The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

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Appointments and Diversity: A Judiciary for the 21st Century

The Judicial Independence Project has submitted a response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on ‘Appointments and Diversity: A Judiciary for the 21st Century’, which closed yesterday.

Summary

  • There is a legitimate role for the executive in the appointment of judges. Not onlydoes executive involvement provide a check on the decision-making of the JAC, and the selection commissions responsible for the most senior appointments, it also supplies an important mechanism of political accountability. Above all, executive involvement is critical for fostering the executive’s trust and confidence in the judges. Similar considerations apply to Parliament. If the executive and Parliament are wholly or largely excluded from the appointment process, they might be less inclined to respect the role and independence of the judiciary.
  • The Consultation Paper envisages the reduced involvement of the Lord Chancellorin appointments at the lower ranks of the judiciary, but increased involvement at the higher ranks, through participating in the ad hoc selection panels for the most senior judicial appointments.
  • On appointments to the lower levels of the judiciary, our view is that the goal ofincreasing diversity requires the continued involvement of the Lord Chancellor. Theexperience in a number of overseas jurisdictions, as well as in the UK, demonstrates that improving diversity does not happen automatically as a result of changes in the composition of the legal profession. There is no convincing evidence of a “trickle up” effect. Rather, increasing judicial diversity requires political will to push for reforms, some of which might not be supported by the judiciary or legal profession. Removing the Lord Chancellor from the process of selection to the lower ranks of the judiciary removes the opportunity for the exercise of this political will.
  • On senior appointments, we welcome the impetus to give the Lord Chancellor agreater role. We disagree, however, with the suggested way of doing so. Rather than the Lord Chancellor participating in the ad hoc selection commissions, we favour the commissions providing the Lord Chancellor a short-list of three candidates to choose from, each candidate having been identified by the commission as well qualified and suitable for appointment. This allows for an appropriate degree of executive input by providing greater scope for the Lord Chancellor to promote judicial diversity, whilst also maintaining merit-based selection. It also maintains the Lord Chancellor’s role as a “back-stop” in case of error or malpractice.
  • There should be no serving Justices of the Supreme Court on the panel that selectsany of the Justices (including the President and Deputy President). It is inappropriate for any members of the court to be directly involved in the selection of the other members.
  • A consistent theme in our interviews is that the Constitutional Reform Act is rigidand overly prescriptive. Several interviewees have cited the stipulation of the number of Commissioners in Schedule 12 as an example of this, and hence we welcome the proposal for greater flexibility in determining the composition of the JAC. We agree with the suggested approached to delivering changes to the appointment process.
  • As indicated at paragraph 2, we believe that there are good reasons for involvingParliament in the appointment of senior judges (e.g. the Justices of the UK Supreme Court, the Lord Chief Justice and the Heads of Division). Statements of our views on the scope for parliamentary involvement in judicial appointments and on the dubious strength of some of the arguments made against such involvement can be found in the written evidence we supplied to the House of Lords Constitution Committee as part of its inquiry into the judicial appointment process.

Read the full submission »

Judicial Appointments in the UK and the US (Part I)

[Posted on behalf of Graham Gee]

The HL Constitution Committee is currently looking at The Judicial Appointments Process. Two questions stood out in the call for evidence: question 9 (on whether there are lessons to be drawn from other jurisdictions) and 21 (on whether there is a case for parliamentary hearings for senior judicial posts). These questions are related insofar as debates in the UK about parliamentary scrutiny of senior judicial appointments tend to be conducted in the shadow of confirmation hearings for the US Supreme Court. Reference is usually made to the US hearings to bolster the case against parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments. For the lesson that most commentators in the UK draw is that confirmation hearings have led to the ‘politicization’ of appointments to the US Supreme Court. It was thus pleasing to see Professor Alan Paterson offer a qualified defence of the US experience during his evidence before the Committee last week. Following Professor Paterson’s lead, and drawing on written evidence I’ve submitted to the Committee, I use this post to debunk three ‘myths’ about hearings for the US Supreme Court. (In a later post, I seek to debunk some common myths about the role of judicial elections for appointments to state judiciaries in the US).

Myth 1: Hearings are the primary source of the politicization of appointments

Hearings are a fairly recent innovation. The first was held in 1939, and hearings only became routine from 1952. Yet, political conflict was an occasional feature of the appointment process before 1939. All told, there have been 29 unsuccessful nominations in the Court’s history, 22 of them long before the very first hearing in 1939.

It is true that some nominations have trigged political conflict. But what is often overlooked is that most nominations have not. To illustrate this, consider how the Senate has actually voted in confirmation proceedings. Since 1969, the Senate has confirmed 15 Justices and 2 Chief Justices by a combined vote of 1,336 to 264. During the same period the Senate has rejected 3 nominations by a vote of 164 to 132 (with a further 2 nominations withdrawn before a vote was taken).

It is also true that the level of opposition to nominees seems to have increased in recent years, at least in terms of the numbers of votes cast by the Senate. However a better explanation for recent episodes of political conflict stems from the newly aggressive nomination strategies adopted by some recent Presidents.

It is well known that the Court has assumed an increasingly prominent role over the last sixty years. It is widely accepted that this is one reason why appointments attract considerable attention—and, from time to time, political controversy. Less appreciated is that as the Court’s influence over constitutional matters has risen, so Presidents have become increasingly aware of their limited capacity to influence constitutional affairs. For example, Presidential attempts to spearhead movements to amend the Constitution have failed and as have attempts to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over contentious social issues such as abortion and school prayers. As a result some Presidents have turned to judicial appointments in an attempt to shape the constitutional agenda by selecting a nominee who falls outside the mainstream of constitutional thought and who might, if appointed, seek to upend the settled precedent of the Supreme Court (e.g. Robert Bork).

