When Judicial Disagreement Doesn’t Matter

What does it mean for an appellate court’s decision to be unanimous?

By Peter McCormick

To begin with the obvious: common law appellate court decisions include two major elements.  The first is the outcome – crudely, who won? – that takes the dichotomous form of“appeal allowed” or “appeal denied”.  The second is the reasons for judgment, that take the form of a legal essay, sometimes of extended length, explaining why that outcome is the appropriate one and how it is grounded in existing law.  Put more formally: an appeal court decision responds to two imperatives, the first being to provide a definitive resolution to a specific legal dispute, and the second being to provide the reasons for that outcome in such a way as to provide useful guidance to lower courts and future litigants.

From this it follows that there are two different types of judicial disagreement. A member of the panel may disagree with the outcome, saying that their colleagues got the winner wrong – we call this type of disagreement a“dissent”.  Or they can agree with the outcome but disagree, or at least not completely agree, with the reasons given to explain and justify that outcome – in Canadian usage we call this a “separate concurrence”.

Dissents have drawn a voluminous literature, both empirical and normative, to such an extent that even a preliminary list would take several pages. When the focus of discussion shifts from the consideration of a specific example to a more general level, the usual complaint is that dissent rates are too high – judges (or perhaps just some judges) are too ready to pursue their own vision of the law rather than contributing to and reinforcing a more solid institutional position.  Separate concurrences, on the other hand, are very much the forgotten poor cousin of judicial disagreement; to the best of my knowledge, there have only ever been two articles in Canadian law journals exploring the practice of separate concurrence and evaluating its contribution to the law.[1]

With respect to dissent, Jeremy Gans, in a recent piece in Inside Story and referring specifically to the High Court of Australia, has taken the highly intriguing position of flipping the “too many dissents”argument.   Quite the contrary, he complains that it is possible – and, for the current High Court, an actual achievement – to have dissent rates that are low to the point of dysfunction, so much so that it reflects badly on the Court’s performance. His “Great Assenters” title is deliberately and pointedly ironic; at a certain point, he does not think that “assent” is great at all.

This looks like a fascinating conversation that I would love to join – perhaps by suggesting a “proper” (or at least“normal”) level of judicial dissent that as a yardstick against which “too high” and “too low” can be more precisely measured, such that the reasons (commendable or otherwise) for departures from that norm can be identified.  But my enthusiasm was derailed by the second paragraph, which casually told me “All four decisions made in the High Court of Australia last month were approved by every judge who sat (even if they sometimes disagreed on the reasons).”  Our own Supreme Court has exactly the same attitude toward “disagreement on the reasons”, keeping its statistics on how many of its judgments were “unanimous as to outcome” but not seeing any necessity of taking the further step of telling us how many of those were also “univocal” (which is to say: unanimous as to reasons as well).

The clear implication of both Gans’s comment and the Supreme Court statistical reporting is that only disagreement as to the outcome really matters; differences as to the reasons are not really worth noticing – not even if they involve fundamental differences expressed at considerable length, not even if they are joined by several other judges, not even if the consequence is that there is no statement of “outcome plus reasons”statement that is supported by a majority.  To be sure, disagreeing about the outcome is much more dramatic, with greater potential for news headlines and editorial commentary aiming scathing criticism at either the majority or the minority.  It conjures visions – sometimes rebuttable but often compelling – of innocent people sent to prison or guilty people freed, of honest people victimized without remedy, of perfectly valid laws rendered null and void or bad laws upheld.  Separate concurrences are less dramatic and often harder to explain, a judicial equivalent of “insiders’ baseball.”

With all due respect to both Prof. Gans andthe Supreme Court of Canada, I think their focus on “unanimous as to outcome”is a profound mistake.  Putting the pointas starkly as possible: the outcome really matters only to the immediate parties, but the reasons matter to everybody. This is because it is the reasons, not the outcome, that constitute the precedent that constrains the immediate court and instructs the lower courts.   Since there are only two possible outcomes (allow or dismiss), how can they carry any precedential message at all?  The real point about dissent is not that the judges disagreed on the outcome but that they disagreed about the content and meaning and application of the relevant law; generally speaking, to disagree with the outcome is ipso facto to disagree with the reasoning that led to the outcome, so it is easy to conflate the two.[2] But “disagreeing on the content, meaning and application of the law” is precisely what separate concurrences are aboutas well, in ways that may be less dramatic but are often as profound and as potentially impactful as many dissents.  As Scalia once said, a judgment that gets the reasons wrong gets everything wrong that it is the function of an appeal court decision to provide;[3]it follows that minority reasons identifying that species of error are just as functional, and just as important, as minority reasons that challenge the outcome as well.

