Smoke and Mirrors

The new process for appointing judges to the Supreme Court is nothing to be happy about

Last week, the Prime Minister announced a new(-ish) appointments process for judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. The announcement was met with praise by many, and criticism by some. For my part, I am with the critics. Far from being a triumph of transparency and depoliticization, this new process is an elaborate mechanism of smoke and mirrors set up by a government that wants to look like it is committed to improving the state of the Rule of Law and of Canada’s judicial institutions ― and to act like it is not.

The new process starts with a seven-member “Advisory Board” appointed by the government, which will receive applications from lawyers and judges who put themselves forward for an appointment, and is also asked “to actively seek out qualified candidates and encourage them to apply.” After consulting “with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and other key stakeholders the Board considers appropriate,” the Board will put together a list of three to five candidates and provide an assessment of how they meet the criteria for an appointment ― both the baseline laid out by the Supreme Court Act and the government’s wish list for a perfect judge. After a further round of consultations ― including, once again, with the Chief Justice ― “the Minister of Justice will present recommendations to the Prime Minister who will then choose the nominee.” Finally, the Chairperson of the Advisory Board, the Minister of Justice, and the chosen candidate (whom the government documents refer to as the “nominee” even though his or her appointment at that point, is a fait accompli or at least a foregone conclusion), will meet with Members of Parliament, the latter in a “question and answer session” moderated by a law professor.

Is this really a victory for transparency? In an excellent round table published by Maclean’s, Dennis Baker ― who, as we’ll see, is in many ways skeptical of the new appoitnment process, says that the “Government deserves credit for making the process more transparent and open.” Paul Daly is delighted that judges will no longer “actively lobby behind the scenes for elevation to the Court.” I am not so sure. There is simply no objective way to weigh the sixteen ― yes, sixteen ― criteria on the government’s wish list, and to classify the indefinite number of candidates whom the Advisory Board will consider according to these criteria. The same goes for the Prime Minister’s ultimate choice between as many as five candidates. Whatever reasons the Board and the government may give for their choices will be no more than exercises in ex-post self-justification, which does not count as transparency in my book, though the illusion of transparency the process creates may if anything be even worse than the current clearly opaque process. As for judges lobbying the Advisory Board or the Justice Minister behind the scenes, I see nothing in the government’s announcement preventing that from happening.   

In some ways, to be sure, the new process will be more transparent than those that were used before. In particular, it is pretty clear (although not explicit) that the Advisory Board’s shortlist will be public, which past shortlists were not (until leaked, or dug out by, the media). For my part, I do not find this change an improvement. I feel for those candidates who will be encouraged by the Board to apply and not shortlisted, and for those shortlisted and ultimately shortchanged. John Pepall asks whether MPs who take part in Parliamentary hearings with the Justice Minister “[w]ill … be told how unsuccessful applicants fell short of the ideal? That should do wonders for the administration of justice,” he says ― sarcastically of course.

The other supposed achievement of the new appointment process is that, in prof. Daly’s exultant words,

[n]o longer will political appointments be made because of party allegiance or ideology rather than legal acumen. … Henceforth, a judge’s ability to ‘do law’ will become the primary criterion for nomination, bringing Canada into line with other countries where appointments are made entirely on merit.

With respect, this strikes me as an unlikely prospect. First, as already noted, the Prime Minister retains substantial discretion under the new process, having reserved for himself the prerogative of choosing from among up to five candidates, and the large number of subjective, imponderable criteria supposed to guide that choice mean that any selection can be retroactively justified in suitably lofty language. Nothing stops this discretion from being used ― or abused ― to appoint the candidate seen as the most ideologically friendly, or indeed the one deemed to best satisfy some set of demographic desiderata having nothing to do with legal acumen. The government’s reported frustration at being unable to find a judge corresponding to such demographic criteria to replace the retiring Justice Cromwell gives little hope that they will not overshadow ability “to ‘do law'” as it goes forward with its Supreme Court appointments.

And second, even if the Prime Minister has no intention of doing this, the fix is already in by the time he receives the Advisory Board’s short list ― and it is his government’s design of the Board that assures that this is the case. In the Maclean’s round table, Troy Riddell says that

The dominance of the legal profession on the [Advisory Board] coupled with the other non-legal members appointed by the government is suggestive of the kind of candidates the government wishes to choose (and those whom they do not want to choose—namely those with more conservative ideology). [The new process] is an improvement over the old system, but “politics” broadly defined will stay play a role.

Lori Hausegger responds by saying that

the representation [on the Advisory Board] of the Canadian Bar, the Canadian Judicial Council and the Federation of Law Societies—not to mention a progressive conservative as chair … —suggests [excluding “someone with a more conservative ideology”] is not the government’s main focus.

