The Five-Judge Myth

How many Supreme Court judges does it take to decide a civil law appeal?

By Peter McCormick

A defining aspect of the Canadian legal system is its bijuralism: Quebec’s civil law system is distinctly different from the English-derived common law of the other provinces. The federal-provincial division of powers which assigns to the provincial legislatures jurisdiction over “property and civil rights within the province” is its formal entrenchment. There are also structural accommodations, one of the most important of which is the composition of the Supreme Court.  Alone among the provinces, Quebec is guaranteed a minimum share of the Court’s membership. One third of the judges (two of six in 1867, three of nine since 1949) must be appointed from the bar or the judiciary of Quebec, which is to say that they must be experienced in the civil law.

On the face of it, this is not enough; it does not preclude the possibility of a common law majority that persistently out-votes its civil law minority and steadily erodes this bijuralism. Its impact has therefore been reinforced by a long-established practice. Peter Hogg describes it as follows: “since 1949 … it has been possible to assemble a quorum of five judges with a majority of civilians” with the result that “(t)his is now the usual composition of the bench when the Court hears a civil law appeal from Quebec.” (Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (various editions), Chapter 8.5(a).) Assuming a unified trio of civilian judges – a single defection can be decisive – it is both an acknowledgement and an effective protection of Quebec’s civil law uniqueness.  The recent controversy over the Nadon appointment served once again to highlight the importance of demonstrable and recent civil law experience for those Quebec judges.  As a student, years ago, I was impressed by the elegance of this “five-judge” solution; as a professor, I tried to ensure that my students appreciated it as well.

However, there is another story that we have been telling about the Supreme Court, and that is the story of a steady move toward larger panels.  The Supreme Court Act permits panels of various sizes, but five judge panels continued to dominate even after the enlargement of the Court to nine members in 1949.  In this context, a slight tweak of the rules for striking the panels for civilian appeals was procedurally simple, almost invisible, and reliably consequential.  Ever since the great watershed of the Laskin Court, however, panels have been getting steadily larger.  On the Lamer Court, the default was already seven judges, with the more important issues (such as the growing number of constitutional cases) assigned to larger panels and only the more routine cases (such as appeals by right) going to smaller ones.  Under McLachlin, this trend has continued, such that nine-judge panels are now the most common and five-judge panels have become unusual, used for only one reserved judgement in every thirty.


It is not easy to reconcile this long-term trend toward large panels with a five-judge rule for civil appeals.  This post reports on my own investigation of these two on-the-face-of-it contradictory generalizations, focusing initially on the McLachlin Court.  On my findings, it is the “larger panels” generalization that very much prevails.  The “five-judge” practice of Quebec exceptionalism has all but disappeared.

The first question is how to objectively identify the set of civil law appeals, and the Supreme Court itself has provided the most obvious solution: the judge-written headnotes that lead off every decision.  If those included specific mention of either or both of the Civil Code of Quebec and the Code of Civil Procedure, then I treated it as a civilian appeal.  (A further forty cases listed these statutes among their citations without any headnote notation, but I did not treat citation alone as justifying their inclusion.)  Limiting the inquiry to reserved judgments only, this gave me fifty-five civil law cases, for an average of about three per year.

How many of these were decided by five judge panels?  Only five – one in every eleven, which is to say one every three or four years.  Thirty-two went to seven judge panels, and nineteen to full-court nine judge panels. The average panel size was 7.5, only slightly below the McLachlin Court average of 7.9 for all reserved judgments.  The fact that it is lower at all may suggest a residual tug of the older “five-judge” rule, but if so it is a small tug indeed.

Even more surprising, only a single one of those five judge panels included all three Quebec judges, guaranteeing that a united set of Quebec civilians would prevail over their common law colleagues.  More remarkably yet, this was balanced by a single example at the opposite extreme — a panel with no Quebec judges at all.  A panel small enough that the Quebec judges can make up a majority is of course also small enough that the Quebec judges can be left out altogether.  The five-judge rule would have led us to expect that these five panels would have included a total of fifteen Quebec judges and ten of their common law colleagues; in practice, they included only eight, well below the common law total of seventeen.  Further to punctuate the point, four of the five examples were from the first four years of the McLachlin Court, and the single more recent example was the “no Quebec judges” panel.


