Conventional Thinking

There is big news on the Supreme Court appointment front today, which is arguably not getting enough attention. According to the Globe’s Sean Fine, “[t]he Conservative government has turned to Quebec to create a candidate list for the Supreme Court of Canada” ― asking the provincial government to submit names of potential replacements for Justice Fish (who retired last fall) and Justice Nadon (whose appointment the Supreme Court invalidated in March). The federal government is promising to choose the new judge from the provincial list. Relying on a federal government “source”, Mr. Fine writes that

the new process is not meant to be a precedent … It applies to the current vacancy, but will probably not be used to select a replacement for Justice Louis LeBel of Quebec when his retirement takes effect at the end of November. It would be wrong to see the same process being used for the two judges, the federal source said.

Except that Québec’s Justice Minister does not see it that way. In her view, “the collaboration undertaken with [her] federal counterpart will allow us to chart the course for things to come.”

What we are witnessing, at least for this appointment, but perhaps for the future too, if the Québec government has its way (and perhaps those of other provinces, which would not want to miss out on such an expansion of their powers), is nothing less than the implementation of the appointment process that would have been constitutionalized (in a proposed section 101C of the Constitution Act, 1867) by the (failed!) Meech Lake Accord. In the mid-1980s it was thought that this sort of change required a constitutional amendment, debated over years of public agony; in the mid-2010s, it can apparently be done by some phone calls, about which we learn weeks after the fact and might not care. But what about those big huge Supreme Court decisions this spring, in the Nadon case and in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32? didn’t those have something to say about changing the constitution, in particular as it concerns the Supreme Court? Well, they did. But the events might be exposing the limits of the Court’s pronouncements, and indeed of its power, faster than anyone probably expected.

In the the Nadon decision, the Supreme Court’s majority was of the opinion that

[u]nder s. 41(d) [of the Constitution Act, 1982], the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provincial legislatures is required for amendments to the Constitution relating to the “composition of the Supreme Court”. The notion of “composition” refers to ss. 4(1), 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act, which codify the composition of and eligibility requirements for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada as they existed in 1982 (par. 91).

It further found that all other “essential features of the Court” (par. 94) were entrenched under par. 42(1)(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982, thus being subject to amendment under the “7/50” formula. Interestingly, the majority’s opinion omits the Supreme Court Act‘s reference to the appointment process ― subs. 4(2), which provides that “[t]e judges shall be appointed by the Governor in Council by letters patent under the Great Seal” from the list of provisions entrenched by s. 41. Nor is it entirely clear whether it is entrenched by par. 42(1)(d). The majority’s opinion states that “the essential features of the Court” which are so entrenched are to be

understood in light of the role that it had come to play in the Canadian constitutional structure by the time of patriation. These essential features include, at the very least, the Court’s jurisdiction as the final general court of appeal for Canada, including in matters of constitutional interpretation, and its independence.

The appointment mechanism is conspicuously absent from this meagre list, but then the list is not exhaustive. It seems at least logical to suppose that it is, in fact, an “essential feature” of the Court. And, to reiterate, in the years following patriation, the political actors presumably thought that it was entrenched and required constitutional amendment to be changed.

Now, subs. 4(2) of the Supreme Court Act only mentions appointment by the Governor in Council. It doesn’t say anything about any procedure that must, may, or may not be followed prior to that appointment. Sounds familiar? It should. That’s also the situation with respect to appointments to the Senate under s. 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that “The Governor General shall from Time to Time … summon qualified Persons to the Senate.” In the Senate Reform Reference, the government argued that this silence about what preceded appointments allowed it to organize “consultative” elections the winners of which the government would have to “consider” recommending to the Governor General for appointment. The Supreme Court rejected this claim, first and foremost on the basis that “consultative” elections “would fundamentally alter the architecture of the constitution” (par. 53).

Unfortunately, the Court does not define this notion of constitutional “architecture” well at all, beyond saying that it has something to do with “[t]he assumptions that underlie the text and the manner in which the constitutional provisions are intended to interact with one another” (par. 26). The Senate’s place in the constitutional “architecture” is that of a chamber of “sober second thought,” devoid of democratic legitimacy and the ability to challenge the House of Commons that elections would confer on it. But what about the Supreme Court?

In my view, there is a strong argument to be made that it was always an “assumption[] underlying the text” both of s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which authorized Parliament to create the Supreme Court in the first place, and then of the amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, that the federal government would be in control of the appointments to the Supreme Court, and that provincial governments would not be part of it. Again, it is based on this assumption that the inclusion of the provinces in the process was stipulated in the Meech Lake Accord for constitutional amendment and not just implemented on an informal basis.

So is the involvement of a provincial government in the appointment of a Supreme Court judge unconstitutional in the same way as “consultative elections” to the Senate? Perhaps not. In a paper dealing with the federal government’s Senate reform plans (published before the Supreme Court heard, much less decided the Senate Reform Reference), Fabien Gélinas and I have argued that there is a distinction to be made between a law setting up “consultative elections” and an informal process of genuine consultation prior to the appointment of a Senator:

the Prime Minister is free to consult before advising the Governor General to summon a person to the Senate. However …  when that consultative process is made the subject of legislation, that legislation—unlike a mere practice—must pass constitutional muster. The distinction between practice and legislation is … what allows constitutional conventions to grow even when the conventional rule is at odds with a clear rule of constitutional law. The legal limits on the constitutional changes that Parliament can achieve by legislating are more stringent than the political limits that constrain the actual action of the Prime Minister. This is only logical, because a law, once enacted by the Parliament of today, needs no further confirmation by those of the future to remain in force, whereas the practice of a single Prime Minister will not acquire the binding character of a convention unless his or her successors come to view it as “the constitutional position” and feel bound by it themselves (p. 122; reference omitted).

The involvement of the Québec government in the forthcoming Supreme Court appointment is informal; even if the process is repeated when Justice Lebel is replaced, it will still be a mere practice, not the subject of legislation. The Québec government will have to hope that the current Prime Minister’s successors will feel bound to replicate the practice for it to crystallize into a firm constitutional convention.

Yet the notion of a “constitutional architecture” challenges the orthodox distinction between law and convention on which we relied (without quite believing ― certainly on my part ― in the distinction’s validity). It may be that some of the current constitutional conventions are part of the entrenched “architecture.” It may also be that the “architecture” prevents the development of new conventions that would undermine it. I don’t think that anyone ― including the members, current or future, of the Supreme Court ― know whether it does. And it is doubtful whether we will find out. If both the federal and the provincial government are on board, no one will begin a reference that would force the Supreme Court to clarify its position. Could another Rocco Galati challenge the appointment that will come out of the current process? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t count on it happening. One thing that seems reasonably certain, however, is that although conventional thinking may no longer hold as a result of this spring’s decisions by the Supreme Court, thinking about constitutional conventions, which the Court avoided, will still be necessary.

UPDATE: I explain why, regardless of its constitutionality, making permanent this change in the appointments process is a bad idea in this post.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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