On democratic legitimacy of the courts

My last post talked about how judges work with each other’s decisions. Today, I’d like to take a bird’s eye look at the relationship between the judiciary and Parliament. Unelected judges handle laws passed by elected legislatures such as Parliament of Canada or provincial parliaments. How they do it helps understand why it’s ok for judges to be unelected and why we need an independent judiciary.

In Canada, judges do really only two things with laws legislatures pass (also known as acts of legislature or statutes). They apply them or strike them down as unconstitutional.

When judges apply statutes, they interpret them. Legislatures often cannot or do not want to spell out every detail in rules of law they include in statutes. But the only way a law can work is by affecting conduct of specific people in a myriad specific life situations. If somebody believes you violated their legal rights or broke the law, they can sue you or charge you with a crime. You can quickly give in if you know you have nothing going for you. In that case, you will apply the law yourself. You will adjudicate your own case in favour of the other side. You can also dispute the other side’s reading of the law. You will claim that in that particular situation, the law means something different, and you neither broke it nor violated anyone’s rights. Now a judge will have to adjudicate this dispute and impose his or her reading of the law on both sides.

For example, Parliament of Canada defines “invention” as “any new and useful art, process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter” in a statute called Patent Act. Harvard University created a gene making mice susceptible to cancer. A mouse with a gene like that can help identify carcinogens. Harvard University tried to patent the mouse in Canada, failed, and sued the government. Harvard believed that its cancer mouse was an “invention” under Patent Act, but the patent office didn’t. So it was up to a federal court judge to adjudicate this dispute, which basically came down to interpreting the language of the statute.

One reason it was ok for an unelected judge to impose his reading of the law is because the elected legislature implicitly allowed him to do so. Our Parliament chooses broad language for its statutes in full knowledge that some disputes over their interpretation will end up in the courts. The elected Parliament accepts that unelected judges will interpret its acts. If our elected politicians didn’t want the courts to interpret legislative acts, they would use more specific language or create special tribunals to interpret statutes. It happens all the time and is also known as ousting the courts’ jurisdiction. Basically, our elected politicians can shield entire areas of law from the courts, and when they choose not to they essentially delegate some of their democratic mandate and legitimacy to the courts.

Even when the courts do have the power to interpret a democratically created statute, provincial legislatures and Parliament always have an option of overriding the courts’ reading by clarifying or changing the statute. The term “dialogue” is used to describe this relationship between the courts and the legislators. When the courts ultimately decided that the cancer mouse was not an invention, they did their best, very democratically, to divine the will and intention of Parliament. They did not try to make their own ethical or political judgment, and they knew perfectly well that if they got it wrong, Parliament can always correct them by clarifying the Patent Act. Parliament didn’t.

So one huge responsibility of the courts—interpreting legislative will—is far more democratic and legitimate than some think. Of course, the courts’ other responsibility—striking down laws as unconstitutional—is a lot more controversial, but this topic is better left for its own blog post.

Pulat Yunusov is a Toronto litigation lawyer.


(Post sponsored by AdviceScene)


1 Comment on "On democratic legitimacy of the courts"

  1. How can the power of constitutional judges to overturn parliamentary choices on the basis of their own reading of the constitution, be reconciled with fundamental democratic principles which assign the supreme role in the political system to parliaments? This time-honoured question acquired a new significance when the post-commumst countries of Central and Eastern Europe, without exception, adopted constitutional models in which constitutional courts play a very significant role, at least in theory. Can we learn something about the relationship between democracy and constitutionalism in general, from the meteoric rise of constitutional tribunals in the post-communist countries?

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