about the upcoming review of Dunsmuir

The Supreme Court of Canada released a number of decisions in the last few months on standard of review. Many of these decisions are probably noise rather than signal, in the language of Professor Daly. One, however, sheds some light on an important issue before the SCC’s revisit of Dunsmuir: CHRC v Canada (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 31 [CHRC]. What is the role of legislative context in rebutting the presumption of reasonableness?

CHRC says there is no role. This is inconsistent with the Court’s own cases, and doctrinally, it subverts the role of courts in seeking legislative intent to determine the standard of review. This is another milestone in the Court’s tortured administrative law jurisprudence, and it brings no hope for the upcoming review of Dunsmuir.

***

CHRC involved two human rights complaints before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal [CHRT]. These complaints centred around the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ previous practice of “enfranchisement.” Under this practice, the government stripped individuals of their Indian Act status and denied the children of these people from registering as status Indians—for example, a child born to a status Indian mother who married a non-status man. In response to this discriminatory policy, Parliament enacted remedial provisions which enabled persons affected by the policy to re-register under the Indian Act.  Further reforms granted registration eligibility to children affected by the enfranchisement policy.

The two complaints were centred around the amended registration provisions in the Indian Act, which need not be exhaustively described—in essence, the claimants argued that the remedial provisions were insufficient because they permitted continued discrimination on the basis of enumerated grounds [1].  The claimants framed their challenge under s.5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act [CHRA], and alleged that the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada engaged in a discriminatory practice in the provision of services.

Both complaints were dismissed on the basis that the claimants’ challenges were legislative challenges to the status registration requirements under the Indian Act. The CHRA confers remedial authority to the CHRT to render conflicting legislation inoperable, but a remedy could only be granted in circumstances where a discriminatory practice has first been established [56]. But the CHRT concluded that “legislation per se” was not a discriminatory practice in the provision of services, and for that reason, the complainants’ cases could not constitute a discriminatory practice.

***

The Supreme Court majority decision was written by Justice Gascon. To the majority, the CHRT was “called upon to characterize the complaints before it and ascertain whether a discriminatory practice had been made out under the CHRA” [30]. As a result, the Court reasoned that this was an issue of home statute interpretation inviting the presumptive standard of reasonableness.

The majority next considered whether the presumption was rebutted, concluding that the case did not fall into any of the categories for correctness review established in Dunsmuir. It then turned to the so-called “contextual approach” to determine whether it rebutted the presumption of reasonableness review. That “approach” was essentially a carry-over from the pragmatic and functional era, consisting of four factors which could indicate a different standard of review than the one indicated by the presumption: (1) the presence or absence of a privative clause; (2) the purpose of the tribunal as determined by interpretation of enabling legislation; (3) the nature of the question at issue; (4) the expertise of the tribunal.

The majority noted that a presumption of reasonableness is designed to “prevent litigants from undertaking a full standard of review analysis in every case” [45]. Context, then, should play a “subordinate role”, and should be “applied sparingly” [46]. Putting context in its place, to the majority, would forego the uncertainty and debate over the standard of review.

The majority emphatically disagreed with the opinion written in CHRC by Cote and Rowe JJ, which noted that correctness would apply wherever the “contextual factors listed in Dunsmuir point towards correctness as the appropriate standard” [73]. Instead, the majority noted that where the presumption of reasonableness applies, an adoption of a contextual approach would “undermine the certainty this Court has sought to establish in the past decade” [47]. The majority concluded that “…dissatisfaction with the current state of the law is no reason to ignore our precedents following Dunsmuir” [47]. On the facts, the majority nonetheless applied the contextual analysis and concluded that the presumption of reasonableness was not rebutted.

