Girouard v CJC: An Administrative State Coup?

The administrative state is not a constitutional mandate

A few weeks ago in this space, I mooted the arguments that could stand against the constitutionality of the administrative state. I alluded to an argument—percolating in Canada—that the administrative state could be mandated by the Constitution. I wrote this piece in a fully hypothetical mindset. But I forgot about a case in the Federal Court, Girouard v Canadian Judicial Council, in which the Canadian Judicial Council [the CJC] essentially attempted to constitutionalize its status as a statutory administrative tribunal by making it beyond judicial review. The Federal Court thankfully rebuffed the argument.

First, the brief facts. The CJC is a statutory body that has authority to review the conduct of federally appointed superior court judges. The CJC is made up of 39 members—chief justices, associate chief justices, and other senior judges—and is chaired by Chief Justice Wagner.

When a complaint is made against a member of the judiciary, the CJC has authority to investigate. It could do so through an Inquiry Committee [IC]. According to the Judges Act, which governs the CJC, the CJC may appoint an IC consisting of its membership or members of the bar of a province having at least ten years standing (s. 63(3)). After the inquiry has been completed, the CJC will report the conclusions and make recommendations to the responsible Minister (s.65).

Two inquiries were completed in the case of Justice Girouard, a judge of the Quebec Superior Court. In 2012, Justice Girouard was caught on a video that allegedly showed him involved in a drug deal. The CJC was asked to review Justice Girouard’s conduct. The first inquiry rejected the allegations against Justice Girouard, but raised concerns about the credibility and reliability of the facts reported by Justice Girouard. The CJC accepted the conclusion of the IC. In 2016, the Minister and Minister of Justice of Quebec filed a joint CJC complaint regarding Justice Girouard’s lack of credibility during the first IC. A second IC was convened, which found that Justice Girouard was not forthcoming during the first inquiry process. The CJC accepted that conclusion in its recommendation report to the Minister. In the main judicial review, Justice Girouard challenged the IC report to the CJC and the CJC report to the Minister, among other decisions.

The case here was a motion to strike brought by the CJC, which essentially argued that the CJC was a superior court, and not a federal board, commission or tribunal subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. To the CJC, the Judges Act expressly notes that the CJC is “deemed” to be a superior court. Apart from the Judges Act, the CJC also argued that judicial independence as a constitutional principle compels the conclusion that the Federal Court has no authority to review the CJC, composed as it is of s.96 judges. The Federal Court rejected these arguments, concluding that the CJC is a statutory federal body subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. Relatedly, the Federal Court concluded that the CJC does not possess the traditional indicators of a superior court, despite the fact that its membership is drawn from the ranks of s.96 judges.

The legal arguments presented by the CJC, to my mind, are problematic on three fronts: the implication of the CJC’s argument runs into problems at the level of fundamental principle; second, on specific legal points; and third, on the context in which this decision was made.

The first issue: if we accept the CJC’s argument, we can conclude that at least some of the administrative state is constitutionalized, simply because a s.96 judge (acting non-judicially) is on the committee. This is because the CJC argues that it is superior court, unreviewable without a right of appeal, despite being a body created by Parliament. Specifically, the CJC argues that the Federal Court cannot review the CJC because it does not fall into the definition of a federal board, commission, or tribunal in the Federal Courts Act. According to the CJC, this seems to be for two reasons: (1) because, properly interpreted, the definition does not encompass s.96 courts and (2) a principle of judicial independence precludes the Federal Court from exercising review over s.96 judges.

Both arguments run into what I call the fundamental principle of all administrative law: its statutory character, open to amendment or rescission at any time by the legislature. Tomorrow, for example, Parliament could remove the Immigration and Refugee Board, because the Constitution does not require the maintenance of a body to process refugee applications. We would revert to a pre-administrative law world, in which the executive (the responsible Minister) would process humanitarian and compassionate applications, for example. Put differently, and except in defined circumstances (such as those in Vriend, where Parliament has already spoken on a matter), the Constitution does not ordinarily require a legislature to positively act, much less to establish a robust administrative state. If the CJC is not open to judicial review under the ordinary channels, its actions are insulated from review, taking on a constitutional character. In the ordinary course, we would reject this argument—both on principle and because the Supreme Court has said that Parliament cannot establish s.96 courts (Crevier).

Why does this matter? While the CJC did not expressly argue this, its argument implites that the CJC can be put beyond review. An administrative actor created by statute should never be put beyond review, new-fangled theories of “constitutional structure” and administrative law constitutionalism notwithstanding. In constitutional democracies, government power must be subject to law. This means a neutral arbiter must determine if government properly exercised power according to law–the Rule of Law, at the very least, encompasses this principle of legality. If an administrative decision-maker, no matter the rank of its members or their august titles, is put beyond review, we approach a government by executive fiat and prerogative, not a government of laws adopted lawfully.

