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.