Precedent and Respect

When ― if ever ― can lower courts criticise their hierarchical superiors?

When, if ever, should lower-court judges criticize decisions of the higher courts that bind them? Can they do it in their reasons, whether speaking for their court or only for themselves? Judicature has published a short but thoughtful exchange on these questions between Orin Kerr and Michael Dorf. In a nutshell, Professor Kerr argues that such criticism is (almost?) never appropriate in judicial opinions; it belongs in op-eds and scholarly articles. Professor Dorf, by contrast, sees a place for it, if only a limited one. My own instincts are on Professor Dorf’s side.

For Professor Kerr, judicial opinions “receive respect not because they’re wise or well-reasoned. Some opinions are, and some opinions aren’t. Rather, judicial opinions receive respect because they are legally operative documents issued by judges with the power to issue them”. (84) It follows that

When you write a judicial opinion, you should limit yourself to what you have formal authority to decide. You should explain why you voted as you did in the case before you, as every legal opinion does. But judges shouldn’t also use legal opinions to pontificate about other views they have outside of the case and outside their authority. (84)

Since it is not the job of lower court judges to criticize their higher-ups, and since such criticism is legally inoperative, it should be saved for other venues: “Keeping your exercises of formal authority separate from your views of legal questions outside that authority helps maintain the legitimacy of the authority you exercise.” (85)

This is especially so for those views which a judge held prior to or would hold irrespective of his or her judicial office. Perhaps there is a place for judges criticizing “a [binding] precedent … when the judge’s basis for that opinion is a special insight, gained only in a judicial capacity, into how the precedent is working”. (88) But even then, the lower court judge “can draw attention” to the problem “without taking a view on whether” the higher court should reverse itself. (87)

Meanwhile, Professor Dorf’s position is that judicial criticism of binding authority ― not just higher-court precedent but also legislation ― is appropriate in a wider range of circumstances. For him, it is important that “in a well-functioning judicial hierarchy, information flows both ways. Lower court judges have knowledge and views that can and should usefully inform judges on higher courts”. (85) If lower court judges “spot a defect — a rule that misfires or that ought to but does not contain an exception” (86), for example because “a statute or opinion of a higher court [is] be based on a seemingly reasonable premise that proves false in practice” (86) ―, they might try to finesse or work around that rule. But that’s not always possible, and not necessarily appropriate. Short of refusing to follow the law (and perhaps resigning to make the point), their only other option is to criticize it in an opinion applying it.

Professor Dorf agrees that this should not happen very often. Criticism on “moral” grounds should be especially rare. Yet since “law often incorporates moral judgments, there should be room for an occasional statement by lower court judges that the precedent they must apply is wrong and thus should be reconsidered”. (86) And, regardless of the reason for it, criticism can be offered in a statement of reasons; indeed “it is hardly obvious that doing so outside of the context of a concrete case is the least controversial way to do so”. (87)


For what it’s worth, my view is closer to Professor Dorf’s; in some ways, I might go further than him. Let me begin, though, with one point he raises without developing it, and which makes me uneasy.

It is judicial criticism of legislation. As I have argued before, I think courts (including apex courts) should mostly try to avoid giving their opinions on legislation, whether to praise or to criticize it. It is not their constitutional role ― except in a constitutional challenge to the legislation’s validity or application, and even then the courts ought to focus on legal issues. Commentary on legislation is, inevitably, bound up with policy issues that are outside of the courts’ purview, and it is just as inevitably at risk of being recycled by politicians themselves, at the risk of compromising the public’s perception of the courts’ impartiality. I think courts can comment on technical issues with legislation where it fails to provide sufficient guidance to the subject and to the courts themselves. But this is probably a narrower view of permissible criticism than Professor Dorf would allow.

That said, I think that lower-court criticism of higher courts’ jurisprudence is a different matter. Although the courts stand in a hierarchical relationship to one another, they are fundamentally engaged in the same enterprise of saying what the law is. In this exercise, as Justice Jackson famously put it, higher courts “are not final because [they] are infallible, but [they] are infallible only because [they] are final”. They can err, and I don’t think that it is constitutionally objectionable for their colleagues to say so ― provided, of course, that they still respect their subordinate role in the judicial hierarchy and apply binding precedent until it is overturned. (Of course, in the Canadian context, there is an exception even to this principle, set out by the Supreme Court in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. In my view that was a mistake.)

