Mischief and the Chief

The Chief Justice has thoughts on the Supreme Court and the political climate

Yesterday, Radio-Canada/CBC ran an article by Daniel Leblanc that discussed Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s concerns about the standing of the Supreme Court and the judiciary more broadly, and his ideas for fostering public acceptance of and confidence in their work. This made quite a bit of noise on Twitter, and I jumped in too. A reader has encouraged me to turn those thoughts into a post, and I thought that would indeed be a good idea, so here goes.

Mr. Leblanc’s article starts with a discussion of the leak of a draft opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the US Supreme Court’s pending abortion case. This prompts the Chief Justice to say that “[i]t takes years and years to get people to trust institutions, and it takes a single event to destroy that trust”. The Chief Justice is worried. According to Mr. Leblanc, he “said recent global political events — like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection attempt in Washington, D.C. — should serve as a warning to Canadians” that our institutions, notably judicial independence, are at risk. The Chief Justice is also concerned that people are misinformed, notably in that they import fragmentary knowledge of American law into their thinking about Canada’s legal system.

To gain public trust, the Chief Justice has embarked the Supreme Court on a campaign to become more accessible. This includes a social media presence, publishing “plain English” versions of opinions, and sittings outside Ottawa. Mr. Leblanc describes the Chief Justice as saying “he knows he’s taking a risk by communicating more openly and frequently with the public and by taking the court outside of Ottawa. He said he still believes doing nothing would be riskier.”

Mr. Leblanc also turns to other people, notably Vanessa MacDonnell, to second the Chief Justice’s concerns. According to him, Professor MacDonnell “said Conservatives in the United Kingdom have criticized judges’ power to interpret the Human Rights Act, adding it’s part of a pattern of ‘political attacks’ against the courts in that country”. Attacks on judicial independence in Hungary and Poland are mentioned too, presumably at Professor MacDonnell’s behest, though this isn’t quite clear. Moreover, “Canadian institutions aren’t immune from attack either, MacDonnell said. The controversy over Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre’s vow to fire the Bank of Canada governor has dominated that leadership race”. Meanwhile, Senator Claude Carignan argues that “the Supreme Court is right to want to establish, through a certain communication plan, that there are differences with” its American counter part, and that it is “not there to represent a movement of right or left, or of red or blue, but … to judge the merits of the judgment according to current laws”.

So, some thoughts. To begin with, the Chief Justice deserves praise for thinking about making his court’s role and jurisprudence more accessible. Courts wield public power, and people should be able to know what they do with it. Indeed, I don’t know that anyone else thinks differently. The Chief Justice really needn’t pose as doing something “stunning and brave” with his transparency efforts; it looks a bit pathetic. But that doesn’t mean that the efforts themselves are to be denigrated.

That said, one shouldn’t expect too much from them. To the extent that people don’t understand what the Supreme Court is getting up to, I really think it’s more because of a lack of interest or effort than any failures on the Court’s part. The major cases are reported on, tolerably well, by the media. There is CanLII Connects, which hosts summaries and comments on all sorts of cases, written by students, professors, and practitioners. There are blogs like this one. There are podcasts. There are lots of people out there, in other words, who work hard to explain what Canadian courts, and especially the Supreme Court, are doing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the Supreme Court shouldn’t bother. It might do some good in this regard. But, again, when people are uninformed or misinformed ― and many are ― I don’t think it’s because of a lack of accessible information. In 2022, ignorance is usually wilful.

And I will criticize the Chief Justice for one part of his outreach programme: the roadshows. I fail to see how hearings outside Ottawa are anything other than taxpayer-funded junkets. Most people haven’t the time, let alone interest, to sit through arguments, be it in Ottawa or elsewhere. I’ve sat in on a couple of Québec Court of Appeal cases, some years ago, but I was a grad student would have done anything if that meant not writing my thesis ― not the Chief Justice’s target audience, I suspect. For more productively employed people, having a hearing in their city once in a blue moon is just not going to do anything. And of course anyone already can conveniently watch the Supreme Court on CPAC. This, by the way, is really a point on which the Supreme Court of Canada is better than that of the United States.

Speaking of those Americans, though, if one is concerned about the excessive influence of American thinking and American culture on Canada’s legal system, as the Chief Justice apparently is, one probably shouldn’t invoke American news as justifications for doing anything in Canada, as the Chief Justice definitely does. Again, some of his initiatives at least are worthwhile, but they are so on their Canadian merits, not because of anything that has occurred south of the border. Of course, the Chief Justice isn’t the only one trying to have this both ways. The Prime Minister, for instance, seems pretty keen to capitalize on American news to push ever more gun restrictions ― which he successfully deployed as a wedge issue in the last election campaign. In other words, the importation of American concerns of questionable relevance is something Canadians of all sorts, and not just the dark forces supposedly gnawing away at our institutions’ foundations, do, and Mr. Leblanc would, I think, have done well to note this.

