Jun 25, 2019

L’affaire Girouard, Part VII: Is the Canadian Judicial Council a Superior Court?

Canada (Judicial Council) v. Girouard, 2019 FCA 148 (CanLII)

In Conseil canadien de la magistrature c. Girouard, 2019 CAF 148, the Federal Court of Appeal has blessed us with an update in the Girouard saga, an update that happens to double as a useful decision on the limits of judicial review and the independence of the Canadian Judicial Council (the CJC).

For readers not yet in the know, some background on this weird and scandalous story (also summarized by the FCA at paragraphs 9-16 of their decision): Justice Michel Girouard was appointed to the Quebec Superior Court in September 2010. A short time later, video surfaced of Justice Girouard appearing to purchase cocaine. A complaint was filed with the CJC.

The CJC decided that they could not decide – the video was not clear enough for them to find that the Justice had engaged in wrongdoing. However, in the course of this inquiry, Justice Girouard allegedly attempted to mislead the CJC. (In the meantime, several witness accounts had surfaced that painted a picture of the judge as a heavy cocaine user in his younger days.) And so, a second complaint was filed and a second inquiry launched to investigate whether the judge had acted in a manner that impugned the integrity of the judicial system.

In February 2018, a majority of the 23-member panel of the CJC recommended Justice Girouard’s removal from office. Three members dissented, finding that Justice Girouard’s hearing had not been fair, as some members of the panel could not speak French well enough to hear the case. (See the CJC’s press release here.)

Justice Girouard applied to the Federal Court for judicial review of that decision. In an unexpected move, the CJC argued that the application ought to be dismissed – not because the decision is reasonable or correct, but because the decisions of the CJC cannot be judicially reviewed. The CJC is not a “federal board or commission” for the purposes of the Federal Courts Act; rather, it is a superior court from which there is no right of appeal.

Justice Simon Noël heard the motion to dismiss at first instance. His decision made headlines. In 187 jurisprudence-stuffed paragraphs, Justice Noël took evident pleasure in demolishing the CJC’s argument. The CJC appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal, which released its unanimous decision last week.

On appeal, the CJC seems to have made similar arguments to the ones they made at first instance. These arguments were based partly on the Constitution Act, 1867, including the principle of judicial independence, and partly on subsection 63(4) of the Judges Act, RSC 1985, c J-1:

63 (4) The Council or an Inquiry Committee in making an inquiry or investigation under this section shall be deemed to be a superior court and shall have

(a) power to summon before it any person or witness and to require him or her to give evidence on oath, orally or in writing or on solemn affirmation if the person or witness is entitled to affirm in civil matters, and to produce such documents and evidence as it deems requisite to the full investigation of the matter into which it is inquiring; and

(b) the same power to enforce the attendance of any person or witness and to compel the person or witness to give evidence as is vested in any superior court of the province in which the inquiry or investigation is being conducted.

[Underline added.]

To oversimplify, the CJC basically said, hey – we’re a group of federally-appointed judges. We judge judges. Because we are judges, we have the constitutional right and obligation to be independent of government. Our group is deemed to be a superior court, with all the powers and immunities necessary to be a superior court. We are immune from judicial review. Can’t touch this! [cue MC Hammer]

[Record scratch] Whoa, there, said the Federal Court of Appeal. The fact that you are judges does not protect the CJC’s decisions from review. The decisions that judges make in their roles as judges may be immune from judicial review (most often because there is a right of appeal available). This does not mean that the decisions that judges make in their roles as members of the CJC are immune from judicial review. Whether a decision is reviewable is a function of the institution, and the CJC as an institution is not immune from review:

[64] D’autre part, même en admettant que le processus menant à la révocation d’un juge d’une cour supérieure se doit également d’être conduit par des magistrats, cela ne signifierait pas nécessairement que ceux-ci agissent en leur qualité de juge lorsqu’ils siègent au Conseil. Il n’y a en effet rien d’incongru à ce qu’un organisme formé en tout ou en partie de magistrats puisse être assujetti au pouvoir de contrôle judiciaire. Comme le note l’intervenant Smith, c’est le cas notamment du Tribunal des revendications particulières (Loi sur le Tribunal des revendications particulières, L.C. 2008, c. 22, par. 6(2)) et du Tribunal de la protection des fonctionnaires divulgateurs d’actes répréhensibles (Loi sur la protection des fonctionnaires divulgateurs d’actes répréhensibles, L.C. 2005, c. 46, par. 20.7(1)).

The CJC’s judicial independence argument also held no water before the FCA:

[97] Ultimement, l’appelant soutient que l’assujettissement de ses décisions au contrôle judiciaire de la Cour fédérale risque de miner l’indépendance de ses membres et que cela soulève la possibilité que le Conseil ne soit plus le seul organe pouvant se prononcer sur la révocation d’un juge. L’appelant conteste aussi le constat du juge voulant que cet assujettissement serve la primauté du droit, et argue que l’efficacité du processus risque d’en être négativement affectée.

[98] Ces arguments sont loin d’être convaincants.

One only has to consider the (superior court) judges like Justice Harry Slade who sit on the Specific Claims Tribunal to see the flaw in this argument. Many judges in Canada do high-quality, independent work with great integrity and see their decisions reviewed by a superior or federal court.

