Arguing against Originalism Badly

Noura Karazivan’s flawed argument against using originalism to understand constitutional structure

Noura Karazivan has recently published an article called “Constitutional Structure and Original Intent: A Canadian Perspective” in the University of Illinois Law Review. Prof. Karazivan raises interesting questions: what is, and what should be, the mix of originalism and living constitutionalism in the Supreme Court’s treatment of constitutional structure ― understood as the set of institutions that make up Canada’s government, and the relations among them. Unfortunately, prof. Karazivan’s argument suffers from her failure to engage seriously with contemporary originalist thought, or indeed to take note of recent work exploring it in the Canadian context, and her answer to the normative question, which decisively favours living constitutionalism, is unsatisfactory.

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Prof. Karazivan’s starting point is an orthodox proposition: “[i]n Canadian constitutional law, there is no doubt that a broad, purposive, and progressive approach”, described by the famous “living tree” metaphor, “is preferred” for the interpretation of any and all constitutional provisions, (630) though she acknowledges that the Supreme Court uses other interpretive methods too. In addition to being used in the interpretation of constitutional text, living constitutionalism has played a crucial role in a number of decisions concerning constitutional structure. For example, in l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, the Court’s “conclusion would probably have been different” had it not engaged in “actualizing” its place in the constitutional structure, and only looked “its role in 1875”. (648)

Yet in a couple of recent decisions, says Prof. Karazivan, the Court adopted a more originalist approach to constitutional structure, rather than the evolutionist one that it normally favours. Prof. Karazivan focuses on Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, but also mentions Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 31. In the former, “the Court greatly relied on the intent of the 1867 framers”, (646) who wished the Upper House to supply “sober second thought”. The Court disregarded the practice of partisan appointments to the Senate, the Senate’s contemporary role, and even “the impact of the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982”, (647) which arguably transferred the role of protector of constitutional rights from the Senate to the judiciary. Meanwhile, in Trial Lawyers, the superior courts’ historic dispute-settling role was crucial to the decision.

Prof. Karazivan argues that the Supreme Court was wrong to resort to originalism in these decisions. She gives four reasons. First, she takes Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 SCR 486 to stand for the proposition that the judiciary is not bound by the intent of constitutional framers. Second, originalism can make no democratic claim in Canada, since the Constitution Act, 1867 was the work of “a group of white men, mostly Parliamentarians, concerned with the preservation of British institutions on Canadian soil”, while “[t]he constitutional negotiations in 1982 were even less ‘democratic'”. (651; square quotes in the original) In short, “Canada does not have a great constitutional moment”. (651) Third, the Canadian constitution is simply too rigid for the courts not to update it from time to time. Finally, a “living tree” approach to interpretation yields a fuller understanding of both the constitution as a whole and its various components, as well as being “in line with Canadian constitutional structure and tradition”. (654)

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As I said at the outset, this is unconvincing. Prof. Karazivan repeats pieties about the superiority of living constitutionalism to originalism without understanding what originalism actually is. Although she refers, in passing, to the distinction between originalist interpretation that seeks the intent of constitutional framers and that which centres on the constitution’s original public meaning, her article focuses on original intent ― which relatively few contemporary originalists are still committed to. Prof. Karazivan also enlists a number of cases, such as the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference and Reference re Employment Insurance Act (Can.), ss. 22 and 23, 2005 SCC 56, [2005] 2 SCR 669, in support of the proposition that living constitutionalism is the dominant approach to interpretation in Canada, while originalism has been rejected. Yet Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown that not only do these cases not support the claim of a wholesale rejection of originalism, but they are arguably (in the case of the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference) or quite clearly (in the case of Employment Insurance Reference) consistent with public meaning originalism.

More broadly, we have also shown that the Supreme Court has never squarely rejected the more plausible forms of originalism, and indeed that various forms of originalist reasoning make frequent, if erratic, appearances in the Court’s reasoning. In particular, as both we and J. Gareth Morley and Sébastien Grammond have observed, originalist reasoning features heavily not only in the Senate Reform Reference, which prof. Karazivan decries, but also in the Nadon Reference, which she commends. Mr. Oliphant and I have also pointed out that cases on the jurisdiction of superior courts have had an originalist bent well before Trial Lawyers. In short, at the level of description, prof. Karazivan’s story, in which a largely living constitutionalist Supreme Court issued a couple of aberrant originalist decisions is much too simple.

Prof. Karazivan’s normative argument is even weaker. Her appeal to the authority of Justice Lamer’s opinion in the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference has to be set against not only the arguable  consistency of this opinion with public meaning originalism, but also its author’s resort to more explicitly originalist reasoning elsewhere. For instance, in B(R) v Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, [1995] 1 SCR 315 he wrote that

[t]he flexibility of the principles [the Charter] expresses does not give [the courts] authority to distort their true meaning and purpose, nor to manufacture a constitutional law that goes beyond the manifest intention of its framers. (337)

Prof. Karazivan’s denial that Canada had “a great constitutional moment”, and her insistence that the drafting of the Constitution Act, 1867 (by “white men”) and that of the Constitution Act, 1982 (presumably by persons unknown) would be simply bizarre were they not sadly typical of the ritual denigration of Canadian constitutional history in which even Supreme Court judges have been known to engage. The truth, though, is that Canada did have not one, but two great constitutional moments ― in the mid-1860s and the early 1980s. My friend Alastair Gillespie has been exploring the first of these in a compelling (and ongoing) series of papers for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which, as I have written in a recent post for the CBA National

make clear [that] the Fathers of Confederation wrestled with such seemingly contemporary questions as whether diversity is a source of weakness of strength for a political community, what claims such a community may legitimately make on minorities within its midst, and what rights these minorities may assert against the community. The settlement of 1867 was a remarkable achievement in this regard.

