Why I am Not a Conservative Either

Thoughts on Chief Justice Joyal’s very interesting speech on the Charter and Canada’s political culture

Glenn D. Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, gave the keynote address at last January Canadian Constitution Foundation’s recent Law and Freedom Conference. His talk, “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture: Are We All Ambassadors Now?”, was interesting and thought-provoking. Although the prepared text has been available on the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law for some time, the CCF only posted the recording of his remarks yesterday, so now is the time for me to comment. Chief Justice Joyal sought to attract his audience’s attention to fact that Canadians have come to believe that courts, rather than legislators, are the forum in which important social issues must be settled. This is both a consequence of our lack of respect for legislatures, and a reason for why elected institutions find themselves in a weak position vis-à-vis the courts. Chief Justice Joyal would like to change our political culture. I am not persuaded that change in the direction he envisions would be for the better.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to thank Chief Justice Joyal for referring to my exchange with my friend Asher Honickman on the scope and judicial approach to section 7 of the Charter in the Q&A. (My posts are here, here, and here.) After Justice Stratas on the same occasion last year, Chief Justice Joyal is the second sitting judge to mention my blogging, and this is, needless to say, most gratifying for me personally, but also as a believer in the value of this still-underappreciated medium.

* * *

Political culture, according to Chief Justice Joyal’s definition is the set of

attitudes and beliefs that citizens and its specific institutional actors hold about the political system. Political culture can also be seen as the conglomeration of ideas and attitudes which set the parameters in which debate over policy justifications take place.

(The quotes, here and below, are from the text published by ARL)

Historically, Canada’s political culture was a mix of “liberal” and “non-liberal” (partly “Tory” and partly “social-demoratic”) ideas, which were bound together by a belief in Parliament and the legislatures as the arbiters of social conflict and makers of common rules for the common weal. Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force, however, the belief in legislative authority has been eroded. Instead, “a broad cross-section of the Canadian citizenry and its institutional actors” have developed

an almost unconditional willingness to accept or endorse the idea of judicial adjudications in respect of what are often complex and even insoluble social and political problems. What were once political issues are now frequently transformed into legal issues.

This, in turn, has created a “new and imbalanced relationship between the judiciary and the legislative branch”.

According to Chief Justice Joyal, these developments were not contemplated by those who made the Charter. It was, after all, a compromise between Pierre Trudeau’s federal government, which insisted on an entrenched set of protected rights, and provinces that were wary of restrictions on Parliamentary sovereignty and the “innovations” introduced by an “extremely potent judiciary” in the United States. Measures were taken to prevent a repetition of the American experience in Canada. The Charter contains section 1, which allows rights to be limited, and section 33, which

was meant to signal to the courts, a caution, a caution in respect of any misconception that the judiciary might have were they, the judiciary, inclined to give the absolutely most expansive scope to the enumerated Charter rights.

For its part, section 7 was drafted

to avoid any language that would mandate substantive review and that would have the effect of permitting s. 7 to be interpreted to mean just about anything that could attract five votes on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Yet these “common expectations” about how the Charter would be applied and what role it would play have not been fulfilled. The Supreme Court read section 7 to require substantive review of legislative choices. It engaged in interpretation and re-interpretation of the Charter that expanded the set of rights that its framers had chosen to protect. It loosened the rules of standing and justiciability, causing more claims to be brought. It weakened precedent, allowing issues to be re-litigated just a decade or two after they were (we thought) settled. It applied section 1  by engaging in the “traditionally legislative function” of “ad hoc interest balancing and cost benefit analysis”. The notwithstanding clause, meanwhile, turned into a “nuclear option” ― and a dead letter.

Chief Justice Joyal worries that this all has caused legislatures to be marginalized. Indeed, there has been a “flight from politics toward the zero-sum game of Charter litigation”, which

often leaves the broader citizenry on the sidelines in a potentially disempowered state[,] not always able to understand, discuss or debate, the highly technical and legalistic formulations and tests which now often form the basis of a final determination concerning a significant societal issue.