I see this case as an extreme example of the modern trend of administrative law: towards more regulation and more administrative decision-makers that have court-imposed “unlimited” powers (see West Fraser, at para 11). Once we accept even one instance of such a decision-maker, vested by statute, we have to conclude that no court can speak ill of that “unlimited” decision-maker. Obviously this has profound effect on the Rule of Law, individual liberties, and due process. Take this case–dissenting members of the CJC were concerned that certain anglophone members of the CJC could not evaluate the entire record, which was in French. This implicates the fairness of the process for Justice Girouard. A purpose of judicial review is to ensure this basic fairness, but if we make administrative decision-makers beyond reproach, we sit them alongside the basic law of the land–the Constitution. And of course, legislative bodies acting alone cannot establish new constitutional provisions.

The only wrinkle in the Girouard case is the membership of the CJC—in part, s.96 judges. A principle of judicial independence does require some separation between the judicial branch and the other branches of government. Resting on this, the CJC argued that s.96 judges—whenever acting in any capacity—exercise powers as a member of a court of inherent jurisdiction. But the CJC is established not as a loose confederacy of s.96 judges acting in a judicial, adjudicative role, deciding individual cases and applying the law. This is the hallmark of the judicial function (see Residential Tenancies at 743). Rather, it is established as a statutory investigatory institution, vested with powers only so far as the statute allows. The CJC has no other inherent power—no constitutional power to vindicate a right with a remedy—and has no supervisory jurisdiction, other powers typical of a superior court. It is acting only as a sort of self-governing professional body for judges, according to the terms of the statute. In absence of any exercise of a judicial function, and given the statutory basis of the CJC, there’s no reason to believe that the CJC should be constitutionalized as a s.96 court simply because, in another capacity, members of the CJC exercise judicial functions–notwithstanding the specific facts of the Supreme Court’s comments in Ranville (distinguished by the Federal Court).

In fact, the implication of the converse is absurd. The CJC stands and falls as a whole–as an institution. As I note above, the CJC ICs, for which the CJC sought immunity from review, is in part made up of s.96 judges. But the ICs can also include members of the bar of 10 years standing. The CJC’s argument implies that this does not matter so long as there are s.96 judges on the IC, the IC and the CJC together exercise s.96 functions, acting as members of a court of inherent jurisdiction. This sets up an interesting set of incentives. In order to make statutory bodies immune from review, Parliament could set administrative decision-makers composed in part by s.96 judges—perhaps composed of just one s.96 judge among other lawyers. On the CJC argument, this body would be beyond review without a right of appeal. Parliament could use the Constitution to game the fundamental principle of administrative law.

The real question is whether judicial review by the Federal Court infringes the judicial independence of a s.96 judge. Judicial independence has some textual mooring (ss. 96-100 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and s.11(d) of the Charter), but it is an “unwritten constitutional principle,” which guarantees “administrative independence, financial security, and security of tenure” (Provincial Judges Reference, at para 118). The CJC says that security of tenure is at stake, as removal of a judge requires an impartial process. The Court in the Provincial Judges Reference said something similar regarding financial security, but I am not sure the same result is compelled in these circumstances. It is not as of the Federal Court is some government administrative body that could allow the executive to interfere in the workings of the CJC—thus breaking the wall that should be set up between judiciary and executive. The Federal Court is itself independent. In the ordinary course, again, constitutional principles do not compel a particular legislative process or system. It simply requires a reality; that judges and executive/legislatures be separate.

Finer legal points also work against the CJC (though I note the CJC’s very sophisticated statutory analysis-see the factum below). The CJC argued that it is not subject to review in the Federal Court because the Federal Courts Act expressly excludes s.96 judges—and the power of the CJC is rooted not in a federal law (the Judges Act) but in a constitutional principle. The CJC says that if the Judges Act were removed tomorrow, the authority of the judiciary to investigate other judiciary members would remain. Again, on this I recoil instinctively. The CJC makes decisions as an institution—this the CJC recognizes. That institution, separate from its individual members, is created by statute. The Judges Act is one statutory manifestation that implements the principle of judicial independence, but is not the only one and perhaps not even the best one.