To be sure, the Fathers of Confederation were indeed white men ― as were those who took part in the framing of the US Constitution, to which prof. Karazivan does not deny the status of a “great constitutional moment”. This is one reason, among others, why I do not find the democratic case for originalism very compelling. But the sexism and racism of our 19th-century forbears is not a reason for dismissing the substance of their achievements; and least of all for allowing a group nine men and women, who are if anything even less representative of society than the Fathers of Confederation on every dimension except for gender, the power to re-write the constitution. As for the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it was preceded by wide-ranging public consultations which resulted, for example, in the adoption of section 28 at the urging of feminist groups, as Kerri Froc has shown. Why prof. Karazivan claims it was undemocratic, I cannot understand.

That the constitution is rigid and difficult to amend is a feature, not a bug that needs to be removed by the backdoor expedient of judicial reinterpretation. The politicians who came up with and agreed to the amending formula in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 obviously thought it was flexible enough. Why were they wrong? That said, had prof. Karazivan taken public meaning originalism, and in particular the work of those originalists who recognize the distinction between constitutional interpretation and constitutional construction, seriously, she would have realized that many, perhaps most originalists do not advocate for a static constitutional law. They insist that the meaning of the constitution’s text is fixed, but recognize that this text can in fact be applied to facts and circumstances quite unforeseen at the time of its drafting through the development of constitutional doctrine.

Finally, I fail to see how living constitutionalism can lead us to a better understanding of the constitution. The argument, insofar as I understand it, seems question-begging. Saying treating the constitution as a “living tree” allows us to understand it better presupposes that the object of constitutional interpretation is the contemporary constitution rather than the intention of the constitutional text’s drafters or its original public meaning ― which is very much the point in issue. To be sure, Canadian constitutional tradition is laden with denunciations ― usually quite ignorant denunciations ― of originalism. But as the emerging Canadian scholarship that takes originalism seriously shows, these denunciations do not tell us the whole story. Nor can they serve as a normative justification in the absence of any more compelling ones.

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As I mentioned at the outset, prof. Karazivan addresses an important question, that of the place of originalism in the Supreme Court’s understanding of constitutional structure. Unfortunately, she does so in a way that reflects a simplistic or outdated understanding of originalism, and as a result oversimplifies relevant precedents and offers thoroughly unconvincing arguments against originalism. That her arguments do not succeed does not show that the Court is right to be as originalist as it is, or that it ought to be more so. That case remains to be made. But so does prof. Karazivan’s in favour of living constitutionalism. Her article does not advance it.

Justice in Masks

(Some) French judges want their names removed from the decisions they make

In the traditional iconography, Justice wears a blindfold. When we come before her, she must listen to our arguments, but not see us. But should justice also wear a mask, so that we do not see her face? This is the question raised by a report by Caroline Fleuriot for Dalloz Actualité. Ms. Fleuriot writes that the French judges’ union is demanding their names be removed from their decisions, in anticipation of these decisions being made freely available online ― although a number of judges who she quotes are opposed to this idea. And this demand might, of course, seem rather astonishing to us in the common law world. But then again, as Peter McCormick’s recent articles on decisions “by the Court” issued by the Supreme Court of Canada, about which I blogged here, suggest, the concept of judicial anonymity is not entirely foreign to us either. I think the French proposal is a good occasion to further our reflection on it.

As best I understand Ms. Fleuriot’s report, the French judges make two arguments in favour of removing their names from their decisions. They say, first, that failing to do so would encourage increased criticism and even formal complaints aimed at judges personally rather than at their decisions, potentially compromising trial fairness. Second, it would allow the performance of each individual judge to be assessed, including “to identify judges who do not issue decisions that follow the wishes of the government of the day”.

To some extent,these justifications ring hollow. In the common law world, the authors of judicial decisions are routinely identified, and while this does open the door to sometimes personal, and occasionally outright vicious and distasteful criticism, and occasionally formal complaints, this is not generally seen as imperilling judicial independence or impartiality. Neither is the existence of statistics about the decisions of individual judges, even though such statistics are routinely (at least in the United States) pressed in the service of attaching rather crude and sometimes unfair ideological labels to members of the judiciary.

To be sure, I am not at all an expert on the French judiciary; I do not know how strong the protections for judicial independence are in France. If they are much weaker than in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States (in the federal judiciary), perhaps the judges’ union’s concerns are more justified. But if the French judiciary is sufficiently independent now, its worries seem rather overblown, if they are sincere. Indeed, one might wonder whether what is really going on is not simply an attempt to escape criticism ― whether from the government or from parties and civil society.