Comparing eighteen years of McLachlin with eighteen months of Wagner calls for caution, but there has been no sign of a reversal of the above patterns.  To date, the Wagner Court has dealt with seven civilian appeals, some of which were consequential; five were decided by panels of nine and two by panels of seven.  There was no sign of the five-judge practice, no indication that these appeals are treated differently in this respect from the broad run of reserved decisions.  The five-judge rule is dead; it seems to have breathed its last in 2004.

But all is not lost.  Quebec judges may have been under-represented on the vanishing smaller panels and risk being outvoted on the larger ones, but they do deliver most of the judgments – fifty-one of the McLachlin Court’s fifty-five and five of the Wagner Court’s seven for an overall total of fifty-six out of sixty-two, about ninety per cent. There has long been a significant “homer” tendency on the Supreme Court in assigning the judgment – an appeal coming from your own province roughly doubles your chances – but the tendency is even stronger for Quebec civil appeals.  Compared with the five-judge rule, this may well be a less robust and less compelling institutional recognition of Quebec exceptionalism, but it is where the empirical evidence takes us.  We should remember, however, that when the Supreme Court was first established it was the spectre of common law judges deciding civil code issues that worried Quebec. “It only happens one time in every ten” may not be a completely reassuring response now that civilian judges are now outnumbered on every panel.

Two-Headed Judges

By Peter McCormick

If several judges on the Supreme Court of Canada suddenly sprouted two heads in their annual official photo, we would certainly take notice and would be looking for an explanation. But something similar has actually taken place in Supreme Court decisions without attracting either focused attention or a search for the reason why. More specifically – a significant number of Supreme Court decisions now routinely attribute judgments or minority reasons not to a single judge but to a pair (more rarely a trio) of judges. I leave aside for the moment the perhaps-not-unrelated phenomenon of the hydra-headed “By the Court” judgments,[1] which have been around for longer but are rather less frequent; my focus here is on the more numerous examples of this narrower form of co-authorship.

The practice is frequent enough and important enough to deserve attention.  Co-authored judgments are a recent development – the earliest significant example was R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075.[2] It rose beyond the sporadic only in the closing years of the Lamer Court, becoming more frequent and more routine (multiple examples every year) for the McLachlin Court.  To the Lamer Court’s 26 examples we can now add the 127 of the McLachlin Court and the 6 of the Wagner Court to date. Co-authorship involves minority reasons as well, with 46 examples for the Lamer Court, 72 for the McLachlin Court, and 11 for the Wagner Court. The total count is therefore 159 judgments and 129 sets of minority reasons in 30 years, for a Court that delivers about 60 reserved decisions a year. The practice only started in the late 1990s, but co-authorship has now become an ongoing feature of how the Supreme Court handles its business.

It might be suggested that perhaps the Court does this only for its more routine and less important decisions (although the count above already excludes the “from the bench” decisions that continue to make up about one-sixth of the caseload even after 1999 amendments limited appeals by right).  As I have elsewhere demonstrated at some length,[3] this “minor cases” reservation cannot be sustained.  Co-authorships are used proportionately most often for constitutional cases (Charter, federalism and aboriginal cases alike) and public law cases, most often for cases that have drawn larger numbers of interveners, and most often for cases with higher subsequent citation frequencies.  None of this says “routine” or “unimportant”.

Let me expand on this criterion of citation frequency.  Several different factors bear on how often a case is cited by the Court in later decisions, but citation counts remain a useful indicator of the ongoing impact of a decision.  More to the point, they provide a measure of how a specific judge’s influence endures beyond their own service on the Court, also showing the specific areas of law within which that persisting influence is the most important.  These are useful indicators indeed for assessing a judicial career.  It is therefore striking that the four most frequently cited decisions of the McLachlin Court (measured in “times cited per year since delivery” to level the playing field for the more recent decisions) are co-authored decisions; the four cases are Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, Housen v Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33, Bell ExpressVu v Rex, 2002 SCC 42, and R v Grant 2009 SCC 32.  Three further cases (R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, Canadian Western Bank v Alberta, 2007 SCC 22, and Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12) join them in the McLachlin Court “top ten.”

