Thursday, July 19, 2007

AALL 2007 Conference - Differences Between U.S. and Canada

I got back early this morning (got home at 1:30 AM) from the annual conference of the American Association of Law Libraries in New Orleans.

This was my first law library conference in the United States and the event, as well as many conversations with American delegates, made me realize how different the political and legal cultures of Canada and the U.S. can be.

The keynote speech that opened the conference was a case in point.

It was given by Joan Biskupic, the Supreme Court of the United States correspondent for USA Today. She is also the author of Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice.

She discussed the life and judicial approach of now retired Justice O'Connor, the latest term of the U.S. Court, and the book she's now working on that will be about conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

She contrasted what she described as O'Connor's pragmatic, case-by-case approach, her "legacy of moderation", with the text-driven, inflexible style of Antonin Scalia, who holds to a stricter conservative philosophy of "original intent".

During the writing of the book, her exploration of archives from the Reagan years allowed her a glimpse into what she calls the Republican social and legal counter-revolution: a long-term strategy to appoint like-minded thinkers to the Bench to gradually overturn liberal rulings of the past 3 0r 4 decades and attain a number of policy goals: expanding executive power, ending racial preferences to help U.S. Blacks and other minority groups in matters of school integration, speeding capital executions, restricting access to abortion services, protecting corporations from lawsuits by consumers or employees. etc.

As Biskupic put it, "the court of [Reagan Attorney General] Meese, [Nixon press secretary] Buchanan and Scalia is here now".

She commented on how quickly the American Supreme Court has swung toward "Reaganism" in the few years since O'Connor resigned, not hesitating to undermine and weaken so-called liberal precedents.

The U.S. Court appears to be a battleground of ideas, with a now more solidly entrenched conservative majority openly fighting, appearing openly antagonistic at times to the more liberal minority. The divisions, the ideological polarization between these identifiable camps are out in the open. I could be wrong but that's the image I have after the conference.

That reality is quite striking and, on a gut level, feels quite alien to this Canadian observer.

In contrast, the longstanding tradition at the Supreme Court of Canada is one of collegiality and bridge-building. Over the past 10 years, for example, statistics indicate that on average 70-80% of all rulings have been unanimous. There is no sign this is about to change.

Neither would it be easy to determine who is a right-wing or conservative judge and who is a left-wing or liberal judge on the Supreme Court of Canada. Our judges do appear less predictable. A very good thing, perhaps. It would not be appropriate for me to provide any examples but I am often surprised how wrong my predictions are when I read a Supreme Court of Canada ruling. "Oh, I was absolutely sure they would rule the other way!" Not predictable at all.

Obviously, the differences in legal history, doctrinal differences, the necessity in Canada of reconciling the civil law and common law streams, our vastly different judicial appointment practices and traditions, all these no doubt explain the general tone here in Canada.

So, yes, law librarians everywhere share many of the same goals, accomplishments, problems and challenges. But the opening conference speech by Biskupic, and many of the conference workshops, were a reminder of how different national legal cultures still are.

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 6:05 pm


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