Look, Look, over There!

What role should comparative law play in constitutional adjudication in Canada?

This is, I think, the last post I write on Frank v Canada (Attorney-General), 2019 SCC 1, where the Supreme Court held that denying the franchise to Canadians who have been resident abroad for more than five years is unconstitutional. I summarized the decision here, commented on it here, and added further comments on the issue of expatriates’ supposed lack of connections to individual ridings here. In this post, I address a further issue that I left out so far, because it is only tangentially related to the question of the constitutionality of disenfranchising expatriates: that of the significance of foreign jurisdictions’ approaches to this issue.

In their dissenting opinion, Justices Côté and Brown invoke the “limits adopted by other Westminster democracies in which election regimes are, as here, structured around geographically defined electoral districts” [164] as support for the proposition that disenfranchising Canadians after five years abroad is reasonable. They mention, specifically, three other “Westminster democracies” ― the United Kingdom itself, as well as Australia and New Zealand. They note, by way of a rejoinder to the majority’s dismissal of this argument (on which more presently), that “[a]t different times in its history, Canada would well have taken some lessons from other countries” ― or at least from New Zealand, which enfranchised its aboriginal citizens (albeit in a way that radically under-represented them) and women well before Canada did. For Justices Côté and Brown, the fact that peer democracies “have adopted comparable time limits on voting for long-term non-residents … provide[s] compelling evidence” [167] for the proposition that the Canadian law they are examining is rational, and therefore constitutional.

Chief Justice Wagner, for the majority, is not impressed with this. For one thing, he insists that that the dissent’s comparisons do not really work in its favour. The United Kingdom only disenfranchises its expatriates after fifteen years, not five; meanwhile, “in Australia, the voter’s right can be extended indefinitely upon application, while New Zealand’s three-year limit is reset each time the non-resident returns to the country”. [74; hyperlinks added ― oddly, I think, the Chief Justice provides no citations.] Thus, disenfranchising expatriates after five years of non-residence (even if they visit Canada during this period) is a harsher approach than that taken by the countries on which the dissenters want to rely. (The dissenters, for their part, dismiss this as “minutiae of policy preferences of Canadian legislators (and, for that matter, legislators in Australia and New Zealand) on matters about which this Court as an institution has little comparative expertise”. [166])

More fundamentally though, the Chief Justice is skeptical about whether there is anything at all to be learned from the experience and choices of other jurisdictions: “I place little stock”, he writes, “in comparisons with other countries for the purpose of determining whether this legislation is constitutional.” [74] Whatever may be done elsewhere, it need not be a rational response to the particular problems that Parliament purports to be solving by limiting the right of Canadians abroad to vote, or that it is the least restrictive option available. Besides, “Canada is an international leader” [62] when it comes to enfranchising citizens to whom other countries deny the vote (such as prisoners), and part decisions of the Supreme Court paid little heed to what other countries do. For the dissent, these are “highly political, rhetorical arguments … that … stand in tension with the majority’s own invocation of internationalism and of a ‘globalized’ world of connectivity and communication”, [167] and which smack of “exceptionalism”. [166]

There are some important questions here. Should we, contrary to the Chief Justice, “place stock in comparisons with other countries” when assessing the constitutionality of legislation? Are there particular areas where we might want to make exceptions to whatever general principle we adopt ― for example, on account of Canada’s being “an international leader”? And if we ought to be looking at comparative materials, how should we go about it?

On the general issue of the relevance of comparative law, my answer is “it’s complicated”. Where the interpretation of constitutional text is concerned, being a public meaning originalist, I think that foreign or international materials can assist a Canadian only insofar as there is evidence that they would have been understood to bear on text’s meaning at the time of its enactment. That might sometimes be the case, especially with the Charter, but the evidence has to be provided whenever an argument about the relevance of such materials to the question at hand is made. Moreover, the simple existence, somewhere in the world, of a particular view about the meaning of a right that might have been “within the contemplation of the framers of the Charter“, as the Supreme Court put it in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391, is not enough. What needs to be shown is that this particular interpretation was actually understood as the one the Charter itself would bear.

