Abellian “Law”

It is with an utter lack of surprise that I yet again fill the virtual pages of Double Aspect with thoughts on another of Justice Abella’s comments on the nature of judging. Both Leonid and I have continuously written about how Justice Abella frequently displays a judicial arrogance  that is inconsistent with the role of a judge in a constitutional democracy, both descriptively and normatively. I hesitate to write yet again on the same subject.

But I am moved to do so by the utter lack of accuracy in Justice Abella’s recent speech at Fordham University, where she described a bastardized version of the Canadian approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. Here are the comments in a release from Fordham:

“Our judges don’t draw lines over whether to follow a linguistic word approach or an intentionalist approach,” she said. “We just look at how we think this provision should be interpreted in light of all the things you worry about: what did the legislature mean, what do the words say, what was the purpose of the statute, all of that.”

Justice Abella discussed the importance of the Edwards v Canada case, more commonly known as the Persons Case, which concluded that women were eligible to sit in the Senate of Canada. In the 1929 decision, Lord Sankey stated that the British North America Act is “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.” Justice Abella spoke about this idea, the living tree doctrine, as a basic guiding principle.

“[The living tree doctrine] is constitutional but it’s also philosophically foundational,” she said. “It’s how we approach not only the constitution but also our statutes. What is the fair, appropriate, and just meaning of the phrase? We read it in the most reasonable way possible.”

I need not repeat yet again, from the constitutional perspective, why Justice Abella’s comments are wrong as a normative matter respecting the living tree.  I want to concentrate on the seemingly more mundane matter of statutory interpretation, and Justice Abella’s statements that we apply a “living tree” methodology in that context. She is flat-out, embarrassingly wrong as a positive law matter; but as a normative matter, the view is dangerous.

On positive law grounds, it is completely untrue that courts in Canada apply a “living tree” approach to the interpretation of statutes as a matter of course. The Supreme Court has held, time and time again, that statutes should given the meaning they had at the time they were adopted. This was the definitive statement of Dickson J in Perka, at 264-265, citing authorities noting that “The words of a statute must be construed as they would have been the day after the statute was passed…” and “Since a statute must be considered in the light of all circumstances existing at the time of its enactment it follows logically that words must be given the meanings they had at the time of enactment, and the courts have so held.”  Most recently, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota stated on Twitter, this was the approach adopted by the Supreme Court in R v DLW  where the Court cited Perka, noting that while broad terms might be afforded a more flexible interpretation, the original meaning governed in that case. Justice Abella dissented. So, contrary to her belief,  the general rule is that the original meaning of a statute applies.

This makes sense. No matter what one thinks the strengths of living constitutionalism are in the constitutional context, the argument loses force in the statutory world.  At a formal level, constitutions are restrictions on the legislature, and one could argue that they are developed by the judicial branch through strong-form judicial review, in Canada. But statutes are clearly the product of the legislative branch (or their delegates). Judges have no warrant–at least since 1688–to legislate. At a functional level, it could be true that Constitutions are not easily amended, and so judges should develop their meaning to new facts. But that same argument is so clearly wrong in the statutory context, where statutes are passed and amended by legislatures all the time.

One might try to steel-man Justice Abella’s comments by relying on the comments in R v DLW and other general interpretive principles. It is true that “dynamic interpretation” is indeed a distinct method of interpretation, recognized in Canada: see Ruth Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes at 175 (2014). While it is true that the Court in R v DLW and other cases have noted that statutory terms can take on a “dynamic meaning,” this is far from the ordinary rule, generally only applicable in defined circumstances given defined statutory language: see Sullivan, at 177. And even if it was, the dynamic approach is not inconsistent with original meaning, and it does not support Justice Abella’s broad misunderstanding of textualism. One can speak of two types of original meaning:

  1. Situations in which statutory terms should be statically applied to the same situations that were in their contemplation at the time of enactment.
  2. Situations in which statutory terms are broad and must be applied to new facts as they arise.


Both of these situations are consistent with original meaning. In the first case, both meaning and application are largely frozen at the time of enactment. Sullivan says an interpretation of this sort is justified when “…new facts are functionally equivalent or analogous to facts that were within the ambit of the legislation when it first came into force” (Sullivan, at 179), for example. In the latter case, though, the legislature has spoken more broadly, and this is where a “dynamic” approach enters the fray. But this does not mean that the statute receives a new meaning according to some Abellian idea of an unbridled living tree: it just means that its contours are applied to new facts. We constrain the meaning–the scope of application– using text, context, and purpose. I always use the example of the Kyllo decision in the US, in which the Court endorsed the proposition that the 4th Amendment (protecting against searches and seizures) applied to infrared searches of the home. The scope of the 4th Amendment always protected the home, and it applied to the new facts of infrared searches.

The situation, then, is much more subtle and sophisticated than Justice Abella suggests, and the subtletly does not work in her favour.

