Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Brian Bird: The humanity of judges is an asset, not a workplace hazard


When judges strike down laws or actions of the state on constitutional grounds, citizens who disagree with these judges might label them “activist”. Their complaint, in other words, is that these judges have wandered out of their lane and are engaging in legislative rather than judicial decision-making.

This topic came to mind after I recently stumbled upon the remarks delivered by Justice Michael Moldaver of the Supreme Court of Canada at his last hearing before he retires from the Court later this year.The Hon. Michael J. Moldaver bids farewell to the Supreme Court Justice Moldaver does not specifically address “judicial activism” in his remarks, but his words reminded me of a truth often lost in debates over how judges ought to do their work.

That truth is that the overwhelming majority of judges in Canada do their job with utmost professionalism and integrity. Yes, there are certain differences among certain judges on matters such as how to go about interpreting the law. But there is essential unity in terms of appreciating what is at stake in this line of work and the basic principles that ought to guide a person who holds judicial office. 

I had the privilege to witness firsthand the dedication that judges in this country bring to their work. As a former law clerk at two Canadian courts, I provided research and writing assistance to judges and conversed with them about their work. Across the board, the judges for whom I worked consistently strived to reach what they believed to be the correct legal outcome in the cases before them.

The seriousness brought by judges to their work is especially apparent in the realm of criminal law. The gravity of convicting a person of a crime weighs on judges and they take great pains to ensure that the sentence they impose is just and proportionate. Justice Moldaver’s reference in his remarks to sleepless nights is not the first time I have heard a judge speak this way. The administration of justice is serious business for individuals who appear before the court. It is also serious business for judges.

Unlike elected officials, judges are far less familiar to citizens. In general, judges speak only through their rulings. They do not hold press conferences or have constituency offices. There are sound reasons for maintaining some distance between judges and the public, but the principle of judicial independence makes it harder for citizens to recognize the humanity of judges. Judges are human beings with formative experiences and perspectives that predate their judicial careers. They are not robots, and that is for the better. Their humanity is an asset in their work, not a workplace hazard. 

In addition to legal knowledge and acumen, we look for certain virtues and character traits in prospective judges: fairmindedness, impartiality, diligence, and honesty come quickly to mind. While judges must faithfully apply the law and keep their personal opinions out of the courtroom, recourse to normative considerations and the exercise of discretion are not foreign to their role. Sentencing in criminal cases, determining the amount of compensation in civil cases, and deciding what is a reasonable limit on a Charter right in a free and democratic society are just a few instances in which it will be hard to find consensus among judges on what the correct answer should be.

It is certainly legitimate to criticize rulings by judges when we think the outcomes or the interpretive approaches that inform them are legally flawed. A society’s commitment to the rule of law contemplates criticism of this sort, which aims to protect that commitment. Owing to the fallibility that forms part of their humanity, judges make mistakes now and then. Citizens are free to speak out when they believe those mistakes have been made, but they should also respect how our system of government deals with claims of judicial error. After all avenues of appeal have been exhausted in a case, we accept the outcome. This acceptance is another aspect of upholding the rule of law.

What we must avoid, however, are attacks on the character and motives of judges when we disagree with their decisions—and some of the best role models in this regard happen to be judges. In the United States, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg often disagreed in their judicial opinions but were true friends.What we can learn from Ginsburg’s friendship with my father, Antonin Scalia Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently spoke of her admiration for the kindness and professionalism of Justice Clarence Thomas without making light of their divergent judicial philosophies.Justice Sotomayor gives pep talk to progressives while praising Clarence Thomas

These are not simply heartwarming stories of friendship and goodwill. They also shore up public confidence in the courts by conveying to the public that these institutions are functioning as they should. If judges who often part ways in the results of cases do not view each other as unjudicial, it seems odd for us to think otherwise. Telegraphing institutional and individual integrity wherever it is sensible to do so only serves to shield courts and judges from the powerful and at times damaging political winds that surge when they rule on matters that are profoundly contested and controversial.

In Canada, the judges of our Supreme Court appear to have enjoyed a strong degree of camaraderie over the years. The remarks of Justice Moldaver prior to his last hearing lend credence to this notion: the esteem in which he holds his colleagues comes through loud and clear. For his part, Justice Moldaver has honoured the oath he took when he joined the Court to “duly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me”.Supreme Court Act…..,the%20Supreme%20Court%20of%20Canada. Justice Moldaver has served Canada with distinction, dedication, and humility. We are blessed that the same can be said of the lion’s share of others who have taken a judicial oath in this country.

It is easy to fire shots and say that judges are behaving like legislators when they render a decision that departs from our view of what the law or justice requires. At times, there will be valid reasons for saying that a judge has erred in a particular case. But the reality is that, by and large, judges in Canada take their jobs very seriously and they do their jobs very well. They keep an open mind, they do not arrive at their decisions lightly, and they sincerely believe their decisions are correct.

It is helpful when judges recognize these traits in their colleagues, especially when they disagree with them on how certain cases ought to be decided. The administration of justice, rule of law, and social cohesion only stand to benefit from the rest of us doing the same.

