Textual Judicial Supremacy

The Canadian constitution’s text makes it clear that judges must have the last word on its interpretation

In my comment on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, I criticized the dissenting judges’ demand that courts defer to Parliament’s choice to limit rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 1 of the Charter provides that it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. This wording, I wrote, “requires a demonstration” that a given limitation of a protected right is justified, “not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best”.

My friend and sometime debating partner Geoff Sigalet put it to me in conversation that my interpretation is incorrect, and indeed pernicious. I am wrong, he believes, to think that judges must have the last word on what is and what is not “demonstrably justified”. Section 1, after all, doesn’t say “demonstrably justified to the satisfaction of a court”. Couldn’t a legislature pass its own judgment on these matters, a judgment that would be entitled to the respect of courts and of malcontents such as I? I am not persuaded. In my view, the constitutional text―not specifically section 1, but rather section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982―does require that judges, not the legislature or the executive, have the last word on whether the Charter has been infringed, including the question of whether a limitation on a right is demonstrably justified.

Section 52(1) provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”. Pursuant to section 52(2), the supreme constitution, inconsistency with which invalidates any other law, includes the Charter, the other parts of the Constitution Act, 1982―notably the amending formulae in Part V of that Act―and the Constitution Act 1867, which provides, among other things, for a distribution of legislative powers between the Dominion and the Provinces, as well as protections for judicial independence, free trade (nullified by the Supreme Court), etc. Note that section 52 makes no distinction between the Charter and other components of the Constitution of Canada. All are equally the supreme law of Canada. There is thus no textual warrant for treating the Charter differently from the rest of the constitution; if the courts have the last word on the meaning and application of the rest, they do so when it comes to the Charter too.

Now section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 is not, substantively, an innovation. As Brian Bird helpfully details, it is a replacement for section 2 of the imperial Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865, which provided for the supremacy of imperial legislation applicable to the colonies over that of the colonies to which such legislation applied. In particular, section 2 ensured the supremacy of what was originally an imperial statute, the British North America Act 1867, which we now call the Constitution Act, 1867, over any legislation enacted in Canada (except, of course, to the extent that the BNA Act itself authorized the Parliament of Canada or provincial legislatures to modify or depart from some of its provisions). Section 52(1) takes up the baton of constitutional supremacy, and ensures that it is now provided for by a Canadian law, subject to modification through the Canadian constitutional amendment process, rather than by an imperial statute whose very title is unsuitable to Canada’s circumstances as an independent nation.

As Mr. Bird further points out, the Supreme Court has recognized that section 52(1) preserved continuity in Canada’s constitutional arrangements. In the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721, the Court emphasized that “[s]ection 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not alter the principles which have provided the foundation for judicial review over the years”, (746) under the Colonial Laws Validity Act regime. Meanwhile, in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, the Court held, again with reference to both the Colonial Laws Validity Act and to section 52, that accused persons could always demand that a court rule on the constitutionality of the statutes they are said to be infringing, “whether that challenge is with respect to ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 or with respect to the limits imposed on the legislatures by the Constitution Act, 1982“. (313) In short, the regime of constitutional supremacy that existed with respect to the then-British North America Acts prior to 1982 remains in force, following the patriation of the constitution and the enactment of section 52(1), for these texts and, on the same terms, for the Constitution Act, 1982.

I think these decisions are quite clearly correct. Textually, section 52(1) is an updated, but substantially identical, reincarnation of section 2 of the Colonial Laws Validity Act. It uses the words “inconsistent with” in place of “repugnant to”, and “of no force and effect” in the place of “absolutely void and inoperative”, but the underlying principle is the same: one set of laws (formerly, all imperial legislation “extending to” Canada; now, more narrowly, “the Constitution of Canada”) has a higher status than ordinary laws enacted in Canada, whether by Parliament or by the provincial legislatures. As a result, such ordinary laws are invalid insofar, although only insofar, as they contradict the higher law. If anything was to change on April 17, 1982, when section 52(1) succeeded the Colonial Laws Validity Act, such a momentous would surely have been flagged by clear language, something very different from what we find in section 52(1).

