Acting Like Grown-Ups

Is there a point to legislating when judges can do it for us?

I would like to elaborate on a point I made in my last post, which discussed arguments at the Supreme Court on Monday about whether the suspension of the declaration of unconstitutionality of the across-the-board criminalization of assisted suicide should be extended. I said that while it is true that, with the decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, the Supreme Court has laid down the constitutional foundation on which an eventual legal framework for the regulation of assisted suicide will have to be built, it would still be better if elected officials ― and through them, the citizens of Canada ― took responsibility for the building. As I noted, the argument of Joseph Arvay, who made the case against the extension, implied that this was not so ― that the judicial process was sufficient to construct this regulatory framework, with no need for legislative intervention, save perhaps for “bells and whistles.” And indeed, what’s the point of the plodding work of legislation if the courts show us the way to go?

This question does not only arise in the context of assisted suicide. Indeed, as the Supreme Court noted in Carter, the declaration of unconstitutionality that it issued in that case was tailored to its specific facts, making “no pronouncement on other situations where physician-assisted dying may be sought” ― so that legislative action is certainly necessary if these any of these other circumstances are to be encompassed by the regulatory framework. But the issue I have in mind is, if anything, even more pressing in other cases. The legalization of same-sex marriage, more than a decade ago now, is one obvious example. It could ― and would ― have been effected through the judicial process, as court after court struck down opposite-sex definition of marriage. There was no need for Parliament to intervene. But Parliament did intervene, after a notorious bit of political theatre involving a reference to the Supreme Court. Was that a good thing? I think it was.

Probably not because legislation can, as the federal government argued before the Supreme Court on Monday, generate “buy-in” from stakeholders, or broader social acceptability, than a judicial decision. This sounds like an empirical claim, and while we cannot run a controlled experiment to verify it (we cannot enact the same policy by legislation and by judicial decision for the same population and see which generates more social acceptability), we can consider some indirect evidence. For example, in the United States, marriage equality seems to have been easily enough accepted, despite a couple of well-publicized instances of officials defying the Supreme Court’s decision to mandate it. By contrast, President Obama’s healthcare reforms remain deeply controversial, despite having been put in place by legislation. It would at least seem that the way in which a rule comes into being does not foreordain its acceptance or rejection by the citizenry.

Rather, I think that a polity taking responsibility for its laws by enacting them democratically, even if it is spurred to do so by judicial decisions, is a good thing in itself, regardless of the felicitous consequences it does or does produce, or at least the worthy and responsible thing to do. My thinking here is inspired by Jeremy Waldron, and specifically by an argument he makes in his paper called “How Law Protects Dignity.” Building on Lon Fuller’s idea that rule-based governance only makes sense if one regards human beings as responsible and capable of self-direction ― as endowed, indeed, with dignity ―, Waldron writes that

legal systems … work by using, rather than short-circuiting, the agency of ordinary human individuals. They count on people’s capacities for practical understanding, for self-control, for self-monitoring and modulation of their own behaviour in relation to norms that they can grasp and understand. (7)


[e]ven when the self-application of general norms is not possible and institutional determination is necessary, either because of disputes about application or because application inherently requires an official determination, still the particular orders that are eventually issued at law look towards self-application. (7)

People ordered to pay damages tend to pay up without the bailiffs seizing their property; even convicted criminals are often allowed to show up to serve their sentence at a pre-determined date without being forcibly brought to prison by the police. Prof. Waldron concludes that

[t]he pervasive emphasis on self-application is … definitive of law, differentiating it sharply from systems of rule that work primarily by manipulating, terrorizing or galvanizing behavior. And as Fuller recognizes, it represents a decisive commitment by law to the dignity of the human individual. (8)

Conversely, though, the dignified thing to do for a person is to engage in self-application of the law, instead of waiting to be physically coerced into compliance.

Prof. Waldron writes about the application of law to individuals. And he cautions elsewhere about the potential problems that can arise if we start applying dignitarian ideas to groups, especially to groups such as nations and states. Still, I think that it makes sense to transpose his ideas about the self-application of the law to the level of political communities.

This transposition goes something like this. Constitutional law is the law that binds the citizens of a polity in their collective political action. And, like other forms of law, it counts in the first instance on the people and, especially, the political actors application its rules to themselves, which is why I get so exercised when they do not. However, perhaps even than with other areas of the law, constitutional law is subject to disputes about its application. As with other areas of the law, courts are often called upon to settle these disputes. But it remains the case that, as with other areas of the law, self-application matters even in the realm of compliance with specific court orders. A community’s self-application of constitutional judicial decisions can take many forms ― and the enactment of legislation that implements judicial decisions, even if it is not strictly speaking necessary, is one of them. It is the political equivalent of a judgment debtor writing a cheque to his erstwhile adversary. It is the dignified thing to do.

Or think of it, if you will, a sign of acting like an adult, of doing what one has to do, instead of having others do things for you and to you. Even responsible adults sometimes have to be reminded of their obligations, and they might not always be as graceful as one might wish in complying with them. Still, it is a sign of maturity and responsibility when they do end up complying with them on their own, instead of being dragged kicking and screaming, like an unruly child might be. Our polity does not always live up to this ideal. We often let provisions declared unconstitutional remain on the books, for instance. (The prohibition on prisoners voting, struck down in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, but still a part of the Canada Elections Act (as par. 4(c)), is just one example.) But it is ironic and sad when, as was the case on Monday, defenders of individual rights argue that we can freely dispense with the effort of making good on our constitutional commitment to respect them because the judges can do the work for us.

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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