Sean Speer: Doug Ford’s cabinet choices could define his second term


Speculation is that Ontario Premier Doug Ford will soon appoint the members of his new cabinet. According to the old axiom “personnel is policy”, these decisions may be among the most important that the premier makes in his second term. They will invariably influence the ambition and orientation of the government’s policy agenda. 

It’s widely held that a major part of the Ford government’s political success has been its efforts to orient its conservative ideas and impulses to the interests, concerns, and aspirations of working-class Ontarians. This unorthodox policy agenda has manifested itself in tax reductions for low-income Ontarians, a large, generous, and progressive child tax benefit, a new labour model for gig workers, apprenticeship reform, a ban on non-compete agreements, and the endorsement of a new portable benefit for workers without employer-provided benefits. 

The political upshot of these policy-based appeals to working-class voters was the endorsements of more than a half dozen private sector trade unions in the recent election campaign and, ultimately, seat gains in working-class ridings like Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Windsor. These developments have rightly been interpreted as signs of a political realignment in the province. 

Yet one can also overstate this sort of analysis at this stage. Although the government’s re-election should be viewed as a return on investment for its early efforts to reach working-class Ontarians, a full and durable realignment is incomplete. The goal of the second term should be to see it through. The forthcoming cabinet appointments are a key first step. 

That’s because most progress to date has been concentrated in the policy innovation and stakeholder engagement of Labour Minister Monte McNaughton who not only understands the political fecundity of a new, more working-class conservatism (he recently said that “this is where leading conservative parties need to be”Ontario PCs’ pivot to blue-collar concerns helped it flip several ridings from the NDP, but also seem to reflect it in his own tastes, preferences, and persona. He personifies the people and places that are key to building a durable, broad-based, and modern Conservative coalition in the province. 

The challenge of course is that McNaughton cannot be cloned. The test for the government, therefore, is whether it can extend his reformist energy and insights across the various government ministries and different policy areas. 

This will require that the premier appoint the right people in the right roles. But personnel may be a necessary yet insufficient determinant of the government’s ultimate policy and political progress. It will be even more important that Premier Ford conveys this working-class ethos—what I referred to in a recent Hub articleIf Doug Ford needs a governing agenda, improving Ontarians’ quality of life would be a good start as “quality-of-life conservatism”—to incoming ministers and their staff as well as the senior provincial bureaucracy. 

It can neither be a mere slogan nor the sole purview of a single minister. It must come to represent a policymaking lens that’s broadly applied across the government. That’s ultimately how to ensure that the premier’s sincere yet oft-undefined working-class instincts are translated into a credible, consistent, and constructive policy agenda.  

A recent memorandum to government officials and external partners from Ontario’s outgoing Advocate for Community Opportunities and Chair of the Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity identifies some short-term priorities along these lines, as well as possible obstacles to the development and implementation of a working-class agenda. (The Hub obtained a copy of the memo from one of its recipients and has since verified its authenticity.) 

According to Jamil Jivani, who was appointed to the role of provincial advocate in December 2019 and stepped down earlier this month, the Ford government should prioritize education and mental health issues to account for the distributional consequences of pandemic lockdowns which, according to various studiesCOVID school closures most harm students from poorest neighborhoods and reports,Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harmed marginalized youth. As he outlines in the memo: 

These particular recommendations [including cutting wait times for children to receive psychological services and more funding for community groups helping working-class youth overcome pandemic-induced learning loss] would address the greatest needs created by pandemic lockdowns and school closures, and therefore will provide the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to providing all Ontario youth with equality of opportunity.

The subtext of Jivani’s memo is that the government’s working-class ambitions won’t find full expression without addressing these secondary effects of the pandemic. One reads a sense of the duty of care in his outgoing advice. He believes that the government has a moral obligation to help those most affected by its own policy choices over the past two years. 

More generally, Jivani warns that the premier and his cabinet will need to overcome what he describes as “bureaucratic paternalism” within the government itself if they’re to make greater progress on working-class priorities. His criticism here applies equally to the political and public service arms of the Ontario government. 

The implication is that Queen’s Park has grown accustomed to dealing with sophisticated special interests that have their own lobbyists or industry groups and that this culture of clientelism (which has existed far longer than the current government) too often leaves ordinary people excluded or forgotten. 

Accounting for this inherent asymmetry, therefore, requires a combination of leadership, sustained effort, and a genuine commitment to inclusion. It must ultimately be about pulling new and different voices into the policymaking process. As Jivani puts it: “the province would benefit from an approach that encourages substantive diversity and inclusion in the form of experiential, educational, religious, and geographic differences.”

If the Ford government is to be lauded for its first-term efforts to reach working-class Ontarians, the decision it makes in the coming days and weeks—including (but not limited to) the composition of its new cabinet—may well determine how much further progress is achieved in its second term. The prospect of completing a full political realignment in the Province of Ontario is within the government’s reach. But it will need to follow McNaughton’s lead and Jivani’s advice in order to get there.