Sure, it’s probably a good idea for judges to be, well, judicious about when to speak out. Their main task is to decide disputes, not to be legal commentators. But I doubt there is really much danger of this happening. Lower-court judges are simply too busy to moonlight as opinionated bloggers. Conversely, though, I might actually be more uneasy with judicial commentary on the state of the law expressed either without reference to the problems it causes in a particular case or with reference to a past decision. I think it is a valuable principle that reasons for judgment ought to speak for themselves.

So when judges consider that the issue is important enough, and that it arises starkly enough in a case before them, I think they can ― and perhaps ought to ― take the opportunity to speak out. And I wouldn’t limit this to either cases of the binding precedent “misfiring”, or being based on a mistaken premise, or even particularly strong moral disagreement. I think that, just as importantly, it can be appropriate for a lower court judge to say that a higher court’s decision is legally wrong ― that it does not fit with other precedents or with the legal landscape as a whole. It is the Supreme Court’s job to sort out these conflicts and contradictions, which are to some degree inevitable in a dynamic legal system. But lower courts can contribute to the law working itself pure by pointing out impurities ― even when it is the higher court that caused them to exist.

Ultimately, I disagree with Professor Kerr’s view of judicial opinions. To repeat, he says that they “receive respect not because they’re wise or well-reasoned”, which they need not be, but “because they are legally operative documents issued by judges with the power to issue them”. I think this confuses respect and authority. A judgment’s binding authority is a product of the law alone. But the respect due to it is indeed a function of its reasoning. A poorly reasoned judgment is still binding on the parties, and its ratio sets a precedent that binds courts below that by which it was rendered. But it doesn’t follow that this judgment is automatically entitled to respect ― that it ought to be regarded as deserving to be part of the law. As a result, it is not improper for a court bound by that judgment to express reservations about it while still applying it: in doing so, the lower court defers to the higher court’s authority, but withholds the respect to which it is not entitled.

That’s my two cents, anyway. Again, the discussion between Professors Kerr and Dorf is worth your time.

Putting Stare Decisis Together Again

Originalists and living constitutionalists alike have good Rule of Law reasons for being wary of appeals to reinvigorate stare decisis

It is hardly news for those who follow Canadian public law that the Supreme Court tends to have little regard for precedent. Indeed, to the surprise of most people and the chagrin of many, it even freed lower courts to disregard its own precedents, in some circumstances, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. For many people, this lack of regard for stare decisis is part of a broader pattern of erosion of the Rule of Law. Dwight Newman and, separately, Brian Bird and Michael Bookman, made this argument in their respective contributions to the collection of essays/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review on threats to the Rule of Law in Canada edited by Maxime St-Hilaire and Joana Baron in 2019.

The relationship between stare decisis, the Rule of Law, and the desire to do justice in particular cases and to improve the law going forward is not only a source of difficulties in Canada, however. So tomorrow (December 15) at 2PM Eastern, a panel of the Global Summit, an online conference organized by Richard Albert, will try to shed some light on it with participants from the United States (Jeffrey Pojanowski and Marc DeGirolami), and Australia (Lisa Burton Crawford), as well as yours truly. Our chair will be an Italian colleague, Andrea Pin. This should be a lot of fun, and the other participants are all first-magnitude stars. (In case you’re wondering how they let me in ― well, I helped Prof. Pin put it together, so they couldn’t conveniently boot me out!)

The proceedings will, naturally for these plague times, be on Zoom. You can register here ― it’s free! My understanding is that they will be recorded and will, eventually be made available to all. These things tend to take some time though, and are bound to with an event as big as the Global Summit, so I encourage you to watch tomorrow if you can. And, to convince you to give it a go, here is a flavour of own presentation.


Critics of the lack of respect for precedent in Canadian public law tend to argue that enough is enough, and the Supreme Court should go back to a much more robust ― and consistent ― application of stare decisis. My argument is that this is too simple, too idealistic a response. In a perfect world where judges had generally been committed to the Rule of Law, unwavering respect for precedent may well be what an ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law requires. But the world of Canadian public law is far from being perfect in this way. Much of this law suffers from deep Rule of Law problems, some of which I described in my own contribution to the St-Hilaire & Baron volume. As a result, while I share the desire to put stare decisis together again, I argue that this operation will be a delicate one, and must be careful and somewhat selective.

