Sentencing Judgment Found Inside a Chinese Fortune Cookie

The sentencing judgment in the Québec City mosque shooter’s case is badly flawed

This post is co-written with Maxime St-Hilaire

The sentence imposed on the accused in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 for murdering six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque, and injuring, in many cases grievously, multiple others is striking: life imprisonment, as for all murderers, and no possibility of parole for 40 years. This is one of the longest periods of parole ineligibility in Canadian history, and thus one of the heaviest sentences imposed since the abolition of the death penalty. Yet equally striking, and in our view insufficiently discussed (in English anyway), is the reasoning of the Québec Superior Court judge who imposed this sentence―and re-wrote the Criminal Code in order to do so.

At the heart of the decision is section 745.51 of the Criminal Code, which since 2011 has authorized―but not required―judges to stack parole ineligibility periods for persons convicted of multiple murders. The Crown invoked it and asked for Mr. Bissonnette to be subject to six consecutive 25-year periods, thus theoretically making him eligible for parole after 150 years. The defence argued that such stacking would be unconstitutional, and that Mr. Bissonnette’s periods parole ineligibility should run concurrently, as they would have before 2011, potentially making him eligible for release in 25 years.

Having reviewed the harrowing facts, Justice Huot takes the view that neither of these positions is just. On the one hand, courts ought not to “sink into excess by imposing punishment that impresses the media but is, all told, of little real significance”. [758; translation ours here and throughout] On the other, “the needs for denunciation, deterrence, and incapacitation are so pressing in this case that the imposition of six concurrent ineligibility periods would bring the administration of justice into disrepute”. [766] According to Justice Huot, justice requires that Mr. Bissonnette be ineligible for parole for more than 25 years―but less than 50. Yet section 745.51 dictates that if ineligibility periods for those guilty of multiple first-degree murders are going to be stacked, they must be stacked in full; that is to say, by increments of 25 years (the mandatory period for one such murder), on the premise that the lives of all victims are of equal value.

However, Justice Huot finds that section 745.51 is unconstitutional. In his view, it is a violation of the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and against deprivations of liberty and security of the person not in accordance with principles of fundamental justice (section 7 of the Charter). And having so found, Justice Huot takes it upon himself “to modify … existing law” [1173] to grant himself the power to sentence Mr. Bissonnette in the exact way he thinks just.

We think that Justice Huot’s conclusions on section 12, section 7, and the remedy are all fatally flawed. His opinion is, moreover, petty (to the point, as we suggest below, of possible illegality), and lacking in rigour (even misspelling Chief Justice McLachlin’s name on a couple of a occasions). For all its prodigious length and academic, even literary, pretension, the judgment is a failure of scholarship as well as of judicial craft. We cannot comprehensively summarize Justice Huot’s reasons here, but will try to highlight their most significant defects.

Section 12 of the Charter provides that “[e]veryone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”. Justice Huot argues that

it would be disproportionate, cruel, and contrary to Canadian society’s values of justice and compassion to deny an individual who has, since his teenage years, suffered from mental health problems all hope of gaining his freedom back, if only for a few years, regardless of how abominable his crimes were. Canada is not a land where the most undesirable elements of the community are shut in a gaol and their very existence forgotten, the key of their liberty having been thrown into the river of a vast collective indifference. [845]

Of course, section 745.51 didn’t require Justice Huot to impose what he regards as a cruel sentence. It says that parole ineligibility periods can be stacked―not that they must be. Like many if not most provisions of the Criminal Code, it made possible the imposition of a maximum sentence that the judge considers excessive in the circumstances of a particular case. That, by itself, should be no reason to hold it to be contrary to the Charter.

The idea that it is cruel to, in effect, sentence a person to die in prison is also perplexing. For Justice Huot, it is nothing short of “sophistry to assert that [multiple murders] should reasonably expect, in a free, civilized, and democratic society, to spend the rest of their days behind bars, any endeavours at rehabilitation notwithstanding”. [975] Indeed, he asserts that “Canadians would consider as ‘odious and intolerable’ any sentence denying the accused a reasonable chance at conditional release in the last years of his life”. [982] Yet depending on the offender’s age, a fit and just sentence, even for a lesser crime than a hate-driven massacre, may have such a consequence. Does it, for that reason, become unconstitutionally cruel? As for Canadians, a clear majority of them apparently thought the actual death penalty “morally right” just a few years ago. To be clear, this isn’t to say that this majority is itself right. But Justice Huot has no way of knowing that popular opinion has changed. He is, we are afraid, simply making things up.

Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Justice Huot’s reason for invalidating section 745.51 have to do not so much with the risk of cruelty to the man before him, but with what he regards as “the credibility of the justice system”. [846] Justice Huot is adamant that “a simple period of 25 years of parole ineligibility of 25 years would be utterly unreasonable and disproportionate in the circumstances”. [880] That may be the case (though Parliaments from the 1970s to 2011 had not thought so), but a disproportionately lenient sentence, unlike an excessively harsh one, is not a constitutional violation. The constitution protects individuals from excessive punishment by the state, not society against insufficiently punished offenders. Justice Huot argues that it is imperative “that Parliament leave sufficient discretionary powers to the courts for them to impose on offenders sentences that” [846] will be just in all the circumstances. But, while this this argument may be sound policy, it has nothing to do with preventing cruel and unusual punishments.

