Immuring Dicey’s Ghost

The Senate Reform Reference and constitutional conventions

In its opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, the Supreme Court notoriously relied on a metaphor that had previously popped up, but played no real role, in its jurisprudence: “constitutional architecture”. Notably, the court was of the view that moves towards an effectively elected Senate would modify the constitution’s architecture, and such modifications required formal amendment under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, just as much as changes to the explicit provisions of the constitution’s text. Yet the court’s explanations of just what this architecture was were short and cryptic, and haven’t been elaborated upon ― judicially ― in the intervening years.

To fill in this void, an academic cottage industry sprang up to speculate about the meaning of the architectural metaphor and about what other constitutional reforms it might block. For example, Kate Glover Berger suggested that “action taken to dismantle or undermine the administrative state could be deemed unconstitutional” because the administrative state is built into the architecture of the Canadian constitution. Lorne Neudorf invoked architecture in the service of an argument to the effect that courts can read down or indeed invalidate vague delegations of legislative power to the executive branch. Michael Pal speculated that the first-past-the-post electoral system might be entrenched as part of the constitutional architecture.

All this while, I have been working on my own contribution to this genre, called “Immuring Dicey’s Ghost: The Senate Reform Reference and Constitutional Conventions”, which is finally going to be published by the Ottawa Law Review later this year. In a nutshell, I argue that “architecture” is really just code for “conventions” ― those supposedly non-legal but fundamentally important constitutional rules, arising out of political practice and morality, which courts have long said they could not possibly enforce. And I argue, further, that the Supreme Court should have squarely addressed the fact that it was relying on conventions, instead of playing confusing rhetorical games.

A draft is now available, for your reading pleasure. Here is the abstract:

Although the metaphor of “constitutional architecture” had appeared in some previous opinions of the Supreme Court of Canada, it took on a new importance in Reference re Senate Reform, where the Court held that amendments to constitutional architecture had to comply with the requirements of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. However, the Court provided very little guidance as to the scope of this entrenched “architecture”. As a result, the metaphor’s meaning and implications have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate.

This article contributes to this debate by arguing that “constitutional architecture” incorporates (some) constitutional conventions. It further takes the position that, instead of relying on this confusing metaphor, the Court should have candidly admitted that conventions were central to its decision by acknowledging that the text of the Canadian constitution cannot be fully understood without reference to conventions.

Part I reviews, first, the Supreme Court’s opinions in which the notion of constitutional “architecture” has been mentioned, focusing on this concept’s place in the Senate Reform Reference, and then some of the scholarly commentary that has endeavoured to make sense of it. Part II sets out my own view that constitutional “architecture”, as this concept is used by the Supreme Court, is concerned primarily if not exclusively with constitutional conventions. Part III considers whether it is possible to determine precisely which conventions are encompassed by the notion of constitutional architecture, examining the conventions’ importance, and their relationship to the constitutional text as possible criteria, and concluding that neither allows precise determinations. Part IV sets out what would in my view have been a less confusing way of addressing the significance of conventions to the questions the Court was facing in the Senate Reform Reference: frankly recognizing that conventions were relevant to the interpretation of the applicable constitutional texts. Part V examines two objections to the incorporation of conventions (via “architecture” or through interpretation) into the realm of constitutional law, arguing that this incorporation is not illegitimate, and that it will not stultify the constitution’s development. Part VI concludes with an appeal for greater transparency on the part of the Supreme Court.

The last thing I mention here is that this paper begins the project of bringing together two subjects on which I had mostly been writing separately: constitutional conventions on the one hand, and originalism on the other. As explained here, Canadian originalism has to grapple with the fact that some of our most important constitutional rules are unwritten. This paper, although it doesn’t make a case for originalism, begins to outline what that an originalist approach to conventions will look like.

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 “Immuring Dicey’s Ghost”

    1. What is constitutional architecture, according to you? And is the Senate Reform Reference really consistent with the orthodox separation between law and convention?

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