In a concurring opinion, Rowe and Cote JJ disagreed with the majority’s obiter comments on the contextual approach. They reasoned that the approach to standard of review set out in Dunsmuir is “manifestly contextual in nature” [78]. To Rowe and Cote JJ, a contextual analysis must be undertaken where the categories inviting correctness review do not apply.  On the facts of the case, Rowe and Cote JJ would have found the presumption of reasonableness rebutted because of an absence of a privative clause and the potential for conflicting lines of authority because the CHRT does not interpret the CHRA in a discrete administrative regime [90]. Brown J concurred on similar grounds.

***

In my view, the two concurrences clearly had the better of the argument here. First, the majority’s approach continues a hard-line approach to the presumption of reasonableness that is inconsistent with Dunsmuir and post-Dunsmuir cases. Second, a presumption of reasonableness that is never rebutted is contrary to the concept of judicial review.

It is unusual—in the strongest sense of the term—that the majority rooted its endorsement of the presumption of reasonableness in terms of precedent. It noted, for example, that resort to the contextual approach would “undermine the certainty this Court has sought to establish in the past decade.” This is an unexpected remark. The Court has done much in the last decade on administrative law, but establishing certainty is not on the list. Putting aside all of the other issues—which are many—the problem of context provides a good example of the Court’s odd inability to apply its own precedents.

Legislative context is integral to determining the standard of review because legislatures, not courts, can set the standard of review. Dunsmuir recognized this when it held that “[T]he analysis must be contextual” [64].  This is about as clear as it gets for the Supreme Court in administrative law.  As Justice Bastarache, one of the authors of Dunsmuir said in the recent Dunsmuir Decade series, none of the categories inviting a particular standard of review—including the presumption of reasonableness—were meant to be set in stone. Dunsmuir only said that deference would “usually result” when a decision-maker interprets its home statute [54].

And this is how the Court applied the presumption of reasonableness in subsequent cases. There are a number of cases in which the Court looked to context to determine whether the presumption was rebutted; by my count, at least the following: Entertainment Software Association v SOCAN, 2012 SCC 34; Rogers v SOCAN, 2012 SCC 35; Marine Services International v Ryan Estate, 2013 SCC 44; McLean v British Columbia (Securities Commission), 2013 SCC 67; Tervita Corp v Canada (Commissioner of Competition), 2015 SCC 3; Mouvement Iaique Quebecois v Saguenay, 2015 SCC 16; CBC v SODRAC, 2015 SCC 57; Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres, 2016 SCC 47 (though noting Justice Karakatsanis’ skeptical remarks regarding the contextual approach); Barreau de Quebec v Quebec (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 56; Williams Lake Indian Band v Canada (AANDC), 2018 SCC 4; Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 27.

I repeat these cases for dramatic effect. It is an example of the Supreme Court saying one thing and doing another—something some judges of the court recognized was a risk in administrative law in Kanthasamy [112]. In CHRC, there is no explanation for why context should be abandoned, especially in light of all of these precedents and Dunsmuir’s clear, unequivocal statement.  Shouldn’t certainty be one of the underlying goals of doctrinal reform, particularly in this troubled area? Changing approaches year-to-year does not provide any guidance to courts and litigants.

Quite aside from the lack of consistency in the Court’s standard of review framework, a presumption-only approach also frustrates the search for legislative intent. “Legislative context” as Justice Brown noted in CHRC is really just a proxy for determining legislative intent. When one speaks of “legislative context,” one means statutory indicators that set the standard of review implicitly: statutory rights of appeal, signs of concurrent jurisdiction, privative clauses, statutory indications of purpose, and the like. Or, perhaps there is explicit legislative guidance on the standard of review. It was always understood that these signs of legislative intent should bind courts; this is just an implication of the hierarchy of laws, under which courts must respect law absent constitutional objection.

