Sunday, June 01, 2008

Supremes Reverse Onus, Claim Societal Consensus

The Pithlord is two weeks behind in reacting to R. v. D.B.. When seventeen, D.B. got in a fight with another adolescent male, and left him for dead. He was charged with manslaughter. Five of the Red Nine struck down the presumption that young offenders will face certain serious violent offences in adult court. The rule now is that the Crown carries the burden of persuading a judge that adult court is the appropriate place.

My excuse, if any, is that the argument seems predestined to follow a very familiar series of steps. Populist critics will point out that the electorate views the current structure as too lenient on young offenders. The Court Party will respond by saying that the rule of law and individual rights are too important to be left to the hoi polloi. We seem to have an unresolvable dispute between government by experts and government by public opinion. All too familiar for any country that has judicial review of legislation. The tendency is just to move along, like you would when you see some hip hop kid in a mall simulatenously answering his cellphone and yelling at his girlfriend.

Except if you read the majority judgment, you come upon a paradox. The Court itself claims to be acting on the basis of a "societal consensus" -- in other words, public opinion. We are told that it is the social belief that youth and inexperience is a mitigating factor in criminal culpability that justifies what the Court is doing. The Charter itself is silent on the matter.

It is probably true that the weakest form of the principle of youth-as-mitigating-factor would get a large amount of support. The difficulty with this move is that the recognition of youth as a sometimes-mitigating factor is compatible not only with the system of presumptive offences, but even with abolishing the separate youth system altogether. A person could coherently think that youth is mitigating for minor crimes, but not for major violent ones. And since manslaughter has no minimum sentence, even a judge in adult criminal court would be entitled to take into account D.B.'s tender years and raging hormones.

What we (including Supreme Court of Canada justices) disagree about is not the principle, but the weight that should be given to that principle. On that question, the empirical evidence is that the people think too much weight is given to that principle, relative to the competing considerations of retribution, deterrence and so on.

More generally, the fact that there is a consensus that X (pateint autonomy, youth-as-mitigation) is an important consideration is never evidence that there is a consensus that X is the only consideration. And the courts themselves never treat X as the only consideration: they always end up "balancing" it against something else. But if they are "balancing" and the politicians are "balancing", why are the unstable political coalitions of nine lawyers in Ottawa entitled to greater respect than the unstable political coalitions of ... elected politicians?

That's not just a rhetorical question. In some cases, there is an answer -- democratic political processes may be inferior to oligarchic forensic processes on certain important questions.

The trouble is that the judiciary tends to intervene precisely where it is their own work that is being reviewed. The public is unhappy with criminal sentencing, particularly of juveniles, because it is done badly and erratically.

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