Now, let’s consider these dark forces a bit more. Specifically, I don’t think that the discussion of populist attacks on courts in Mr. Leblanc’s article is all that helpful. I’m no expert on Poland and Hungary, but I take it that some Very Bad Things really have happened there, as part of broader programmes to dismantle institutional checks and balances and constraints on government power. To say that anything of the sort is about to happen in Canada, or could succeed if attempted, strikes me as a stretch. The analogy between the courts and the Bank of Canada doesn’t quite work, since the latter lacks constitutional protections for its independence. But perhaps I am mistaken about this.

What I am pretty sure about, however, is that it is quite wrong to equate the “attacks” on the judiciary in the UK with those in Hungary and Poland. To be sure, there have been some dangerously vile attacks in parts of the media, some years ago. I have written about this here. And it may well be that the government did not defend the courts as strongly as it should have at the time. But so far as government policy, let alone legislation, is concerned, it simply isn’t fair to say that the courts have been “attacked”. There is debate about just what their powers with respect to judicial review should be for instance, and it may well be that some of the proposals in this regard are at odds with the best understanding of the Rule of Law. But nobody is suggesting anything so radical as, say, requiring UK courts to defer to civil servants on questions of law, so I’m not sure that Canadians, in particular, should be too critical about this.

The specific issue example to which Professor MacDonnell refers is even more clearly a nothingburger. It has to do with the interpretation not of the Human Rights Act 1998, but of other legislation, which the Act says “[s]o far as it is possible to do so … must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the” European Convention on Human Rights. As readers will know, I happen to favour very robust judicial review of legislation ― more so than what exists under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, let alone the UK’s Human Rights Act. But I’m inclined to think that UK courts have gone rather beyond the limits of what is fairly “possible” in exercising their interpretive duty. They certainly have gone further than New Zealand courts applying a similar provision. Whether or not constraining them in this regard is the right thing to do on balance, there is nothing illegitimate or worrying about it.

It is important to remember that, precisely for the reason the Chief Justice is right to work on the Supreme Court’s transparency ― that is, because the court is an institution exercising public power on the citizens’ behalf ― the Court can also be subject to legitimate public criticism. Again, criticism can be overdone; it can be quite wrong. But on the whole it’s probably better for public institutions to be criticized too much than not enough. And the courts’ powers, just like those of other government institutions, can and sometimes should be curtailed. Each proposal should be debated on the merits. Many are wrong-headed, as for instance the calls to use the Charter “notwithstanding clause”. But they are not wrong just by virtue of being directed at the courts.

Meanwhile, Canadians who are concerned about public perceptions of the judiciary should probably worry a bit ― quite a bit ― more about the actions of our own judges, rather than foreign governments, let alone journalists. Sitting judges to some extent ― as when, for instance, they decide to give “constitutional benediction” to made up rights instead of “judg[ing] the merits of the judgment according to current laws”, as Senator Carignan puts it. But even more, as co-blogger Mark Mancini has pointed out, former judges who compromise the perception of their political neutrality and lend their stature and credibility to serve the wishes of governments at home and abroad:

In short, I think that the Supreme Court is trying some useful, if likely not very important things to become a more transparent institution, which is a good thing on the whole. But it is not saving democracy or the Rule of Law in the process. One should certainly be vigilant about threats to the constitution, but one should not dream them up just for the sake of thinking oneself especially courageous or important. One should also be wary of grand transnational narratives, and be mindful of the very real imperfections in one’s own backyard before worrying about everything that’s going on in the world.

Common Factionalism

The political rhetoric of the common good is poorly disguised factionalism, which the thinkers in whose name it is being advanced would have abhorred

The idea that law and politics should be organized around the principle of the “common good” is in the air on the political right. The left, of course, has had its versions of it for a long time. Both co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have written about “common good” arguments about legal issues, specifically the administrative state (Mark), constitutional law (me), and the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” (also me), and found them severely wanting. A couple of recent newspaper articles give us an idea of what the “common good” philosophy looks like in practical politics.

On the northern side of the world’s longest closed border, Ginny Roth, writing in the National Post, identifies the Conservative platform in the late and lamented election with “a rich tradition of common-good conservatism that looks more like Edmund Burke than John Locke”. The master idea of this “new conservatism” (wait, is it new or richly traditional? never mind) is that “Conservatives must be positioned to build on the coalition of voters that will support it in this election by correctly identifying what appealed to them about the leader, the party and the platform”. Less blandly, “the left must not have a monopoly on populist politics”. The right should imitate the left, and in doing so advance the policies favoured, or assumed to be favoured, by “coalitions of voters who think the opposite of what the cocktail party goers do”. 