The presumption-only approach in CHRC raises profound challenges to the task of courts on judicial review to determine legislative intent. The challenge can be framed in the classic “rules vs standards” debate in law and economics terms. The “rules versus standards” debate probably impacts every area of law, because laws and doctrine can be framed as either hard-and-fast “rules” or flexible “standards.” Rules have certain benefits—cost savings are achieved because the rule applies to the mass of legal situations, and there is no need to conduct a case-by-case investigation. But rules can be overbroad—if they are not appropriately tailored, they can apply in situations where the underlying justifications for the rule do not exist.

The presumption of home statute interpretation can be viewed as an overbroad rule, because on the happening of a certain event (home statute interpretation), the content of the law is defined (deference). It is rooted in the justifications of expertise and legislative intent.  But because the CHRC approach tells lower courts not to look to context, we simply never know if the legislature intended a standard of review other than the one indicated by the presumption. The presumption could apply in cases where the legislature did not intend reasonableness, even though the Dunsmuir factors (which could be understood as standards) implicitly set a different standard of review.

Not to put the point too strongly, but if this is the case, what is the point of a standard of review analysis? Couldn’t we create some sort of computer program in which cases are filed and the standard of review is selected by the computer? The point of the Dunsmuir factors is individual tailoring—they are designed to be applied by courts in cases where a statutory indication of legislative intent is evident. This requires some human appreciation of what an enabling statute implicitly sets the standard of review to be. But if judges simply say “reasonableness” all the time, the role of courts on judicial review is reduced to rote copying of a paragraph saying that deference applies, even where it should not.

This goes to the point of judicial review. The role of the courts on judicial review, as noted in Bibeault, is so important that it is given constitutional protection [126]. That role, rooted in the Rule of Law, is to authentically determine what the legislature intended the standard of review to be. When the Court binds itself to its own presumption–simply an evidentiary device–it subordinates its constitutional role to the police the boundaries of the administrative state.

The systemic costs of the CHRC approach are  exacted in the Rule of Law and against the constitutional role of the Court. As Leonid once wrote, judicial review can be understood as a cost-benefit analysis. While the costs saved through the presumption may be high, the potential costs of imposing the wrong standard of review could lead to more administrative decisions being upheld than what the legislature intended. The effect is case-by-case, an administrative state turned loose, increasingly unmoored by law. CHRC sanctions this unleashing of the administrative state.

This is not to say that the reasonableness review urged by CHRC is inconsistent with the Rule of Law (though I think there is a case to be made on that front). But expanding the class of cases in which reasonableness should and does apply, when that expansion is not mandated by law, presents a serious challenge to the Rule of Law and the role of courts in enforcing it.

CHRC worries me on this front. It demonstrates that the Court is not looking to the underlying constitutional precepts of judicial review. It does not seem to have seriously considered the costs to its approach. Nor is it even attempting to distinguish its own precedents in creating its new approach. Observers should worry about where the Court’s mind is going in advance of its planned review of Dunsmuir.

Administrative Law’s Virtues and Vices

What Joseph Raz’s classic Rule of Law article tells us about administrative law

Joseph Raz’s article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” (eventually incorporated in the collection of essays The Authority of Law: Essays on Law and Morality) is well known, mostly for the argument that the Rule of Law should not be confused with good law, and that a legal system can be thoroughly iniquitous while still complying with its requirements. The Rule of Law (I follow Jeremy Waldron’s practice in capitalizing the phrase), Professor Raz famously says, is like the sharpness of a knife: a knife needs to be sharp to be useful, and a legal system should comply with the requirements of the Rule of Law to be effective, but that tells us nothing at all about whether the knife is being used to cut bread or to kill people, and whether law is used to protect or to repress them. Professor Raz describes his “conception of the rule of law”  as “formal”, (214) although a number of its tenets have to do with the operation of the courts, and best described (following Professor Waldron again) as procedural, rather than formal.

