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.

Jiggery-Pokery

The standard of review issues in the Supreme Court’s West Fraser decision

In my previous post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, which upheld the validity of a regulation of the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board imposing safety-related obligations on owners of forestry workplaces, and the legality of a fine levied on such an owner under a statutory provision authorizing penalties against employers who do not comply with regulations. The Court was divided on both the approach to and the merits of the first issue, and at least on the merits of the second.

As I noted in that post, there is quite a lot to say about the decision. Others have already commented on it. Shaun Fluker, over at ABlawg, focuses on how West Fraser fits, or doesn’t fit, with the Supreme Court’s precedent on analysing the validity of regulations, while Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters post which looks ahead to the Supreme Court’s upcoming reconsideration of Dunsmuir. In this post, I add some observations of my own on the various opinions in West Fraser. In a subsequent one, I will explore what these opinions tell us about the Supreme Court’s relationship with the administrative state.

The first point I would note here is that Chief Justice McLachlin’s opinion for the majority, which purports to apply deferential reasonableness review on the first issue, and even more deferential patent unreasonableness review on the second, is actually an excellent example of disguised correctness review. As the former Justice Joseph Robertson described it here, in one of his contributions to the “Dunsmuir Decade” symposium,

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result.

For his part, David Mullan noted that

In its purest form, reasonableness review of determinations of law should start with the tribunal’s reasons for decision. … Too frequently, however, the starting point is not the tribunal’s reasons but the arguments on the merits of the question of law or statutory interpretation advanced by the parties with the reasons either ignored or mentioned only in passing. Consequently, the professed commitment to deference gets submerged in a thorough-going re-examination of the relevant question of law.

That is exactly what happens in the majority reasons in West Fraser, and not only on the first issue, on which there are no reasons for decision to review ― which, as Justice Côté points out, makes the notion of deferential review problematic in this context ―, but also on the second one. You’d think that, applying a patent unreasonableness standard of review, the majority would pay attention to the decision on whose reasonableness it must pronounce, but no ― the decision itself is summarized in a single paragraph and never quoted. For the rest of her reasons, the Chief Justice refers to it only obliquely.

So perhaps the apparent disagreement about standards of review (on the first issue) is really beside the point. This is all the more so since, in the reasons of two of the three dissenting judges, correctness review does not look very exacting at all. Justice Brown, after waxing eloquent about the importance of the courts ensuring that administrative decision-makers act within the limits of their authority, is content to note that the limits in this case are broad. Justice Rowe, for his part, endorses the Chief Justice’s comments about the breadth of the administrative power as sufficient to dispose of the jurisdictional question, presumably on the correctness standard. Yet surely saying that the powers of administrative decision-maker are broad is not enough to show that its regulation was within these powers. The Chief Justice speaks of “unlimited” powers, as if such a thing were possible under the Rule of Law, and as if Justice Rand’s comments in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, were not among the best known in all Canadian law. Here they are, in case anyone needs reminding of them:

In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion” … there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption. (140)

Of the four judges who wrote in West Fraser, only Justice Côté took seriously the “perspective within which the statute is intended to operate” and the notion that the administrative tribunal does not have unlimited powers to act within the general area under its supervision. Justice Côté’s colleagues, even those who ostensibly stress the courts’ supervisory role, are content to let administrative power run wild ― a point to which I return below.

All that said, while I think that Justice Coté is right on the merits of the first issue, both she and her colleagues make important points on the general approach. (The trouble with Justice Brown and Justice Rowe is that they do not really practice what they preach, and fail to ask the hard questions that they rightly suggest the courts ought to be asking of administrative decision-makers.) Justices Côté and Brown are right that the point of judicial review is to ensure that administrative decision-makers exercise those powers delegated to them by statute, and no others. Justice Côté is right to point out that in policing the boundaries of administrative decision-makers’ jurisdiction the courts are upholding the primacy of the legislation enacted by elected legislatures against the self-aggrandizement of the administrative decision-makers. Justices Côté and Rowe are right to call out the vacuousness of the Chief Justice’s appeal to administrative expertise as a justification for deferential review of the validity of regulations. Expertise may be relevant to thinking about the policy merits of a regulation ― and I think that Justice Brown is right that these should be of no concern to the courts, even on a deferential standard (though note that Justice Rowe seems to disagree) ― but contrary to what the Chief Justice suggests the wisdom of the regulation is not at issue in West Fraser.