The only innovation in section 52(1) is the use of the phrase “supreme law” to characterize the Constitution of Canada. The supremacy of Westminster legislation is a given in the post-Glorious Revolution and pre-Statute of Westminster, 1931 system, so it is implicit in section 2 of the Colonial Laws Validity Act. Section 52(1) makes the supremacy of what is left of imperial legislation explicit. But the phrase “supreme law” (emphasis added) also suggests that, like any law, the Constitution of Canada is subject to interpretation and enforcement by the courts―not by legislatures. Granted, by 1982, the Supreme Court had conceded deference on the interpretation of some legal provisions to administrative adjudicators. But that concession was premised―wisely or not is beside the point here―on these adjudicators’ expertise, including legal expertise in their particular area of jurisdiction. I do not think that Parliament would have been understood to have such expertise.

In any case, whether or not the original public meaning of the phrase “supreme law” without further context requires judicial supremacy, the context removes whatever ambiguity the words alone might carry. There was no doubt that, under the Colonial Laws Validity Act regime, it was the courts’ power and duty to determine whether an enactment was “repugnant to” an imperial statute, and therefore “absolutely void and inoperative”. Even the “presumption of constitutionality” to which the courts occasionally referred was is, in principle, nothing more than the idea that legislatures would not intend to exceed their constitutional powers, and their enactments would therefore not lightly be read as doing so―provided that they admitted of a different reading. It was always the courts’ responsibility to verify that this was indeed the case. And, to repeat, there is no reason at all to suppose that this approach was intended or understood to change in 1982, and the courts have never said that it did change. Indeed, I do not think that those who argue for judicial deference in Charter cases seriously contend that section 52 calls for a deferential approach to federalism, or to the independence of the judiciary protected by Part VII of the Constitution Act, 1867, or to the amending formulae of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

But, as I have argued above, there is no textual basis for treating treating the Charter differently from the other parts of the Constitution of Canada when it comes to deciding which institution is given the last word on its interpretation and on whether it has been complied with. The constitutional text, read in its historical and legal context, tells us that judicial supremacy is sauce for federalism’s, judicial independence’s, and constitutional amendment’s geese; it is also sauce for the Charter‘s gander. Needless to say, the text cannot tell us whether this is a good thing. I am inclined to think so; others disagree. It’s certainly possible that our constitution is flawed in this, as it is flawed in many other ways. But the constitution is what it is, good or bad. Those who wish that it were different ought to persuade enough of us to amend it to have it changed.

Statutory Interpretation in Admin Law and the Supreme Court’s Trilogy

Over on Professor Daly’s blog Administrative Law Matters, Professor Audrey Macklin wrote what I would characterize as a confessional: an admission that the law of judicial review in Canada may be beyond repair. What Prof. Macklin proposes, in light of this realization, is a renewed focus on the principles of statutory interpretation, rather than a myopic focus on standard of review categories—a parochical Canadian invention. Prof. Macklin specifically argues that our disagreements should focus on “what ought to count in statutory interpretation, why it ought to count, and how it ought to count.” For Professor Macklin, external considerations such as access to justice and international law should inform statutory interpretation.

I agree with Professor Macklin—to an extent. I see Macklin as making two claims: (1) the rules of statutory interpretation should be used to replace the rigid categories of standard of review and (2) that the rules of statutory interpretation can be massaged to take account of “normative, policy, operational, and other considerations.” The first contention, I think, is desirable. The second, I worry, will lead to more uncertainty, asking judicial review courts to do more than they are designed to do.

