The imbroglio with the Ontario legislature’s enactment of Bill 5 to restructure the Toronto City Council a couple of months before an upcoming election, the Superior Court’s declaration of that legislation unconstitutional, the threatened invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” to override that declaration, and the Court of Appeal’s restoration of what little sanity could still be restored by reversing the Superior Court’s decision has generated a great deal of commentary. Some of this commentary has been very imaginative indeed in coming up with constitutional arguments that would have advanced the commentators’ preferred policy agendas and forestalled the seemingly obvious legal conclusions.
Of course, such a creative argument had prevailed at the Superior Court, which (as for example co-blogger Mark Mancini, as well as yours truly, explained) ignored clear constitutional language on its way to finding that Bill 5 violated the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. Even more unorthodox reasoning was unleashed in attempts to argue that the Ontario legislature couldn’t actually invoke the “notwithstanding clause”, the constitutional text once again be damned. Mark has written about open letter in which professors who wouldn’t dream of treating originalism as a serious interpretive methodology suddenly turned original-intentist ― but that, at least, was an explicitly political text. Other arguments along similar, or even more outlandish, lines purported to be legal ones.
This outburst of creativity is, of course directly related to a certain way of seeing the constitution that is prevalent in the Canadian legal community (including, but not only, in the academy). On this view, the Canadian constitution ― especially, though not only, the Charter ― is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts; it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution. And, of course, this ideal constitution, just so happens to enact the political preferences of the persons urging this view, and presumed (often not incorrectly) to be shared by the judiciary.
Perhaps the latest contribution to the post-Bill 5 constitutional free-for-all is illustrative. It is a post by Colin Feasby, over at ABlawg, arguing that section 3 of the Charter, though it ostensibly only guarantees the right of Canadian citizens “to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein”, really also applies to municipal and other elections, and to referenda. Now, I have learned a lot from Dr. Feasby’s law of democracy scholarship (which has also been cited and relied on by the Supreme Court!). But this post is nothing more than a call for the judiciary to wilfully re-write the constitution we have so as to bring it closer to an idealized view of what a good constitution ought to be according to Dr. Feasby (and many others).
Dr. Feasby argues that “the lack of constitutional protection for important democratic processes” ― such as municipal elections ― “is an unnecessary defect in our constitutional arrangement”. “Unnecessary” a word that I wouldn’t use, and as will presently be apparent, Dr. Feasby uses it advisedly. However, I agree with him to this extent ― the lack of constitutional protections for municipal institutions is indeed a shortcoming of our constitution, as I have suggested here.
Dr. Feasby, though, is not suggesting a constitutional amendment to remedy the defect he identifies. Rather, he “proposes a way that the Supreme Court of Canada can remedy this defect”. He argues that “courts have a role in ensuring that the democratic process functions so that the sovereign will of the electorate may be expressed without distortion”, which is true, if somewhat beside the point in matters where the will of the electorate is not, legally speaking, sovereign, including in municipal elections. The question, though, is how far the courts’ role extends. Dr. Feasby thinks it allows the courts to embrace what he describes as a “purposive and … generous approach to interpreting Charter rights”, and “impose a rule” according to which
Where a government, Federal or Provincial, delegates a legislative role to a democratically chosen body or where a government, Federal or Provincial, effectively delegates a decision to the electorate in a referendum, section 3 of the Charter applies.
In other words, “a body elected in processes governed by section 3 cannot delegate its power to an elected body chosen by electors with lesser constitutional protections”.
Dr. Feasby anticipates two objections to his proposal. First, he expects people to argue that it would get in the way of worthy reforms of municipal and other institutions. His response is that “so long as those changes are consistent with the principles that animate section 3 of the Charter“, nothing would get in their way. Fair enough, I suppose. The other objection Dr. Feasby foresees is based on the concern about section 3 claims being brought by people who are not in the intended electorate for a given election (say, the residents of a municipality). Such claims should simply be rejected ― as would that of “Canadian citizens resident in Alberta” demanding “the right to vote in Provincial elections in Quebec”. That too seems fair enough.
