What can judges really do?

Judges are powerful people. Sometimes, misconceptions about their power lead to calls for an elected judiciary or some other form of outside intervention in our courts. These are all bad ideas. Our judiciary must be independent from all potential litigants (including the state). It is also sufficiently self-regulated yet flexible.

The most important principle of our judicial system is that it is passive. It never goes out and forces anyone to do anything unless someone asks it to resolve a dispute. An aggrieved person or organization (or the state) must bring a valid cause of grievance to the courts’ attention. The courts will generally give the party blamed for the grievance a chance to dispute the accusation. After reviewing the dispute, the courts will resolve it by granting or denying a requested remedy to whoever brought the dispute to the courts. Courts’ decisions are always about a specific dispute before them, and you must be somehow connected to this dispute for the courts to be able to force you to do anything. (There are important exceptions such as references by governments to provincial appellate courts or to the Supreme Court of Canada.)

For example, if someone wants to stop a neighbour from smoking because it harms their child, they would go to the Superior Court. A judge will hear from both sides and make a decision in this particular dispute. But that judge cannot outlaw smoking near children for everyone everywhere.

If another judge refuses to enforce an anti-prostitution law because she finds it unconstitutional, her decision applies only to the specific person who was charged with a criminal offence under that law and who alleged to this judge that the law was unconstitutional. The judge cannot force the police from arresting the next john.

A judge’s decision can be binding only on those who have something to do with the specific dispute before that judge. If a judge finds a law under which Mr. X was arrested unconstitutional and as a remedy orders whoever has custody of Mr. X to release him, he must be released as contempt of court is a criminal offence in itself. But if Mr. X is arrested again for doing the same thing later on, a different judge doesn’t have to order the police to release him. The original judge’s decision is not binding on a fellow judge. Even the original judge can strangely change his or her mind and deem the law constitutional.

But judges respect each other’s decisions. This respect is also called deference, and it comes in different sizes. Fellow Superior Court judges often find each other’s decisions persuasive but they defer to each other much less than they do to judges of the Court of Appeal. A losing party can ask an appellate court to review the decision of the judge who first heard the case. An appellate decision in that case will enjoy greater deference from Superior Court judges when a similar case come before them. They will simply know that if they don’t defer, their decision will probably be overturned on appeal because a panel of appellate judges will probably decide similarly to the previous panel if the facts of the case are similar.

In criminal cases, this motivates the police to respect appellate court’s decisions in similar situations because the police would be wasting its resources by arresting people the courts will likely release. On the flip side, a crack-down decision even by a Superior Court’s judge will probably encourage the police to arrest more people in similar cases, even if to force the issue to an appellate court.

But one panel of the Court of Appeal cannot really force another panel to do anything. That creates a certain intrigue in our judiciary. In theory, even an appellate court’s decisions are not binding on lower courts because the next appellate panel can agree with a lower court’s judge going against the previous appellate panel. Rinse and repeat for the Supreme Court of Canada. Basically, the idea is that judges have a great amount of respect for each others’ decisions, and the respect grows exponentially with the level of the court making the decision, but no judge can really force another judge to do anything.

Yet this is a very simple, literal view of the judges’ power over each other. In reality, lower court judges pay so much deference to appellate court judges that higher court decisions are effectively binding on lower courts. Also, a more accurate way to see the hierarchy of judges is not through hard power but through learning, evolution, and respect. It is a soft power structure that binds lower courts judges rather predictably but still leaves room for revolutionary decisions defying existing norms.

Pulat Yunusov is a Toronto litigation lawyer.

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