Let’s take (1) first. On this front, Professor Macklin finds agreement with many existing allies. Advocates for the Rule of Law, in its submissions before the Court in Vavilov and Bell/NFL, basically made this very point. With submissions expertly argued by Adam Goldenberg, ARL asserted that the Court, in its attempts to simplify the standard of review, had actually made things worse. Instead, ARL argued that the “established tools of statutory interpretation” should be used in a three-step framework to determine the level of deference. First, courts should look to judicial constating legislation to determine the level of deference; explicit direction that exists, for example, in the Federal Courts Act (which, it should be said, was ignored by the Court in Khosa). Second, the decision-maker’s home statute may contain explicit or implicit legislative direction on the standard of review. A statutory provision allowing a decision-maker to grant licences “in the public interest,” if supported by relevant context and purpose, should allow more deference. Finally, courts should look to the specific textual provision under which the decision-maker made her decision. If not contradicted by context, (say, a statutory right of appeal), broad language in this respect should also mean deference.

This strikes me as a good way to proceed. I make similar arguments in a paper to be released in the Western Journal of Legal Studies in January, “Two Myths of Administrative Law.” There, I assert that toying around with presumptions, categories, and even standard of review labels (reasonableness and correctness), should not be the sum of Canadian administrative law. These legal devices should be scrapped, the focus should be on the principles of statutory interpretation, and signals of deference—for example, expertise—should only come into consideration where they exist in statutory text, context, and purpose. I don’t see Professor Macklin as disagreeing with any of this.

At the same time, Professor Macklin takes a first crack at defining the work the principles of statutory interpretation could do in judicial review. She claims that so-called “operational considerations” that influenced the Supreme Court in Alberta Teachers—such as efficiency—also mean that courts should take into account principles of access to justice and international law in statutory interpretation. To Professor Macklin, courts should take “all the arguments” seriously in a given case.

This, I think, is where Professor Macklin’s proposal introduces more uncertainty than it actually solves, and runs afoul of the very basis of the law of judicial review. Her extension seems to extend the task of statutory interpretation beyond its traditional realm of discovering the meaning of the legislature. Instead, she would make statutory interpretation a normative exercise, one that seeks to render an interpretation that best accords with any number of “external” considerations.

But if we are starting from scratch in developing doctrine for the law of judicial review, we should do so in light of that very fact: it is the law of judicial review with which we are concerned. Judicial review is not a free-standing inquiry into the legality of particular government decisions. When governments delegate away power to make decisions, it does so on a narrow basis—to decide which of Party A and B receives Licence X; to decide whether A’s zoning application is legal. This is the run-of-the-mill judicial review case. When courts review these decisions, they are usually bound to the record the decision-maker considered on review. The courts do not move beyond that record, which maps onto the scope of delegative power afforded to the decision-maker. As a result, and by design, the ancient writ of certiorari and the modern act of judicial review are first and foremost designed to “ensure the legality of state decision-making” (Wall, at para 13). Courts are equipped to make those decisions by rules of the record that mandate the production of all information considered by the decision-maker under its statutory mandate. In this respect, judicial review proceedings are designed to be quick and cost-effective.

There are two upshots of this ordering. First are the considerations that should inform the exercise of judicial review. In the Two Myths paper, I argue that such external considerations lack the imprimatur of legislative approval. In other words, they do not exist in the world with which judicial review is concerned. If judicial review is considered primarily with the supervision of state actors—what I call its “policing function”—then it must hew closely to the four corners of a statute. Anything beyond that is a concern for legislative actors, who are legitimately empowered to address broad, systemic concerns such as access to justice because of their particular institutional competencies. Any other positive policy entitlements—a right to access to justice, considerations of normative justice—are second to the immediate statutory context of a decision-maker’s decision in judicial review. That is not to say that these considerations are irrelevant. But they are distinctly second to the goal of a quick determination of legality “on the record.”

But there is a bigger practical concern here, beyond the issue of separation of powers. To my mind, Macklin asks judicial review courts to do more than they are designed to do, from a perspective of information. By using the principles of statutory interpretation to gaze beyond the four corners of a statute and into other complex, external considerations, judicial review becomes more of a legislative act rather than a pure adjudicative one. In this sense, the benefit of the principles of statutory interpretation—that they, as Macklin notes, put us on the same terrain—is lost. For example, what does a presumption in favour of access to justice mean in the context of particular cases? In absence of real information on what would facilitate access to justice in the context of a defined legislative scheme, how do courts make informed decisions on the matter? Even if they could, doesn’t this complicate the narrow and efficient basis of judicial review?