I think, however, that the comments of Justices Côté and Brown raise even bigger questions about judicial review and judicial deference. Justice Côté insists that there is

an important distinction between actions taken by a regulator in an adjudicative capacity and actions taken by a regulator in a legislative capacity — a distinction that is central to the policy concerns that animate judicial review and the traditional standard of review analysis. [57]

Justice Brown agrees that this distinction is important as the law now stands, stressing that, since “[p]ublic power must always be authorized by law … no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority”. [116; emphasis Justice Brown’s] But, in an obiter dictum, he also worries that

in many cases, the distinction between matters of statutory interpretation which implicate truly jurisdictional questions and those going solely to a statutory delegate’s application of its enabling statute will be, at best, elusive. [124]

The Chief Justice’s reasons in effect say that the distinction is elusive, and perhaps non-existent, or at any rate not worth bothering about, in all cases, including this one. In her view, it follows that pretty much all judicial review should be deferential.

But we can share the Chief Justice’s or, more plausibly, Justice Brown’s concern about the elusiveness of the distinction ― we might think that the distinction is often, though probably not always, difficult to draw ― draw from this the opposite conclusion. That is to say, we might think, not that there is basically no such thing as a jurisdictional question, but rather that most questions of law are in a sense jurisdictional and therefore call for correctness review ― because public power must always be authorized by law, and the Rule of Law, therefore, demands no less. This position would, I think, be similar to the approach taken by English (and New Zealand) administrative law after Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission, [1969] 2 AC 147 (which Professor Daly recently revisited on Administrative Law Matters). Indeed, Justice Brown’s own reasons suggest that the contrary approach, favoured by the Chief Justice (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, by Justice Brown’s own concluding obiter), leads to a paradox (call it the paradox of deference). If administrative interpretations of law are approached with deference on the basis that they draw upon policy expertise and “field sensitivity”, and if more than one interpretation of a statute is allowed to stand on the basis that they all fall into a range of reasonable outcomes, then isn’t the administrative decision-maker interpreting a statute “making law” just as as surely as if it were “enacting subordinate legislation”? And is it not, then, just as important to ensure that the interpreter “may ever exceed its authority”, because “[t]he rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle”? [116] Justice Rowe’s view that administrative decision-makers are generally not experts in statutory interpretation ― including but not limited to the category of jurisdictional questions narrowly defined, is the more logical one.

Finally, while others who have written about West Fraser have not discussed the second issue it addressed ― that of the penalty ― I think it is worth addressing at least briefly. The Chief Justice’s analysis on this issue is disturbing. As Justice Côté explains, the legislature carefully wrote the statute to distinguish “employers” and “owners”. The Chief Justice insists that this doesn’t matter because all “owners” are employers too so long as they have employees of their own visiting the worksites that they own, as they are required. As Justice Côté rightly says, this amounts to the re-writing of the legislation. In fact, while Justice Côté is too polite to say so, I think that the Chief Justice’s reasoning on this issue can best be described by borrowing Justice Scalia’s words in King v Burwell, 576 US __ (2015) ― it is “interpretive jiggery-pokery”, as a result of which “[w]ords no longer have meaning”.

Why does a majority of the Supreme Court engage in such unseemly activities? If, unlike me, you believe that the Chief Justice’s opinion is genuinely deferential to the administrative decision, then you should see the fact that this jiggery-pokery takes place in the course of (über-)deferential review ― which is supposed to be all about giving effect to the legislature’s intention ― as an illustration of the paradox of deference described above. Deferring to the administrative decision-maker means allowing it to become a law unto itself, free from the constraints imposed by statute ― and having to scramble to make it look like the administrative decision really does make some kind of sense.

If, however, you agree with me that the Chief Justice is actually engaged in disguised correctness review, things are, if anything, even worse. The Chief Justice is not merely forced, by her preference for deference, to allow the administrative decision-maker to rewrite the statute, but actively complicit in its doing so. As I will explain in the next post, this is what I think is going on. Indeed, in my view the Chief Justice engages in results-oriented, pro-regulatory reasoning throughout her West Fraser opinion. She thinks, no doubt, that she acts wisely and well. “Pure applesauce!”