Judicial Supremacy, Again

Another attack on judicial supremacy misses the mark

Last week, the Québec government put forward a bill that will, under cover of the Canadian Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” and its provincial analogue, declare irreligion the province’s official creed and bar a multitude of office-holders and public employees from wearing religious symbols. Just a couple of days before, over at Policy Options, Brian Bird published the latest contribution to the judicial-supremacy-bad-legislatures-good genre that has been undergoing something of a revival in Canada of late. It is, alas, no more compelling than all the others.

Mr Bird beings by asking two questions: “Is leaving this responsibility [for upholding the constitution] solely in judicial hands the best way of upholding the supreme law of a liberal democracy such as Canada? Does our Constitution even call for judicial supremacy in constitutional matters?” The first question is misdirection. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that, since the courts are able to enforce the constitution, the other branches of government should ignore it. The answer to the second question, as I have argued here, is a resounding “yes”.


Let me start with that second question. (A fuller statement of my views on it is in the post linked to in the previous paragraph.) Mr. Bird claims that section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”, “does not identify courts as the sole or final arbiters of constitutionality. It identifies no particular branch of the state as uniquely responsible for these tasks.” That much is true: section 52(1) does not explicitly mention the courts. But that’s because it doesn’t have to.

As Mr. Bird himself helpfully explained elsewhere, section 52(1) was not an innovation in the Canadian constitutional system, but rather a replacement for the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865, which required the courts to uphold the supremacy of imperial statutes, including what we now call the various Constitution Acts. If the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982 had wanted to deny the judiciary this authority, they would have given us some indication of the fact, instead of remaining cryptically silent. Far from doing so, the framers also sought to entrench the Supreme Court in the constitution ― or so the Supreme Court itself has told us. Why in the world would they have done that if they didn’t think that the court had a special responsibility for enforcing the constitution itself?

And there is more, as I pointed out in the post linked to above:

[T]he phrase “supreme law” (emphasis added) [in section 52(1) also suggests that, like any law, the Constitution of Canada is subject to interpretation and enforcement by the courts―not by legislatures. Granted, by 1982, the Supreme Court had conceded deference on the interpretation of some legal provisions to administrative adjudicators. But that concession was premised―wisely or not is beside the point here―on these adjudicators’ expertise, including legal expertise in their particular area of jurisdiction. I do not think that Parliament would have been understood to have such expertise.

Mr. Bird, for his part, suggests that “the Constitution’s status as the ‘supreme law’ … demands compliance with the Constitution, not a particular mechanism for enforcing compliance.” Yet the normal mechanism for enforcing compliance with law is adjudication, and even to the extent that enforcement can be delegated to non-judicial institutions (and, to repeat, these are supposedly expert institutions specialized in administering specific areas of the law) the courts retain a power of review over their work. If the 1982 framers contemplated some other mechanism for ensuring compliance with the law they were enacting, they would undoubtedly have said so. In short, in my view the original public meaning of section 52(1) ― in the context of its predecessor provision’s text and history ― clearly requires “judicial supremacy in constitutional matters”.


Coming back, then, to Mr. Bird’s first question, whether we would not be better off if all branches of government, and not just the courts, were engaged in upholding the constitution, one can only say, “of course we would”. Mr. Bird does not identify anyone who might disagree but, for the record, I support his view that “[l]egislatures should repeal unconstitutional laws”. I have misgivings about Mr. Bird’s suggestion that “the executive should not enforce” laws it deems unconstitutional, partly for positive law reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini raises in his latest post, and partly for philosophical reasons I refer to here. But the point is a difficult one, and Mr. Bird may well be right. And of course both legislatures and the executives, so far as the law allows, are free to, and should, do more to uphold the constitution than the courts will let them get away with.

The real question, however, is not whether it would be desirable for Canadian legislatures and executives to endeavour to enforce the constitution, but whether they are at all likely to do so. The answer, sadly, is that they are not. While it is true, Mr. Bird notes, that “[g]overnment lawyers frequently give opinions on the constitutionality of proposed legislation [and] [i]n some cases … have a statutory duty to do so”, the standard they apply for concluding that proposed legislation is constitutional is ridiculously low. (It is close, in effect, to a puke test, or to asking whether a colleague defending the statute would be laughed out of court.) And, as I have noted here, when politicians are required to make their own constitutional judgments (in areas that are not justiciable), they “take the constitution no more seriously than when they act under adult judicial supervision. Actually, they do not care about it at all.”

This is not a uniquely Canadian affliction, of course. In New Zealand, successive Attorneys-General have applied a higher standard than their Canadian colleagues to concluding that a proposed enactment would infringe the Bill of Rights Act 1990, but their not infrequent reports to this effect have largely been ignored by Parliament. And even when the courts have pointed out inconsistencies between ordinary legislation and the Bill of Rights Act, contrary to Mr. Bird optimistic prediction, these indications have not “influence[d] the deliberations of governments and … foster[ed] dialogue between branches of the state on constitutional issues”. Legislation flatly contrary to the Bill of Rights Act remains on the books unaltered.


The attack on judicial supremacy and attempts to discredit the judiciary as constitutional enforcer tend, ultimately, to be based on unwarranted optimism about the interest of the “political branches” for the constitution. In my view, there is little cause for such hopefulness. It is true that jurisdictions with judicially enforceable constitutions, such as New Zealand, may remain fairly free ― though it is also true that New Zealand is vulnerable to illiberal policy shifts against some of which a supreme constitution might offer a modicum of protection. But there is nothing to be gained, and likely something to be lost, by giving up on judicial enforcement of supreme constitutional law.

The revival of arguments in favour of this option, coinciding as it does with a shameless political trampling on constitutional constraints and rights illustrated by Québec’s anti-religious legislation, is puzzling and counter-productive. The courts, of course, are very far from perfect in their capacity as constitutional enforcers. But we should be insisting that they become better at this job, not suggesting that they might as give it up.

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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