The same ideas, if that’s what they are, are to be found south of the aforementioned border in Josh Hammer’s column in Newsweek. (Mr. Hammer, it is worth noting, is one of if not the closest thing the “common good” movement has to a leader. He is also, apparently, a research fellow with an outfit called the Edmund Burke Foundation.) Mr. Hammer defends bans on private businesses requiring their employees or customers to be vaccinated against the present plague. In doing so, he claims to take the side of “common-good-inspired figures” against “the more adamantly classical liberal, libertarian-inspired pundits and politicians who believe the quintessence of sound governance is simply permitting individuals and private entities to do what they wish”. Mr. Hammer “explains” that “[v]accine mandates will be a convenient fig leaf for a ruling class already gung-ho at the possibility of precluding conservatives from the full panoply of in-person public life”. (Why is that the defenders of tradition so often struggle with their native tongue?) This “wokeist ruling class” must be stopped by a “prudential use of state power to secure the deplorables’ basic way of life”.

With apologies to H.L. Mencken, “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” seems to be an excellent description of common good conservatism, as propounded by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. The common people are entitled to get their way, and to have the state’s coercive force used to ensure that they get their way. And no need to ask whether their preferences are consonant with some objective standards of morality, or the teachings of experts ― be it in economics, in epidemiology, or what have you. The beliefs of the common people are entitled to prevail because they are their beliefs, not because they are right.

Of course, it’s only the common people, that is, the right kind of people, that are entitled to have their way. The woke cocktail-swilling pundits and politicians are not. Even entrepreneurs, whom the conservatives of yesteryear lionized, must take their orders from those who do not drink cocktails. In other words, what Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer are promoting under the name of the common good is the view that the aim of politics is to give effect to the wishes of

a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

This is James Madison’s famous definition of faction, in Federalist No. 10. Ms. Roth might not have, but Mr. Hammer, who affects to be a constitutional sage as well as a political visionary, presumably has read the Federalist Papers. He’s read them, and has evidently concluded that he is cleverer than Madison, who feared faction as the seed of tyranny, civil strife, and destruction, and looked for ways to limit its ill-effects.

Madison saw the remedy in “[a] republic, … a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. A “republic”, so understood, would

refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Not so for Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. Not for them the refining and enlargement of public views by representatives. (It’s the cocktails, don’t you know?) The people themselves, and more precisely the “deplorables”, the ones whose views are the opposite of refined and enlarged, who must govern, and officials are to take their marching orders from them.

Poor Edmund Burke is spinning in his grave. His single most famous idea is doubtless the argument he advanced in his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol”, which deserves to be quoted at length here:

Certainly … it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy Colleague says, his Will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If Government were a matter of Will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one sett of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

The populism masquerading as “common good” conservatism being peddled by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer is the opposite not only of John Locke’s ideas and James Madison’s, but also of the deeply held views of the great man they dishonour by pretending to admire him.

I should note that there a more purely intellectual and, not coincidentally, intellectually respectable version of the “common good” thought. For the reasons some of which I set out more fully in my earlier posts, I don’t find it compelling. But, at its best, it does involve an honest reflection on the good of the community rather than window-dressing for factionalism. Michael Foran speaks from this perspective when he tweets that “[t]he Common Good shouldn’t be used as the new phrase for whatever political position one happens to already hold. A claim that X is in the common good needs to explain how X is both genuinely good and genuinely common in its goodness.”

As it happens, Adrian Vermeule (among others) has recently shared his thoughts on vaccine mandates with Bari Weiss, and they are not at all in line with Mr. Hammer’s. Along with much sniping at libertarians (does he think Mr. Hammer is one?), he argues that “the vaccine mandate is analogous in principle to … crisis measures” such as wartime conscription or the destruction of property to stop a fire: “[o]ur health, our lives and our prosperity, are intertwined in ways that make it entirely legitimate to enforce precautions against lethal disease — even upon objectors”.

The point is not really that Professor Vermeule is right (which I’m inclined to think he is, albeit not quite for the reasons he advances), and Mr. Hammer is wrong. It’s not even that their disagreement exposes the vacuity of the common good as a standard against which to measure policy (though it at least points in that direction). For my present purposes, it’s that the partisan version of the “common good” ideology, which Mr. Hammer and Ms. Roth represent, has next to nothing to do with its more cerebral namesake exemplified by Professor Vermeule’s comments to Ms Weiss. In its partisan incarnation, common good talk is nothing more than a fig-leaf meant to hide ― none too well, mind you ― the narcissism and cultural resentment that its promoters impute to a part of the electorate.