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The Elusive Quest for French on the Bench: Bilingualism Scores for Canadian Supreme Court Justices, 1985–2013

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 July 2022

Jean-Christophe Bédard-Rubin
Faculty of Law, University of
Tiago Rubin


This article explores normative arguments for mandatory judicial bilingualism. It disentangles the links between the normative reasons advanced for mandatory bilingualism and the correlative level of French that should be expected of judges. To provide empirical anchoring, we construct a bilingualism score of Canadian Supreme Court justices composed of four indicators. The score shows that non-systematic assessments used so far like self-assessments, parliamentary hearings and media coverage are not reliable instruments to predict the level of use of French on the Supreme Court. Also, the score suggests that institutional dynamics have an impact worth studying in more depth. Ultimately, the measurement of functional bilingualism depends first on which linguistic capacity is being measured. This, in turn, depends on the normative reasons supporting the requirement of functional bilingualism. Instead of asking whether French should be mandatory upon appointment, it might be more productive to ask how much French should be required.



Cet article s’attarde aux arguments normatifs en faveur du bilinguisme judiciaire obligatoire. Il y est plus précisément question de démêler les liens entre les raisons normatives qui sont avancées pour appuyer le bilinguisme obligatoire et le niveau de français attendu des juges. Pour fournir un ancrage empirique, nous construisons une échelle de bilinguisme des juges de la Cour suprême du Canada qui se fonde sur quatre indicateurs. Une telle échelle montre que les évaluations non systématiques qui ont été utilisées jusqu’à présent, telles que les auto-évaluations, les audiences parlementaires et la couverture médiatique, ne constituent pas des instruments fiables pour prédire le niveau d’utilisation effectif du français à la Cour suprême. Cette échelle suggère, à l’inverse, que les dynamiques institutionnelles semblent avoir un impact qui mérite d’être étudié plus en profondeur. À terme, cet article suggère que la mesure du bilinguisme fonctionnel dépend, d’abord et avant tout, de la capacité linguistique qui est mesurée. Une capacité qui dépendra, pour sa part, des raisons normatives qui soutiennent l’exigence de bilinguisme fonctionnel. Au lieu de se demander si le français devrait être obligatoire lors de la nomination des juges, cet article soulève donc la question à savoir s’il ne serait pas plus productif de se demander quel niveau de français devrait être exigé.

© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Canadian Law and Society Association

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We would like to thank Benjamin Alarie and Andrew Green for sharing their data with us. Robert Hawkins and the participants at the CPSA Annual Conference in Regina in 2018 as well as Francesco Ducci, Rory Gillis, and Jack Enman-Beech provided helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. We also received excellent comments, suggestions, and criticisms from the three reviewers. All remaining errors are ours.


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