This trend ought to be reversed, in part through “continuing efforts at renewal of parliamentary and political institutions”, so as to “restor[e] a peculiarly Canadian institutional balance in the judicial/legislative relationship”, featuring “a resuscitated and bold legislative branch [able] to once again assertively shape attitudes and policies”, and even to “articulat[e] and promot[e] its own interpretation” of the Charter. The traditional Canadian political culture, with its mix of liberal and non-liberal sensitivities and belief in the public good as expressed in legislation ought to prevail over the

more American liberal / rationalist approach to rights protection, [which] gives expression to what used to be a very un-Canadian distrust of government [and] arguably removes more and more areas from legitimate spheres of government action and influence.

* * *

I am, I’m afraid, part the problem that Chief Justice Joyal identifies. I distrust government ― partly because I believe that power corrupts, partly because I democratic government is subject to ineradicable problems of political ignorance (and courts might not be much of a solution), partly because of what public choice theory has taught us. I am a (classical) liberal, an unapologetic one. Whether this is un-Canadian, or indeed peculiarly American, I hesitate to say. I do, however, reiterate my belief that one should not fall for the old trope of reading differences of national psyche into the alleged contrast between “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” and “peace, order, and good government”. My friend Alastair C.F. Gillespie and Brian Lee Crowley pointed out, in introducing what is looking to be a fascinating series of papers on Confederation by Mr. Gillespie, that “[c]omparisons of American revolutionary ideals and Canada’s supposedly ‘Tory’ Constitution have sometimes been too crudely made” and argue that “Canadians should … take pride that our founders’ speeches breathe an atmosphere of liberty, even if that liberty was not yet wholly realized.” (4-5) But be that as it may, I am rather skeptical that a return to politics would do us much good.

Now, unlike the dominant tide in Canadian political culture against which Chief Justice Joyal wants to push back, I am not uncritical of the courts ― of their power and of the manner in which they exercise it. But when I argue that courts overstep the bounds of their constitutional role, it is not out of any special solicitude for legislatures. It is because I believe that all power must be limited, and that those who wield it must not fancy themselves the saviours of society, when they are only its servants. This applies to the judicial power ― and also to the legislative and the executive. So I share Chief Justice Joyal’s discomfort at some of the post-Charter jurisprudential developments ― at the excessive ease with which courts have sometimes granted public interest standing, the creation of constitutional “rights” out of whole cloth, the often unprincipled application of section 1 balancing.

But, to repeat, these matters worry me because they, and other things, like extra-judicial statements that call into question judges’ commitment to the Rule of Law, raise the spectre of a judiciary that denies any constraint on its power ― and not because they portend an erosion of legislative power or mark a departure from the “common understandings” of 1982. Constitutional texts have a way of not working out the way their framers expect them to (my go-to example on this is the upending of the mechanism for electing the president set up by the Constitution of the United States), especially of course when the framers rely on “understandings” instead of actually writing down what they mean. So I am not bothered by the development of the norm, perhaps even the convention, against the use of section 33 of the Charter (which, as I have argued even in the face of some decisions that I would desperately like to see undone, has served us well ). Nor am I bothered by the Supreme Court’s reading of section 7 as encompassing substantive as well as procedural principles of justice, which ― as Benjamin Oliphant and I show in our recent Queen’s Law Journal article ― was at least a defensible interpretation of that provision’s original public meaning, even though it clearly contradicted its framers’ intent. It is only the meaning, in my view, that is binds the courts. (Chief Justice Joyal suggested, in the Q&A, that we might distinguish between “garden-variety” cases in which meaning might be controlling, and other, especially important ones, in which we must refer to intent. I do not see how such a distinction could operate.)

Ultimately, I do not share Chief Justice Joyal’s concern that

judicial incursion into subject areas and issues of profound political, moral and social complexity[] has the potential effect of removing these issues from the civic and political realms where ongoing and evolving debate and discussion may have taken place.

A very similar concern motivates Jeremy Waldron’s critique of (strong-form) judicial review of legislation. The critique is a powerful one, but here is, I think, the “principled” objection to it. (Ilya Somin’s objection based on political ignorance is also an important one, but it is more contingent, in theory anyway.) The concern with what Chief Justice Joyal describes as the “de facto constitutionalization of political and social issues” assumes that some issues are inherently “political” and/or “social”, and must therefore be resolved through society’s political institutions. Prof. Waldron’s position is, in effect, that every conceivable issue is of this sort, though Chief Justice Joyal’s views do not extend so far. (Chief Justice Joyal said, in his talk, that we must “respect” the Charter.) But I am not persuaded by the claim, whether in its more radical Waldronian form, or in Chief Justice Joyal’s more moderate one.