It is no answer to these problems to say, as Macklin does, that courts are informed by policy considerations when they rely, for example, on presumptions in favour of contract or liberty. These presumptions are of a different sort than the type advocated for by Macklin, at least in the context of access to justice. Most notably, they are negative in nature. But there are particular issues that distinguish these traditional presumptions from the sort of rule Macklin seeks to formulate. For example, in terms of contract, the presumption is justified as a policy matter from the perspective of information. Courts, for good reason, assume that parties enter bargains on the basis of mutual gains, which in turn enable social welfare gains. Courts (and legislatures) lack the information necessary to overturn the parties’ agreement and instead impose their own understanding of what would be an efficient outcome; transaction costs of doing so are high because the court lacks information. Macklin’s presumption (in favour of access to justice) is of a different sort; it asks judicial review courts to consider or act in areas where there is a distinct informational deficiency, at least in the context of particular judicial review cases.

The problem of information is not a practical concern that exists in the ether. It is directly related to the roles of various players in our democratic structure. Courts on judicial review are empowered to redress public law grievances caused by organs of the state; no more or less. As a result, they are given the information required to do so on the basis of the record. The realm of legislative action, on the other hand, is broader—and so legislatures are empowered with more information and more resources. None of this is a coincidence.

People might use a laundry list of adjectives to describe my preferred approach: “cramped,” “formalistic,” “Diceyan.” None of this, of course, is an answer. The bottom line: the law of judicial review, and the principles of statutory interpretation, cannot encompass all, or even most, of what we consider good and virtuous in the world. They can only accomplish their narrow but infinitely important goal. Any renovation to the law of judicial review that uses the principles of statutory interpretation cannot forget this.

The Administrative Law “Trilogy”: The Stare Decisis Trap

This post originally appeared on Advocates for the Rule of Law.

This week, the Supreme Court of Canada finally heard the consolidated appeals in Bell/NFL and Vavilov. ARL, expertly represented by Adam Goldenberg, put forward our submissions on the matter, which focus on a return to the basis of the law of judicial review: its statutory character.

During the hearings, one particular line of questioning posed a problem for this argument, which asks the Court to critically analyze all of its precedents, even those pre-Dunsmuir. Justice Moldaver, for example, suggested that one of the parties’ submissions in Bell/NFL would “take us back 30 years.” That comment was made as if it was undesirable to look to the foundations of the law of judicial review. Justice Gascon chided the same counsel for framing his submissions as a “minor adjustment,” suggesting that it was, in fact, a major overhaul. Again, the comment was stated as a decisive fact, acting as a criticism of the merits of the legal position.

This line of thinking, to my mind, is odd for at least two reasons.

First, when the Court granted leave to these cases and consolidated them, it invited a critical appraisal of its standard of review cases since Dunsmuir. Like all of the common law, Dunsmuir is a product of what came before it. Dunsmuir, for example, incorporates CUPE’s generally deferential posture without doing away with the pragmatic and functional factors outlined in Pushpanathan, Pezim, and Southam. The Court’s invitation of a critical appraisal should be taken seriously.

The line of questioning invited by Justices Gascon and Moldaver does not inspire confidence that the Court is serious about a full-blown reappraisal of Dunsmuir and what it contains. It may very well be that the line of questioning was aimed at protecting Dunsmuir from assault, on the grounds that it is not only good law, but workable and constitutionally acceptable law. But I heard no such robust defence of Dunsmuir, and it would be difficult to sustain one given the widespread discord it and its progeny have caused in the lower courts and among the academic community. To my mind, if the Court invited review of Dunsmuir, it should review. Weak appeals to stare decisis are not helpful.