The blog of the Osgoode Hall law school TheCourt recently reinforced this point from another angle.  In a “where are they now?” post about the ten most recently retired Supreme Court justices, they reminded us of each judge’s most frequently cited decision.  For full half of them, including McLachlin herself, that involved a co-authored judgment.  The practice of co-authorship is not at the margins; it is right at the center.

These two-headed decisions clearly matter; how are we to account for their emergence? There are several possible reasons, none of which provides a completely satisfactory answer.

One explanation might be an unusually close partnership between judges who agree extensively on a range of issues, such that close collaboration flows naturally from this recurring congruence of views. This description clearly captures Cory and Iacobucci, who effectively invented the practice in the late 1990s. During their shared service on the Court, they posted the highest level of two-judge agreement of any pairing of judges; it is reasonable to see co-authorship as growing from this fertile soil of extensive agreement. But this explanation does not work for the complex network that has emerged more recently – on the McLachlin Court, every single justice was involved in some degree of co-authorship, most with several different partners.

A slightly more systemic answer might couch it in terms of alliances on a court that tends to fragment along predictable lines, with co-authorship reinforcing the solidarity of both “in-group” and “out-group” in the face of its chronic adversaries. But this explanation does not work either, simply because the network has been so extensive – there were no fewer than 45 different combinations of two or three judges who produced co-authored judgments on the McLachlin Court (slightly more if we extend the count to minority reasons). This is “bloc-eroding” behavior rather than “bloc-reinforcing” behavior.

A third explanation might be that it salvages a strong majority decision from multiple possible defections to an emerging separate concurrence.  In a private conversation some years ago, a former justice of the Supreme Court explained his own participation in at least some co-authorships in precisely these terms. This would make co-authorship part of the reason for McLachlin’s success in sharply reducing the frequency of separate concurrence compared with the preceding Lamer Court. This is perhaps mildly problematic given that such compromise can involve less a genuine meeting of minds than a degree of calculated ambiguity on central points of disagreement and a careful avoidance of problematic subsidiary issues; at least co-authorship does the service of highlighting this possibility.

A fourth explanation might be that it has a socializing function, with co-authorship linking established members of the Court with more recently appointed colleagues. Even for experienced judges elevated from provincial courts of appeal, the transition to the Supreme Court can be daunting.  However, such a disparity of experience between a pair of co-authors is much too infrequent to make this a pervasive explanation, although it may sometimes be a factor.

A fifth explanation might be that it sometimes represents an ambitious attempt to solve very large and deep-rooted problems in the Court’s jurisprudence.  The obvious example is Dunsmuir, with its ambitious recasting of the standards of review for administrative tribunals.  Double Aspect, in cooperation with the Administrative Law Matters blog, published an extended multi-part discussion of the case on its tenth anniversary last year.  Not only the most frequently cited decision of the McLachlin Court, it is also the most widely criticized; this and other blogs continually share expectations (which are just as continually frustrated) that some current case before the Court will provide the opportunity to revisit and adjust the Dunsmuir precedent, but this makes the point about how ambitious the undertaking was.

The search for a “why” is complicated by the fact that we do not even know the “when” of the formation of the writing partnership. Does it occur spontaneously during the post-hearing judicial conference, with the initial assignment of the writing of majority reasons? Nothing in the descriptions of this process either specifically mentions or specifically excludes the possibility of a joint assignment, and in a recent interview McLachlin suggested that at least some co-authorships emerge this way. Or does it occur after such an assignment, during the “circulate and revise” process and possibly under some prodding from the Chief Justice, like the salvage efforts described above? Clearly, this sometimes happens as well, but nothing in the physical appearance of the decision in the Supreme Court Reports gives any real hint as to which happens how often.

The benefit of the co-authorship practice is clear: it results in a more genuinely and visibly collegial court that presents an institutional face rather than an individualist one, that emphasizes pervasive agreement rather than division, that shows us a Court of persuasion and cooperation rather than polarization. As practised by the McLachlin Court, it eliminated the predictable blocks of the Lamer Court. Recall the “gang of five” who dominated the Court’s most important decisions for much of the 1990s, with the other judges (most notably L’Heureux-Dube and McLachlin) obliged to do much of their own writing in minority reasons.  No such persisting fragmentation has been seen for the past twenty years. There was more to the McLachlin Court’s unity and collegiality than co-authorship, but co-authorship was definitely part of it.