Undeterred, she goes on to suggest that courts in Canada take an “anything goes” approach to statutory interpretation, seemingly rejecting textualism. This mistake is even more bizarre, considering the very recent decision in Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. Justice Abella, in her Fordham talk, suggests that courts do not draw lines between “textualism” and “intentionalism” in Canada. But she herself attempts to do so (wrongly) in her dissent, at para 107 of the decision:

The debate between those who are “textualists” and those who are “intentionalists” was resolved in Canada in 1998 when this Court decided that “there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament. We do not just look at the words.

Not only that, but the majority in decision in Wellman comes down on the side of text over abstract, judicially defined purposes. Justice Abella was in dissent–she did not win the argument, for very good reasons. So, again, Justice Abella finds herself claiming that the law is something when it is not.

Two normative conclusions can be drawn about Justice Abella’s odd talk at Fordham, one about the merits of what she says the law is and one about the role of a judge in Canada. Take the latter first. It would be one thing if what Justice Abella said was an honest, innocent mistake. But I find it that hard to believe in these circumstances. Wellman just happened, and Justice Abella lost the argument she now claims she won. Why a judge in our democracy would say this—especially to an international audience—is unclear. We should expect better

The merits of the suggestion that courts in Canada apply a living tree approach to statutes are also lacking. First, as Craig Forcese said on Twitter, the suggestion would amount to a complete reversal of the ordinary structure of our Constitution. The judicial function is, to state what I thought was the obvious, completely separate from the legislative. Justice Abella seems to have much in common with the old English judge who told an unfortunate lawyer trying to give his best interpretation of the statute: “Do not gloss the statute, for we know better than you, we made it.” We’ve moved far beyond these days, and it is odd for a “progressive” judge like Justice Abella to suggest we go back in that direction. Parliamentary sovereignty should stand for something.

The suggestion that judges should make up statutory meaning as they go along would have positively corrosive effects in many areas of law. Criminal law is an obvious example, but administrative law is another. Judges, rather than Parliament, would be the master of agencies if they could expand or narrow the scope of delegated power exercised by these agencies depending on the judges’ particular worldview. Not only does this stand inconsistently with the Court’s own professed idea of deference, it is dangerous to subvert Parliament’s laws in service of a judge’s ideology.

And this, I suppose, is the point. While I believe that Justice Abella means well, she reveals an unfortunate arrogance that crops up in speech after speech. For one, she claims the law is her opinion when it is not. Then, she takes on the mantle of judging what a statute should mean, given her own impressions of what it requires. It takes someone with much self-confidence to do this. Whether or not we should have confidence in her is quite another matter altogether. A Supreme Court judgeship is not enough, in a democracy, to give its holder the mantle of deciding what laws should mean or which laws should apply. Someone who believes so is better suited to be a politician than a judge.


Criticizing the Supreme Court

Why we should vigorously dissent when the occasion presents itself.

What is the generally accepted scope of criticism for the Canadian judiciary?

This question was brought into stark relief last week, with a post from co-blogger Leonid Sirota and a similar post from me criticizing, in no uncertain terms, Justice Abella’s recent comments about the role of the Supreme Court in Canadian society. Leonid received criticism for his post, with others positing that there should be a presumption of good-faith when criticizing the judiciary.

It strikes me that the general reaction, while itself in good faith, ignores the nature of judicial decision-making in modern day Canada. The so-called “countermajoritarian difficulty” is, to some, a non-starter for discussion in Canada, because Parliament and the provinces (read: Canadians) themselves gave the strong-form power of judicial review to the courts in the 1982 constitutional negotiations. Within this argument is an admission that the court’s role—itself a product of democratic consensus—cannot usefully be criticized on democratic grounds. It is reflective, according to Justice Abella, of a broad consensus among Canadians that the court should be advancing values and principles that at one point were the responsibility of the legislature.

So be it. But with great power comes great responsibility. And if we are to accept a role for courts in legislating, then courts should be subject to the very same criticism that is leveled at politicians of all stripes. If courts are ruling on matters central to who we are as Canadians, and if they are doing so because we gave them that power through democratic channels, we should be responsible for monitoring our choice. In that sense, the judiciary’s great power should be checked by watchful criticism just as Parliament’s judgment is criticized.

The response to this is predictable, and it is raised by Justice Abella: the difference between the judiciary and the legislatures in our system is so important that it is given constitutional protection. Judicial independence is a cherished principle because it allows the courts full scope to check majoritarian passions, which is sometimes necessary in a society based on constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. In this sense, we should not undermine judicial independence through robust criticism of the judiciary, lest it invite enterprising Trumpian politicians to rail against the courts and reduce the public’s trust in these hallowed institutions.

The conflation between judicial independence and criticism is quite unfortunate. Judicial independence is indeed an important constitutional requirement, one that should be preserved. But judicial independence should not stop us from criticizing the judiciary when it goes too far, in light of other constitutional principles—including the separation of powers. Parliament is supreme within constitutional boundaries, but this does not stop any one of us from vigorously criticizing parliamentarians, even with invective language. Even lawyers, defenders of the institutional integrity of law, do this on Twitter from time to time when talking about Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, Jim Watson, etc etc.