To step back for a moment: there are essentially three different kinds of separate concurrence. The first is what we might call the “just one more thing” concurrence,which expresses agreement with the majority but wants to add one additional related thought about the law that the writer could not persuade their colleagues in the majority to sign on to. The second is what we might call the “one less thing” concurrence, which expresses general agreement with the majority but specifically excludes one or more elements of the majority reasons; depending how significant those elements are, and how many other judges sign on to it, this can sometimes have real implications.  But the third kind, and as it turns out (at least in Canadian practice) the most common of the three, is the “by another route” concurrence, which opens with some variant of the apparently innocuous statement “I reach the same conclusion, but for different reasons.”  This is not innocuous at all;it is as serious as judicial disagreement gets, so much so that McLachlin J. (as she then was) once described herself as “respectfully dissenting” from the majority even though she was at the time agreeing that the immediate appeal should be dismissed (in R v Potvin [1993] 2 SCR 880).  Although she seems to have repented from this terminology, I remain convinced that she was on to something.

The distinctions I am making are highlighted by two important developments on the Supreme Court of Canada.  The first is a consistent practice dating back several decades that distinguishes between unanimous (or majority, or plurality) judgments and minority(dissenting or separately concurring) reasons;this replaced the earlier practice whereby any set of reasons delivered by a judge was referred to as a “judgment”.  The term “dissenting judgment” has become an oxymoron when applied to the current Court, although it was used by the Court itself before the late 1960s and still is appropriate for jurisdictions (such as the Ontario Court of Appeal) where the parallel labeling practice has not been adopted.  The second is a decision-delivery process that highlights the judgment (or at least the initial attempt at a judgment) by systematically framing other sets of reasons as responses (“I have read the reasons”).[4]  The joint impact of these two developments is to flag the significance of non-dissent disagreement in a very transparent way,although it is only making more visible implications that apply even in the absence of such explicit signals.

When and why and how does this matter?  To simplify the context, let us take the most dramatic position and assume a nine-judge panel that has divided 5-4 on the outcome and then 4-1 on the reasons.  We have an outcome, but what do we do about the reasons for judgment?   Is there a plurality judgment, and if so which set of reasons earns the label?  Or is there no “judgment” at all?

That depends on the nature of the disagreement between the various fragments of the majority.  If the solo judge is writing reasons of the“one more thing” variety, then we have a separate concurrence that has explicitly lined itself up with and behind the four-judge reasons in such a way as to make those reasons the judgment.  If those reasons are of the “one less thing” variety, then it may well have displaced the other reasons to become the judgment itself (because the “rule” as to which fragment of a divided majority is the judgment is not “largest fragment” but“narrowest legal grounds” – for an example, see Chaoulli v Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 SCR 791).  But if the disagreement is of the “by another route” variety, then there may well be no “judgment” at all, which is to say that there is no majority position on the law that explains the outcome in way that clearly establishes precedent.  For the Supreme Court of Canada, this only happens about once a year, but the point is that it does happen – the most recent examples are Haaretz.com v Goldhar, 2018 SCC 28 and Centrale des Syndicats du Québec v Quebec (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 18. Or consider the even more recent case of Mikisew Cree First Nation v Canada, 2018 SCC 40, which was unanimous as to outcome but with four different sets of reasons, all of comparable length but none attracting more than three signatures on a nine-judge panel; the decision is either unanimous, or 7-2, or 5-4, depending which of the major issues attracts your attention.  Gans’s “great assenters” label hardly seems appropriate.

But my concerns apply more broadly than these dramatic and unusual developments.  More generally we might say that behind every dissent, especially one that draws multiple signatures, lurks a disagreement deep enough that it might one day grow into a dramatic explicit abandonment of the majority’s jurisprudential position – like the reversal of the 1987 Labor Trilogy (Reference re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alberta), [1987] 1 SCR 313PSAC v Canada [1987] 1 SCR 424RWDSU v Saskatchewan [1987] 1 SCR 460) twenty years later in B.C. Health Services (Health Services and Support-Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391) on the status of collective bargaining under the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of association, or Carter’s 2015 repudiation (Carter v Canada (Attorney General) 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331) of the 1993 Rodriguez decision (Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney General) [1993] 3 SCR 519) on the constitutional status of the ban on assisted suicide.  By a similar logic, behind every separate concurrence (but especially those of the “different route” variety, and especially those joined by several other judges) lies the potential for a less visibly dramatic but comparably significant evolution, perhaps to the extent of having the separate concurrence gradually displace the one-time majority incitation frequency (which again is something which has happened more than once).

Differences over reasons matter because reasons are what judicial decisions are all about; the evolution of the reasons explaining outcomes is what brings about much of the incremental change in the law.  This makes it a serious mistake to assume that some judicial disagreement is necessarily less important simply because it does not involve disagreeing on the outcome as well as on the reasons that justify that outcome.   When is it that judicial disagreement doesn’t matter?  Only when we are so shortsighted as to ignore it.