This argument raises the question why judicial independence would be threatened by judicial review any more than it would be by an appeal. What is different about a judicial review rather than an appeal?

The nature of the distinction between judicial review and an appeal is a touchy subject right now for some in the administrative law community. The issue came up during the Bell/CFL/Vavilov appeals at the Supreme Court in December. The only difference between a decision of the Specific Claims Tribunal – or the CJC – and that of a superior court seems to be that Parliament has chosen to have the former made within the instructional framework of an administrative tribunal. Some might question whether Parliament thinks through this decision down to the standard of review: Did Parliament really intend that judges making decisions at the CJC would be granted more deference on questions of law than the same judges making decisions on the superior court bench?

The FCA was not in a position to answer that question, but the court added an astute coda to the discussion of judicial independence:

[101] Qui plus est, loin de miner l’indépendance judiciaire, l’assujettissement du Conseil au contrôle judiciaire ne peut qu’accroître celle-ci. […]

[102] En d’autres termes, pour que la révocation d’un juge soit valide, celui-ci doit avoir eu le bénéfice d’une instance équitable. Cette instance équitable est « une composante de l’exigence constitutionnelle relative à l’inamovibilité des juges » (Douglas au par. 121). Dans ce contexte, le pouvoir de surveillance que la Cour fédérale exerce sur le Conseil et sur ses comités d’enquête « joue un rôle important dans l’intérêt du public, à savoir celui de voir à ce que la procédure relative à la conduite des juges soit équitable et conforme au droit » (Ibid.). Le rôle de la Cour est donc entièrement compatible avec le principe de l’indépendance judiciaire (Slansky c. Canada (Procureur général), 2013 CAF 199 (CanLII) au par. 143 [Slansky], autorisation de pourvoi à la C.S.C. refusée, 13 février 2014 (35606)).

[103] De même, la possibilité de réviser la légalité des décisions du Conseil participe au maintien de la primauté du droit. Comme le notait le juge Stratas, dissident sur un autre point, dans Slansky, mettre le Conseil à l’abri de toute révision irait à l’encontre du principe voulant que « tous les titulaires de pouvoirs publics doivent rendre compte de la façon dont ils exercent ces pouvoirs » (au par. 313). C’est en permettant « aux cours de justice de s’assurer que les pouvoirs légaux sont exercés dans les limites fixées » que le contrôle judiciaire assure le respect de la primauté du droit (Dunsmuir c. Nouveau-Brunswick, 2008 CSC 9 (CanLII) au par. 28).

[104] En ce qui a trait à la crainte exprimée par le Conseil qu’il ne soit plus, en raison de son assujettissement au pouvoir de contrôle judiciaire de la Cour fédérale, le seul organe chargé de se prononcer sur la révocation d’un juge, celle-ci n’est pas fondée. La question de savoir si un juge d’une cour supérieure devrait être révoqué est, et demeurera, de la compétence du Conseil et, ultimement, du Sénat et de la Chambre des communes. La Cour fédérale, siégeant en contrôle judiciaire, n’aura pour seule tâche que de vérifier la légalité des décisions prises par le Conseil, et le respect de l’équité procédurale. Ce faisant, elle aura à faire preuve à l’égard du Conseil de toute la déférence que son statut de décideur spécialisé commande[.]

So much for CJC’s complaints about judicial independence.

As for being a superior court, the FCA pointed out that subsection 63(4) of the Judges Act says that the CJC is “deemed to be a superior court.” If the CJC is “deemed” to be something for one purpose, then that language indicates that for any other purpose the CJC is not that thing:

[91] Il est acquis au débat que le paragraphe 63(4) de la Loi est une disposition déterminative. Selon la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt R. c. Verrette, 1978 CanLII 208 (CSC), [1978] 2 R.C.S. 838, une disposition déterminative crée « une fiction légale; elle reconnaît implicitement qu’une chose n’est pas ce qu’elle est censée être, mais décrète qu’à des fins particulières, elle sera considérée comme étant ce qu’elle n’est pas ou ne semble pas être » (à la p. 845; soulignements ajoutés).

[92] L’appelant soutient qu’une fiction légale établie par une disposition déterminative ne peut être réfutée. Il n’a pas tort. Or, là n’est pas la question. Comme le souligne l’auteure Sullivan, « [t]he difficulty that arises in interpreting legal fictions is determining not the force of the fiction, but its scope » (Ruth Sullivan, Sullivan on the construction of statutes, 6th ed., (Markham, Ontario: LexisNexis, 2014), au para. §4.108).

The CJC is deemed to be a superior court for the purposes of compelling witnesses and immunizing its members against prosecution. It is not deemed to be a superior court for the purposes of Justice Girouard’s right to judicially review administrative decisions made about him.

The Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal of the motion to dismiss. Unless the CJC appeals to the Supreme Court, the matter will continue in Federal Court on the merits. Interestingly, the CJC has been granted leave to intervene on certain points before the Federal Court.

Something about this case is reminiscent of Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 55, in which the union for federal government lawyers argued that its members’ right to liberty was infringed by having to be on call for their employer on occasion. In both cases, smart jurists advanced a sympathetic position by way of exaggerated arguments. Like any other decision-maker, whether on a superior court or an administrative tribunal, the best way for the CJC to protect its decisions from review is to issue reasonable decisions backed by compelling reasons.