A Pile of Problems

A critique of Steven Penney’s take on the Supreme Court’s distinction between criminal and administrative penalties

Steven Penney has recently posted to SSRN an interesting article, published last year in the Supreme Court Law Review, criticizing the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence distinguishing the imposition of “administrative” and “criminal” penalties. People (and corporations) who risk the latter kind of penalties ― “true penal consequences” as the Court calls them ― benefit from a variety of procedural protections which section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “[a]ny person charged with an offence”. Those facing only “administrative” penalties ― which can include suspensions of licenses (to drive or to practice a profession) and fines, even fines ranging in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars ― are not protected by the Charter.

Prof. Penney traces the intellectual roots of this distinction to the Canadian rejection of the “Lochner era” in American constitutional jurisprudence, which is generally thought to have involved judicial subversion of valuable economic regulation intended to protect society’s less powerful members.  Prof. Penney shares the concern that motivated this rejection, but argues that it has been taken too far. The “shadow of Lochner“, as his article’s title has it, has dimmed the guiding lights of the Charter, even as

[l]egislatures have increasingly relied on administrative and civil enforcement regimes to address forms of wrongdoing previously left to the criminal law. In many instances, the sanctions accompanying these regimes are harsh, the targets are ordinary people, and the rules protecting adjudicative fairness are weak. (309)

Prof. Penney argues that section 11 of the Charter should be interpreted more broadly, to provide procedural protections to persons involved in administrative as well as criminal proceedings. The government’s ability to justify restrictions to or departures from these protections under section 1 should be enough to prevent them from standing in the way of truly important economic regulation ― but the necessity of these restrictions or departures would have to be justified.

This is an intriguing argument. I have written here about Thibault c. Da Costa, 2014 QCCA 2347, a case in which the distinction between administrative and criminal penalties was used to uphold the imposition, on a financial advisor who had swindled some of his clients, of fines that were higher than those authorized by the applicable legislation as it stood at the time of the acts. In the criminal context, paragraph 11(i) of the Charter, which entitles persons charged with an offence “if found guilty of the offence and if the punishment for the offence has been varied between the time of commission and the time of sentencing, to the benefit of the lesser punishment”, prohibits this. But the Québec Court of Appeal took the view that the proceedings here were not really criminal, because the fines imposed were not “true penal consequences”, and so their retrospective increase was upheld. I wrote that the decision, although legally correct, was disturbing. Prof. Penney discusses two decisions of the Supreme Court that also apply this distinction to disturbing effect (as he, persuasively in my view, argues):  Guindon v Canada, 2015 SCC 41, [2015] 3 SCR 3 and Goodwin v. British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), 2015 SCC 46, [2015] 3 S.C.R. 250.

At the same time, however, Prof. Penney’s article suffers from a some flaws that are, sadly, characteristic of Canadian constitutional thought. One issue I have with Prof. Penney’s argument is that it mostly does not question the conventional wisdom on the “Lochner era” in which it finds the roots of the problem it tries to push back against. According to this conventional wisdom, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), held up, in prof. Penney’s words, “a rigid and formalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights to limit state efforts to enact and enforce progressive economic legislation”. (308) This is questionable; indeed, recent scholarship argues that it is simply wrong. David Bernstein, whose book prof. Penney cites but does not engage with, has shown that, far from being intended to protect the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the legislation invalidated in Lochner served to protect (relatively) big ― and unionized ― established businesses against smaller, family-owned competitors. Many other laws invalidated in the “Lochner era” ― which were never as numerous as subsequent criticism made them out to be ― were similarly objectionable. Meanwhile, this reviled jurisprudential era has served as the foundation for the subsequent expansion in the enforcement of constitutional rights in the non-economic realm.