However, such benefits are always purchased at a price. For one thing, it is harder for lower courts or academics to unravel the nuances. We can sometimes clear up some ambiguities in the wording of a judgment by comparing the immediate decision with earlier reasons written by the same judge, or we can track the evolution of a judge’s thinking (with hints of where it might go next) by seeing how it is cited and applied in the same judge’s later reasons. This becomes more difficult if we cannot be sure which of a pair of judges might have written the particular passage or might be making the later citation. By the same token, the device depersonalizes the decision and diffuses the assignment of criticism or blame.

For another, it undercuts the venerable common law tradition of accountability, of the clear responsibility of the specific individual judge to which those reasons are attributed.  This is already attenuated by the “circulate and revise” procedures of the Supreme Court, such that a collegial dimension already pervades the final version – but even if we are looking at “lead authorship” rather than genuine “solo authorship”, the accountability dimension is real, and traditionally it has been important.[4]  It is clearly eroded by a pervasive co-authorship practice focused on the Court’s more important (in terms of subject matter), more controversial (in terms of interveners), and more influential (in terms of citation counts) decisions. 

Where is co-authorship taking us, and should we welcome the journey? The next time a two-headed judge raises its head in the Supreme Court Reports, these are the questions to ponder. We can debate whether it is taking us to a better place, but it is certainly taking us to a different place, all the more intriguing because no comparable court seems to be embarking on anything similar.


[1] Shameless plug: to know more about “By the Court’ judgments, keep an eye out for a fall 2019 UBC new release entitled By the Court: Anonymous Judgments at the Supreme Court of Canada.

[2] Or, one might suggest, Irwin Toy in 1989, although I have been assured that this was actually a “By the Court” judgment that “went sideways” at the last moment rather than an intentional three-judge-shared set of reasons.

[3] Peter McCormick, “Duets, Not Solos: The McLachlin Court’s Co-Authorship Legacy” Dalhousie Law Journal, Vol. 41 (2018), 479.

[4] Mitchel Lasser makes this point very forcefully in his excellent Judicial Deliberations: A Comparative Analysis of Transparency and Legitimacy (OUP, 2004)

I Said Don’t Do It

The federal government is wrong to involve Québec in the process of appointing the next Supreme Court judge

In 2014, after the Supreme Court invalidated the appointment of Justice Nadon to one of its seats reserved for Québec judges or lawyers, the federal government got the Québec government to propose a shortlist of candidates for the vacant-again position. This process resulted in the appointment of Justice Gascon to the Supreme Court. The federal government meant the outsourcing of the shortlist to be a one-off; the Québec government was hoping that it would create a precedent. Québec’s wishes were ignored when the next appointment to one its seats (that of Justice Côté) was made.

But now Justice Gascon is now retiring ― sadly, much before his time ― and a version of the process that produced his appointment is being brought back. As the Canadian Press reports,

[t]he federal and Quebec governments have reached what the province is calling a historic deal that ensures it will play an active role in the process of selecting the next Supreme Court of Canada justice from Quebec.

An advisory committee similar to those used for previous appointments made by the current federal government submit will then

submit a shortlist of candidates to the federal and provincial justice ministers. … [T]he premier of Quebec will also provide an opinion and forward a recommendation to the prime minister, who will make the final decision weighing the recommendation of the federal justice minister and Quebec’s input.

The provincial government’s role is, if I understand correctly, not as important as in the 2014 process, since it doesn’t extend to unilaterally determining the Prime Minister’s range of choices. But it is still significant. The province seems delighted. The Canadian Press writes that the provincial justice minister “called the deal precedent-setting” ― yes, again ― “saying it would allow the province to take a ‘direct and significant part’ in the judicial appointment”.