The CJC also points to s.63 of the Judges Act, which says that the CJC is deemed to be a “superior court.” In written argument, the CJC spends a lot of time discussing this deeming provision. I’m alive to the idea in statutory interpretation that a deeming provision creates a virtually irrebuttable legal fiction, but an unconstitutional statutory provision (deeming or no) cannot stand. An attempt by Parliament, through a deeming provision, to establish a s.96 court runs into constitutional problems on federalism grounds and on the Crevier grounds noted above. Even if this was not so, the particular deeming provision in this case is similar to ones that exist in other statutes. For example, the Canadian Transportation Agency similarly has “…all the powers, rights and privileges that are vested in a superior court” (Canadian Transportation Act, s.25). Yet no one argues that this provision alone grants the Canadian Transportation Agency the power to act as a superior court beyond powers pertaining to the procedures of the Court.

Finally, the context of the decision indicates that the CJC is aware of its statutory character. As noted by Paul Warchuk, the CJC tried once—the right way—to amend the Judges Act to make itself immune from review. A few years ago, the Minister of Justice sought recommendations on how to amend the Judges Act. The CJC recommended at that time that it be put beyond the ordinary judicial review procedure, subject only to an appeal to a statutory appeal body.

The CJC failed in these efforts, which basically mirror its submissions in Girouard. But implicit in this attempt is a recognition by the CJC that it is a statutory body subject to review by the Federal Courts system like any other federal body. After all, Federal Court judges are superior court judges (see s.4 of the Federal Courts Act, which establishes the Federal Court as a “superior court of record”). I’m not sure what changed between this recognition of its status and the Girouard case.

Overall, while counsel for the CJC argued the best case it could and ably so (whatever my opinion is worth), I’m less inclined to support the argument because of its implication: a further extension of the administrative state into unknown terrain. The coup failed this time, but as I’ve written elsewhere, the administrative state is a fickle bedfellow.

NB: To be fair, I’ve attached the CJC’s submissions below. Thanks to Alyssa Tomkins, counsel for the CJC, for sending them over.

Mémoire CCM

Chicane de cours, bis

La querelle constitutionnelle entre la Cour supérieure et le gouvernement du Québec mérite le sérieux, pas la dérision

Plus d’un mois après qu’on en eut appris l’existence, la requête des  juges de la Cour supérieure visant à faire déclarer inconstitutionnelles les compétences exclusives sur les poursuites civiles de 10 000$ à 85 000$ et sur le contrôle judiciaire de certains tribunaux administratifs assignées par le législateur québécois à la Cour du Québec commence à faire parler d’elle. La fin de semaine dernière, Yves Boisvert y est allé d’une chronique vitupératrice dans La Presse et Robert Dutrisac, d’un éditorial un peu plus sobre, mais tout aussi indigné et un peu parano de surcroît, dans Le Devoir. Au-delà des erreurs juridiques qu’elles contiennent, ces élucubrations sont surtout remarquables par le peu de cas qu’elles font de la constitution et leur empressement à blâmer une seule partie dans une dispute où l’autre mérite tout autant, sinon davantage, comme je l’expliquais déjà lorsque les procédures ont été amorcées, d’être condamnée.

M. Boisvert compare la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure à celle du « gars qui a réclamé 67 millions à son nettoyeur pour avoir perdu son pantalon ». Il reconnaît pourtant ― au 17e paragraphe sur les 24 que compte son chef-d’oeuvre ― que « [t]echniquement, l’argument est sérieux ». Cependant, il n’en a cure, de ces détails techniques. Que la Cour supérieure, censément tribunal de droit commun, se trouve presque sans dossiers civils dans plusieurs régions du Québec n’est qu’un « “problème” » ― avec des guillemets. Que l’enjeu soit « discuté depuis des années par des experts et par des juges » (c’est au moins une décennie, comme je l’indiquais dans mon premier billet sur le sujet), c’est apparemment sans importance. Tout ça ne serait qu’ « [u]ne façon comme une autre de célébrer le 150e anniversaire de la Constitution », voire même de « ramener à 1867 » notre système judiciaire. Et que le gouvernement du Québec ait été au courant de tout ça, pressé par les juges d’éviter une confrontation inconvenante dans leur propre cour, et n’ait pas pris éviter l’apparence de conflit en renvoyant la cause devant la Cour d’appel est bien normal, puisqu’il ne saurait être question de « faciliter ce débat oiseux ».

M. Dutrisac, lui, écrit que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice », et que puisque « la Cour du Québec […] en mène plus large que les autres cours provinciales[,] en matière de justice, le Québec est en quelque sorte une société distincte ». Il soutient que la requête des juges serait un « coup de force » visant à « remettre le Québec à sa place en matière de justice, dans un esprit de soumission constitutionnelle ».