That said, if we are indeed right be skeptical of the French judges’ seemingly self-serving claims, we should also ― as prof. McCormick urges us ― take a hard look at our own. The Supreme Court is in the habit of issuing decisions signed by “the Court”, without attribution to one author (or several authors, as is increasingly common). Insofar as there is a common thread to these decisions, it is that many (although by no means all) of them involve potential confrontations between the Supreme Court and either a government, whether federal (say l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 433) or provincial (say Quebec (Attorney-General) v Blaikie, [1979] 2 SCR 1016), whether on issues concerning the judiciary or on other politically salient topics, from the death penalty to language rights. In these cases, the Supreme Court may well be concerned, rightly or wrongly ― often wrongly, I suspect ― about deflecting criticism from its individual members and even with preserving its independence.

Admittedly there are important differences between this practice and that which the French judges’ union is looking to institute. In France, appellate decisions (rendered by multi-member panels) already are anonymous in the sense that “by the court” decisions are: they do not identify an individual author, though first instance decisions rendered by a single judge necessarily are not. If I understand the point of the judges’ union’s demands correctly, so far as appellate courts are concerned, they seek to hide the composition of the panels, as well as the identity of the actual authors of the decision. When the Supreme Court (or, on occasion, provincial courts of appeal) issue “by the court” decisions, we are always told who was on the panel. And of course, the practice of “by the court” decisions is quantitatively marginal ― although qualitatively significant ― one. On average, the Supreme Court issues only one or two decisions a year without attribution.

Indeed, these differences are a good starting point in thinking about whether the anonymity of judicial decisions is a problem, as prof. McCormick argues it is, and as I am now inclined to think too. Does it matter that we know the composition of the panels that render unattributed decisions? I suppose some information is better than none. And of course, in a very important sense, judges should be accountable, or amenable to criticism, not just for the decisions they happen to write, but also for those with which they agree ― at least in the common law world, where concurring and dissenting is (almost) always possible, if sometimes unpopular with one’s colleagues on the bench. Still, the composition of the panel ― especially a large panel at the Supreme Court ― seems insufficient. Does it matter whether only a few, or many, or all decisions are unattributed? I think it does. If the practice of “by the Court” decisions were really sporadic (and it is now a bit more than that), it would arguably matter very little. If it were clearly reserved for decisions where the Courts feel the very separation of powers, or indeed the future of the country, is at stake (as the Supreme Court may have felt in, say Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 SCR 44, and in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217), it would be more readily understandable. But it is neither, and as prof. McCormick shows, it is difficult to establish a coherent narrative that would account for all of the “by the court” decisions.

Thus it may well be that the French judges’ proposal is, from our standpoint, not exactly an entirely alien idea, but rather something like a reductio ad absurdum of our own Supreme Court’s practice. It is possible to criticize the former and accept the latter, of course. But perhaps we should not be too quick to do so. Whatever we might think of justice in robes, justice in masks does not seem like a very attractive ideal.

H/t: Pierre Trudel

Maneant Scripta

The Supreme Court protects its sources from “link rot”

This will be an unusual post. First, it will be short. Second, it will praise the Supreme Court of Canada, for a change. Some years ago, I wrote here about the problem of “link rot” as it affects judicial decisions. Courts refer to online materials ― sometimes even blog posts, though I don’t think the Supreme Court of Canada has done that yet ― and provide references to these sources in their reasons. Unfortunately, the online addresses of these sources ― the URLs that enable the readers to find them ― can change. Indeed, the materials can simply be taken down. Finding the sources on which judges rely becomes difficult in the former case, and impossible in the latter. Unless, that is, the courts actually do something about it. And now the Supreme Court has.

Here is the Court’s announcement:

Recognizing that web pages or websites that the Court cites in its judgments may subsequently vary in content or be discontinued, the Office of the Registrar of the SCC has located and archived the content of most online sources that had been cited by the Court between 1998 and 2016. These sources were captured with a content as close as possible to the original content cited. Links to the archived content can be found here: Internet Sources Cited in SCC Judgments (1998 – 2016).

From 2017 onward, online internet sources cited in the “Authors Cited” section in SCC judgments will be captured and archived.  When a judgment cites such a source, an “archived version” link will be provided to facilitate future research.

The Supreme Court of the United States has maintained an archive of “Internet sources cited in opinions“, albeit only going back to 2005, for some time now. Having taken a quick look at the websites of the UK and New Zealand Supreme Courts, I cannot find any equivalent archive, though perhaps I haven’t searched carefully enough.

It is great that the Supreme Court of Canada follows, and indeed improves on, the initiative of its American counterpart, and rescues its sources from oblivion. This is going to be very helpful to anyone ― a journalist, a researcher, or just a citizen ― who is interested in understanding what information the court relied on in making its decisions. As I wrote in my original post on this issue, the problem of “link rot” in the Supreme Court’s decisions was quite serious:

Of the links in the five oldest cases to cite any, not a single one still works, though one … leads to an automatic re-direct, and so is still useful. The rest lead either to error messages or even to an offer to buy the domain on which the page linked to had once been posted (a page belonging  to the BC Human Rights Commission ― which has since been abolished).

The Court’s effort to remedy this problem is to be applauded.

Why Bother about the Charter?

The Supreme Court divides on whether one might claim Charter damages against an administrative tribunal

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its first decision of 2017, Ernst v. Alberta Energy Regulator, 2017 SCC 1. One can only hope that it is not a trendsetter. The decisions raises more questions than it answers. The Court is split 4-1-4, with the different opinions at odds about which questions it is necessary or even appropriate to answer, and there is no holding on the most important of these, which was whether damages for breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms could ever be awarded against an administrative tribunal. As Jennifer Koshan notes over at ABlawg, “[t]he Ernst decision is challenging to read”, and “[i]t is also challenging to identify the precedential value of the case.”