I think, however, that Professor Raz’s understanding of the Rule of Law amounts to a substantive one in one particular area, in which his insights are not, so far as I know, particularly appreciated: administrative law. Administrative decision-making and its review by the courts are at the heart of the Razian Rule of Law. The third Rule of Law “principle” Professor Raz lists, after the ones calling for “prospective, open, and clear” (214) laws and “stable” ones, (214) is that “the making of particular laws (particular legal orders) should be guided by open, stable, clear, and general rules”. (215) This is a warning about the dangers of administrative (and executive more generally) discretion:

A police constable regulating traffic, a licensing authority granting a licence under certain conditions, all these and their like are among the more ephemeral parts of the law. As such they run counter to the basic idea of the rule of law. They make it difficult for people to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law. (216)

This is not to say that no executive power can be exercised consistently with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz suggests that the problem with its “ephemeral” nature

is overcome to a large extent if particular laws of an ephemeral status are enacted only within a framework set by general laws which are more durable and which impose limits on the unpredictability introduced by the particular orders. (216)

This framework includes

[t]wo kinds of general rules … : those which confer the necessary powers for making valid orders and those which impose duties instructing the power-holders how to exercise their powers. (216)

The former are the substantive statutory (or prerogative) basis for the exercise of executive power. The latter, which I think would include both procedural rules strictly speaking and those guiding the administrative decision-makers’ thought process (such as the prohibition on taking irrelevant considerations into account or acting for an improper purpose), form an important part of administrative law.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law “principle” is that of judicial independence. But the way he explains is also directly relevant to administrative law. Professor Raz points out that

it is futile to guide one’s action on the basis of the law if when the matter comes to adjudication the courts will not apply the law and will act for some other reasons. The point can be put even more strongly. Since the court’s judgment establishes conclusively what is the law in the case before it, the litigants can be guided by law only if the judges apply the law correctly. … The rules concerning the independence of the judiciary … are designed to guarantee that they will be free from extraneous pressures and independent of all authority save that of the law. (217; paragraph break removed)

Although Professor Raz does not explore the implications of this for administrative law (why would he have, in the post-Anisminic United Kingdom?), they seem obvious enough. Only independent courts applying the law, and not acting on extra-legal considerations can assure that the law is able to guide those subject to it. Administrative decision-makers, however, typically lack anything like the safeguards that exist for the independence of the judiciary. In Canada, in Ocean Port Hotel Ltd v British Columbia (General Manager, Liquor Control and Licensing Branch), 2001 SCC 52, [2001] 2 SCR 781,  the Supreme Court has held that there is no constitutional requirement of administrative tribunal independence. In Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Government of Saskatchewan, 2013 SKCA 61, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld legislation that allowed an incoming government to summarily dismiss all the members of an administrative tribunal in order to replace them with those deemed more ideologically  acceptable. Indeed, for many administrative tribunals, their sensitivity to considerations of policy ― and ideology ― is part of their raison d’être. This makes it essential that independent courts be committed to policing these (and other) tribunals’ compliance with the law ― with the entire framework of stable general rules that guide administrative decision-making, both the limits on substantive grants of power and the procedure- and process-related administrative law rules. Judicial deference to non-independent, policy-driven administrative decision-makers is incompatible with legally bound adjudication that is necessary for the law to provide guidance, and is thus anathema to the Rule of Law as Professor Raz describes it.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law requirement is that “[t]he principles of natural justice must be observed”. This is a point that obviously applies to administrative law, as everyone now agrees ― in a (perhaps insufficiently acknowledged) victory for administrative law’s erstwhile critics. But here too it is worth noting Professor Raz’s explanation: respect for natural justice is “obviously essential for the correct application of the law and thus … to its ability to guide action”. (217) (Of course, respect for natural justice is important for other (dignitarian) reasons too, but they are not, on Professor Raz’s view, embedded in the concept of the Rule of Law.)