One issue which I’ll address here ― there will be more in my talk (assuming I don’t run out of time, that is!) ― is the concern that respect for precedent may force courts to apply something other than the correct legal rule, be it constitutional, statutory or, arguably, even a common law principle. Lord Sankey, perhaps the chief ― if also most misunderstood ― authority on constitutional interpretation in Canada describes the issue eloquently in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58. Pointing out that “[u]nder our system, decided cases effectively construe the words” of enactments, including constitutional enactments, Lord Sankey highlights

a danger that in the course of this process the terms of the statute may come to be unduly extended and attention may be diverted from what has been enacted to what has been judicially said about the enactment. To borrow an analogy; there may be a range of sixty colours, each of which is so little different from its neighbour that it is difficult to make any distinction between the two, and yet at the one end of the range the colour may be white, and at the other end of the range black. (DLR 64)

Lord Sankey’s concerns in the Aeronautics Reference are those of an originalist avant la lettre: “[t]he process of interpretation as the years go on”, he warned,

ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction … should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies.

Some prominent academic originalist voices have echoed this belief, notably Gary Lawson, Randy Barnett, and Amy Coney Barrett (back when she was still in academia). However, they are not alone in worrying about precedent standing in the way of an accurate application of the law. Debra Parkes raises the same concern from a Canadian living constitutionalist perspective: “[t]he entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has arguably strengthened the case for overruling earlier decisions that are inconsistent with the evolving interpretation of various Charter rights”. (137) Similarly, the late Joseph Arvay and his co-authors have argued that “it is the role and duty of the [Supreme] Court to provide what it believes to be a correct interpretation of the Charter, even if that involves admitting long-standing and oft-repeated past judicial error”. (69)

Of course, originalists or those who are chiefly concerned with the stability of the law may view the living constitutionalist position as simply empowering judges to legislate their particular preferences from the bench. And, admittedly, some living constitutionalists seem to seek a sort of permanent revolution in constitutional law. Mr Avray and his co-authors wrote that “an examination of the role of stare decisis in Charter litigation reveals some transformative Charter moments lost”, (62; emphasis in the original) suggesting that they might be expecting the courts to change society rather than be its reflection, as living constitutionalism seems to suggest. I personally think that this tension between applying the law, even an ever-evolving law, and transforming it is fatal to living constitutionalism’s claim to be a sustainable approach to constitutional interpretation. But let me put that aside for the purposes of this post (and of my talk tomorrow).

Here, I will take living constitutionalism at its word, as an approach to constitutional interpretation that holds that the law is shaped by the needs and values of society as they stand from time to time. On this view, updating legal doctrine to align it with these needs and values as they happen to stand now is not exercise of will, but simply what the Rule of Law requires. Living constitutionalists saying “this precedent no longer reflects the values of Canadian society and must therefore be discarded” are no different, in their relationship to the Rule of Law, from originalists saying “this precedent is inconsistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text, and must therefore be discarded”.

Call this, if you will, the horseshoe theory of constitutional stare decisis. Radical originalists and radical living constitutionalists agree, at least at the level of broad principle. In practice, there may still be substantial disagreement between those originalists who, like Prof. Barnett, distinguish constitutional interpretation and construction, and see a role for stare decisis in the latter, and living constitutionalists (and those originalists) for whom all constitutional questions are essentially similar in being determined by the constitution itself. But, that important detail aside, both sides of the horseshoe agree that the constitution’s meaning cannot be superseded by judicial interpretation, and remains directly binding on courts, regardless of what their predecessors may have said about it.

From my own originalist perch, I agree with this view. The Rule of Law concerns about the stability of legal doctrine are serious, of course. But the concern on the other side of the scale is no less based on the Rule of Law. The issue is with what Lon Fuller called “congruence” between the law on the books and the law as it is actually applied. (I wrote about this here.) Law cannot guide behaviour ― and thus play its moral role in providing a secure environment for citizens and establishing a mutually respectful relationship between the citizens and the state ― if it is not applied in accordance with its terms. Officials, including judges, who do not apply the law as it stands are engaged in nothing less than “lawless application of the law”. In my view, lawlessness cannot become the foundation of a Rule-of-Law compliant law; it must be expunged for our legal system to have a claim to the kind of authority that Fuller envisions.