If one views the court as carrying immense power, it is natural to err on the side of promoting vigorous, powerful dissent rather than muddy agreement or assumptions of good-faith. We can always assume good-faith, but that gets us nowhere near the substantive justifications for a court decision, nor does it allow us to criticize a particular judge’s thought process and reasoning. Something may be in good-faith but totally and completely contrary to fundamental law; or it may be the result of several logical fallacies, or an oversized view of the judicial role unsupported by our history or traditions. It may be inevitable that we have to mention a judge’s name in criticizing her thought process, and if judges are public figures, they should expect nothing less. In this sense, short of the marginal cases where one lobs horrible insults, the judge and her worldview are inseparable from the things she says and the public pronouncements she makes.

In other words, if a judge of a particular court views her job as deciding value judgments, that same judge cannot then hide behind judicial independence as a protection against vigorous criticism. The Charter did not entrench courts. It entrenched a Constitution, the basis of which derives from popular support represented by legislatures. We, including those in the legal profession, have the right and the responsibility to vigorously criticize judges. If a line is to be drawn, it should be drawn inclusive of this important principle. In the same vein, in a society where judges carry great power, histrionics and celebration of those same judges should be avoided, much in the same way that we view politicians with a hint of distrust. This is not a malevolent consequence of our system, but it should be the natural reaction of human beings who have delegated broad powers to others to govern them.

Inappropriate Remarks

Justice Abella should be criticized, not praised, for her comments on Donald Trump

In a widely noted (for example in this report by Colin Freeze for the Globe and Mail) commencement address given in the United States, Justice Abella has castigated “narcissistic populism” and, more broadly, what she perceives as the abandonment of a global commitment to human rights, independent institutions, and the Rule of Law. While the academics quoted by Mr. Freeze, and others, are either cheering Justice Abella on or at least think that these comments were acceptable, I disagree. Mrs. Abella would be perfectly free to engage in political commentary, but Justice Abella is not. That she did not recognize this calls her judgment into serious question.

It is quite obvious to anyone who has had the misfortune of following the news in the last year that the “narcissistic populism” quip refers to Donald Trump. Sure, Justice Abella did not utter his name. She did not need to. Populism in general is a broad (and worrying) phenomenon. But the reference to narcissism is a pointed one. Justice Abella was not speaking about Bernie Sanders, or even Marine Le Pen. (Her other remarks presumably did not only concern Mr. Trump ―  though I doubt she was thinking about Mr. Sanders.)

Unlike Justice Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court, who criticized Mr. Trump (by name) last year (at a time when his election to the presidency seemed impossible), Justice Abella wasn’t commenting on the potential head of a branch of government co-ordinate with that of which she is part. To that extent, she wasn’t compromising the separation of powers. Yet that doesn’t mean that her remarks were compatible with her judicial role. The United States are a relatively frequent litigant before the Supreme Court of Canada. Since Justice Abella’s appointment, they have been a party to seven cases decided on the merits, and to almost 20 additional leave applications in which she was involved. (These are mostly, though not quite exclusively, extradition matters.) There is no particular reason to think that there will no more such cases while Justice Abella remains on the Court. And so long as she does, and Mr. Trump remains president of the United States, it seems to me that questions about Justice Abella’s impartiality could be raised.

When I criticized Justice Ginsburg in a blog post for the CBA National Magazine last year, I noted that those whose unbridled admiration for her encouraged her injudicious behaviour had to take some of the blame:

As [Josh] Blackman has pointed out, “[o]ver the past few years, [Justice] Ginsburg has been showered in … sycophantic adoration” by those on the political left who see her as the pre-eminent judicial champion of their values. Prof. Blackman hypothesizes ― correctly, I suspect ― that the adulation got to Justice Ginsburg, to the point that she came to think that “she could do no wrong.” She may also have come to think that the public stood in dire need of her warnings about Mr. Trump, even though, as Paul Horwitz has observed, “her remarks [were] essentially conventional, unexceptional, and banal.” While I do not wish to absolve Justice Ginsburg, I think it is important to also blame those whose flattery has at least contributed to her developing such a high opinion of herself. Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon wrote that “those, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction … are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage.” The same goes, I think, for those who encourage judges to overstep their proper role in extrajudicial contexts. It is perhaps unfair to call parasiti people among whom sincere admirers no doubt outnumber self-interested sycophants, but the sincere contribute no less than the two-faced to corrupting the very person they love so much. There is nothing wrong with admiring a judge, or for that matter a politician. But if you well and truly wish him or her well, never tell yourself, and by all that you hold dear, never tell him or her, that the person you admire can do no wrong. Coming to believe that one can do no wrong ensures that one will.

The same lesson applies, I suspect, in the case of Justice Abella. As Mr. Freeze notes, she has become something of a judicial celebrity, and indeed “[e]arlier this year, Justice Abella received a ‘global jurist of the year’ prize.” I am afraid such things are not very good for sitting judges. Justice Abella’s injudicious remarks not only deserve criticism, but also show that she needs it.