[1] I admit that I wrote both of them: see Peter McCormick, “The Choral Court: Separate Concurrences on the McLachlin Court 2000-2004Ottawa Law Review, Vol. 37 (2005-6); and Peter McCormick, “Standing Apart: Separate Concurrence and the Supreme Court of Canada 1984-2006McGill Law Journal Vol. 53 (2008).

[2] That said, I think it is not impossible for judges to disagree on the outcome without disagreeing on the central legal issues and their precedential implications; my leading candidates would be R v Therens, [1985] 1 SCR 613 and Andrews v Law Society of British Columbia [1989] 1 SCR 143, the point being that for both of them the major precedential finding on the constitutional issue is made and explained in the dissenting reasons.

[3] Antonin Scalia, “The Dissenting Opinion” 1994 Journal of Supreme Court History p.33

[4] Peter McCormick, “Structures of Judgment: How the Modern SupremeCourt of Canada Organizes Its Reasons” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 32 (2009)

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.

Delusions of Grandeur

Justice Abella sets out a vision of the Supreme Court as arbiter of national values

I didn’t realize that writing op-eds for the media was part of the judicial job description, but apparently it is. There was of course Brett Kavanaugh’s instantly-notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And, ten days ago, Justice Abella followed in now-Justice Kavanaugh’s footsteps, with an op-ed of her own, in the Globe and Mail. The op-ed is an adaptation from a speech given on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Israel; but Justice Abella, presumably, thinks that it deserves a Canadian audience as well as an Israeli one.

Why that ought to be the case, I am not quite sure. Part of the op-ed is meaningless twaddle: we have, Justice Abella tells us, of instance, a “national justice context” that is “democratically vibrant and principled”. Part is rank hypocrisy: the Supreme Court’s “only mandate is to protect the rule of law”, says the person who has devoted many a talk to criticizing the very idea of the Rule of Law and arguing that it had to be replaced by something called the rule of justice. Part is rotten grammar: “human rights is [sic] essential to the health of the whole political spectrum” (emphasis removed). But all of it is a self-assured presentation of a role for the judiciary that has nothing to do with the Rule of Law, and this bears commenting on.

Justice Abella begins by proclaiming that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out “a uniquely Canadian justice vision, a vision that took the status quo as the beginning of the conversation, not the answer”. One might be tempted to think that this is a reference to section 33 of the Charter (which, for all its flaws, is indeed “uniquely Canadian”), or at least to some version of the “dialogue theory”, according to which courts and legislatures both participate in the elaboration of constitutional rights. But this would be a mistake. Justice Abella likes her judges “bold”, and her legislatures obedient. The “conversation” to which she refers only involves the members of the Supreme Court.

And while she begins by seemingly conceding that “[t]he Charter both represented and created shared and unifying national values”, Justice Abella then argues that it is the Supreme Court that has developed “a robust new justice consensus for Canada”. It is the Supreme Court that serves as “the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”. (Wait… didn’t the Charter already represent and create shared values? How come these values are, after all, contested?) Fortunately, says Justice Abella, the Canadian public and its elected representatives have fallen into line and followed the Supreme Court’s moral leadership: “[c]riticisms and questions were of course raised, but usually with civility.” If Canada is committed to “pluralism and diversity”, rather than “obliteration of the identities that define us”, that’s because “[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court”, and its teachings were accepted by both “the public” and “the legislatures”.

Hence the empowerment of the Supreme Court, coupled with its independence, is all to the good. “[D]emocracy, Justice Abella insists, “is strengthened in direct proportion to the strength of rights protection and an independent judiciary”. Indeed, the very “humanity” of a country would be imperiled by attacks on judicial power. Hence Justice Abella’s plea in defence of the Supreme Court of Israel, delivered, she says, in her capacity not only “as a judge”, but also “as a citizen of the world”. (I assume Justice Abella has not been shy about criticizing the feebleness of the judiciary in countries like Russia and China, too, though I don’t think she has published op-eds about them. Perhaps she has even criticized the backward ways of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which haven’t seen it fit to remit the adjudication of contested values in their societies to the courts, though I can recall no op-eds on that subject either.)

I have no firm views about whether Canadian judges should go around the world lecturing other countries about how to organize their constitutional arrangements, whether in their capacities as citizens of the world or as public officials. (How many ordinary citizens of the world are, after all, invited to give pompous speeches, and allowed 1200 words of op-ed space in a national newspaper to bring them to hoi polloi?) I do, however, have some thoughts on the substance of Justice Abella’s views regarding the role of the Supreme Court in Canada’s constitutional structure. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already presented his, but my take is somewhat different, so I hope the readers will forgive a measure of repetition.

Mark stresses the fact that, if the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter of national values, it is not at all clear why it should be staffed by judges—that is to say, by former lawyers, who are not trained for or especially good at this task. Why not economists and philosophers instead? Mark writes that

if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole…—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

And if the courts are not, after all, to be replaced by philosophical-economic colloquia, that’s probably because what we really want is for judges to stick to law.

