About every 15 months, a vacancy arises in the Supreme Court of Canada. There is then a search process that lasts somewhere between a few weeks and a few months, which recommends certain candidates to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then selects the candidate and the Governor-in-Council makes the formal appointment “under the Great Seal.”
Since the appointment of Justice Marshall Rothstein in 2006, the process has had an additional step: the “Parliamentary hearing.” At this point, the Prime Minister’s selection is named, but instead of simply being appointed to the Court, s/he is as the “nominee.” This “nominee” then to appears before a Parliamentary committee and answers questions (or as Mark Mancini noted in his recent post, not answer questions) about various things, including his or her record, bilingualism, and even judicial philosophy. After these proceedings, the “nominee” is formally appointed to the Court.
The concept of the “hearing,” which neither exists in Canada’s constitution nor the Supreme Court Act was put in place 24 years after the Charter was enacted, as the result of decades of demands by media, academic and some conservative political figures. The concept was that since the Supreme Court now has a greater influence on Canadians’ lives, we should demand greater transparency and accountability from its judges. As a result, the logic went, Parliament should have a greater role in selecting Supreme Court judges, akin to the “advise and consent” function of the United States Senate. We have even adopted the language of the American process, where the President selects a “nominee,” and the Senate can choose to confirm or not confirm that nominee to the position.
Mark’s post points out a number of flaws in the hearings as they currently stand. He suggests that these hearings could be made more useful if they were opened up to a broader array of questions and answers While I agree with his diagnosis, I differ on the prescription and prognosis. In my view, this patient is terminal and should be put out of its misery. For reasons that are institutional, constitutional and functional, my own view is that these “nomination hearings” will never serve any useful purpose, and this 13 year long experiment should be considered a failure.
Institutionally, the committee conducting the hearing is a toothless tiger. It has a power to ask questions, but no power to do anything with the answers. It does not get to vote at the end of the process. So instead, the most it can do is harass or try to embarrass the candidate (as some non-government members tried to do with one candidate’s lack of fluency in French – it was a one-day story which no doubt harmed Justice Moldaver). But a Prime Minister with two vertebrae to rub together will know that almost no one is paying attention. Unless the candidate gives an answer that will make persistent negative headlines, his or her “confirmation” (by the same Prime Minister that “nominated” them in the first place) is guaranteed. So the candidates know that they have one job: don’t embarrass the Prime Minister. Not exactly a tall order for someone with the brains and experience of a typical SCC nominee. And if that’s not enough, the whole thing is “moderated” by a trusted legal luminary, who presumably understands that her role is to ensure that things don’t get too interesting. So what results is a very bland hearing where the people conducting it don’t have any decision-making power. The only way that could ever change is to give the Parliamentary committee an effective veto by allowing it to vote on the nominee. But no PM will do this because it means giving up one of his or her most important prerogatives. In fact, both Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau have occasionally skipped this “nomination” process altogether (for Justices Cote and Rowe, respectively) and simply inserted their pick on the Supreme Court (as the Supreme Court Act contemplates). So what exists is an optional hearing, before a powerless committee. As Mark says, this is not a process, it’s Kabuki theatre.
My second reason for eschewing the nomination hearing is that it is contrary to the structure of Canada’s (written and unwritten) Constitution, and, as a result, misapplies the notion of political accountability which it is intended to serve. In the United States, the strict separation of powers means that there can be sharp political divisions between the Executive and the two houses of Congress. A President neither requires the confidence of either house to form a government nor must maintain it. As a result, he (or maybe, some day, she?) has no structural accountability to the legislative branches, with one major exception: executive appointments must typically be approved by the Senate as part of its “advise and consent” function. This is in no way limited to the Supreme Court. It is true for lower Federal courts, cabinet departments, agencies, and any number of other roles selected by the Executive to perform various government functions. In other words, Senate approval was designed to be a check on executive power.
In Canada, of course, the separation of powers is blurrier and political accountability works very differently. Confidence of the legislature is a crucial prerequisite to forming a government, and a requirement for keeping that government in office. A Prime Minister that loses the confidence of the House of Commons for any reason must immediately resign. Conversely, a Prime Minister can be presumed to have the confidence of the House for all purposes, including making governor-in-council appointments. Some of these appointments have an enormous effect on the lives of Canadians; potentially much greater than any Supreme Court judge. The most notable of these are federal Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers (the political and civil service heads of federal departments, respectively), as well as the Clerk of the Privy Council (the head of the federal civil service). In all cases, the Prime Minister must answer to the legislature for his choices, not by putting these people through a nomination process, but rather by answering questions in Parliament about who he selected and why. If enough MPs believe that the Prime Minister is being reckless in his or her choices, they can vote no confidence and trigger an election. That is what political accountability looks like in a Parliamentary democracy. There is no reason in principle to have a different process for Supreme Court.
My third and related point is functional: by having a fake hearing for the purposes of fake accountability, we are missing an opportunity to have a real hearing with real accountability for the person who should actually take responsibility for the appointment. I wholly endorse the portion of the process by which the Minister of Justice and the head of the independent search process appear before the committee to answer their questions. I would add that since the Prime Minister has the final word, he or she should also appear, and be prepared to answer real questions about the process, the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate, and any other question that Parliamentarians want to ask him. This could include tough questions like “this is your third Supreme Court selection, why haven’t you selected an indigenous judge?” It could explore the PM’s philosophy of judicial selection, including what his or her priorities are (demographics, experience, credentials, political involvement, geography, etc.) and how s/he intends to implement them. This is useful information: in an election, different parties might contrast their priorities with the current government’s and voters can make a more informed decision, if this matters enough to them.
Because it’s never a good idea to publish anything without letting someone you trust read it first, I should say that I ran a draft of this piece by my colleague Jeremy Opolsky. In addition to making some excellent edits, challenging some weaker points, and greatly improving the arguments, he made one point that I found persuasive (if not quite persuasive enough to change my mind). Jeremy pointed out that getting to know a Supreme Court candidate could have real value separate and apart from asking the government questions, and even if the committee cannot change the result. He points out that the hearings provide an informational function about the judge which is, at a minimum, interesting. So if the hearings can accomplish this and do no harm, he posits, why not hold them? However, I remain unpersuaded, for one essential reason: perhaps uniquely among important decision-makers, we actually do get to know our judges, through their written reasons for judgment. In fact, they reveal a lot more about themselves in their judicial writing than we could ever learn about them in a nomination hearing, and without the political theatre that goes with it.
In sum, I suggest we let the political actors deal with the politics of judicial appointments. It is, after all their job. Little that happens at a nomination hearing actually allows us to know how judges are going to do their job, or really anything useful about them at all. So let’s skip the part where the judges get grilled and move to asking questions of the person who could actually be held accountable for their nomination. The whole institution of the Canadian “nomination hearing” was invented to assuage the demands of legal academics and the media, who no doubt were suffering a little excitement envy from the U.S. even before the events of 2018, as well as conservative political figures who have criticized the perceived liberal bent of Canada’s judiciary. When it comes to the Supreme Court, the practicing bar is primarily concerned about the Court providing coherent and well-reasoned decisions that can actually be applied to future cases so we can properly advise our clients on their rights and obligations. So to many of us, the real question for any new appointment process is whether it will improve the overall quality of the Supreme Court’s adjudication. There is reason to believe that the current Prime Minister’s independent search process will actually do that; certainly the first two “outputs” from this process look extremely promising. However, in the 13 or so years since Justice Rothstein first appeared, the existence of these nomination hearings, appear to have made no difference one way or the other.