What Needs to Be Said

Sometimes people say things that need to be said. These things may make us uncomfortable. They may force us to look in the mirror. They may ask us to really sit and think about our conduct. We might not like to hear these things, but they might start a discussion. Or maybe they will force us to change our ways.

Enter Stratas JA in Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164. Here, Stratas JA says what needs to be said. In the decision, Stratas JA shines a light on two increasing tendencies in Canadian law: (1) the tendency of some intervenors, contrary to governing jurisprudence, to insert international law or policy preferences in the interpretation of legislation, particularly in the discernment of legislative purpose and (2) the tendency for some judges, in extra-judicial speeches or otherwise, to weigh in on matters of public policy, typically left to the political branches. Stratas JA has launched an important conversation that we should embrace, tough as it is.

International Law and Statutory Interpretation

Let me start with the basic facts of the case. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

Here’s where it gets hairy. Sometimes, international law can enter the act of legal interpretation. If you want to know more about how this is the case, see my post on Stratas JA’s decision in Entertainment Software. The point is that international law can only be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity. Parliament remains sovereign because it controls the international law it adopts; indeed, “[s]ometimes it is clear…that the purpose of a legislative provision is to implement some or all of  an international law instrument” (Kattenburg, at para 25) (see Gib Van Ert, here, for some nuance on this). Other times, there is ambiguity that permits the consideration of international law (Kattenburg, at para 25). But other times, probably most times, international law plays no role in the interpretation of legislation, where there is no indication that the governing law explicitly or by implication incorporates international law. That was the case here.

Yet many of the intervenors in this case were motivated to bootstrap international law into the authentic interpretation of legislation. For many, the argument was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law principles. This was despite the fact that nothing in the governing law was designed “to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 20). To make this point, some of the interveners attempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32).

There are many problems with what’s going on here, and Justice Stratas rightly rejected the efforts to make the case about the West Bank issue rather than the reasonableness of a regulatory decision. First, at the level of fundamental principle, judicial review of administrative action is about policing the boundaries of the administrative state, at the level of a particular regulatory decision. Some times these decisions can have major consequences, for the party subject to the decision or for the legal system on the whole. But the focus is not the at-large determination of major issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus is on the decision under review. And so the attempts by the moving parties to buttress the record, to force the Court’s hand into saying something, anything, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inappropriate, to say the least. Justice Stratas rightly, and humbly, rejected the call to enter this fraught political territory.

Another problem is the attempt to use international law to guide, where it is inappropriate to do so, the ascertainment of legislative purpose. When courts interpret statutes, they do not do so with the aims of achieving a result that the judge thinks is “just,” “right,” or even “fair.” The goal is to interpret statutes authentically, so that we can plausibly determine what the legislature meant when it used certain words in enacting a law. Contrary to fashionable legal realism, courts and decision-makers must do their best not to reverse engineer a desired outcome through interpretation (see Vavilov, at para 121, but also see the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Here, the intervenors clearly tried to use international law to reach a desired policy outcome. But all of the intervenors, piled up together, shouldn’t be able to encourage courts to engage in this pure policy reasoning. Indeed, as Justice Stratas notes, “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). And to the extent that doing so is contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, Justice Stratas was right to call out this pernicious behaviour.

None of this is to suggest that intervenors do not play an important role in Canadian law. None of this is to suggest that international law cannot, in appropriate circumstances, play a role in the interpretation of legislation. But a new Canadian textualism is emerging that rebuffs policy reasoning and at-large international law arguments. All for the better.

The Role of the Courts

In Kattenburg, Justice Stratas also made a number of comments that, I think, needed to be said about the activities of some Canadian judges. Here is the gist of his comments:

[45]  As for judges, some give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies, whether they be liberal, conservative or whatever. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go. They write op-eds, deliver speeches and give interviews, extolling constitutional rights as absolutes that can never be outweighed by pressing public interest concerns and embracing people, groups and causes that line up with their personal view of what is “just”, “right” and “fair”. They do these things even though cases are under reserve and other cases are coming to them.

This comment raises the important question of the difference between the legal world and the political world. It has become increasingly common to hear that law=politics. In some sense, this is true. Law is the product of political deliberation. And because judges are only humans, there is always a risk that a judge’s experiences and personal views may guide the interpretation of legislation. No legal system can reduce this risk to zero, and perhaps it is unwise to do so.

But this is a completely different proposition from the normative question: should the political views of judges affect the interpretation of laws or judicial review of administration action? Obviously the answer is no. So, in legislative interpretation, we create a series of rules to guide legal interpretation. We ask courts and decision-makers to focus on text, context, and purpose—authentically. In other words, while law is the product of politics, that fact does not give judges the right to interpret laws as they wish.

There are a number of examples of prominent judges who have, extrajudicially, blurred the lines between law and politics. At least two judges of the Supreme Court have suggested that their job is to decide what is best for Canadians, for example (see Justice Moldaver here and then-Chief Justice McLachlin here). This is a real misapprehension of the judicial role. Judges aren’t tasked with making the best normative decisions for Canadians. That is Parliament’s job. Of course, the problem is that politics can be slow and frustrating. But that is no reason to bypass the legislature for a quick judicial resolution.

Another example, but by far not the only one, is Justice Abella. Justice Abella frequently enters the public fray to provide her views on certain legal issues. Quite separate from the content of these interjections, it is typically not the role of a Supreme Court judge to write popular columns, putting their thumbs on the scale of pressing public issues that might make their way to the Court. It is one thing to set out one’s view of the law in reasons for decision. We can agree or disagree on that reasoning, in the legal academy. It is another to take to the streets, as a judge, and participate in the political process by setting out one’s view of the law—whatever it is–in the context of popular publications. On a related note, in fact, this is not just an affliction of judges that might be considered “progressive.” As I wrote here, in the United States, conservatives are increasingly looking at the courts as an instrument of power, rather than as neutral and objective arbiters of the law.

I could go on and on. The point is that Justice Stratas is on to something in Kattenburg. The comments come as we see, increasingly, the veneration of judges as heros, who are celebrated when they enter the political fray by many in the bar. RBG on the left, with the action figures and paraphenalia. Scalia on the right, to a somewhat lesser extent. In Canada, the “stanning” of judges like Justice Abella as if they were celebrities. Judges are just “lawyers who happen to hold a judicial commission” (Kattenburg, at para 41). When put that way, it seems remarkably odd that we celebrate certain judges the way we do. We should celebrate judges for applying the law and following precedent to the best of their ability. We should refrain from celebrating the results of cases over the reasoning. And judges, themselves, should generally stay out of political debates. Indeed, lawyers are just lawyers, and law school confers no special insight on issues of moral or political weight, compared to the rest of the population.

Sad for some lawyers to hear, I am sure. But it needed to be said.