The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Role: An Historical Institutionalist Account

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Macfarlane, Emmett
Supreme Court of Canada , judicial decision making
This dissertation describes and analyzes the work of the Supreme Court of Canada, emphasizing its internal environment and processes, while situating the institution in its broader governmental and societal context. In addition, it offers an assessment of the behavioural and rational choice models of judicial decision making, which tend to portray judges as primarily motivated by their ideologically-based policy preferences. The dissertation adopts a historical institutionalist approach to demonstrate that judicial decision making is far more complex than is depicted by the dominant approaches within the political science literature. Drawing extensively on 28 research interviews with current and former justices, former law clerks and other staff members, the analysis traces the development of the Court into a full-fledged policy-making institution, particularly under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This analysis presents new empirical evidence regarding not only the various stages of the Court’s decision-making process but the justices’ views on a host of considerations ranging from questions of collegiality (how the justices should work together) to their involvement in controversial and complex social policy matters and their relationship with the other branches of government. These insights are important because they increase our understanding of how the Court operates as one of the country’s more important policy-making institutions. The findings have significant implications for debates over judicial activism and the relationship between courts and the other branches of government when dealing with the Charter. The project also concludes that the justices’ role perceptions – the ideas, norms and rules that govern their role as judges and that of the institution – both shape and constrain their decision making behaviour. Understanding judicial behaviour with a focus on role perceptions allows for bridge-building between the competing explanations of judicial decision making and for theory-building in the broader judicial politics literature.
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