I largely agree with this, but there is an additional move in Justice Abella’s argument that Mark does not address: the claim that adjudication by the independent Supreme Court is somehow democratic and that, indeed, democracy is strengthened the more powerful the court is. I think it is a crucial argument. After all, legislatures, which Mark doesn’t want to “sell down the river”, are also staffed by people who tend to have no particular expertise in either economics or philosophy, and who are subject to all manner of perverse incentives to boot. Why should they be making value judgments for society? The generally accepted (which isn’t necessarily to say correct) answer is, because they are democratic institutions. That’s why Justice Abella wants to claim the democratic mantle for the institution that she extols (as do others who make similar arguments).

How successful is the claim? In my view, not very successful at all. It starts from the premise that there is more to democracy than elections. Let us grant that. Still, there are important question that need answering. What is this “more” that a polity ought to have, beyond periodic elections, to be counted as democratic? Jeremy Waldron would mention things like separation of powers, meaningful bicameralism, and “legislative due process”, rather than judicial review of legislation. Justice Abella doesn’t even consider these possibilities, and thus does not explain why they are not sufficient. She thus does little to justify judicial review of legislation at all, let alone the robust, value-defining version that she favours. Others would add federalism and federalism-based judicial review, but not necessarily the rights-enforcing variety.  And even granting the insufficiency of structural devices to foster and protect genuine democracy, one can doubt whether it is this form of judicial review that we should favour. Aren’t more limited versions, along the lines of John Hart Ely’s “representation reinforcement” or the Carolene Products footnote 4‘s special protection for “discrete and insular minorities”) sufficient? Justice Abella has no answer to this objection either.

Instead, Justice Abella is content to assert that more judicial power is better, including for democracy. Surely, this isn’t necessarily so. Justice Abella herself, and most Canadian lawyers, would likely be horrified at the idea of judicial review enforcing property rights and freedom of contract against democratic majorities. They would insist, as Justice Holmes did in his dissent in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … It is made for people of fundamentally differing views”. (75-76) (The only exception to this, of course, concerns labour unions; fundamentally different views regarding their role in the economy have been read out of the Canadian constitution by the Supreme Court, led by Justice Abella.) On reflection, everyone—including Justice Abella—would agree that the protection of rights by an independent judiciary is not, in fact, always good. At the very least, it matters which rights are protected—and if it is the judiciary that effectively decides this, then it matters how it uses its power to do so.

This brings me to Justice Abella’s most remarkable claim—that it is indeed the Supreme Court that defines not just our constitutional rights, but Canadian values more generally. Mark characterizes this is “judicial supremacy”, but I prefer using this term to mean unyielding judicial control over constitutional meaning (the way Professor Waldron does here, for example). Justice Abella’s ambition is not so limited; she is not content to decide what our supreme law means; she wants to be the ultimate authority on what Canadians believe in. This is shocking stuff. In a free society, there can be no such authority, whether in the Supreme Court or elsewhere. In a free society, one cannot point to the constitution and say, Thatcher-style, “this is what we believe”. Citizens in a free society disagree, including about fundamental values. A constitution is only a judgment, albeit one reached by a super-majority—not, mind you, an actual consensus—about which of these values will be translated into legal constraints that will be imposed on the government until the constitution is amended. The courts’ job is to interpret these legal constraints, as they interpret other law; it is not to dictate “which contested values in a society should triumph”.

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority. It is unfortunate that a person so utterly misguided holds an office with as much power and prestige as that of a Supreme Court judge. Still, as important as this office is, it is less significant than Justice Abella imagines. We remain free to reject the values the Supreme Court would have us subscribe to. When these values amount to uncritical polite deference to philosopher-kings in ermine-collared robes, we have very good reason to do so.

The Joke’s On Us

Canadians ought to care about who gets on the Supreme Court

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Beaverton ― Canada’s version of the Borowitz report ― ran a piece called Canadians thankful they can’t name single Canadian Supreme Court Justice. Remarkably enough, a number of lawyers in my social media feeds shared it ― with apparent approval. And of course a more reputable outlet published a rather similar story in all seriousness just a few months ago. I suppose one ought to be grateful that Canada has so far avoided the sordid spectacle of American “confirmation battles” generally, and that over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh in particular. The ability of the Canadian governments to simply get their preferred candidates on the bench is, on the whole, a good thing. But it doesn’t follow that it is of no consequences who the judges of the Supreme Court are.