This history matters. Rectifying the record is useful for its own sake of course. Prof. Penney says that “[t]he story of Lochner is well known” (310) ― and, in the next sentence, misstates the year in which it was decided; an accident, no doubt, but an ironic one. Prof. Penney quotes a passage from Justice Cory’s reasons in R v Wholesale Travel Group Inc, [1991] 3 SCR 154 describing the “so-called ‘Lochner era'” as the period of time when “courts struck down important components of the program of regulatory legislation known as ‘the New Deal'”. But of course the “Lochner era” began well before Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, and most of the laws struck down during this period had nothing to do with it. In short, “the story of Lochner” is rather less well known than one might be tempted to suppose; what people think they know about it may be ideological myth more than reality. More importantly, however, recovering Lochner‘s philosophy ― an opposition not to any and all economic regulation, but to the sort of regulation that privileges some groups in society above others ― might also make us rightly more suspicious than we tend to be of the  regulatory schemes that the courts end up protecting by invoking the administrative-criminal distinction. In my post on Thibault I suggested that courts should be wary of “the specious claims professional organizations, and governments which choose to delegate their regulatory powers to them, make about their role” when they ask themselves whether the penalties at issue are administrative or penal in nature. Remembering Lochner‘s lesson ― that economic regulation is not always as benign and protective as it seems ― might help here.

My other, and more important, objection to prof. Penney’s argument concerns his approach to constitutional interpretation. He “claim[s] … that the Supreme Court’s construal of ‘charged with an offence'” in section 11 of the Charter as excluding administrative proceedings  “is too restrictive”. (323) It is too restrictive, prof. Penney argues, because of the bad consequences it produces ― in the sense that individual rights to “adjudicative fairness in contesting substantial state-imposed penalties” (324) are under-protected. As I suggest above, I think that prof. Penney is right to decry the under-protection of these rights. But it is not enough to say that, because interpreting a constitutional provision in a certain way produces unpleasant consequences, a different interpretation can and ought to be adopted.

The jurisprudence that prof. Penney criticizes arguably illustrates the perils of this approach. In prof. Penney’s telling, the Supreme Court is concerned about the costs of enforcing the Charter‘s procedural protections for the state’s ability to impose economic regulations, more than it is about the consequences of not enforcing these protections when “true penal consequences” such as imprisonment are not at stake. A consequentialist approach to constitutional interpretation can go either way; there is no guarantee that it will always be right-protecting. Consequentialism, in turn, is one possible way of implementing the “living tree” interpretive methodology that the Supreme Court and Canadian academia loudly insist is the only appropriate one. It’s not the only way ― one might be a living-treeist without being a consequentialist. But saying “living tree” is not enough to decide cases. Once one accepts that constitutional meaning can change, one has to figure out what it should change to, and this is where consequentialism comes in. If one wants to foreclose, or at least to limit, its influence in constitutional interpretation, one should, I suspect, abandon living-treeism, at least in the radically unspecified form in which it is practised in Canada.

Now, it is not clear that doing so will lead to results that prof. Penney or I would find pleasant in this particular case. The main alternatives to living-tree constitutional interpretation are the different versions of originalism. (For a primer, see Benjamin Oliphant’s and my paper recently published in the Queen’s Law Journal.) An originalist approach to section 11 of the Charter would consist in asking whether (depending on the version of originalism one subscribes to)  “charged with an offence” would have been understood in 1982 as applying to administrative proceedings or was intended to apply to them by the Charter‘s authors. And I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that, insofar as these questions do have an ascertainable answer (they might not; perhaps the phrase “charged with an offence” is irreducibly vague, forcing an originalist interpreter into the “construction zone” that is, on some views, not very different from living tree interpretation), this answer does not turn on competing, and potentially variable, cost-benefit analyses, which will inevitably be influenced by personal preferences, of judges or scholars. Originalism is not necessarily more rights-protective than living-treeism ― though as prof. Penney shows, living-treeism isn’t always very rights-protective either. But originalism does hold out a promise of a constitutional law that is actually law-like, in that it is independent of the individuals who apply it. In the long run, this is not only valuable in itself, but arguably also more likely to protect individual rights in situations where doing so is likely to be seen as undermining important social objectives ― which after all is the whole point of constitutional rights protection.