On that note, the line of questioning is odd for a second reason: this seems like the perfect case, rare in the common law system, to tear down the precedent and critically interrogate first principles. I am alive to the concern this raises about reliance interests, certainty in the law, and the other virtues of a strong stare decisis rule. But the law of judicial review in Canada is so derelict of principle and unworkable that the reliance costs on it must be minimal. The costs of advice under the regime are already high, because (1) it undergoes constant change and (2) it is difficult for a lawyer to say to a client, with any acceptable probability, what the outcome of a case would be.

Given the already-high costs imposed by a strict rule of stare decisis in this case, it is a good opportunity to go back to first principles and create a modern law of judicial review. The key touchstones should be consistency with constitutional precepts and workability. But there is a challenge: reassessing the law of judicial review may invite a re-assessment of the foundational principles laid down in CUPE.

CUPE was about a labour board in a commercial context. Today, the administrative state is a much different beast. The same rule of deference formulated in light of the expertise and position of a labour board in the 1970s cannot be applied to the decision of an immigration official to deport someone in 2018. The positions of the immigration officer and the labour board are so vastly different that a law formulated in light of the former, 40 years ago, is difficult to apply to the latter today.

The challenge is for judges on the Supreme Court who were born and bred in the Keynesian 70s to accept another model of judicial review. CUPE is a sort of foil for this bygone era. The conception of administrative law, at that time, was its potential for redistributive social justice, and nowhere was the terrain more fraught than in the economics of labour. Deference to these sorts of decision-makers could be justified as a tool to empower them in the face of conservative judges. But today, administrative law is called on to do much more. Now, there is a worry (Vavilov is an example), of an administrative state that directly impacts the most personal individual rights. Administrative decision-makers can make life-altering decisions that bring to bear the most repressive arms of the state against vulnerable people. This has nothing to do with redistributive goals, the labour movement, or any other social goal. As such, it is difficult to apply the social-justice rationale of deference to these decision-makers.

The new administrative law, conceived as a sort of control on satellite decision-makers, must be attuned to the new administrative state. Accordingly, the judges should not keep themselves to any strict rule of stare decisis. They should review the interaction of any proposed framework with the intricacies of the modern administrative state. Anything less would be a wasted chance.

The Supreme Court’s Unreasonable Reasons Doctrine in Admin Law

Why Newfoundland Nurses should be overturned and a recent FCA case adopted as a new starting point.

In Sharif v Canada (Attorney General), 2018 FCA 205, the Federal Court of Appeal (per Stratas JA) was faced with the herculean task of trying to do the impossible: review nothing. Indeed, that is what is asked by the Supreme Court when it says that courts should supplement the reasons of decision-makers. Sharif is the latest in a growing list of cases that demonstrate the fallacy of the Court’s approach. There are two reasons why Sharif’s reasoning demonstrates the flaws with the Court’s doctrine of supplementing reasons: supplementing reasons skewers itself on the Supreme Court’s own concept of deference; and a doctrine of supplementation creates perverse incentives for decision-makers.

First, to Sharif. The Chair of the Warkworth Institution Disciplinary Court convicted Mr. Sharif of “fight[ing] with, assault[ing] or threaten[ing] to assault” another person under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act [CCRA]. In making the decision, the Chair only made a few factual findings: (1) he attempted to keep his meal tray out of a correctional officer’s reach; (2) this conduct invited physical contact either by Mr. Sharif or by the officer [17].

Fatally, Stratas JA noted that the Chair did not analyze the provision of the CCRA under which he convicted Sharif—and that led him to obviously (but implicitly) conclude that Sharif’s action of keeping his meal tray away from the officer was “figh[ting] with, assault[ing] or threaten[ing] to assault.” But to Stratas JA, this “[fell] short of affirmative action or aggression with physical consequence” [23], the condition required under the CCRA. The Chair’s reasons did not contain a finding of aggressive conduct [25].

At this point, the Supreme Court of Canada’s conclusion in Newfoundland Nurses enters the fray. The Court there confirmed Dunsmuir’s selective citation of an academic article, reasoning that judicial review courts may provide reasons that were not but “could be” offered by the decision-maker. Courts should “supplement [reasons] before [they] seek to subvert them” [12] by looking to the record; additionally, inadequacy of reasons is not a standalone basis for review [14]. To the Court (through Justice Abella), this doctrine was consistent with Dunsmuir’s requirements of “justification, transparency, and intelligibility” [13].