The Beaverton, parroting the national myth (aren’t they, like, suppose to make fun of things?), claims that “many Canadians were happy their court was quietly and deliberately applying the constitution”. This is, to use a technical term, bollocks. Just this year, the Supreme Court read the guarantee of free trade out of the constitution in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15; proclaimed, in defiance of fundamental principle, that administrative agencies can enjoy “plenary”, “unrestricted powers” in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22 (at [10] and [11]); and gutted religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32. This is not a court “quietly applying the constitution”; this is a court re-writing the constitution as its suits its fancy. Nor is this some sort of new development. Back in 2015, Grégoire Webber wrote that

Over the past year, the people of Canada have undertaken an important remaking of our constitution. We have given constitutional status to the Supreme Court, created a constitutional right to strike, and created a constitutional right to assisted death, among other changes. …

How have we done so? … We have … appealed to that straightforward constitutional amendment process called the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, both in West Fraser and Trinity Western, and in some of the cases to which Professor Webber refers ― notably Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245, which “gave benediction” to the right to strike ― the Supreme Court was not unanimous in its rewriting or shredding of the constitution. There were fierce, and compelling, dissents. While no Supreme Court judge has taken a very consistent position in opposition to the Court’s majority view of its powers of constitutional amendment ― the Court was unanimous in Comeau, for instance ― some have been more forceful than others in resisting the trend. Justice Côté, in particular, has been a strong voice in favour of upholding the Rule of Law by opposing the empowerment of lawless administrative decision-makers.

And so it matters that there is only one Justice Côté on the Supreme Court; and that even with Justices Rowe and, especially, Brown, who sometimes join her in whole or in part, she is far from commanding a majority of the Court. It matters whether or not you agree with me that Justice Côté tends to be right (she isn’t always) and that most of her colleagues tend to be wrong. If you think that the majority of the Court is generally correct, and that Justice Côté and others who resist its assertions of judicial and administrative power are wrong, it also matters that there not be more Justices Côté, or even Justices Brown or Rowe. Indeed, the enthusiasts of judicial power in Canada understand this very well, which is why some were sufficiently upset when Justice Brown was appointed to the Supreme Court to demand that the Court prevent politicians from choosing judges in the future.

Smug self-satisfaction is, of course, Canada’ national disease, and self-congratulation at not being Americans is a widespread complication. Canadian lawyers are as susceptible to these things as their other compatriots. But we should know better. We should realize that Canadian judges are no more oracles than their American colleagues ― indeed, unlike some American judges, they don’t even pretend otherwise; witness Justice Abella’s repeated rejections of the Rule of Law as even an ideal to aspire to. We should understand that the Supreme Court’s relative anonymity, which it is only too happy to foster with “by the court opinions”, is part of what allows it to exercise powers with which, as even the Beaverton inadvertently suggests, many Canadians would not, in fact, be especially comfortable. If we cannot figure this out, the joke really is on us.

Trinity Western, Dissected

The video of a discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision, held at the Centre for Constitutional Studies

Last week, I had the privilege of taking part in a discussion of the Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Western decisions organized by the Centre for Constitutional Studies. My presentation dealt with the Court’s majority’s embrace of the use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, anti-discrimination legislation, and purported “Charter values” to impose on a private institution obligations to which no law subjects it. I argued that, although the majority judgment in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, refers to “shared values”, in a pluralistic society it is only laws that we share ― until we amend them through the appropriate process ― even as we strongly disagree about values.

For their part, my co-panellists, Howard Kislowicz and Jennifer Rason, spoke respectively about the conformity, or lack thereof, of Trinity Western to Supreme Court precedent in the realm of freedom of religion, and about the decision-making processes followed by the law societies, and their implication for judicial review of their decisions. While they were not as harshly critical of the Supreme Court as I was, I think it is fair to say that, in their own ways, they too were underwhelmed by the decisions.

Here is a recording of the event. My remarks start at about 9:40, but I strongly recommend those of Professors Kislowicz and Raso, as well as the Q&A.

Thanks to the Centre’s Patricia Paradis and her staff for putting this event together! I very much enjoyed it, and hope to be back sometime.

Quis Custodiet?

If judges are the guardians of our constitutional values, they need to be guarded too, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s example shows

There has been no shortage of panegyrics on the occasion of Beverley McLachlin’s retirement. Richard Albert‘s is particularly interesting to me, though, because it is largely based on the former Chief Justice’s extra-judicial output, mostly speeches, and I once toyed with the idea of writing a piece based on such materials myself. (Disclosure: Professor Albert and I are working on an edited collection project together.) Indeed, I have critiqued individual speeches that Chief Justice McLachlin has given on a couple of occasions (here and here).

These explanations of how the former Chief Justice saw her role are significant ― if not always informative, as I will also suggest below ― yet bound to attract less interest, and less critical attention, than her judgments. Professor Albert’s paper is thus a useful contribution to our understanding of the former Chief Justice ― even if we dissent from its tone and disagree with its assessment of its subject, as I do. This is all the more so since the papers on which Professor Albert draws are not as easily accessible as one might wish. The Supreme Court’s website offers only a selection of the former Chief Justice’s speeches (which includes neither of those I have commented on, for instance), and virtually nothing from any for her colleagues, or even her successor.