Autant M. Boisvert que M. Dutrisac s’insurgent face à la décision des juges de lancer ces procédures alors que le système de justice s’ajuste encore aux exigences en matière de délais édictées par la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt R c Jordan, 2016 CSC 27, [2016] 1 RCS 631. Cependant, leurs arguments à l’effet que tout le débat sur la limites de la compétence de la Cour du Québec serait « oiseux » sinon une sinistre tentative d’éradiquer la différence québécoise en matière de justice s’appliquerait tout autant en l’absence de ces ajustements. Il est vrai que, si les juges de la Cour supérieure ont gain de cause, d’importants changements devront être faits au système de justice. Or, ces changements auraient dérangé peu importe quand il aurait fallu les faire, et plus on attend, plus ils seront dérangeants le moment venu.

Car, comme M. Boisvert finit bien par l’admettre, l’argument des juges est sérieux. La constitution, n’en déplaise aux journalistes, n’est pas qu’un détail technique ou une curiosité intellectuelle. C’est encore moins un instrument de « soumission » pour le Québec. Le respect de la constitution c’est la condition même de légitimité de l’État québécois, comme de l’État canadien, bien sûr, ou de n’importe quel autre. Quand l’État déclare, par sa conduite (y compris sa législation) ou les paroles ou le silence de ses représentants, que le respect de la constitution l’indiffère, il y renonce, du moins en partie. Et il lance un avertissement à ses citoyens : hier, ce n’était que le partage des compétences en matière du système judiciaire que l’État québécois négligeait ; aujourd’hui, c’est aussi l’indépendance de la magistrature, à laquelle il a le devoir de contribuer, et qu’il aurait dû préserver en renvoyant cette question du partage des compétences à la Cour d’appel ; qu’est-ce que ce sera demain? En reconnaissant ses obligations constitutionnelles, l’État ne fait pas preuve de soumission (envers qui, au juste, M. Dutrisac?), mais bien de respect envers ceux et celles qu’il est censé servir ; ou, si tant est qu’il s’agit de soumission, c’est de cette soumission que les juristes médiévaux imposaient déjà aux rois d’Angleterre, en disant que Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege ― le Roi ne doit point être le sujet d’un autre homme, mais de Dieu et de la loi.

Je mentionnais plus haut les erreurs juridiques de MM. Boisvert et Dutrisac. Elles sont plutôt flagrantes ― et diamétralement opposées. Le premier dit que « [l]a Constitution de 1867 réserve au fédéral le pouvoir de créer les cours de droit commun »; le second, que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice ». Les deux ont tort. Le fédéral ne crée pas les tribunaux de droit commun, même s’il nomme leurs juges. Toutefois, la compétences des provinces en matière d’administration de la justice, même si elle est décrite comme exclusive à l’article 92(14) de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, est limitée par ce pouvoir de nomination du fédéral, et par les restrictions supplémentaires que la jurisprudence a dérivées de ce pouvoir. Ce schéma constitutionnel est (délibérément) complexe, mais il est troublant que l’on veuille dénigrer les efforts visant à le préserver sans même en comprendre le fonctionnement.

Pour sa part, M. Dutrisac exagère aussi le caractère unique du Québec en matière de la compétence de la cour provinciale. Comme je le mentionnais dans mon premier billet, cette compétence va jusqu’au seuil de 50 000$ en Alberta. C’est certes moins qu’au Québec, mais l’ordre de grandeur est le même, et démontre bien que le Québec est, ici encore, moins « distinct » du reste du pays que les nationalistes ne le prétendent, et que la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure n’est pas une attaque contre la spécificité québécoise, mais soulève au contraire des questions d’un vif intérêt pour le pays tout entier.

Et c’est pourquoi je reviens à ma suggestion, formulée le mois dernier, que le gouvernement fédéral devrait intervenir dans le débat en formulant un renvoi à la Cour suprême pour le trancher. L’enjeu est d’importance nationale, sa résolution ne nécessite pas l’établissement d’une trame factuelle, et le fédéral aussi a une responsabilité de préserver les apparences d’impartialité de la magistrature. Puisque le gouvernement du Québec ne veut pas faire sa part, et que même les journalistes québécois semblent disposés à louer son attitude et à ne condamner que les juges, le fédéral, qui peut agir, doit le faire.

