Nothing to Celebrate

Québec’s irreligious dress code proposal isn’t an opportunity to extol democracy, or to do away with judicial review of legislation

In a recent post at Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, to insulate Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation making irreligion the province’s official creed from judicial scrutiny “is an opportunity for democratic renewal” in discussions about matters constitutional. In doing so, they come another step closer to overtly taking a position that has always been implicit in the arguments of many of section 33’s fans: that the enactment of the Charter was a mistake. Indeed, they go further and, intentionally or otherwise, make the same suggestion regarding the courts’ ability to enforce the federal division of powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. It is brave of Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet to make this argument with Bill 21 as a hook. Yet courageous though it is, the argument is not compelling.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet dismiss claims to the effect that, while section 33 prevents the scrutiny of Bill 21 for compliance with the Charter’s guarantees of religious freedom and equality, other constitutional arguments remain available. (I have presented one such argument, building on Maxime St-Hilaire’s work, here.) To them, they are no more than a “legalistic … distraction”. Opponents of Bill 21 should, rather, be “making the democratic case for protecting religious freedom”. Indeed, we should be celebrating “the legislative process … with its tradition of active debate”, which allows Québec to take a “collaborative approach to fleshing out important rights”. We should also be celebrating street protests, open letters, and even threats of disobedience issued by some of the organizations that will be responsible for applying Bill 21 when it becomes law. After all, letting the courts apply the Charter “can wind up overriding rights in ways similar to Bill 21”, while causing “an atrophying of the democratic process as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted”. In short, “rights should not be taken for granted, nor left to judges. They require the thoughtful participation of the people themselves.”

I agree with this last point. Rights are unlikely to enjoy much protection in a political culture in which they are seen as something of concern to the courts alone. In one way or another ― whether through judicial acquiescence or through legislative override ― whatever constitutional protections for rights might exist in such a society will be cast aside. Québec is an excellent example of this. And, for my part, I have made a political, as well as a legal, case against Bill 21 here. The two can, and should, coexist.

And this is where Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet go badly wrong. In their headlong rush to praise politics, they denigrate the law. Without seriously addressing their merits, their dismiss plausible (albeit, to be fair, not unassailable) legal arguments as mere legalism. This applies not only to an argument based on the Charter, but also to one based on federalism. Presumably, we should count on the political process to sort out which of two different but equally democratic majorities should have the ability to impose its religious views on Canadians ― or any other issues about which order of government has the ability to legislate with respect to a particular subject. Similarly, Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet appear to see no harm in state institutions, such as school boards, threatening to act lawlessly, the Rule of Law be damned.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet also take a remarkably optimistic view of the political process. They say not a word of the fact that the “active debate” for which the praise Québec’s legislature may well be curtailed by the government. They call for democratic persuasion in the face of a law that is designed to impose few, if any, burdens, at least in the way in which it is likely to be enforced, on Québec’s lapsed-Catholic majority, and great burdens on a few minority groups that have long been subjects of suspicion if not outright vilification. A thoughtful advocate of democratic control over rights issues, Jeremy Waldron, at least worried in his “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” about the possibility that political majorities will put their interests above the rights of minority groups. “Injustice”, he writes, “is what happens when the rights or interests of the minority are wrongly subordinated to those of the majority”, (1396) and we may legitimately worry about the tyranny of the majority when political majorities dispose of the rights of minority groups without heeding their concerns. Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet show no sign of being so worried, or of entertaining the possibility that the Québec society’s commitment to religious liberty is fundamentally deficient.

To be sure, Professor Waldron (rightly) reminds us that minorities “may be wrong about the rights they have; the majority may be right”. (1397) He also insists that, in societies genuinely committed to rights, it will rarely be the case that questions of rights will provoke neat splits between majority and minority groups. Still, we should be mindful of his acknowledgement that it is in cases like Bill 21, where majorities focus on their own preoccupations and are willing to simply impose their views on minorities, that the arguments in favour of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights are at their strongest. There is also a very strong argument ― and a democratic argument, too ― to be made in support of judicial enforcement of the federal division of powers, which serves to preserve the prerogative of democratic majorities to decide, or not to decide, certain issues.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet do not recognize these arguments, which leads me to the conclusion that they see no room for (strong-form) judicial review of legislation, under any circumstances. I believe that this position, at least so far as the Charter is concerned, is implicit in most if not all of the recent attempts to rehabilitate section 33. If one argues that we should trust legislatures to sometimes come to views about rights that deserve to prevail over those of the courts, indeed perhaps to correct judicial mistakes, then why trust them in some cases only, and not in all? The application of this logic to federalism isn’t as familiar in the Canadian context, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.

Yet in my view, this is a mistake. As the circumstances surrounding Bill 21 show, politics is often little more than the imposition of the preferences of one group on another by brute force. This is as true in a democracy as it is under any other political regime. Democracy makes it more likely (although it does not guarantee) that the triumphant group will be a majority of the citizenry, which may or may not be a good thing. Democracy means that governmental decrees are, in principle (although not always in practice) reversible, and this is most definitely a good thing, and the reason why democracy is the least bad form of government. But I see no basis for pretending that democratic politics is somehow wise, or that it fosters meaningful debate about rights or other constitutional issues. Yes, there are some examples of that, on which opponents of judicial review of legislation like to seize. But these examples are few and far between and, more importantly, nothing about the nature of democratic politics makes their regular occurrence likely.

And of course it is true that strong-form judicial review of legislation, or judicial enforcement of rights (and of federalism) more broadly, sometimes fails to protect rights as fully as it should. I’m not sure that Dr. Sigalet and Ms. Baron’s chosen example, Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567, is especially compelling ― I think the case was wrongly decided, but the majority’s position at least rested on the sort of concern that can in principle justify limitations on rights. The more recent decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case are much worse in this regard, and provide compelling examples of an abject judicial failure to enforce the rights of a (rightly) maligned minority against an overbearing majority. Judicial review provides only a chance that what the political or administrative process got wrong will be set right, not a guarantee. But there is no compelling reason to think that the (usual) availability of judicial review causes the political debate about rights or other constitutional issues to atrophy. After all, as I have argued here, politicians are just as wont to ignore the constitution when they know or think that their decisions are not judicially reviewable as when they know that they are.  

In short, I am all for making the case for rights, and even federalism, outside the courtroom, and in ways that do not only speak to those carrying the privilege, or the burden, of legal training. I am all for making submissions to legislatures to try to prevent them from committing an injustice ― I’ve done it myself. And I’m all for protest, and even for civil disobedience by ordinary citizens when the politicians won’t listen ― though I have serious misgivings about officials declining to follow the law, partly for the reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini outlined here, and partly due to concerns of my own. But if the legally-minded among us should not neglect the political realm, then the politically-inclined should not disparage the law. The would-be prophets of popular sovereignty ought to remember Edward Coke’s words in his report of Prohibitions del Roy :

the law [is] the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protect[s] His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege.

This is no less true of today’s democratic sovereign, though it be no less apt to stand on its own dignity as James I.

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.

2 thoughts on “Nothing to Celebrate”

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