The frontiers between law’s empire and that of politics are not immutable. There is no reason to believe that the position that every social issue is by default subject to politics is entitled to be treated as a baseline against which a polity’s constitutional arrangements ought to be measured, and any departure from it justified and limited. It is the position of some political cultures ― say that of post-New Deal political culture in the United States, which reached its peak in the 1940s before declining in the subsequent decades, as the U.S. Supreme Court started vigorously enforcing guarantees of (non-economic) individual rights, or of New Zealand even to this day. But these political cultures have no automatic claim to superiority or to permanence. They are liable to be supplanted, just as they supplanted their predecessors.

The defenders of these political cultures,think that pervasive economic regulation is the legislatures’ prerogative, should they choose to exercise it. (Prof. Waldron is explicit about this, in some of his work on the Rule of Law.) To be clear, I am not suggesting that they would support any given form of regulation as a matter of policy ― only that they think that legislatures are entitled to regulate, wisely or not. But previously, many economic issues would not have been considered to belong to the domain of politics at all; the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 would likely have been shocked to learn about the extent of the economic regulation in which the institutions they created now engage. They would have thought an employee’s wages a matter to be settled between him and his employer, not a concern for society at large and thus not a fit subject for legislation. Of course, they did not provide mechanisms for courts to enforce these limits on legislative power, in part, one may suspect, because they did not expect them to be necessary. But that does not mean that they thought the legislatures were entitled to interfere in people’s lives in the ways that came to be increasingly accepted half a century later. The political culture changed ― not for the better in this instance, in my opinion. But why should we accept this change, and foreclose or resist subsequent change that reduces instead of expanding the domain of the political?

* * *

Chief Justice Joyal’s address is a powerful and eloquent statement of what might be described as the foundation for a (small-c) conservative constitutional vision for Canada. (This is not to say that he would accept this label, or perhaps even that it is an especially accurate one. But insofar as any label can be useful, this one is as good as any I can think of.) Having, along with Andrew Coyne and Bob Tarantino, complained about the (big-c) Conservative government’s failure to articulate such a vision in its near-decade in power, I welcome this statement. Moreover, I happen to share some of Chief Justice Joyal’s concerns about the acquiescence of the mainstream Canadian legal and political culture in the increasingly unbridled exercise of the judicial power by the Supreme Court.

However, although I may learn from conservatives, and sometimes make common cause with them, ― and am particularly happy to do so when they are as intelligent and articulate as Chief Justice Joyal ― I am not a conservative myself. I do not share the conservative vision of the constitution. Like Hayek, “I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake” (2) on whatever (constitutional) innovation might be put forward in the name of “progress”. As a liberal, I want “to go elsewhere” (2) ― not back to the 1970s, or indeed even to the 1870s ― but to a never-yet seen political culture in which, in Lord Acton’s words, “[l]iberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” If, as Chief Justice Joyal suggested in the conclusion of his speech, this ideal is at odds with the Canadian identity, so much the worse, I say, for that identity.

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.

10 thoughts on “Why I am Not a Conservative Either”

  1. If we are trying to get back into the minds of the 1867 generation, I agree we shouldn’t give too much weight to the Gad Horowitz “Tory touch” school. The 1867 generation was most profoundly influenced by John Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment and (to a lesser degree) the mid-nineteenth century liberalism of John Stuart Mill. Unlike American liberals, they did think of the British Crown and Empire as the greatest bulwark for ordered liberty in the world. They weren’t all against privileges for established churches, although they were all for broad tolerance. Some of them supported central state investment in infrastructure to promote the modalities of trade, but that is a far cry from the type of state built in the twentieth century.

    At the same time, if we think about their specifically constitutional ideas, they worked within a Locekan-Blackstonian-Diceyan assumption of parliamentary supremacy. To the extent they thought there were unelected institutions to look out for the rights of property, these would be the upper houses and, provincially, the Lieutenant Governors. The Colonial Laws Validity Act was a reaction to the idea that judges could overturn colonial legislation because it offended fundamental common law rights, and I don’t think there is much evidence that the Fathers of Confederation had any doubts about its wisdom.