According to Professor Albert, the former Chief Justice has been a towering figure in early 21st-century Canada. Prime Ministers and Governors General came and went, but the Chief Justice remained, rising almost to the stature “of Conscience-in-Chief
that Americans have sometimes seen fulfilled by their presidents”. (7) You might think it’s a bit too much for a person who writes thrillers, not treatises, in her spare time, but Professor Albert is unrelenting in his praise:

Chief Justice McLachlin … has made Canada a better, fairer and more equal place, and our Constitution the envy of the world. She leaves an equally important legacy as an expositor and guardian of our constitutional values. (1)

As mentioned above, Professor Albert draws on the for Chief Justice’s extra-judicial pronouncements to make his case. In my view, however, the light he shines on her exposes a rather unflattering image.

The earliest speech Professor Albert describes concerned “The Role of Judges in Modern Society“. It is part of that role, the former Chief Justice said, to “be sensitive to a broad range of social concerns” and to “be in touch with the society in which [judges] work, understanding its values and its tensions” ― while at the same time “attain[ing] a level of detachment” from their personal views “which enables [them] to make decisions which are in the broader interests of society”. In another speech discussed by Professor Albert, this one on “Defining Moments: The Canadian Constitution“, Chief Justice McLachlin added that “as a nation’s values and expectations change over time, so its constitution is applied in a way that reflects those changes”.

The idea that judges must maintain a connection of some kind to “their” society is, of course, reminiscent of the discussion of the role of “social values” in l’Affaire Nadon, a.k.a.  Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 ― delivered just five weeks after the “Defining Moments” speech. In his article “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”, Peter McCormick suggested that Chief Justice McLachlin likely wrote the majority opinion in that reference, and thanks to Professor Albert’s investigation of her extra-judicial pronouncements we arguably have additional evidence in support of this suggestion. What we lack, either in l’Affaire Nadon or in the “Defining Moments” speech, is an explanation of the mechanisms by which judges are to maintain sensitivity to social concerns or understand social values, let alone make decisions in the broader interests of society.

This is impotant. Never mind the normative question of whether deciding in the broader interests of society is in fact the judges’ job. (It’s not.) Ought implies can, and the suggestion that the judges can do these things is implausible and betrays an arrogance that is quite incompatible with maintaining “an attitude of ‘active humility'” for which Chief Justice McLachlin also called in the same speech. The matter of the “social values” that Québec judges on the Supreme Court of Canada purportedly channel is illustrative. The joint dissent by Justices Lebel, Wagner, and Gascon in the gun registry litigation, Quebec (Attorney General) v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, referred to an alleged consensus in Québec in favour of the (now-defunct) long-gun registry ― yet as I noted here, polls showed that this consensus only existed among the media and political elite, but not among the general population.

Judicial inability to channel social values not only calls into question particular opinions, such as the majority in l’Affaire Nadon or the gun registry dissent, but undermines the foundations of the Supreme Court’s professed (though not always followed) approach to interpreting the constitution. Professor Albert, referring to the former Chief Justice’s insistence that the Canadian constitution is “applied in a way that reflects … changes” in social values, writes that

[t]his raises a telling contrast with the United States, whose revolutionary traditions have invited dramatic reorientations in law and society. Our evolutionary model would certainly not embrace Thomas Jefferson’s famous suggestion that each American generation should discard the existing constitution, break legal continuity with the prior regime, and author its own new constitution according to the values of the time. (12)

This may be true at a wholesale level ― though of course the Americans have been no more keen on Jefferson’s suggestion for constitutional replacement than Canadians, which suggests that we are not all that different from one another. But of course the idea that the constitution can be applied ― by judges ― to reflect social change even in the absence of actual amendment amounts to a discarding of constitutional provisions in detail. Legal continuity is not shattered all at once, but weakened hairline fracture by hairline fracture, one constitutional benediction at a time.

Professor Albert asks “by what means are judges to determine how and when the country’s values have changed or are in a period of evolution from old to new?” Yet having dismissed constitutional amendment as a guide due to its difficulty, he simply accepts that “[j]udges … must themselves drive the evolution of the Constitution”. (13) Professor Albert suggests that the former Chief Justice thought so too; for her “judges must be guided by society but not directed by it”. (13) Indeed, it is the judges who must help direct society towards greater justice ― and specifically towards the “just society” promised by Pierre Trudeau. Professor Albert notes that Chief Justice McLachlin referred to this slogan in a speech she gave in 2007. She returned to the subject in 2016 (both speeches, coincidentally or not, were given to the same audience, the Empire Club of Canada; I suppose they are big fans of Pierre Trudeau there). Commenting on the latter speech, I wrote that it is “quite inappropriate for a judge to take up what was, for better or for worse, a partisan slogan and try to make it into a constitutional ideal”. I worried that this gave “grist for the mill of those who already think that the Charter, and the courts that enforce it, are essentially Liberal self-entrenchment devices.” My views on this haven’t changed, and my worries are only strengthened now that I realize that theme was not a one-off.