The rest of us should not be happy. In fact, we should be rather angry. I criticized the 2014 process at some length here, and I believe that that criticism is still applicable, albeit in a slightly watered-down form, to the new process. It is common enough for members of the Canadian chattering classes to claim that the federal government’s power of appointing Supreme Court judges without taking provincial preferences into account is a defect in our federal system. But this view is mistaken. Here’s part what I said in 2014 (with references updates):

[H]ow much of a flaw is it really that the federal government appoints judges unilaterally? In practice, the Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster decisions ― the one concerning the eligibility of Justice Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 and that in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704 ―, as well as Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837, which declared a proposed federal securities regulator unconstitutional belie any claim that the Supreme Court is biased in favour of the federal government.

And even at the level of theory, there is a good argument to be made for unilateral federal appointments. Canadian history has borne out James Madison’s famous argument in Federalist No. 10 that small polities are more vulnerable to “faction” and the tyranny of the majority than larger ones. Our federal governments have tended to be more moderate than provincial ones, and less susceptible to takeovers by ideological entrepreneurs from outside the Canadian mainstream, whether the Social Credit of Alberta or the separatists of Québec. Foreseeing this, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 gave the power of appointing judges of provincial superior courts to the federal rather than the provincial governments. It stands to reason that the judges of the Supreme Court, whose decisions have effect not only in one province, but throughout Canada, should a fortiori be appointed by the government more likely to be moderate and representative of the diversity of the views of the country ― that is to say, by the federal government.

Québec’s case is illustrative. The federal government presumably is comfortable with, or at least not very worried about, outsourcing the selection of potential Supreme Court judges to a relatively friendly, federalist government. Would it have felt the same way if the Parti Québécois ― not only separatist, but also committed to the infamous “Charter of Québec Values” (which the federal government had vowed to fight in court!) had won the recent provincial election? 

The latest developments sure give us some food for thought on this last question. The Parti Québécois, it is true, not only remains out of government, but is currently the fourth-largest party in Québec’s legislature. Yet its idea of purging the province’s public service of overtly religious persons ― especially if they are overtly religious in a non-Catholic way ― is alive, kicking, and in the process of being enacted into law, as Bill 21, by the Coalition Avenir Québec’s government. This is the same government, of course, that its federal counterpart wants to involve in the appointment of the judges who may yet be called upon to pronounce on Bill 21’s consistency with the constitution.

Back in the sunny days of 2015, when illusions about the current federal government being formed by the “Charter party” were still possible, the Prime Minister wrote the following to his Attorney-General:

[Y]our overarching goal will be to ensure our legislation meets the highest standards of equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law. I expect you to ensure that our initiatives respect the Constitution of Canada, court decisions, and are in keeping with our proudest legal traditions. You are expected to ensure that the rights of Canadians are protected, that our work demonstrates the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that our government seeks to fulfill our policy goals with the least interference with the rights and privacy of Canadians as possible.

The “Mandate Letter” in which these wonderful commitments are set out is still on the Prime Minister’s website, although its original addressee was eventualy fired for acting like an actual Law Officer of the Crown and not a political weather-wane. But the same Prime Minister’s government is now going out of its way to hand over part of its constitutional responsibility for appointing the judges of Canada’s highest court to a provincial government bent not only on trampling on fundamental freedoms, but also on insulating its actions from review for compliance with the Charter. I should have thought that this is an odd way of respecting the Constitution of Canada, of ensuring that the rights of Canadians are protected, and of demonstrating the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But what do I know?

Well, I know this. Five years ago wrote that

[t]he power to appoint Supreme Court judges belongs to the federal government, and it alone, for good reason. … [T]he constitutional edifice built in 1867 (and 1875, when the Court was created, and then 1982 when it was, so it says, constitutionally entrenched) has weathered some great storms, and given us all shelter and comfort. It is in no danger of crumbling. Do not try to rebuild it.

Don’t do it. Just don’t.

The Canadian Legal Mandarinate

Why we ran the 12 Days of Christmas symposium

On behalf of Leonid and I, I’d like to thank all of our readers for their interest in our recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium, which featured contributions from scholars on their five least favourite Supreme Court cases of the last fifty years. What started as a festive and fun holiday feature has made, I think, a much broader point: rather than glowing coverage of what the Supreme Court does, there is an audience and a need for more biting, critical commentary in Canadian law.

I say this because a not-infrequent response to our symposium asked why we needed to be so pessimistic. Why not ask people for their favourite Supreme Court cases? Doesn’t the world need more positivity?