Things do not get better as Justice Huot moves on to discussing section 7 of the Charter, which provides that “[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”. There is little question that, by allowing the imposition of addition parole ineligibility, section 745.51 implicates the right to liberty. But is it also not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice?

Justice Huot thinks so. Indeed, he identifies three such principles that he thinks are being infringed. The first one is the prohibition on overbreadth. Section 745.51 is overbroad, says Justice Huot, because it makes it possible for a judge to impose a 50- or 75-year parole ineligibility period on a multiple murderer who would, all things considered, only deserve 30 or 40. Again, Justice Huot insists that not imposing an excessive ineligibility period in such cases is no solution, because “it is simply unrealistic to believe that sentences of 25, 50, or 75 years of ineligibility will always be proportional”. [1051]

Second, Justice Huot says that section 745.51 infringes the prohibition on gross disproportionality, as do all punishments found to be cruel and unusual.

And, not content with these findings, Justice Huot goes on to hold that section 745.51 infringes a third principle of fundamental justice: human dignity. Now human dignity has never been recognized (or, to be fair, rejected) as a principle of fundamental justice for the purposes of section 7 of the Charter. This is no problem for Justice Huot, who breezes through the test for recognizing a new such principle. Dignity, he says, is a legal principle, because it has been recognized as a value underlying the Charter and received “express mentions in the Canadian Bill of Rights and in international agreements”. [1098] Similarly, it is the subject of a broad consensus. And as for whether respect for human dignity is a sufficiently specific criterion to assess infringements of the rights protected by section 7, Justice Huot dismisses the question in a couple of sentences: “Human dignity is a well-known legal principle. It characterizes human beings ‘in their universality’. This concept is sufficiently precise to be considered a ‘manageable standard’.” [721; references omitted].

Justice Huot’s reasoning on overbreadth is dubious, to say the least. Overbreadth more naturally describes the prohibition of conduct that should not be prohibited (because it is unrelated to the prohibition’s purpose) than to excessive punishment, which should be treated under the rubric of gross disproportionality. Moreover, his findings on both of these principles disregard the fact that the issue, under section 7 of the Charter, is whether section 745.51 may force a sentencing judge to deprive an offender of liberty contrary to fundamental justice―not whether it may prevent the judge from imposing a sentence that is exactly proportional to the crime.

But it is the casual recognition of human dignity as a principle of fundamental justice that’s most astonishing. Put to one side the question of whether an underlying or preambular value is properly characterized as a legal principle. Recall, simply, that the Supreme Court struggled for the better part of a decade to integrate human dignity into its equality jurisprudence, and gave up―recognizing in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41 [2008] 2 SCR 483 that “human dignity is an abstract and subjective notion”, “confusing and difficult to apply”. [22] Justice Huot, of course, ignores this. To him, the cryptic reference to human universality is guidance enough.    

Needless to say, Justice Huot’s entire section 7 discussion is an obiter, since he has already found section 745.51 a violation of section 12 of the Charter; the discussion of human dignity, doubly so, since he already finds a section 7 infringement on account of overbreadth. A prudent judge would not venture into uncharted and choppy jurisprudential waters without the need to do so. Justice Huot, however, is not such a judge.

Having (unsurprisingly) found that there is no justification under section 1 of the Charter for what he considers cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of principles of fundamental justice (and made along the way some remarkable comments, to which we shall return), Justice Huot turns to the question of the remedy. This is probably the most astonishing part of his judgment. Without having been asked to do so by either party, and without having given them the opportunity to at least make submissions on the matter, Justice Huot decides not to just invalidate section 745.51 but to re-write it so as to grant judges―starting, of course, with himself―the discretionary power to craft what they see as appropriate sentences with parole ineligibility periods of more than 25 but less than 50 years.

In the section 1 part of his reasons, Justice Huot notes that this very possibility was debated and rejected by Parliament. But he does not think that there is anything wrong with him writing a law that Parliament did not want. Democracy, he says, is not just majority rule: “It implies a legal framework that, like the Charter, protects the rights and liberties of citizens. Hence judicial review must be seen as democracy’s faithful ally. … When they intervene in the name of the Charter, judges do not act against democracy, but in conformity with it.” [1169] Moreover, having rejected Blackstone’s declaratory theory, “our common law tradition favours progressive amendment that support the adaptation of existing legal rules to new views and practices”. [1176] The re-writing of section 745.51 is, all in all, an obvious thing to do, and there is no need to go back to Parliament for its views on the matter.