In broad terms, it might be said that if presented with a nominee whose judicial ideology falls outside the mainstream of constitutional thought, the Senate is likely to reject the nomination. If presented with a more moderate nominee, the Senate is likely to confirm (provided, that is, that the nominee is suitably qualified and has a record of professional integrity). Insofar as the Senate might refuse to confirm a controversial nominee who might seek to upturn settled precedent, the Senate process—including the hearing—can be said to uphold the independence of the Supreme Court. Hence, whereas confirmation processes are often said to imperil the independence of the judiciary, it might be that sometimes the opposite is in fact nearer the truth. For in the US context, the Senate’s involvement provides a means to protect the Supreme Court from presidential attempts to transform the interpretation and construction of the Constitution.

Myth 2: The Questioning of Nominees is Inappropriate

The hearings have been criticised for encouraging the inappropriate questioning of nominees about their judicial ideology. However, there are two main reasons why the Senate is entitled to question nominees about their judicial ideology. First, a nominee’s judicial ideology would influence how they would vote—if confirmed —on the issues that would come before them, and it is thus appropriate for the Senate to question them on it. Those opposed to questioning a nominee about their judicial ideology must argue either that a nominee’s ideology is unlikely to affect how they decide the cases before them or that even if ideology shapes their decisions, a nominee should not be questioned about it by the Senate. Nether argument is attractive when it applies to members of as powerful an institution as the US Supreme Court. Second, it is plain that the President considers a person’s judicial ideology when deciding whether to nominate them to the Supreme Court and so should the Senate, since otherwise there is too much scope for Presidents to mould the Court in their own image. It is true that Senators have been criticised for asking questions that require a nominee to pledge to decide specific types of cases in a certain way. This is a valid criticism. That said, it is worth remembering that most nominees have repeatedly (and quite properly) refused to answer such questions.

Myth 3: The Questioning of Nominees is Futile

The questioning of nominees about their judicial ideology is sometimes said to be futile. Recent nominees have often provided bland and uncontroversial answers. Thus, the Senators’ questions are said to be futile insofar as they fail to elicit any interesting or novel information. But this neglects the fact that the hearing is only one part of the Senate’s scrutiny of a nominee. Prior to the hearing, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee will already have researched the background, credentials and writings of the nominee. It will have received reports about the nominee from the FBI, the Congressional Research Service and the American Bar Association. Face-to-face meetings will already have been held between the nominee and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The questioning is also said to be futile insofar as the Senate can never be certain that a nominee’s judicial ideology will not change. This is certainly true. However, the fact that there can be no certainty on this front does not render the Senate’s questioning futile. The questioning of a nominee has multiple purposes, only one of which is to elicit information. It also provides a forum for the Senate to discuss issues of national importance—and, in this, to signal the Senate’s concerns to the judiciary and public at large (e.g. the discussions of racism in the nominations of Rehnquist, Haynsworth and Carswell). Hearings also provide an opportunity to ask the nominee about any specific charges which emerge during the confirmation process (e.g. Clarence Thomas).

Concluding Thought

None of this should be taken to deny that here are problems with the process for appointments justices of the US Supreme Court. Nor should it be taken to deny that the confirmation hearings can be messy, partisan and aggressive. Rather, this post should be taken as a reminder that hearings are not the primary source of the politicization of the process. Above all, this post cautions us against making two mistakes all too common in UK discussions of the US process. The first mistake is to focus only on the Senate’s role in confirming the nominee, and to neglect the President’s role in selecting nominee in the first place. Both the initial nomination by the President and the subsequent confirmation by the Senate must always be kept in mind. This first mistake is often compounded by a second mistake, namely focusing only on the Senate hearing. The hearing is only one part in the Senate’s scrutiny of the President’s nominee.

 

Lord Chief Justice on the Public Bodies Bill and Judicial Independence

The Public Bodies Bill was already in serious trouble in the House of Lords, because of the cavalier way in which the government propose to abolish, merge or modify a whole raft of public bodies through secondary legislation.  Now the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge has fired his own broadside, which may be enough to stop the bill in its tracks.  In evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee on 15 December he roundly criticised the use of ministerial orders to abolish or amend judicial and quasi-judicial bodies which had been established by primary legislation.

Lord Judge specifically mentioned the Judicial Appointments Commission, Criminal Cases Review Commission, Parole Board, and Sentencing Council and went on to say: “I very much hope that very careful reconsideration will be given to the whole series of bodies in Schedule 7 which currently perform a quasi-judicial function but whose independence is all part and parcel of the weft of an independent judiciary”.  He went on to discuss the impact of the budget cuts on the Courts Service, Legal Aid and the Crown Prosecution Service; and the circumstances in which he might decide not to sign a Concordat agreement because he judged the funding arrangements to be inadequate.

Lord Judge’s remarkably frank evidence is one example of how the Judiciary have become more independent since the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, but also feel themselves to be more accountable.  (Lord Judge offered to come and give evidence twice a year to the Committee if they wanted).  How the relations between the Judges, Parliament and the Courts are evolving, and the inevitable tensions which arise, are the subject of the Constitution Unit’s new three year project on The Politics of Judicial Independence, which starts in January.

Robert Hazell