Maybe it does, but I’m not sure there is a lack of it towards the Supreme Court in Canadian law. Of course, I don’t have empirical evidence to show that Canadian scholars are too deferential towards the Supreme Court and its judges. But it is interesting why our symposium struck a chord in the first place.   Over on profsblawg, Paul Horwitz explains why this might be. Horwitz received his law degree in Canada (University of Toronto), and notes that he practiced and published there as well. It’s worth reproducing a large part of what he said about his impressions of Canadian legal academic culture. It isn’t good:

 

I left Canada, where I received some of my legal education and practiced and published a little, long enough ago now that I am hopelessly out of date, despite following cases in some areas of law. But when I was there, the norms of the profession or society, the degree of consensus among a fairly small legal elite or Canadian mandarin class, and/or some other set of factors were such that there was little serious criticism of the Supreme Court of Canada and its decisions, and the criticism that did exist was treated more or less as coming from outliers.

[…]

I find the series educational and refreshing, and very different from anything I could have imagined reading in the period in which I studied and practiced in Canada. (Indeed, I remember publishing an article some years ago in a Canadian law journal–faculty-run and peer-reviewed, as most of them are–and being asked by the faculty editor of that journal to add some kinder and more complimentary text to balance my criticisms of a recent Supreme Court of Canada judgment.) That change is for the better. Although it might not be thought of in those terms by some of the existing and remaining legal and socio-cultural mandarinate in my native country, it enhances not only the ideological and philosophical diversity of the country and its legal profession, but also its regional and cultural diversity.

[…]

If strong criticisms of judicial opinions are acceptable, and I think Canadians, however politely, would agree that they are, then surely there must be room to criticize the words of individual justices who make extrajudicial statements about their rather grandiose role as the first and last word on their country’s “national values.”

This a powerful anecdotal account of how Canadians tend to react to those in judicial authority, and in response to those who do engage in critical analysis. Speaking for myself, I am unsurprised by Horwitz’s comments after writing this post on the reaction to Justice Abella’s comments about the role of the Supreme Court as the definitive font of authority on “Canadian values.” Many argued that Leonid and I went too far by drawing particular attention to Justice Abella’s specific comments. Others suggested that we should always tread carefully when criticizing judges, that we should always presume good-faith, and that we should speak about decisions and institutions rather than personalities.

As I’ve said before, if judges are going to assume the mantle of constitutional guardians, we all have the right (and the duty) to monitor their decisions. Given the heightened role that court has arrogated to itself, I see no quarrel with concerning ourselves with what the judges think and say, as well. But this isn’t strictly the point. Instead, it is enough to say that we already do a lot of celebrating of judges and judicial decisions in Canada. There was, of course, the rather drawn-out farewell tour for Chief Justice McLachlin, with growing tributes and nary a peep about her judicial missteps. Academic articles were written celebrating her as the “expositor of our constitutional values.” Justice Abella has also received her fair share of celebration, among academics and the bar alike. I think there is probably an interesting correlation between this judicial idolatry and the rather depressing statistics on ideological uniformity in law schools, but I need not explore that connection here.

I view the 12 Days Symposium as a product of supply and demand principles. If we take Horwitz seriously, and my own experience is consistent with his, then we have an abundant supply of “positive,” more deferential legal commentary in Canada. What is missing, and what our 12 Days contributors arguably provided, was a breaking point from the consensus. And judging from our readership and the spirit of the contributions, I think there is a real demand for this sort of work in Canadian legal academic circles.  Of course, I think this is broadly consistent with the entire premise of Double Aspect to begin with.

To be fair, a lot legal scholarship can’t and shouldn’t be put into the “positive” or “negative” column. Some work is empirical, and that work is in low supply in Canada, at least when it comes to public law. Robert Danay has done us a great service, in this respect, with his empirical work on Dunsmuir. But there is a decidedly normative bent to Canadian legal scholarship, and to that extent, there is such a thing as critical work.  Though I cannot purport to speak from great experience (and so I qualify my statements to a large degree), I view legal scholarship is something like calling balls and strikes. Sometimes, the Court gets it right, and we try to highlight that on Double Aspect when we can. Others do so too. But there is a distinct lack of critical commentary, and our contributors supplied the demand.