This is a power grab. Justice Huot claims, in effect, that democracy and a “modern” conception of the common law allow judges to re-write statutes, so long as they do so “in the name of the Charter”. But while judicial review may be consistent with democracy (though certainly not “implied” by it―unless Justice Huot thinks that, for example, Australia and New Zealand, both of which lack strong-form rights-based judicial review, are not democratic countries, and that Canada was not one until 1982), it simply does not follow that democracy justifies whatever a court engaged in judicial review might do. As for the common law, whatever its exact nature (and there is much more to be said for the declaratory theory than Justice Huot is aware of), it provides no authority for judges to re-write legislation, as opposed to developing judicially-articulated legal rules. Besides, Justice Huot’s re-writing of section 745.51 has nothing to do with accommodating “new views and practices”; it simply imposes a view that Parliament considered and rejected.

Now, there is a debate to be had about the appropriate judicial role in the face of unconstitutionally underinclusive legislation. It is at least arguable that courts can (sometimes) remedy underinclusion by making an obvious addition to the statute. But, to repeat, Justice Huot is not here dealing with an underinclusive provision. There is nothing unconstitutional, though there is arguably something unjust, about not imposing longer parole ineligibility terms on those guilty of multiple murders than single ones. Justice Huot’s job was to remedy what he, rightly or wrongly, saw as unconstitutionality―not to rectify injustice. He did what he wanted to do, not what he was appointed to do.

Beyond these specific mistakes, the overall tone of Justice Huot’s reasons deserves some comment. Justice Huot starts off with a reverse bench-slap directed at the Supreme Court and its decision in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631 (is that a reverse bench-slap per saltum?), snidely commenting that “in these times when the abrogation of judicial delays seems to have been exalted to the rank of a cardinal virtue, it is not superfluous to recall that the very idea of ‘justice’ fits poorly with the clamour and the zeitgeist”. [7] He dishes it out to the American legal system for its reliance on life imprisonment without parole and insists that “Canada remains a country proud of its origins and attached to the preservation of its moral, social, and legal values, which differ in many ways from those of other jurisdictions”. [978] But whatever his pride in the Canadian legal system, Justice Huot doesn’t seem to think very highly of his colleagues who, unlike him, have seen it fit to impose consecutive parole ineligibility on multiple first-degree murderers. The accusation of sophistry, referred to above, is levelled at one of them. More generally, Justice Huot’s insistence that the discretionary power not to stack ineligibility periods, which section 745.51 maintains, is not enough to make it constitutional seems to result from his desire to prevent other judges from imposing sentences that he considers unjust, even though they do not.

Most remarkable, however, is Justice Huot’s attitude towards Parliament. It is not just that, as explained above, he deliberately re-writes the law he has found unconstitutional in a manner that was specifically put before, and rejected by, the legislature. More than that, he comments on what various members of Parliament said in the course of this debate, in a manner that sits uneasily, to put it mildly, with article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1688, which provides “[t]hat the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”. This is usually known as the foundation of the rule that what is said in Parliament cannot be made subject to criminal or civil liability, but Article 9 has broader separation of powers implications too. As the New Zealand court of Appeal put it in Attorney-General v Taylor [2017] NZCA 215, [2017] 3 NZLR 24, “courts scrupulously avoid” “consider[ing] questions of adequacy, accuracy or propriety in the proceedings of Parliament”. [124] Canadian courts, it is fair to say, have long been less scrupulous than they might be about this. Still, Justice Huot’s play-by-play commentary on Parliamentary debate, praise for “[o]pposition members [who] did their job”, [1146] denigration of a government member’s answer as being of “dubious intelligibility” [1137] and of the Parliamentary majority as a whole for its “wilful blindness” [1146] in the face of opposition warnings are quite beyond the pale.

And in addition to denigrating others, Justice Huot devotes a rather unseemly amount of energy to puffing himself up. He discusses and critiques Kant and Bentham, Beccaria and Blackstone―the latter based entirely on secondary sources―and misses no opportunity to wax eloquent. When the Crown points him to cases where his colleagues imposed consecutive ineligibility periods, he retorts that “such a mathematical reasoning can only lead us to the bounds of immoderation, or even a litany of jurisprudential precedents each as aberrant as the next in their repudiation of the most elementary rules of logic”. [640] The prospect of an offender never being able to seek parole is tantamount to “exile … in a prison environment, outside any civilized society”. [1073] But perhaps the best (if that’s the word) such passage comes, predictably, when Justice Huot discusses human dignity, and informs us that

In a foreseeable future, courts will have to confront especially sensitive questions, such as euthanasia, medical assistance in dying, genetic manipulations, and other bioethical questions. Science progresses at meteoric speed and ceaselessly presents new challenges to philosophers, legislators, and lawyers. Any analysis requiring reflection on the essence of human beings and their rights to life, liberty and security inevitably requires taking into account their dignity, lest it dehumanize them. [1100]

This is reminiscent of the notorious musings of Justice Kennedy, another human dignity devotee, on “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. But Justice Huot’s reasons, which begin with a supposed Confucius quotation as an epigraph, bring to mind notorious line from a US Supreme Court’s decision―Justice Scalia’s quip about “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie”.

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.

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