    1. Of course, you can argue this is unwise and we need better protection for property rights and economic liberties in our constitution, but that’s an argument for amendment, not for finding those rights there in the first place.

      1. I’m not saying the rights are there. My point is not about constitutional interpretation (as I say, there are no mechanisms for enforcing property rights and freedom of contract in the Constitution Act 1867), but about legal and political philosophy.

      2. I basically agree with you. There were ideological disagreements in nineteenth century Canada, but, for anyone politically influential, they were within a broadly Lockean framework. For a counterpoint, Gad Horowitz (who wrote the article that is clearly the source of Chief Justice Joyal’s views here) has a new article in Inroads revisiting his argument half a century later.

  2. I hope you have a separate blog post on the “substantive” interpretation of section 7. I don’t think this was a legitimate move from a “public meaning” originalist perspective, since this wasn’t just a matter of applying an agreed-upon norm to a new context (as was the case with the extension of s. 15 to sexual orientation), but replacing the agreed-upon norm with a totally different norm.

    1. Benjamin Oliphant and I cover this in our QLJ article. I don’t think I have much to add 🙂 In a nutshell, the meaning of “fundamental justice” – unlike “natural justice” was not widely shared, and its use in an explicitly procedural context in the Bill of Rights provided no guidance for its use in a very different context in the Charter.

      1. I think you miss the context, where the words in section 7 were chosen to avoid the “substantive due process” jurisprudence of the SCOTUS under the Fourteenth Amendment. I am working on a paper on this so I will elaborate the argument there. It is all good since we are working in the same framework so we have to disagree about something to keep it interesting

      2. Looking forward to the paper, but the way you put it here, your point seems again to be about intent, not meaning. (And by the way, insofar as the intent was to avoid importing the substantive due process jurisprudence, it’s at least arguable that it has succeeded. For better or worse, the s 7 jurisprudence is its own thing.)

  3. your point seems again to be about intent, not meaning

    I have to work all this through, of course, but part of the paper will be on philosophy of language and an argument that the issue isn’t intent vs. meaning, but types of meaning. The new originalist consensus is to reject what Grice called “speaker meaning,” basically because post-Enlightenment constitutions aren’t understood as the command of an individual. The opposite position of “semantic meaning” (that is the bare minimum of informational content common to all language users of the day, abstracted from context) also doesn’t work. The semantic meanings of “peace”, “order” or “good government” have not really changed that much since the mid-nineteenth century, but the phrase “peace, order and good government” in the British North America Act has to be understood in the context that it was the phrase generally used by British drafters in giving colonial legislatures sovereign powers. So we need some kind of pragmatics to supplement “semantic originalism.”

    “Semantic originalism” is defended by Solum and Balkin, but they actually both move away from it because it has too little content. Solum is now talking a lot about pragmatics. Balkin wants to understand the interstate commerce clause in terms of the perceived problems with the Articles of Confederation period and the Fourteenth Amendment in the context of the civil war.

    What I am going to argue for is a standard of “bargain meaning,” which is actually familiar from contract interpretation. If constitutional texts are seen as speech acts of consent, then the meaning can’t be a private, speaker meaning, but it also can’t be a decontextualized semantic meaning. Bargains usually involve a mixture of consensus and dissensus, addressed by deliberately encoding vague standards that leave the disagreed-about questions to be resolved later.

    In that framework, I would try to argue as a historical matter that “principles of fundamental justice,” like “peace, order and good government” had acquired a technical meaning as a result of the Duke case, and that the famous comments of Strayer and Tass&eacute were in the context of reassuring Charter skeptics that s. 7 would not have significant implications for legislative choice about substantive laws.

    So, sure, the words “principles of fundamental justice” had a more-or-less unlimited semantic meaning in 1982, but in the context of the pragmatics of the patriation deal, they had a more limited meaning, and that meaning wasn’t a private speaker’s meaning. All that being said, I think there is a decent argument that it is too late to go back.

    Sorry about the length of the comment.

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