Another theme that Professor Albert highlights is the former Chief Justice’s professed commitment to “diversity” ” in speech, thought, origin and orientation, to name a few” (18-19). In another speech Professor Albert quotes, Chief Justice McLachlin insisted that her Court “focused not on ‘seek[ing] to erase difference, nor [sought] to impose conformity’ but to make it possible for ‘each group … to maintain its distinctions'”. (21) I’m afraid that Chief Justice McLachlin’s belief in diversity of thought and in allowing groups to maintain their distinctions will be news, and not very credible news at that, to Trinity Western University, whose law school the former Chief Justice voted to allow law societies to can, lest accrediting it be seen as a stamp of approval for Trinity Western’s (discriminatory) beliefs. But then, extra-judicially saying one thing and judicially doing another one was something of a theme for the person who joined an opinion disparaging “the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution” only months before jetting off to New Zealand to deliver a noted lecture encouraging judges to invalidate legislation for inconsistency with such principles, declared for the occasion to be tantamount to natural law. And in yet another lecture to which Professor Albert refers, Chief Justice McLachlin stressed that “the law … requires lawyers to take unpopular stands, judges to make unpopular decisions”. (20) Yet for all that she was willing to take on the Prime Minister when occasion called for it, how willing was the former Chief Justice to take a stand that would have been truly unpopular among the bien-pensant intelligentsia? Her change of heart on hate speech criminalisation ― which she opposed early in her career, but eventually accepted ―, and of course her opinion in Trinity Western, are not exactly evidence in her favour here.

Professor Albert has, it will be obvious, a very high opinion of Chief Justice McLachlin. He writes that “the key ingredient … to the success of Canada’s modern Constitution—and the reason why it is so admired abroad—has been how the Supreme Court has interpreted, elaborated and defended it”. (23) To my mind, though, his paper illustrates and explains not so much the successes as the failures of the Supreme Court and of its departing Chief: their rashness in choosing to deal in values rather than in law alone; their arrogance in disregarding legal constraints; their lack of principle and courage. If this is what other countries admire, let them. Canada deserves better.

If, like Professor Albert, I believed that judges can serve as the guardians of our constitutional values, I would not hold up Chief Justice McLachlin as the epitome of that role. But, for my part, I think we ought to heed Learned Hand’s famous warning:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.

The successes, and even the failures, of individual judges in the defence of our constitutional values are, ultimately, less significant than our own. It is our job to uphold these values, including against our public officials ― even the Chief Justice of Canada.

SCC Skepticism

In a recent piece in Maclean’s, Adam Goldenberg explains why the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) does not suffer from the same partisan interest the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) does. He lists three main reasons: (1) the nature of partisanship in the US; (2) the American conservative movement’s incubator for legal talent; and (3) American political parties galvanizing support on the strength of controversial court rulings. I accept all of these reasons and invite those interested to read Goldenberg’s piece.

But one more should be added, without which the story is incomplete: American citizens know where law is made.  They realize (even without knowing the legalities) that winning a constitutional debate in court wins the democratic debate for all time.  The matter is put beyond the reach of the regular democratic process. Canadians should be more critical of this reality in our own country.

Two forces have led us to this point. The first is both Canada and the US courts do not shy away from deciding controversial issues. In Canada, Bedford and Carter dealt with prostitution and assisted dying, respectively. In the United States, Obergefell dealt with same sex marriage. The fact that courts often delve into these issues (or, as defenders of the courts would say, are forced into these issues by the nature of an entrenched bill of rights) makes them a lightning rod for political attention.

At the same time, opinion polls in the United States show that Americans have record low confidence in their political institutions, and Canadians are no different. Confidence in government is at all-time lows. We see this in the context of Aboriginal law, where Aboriginal groups have moved to the courts as the primary vehicle by which they can vindicate their rights. One can surmise that they have done so because of the historical ineptitude of the Government of Canada.

These forces together understandably cause citizens to make a choice. Recalcitrant politicians and a lack of confidence in institutions? The slog of convincing one’s fellow citizens? Or, a sweeping court declaration which forces legislatures to respond?

In the US, citizens largely made the latter choice to resolve their plights. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in Planned Parenthood v Casey that the SCOTUS, rather than legislatures, were increasingly subject to intense political pressure by both sides of hot-button issues—in that case, abortion. The letters, comments, and protestors directed to the SCOTUS, not the legislatures, was an odd sight to Justice Scalia, who viewed the development skeptically. To Justice Scalia’s mind, because the American people “are not fools,” they recognized that the SCOTUS had become the leading institution where these value-laden issues were decided.