The case arose out of allegations that the Alberta Energy Regulator (an administrative tribunal) attempted to silence Ms. Ernst in retaliation for her criticism. She claimed that the Regulator demanded that she no longer take disagreements with it to the media, and refused to consider her submissions to it on the same terms as it did those of other members of the public in retaliation for her failure to comply, and thereby breached her freedom of expression, contrary to paragraph 2(b) of the Charter. As a remedy for this breach, Ms. Ernst sought an award of damages, arguing that it was an “appropriate and just” remedy under subsection 24(1) of the Charter.

The Regulator sought to have her claim in damages struck as devoid of any chance of success, invoking a statutory immunity clause that barred suits for “any act or thing done purportedly in pursuance of” the Regulator’s legislative mandate, “or a decision, order or direction”. Ms. Ernst, however, argued that the constitution prevented this provision from denying her the ability to bring Charter claims.

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As just mentioned, there are three sets of reasons ― and no majority. As prof. Koshan helpfully explains, there are

three key issues, although not all of the justices agreed that these issues were worthy of consideration, nor did they agree on the order in which they should be considered:

  1. Whether it was plain and obvious that [the immunity clause] barred Ernst’s Charter claim;
  2. Whether it was plain and obvious that Charter damages were not an appropriate and just remedy in Ernst’s claim against the [Regulator]; and
  3. Whether Ernst’s failure to provide notice of a constitutional challenge to s 43 was fatal to her claim.

In what the Court designates as “reasons for judgment”, Justice Cromwell, with the agreement of Justices Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gagnon, finds that Charter damages will not be an appropriate and just remedy, in this case or indeed, it seems, in just about any conceivable case against an administrative tribunal, meaning that the immunity clause is constitutional ― and, assuming, as Justice Cromwell does, that it bars Ms. Ernst’s claim ―the claim must be dismissed. (I would quibble here with prof. Koshan’s otherwise insightful post: she writes that Justice Cromwell “held that [the immunity clause] did, on its face, bar Ernst’s claim for damages”. It seems to me that this somewhat mischaracterizes Justice Cromwell’s reasons, which do not amount to a holding on this point. But as prof. Koshan says, it is difficult to understand what the Court actually decides.)

Justice Abella, who concurs in the result, would instead have dismissed Ms. Ernst claim for failure to provide notice of her constitutional challenge to the immunity clause. She she also suggests, however, without deciding, that Justice Cromwell is likely right about the appropriateness of Charter damages against administrative tribunals. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Brown, with whose joint opinion Justice Côté agrees, dissent on the basis that it is not plain and obvious that the immunity clause bars Ms. Ernst’s claim or that Charter damages are an appropriate and just remedy.

The three opinions trade surly accusations of procedural impropriety, implicit or explicit. Justice Cromwell accuses the dissent of having decided that the immunity clause did not plainly bar Ms. Ernst’s claim even though the Court heard no argument on this point, because Ms. Ernst herself had conceded it. The dissent responds that the issue is too important for the court to simply proceed on the assumption that the concession is right. For her part, Justice Abella implies that Justice Cromwell should not have addressed the constitutional question at all ― and, remarkably, Justice Cromwell does not even attempt to respond to this accusation (though he repeatedly refers to the obiter part of Justice Abella’s reasons!).

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Prof. Koshan has summarized the three sets of reasons in detail; there is no need for me to do so again. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on the question, which goes ostensibly unanswered in a 4-4 tie vote (Justice Abella abstaining), of whether Charter damages can be an appropriate and just remedy against an administrative tribunal. Justice Cromwell emphasizes the “need for balance with respect to the choice of remedies” for Charter breaches. [25] It is hard to be against “balance”, of course, but the question is how that balance is to be struck.

For Justice Cromwell, damages should not be too widely available. He gives two reasons for denying them in this case. First, if Ms. Ernst was wronged, she had an adequate alternative remedy in the form of an application for judicial review. It is her own fault that she did not make one. Had she done so, a court could have set aside the Regulator’s unconstitutional decisions. Indeed, “judicial review would in all likelihood provide vindication in a much more timely manner than an action for damages” ― if it had been initiated “promptly”, anyway. [36] Second, allowing claims for Charter damages to be brought against administrative tribunals would interfere with “good governance” by “chilling” their exercise of “responsibilities of a policy-making and adjudicative nature.” [42] Defending against damages actions is time- and money-consuming and distracting, and tribunals will be tempted to act “defensively” to avoid having to do so. Justice Cromwell adds that “allowing Charter damages claims to be brought … has the potential to distort the appeal and review process”, [54] and undermine the finality of administrative decisions. Moreover, the rule barring such claims needs to be categorical, since case-by-case consideration of whether a given claim might amount to an “appropriate and just” remedy would defeat its purposes.