This answers the question of why we chose not to run a symposium focusing on the Supreme Court’s best cases—this is already out there if you look hard enough. And it’s also the reason why, speaking for myself, there is no need for an endless veneer of deference towards the judiciary. I can’t speak from experience to definitively conclude that there is a Canadian legal mandarinate. But I can say that there appears to be reticence about criticizing decisions and judges.

Double Aspect’s Twelve Days of Christmas

Announcing a riotous blogging symposium for the festive season

As the holidays are upon us, co-blogger Mark Mancini and I would like to invite you to join our very special celebration. In our capacity as the self-proclaimed lords of misrule of the Canadian legal blogosphere, we will be reviving the old tradition of festive subversion by marking the twelve days of Christmas with a blogging symposium highlighting Canadian legal scholars’ least favourite Supreme Court decisions.

Borrowing a model recently suggested by Damon Root for Reason, we have asked Canadian legal thinkers for lists of five particularly bad public law decisions from the period 1967-2017 (we decided to exclude this year’s cases to avoid too much bias in (dis)favour of the ones fresh on everyone’s mind), accompanied by brief reminders of what they were about and explanations about why they deserved to make the list. We will be taking a “large and liberal” approach to what counts as public law, and have invited contributors to use their own criteria for what makes decisions bad and worse. The only limit, other than the time range, that we have asked them to respect is that the decisions they list should not have been overturned.

Speaking of contributors, we are very grateful to all those who have agreed to take part. This was a bit of a last-minute idea, and it was very kind of people to take time, on short notice, out their busy pre-holiday schedules to join the fun here. In no particular order, the guests who will partying with us are:

  • Geoff Sigalet
  • Bruce Pardy
  • Gerard Kennedy
  • Kerri Froc
  • Asher Honickman
  • Joanna Baron
  • Maxime St-Hilaire
  • Michael Plaxton
  • Dwight Newman

For most (all, in fact, except for Professor St-Hilaire) this will be a first appearance on Double Aspect, and we are delighted to welcome them here in such festive circumstances. And of course Mark and I will be taking part in the celebrations too.

Now, perhaps you’ve noticed that this only adds up to 11 participants. One person, sadly, had to pull out at the last moment. We thus have a spot to fill. If you feel up to the task of penning a contribution quickly, please get in touch! If not Mark and I will round-up the proceedings with some concluding observations on Day 12.

The Supreme Court’s Unreasonable Reasons Doctrine in Admin Law

Why Newfoundland Nurses should be overturned and a recent FCA case adopted as a new starting point.

In Sharif v Canada (Attorney General), 2018 FCA 205, the Federal Court of Appeal (per Stratas JA) was faced with the herculean task of trying to do the impossible: review nothing. Indeed, that is what is asked by the Supreme Court when it says that courts should supplement the reasons of decision-makers. Sharif is the latest in a growing list of cases that demonstrate the fallacy of the Court’s approach. There are two reasons why Sharif’s reasoning demonstrates the flaws with the Court’s doctrine of supplementing reasons: supplementing reasons skewers itself on the Supreme Court’s own concept of deference; and a doctrine of supplementation creates perverse incentives for decision-makers.

First, to Sharif. The Chair of the Warkworth Institution Disciplinary Court convicted Mr. Sharif of “fight[ing] with, assault[ing] or threaten[ing] to assault” another person under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act [CCRA]. In making the decision, the Chair only made a few factual findings: (1) he attempted to keep his meal tray out of a correctional officer’s reach; (2) this conduct invited physical contact either by Mr. Sharif or by the officer [17].

Fatally, Stratas JA noted that the Chair did not analyze the provision of the CCRA under which he convicted Sharif—and that led him to obviously (but implicitly) conclude that Sharif’s action of keeping his meal tray away from the officer was “figh[ting] with, assault[ing] or threaten[ing] to assault.” But to Stratas JA, this “[fell] short of affirmative action or aggression with physical consequence” [23], the condition required under the CCRA. The Chair’s reasons did not contain a finding of aggressive conduct [25].