The following Rule of Law principle Professor Raz describes is that

[t]he courts should have review powers over the implementation of the other principles. This includes review of … subordinate … legislation and of administrative action, but in itself it is a very limited review—merely to ensure conformity to the rule of law. (217)

Although review for conformity to the Rule of Law is “limited” in the sense that it need not entail review for conformity with any particular set of substantive fundamental rights, it is nevertheless very significant. It means that the courts are empowered to ensure the consistency of administrative decisions with grants of power that purportedly authorize them, as well as with the rules that govern the procedures and processes by which they are made. And while Professor Raz does not explicitly address the question of how stringently the courts should enforce these rules, it seems clear that only non-deferential correctness review will satisfy the requirements of the Rule of Law as he presents them.

Finally, Professor Raz writes that “[t]he discretion of the crime-preventing agencies should not be allowed to pervert the law”. (218) He addresses the behaviour of police and prosecutors, and specifically their ability to exercise discretion so as to effectively nullify certain criminal offenses. Yet, presumably, similar concerns apply to administrative tribunals ― most obviously, those that are charged with the prosecution of regulatory offences, but arguably others too. Professor Raz’s argument seems to be only a special case of Lon Fuller’s insistence (in The Morality of Law) on “congruence” between the law on the books and its implementation by the authorities, at least insofar as it applies to the executive. (Fuller also wrote about the what congruence meant in the context of statutory interpretation ― something I touched on here.)

Why is this important? I don’t suppose that an appeal to the authority of Professor Raz will persuade the proponents of judicial deference to administrative decision-makers, in and in particular to their interpretations of the law. Those who defend deference argue that administrative interpretations are the law, so that there is nothing else, no statutory meaning meaning or independent standards, for the judges to ascertain and enforce. As the majority opinion in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 put it,

certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

In such cases, the Supreme Court held, the courts would only engage in deferential reasonableness review of the administrative decisions. Moreover, Dunsmuir suggested, and subsequent cases have confirmed, that all questions regarding the interpretation of administrative decision-makers’ grants of power (the first part of what Professor Raz describes as the framework of general rules governing the making of administrative orders) will be presumptively treated as having no “one specific, particular result”. I have already argued that this is an implausible suggestion, because

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers.

But Professor Raz’s arguments point to an even more fundamental problem with the pro-deference position. Those who defend this position are, of course, entitled to their own definition of the Rule of Law, which is a fiercely contested idea. If they think that the Rule of Law does not require the existence of clear, stable, and general rules, or that it can accommodate “particular laws” not guided by such general rules, well and good. (It is worth noting, however, that Dunsmuir itself embraced an understanding of the Rule of Law not too distant from that advanced by Professor Raz: “all exercises of public authority must find their source in law”. [28]) But I do not think that the proponents of deference have a response to the underlying difficulty Professor Raz identifies. In the absence of general rules that are stable enough not to depend on the views each administrator takes of policy considerations, or simply in the absence of an enforcement of such rules by independent courts, people will find it “difficult … to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law”, “to fix long-term goals and effectively direct one’s life towards them” (220). As Professor Raz notes, this compromises respect for human dignity, which “entails treating humans as persons capable of planning and plotting their future”. (221)

I do not mean to exaggerate. As Professor Raz and other Rule of Law theorists note, compliance with the Rule of Law is a matter of degree. Deferential judicial review of administrative action is a failure of the Rule of Law as Professor Raz understands it, but it is hardly the worst failure one can imagine, at least so long as some meaningful review is still involved. (Suggestions, such as that recently voiced by Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, that there can be “unrestricted” [11] delegations of regulatory power are disturbing in this regard, but perhaps they only need to be taken seriously, not literally.) Nevertheless, and whether or not the proponents of judicial deference to administrative tribunals recognize this, deference does undermine the ability of citizens to rely on the law and to plan their lives accordingly. To that extent, it does amount to mistreatment by the state, of which the courts are part. It needs, at the very least, to be viewed with serious suspicion, and probably outright hostility. An administrative law that takes the requirements of the Rule of Law seriously has important virtues; one that does not is mired in vices.