What’s the Big Deal?

The Globe and Mail’s Sean Fine has for months been pushing a “conservative judicial appointments” narrative, and he was back at it this weekend, with a lengthy piece on “Stephen Harper’s Courts.” We are, I take it, supposed to be worried about a “judiciary [that] has been remade” by ideologically shaped appointments. Mr. Fine quotes quite a few people who are worried and further reports on calls for the appointment process to be revamped to purge it of nefarious ideological influences. But for my part, I see very little that is objectionable in what Mr. Fine reports. Not only is there, as Emmett Macfarlane has pointed out, very little evidence of a conservative remaking of the judiciary, but if or to the extent that a remaking has occurred, there is nothing objectionable about it.

The one disturbing fact that Mr. Fine presents is that some sitting judges actively lobby the government for promotions. Such lobbying, it seems to me, creates a real danger that the judge will try, whether consciously or not, to ingratiate himself with the government in his or her decisions. In other words, it creates an appearance of bias if not actual bias. Judges should strive to remain above such suspicions. The possibility of promotion is a weak spot in the arrangements protecting judicial independence, and judges themselves should not be exploiting it.

There is nothing improper, however, in a government seeking to appoint judges with whose ideological leanings it is comfortable. Of course, judicial appointments should be merit-based ― in the sense that every person appointed to the bench should deserve to be, by virtue of his or her accomplishments and character. But that’s just a threshold. Ideology, in my view, can properly be taken into account in deciding whom to appoint among the candidates who can get over that threshold. (It’s worth noting that, as Mr. Fine points out, the committees that screen applicants for judgeships rate many more as “recommended” ― and used to rate more as “highly recommended” when that was an option ― than there are positions available).

Now we should keep our sense of perspective about this. As prof. Macfarlane has pointed out, Mr. Fine mentions a grand total of two judges (Grant Huscroft and Bradley Miller) who can fairly be described as ideological conservatives. The rest of Mr. Fine’s “remaking the judiciary” case is built on the appointment of judges said to be not so much conservative as deferential, to Parliament and to precedent. But there is nothing inherently conservative about deference. A deferential judge will give way to Parliament or precedent regardless of whether they are “conservative” or “liberal” or something else.

That said, even to the extent that some of the judges appointed by the Conservative government are indeed ideologically conservative, there is nothing wrong with that. As I have argued repeatedly here and elsewhere, judging is in part an ideological activity, and Canadian judges, whether appointed by Mr. Harper or by any of his predecessors, are not free from ideology. We might like to think that they are, and that the core tenets of our legal system, such as the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation, on which Mr. Fine dwells in his article, are somehow natural and value-free. But that is an illusion. “Living tree” interpretation is no less of an ideological commitment than originalism, albeit one that most Canadian lawyers share most of the time (though by no means always, as I have pointed out here and Benjamin Oliphant, more recently, at Policy Options).

Given that no matter what judges the government appoints, it will  always be appointing judges whose decisions will, in part, be influenced by their ideology, I don’t see anything wrong with governments wanting to appoint judges who will be influenced by what they see as the right ideology. Indeed, like prof. Marfarlane, I think that it is a good thing that the current government has been able to inject at least a modicum of ideological diversity into the Canadian judiciary. As I wrote in response to one of Mr. Fine’s earlier articles,

[t]he lessons of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues’ work on the mischiefs of ideological uniformity, about which I recently wrote over at the National Magazine’s blog, are relevant to courts as well as to the social sciences. Precisely because ideology affects adjudication, more ideologically diverse courts will produce better argued decisions, in the same way, as prof. Haidt et al. show, as an ideologically diverse academy will produce more solid research.

As I also wrote in that post, an individual judge actually has very little power except that of persuading his or her colleagues or, in the case of lower court judges, hierarchical superiors. Are the people who decry the appointment of some judges seen to be ideological outliers actually worried that these few judges, despite being a small minority, will convince other judges that they are right?

What would indeed be worrying is evidence to support David Dyzenhaus’s assertion, quoted by Mr. Fine, that “that the appointment of judges is from a very small pool of lawyers,” resulting in a lower-quality bench. Now it is no doubt true that, as prof. Dyzenhaus says, “people of considerable ability are being passed over.” But that in itself is not a problem, so long as are more able candidates than positions on the bench. And Mr. Fine presents no proof that that is not so. That said, it is worth noting that the Conservative government and the broader conservative movement have done nothing at all to broaden the pool of genuinely conservative lawyers whom they could appoint to the bench. As I pointed out here, they neither articulated much of an ideology, nor created any sort of organization that might do so, like the Federalist Society did in the United States. But those from whom ideological diversity on the bench is a source of concern can take comfort in the Conservatives’ laziness.

In short, there is little evidence of impropriety in the Conservatives’ handling of judicial appointment, at least Mr. Fine describes it. (Ironically, his piece does not even mention what is arguably the most serious charge against them in this regard ― their notorious reluctance to appoint women to the bench.) Similarly, there is no evidence in Mr. Fine’s piece that we need to change the judicial appointments process. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that attempts to “depoliticize” that process are a bad idea insofar as they will prevent a government from pushing back against the ideological homogeneity of the judiciary. Such pushback, far from being a problem, is a good thing that will improve the quality of the bench and of the decisions Canadian courts render.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Big Deal?

  1. Pingback: Who Are These People? | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Absence of Evidence… | Double Aspect

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