Assisted suicide and the trouble with giving politicians time to respond to judicial decisions
This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the federal government’s application to extend the suspension of the declaration of invalidity of the Criminal Code‘s provisions that have the effect of prohibiting assisted suicide in any circumstances, which the Court granted in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5,  1 S.C.R. 331. The suspension of the declaration of invalidity was meant to last a year ― and that period will expire on February 6. The federal government, supported by Ontario, says it needs more time to consider and enact is response. The Carter appellants, represented by Joseph Arvay, argue that additional legislation is not necessary, and any extension of the suspension would cause the beneficiaries of the constitutional right not to be prevented from receiving a willing physician’s assistance in dying to suffer needlessly.
I watched the webcast (except for Québec’s submissions), more because I was interested in what the Court might say about suspended declarations of invalidity in general than out of a preoccupation with Carter itself. (Others have written about the specific issues in Carter, for example Emmett Macfarlane in a post for Policy Options.) Suspended declarations of invalidity are something of a habit for the Supreme Court, and some thoughtful academics believe that it is a bad one. For example, in a blog post for the UK Constitutional Law Association, Robert Leckey argued that suspended declarations of invalidity infringe the Rule of Law and weaken the courts’ power of reviewing legislation. As I wrote in response, I think these are important concerns, although prof. Leckey might not have given enough weight to some countervailing considerations. In any case, as I wrote at the time, “[w]e need to think more about this issue ― and so does the Supreme Court,” which has been unwilling to give meaningful, or even any, explanations for its decisions as to whether to suspend its declarations of invalidity or not. Unfortunately, if perhaps inevitably, this morning the big questions about suspended declarations of invalidity seemed to me to stay just below the surface of the argument, as the parties and the Court mostly which stayed narrowly focused on the case at bar. (I take it that prof. Macfarlane disagrees.)
There was some discussion of the Rule of Law, to be sure, after the federal government invoked it as justifying the need for comprehensive legislation and as a reason for rejecting the possibility of judges granting individual exemptions if the suspension of the declaration of invalidity is extended. Ontario also insisted on the need for clarity regarding the legal situation of the various persons who may become involved in physician-assisted suicide. Mr. Arvay, for his part, rejected the governments’ claims that allowing the declaration of invalidity to expire without other legisltion in place would generate uncertainty. But there was, understandably enough, no discussion of how the need for legal certainty might play out in other cases where, as Prof. Leckey has argued convincingly, a suspended declaration of invalidity may generate more rather than less uncertainty over the state of the law than an outright invalidation.
But there was no explicit discussion of whether it matters, when we consider the appropriateness of suspending a declaration of invalidity, whether the law at issue is a repressive one or one that attempts to balance the competing claims of various social groups ― as I suggested it might. Clearly, however, something like this concern underlies the difference of emphasis between Mr. Arvay, who insisted on the ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of the people on whose behalf he litigated the case, and the government, which repeatedly spoke of the importance of “buy-in” from physicians and other stakeholders, which in its view only legislation can generate.
Nor was there any discussion of the need for the Court to explain its reasons for granting or denying a suspension of a declaration of invalidity, though one might hope that the Court will be made to reflect on it by an exchange between Justice Wagner and Mr. Arvay. Justice Wagner asked whether the Court had been wrong to suspend the declaration of invalidity it issued in Carter. Mr. Arvay wouldn’t say so, but he did inform the Court that others have. If the Court does indeed think it possible that suspending the declaration of invalidity was a mistake, it should, in my humble opinion, consider the fact that one reason for judges to explain their decisions is that they ― as the rest of us ― are less likely to err when submitting to the self-discipline of giving reasons. Decisions regarding suspended declarations of invalidity are no different from those that concern the other aspects of the cases that courts decide. Had the Supreme Court forced itself to work out an explanation for this aspect of its ruling in Carter, instead of lazily contenting itself with stating that it “would suspend the declaration of invalidity for 12 months,”  it might have avoided a decision that it may now have reason to regret.
This morning’s hearing was perhaps most instructive when it came to another issue: that of the respective roles of Parliament, the provincial legislatures, and courts in upholding constitutional rights and making policy, and the implications of a suspended declaration of unconstitutionality for their relationship. The federal government and Ontario emphasized the unusual nature of this case because it makes it necessary, in their view, for both Parliament and legislatures to act. Mr. Avray disagreed that it was necessary for Parliament to legislate (and prof. Macfarlane, for one, shares his view), but even if inapposite in this case, this argument is worth keeping in mind for future ones ― at least if the parties that made it were wrong to say that another such case might never come up again. The Court will also have to ask itself whether the messy realities of politics, including both the time it takes to legislate in general ― to which the parties did refer ―, and the significance of elections and changes of government ― which mostly went unmentioned ― should be allowed to intrude on its somewhat abstract views of dialogue between branches of government.
And beyond these specifics, there is a broader issue of whether Parliament and the legislatures or the Supreme Court should be the main author of the legal framework for assisted suicide in Canada. The government lawyers insisted on the importance of having a legislated framework, for generating both stakeholders’ “buy-in” and for a broader social acceptability. Mr. Arvay, however, was having none of it. He described Québec “death with dignity” law as mostly “bells and whistles,” and was adamant that legislators, both federal and provincial, were effectively superfluous in elaborating a regulatory framework. The efforts, such as they were, of the federal government ― not only of Stephen Harper’s administration, but also of the current one ― towards developing a response to Carter have been “dilatory,” in Mr. Arvay’s view. There is no need to collect more information ― it’s all there, in the trial record. There is no pressing need to legislate ― physicians and their professional regulatory bodies can deal with pretty much any issue that assisted suicide raises on their own.
This contempt for politicians is not surprising coming from a man who would like to insulate the judiciary from any sort of political influence. Yet while it is true that politicians generally have failed to get their act together on the issue of assisted suicide, and that Mr. Harper’s government at least can be fairly described as having procrastinated on responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carter, I think that Mr. Arvay is wrong here, as he is wrong in his quest to “depoliticize” the judiciary. It is not only the politicians that he insults when he says that we need no more discussion than what has happened in the courts ― it is also the citizenry. True, the courts have laid down the constitutional foundation on which an eventual legal framework will have to be built. But it would still be better if elected officials ― and through them, the citizens of Canada ― take responsibility for the building. Mr. Arvay’s position that a process that makes this possible is irrelevant is condescending and disheartening.
I suspect that at least some of the judges ― especially Justice Moldaver, but possibly a number of others ― also think along these lines. But even if they do, it does not follow that they will grant the extension the federal government has requested. They may agree with Mr. Arvay, prof. Macfarlane and others that the extension is not necessary for the legislative process to proceed. (Justice Moldaver himself inquired about that possibility in questioning the federal government’s lawyer.) I do not know how the Court will rule. But I hope that its ruling, whatever its conclusion, is mindful of the issues that it will inevitably raise and that go well beyond just this case.
NOTE: I misspelled Mr. Arvay’s name earlier. My apologies! And thanks for Laura Track for pointing it out to me.