I Said Don’t Do It

The federal government is wrong to involve Québec in the process of appointing the next Supreme Court judge

In 2014, after the Supreme Court invalidated the appointment of Justice Nadon to one of its seats reserved for Québec judges or lawyers, the federal government got the Québec government to propose a shortlist of candidates for the vacant-again position. This process resulted in the appointment of Justice Gascon to the Supreme Court. The federal government meant the outsourcing of the shortlist to be a one-off; the Québec government was hoping that it would create a precedent. Québec’s wishes were ignored when the next appointment to one its seats (that of Justice Côté) was made.

But now Justice Gascon is now retiring ― sadly, much before his time ― and a version of the process that produced his appointment is being brought back. As the Canadian Press reports,

[t]he federal and Quebec governments have reached what the province is calling a historic deal that ensures it will play an active role in the process of selecting the next Supreme Court of Canada justice from Quebec.

An advisory committee similar to those used for previous appointments made by the current federal government submit will then

submit a shortlist of candidates to the federal and provincial justice ministers. … [T]he premier of Quebec will also provide an opinion and forward a recommendation to the prime minister, who will make the final decision weighing the recommendation of the federal justice minister and Quebec’s input.

The provincial government’s role is, if I understand correctly, not as important as in the 2014 process, since it doesn’t extend to unilaterally determining the Prime Minister’s range of choices. But it is still significant. The province seems delighted. The Canadian Press writes that the provincial justice minister “called the deal precedent-setting” ― yes, again ― “saying it would allow the province to take a ‘direct and significant part’ in the judicial appointment”.

The rest of us should not be happy. In fact, we should be rather angry. I criticized the 2014 process at some length here, and I believe that that criticism is still applicable, albeit in a slightly watered-down form, to the new process. It is common enough for members of the Canadian chattering classes to claim that the federal government’s power of appointing Supreme Court judges without taking provincial preferences into account is a defect in our federal system. But this view is mistaken. Here’s part what I said in 2014 (with references updates):

[H]ow much of a flaw is it really that the federal government appoints judges unilaterally? In practice, the Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster decisions ― the one concerning the eligibility of Justice Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 and that in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704 ―, as well as Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837, which declared a proposed federal securities regulator unconstitutional belie any claim that the Supreme Court is biased in favour of the federal government.

And even at the level of theory, there is a good argument to be made for unilateral federal appointments. Canadian history has borne out James Madison’s famous argument in Federalist No. 10 that small polities are more vulnerable to “faction” and the tyranny of the majority than larger ones. Our federal governments have tended to be more moderate than provincial ones, and less susceptible to takeovers by ideological entrepreneurs from outside the Canadian mainstream, whether the Social Credit of Alberta or the separatists of Québec. Foreseeing this, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 gave the power of appointing judges of provincial superior courts to the federal rather than the provincial governments. It stands to reason that the judges of the Supreme Court, whose decisions have effect not only in one province, but throughout Canada, should a fortiori be appointed by the government more likely to be moderate and representative of the diversity of the views of the country ― that is to say, by the federal government.

Québec’s case is illustrative. The federal government presumably is comfortable with, or at least not very worried about, outsourcing the selection of potential Supreme Court judges to a relatively friendly, federalist government. Would it have felt the same way if the Parti Québécois ― not only separatist, but also committed to the infamous “Charter of Québec Values” (which the federal government had vowed to fight in court!) had won the recent provincial election? 

The latest developments sure give us some food for thought on this last question. The Parti Québécois, it is true, not only remains out of government, but is currently the fourth-largest party in Québec’s legislature. Yet its idea of purging the province’s public service of overtly religious persons ― especially if they are overtly religious in a non-Catholic way ― is alive, kicking, and in the process of being enacted into law, as Bill 21, by the Coalition Avenir Québec’s government. This is the same government, of course, that its federal counterpart wants to involve in the appointment of the judges who may yet be called upon to pronounce on Bill 21’s consistency with the constitution.

Back in the sunny days of 2015, when illusions about the current federal government being formed by the “Charter party” were still possible, the Prime Minister wrote the following to his Attorney-General:

[Y]our overarching goal will be to ensure our legislation meets the highest standards of equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law. I expect you to ensure that our initiatives respect the Constitution of Canada, court decisions, and are in keeping with our proudest legal traditions. You are expected to ensure that the rights of Canadians are protected, that our work demonstrates the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that our government seeks to fulfill our policy goals with the least interference with the rights and privacy of Canadians as possible.

The “Mandate Letter” in which these wonderful commitments are set out is still on the Prime Minister’s website, although its original addressee was eventualy fired for acting like an actual Law Officer of the Crown and not a political weather-wane. But the same Prime Minister’s government is now going out of its way to hand over part of its constitutional responsibility for appointing the judges of Canada’s highest court to a provincial government bent not only on trampling on fundamental freedoms, but also on insulating its actions from review for compliance with the Charter. I should have thought that this is an odd way of respecting the Constitution of Canada, of ensuring that the rights of Canadians are protected, and of demonstrating the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But what do I know?

Well, I know this. Five years ago wrote that

[t]he power to appoint Supreme Court judges belongs to the federal government, and it alone, for good reason. … [T]he constitutional edifice built in 1867 (and 1875, when the Court was created, and then 1982 when it was, so it says, constitutionally entrenched) has weathered some great storms, and given us all shelter and comfort. It is in no danger of crumbling. Do not try to rebuild it.

Don’t do it. Just don’t.

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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