At this point, the Supreme Court of Canada’s conclusion in Newfoundland Nurses enters the fray. The Court there confirmed Dunsmuir’s selective citation of an academic article, reasoning that judicial review courts may provide reasons that were not but “could be” offered by the decision-maker. Courts should “supplement [reasons] before [they] seek to subvert them” [12] by looking to the record; additionally, inadequacy of reasons is not a standalone basis for review [14]. To the Court (through Justice Abella), this doctrine was consistent with Dunsmuir’s requirements of “justification, transparency, and intelligibility” [13].

Justice Stratas declined to supplement the Chair’s non-existent reasons, even though he looked to the record as instructed by Newfoundland Nurses. In fact, he concluded that, looking to the record, the Chair “declined to find that Mr. Sharif’s conduct was aggressive” [27]. Applying Newfoundland Nurses, and doing anything more to determine whether the ultimate outcome was reasonable, would amount to  “impersonation” of the decision-maker (Bonnybrook, at para 91 per Stratas JA in dissent—but with no quarrel from the majority). To Justice Stratas, doing so would usurp the role of the decision-maker, or otherwise speculate as to what the decision-maker thought about the relevant legal analysis. Here, the reasoning was plainly deficient. The Court could not conduct judicial review.

Having concluded this, Justice Stratas refused to take Newfoundland Nurses any further. In effect, he concluded that the lack of reasoning was a standalone basis for review. And he was right to do so. This is where Newfoundland Nurses goes wrong and Sharif should be followed. Reasons are a window into a decision. The decision-maker has been delegated power to make decisions; and the reasons offered are important for the court to determine the legality of a decision. If decision-makers are incentivized to provide inadequate reasons, but courts cannot intervene on those decisions, the administrative state is evasive of review. A court ginning up supplementary reasons only exacerbates this concern by providing cover for bad and inexpert decision-making.  Sharif raises this concern on two fronts, and I would take the reasoning in the decision further to bar all supplementation.

As Justice Stratas notes in the decision, supplementing decisions can be fundamentally corrosive of the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature. The task on judicial review is to police the boundaries of the administrative state (Wall, at para 13), with the appropriate degree of deference indicated by the legislature.   It is not giving “respectful attention” (Dunsmuir, at para 48) to the reasons the decision-maker offered if the court is, as Newfoundland Nurses instructs, permitted to recreate a decision from the record that the decision-maker did not make. The Justice Abellas of the world forget that reasonableness is a standard of review. If a decision-maker offers nothing, how can a court review—or even give deference—to something that does not exist? It is profoundly disrespectful of the (supposedly expert) delegated decision-maker to impose a court’s own reasoning, but it creates a situation where that disrespect begets insulation. By saving the administrative state from its own poor reasoning, courts will end up reviewing its own reasons, not the decision-makers. And decision-makers will use their delegated authority to make decisions that courts cannot review on the merits.

But the downstream effect of this doctrine of deference is likely also corrosive. A decision-maker under Newfoundland Nurses can provide one line of reasons knowing that courts can look to the record to supplement the decision. But this is not judicial review in any meaningful sense. The job of a judicial review court is to review a decision, not conduct documentary discovery.  A bare record is a necessary but insufficient condition for meaningful review. Reasons—addressing the main legal issues and engaging with the core interpretive difficulties—are vital. When a court supplements a decision, decision-makers can relax, knowing that the margin for error is quite wide. And in cases where the decision-maker has some control over compiling the record, the doctrine incentivizes the piling of documentary evidence into the record, without having to engage with the difficult legal questions, knowing that courts could–somewhere–find a justification.

In this sense, for a lawful administrative state, it is not enough that the outcome of a decision be supported by the record. The administrative decision-maker–the merits-decider–must herself support that outcome with reasons springing from her own pen. A court on judicial review must take those reasons for what they are, not create incentives for a free-riding administrator to depend on an expert court to cover for legal mistakes. This is all the more important where important liberties are at stake.

Sharif pushes back on these perverse incentives by demanding more. It asks decision-makers to explicitly set out the basis of the decision, and justifies the revocation of the lifeline granted to them by Newfoundland Nurses. It restores a modicum of respect for Parliament’s choices. Newfoundland Nurses should be rejected. Sharif is a good start as a replacement.

 

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)