Constitutional Implications

I have come across a fairly interesting new article, “A Comparative Analysis of the Doctrinal Consequences of Interpretive Disagreements for Implied Constitutional Rights,” by Zoë Robinson, of DePaul University’s College of Law. On the basis of a comparison between Australia and the United States, specifically between the development of a right to free political communication in Australia and the right to abortion in the U.S., Prof. Robinson argues that judicial implication is a rather ineffective way of  protecting rights. Implication of rights is always the result of dubious interpretive methods; it is vulnerable to criticism, which makes judges self-conscious; it also results in “a paucity of interpretive resources which could support doctrinal developments” (96). I think prof. Robinson is right, as an empirical matter, about the weakness of implied rights, but I doubt that her explanations for it are sufficient, or even correct.

To help us think about the problem of implied rights, it is useful to cast a wider net than prof. Robinson does. One way of doing this is to bring Canada into the comparison. We have, after all, our own “implied bill of rights,” consisting mostly of the freedom of (political) speech. Another, which reflecting on implication in Canadian constitutional law suggests, is to compare implied rights not to “express” rights, as prof. Robinson does, but to other implied constitutional rules, which in Canada we know as “underlying constitutional principles,” and which also exist in American law (the separation of powers jurisprudence is, for example, built on the implications of the three-branch structure of government created by Articles I, II, and III of the U.S. Constitution).

The story of Canadian “implied bill of rights” cases seems to suggest that prof. Robinson may well be right. Despite high-minded rhetoric and apparent promise, the idea of rights implicit in the preamble of, or the institutions created by, the Constitution Act, 1867, was never endorsed by a majority of the Supreme Court, and never served as the actual ratio decidendi of a case; it was always raised in obiter by, at most, a couple of judges at a time. While lauded by some academics, notably F.R. Scott, it was criticized by others, notably Bora Laskin. And in the late 1970s, the Supreme Court came to reject it, in Dupond v. City of Montreal, [1978] 2 S.C.R. 770, (though justice Laskin, ironically, dissented). Despite this rejection, and the subsequent coming into force of the Charter, the “implied bill of rights” is not quite dead and buried (Justice Lebel, for example, referred to it with approval in his concurring opinion in R. v. Demers, 2004 SCC 46, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 489), but there is not much life in it either.

Yet looking at underlying constitutional principles provides a useful contrast. You’d think that they would be affected by the same problems as implied rights – dubious origins, vulnerability to criticism, impossibility to develop into something jurisprudentially useful. And to some extent they certainly are. They have indeed been criticized – for example, in a scathing paper by Université de Montréal’s Jean Leclair – and the Supreme Court’s unanimous, and dismissive, almost contemptuous, rejection of underlying principles as source of implied constitutional protections in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 473, seems to confirm that implication is not a reliable source of rights. But that’s not the whole story of underlying principles. They have been applied to powerful effect in judicial independence cases (indeed, it is certainly arguable that the Supreme Court has gone too far with the principle of judicial independence), and also in the Manitoba Language Rights reference, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 721,  in which the Supreme Court managed to declare unconstitutional Manitoba’s entire statute book unconstitutional for not being enacted in both official languages without creating chaos, by the device of suspending the declaration of invalidity, in the name of the underlying principle of the Rule of Law.

What the cases involving underlying principles seem to suggest is that these principles are more easily used to work out fundamentals of constitutional structure than individual rights. The situation in America, at least as I understand it, confirms this thought, since separation of powers cases there seem to excite nowhere near the same degree of hostility, and to be subject to nowhere near the same degree of judicial self-doubt, as cases that can be described as involving implied rights. Why this should be so, I do not quite understand. Perhaps it is merely because rights cases are more high-profile and (or because) more intelligible to the layperson than structural cases. Perhaps there are other reasons why courts are more confident in their ability to get constitutional structure right than individual rights. However that may be, implied constitutional rules are not bound to be anemic and fruitless. If implied constitutional rights are, there ought to be some further explanation, specific to rights themselves, and not applicable to all constitutional implications.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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