Justice Stratas declined to supplement the Chair’s non-existent reasons, even though he looked to the record as instructed by Newfoundland Nurses. In fact, he concluded that, looking to the record, the Chair “declined to find that Mr. Sharif’s conduct was aggressive” [27]. Applying Newfoundland Nurses, and doing anything more to determine whether the ultimate outcome was reasonable, would amount to  “impersonation” of the decision-maker (Bonnybrook, at para 91 per Stratas JA in dissent—but with no quarrel from the majority). To Justice Stratas, doing so would usurp the role of the decision-maker, or otherwise speculate as to what the decision-maker thought about the relevant legal analysis. Here, the reasoning was plainly deficient. The Court could not conduct judicial review.

Having concluded this, Justice Stratas refused to take Newfoundland Nurses any further. In effect, he concluded that the lack of reasoning was a standalone basis for review. And he was right to do so. This is where Newfoundland Nurses goes wrong and Sharif should be followed. Reasons are a window into a decision. The decision-maker has been delegated power to make decisions; and the reasons offered are important for the court to determine the legality of a decision. If decision-makers are incentivized to provide inadequate reasons, but courts cannot intervene on those decisions, the administrative state is evasive of review. A court ginning up supplementary reasons only exacerbates this concern by providing cover for bad and inexpert decision-making.  Sharif raises this concern on two fronts, and I would take the reasoning in the decision further to bar all supplementation.

As Justice Stratas notes in the decision, supplementing decisions can be fundamentally corrosive of the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature. The task on judicial review is to police the boundaries of the administrative state (Wall, at para 13), with the appropriate degree of deference indicated by the legislature.   It is not giving “respectful attention” (Dunsmuir, at para 48) to the reasons the decision-maker offered if the court is, as Newfoundland Nurses instructs, permitted to recreate a decision from the record that the decision-maker did not make. The Justice Abellas of the world forget that reasonableness is a standard of review. If a decision-maker offers nothing, how can a court review—or even give deference—to something that does not exist? It is profoundly disrespectful of the (supposedly expert) delegated decision-maker to impose a court’s own reasoning, but it creates a situation where that disrespect begets insulation. By saving the administrative state from its own poor reasoning, courts will end up reviewing its own reasons, not the decision-makers. And decision-makers will use their delegated authority to make decisions that courts cannot review on the merits.

But the downstream effect of this doctrine of deference is likely also corrosive. A decision-maker under Newfoundland Nurses can provide one line of reasons knowing that courts can look to the record to supplement the decision. But this is not judicial review in any meaningful sense. The job of a judicial review court is to review a decision, not conduct documentary discovery.  A bare record is a necessary but insufficient condition for meaningful review. Reasons—addressing the main legal issues and engaging with the core interpretive difficulties—are vital. When a court supplements a decision, decision-makers can relax, knowing that the margin for error is quite wide. And in cases where the decision-maker has some control over compiling the record, the doctrine incentivizes the piling of documentary evidence into the record, without having to engage with the difficult legal questions, knowing that courts could–somewhere–find a justification.

In this sense, for a lawful administrative state, it is not enough that the outcome of a decision be supported by the record. The administrative decision-maker–the merits-decider–must herself support that outcome with reasons springing from her own pen. A court on judicial review must take those reasons for what they are, not create incentives for a free-riding administrator to depend on an expert court to cover for legal mistakes. This is all the more important where important liberties are at stake.

Sharif pushes back on these perverse incentives by demanding more. It asks decision-makers to explicitly set out the basis of the decision, and justifies the revocation of the lifeline granted to them by Newfoundland Nurses. It restores a modicum of respect for Parliament’s choices. Newfoundland Nurses should be rejected. Sharif is a good start as a replacement.

 

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, 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 questions 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.