As mentioned, this is only a preview. In my talk ― and, hopefully, in a paper that will come out of it ― I will try to address a couple of other reasons why I think it is a mistake to simply insist that the Supreme Court go back to upholding precedents. The problems with the Rule of Law in Canadian public law run much deeper than a lack of regard for stare decisis, and addressing this issue in isolation will not really resolve them. I hope that you can “come” to the talk, and that we can continue this discussion there!

The Administrative Law “Trilogy”: The Stare Decisis Trap

This post originally appeared on Advocates for the Rule of Law.

This week, the Supreme Court of Canada finally heard the consolidated appeals in Bell/NFL and Vavilov. ARL, expertly represented by Adam Goldenberg, put forward our submissions on the matter, which focus on a return to the basis of the law of judicial review: its statutory character.

During the hearings, one particular line of questioning posed a problem for this argument, which asks the Court to critically analyze all of its precedents, even those pre-Dunsmuir. Justice Moldaver, for example, suggested that one of the parties’ submissions in Bell/NFL would “take us back 30 years.” That comment was made as if it was undesirable to look to the foundations of the law of judicial review. Justice Gascon chided the same counsel for framing his submissions as a “minor adjustment,” suggesting that it was, in fact, a major overhaul. Again, the comment was stated as a decisive fact, acting as a criticism of the merits of the legal position.

This line of thinking, to my mind, is odd for at least two reasons.

First, when the Court granted leave to these cases and consolidated them, it invited a critical appraisal of its standard of review cases since Dunsmuir. Like all of the common law, Dunsmuir is a product of what came before it. Dunsmuir, for example, incorporates CUPE’s generally deferential posture without doing away with the pragmatic and functional factors outlined in Pushpanathan, Pezim, and Southam. The Court’s invitation of a critical appraisal should be taken seriously.

The line of questioning invited by Justices Gascon and Moldaver does not inspire confidence that the Court is serious about a full-blown reappraisal of Dunsmuir and what it contains. It may very well be that the line of questioning was aimed at protecting Dunsmuir from assault, on the grounds that it is not only good law, but workable and constitutionally acceptable law. But I heard no such robust defence of Dunsmuir, and it would be difficult to sustain one given the widespread discord it and its progeny have caused in the lower courts and among the academic community. To my mind, if the Court invited review of Dunsmuir, it should review. Weak appeals to stare decisis are not helpful.

On that note, the line of questioning is odd for a second reason: this seems like the perfect case, rare in the common law system, to tear down the precedent and critically interrogate first principles. I am alive to the concern this raises about reliance interests, certainty in the law, and the other virtues of a strong stare decisis rule. But the law of judicial review in Canada is so derelict of principle and unworkable that the reliance costs on it must be minimal. The costs of advice under the regime are already high, because (1) it undergoes constant change and (2) it is difficult for a lawyer to say to a client, with any acceptable probability, what the outcome of a case would be.

Given the already-high costs imposed by a strict rule of stare decisis in this case, it is a good opportunity to go back to first principles and create a modern law of judicial review. The key touchstones should be consistency with constitutional precepts and workability. But there is a challenge: reassessing the law of judicial review may invite a re-assessment of the foundational principles laid down in CUPE.

CUPE was about a labour board in a commercial context. Today, the administrative state is a much different beast. The same rule of deference formulated in light of the expertise and position of a labour board in the 1970s cannot be applied to the decision of an immigration official to deport someone in 2018. The positions of the immigration officer and the labour board are so vastly different that a law formulated in light of the former, 40 years ago, is difficult to apply to the latter today.

The challenge is for judges on the Supreme Court who were born and bred in the Keynesian 70s to accept another model of judicial review. CUPE is a sort of foil for this bygone era. The conception of administrative law, at that time, was its potential for redistributive social justice, and nowhere was the terrain more fraught than in the economics of labour. Deference to these sorts of decision-makers could be justified as a tool to empower them in the face of conservative judges. But today, administrative law is called on to do much more. Now, there is a worry (Vavilov is an example), of an administrative state that directly impacts the most personal individual rights. Administrative decision-makers can make life-altering decisions that bring to bear the most repressive arms of the state against vulnerable people. This has nothing to do with redistributive goals, the labour movement, or any other social goal. As such, it is difficult to apply the social-justice rationale of deference to these decision-makers.

The new administrative law, conceived as a sort of control on satellite decision-makers, must be attuned to the new administrative state. Accordingly, the judges should not keep themselves to any strict rule of stare decisis. They should review the interaction of any proposed framework with the intricacies of the modern administrative state. Anything less would be a wasted chance.