While Goldenberg notes that much of this political attention focuses on what the original meaning of the US Bill of Rights means in modern America, I think this overstates the case. The political attention is just that, naked politics, not shrouded in any legality. Many people want the court to achieve their explicitly political ends.  As for originalism, originalists have not held a majority of the US Supreme Court, at least in the last twenty years. Justice Scalia himself was known as a fiery dissenter. For example, under the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), the SCOTUS developed a profoundly non-originalist test—the so-called “evolving standards of decency” approach. While Justice Kagan’s point that we are all originalists now may be true, it is not true that originalism has been a wholly successful legal project in the United States.

No matter what one thinks of originalism, it provides a limiting principle on otherwise free doctrinal reign. But because it has not been embraced consistently in the US, and no other real principle has come forward, the political parties have latched on to the SCOTUS nomination process as a means to vindicate their particular versions of the good. Since the Bork confirmation hearings, both parties in the US have used the process because they know its consequences. They know that getting the “right” people on the Court will do far more to change laws than simply electing people to the legislature. We see this sort of discussion now with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the ludicrous proposal of “court-packing” to block a Republican nomination.

The Americans have gone too far, and Goldenberg rightly decries this development. But one has to ask whether it is all that bad given the stakes. People understandably want a say in the laws that govern them. If the SCOTUS takes a bigger piece of the pie of the law-making process, then citizens should have the right and the responsibility to campaign on “the court” as an issue.

In reality, Canada’s SCC is just as central in the Canadian polity as the SCOTUS is in the American. Despite the Court’s recent ruling in Comeau, the test to revisit previous precedents is fairly relaxed, and so litigants understandably invite the SCC to do so. This approach invites members of the Court to decide when, according to them, a particular precedent no longer jibes with modern times.  Whatever the strength of the Court’s stated commitment to living constitutionalism, it generally supports its “ideological sex appeal,”   viewing its role as deciding what is best for Canadian society. As Leonid pointed out in a previous post, the SCC has an ideology, but it is probably not evident to most.

A good example is the SCC’s opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. There, the SCC majority spoke of giving “benediction” to the right to strike. The full quote by the SCC majority is instructive: “[T]he right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right. It seems to me to be the time to give this conclusion constitutional benediction” [3]. In this example, it was the SCC that decided that now, rather than some past time, was the right time to expand a constitutional right, forever removing it from the realm of democratic debate. This is a political conclusion at heart, more an assessment of what modern times demand rather than what the law does.

And so, it is understandable that political groups should want to have a role in moving the Dworkinian Hercules. But as Goldenberg points out, Canadians have not latched on to these developments as a political matter. In fact, many of the criticisms I’ve advanced to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour case are common in the US, but less common in Canada. Canadians seem to be  sluggish in response to these tendencies in our own SCC. I can’t speak to why this is; but perhaps it is true to say, as the National Post did, that Canadians are simply “different” than Americans—more trusting of government institutions.

In light of the stakes, Canadians could learn from Americans in taking an active, critical interest in what the SCC does. While I do not advocate a full-blown American approach to judicial nominations, there are various ways Canadians should respond to this phenomenon. Justice Scalia’s prescription was a rigorous application of original meaning originalism, which he thought was the antidote to the excesses of living constitutionalism. I am partial to this approach, but I need not argue this point to make the following assertion: Canadians should first fully reckon with what the SCC is actually doing, whether one thinks its good or bad. If the SCC makes law, as so many legal realists believe, we should hold them to the same standards we hold legislatures. We should, in short,  become Supreme Court skeptics, rather than fawning admirers of our nation’s highest jurists.

This is a distinctly second-order response to the issue, but the most realistic one in the intellectual and legal climate in which we find ourselves.  Canadian academics certainly engage vigorously with SCC decisions, but the extent to which this filters into the larger society (or the extent to which it is representative of all potential critiques) is an open question. We should be concerned with fostering a healthy skepticism of the SCC, similar to the skepticism we hold for legislatures.

This means fostering an open climate of academic, cultural, and political discussion about the SCC, and viewing judges as humans, rather than celebrities—no more capable of coming to conclusions about the nature of human rights than any Joe or Jane Six-Pack. This is a more radical proposition than one might think; consider Leonid’s comments in his recent post about New Zealand’s anti-court criticism bill.

This could also involve a more open nomination process. I saw nothing particularly wrong with the selection process of Justice Marshall Rothstein. His “confirmation” hearings, while in reality non-binding, at least gave those interested a look into the mind of a man who would serve on the SCC. We can have these hearings without devolving into an American three-act-play, or a challenge to the independence of the institution. The fact that Justice Rothstein’s hearing was a model of decorum is an example of this working well.

Goldenberg’s piece underlines the problems with the American approach, but I think it paints far too rosy a picture of our courts.  The Americans understand the consequences of their system and are taking part in it. Canadians, as Goldenberg seems to admit, do not. This is not a fact of which we should be proud.