Clash of Courts

Senior Superior Court judges are suing Québec over its provincial court’s jurisdiction; other provinces will be affected if they succeed

I don’t think the story has received much attention outside of Québec yet, but it’s not because it doesn’t deserve to be noticed: as La Presse reports, the Chief Justice, Senior Associate Chief Justice, and Associate Chief Justice of Québec’s Superior Court are suing the provincial government, arguing that much of the civil jurisdiction of the Court of Québec is unconstitutional. More specifically, they are seeking declarations that Québec could not, consistently with section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, grant its provincial court exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount at issue is more than $10 000 or any powers of judicial review over provincial administrative tribunals, because these powers are reserved for federally-appointed judges.

Currently, the upper limit of the Court of Québec’s jurisdiction in civil matters is set at $85 000. Should the Superior Court judges prevail, their court’s workload is bound to increase very substantially, though I haven’t yet seen any clear data on this point. But repercussions  will be felt well beyond Québec’s borders. British Columbia has set the upper limit on its provincial court’s jurisdiction in civil disputes at $35 000; Alberta, at $50 000. The principles on which the applicants rely apply across Canada, of course, and the boundaries between the jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts would need to be re-drawn in several provinces, if not quite to the same extent as in Québec.

Though I am sure that much more will be said about this dispute as it develops, my initial impression is that the Superior Court judges have a strong case. Although it says nothing of the sort, section 96 has long been understood to stand for the proposition that the courts to which it refers, including Québec’s Superior Court, have a protected “core” of jurisdiction. This core jurisdiction ― that which they exclusively had at the time of Confederation ― cannot be taken away from them or transferred to other courts (which is to say the Federal Court or provincial courts created pursuant to section 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, such as the Court of Québec). As the Superior Court judges’ application shows, in Québec, the exclusive jurisdiction of (what at Confederation became) section 96 courts started at $100, which, adjusted for inflation, is said to be less than $10 000. (The application does not go into any detail as to exactly how this inflation adjustment proceeds ― the exercise is bound to be an inexact one over 150 years ― but let’s assume that the figures given are at least roughly correct.) As Québec expanded the jurisdiction of its provincial court over the last 50 years (for the most part, when it was governed by the Parti québécois), it took more and more out of the former exclusive jurisdiction of the Superior Court, impinging ever more on what the Supreme Court, in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, described as its “historic task … to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law”. [32]

Indeed, the Superior Court judges’ argument is not new. Frédéric Bachand, then a professor at McGill and now himself a Superior Court judge, mentioned it in my civil procedure classes ― 10 years ago. And, while I’m not sure about this, I doubt that the point was a novel one even then. Prof. Bachand, as he then was, also pointed out that no litigant had a good reason to raise the issue, and he was right about that too ― but the wonders of public interest standing, which the Superior Court judges very plausibly claim, mean that the matter will have to be addressed regardless.

Just how it will be addressed is still a troubling question. The prospect of Québec’s Superior Court adjudicating, even in the first instance, a claim about its own jurisdiction brought by its three most senior judges is unsettling. The judges’ Application details their fruitless attempts to get the provincial government interested in the matter. For a while now, they have pushed for the issue to be referred to the Court of Appeal. A reference would indeed have been the preferable procedural vehicle, both to avoid casting the Superior Court in the unseemly position of being judge in its own cause, and also because the questions to be addressed are not of such a nature as to require a trial to be held, while appeals all the way to the Supreme Court are certain in any event. I’m not sure exactly why the Québec government has so far refused to take this course. Perhaps it was daring the judges to sue in their own court, and hoping that they would not compromise themselves in this way. But now that, rightly or wrongly, its dare has been taken, there is nothing to be gained from continued obstinacy.

Indeed, I wonder if the federal government would not do well to intervene and refer the issues directly to the Supreme Court, should Québec’s obstinacy continue. While federal references on the constitutionality of provincial legislation are uncommon, Québec itself has no compunctions about referring questions regarding the constitutionality of federal policies to the courts. And of course the issue of the respective jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts directly concerns the federal government, which would have to pick up a substantial tab for the salaries of additional section 96 appointees if Québec’s Superior Court judges are successful. Even more importantly though, because these judges are appointed and paid by the federal government, I think it has a direct interest in helping them maintain their continued impartiality and good standing, and arguably a duty to do so (a political duty, of course, not a legal one).

Whatever exactly happens, one has to hope that it happens quickly. An important question has been raised, with strong arguments to support the proposition that the way the court  systems of several provinces are organized is unconstitutional. This question deserves to be answered, but having it litigated by senior judges in their own court is surely not the right way to go about it. Yet if the judges are looking bad, the provincial government that seemingly dared  them to do it is even worse. It is not taking its constitutional responsibility for the administration of justice ― on which it purports to rely to justify its allegedly unconstitutional legislation ― seriously at all. It is high time for it to come to its senses ― and perhaps for the federal government to intervene if it refuses to do so.