Building Legitimacy Brick by Brick

What follows is my contribution to a partly virtual book club organized by Osgoode’s Sonia Lawrence: the posts are collected here.

The Round House is an incredibly rich and complex novel, a coming-of-age story told by a young Native American boy whose mother was brutally raped at the intersection between federal, state and reserve lines.

My contribution will only scratch the surface of one of the book’s many facets, one which relates to the construction of identity, one of the novel’s key themes. The narrator’s father is a judge on the reserve. As is the wont of young boys, the narrator imagines his father as a Herculean figure, presiding gravely but intelligently over murder trials and other high-profile events.

Yet when he cracks open his father’s books he is disappointed: life as a judge involves the endless drudgery of petty crime and jurisdictional wrangling. But his father’s response deserves to be quoted at length:

“We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed, walk a step past the edge. Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made. Some day. We want the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries. Which is why I try to run a tight courtroom, Joe. What I am doing now is for the future, though it may seem small, or trivial, or boring, to you.”

Administrative decision-makers are also in an unenviable position, viewed with suspicion by many lawyers and judges (though the latter have been somewhat brought to heel by the Supreme Court’s policy of across-the-board deference, nominally at least). They are fighting for recognition in a world in which Lord Hewart’s tirade against the administrative state still has a willing audience, one where the idea that non-lawyers might have something useful to say about the law still provokes wails of discontent.

And there is a lesson. That building legitimacy is a slow process of building a system from the ground up. Hearings are an opportunity for administrative decision-makers to showcase themselves, advertising how they can use informal processes to maximize participation and ensure access to justice in a timely manner. Decisions are an occasion to demonstrate their wisdom and knowledge to an outside world skeptical of their abilities: well-reasoned decisions are not a burden but a vital component of a robust administrative justice system capable of winning over the doubters. And publication of decisions is not a chore to be avoided but a priceless chance to communicate with the wider public. Bit by little bit, every administrative decision-maker is building his or her contribution to the administrative justice edifice.

This content has been updated on January 13, 2015 at 21:41.