The dissent disagrees with this; indeed, it is aghast at the prospect of a blanket immunity from Charter claims for administrative tribunals. Whether an application for judicial review ― which cannot lead to an award of damages ― would be an adequate alternative remedy is too early to say. As for concerns about good governance, courts should recall that “Charter compliance is itself” such a concern, indeed “a foundational” one. [169] While damages awards will likely not be “appropriate and just” “where the state actor has breached a Charter right while performing an adjudicative function”, [171] there is no need to expand immunity from such awards for non-adjudicative actions, especially when, as is alleged to be the case here, the actions at issue are “punitive”. At most, “certain state actors are subject to qualified immunities”, [176] such that it is only possible to claim damages against them for abuse of power or actions outside of their functions. In other words, there is no need for a blanket rule precluding case-by-case consideration, as Justice Cromwell suggests.

For my part, I do not think that Justice Cromwell’s arguments in favour immunizing administrative tribunals are persuasive. I thus sympathize with the dissent, Indeed, I wonder whether even it may go too far in favour of immunity of adjudicative decision-makers. In New Zealand, the Supreme Court’s holding in Attorney-General v Chapman [2011] NZSC 110, that damages for the breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 are not available when the breach results from actions of the judiciary has been criticized, including by the two dissenting judges, who pointed out that while a personal immunity for judges is necessary to prevent the sort of ill-effects that worry Justice Cromwell, it is not so clear that the state should also benefit from this immunity.

Be that as it may, I think that the dissent is right to be skeptical of the need for an immunity for decisions that are not of an adjudicative character. Of course defending Charter damages claims may be a distraction and a drain on an administrative tribunal’s resources. But that’s true for any government entity that could be subject to such damages. On Justice Cromwell’s logic, we might as well abolish this remedy (admittedly already underdeveloped and moribund as it is). And as for the worry that administrative decision-makers may suffer a “chilling effect” ― that is as much a feature as it is a bug. If we care about the constitution, shouldn’t we want government entities to worry about acting unconstitutionally, instead of being concerned that they will? Perhaps there is a level of concern that would be excessive. But are we anywhere near it? It is, as the dissent points out, for the government to prove that good governance considerations preclude Charter damages awards; Justice Cromwell’s reasons show no evidence of such proof having been produced (unsurprisingly at such a preliminary stage in the litigation).

Finally, a word on a precedent that Justice Cromwell dismisses, it seems to me, rather too quickly. In Canada (Attorney General) v. TeleZone Inc., 2010 SCC 62, [2010] 3 SCR 585 and companion cases, the Court held that a litigant who want to bring a private law damages claim against the government did not have to first pursue a judicial review claim to have the decision from which the claim purportedly arose quashed. Justice Cromwell notes that “[t]he Court did not comment on the appropriateness of a Charter damages award against a quasi-judicial board.” [40] That’s true so far as it goes. But the principle underlying the TeleZone decision was that litigants are entitled to seek compensation for losses caused by the government, and so to pursue a damages action, without having the underlying decision set aside, because judicial review and damages claims are of a different nature. TeleZone does not dispose of Ernst, not least because it involved private law rather than Charter damages claims, and it is possible that the function of Charter damages is at least somewhat different, making judicial review a closer substitute. I am skeptical about that, but need to think more about this. In any case, it is too bad that Justice Cromwell seemingly does not trouble himself with this question (and also that the dissent does not raise it).

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In the event, Ernst only flags the issue of potential liability of administrative decision-makers for Charter breaches. It does not dispose of it. This is as well, because the decision is not going to be a Supreme Court classic. But it is worrying all the same. If it turns out that administrative decision-makers cannot be held to account for Charter breaches except by way of judicial review (and holding them to account through that means is a tricky business in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395!), then one will have to wonder whether they will bother thinking about their Charter obligations at all.


Would term limits for Chief Justices be a good idea?

Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of Beverley McLachlin’s appointment as Chief Justice of Canada. The Supreme Court’s account issued a celebratory tweet. And for my part, to visualize this length of time, I headed over to the Internet Archive to find what the Court’s website looked like in early 2000. A worthy exemplar of fin de siècle web design it was.


But, on a (slightly) more serious note, I have also been asking myself this question: is it a good idea for a Chief Justice to remain in this position for so long? This isn’t, mind you, a dig at Chief Justice McLachlin, or at least it isn’t only that. I have my differences with her, but the issue here isn’t a personal one. It’s about whether the position itself is such that no person, whoever she or he may be,  should occupy it for such an extended period of time.

Admittedly, Chief Justice McLachlin’s tenure, although record-breaking in Canada’s history, isn’t exceptionally long in a comparative perspective. Indeed, our Chief Justice is not even the longest-serving one among her current peers. New Zealand’s Sian Elias was appointed on May 17, 1999 (although she was the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal at the time, and New Zealand still retained appeals to the Privy Council, the Supreme Court of New Zealand only being created in 2003, at which point the senior Court of Appeal judges were promoted). And while Chief Justice McLachlin’s tenure will soon overtake that of Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the United States, she will not quite catch William Rehnquist before she retires ― never mind John Marshall, who was Chief Justice for more than 34 years.

Still, one can wonder whether this all might be too much of a good thing. Now, I think that the Canadian approach to judicial terms ― appointing judges until a fixed retirement age ― is generally the right one. (Other Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, generally follow this approach too.) Appointing judges for a fixed term, even a long one, means that, unless they are appointed at a relatively old age, they will be looking for post-bench employment, which is not especially conducive to independence in office. If the term is renewable, the problem is that much worse. Conversely, life-time appointments with no age limit, like those of federal judges in the United States, allow judges to continue in office longer than is probably good for them and, more importantly, for everyone else, as the recent escapades of Justice Ginsburg and Judge Posner demonstrate. But it’s not clear that the office of Chief Justice should be treated in the same way as that of an ordinary judge.