When it comes to the application of section 1 of the Charter, which allows legislatures to limit rights, provided that the limitation is a “reasonable” one and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”, the issue is no longer one of interpretation (except insofar as the terms of section 1 itself have to interpreted). Here, I think that international and comparative materials may cast some light on what may be acceptable “in a free and democratic society”. However, the views of other free and democratic societies are not dispositive on the question of what is actually reasonable and demonstrably justified in the specific context in which rights are being limited in Canada. The Chief Justice is quite right to insist that the analysis has to proceed with reference to the Canadian circumstances, including (but not limited to) the objective for the sake of which a Canadian legislature is seeking to limit rights. Sometimes, the circumstances of other jurisdictions will be similar enough to make their experiences and choices interesting; sometimes they will not be.

Smug dismissals on the basis that Canada is a “world leader” are unwise, if for no other reason that one can only be such a leader if the direction in which the world is supposed to move is clear, and this will rarely be obvious in rights cases. But, at the same time, claims the effect that, since some respectable jurisdictions restrict rights in a particular way, it is rational and therefore permissible, for Canada to do likewise are similarly unhelpful. Such claims ignore local circumstances and, crucially, the textual requirement of section 1 that limitations on rights be demonstrably justified. “Other people do it” is not a demonstration; it is, at most, a relevant consideration for such a demonstration. To insist that, ultimately, a Canadian government defending a Canadian statute limiting the rights protected by the Canadian constitution demonstrably justify this limitation is not a rhetorical, let alone a political move. It is nothing less than what the constitution itself, in no uncertain terms, requires.

Still, foreign laws might be of some, albeit limited, interest to Canadian courts in Charter cases. This brings me to the question of how Canadian judges should consider them. Here, I’m afraid the Frank dissent offers a good lesson in how not to do it. First, one should not cherry-pick a few examples that seem to support one’s preferred position. Why focus on the UK, Australia, and New Zealand? They are, we are told, “Westminster democracies in which election regimes are, as here, structured around geographically defined electoral districts”, but why are “Westminster democracies” the only relevant ones here? The electoral systems of the United States and France, for example, are also “structured around geographically defined districts. Why should we ignore them?

Second, one should not cherry-pick aspects of those foreign laws to which one refers either. If one wants to invoke a foreign law as a model, one doesn’t get to dismiss aspects of that law that don’t support one’s conclusions as “minutiae of policy preferences”. The fact that Australian citizens can actually vote from abroad, so long as they keep making the relevant annual applications, and that New Zealand citizens and permanent residents can reset their respective disenfranchisement clocks by simply visiting the country considerably undermines the point that the Frank dissent attempts to make by appealing to them.

Third, one really shouldn’t misunderstand the foreign law on which one relies, or present it in a way that is misleading. I’m not sure which of these to things Justices Côté and Brown do in Frank, but in any case, New Zealand, unlike the UK and Australia (and the US and France) uses a proportional electoral system. It does have “geographically defined electoral districts” that ensure local representation, but it’s the party vote that determines the composition of the House of Representatives, so I think that it’s just wrong to equate this system to Australia’s or the United Kingdom’s ― or Canada’s. (Conversely, if New Zealand is an apt comparison, why not Germany, on whose system New Zealand’s is closely modelled?)

In short, when judges choose to embark on a consideration of comparative law, they must do their best to ensure that this endeavour is not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete. Of course, there are limits to what judges can do in looking at other jurisdictions. Some help is sometimes available to them ― for example, in the shape of reports of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission ― but this will not always be enough. I think it is also fair to ask whether some countries’ experiences ought to carry more weight than those of others in the minds of Canadian judges. I’m not sure how to answer that question though, other than to point out the obvious fact that similarities, or lack thereof, between Canada’s constitutional texts and those of another jurisdiction’s constitution ought to matter in assessing the interest that jurisdiction’s law can have for Canadian judges. But choosing, or appearing to choose, only a few jurisdictions favourable to one’s inclinations, or giving a partial picutre of their law so as to bolster one’s conclusions, or both, is not good enough.