However, as prof. Riddell points out,

Organizations representing lawyers and judges tend to see themselves as “guardians” of the constitution—their vision of the constitution and the relationship between courts and Parliament is likely not as liberal as some activists would desire, but it is more liberal than what would be espoused by a conservative-oriented jurist. The overall result could be a lack of ideological diversity on the Supreme Court bench, which I think would be unfortunate.

I think prof. Riddell is right, and indeed I would put the point more strongly. The legal profession and the judiciary already are ideologically homogeneous. This is why Stephen Harper found it so difficult to appoint judges to his liking. An advisory Board dominated by representatives of an ideologically homogeneous profession will be homogeneous itself, and, as any such group, will reproduce and reinforce its members’ preferences in its decisions.

Like prof. Riddell, I think this unfortunate, because I believe that courts benefit from ideological diversity just as much as they benefit from demographic diversity. However, the lack of such diversity as such is not a significant criticism of the new appointments process, because it is every bit as possible for appointments made at the Prime Minister’s unfettered discretion to be just as homogeneous. The reason I belabour this point, rather, is that it shows that the pretense that the new process is somehow de-politicized to be a sham.

There is more to say about the new process, but this post is getting long, so I’ll try to be brief. I will note that I have already explained, in some detail, why I think that bilingualism should not be required of newly-appointed Supreme Court judges. In a nutshell, while I take the point that competency in both official languages is an aspect, and a very important aspect even, of legal competence, judicial appointments inevitable involve tradeoffs, because all potential judges have their strengths and weaknesses, and I would not foreclose the possibility that a candidate’s strengths elsewhere outweigh his or her linguistic shortcomings. The requirement of bilingualism ― and the government’s wish list, which states that it “has committed to only appoint judges who are functionally bilingual,” makes it very clear that it is a requirement and not, as prof. Daly says, merely “a desirable characteristic” ― is a serious mistake.

And then, there is the question of just how heavily demographic considerations, such as gender, background, or disability will weigh in the new process. Although the government has hinted that such factors will matter ― and, other things being equal, a demographically diverse court is better than a homogeneous one ― it is rather encouraging to see that “[e]nsuring that the members of the Supreme Court are reasonably reflective of the diversity of Canadian society” is only one of the sixteen criteria on the government’s wish list, and indeed the very last one. As for the Advisory Board chairperson’s mandate letter, it does not mention this issue at all. Perhaps the government knows that its winks and hints will be enough ― but perhaps its approach really is a little less identity-focused than some of its fans might have hoped for, and its skeptics (yours truly included) feared.

This is ― perhaps ― a silver lining. But otherwise, the news of the shiny new appointment process for Supreme Court judges portends nothing good. The process conceals Prime Ministerial power as much or rather more than it diminishes it, while needlessly exposing unsuccessful candidates ― many of them, no doubt, sitting judges ― to public humiliation. It does not prevent the government from appointing judges on the basis of political or considerations or other factors unrelated to legal ability, and indeed ensures that ideology will continue to play a key role in judicial appointments. And it foolishly elevates bilingualism into a determinative consideration for appointment, reducing the pool of eligible candidates and doubtless depriving the Supreme Court of many fine judges. It is, in short, nothing to be happy about. As for the further question of whether it is also unconstitutional, I hope to return to it later this week.

3 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors

  1. The most worrisome thing, for me, is the common assumption that politics has no place in the appointment of Supreme Court justices. I agree with you that this reform doesn’t accomplish this goal, but I am more worried about the goal. Supreme Court justices have a lot of power. Someone with some accountability to the electorate should have to explain who they appointed and why. In particular, I don’t think the Chief Justice should be involved at all. Do we want generals appointing generals and RCMP commissioners appointing RCMP commissioners? That is a system of self-perpetuating castes running the country.

    Past attempts at reform — from the Victoria Charter to Charlottetown — involved giving provincial politicians more role in the process. That makes some sense. But this just perpetuates the noble lie of the legal profession, that there is just a Law, and it is merely a technocratic matter to determine what it is.

    Your last sentence suggests that this is contrary to the Senate Reference, since that suggests that constraining prime ministerial discretion in who gets appointed requires constitutional amendment.

    • I’ll get to the question of constitutionality. As for that of self-perpetuation, I agree that it would be a problem, but I don’t think we’re necessarily there yet, or at least, that the involvement of the Chief Justice in the process is worrisome in this regard. At the very least, the Chief Justice is the best-placed person to advise the government on the Court’s needs, in terms of subject-matter expertise. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s necessarily inappropriate for her to signal that this or that judge or lawyer is well-regarded and would make a suitable appointee, though we’re getting into trickier territory here. Basically, I think Churchill was right that “experts should be on tap, but not on top.” Consulting the Chief Justice (and provincial Chief Justices too) while leaving the decision squarely with the government seems to satisfy both of these criteria.

  2. Pingback: Unconstitutional | Double Aspect

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s