- Value Change in the Supreme Court of Canada by Matthew E. Wetstein, C.L. Ostberg
For many researchers studying public opinion, understanding the values held by the public and how those values change over time is a critical focus. Perhaps one of the most persuasive explanations for value change comes from Ronald Inglehart’s theory of post-materialism (The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles, Princeton University Press, 1977), which contends that once a society secures materialist values, such as economic and physical security, it transitions to a focus on post-materialist values such as environmental protection, gender equality, and other quality-of-life concerns. In Value Change in the Supreme Court of Canada, Matthew Wetstein and C.L. Ostberg seek to understand if the shift from materialist to post-materialist values have impacted the attitudes Supreme Court of Canada justices hold and the decisions they make.
Wetstein and Ostberg ground their study of value change within the socio-attitudinal model of judicial behaviour. This model holds that judicial decision-making is reflective of the individual attitudes and ideological orientations of justices in a manner that is consistent and often predictable. These judicial attitudes not only reflect individual preferences, but they are also influenced by the mass public and the perspectives of other actors in the legal arena, such as intervening [End Page 305] interest groups. The authors test this theory in an original and ambitious study that looks for post-materialist value change in the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada in the issue areas of environmental protection, freedom of expression, and discrimination from 1970 to 2010. The authors find some evidence for post-materialist value change in environmental cases (though the support for post-materialism varied by the type of environmental issue), clear support for post-materialist change in freedom of expression cases, and more mixed results in discrimination cases.
The authors have earned a reputation for skilfully employing rigorous quantitative methodology to the study of decision-making at the Supreme Court of Canada, and Value Change is no exception. This approach (one commonly employed by scholars working within an attitudinal framework) has been criticized for placing too much of an emphasis on case outcome and the votes of individual judges at the expense of oversimplifying complex legal doctrine. In response, Wetstein and Ostberg integrate qualitative analysis of the development of legal doctrine across the study’s three issue areas. While the authors should be commended for providing a more robust study of judicial decision-making by reviewing the language used by the Court in its decisions, this qualitative analysis could be improved in a few respects. First, the qualitative chapters focus on “landmark cases” as defined by their inclusion in Peter Hogg’s Constitutional Law of Canada (Carswell, 2011) and do not employ a systematic mechanism of case selection. Unfortunately, this limits the explanatory power of this work. Second, while the qualitative analysis is rich in its descriptive details of selected cases in each issue area, it does not engage in a structured analysis of the cases. Had the text employed a more systematized study of the language used, such as defining and coding the decisions for language that is materialist, compared to post-materialist, readers would have a better sense of patterns across cases, and the book would have the potential to make a greater contribution to the study of the Court’s doctrine.
In terms of historical breadth, Value Change engages in an analysis that covers an impressive four decades of decision-making by the Supreme Court of Canada. During this period, the Court experienced important institutional changes. These included increased control over its docket, which provided the Court with a great deal of discretion in determining which cases it would hear; changes to the rules regarding participation of interveners, which gave greater access to these groups; and, of course, the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Each of these factors undoubtedly impacted the [End Page 306] types of...