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.

4 thoughts on “A Judge Unbound

  1. A for me I have just come to expect much of the same from this government. What can the PM expect when he is so ready to run off and bring back old political dinosaurs such as An McLennan and Kim Campbell.

    Such a disappointment

  2. Pingback: I·CONnect – The New Selection Process for the Supreme Court of Canada: A Global Constitutionalism Perspective

  3. Pingback: The New Selection Process for the Supreme Court of Canada: A Global Constitutionalism Perspective | À qui de droit

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