Permanent Problems

The law’s ideals and problems have not changed too much in 400 years

I have only now read Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Judicature.” Bacon seems not to enjoy anything like the reputation of his rival Coke, in the law schools anyway ― I suspect that they haven’t heard much of Coke in the science faculties, where Bacon is regarded as “the father of the scientific method.” Still, his essay is fascinating, because it shows just how little the law’s aspirations and failings have changed in the 400-odd years since it was published.

Bacon’s essay is essentially a collection of advice to judges about how to discharge their office. A good deal of it could still be repeated today. My point, in drawing attention to it, is not to say that all of this advice is good, at least in an unqualified form. It is, first and foremost, to remind the reader of the remarkable historical continuity which, for better and for worse, characterizes the law as a field of human activity.  Here are a few of Bacon’s recommendations, with some accompanying thoughts or comments of my own.

* * *

Judges ought to remember, that their office is jus dicere, and not jus dare; to interpret law, and not to make law, or give law.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If and when there is at last a confirmation hearing for the next judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, you will hear this exhortation repeated ad nauseam; you might even hear it if there is any sort of public hearing involving the next judge of the Supreme Court of Canada. John Finnis quoted Bacon’s appeal in his very interesting recent lecture on “Judicial Power: Past, Present and Future” (whence I learned about Bacon’s essay). But the very fact that this limitation on the judicial role has for so long, and so often, been reiterated should alert us to the habitual futility of the appeal. The Supreme Court’s equivocation over  whether it discovers or makes up the legal rules which it articulates for the first time seems to the suggest that the ideal of the law-saying judge has some appeal to those already holding judicial office ― but not as much as Bacon would have liked.

[W]hen there appeareth on either side an high hand, violent prosecution, cunning advantages taken, combination, power, great counsel, then is the virtue of a judge seen, to make inequality equal; that he may plant his judgment as upon an even ground.

This is also a familiar idea in 2016. Richard Posner, to give but one ― perhaps unexpected ― example has been very vocal about the need for active judicial intervention “to make inequality equal” by correcting the disparities of resources between parties to litigation, whether in his judgments or in a recent extra-judicial indictment of “What Is Obviously Wrong with the [American] Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable” (see 190-91). There are situations, it is worth noting, where judges might be making things worse, not better. I have been arguing for a while now that this may be happening in constitutional law, as judges increasingly expect expert evidence to support Charter challenges, and thus increase the inherent disparity of resources between citizens and government. (In a recent post over at The Court, Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw seems to share this concern.)

Patience and gravity of hearing, is an essential part of justice; and an overspeaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal. It is no grace to a judge … to prevent information by questions, — though pertinent. 

There has been much discussion of this point following the recent death of Justice Scalia. He was a famously active interrogator of the lawyers who appeared before the US Supreme Court. Surviving him is his colleague Justice Stephen Breyer, whose solliloquies questions occupying entire pages in the oral argument transcript Josh Blackman lovingly (?) documents. By contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas, of the same court, had spent a decade without asking a single question until finally doing so recently. Justice Thomas, one supposes, would agree with Bacon. Those who derided him for his self-imposed silence presumably would not.

[T]hose, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction, … are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage.

Here at least, I agree with Bacon wholeheartedly. Those who, in the pursuit of their own ― these days usually political ― agenda, seek to draw the courts beyond their proper remit are not the courts’ friends, though they may present themselves as such. I have said as much in response to a call for the Supreme Court to decree, by judicial fiat, the “depoliticization” of judicial appointments. I wish I’d known the phrase parasiti curiae then, but I will make sure to use it on the next appropriate occasion.

Judges ought above all to remember the conclusion of the Roman Twelve Tables; Salus populi suprema lex.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Canadian judges applying Bacon’s prescription is the Supreme Court’s opinion in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 721, where the Court sought to avoid “chaos” that its finding of unconstitutionality of Manitoba’s entire statute book by the expedient of suspending this finding’s effect. But beyond such exceptional situations, Bacon’s advice gets tricky fast. For one thing, the Latin salus is ambiguous. It can mean “health,” “safety,” or “welfare” ― making salus populi not one single objective, but a complicated programme. Still it is often said that judges ought to have regard for the public safety (“the Constitution is not a suicide pact”) or even welfare ― Judge Posner being a foremost advocate for the latter position. But isn’t there a tension between making public welfare into supreme law, and renouncing judicial legal innovation? Bacon says, “let no man weakly conceive, that just laws and true policy have any antipathy,” but even if true, this point doesn’t really address the issue of the judicial role. And Bacon’s concrete recommendations for achieving the salus populi ― frequent consultations between the three branches of government, and a demand that judges “be lions, but yet lions under the throne” would run afoul of our views on judicial independence, which are quite different from his.

* * *

In the essay I mention above, prof. Finnis writes that “[t]he problems about the nature and reach of judicial power, about which Bacon and Coke disagreed, are with us today in forms much shifted in occasion and location but still recognizably the same.” That is because they are “permanent problems, capable it seems of only provisional rather than permanent solutions.” (3) The relevance of Bacon’s prescriptions, and the fact that they would be contested now as they were contested when given (and again, except as specified above, I do not fully agree with them), suggests that prof. Finnis is right about that.

6 thoughts on “Permanent Problems

  1. This is an extremely relevant and well written piece. Thank you for taking the time to write it and share it here. The only down side is that now I have an essay to read up on…which really is not that bad at all.

  2. This essay is the very reason I never understand how students can go through school-claim to complete high school even yet not undertake studies in Literatures in English. Literature is so wholesome a subject. In my opinion it is essential studies

  3. Pingback: The Public Confidence Fairy | Double Aspect

  4. Pingback: The Real Problem of Judicial Arrogance | Double Aspect

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