It is, after all, perfectly conceivable that a judge will become Chief Justice of his or her court for a time, and then return to the position of an ordinary ― or, in the language of the Supreme Court Act, puisne ― judge. Indeed, this is precisely the approach taken to the lower federal courts in the United States, where the Chief Judges of the Circuit Courts serve in that position for seven years or until they turn 70. Put the details ― the length of the term, and whether there should be an age limit where judges are already subject to mandatory retirement ― to one side. The question of whether Chief Justices should be individually chosen, as they are now, or selected pursuant to an automatically applicable rule, as the Chief Judges of Circuit Courts are, is also secondary. What I’m interested in is whether, once chosen in whatever fashion, a Chief Justice should retain that position so long as he or she remains a judge or only for a fixed term.

Unlike fixed terms for the tenure of ordinary judicial office, I do not think that such a rule would raise any concerns about judicial independence. There would be no question about what the soon-to-be-former Chief Justice is going to do next, or any reason to worry about his or her currying favour with a successor. A more serious concern might be whether a fixed-term Chief Justice would be weaker than an indefinite-term one when staring down other branches of government, as Chief Justice McLachlin had to do when the federal government sought to cast aspersions on her and her court’s integrity in the aftermath of l’Affaire Nadon. But I doubt that a Chief Justice’s position in such an unfortunate circumstance is meaningfully strengthened by the absence of a term limit. Again, provided that at the end of his term he or she simply reverts to being an ordinary judge able to serve until retirement age, the Chief Justice would be no more vulnerable to the government’s pressure than Chief Justice McLachlin was. In short, I do not see much of a downside to fixed term appointments to the position of Chief Justice ― though perhaps I am missing something.

As for upsides, they are admittedly speculative, but they might nevertheless be worth pursuing. A Chief Justice’s powers are narrow, but they are powers all the same, notably that of assigning the writing of opinions. And all power ― not only absolute power ― tends to corrupt. It is probably best if a single person does not exercise power for decades on end ― for the institution over which that person presides, the persons whose fates that institution decides, and indeed that person her- or himself. Moreover, in addition to the corrupting effects of power, a Chief Justice is also liable to be influenced by her or his position as the representative of the court, and indeed of the judiciary more broadly. Chief Justices are liable to see their loyalties as being primarily to the institutions they head, rather than to the law; they dislike it when their colleagues dissent; they might vote with an eye to their court’s standing and be tempted to twist arms if not break legs to get their colleagues to go along. These tendencies may be understandable, and perhaps even useful to some extent, but they can also become toxic if they are too strong. And it seems reasonable to suppose that the longer a person remains in the position of Chief Justice, the more he or she gets used to seeing the world from the distinct, and not always healthy, perspective that this office gives. Limiting the time during which a judge is put in this special position may check these tendencies, again to the benefit of all concerned.

Take this for what it’s worth ― it’s only me thinking out loud. And of course, should anyone take up the suggestion, the question of whether implementing it could be done by amending the Supreme Court Act or requires an amendment pursuant to par 42(1)(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would have to be faced. (The short answer to that question is “Who knows?”.) As it is, Chief Justice McLachlin is bound to retire by September 2018. But if the Prime Minister chooses to appoint one of the Québec judges to succeed her, then the next Chief Justice’s term might be even longer than hers.

The Real Problem of Judicial Arrogance

What judicial arrogance is, and is not

Alice Woolley has published a much discussed post over at Slaw, describing and decrying what she regards as “the problem of judicial arrogance”, and also the way in which lawyers and, presumably, legal academics enable this arrogance. Having been quite critical of the ways in which judges regard and use their considerable power, and of the legal community’s to cheer them on if not to act as parasiti curiae, I would be hard pressed to disagree with prof. Woolley’s claim that

we undermine our legal system through our own arrogance, and particularly in how we create, encourage and reinforce judicial power, unaccountability and – at the end of the day – judicial conduct that can be fairly described as arrogant.

Yet, with respect, it seems to me that prof. Woolley’s arguments and examples cannot justify that claim, and that they altogether miss the real issue.

Prof. Woolley relies on three recent cases to make her point. Two of them are indeed examples of arrogance: the recent case in which Justice Denny Thomas, of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, convicted a man of second-degree murder pursuant to a provision of the Criminal Code that has been declared unconstitutional 25 years ago, and that of Robin Camp, the judge who couldn’t keep his lips together. As prof. Woolley points out, if the judges had but recognized that they might be skating on thin ice and, in the case of Justice Thomas, sought the input of the lawyers, and, in Justice Camp’s, simply kept quiet during the trial, they would not have made their egregious mistakes. That they did not do so suggests an over-confidence that does indeed cross the line into an arrogance that would be unwarranted in anyone, but is especially dangerous in a judge. Prof. Woolley cautions that “even where a judgment or decision looks arrogant, that doesn’t mean that the judge who made it is an arrogant person”, but I’m not sure how apposite this warning is in these cases.