Comparative law has a place in constitutional adjudication in Canada. However, this place should be limited, and carefully circumscribed. The fact that some other countries limit the rights of their citizens in a particular way does not, by itself, mean that it is appropriate for a Canadian government to limit the rights of Canadians likewise. Moreover, we must be sure of understanding foreign law before invoking it in support of the limitation of our constitutional rights. The Frank dissent, ought to serve as a warning in this regard.

One last point. The strong disagreement about the role of comparative law between the majority and the dissent in Frank helps us think through important questions that are relevant in a variety of constitutional cases. It is a reminder, in the face of some recent grumblings, that allowing debates among judges to be publicly aired enriches our law and improves it.

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.

7 thoughts on “Look, Look, over There!”

  1. This is a minor point, but arguably, Germany might be an even better comparison than NZ, because, and this is somewhat complicated, there are no country-wide elections in Germany. In elections for the Bundestag, a voter votes for a candidate riding, and a provincial party list, not a federal party list. There is a complicated mechanism for making the overall representation proportional country-wide, but the actual vote for candidates is always restricted to a certain geographical subset of Germany.

    1. Thanks! A further reminder of the importance of “minutiae” if we are going to be making informed and informative comparisons.

      1. Comparisons should really only be about a minor (say 10%) contributing factor to the whole of a decision on extending voter rights. Also, yes, the comparisons seem shallow; “New Zealand did X, and anecdotal reports say the consequence is increased foreign intervention via mail tampering….blah blah.” Yes, look at Germany and other countries where expats have voting rights. But the resources to do a fulsome investigation are a low priority in my view when even basic public policy analysis is underfunded. StatsCan is badly underfunded to undertake the analysis needed to test viable public policy. Instead we rely on deductive reasoning like comparisons from other jurisdictions.

        Anyway, the underlying truth is that Canadians living abroad don’t care about Canadians politics (the country is doing fine without them) and/or only engage if their home riding is a close call and the prospective voter can make a difference.

        BIGGER QUESTION:
        What about interprovincial expat rights? How come I can’t vote in my native Nova Scotia, from my condo in Toronto, Leonid?

      2. I don’t think this has anything to do with investigating and testing public policy. The question for the courts, to the extent they should be looking at other jurisdictions, is what their law is. As for the idea that “Canadians living abroad don’t care about Canadian politics”, it’s just the sort of gratuitous over-generalization that cannot justify limiting people’s rights.

        As for provincial elections, all the judges in Frank agree they are different beasts. Justice Rowe’s concurrence is largely about that. I don’t have any interesting ideas to add on this.

  2. Oh, and I should point out that in both global expats and provincial expat examples, the citizens NEW experiences “abroad” might be beneficial in transferring NEW understanding of what ought to be the optimal policy in their jurisdiction of origin.

    You don’t really know where you are from until you live elsewhere for a while….probably something that is still a rare insight given that living abroad is not easy, especially if you have a career in law.

    1. I thought that this was exactly about public policy; whether Canadians living abroad should have the right to vote in Canada. The

  3. statement that provincial elections are different beasts is an excuse not to extend voter power. Surely being a Nova Scotian or otherwise, living in another province should have the right to participate in that provinces election if they see fit to. Let the citizen them-self decide! If a Canadian wants to vote in a Canadian election they should be allowed to. If a Nova Scotian wants to vote in a Nova Scotian election they should be allowed to. The vast majority of expats outside Canada and outside Nova Scotia would be unlikely to care or be engage past the threshold to complete an online form requesting a ballot, but surely they should be allowed to in both cases.

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