There are other, more serious, problems with Dr. Feasby’s argument, however. A practical one is that, even in the form given to it by Dr. Feasby, it reaches very far indeed. Municipalities, band councils, and school boards are not the only entities that might be described as “democratically chosen” entities to which governments delegate legislative powers. Various professional bodies (such as law societies) and agricultural marketing boards come to mind; so do, perhaps, universities, whose powers ― which include the ability to regulate large swathes of student and staff conduct ― are ultimately exercised by (partly) elected boards and senates. (Whether the universities are subject to the Charter in at least some areas is an open question, but there are good arguments for that view.) It’s not at all obvious to me that, “the principles that animate section 3 of the Charter” can be usefully applied to such bodies, even assuming that they can be to municipalities and school boards. And it’s not at all obvious that the argument for rejecting the claims of persons excluded from the relevant electorate ― say, the consumers of professional services or of agricultural products ― can be dismissed as easily as those of Albertans looking to vote in the Belle Province.
This problem becomes even more pressing if we take up Bruce Ryder’s suggestion “that a province that is bound by s.3 democratic norms shouldn’t be able to do an end run around them after creating subordinate governments” ― seemingly regardless of whether these “subordinate governments” are themselves meant to be democratically elected. If this principle were taken seriously, it would amount to a non-delegation doctrine on steroids, preventing the exercise of legislative power by undemocratic bodies ― which means pretty much all of the administrative state. Anti-administrativist though I am, even I don’t actually favour this approach. In truth, I don’t suppose that Professor Ryder favours it either. He simply makes an argument that furthers his preferences in a particular controversy, and doesn’t worry about its implications in future cases. I’m afraid this is symptomatic of the treatment of the constitution not as a law, but as a series of results-oriented propositions subject to permanent revision from one case to the next.
Equally symptomatic of this way of thinking is the fact that Dr. Feasby apparently does not see coming another objection, a principled rather than a practical one. This objection is, quite simply, that his proposal is a perversion of the constitutional text, a blatant attempt to expand it beyond what it was quite clearly designed to do, and what it not only originally meant but still means. Even if one believes that the constitutional text should be read according to the meaning of its terms today, “an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly” does not mean “an election of members of a municipal council”, or “an election of the benchers of a law society”. Dr. Feasby invokes the “living tree” view of the constitution, but he advocates something different than just reading the text in light of evolving social mores or trying to use “progressive interpretation” to “accommodate and address the realities of modern life”, as the Supreme Court put it in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79,  3 SCR 698, at . It’s not as if municipal election were a new phenomenon unknown to the framers of the Charter. It’s just that Dr. Feasby thinks that the Charter is only an imperfect statement of an “aspiration … to be a truly free and democratic society”, which can be given whatever contents a court, under the guidance of progressive advocates, can come up with in a given case.
Needless to say, I do not share this view. It is contrary to the terms of the constitution itself (specifically, section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides both that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada” (emphasis mine) and that “[a]mendments to the Constitution of Canada shall be made only in accordance with the authority contained in the Constitution of Canada” ― which says nothing about the Supreme Court amending the constitution in the absence of the political consensus required to do so. It is destructive of the Rule of Law. And it is especially galling because many of the same people who advocate this view of the constitution not as binding law but as merely suggestive of (their) political ideals demand that political actors ― such as the present Ontario legislature ― that do not fully share these ideals comply with judicial decisions based on them. I think it’s right to demand that political actors comply with the law, including the law of the constitution. But why on earth should elected officials comply, not with the law, but with the philosophical preferences people who are not elected to anything? There can be no real constitutionalism in Plato’s cave. It’s time to climb out.
10 thoughts on “Constitutionalism from the Cave”
I answered many of these criticisms in the comments section over at Ablawg and encourage readers to check my responses out. As for the suggestion that I didn’t see a textualist objection coming, that is a straw man – the whole point of my post was to criticize the textual approach taken by courts. Though I disagree, I enjoyed your post and am happy that this issue has sparked such a lively and informed debate.