But what follows from this? These are two examples. There are no doubt others. But how many? There are more than 800 federally-appointed judges in Canada. There are more on the provincial courts. How prevalent is arrogance of the sort prof. Woolley describes, among this vast group of people? It’s not a couple of anecdotes, focusing on extreme ― though perhaps not isolated ― instances that can tell us. Something like a Canadian version of the American Almanac of the Federal Judiciary might help ― but I am not aware of it existing. (Then again, it’s not like I could afford it if it did exist.)

Prof. Woolley’s third example of judicial arrogance is even less convincing. Indeed, in my view, it is not an example of arrogance at all; perhaps even the contrary. Prof. Woolley takes Justice Brown to task for the opening paragraph of his opinion (for eight of the Supreme Court’s judges) in Canada (Attorney General) v Igloo Vikski Inc, 2016 SCC 38, which begins with an allusion to Lord Denning’s famous “cricket case” dissent (Miller v Jackson, [1977] 1 QB 966) , proceeds to quote from Ken Dryden’s The Game, and closes with a barely concealed recognition of the abstruse and slightly silly nature of the question at issue: “whether, for customs tariff classification purposes, [a hockey goaltender] blocks and catches the puck with a ‘glove, mitten or mitt’, or with an ‘article of plastics'”. For Prof. Woolley “judgments like this … turn a decision about the rights and interests of parties before the court into an opportunity to show off the cleverness and erudition of the judge”, and thus ― enabled by the universal admiration they generate ― “reinforce[] … systemic judicial arrogance”. Courts, she says, should not indulge or elevate themselves at the expense of the litigants. (NOTE: Please see prof. Wolley’s comment, below.)

In my opinion, prof. Woolley takes a very narrow view of what a judicial opinion is, and in particular of its audience. She writes as though the only audience of an opinion were the parties to the case. She is right, of course, that “[w]hen a decision gets to the Supreme Court so much is at stake for the parties”. But the Supreme Court especially, and indeed any court, unlike arbitration, does not only exist to deliver justice for the parties. A court exercises public power, and speaks to the legal community and the public as well as the parties. It is at least not obvious that one of these audiences is more important than another.

Supreme Court decisions generally are written with an eye to readability if not by laypersons then at least to the journalists who might communicate their contents to a broader readership. This is, I think a good thing. (Indeed, if prof. Woolley is concerned, as she suggests she is, about the legal community’s arrogance towards non-lawyers, she should agree.) And if humour or lightheartedness can be an ingredient in the recipe of accessibility, so much the better. Prof. Woolley insists that the purpose of judicial independence is “not to give judges a public forum to say what they want, when they want, to whom they want”. That’s true so far is it goes, but it doesn’t follow that judges must at all times affect to be stone-faced giants impervious to the feelings, including amusement, that the affairs of men and women might generate in others.

Moreover ― and here, admittedly, I may well be guilty of condoning precisely the sort of arrogance that prof. Woolley denounces ― judicial opinions in the common law world have long been seen as something of a literary genre. When we think about judicial greatness, one criterion we might have in mind is a judge’s literary ability. Admittedly, one need not be an especially good writer to be a good enough judge. And prof. Woolley believes that a judge should not engage in efforts to “bolster his reputation”, certainly not at the expense, as she sees it, of the parties. But again, in the common law tradition, which is one of signed and elaborate judicial opinions (in contrast to the anonymous, short, and formulaic ones in, say, French civil law), prof. Woolley is probably demanding a level of self-abnegation that would not be realistic even if it were useful.

Then there is another matter, which brings me close to what I consider to be the real problem of judicial arrogance. It is telling that prof. Woolley denounces Justice Brown for being funny, rather than one of his colleagues for being grandiloquent. Pompous, oracular judicial pronouncements, of the sort that get set out in gilded letters on marble walls do not attract her criticism. Yet they are usually no more necessary to deliver a judgment than jokes or lighthearted asides, and they too can and often do serve to bolster a judge’s reputation. To take just one recent example ― admittedly that will not be gilded and marbled ― consider Justice Moldaver’s opening in R v Saeed, 2016 SCC 24:

The common law power of search incident to arrest is an ancient and venerable power. For centuries, it has proved to be an invaluable tool in the hands of the police. Perhaps more than any other search power, it is used by the police on a daily basis to detect, prevent, and solve crimes.

This is pompous, unsubstantiated, and quite possibly harmful, since Justice Moldaver goes on to expand the “ancient and venerable” power in ways that I, for one ― and more importantly, the Supreme Court’s leading privacy defender, Justice Karakatsanis ― consider unjustified and dangerous. Yet somehow it is a little flash of levity that prof. Woolley singles out for criticism as exemplifying judicial arrogance.

May I suggest that this is because Canadian judges, those of the Supreme Court especially, are simply expected to be self-confident ― not perhaps to the extent of being able to crack a joke, but certainly to the extent of making bold pronouncements on matters they know too little about, unconstrained by either facts or law? To me, that is the real judicial arrogance, and it is indeed a real problem. When in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245,  Justice Abella makes up a constitutional right to collective strike because “[i]t seems to [her] to be the time to give [it] constitutional benediction”, she is being arrogant. When the Chief Justice of Canada proclaims that the courts have a mandate ― unexpressed in any legal source ― to fulfill Pierre Trudeau’s sometime campaign promises, she is being arrogant. When an aspiring Supreme Court judge asserts that most of the Court’s work is law-making, he is being arrogant. And they, unlike Justices Thomas and Camp, are the leaders of Canada’s judiciary. Their utterances are guidance, not anecdote. They are the ones we need to worry about if, like prof. Woolley, we want judges to “strive for humility”.