Prof. Penney’s article is valuable because it attracts our attention to a number of serious problems affecting our constitutional law. On the one hand, there is problem of insufficient constraints on the imposition of “administrative” penalties, which the article decries. On the other, there are the twin problems of reliance on a blinkered version of history and on open-ended “living tree” constitutional interpretation that opens the door to consequentialist reasoning unconstrained by anything other than personal preferences, which the article exemplifies. Proponents of prof. Penney’s interpretive approach might say that my argument is contradictory, since it suggests that the constitution might not give us the resources to address the problem prof. Penney identifies. But if that is so, the solution is not to surreptitiously re-write the constitution under the guise of an interpretation that will only be adhered to by those who share the interpreter’s beliefs, but to amend it in a way that will be binding on all future interpreters, whatever their personal views.

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.

5 thoughts on “A Pile of Problems”

  1. Great article. I have long seen this ideological perspective on the “Lochner era” (and the New Deal, and the Wagner Act, amongst others) as absurd caricaturizations of history. It is as if lawyers, for some strange reason, were incapable of studying history in its complexity, but needed the images of “bad guys” and “heroes” to understand some form of “progressive” sequence of events. Thanks!

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  2. Excellent post.

    I am not really personally sympathetic with such a strong distinction between civil/administrative and criminal law process, and I agree that governments are finding that civil/administrative responses are more effective for everything other than symbolic denunciation. But for an originalist, the issue is not whether the standard critique of the Lochner era is right as a matter of political philosophy or US law. The issue is whether it was part of the shared mental furniture of the parties to the 1982 Constitution. I would argue that it definitely was: it was why all the provinces opposed including “property” in section 7, why the term “fundamental justice” was chosen in s. 7 in preference to “due process” and why the Legal Rights in general, and section 11 in particular, are drafted to be criminal process-centered. I interviewed Blakeney once, and he always started his explanation of why he took the approach he did with a discussion of the formative influence of the Lochner-era and the Roosevelt administration’s battle with the US Courts on his thinking. But you get the same thing from Barry Strayer’s memoir or from some of Sterling Lyon’s comments.

    The Dickson/Lamer court *shared* the 1982 framing generation’s assumptions about Lochner, so there is a sense in which their jurisprudence tends to reflect this distinciton, although there is obviously the countervailing tendency to ignore the original restrictions on s. 7 in what could broadly be called health law.

    Of course, if people want to put limits on these, they could try to change provincial quasi-constitutional statutory instruments, like the Quebec Charter or Alberta’s Individual Rights Protection Act. It wouldn’t be legitimate for the SCC to just decide that s. 11 applies outside the are of offences.

    1. Thank you! Obviously, the points about Lochner and about constitutional interpretation are distinct. You are right that the Charter’s framers loathed (the caricature of) Lochner. But I’m not yet convinced that that, in itself, disposes of the question of the meaning of “charged with an offence”. In R v Sault Ste Marie, Dickson speaks of regulatory offences as being administrative in nature ― but offences all the same. That too isn’t dispositive, because he is clearly describing those offences that use the criminal procedure for enforcement. But I don’t think I’ve seen enough to be certain of the original meaning (or intent, if that’s what we are to look at) of s 11.

  3. It seems to me that s. 11 of the Charter speaks to the limits of penalties but judges like many others only try to circumvent the law. If the punitive results for criminal action is set at a certain level, it stands to follow that civil breaches should come with way less penalties but our judges just want to see where they can mash up the Charter and talk foolishness.

    Then when other try to have the Charter address specific things it goes haywire because the Charter was never intended to address limited issues. If interpreted broadly , as it should, the Charter would always cover all possibilities

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