Like prof. Woolley, I hasten to add that those who act as arrogant judges are not necessarily bad or even arrogant persons; perhaps none of them are. Still, the way in which they view and approach their office is cause for serious concern. It is quite true “that judicial arrogance … is a wrong that gets committed too often and called out too little.” But we need to be clear about what judicial arrogance is ― and is not.

A Judge Unbound

The Prime Minister has at last named his choice to fill the vacancy left on the Supreme Court by the retirement of Justice Thomas Cromwell. It is Justice Malcolm Rowe, now at the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal. For all the concern ― of the Prime Minister’s and his government’s own making ― about whether he would be prepared to breach the convention of regional representation on the Supreme Court in the service of an identitarian quest to appoint, say, an aboriginal woman, Justice Rowe’s appointment will, on the surface, be an unremarkable one. The convention stands undisturbed ― and perhaps stronger thanks to having been affirmed by a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons ― and the Court gets yet another successful and well-connected white male member. (Justice Rowe will be the first Newfoundlander to sit on the Supreme Court, however, so his appointment is groundbreaking in that way ― a step forward for old-fashioned regional diversity, if not for the contemporary demographic sort. Justice Rowe, who was born in 1953, is also relatively old ― among his new colleagues, only Justice Moldaver was older when he was appointed to the Supreme Court; many were substantially younger.)

Justice Rowe’s appointment is noteworthy, however, because of his views on his new job ― disclosed by the government as part of a questionnaire that he, as well as others who applied, had to complete in order to be considered. There are other interesting nuggets there, which others have highlighted. There’s Justice Rowe’s assertion that he was in fact the author of an opinion ostensibly signed by his court (see “Synopsis 2” in Part 7 of the Questionnaire); there’s the fact, highlighted by Dave Snow on Twitter, that he took a French immersion course just before applying, suggesting that his French might be rather rusty, at best; there’s a rather turgid writing style, though it is perhaps unfair to judge a man’s prose by the way in which he filled out a form. But let me focus on Justice Rowe’s ideas about judging and, especially, the Supreme Court. These ideas are, to me, concerning if not disqualifying.

Justice Rowe states that “[t]he Supreme Court is not, primarily, a court of correction,” which is certainly true, so far as it goes. He is right to say that “[t]hrough the leave to appeal process, the Court chooses areas of the law in which it wishes to make a definitive statement.” But his conclusion ― that “the Supreme Court judges ordinarily make law, rather than simply applying it” ― is still remarkable. It is worth recalling, though admittedly Justice Rowe is not the only person who does not, that as John Austin pointed out in The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, the phrase “judge made law” was itself made up, by Jeremy Bentham, and was intended as “disrespectful and therefore,” Austin thought, “injudicious.” More importantly, the idea that judges ― those of the Supreme Court anyway ― usually “make make law rather than simply applying it” suggests that Justice Rowe will not feel bound by the constraints that precedent and statutory and constitutional text are thought to impose on judges, including those of the highest courts. The view is not exactly original ― as I noted elsewhere, Chief Justice McLachlin has expressed her own sympathy for it ― but it is disconcerting nonetheless. For the Rule of Law to exist, courts, like other government institutions, ought to be bound by the law. If judges feel that they can simply make the law up, indeed that this is what they are expected to do, the Rule of Law is not long for this world.

Now, in the very next paragraph, Justice Rowe says that ― unlike in common law adjudication ― “the role of judges concerning the interpretation of statutes … is to give effect to the will of the legislature.” But of course a substantial part of the Supreme Court’s work does in fact involve interpretation of statutes ― whether of the Criminal Code, the Income Tax Act, or of other legislation. At best, then, Justice Rowe’s previous statement about judges as law-makers is thoughtless, or reflects a certain confusion about what it is that the Supreme Court does. (It may well be that this is what’s going on here: as prof. Snow has observed, Justice Rowe is simply wrong to claim that “[r]elatively few recent cases deal with the division of powers.”) At worst, he is deliberately saying one thing and its opposite, the better to justify any approach he might be pleased to take in a given case. As Benjamin Oliphant has pointed out, this is indeed something of a tendency in Justice Rowe’s answers ― and also in the jurisprudence of the Court which he is about to join.

Justice Rowe’s view of the Supreme Court’s place in the Canadian constitutional framework is, ultimately, the smugly self-assured one that is prevalent in the Canadian legal community. Judges make law ― especially, it would seem, constitutional law, where Justice Rowe sees room for reviewing the Privy Council’s division of powers jurisprudence (though he does not explain on what issues), while the plebs (including, presumably, its representatives in Parliament) gladly and wisely accepts the pronouncements of the patres iudices: “Canadians,” Justice Rowe informs us, “have come to accept and embrace this enhanced role for judges. The wisdom and well-founded principles that have informed this role in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court reflect favourably on our country.” Some might even find Justice Rowe’s frankness in stating these views refreshing in comparison with the balls-and-strikes boilerplate future members of the U.S. Supreme Court are now generally expected to spout. Yet to me, a judiciary that is no more bound by a sense of modesty than it is by the law itself is a distressing prospect. Considering that the Prime Minister and his advisers seem to be comfortable with it, I may have to get used to it too.