Johnson on Vavilov

Announcing a guest post on the “culture of justification” in the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov

This is a quick announcement that James M. Johnson will soon be publishing a guest post discussing the notion of a “culture of justification” in administrative law as it is treated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Dr. Johnson holds a PhD from Queen’s University, having written a thesis on nondelegation. He is currently the Principal of Public Law Solutions, a research firm in Toronto. I am looking forward to his post.

Making a Monster

A report on the future regulation of the internet proposes giving the CRTC overwhelming and unaccountable powers

The final report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, grandly entitled Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act (the “BTLR Report”) has already attracted its share of commentary, much of it, but by no means all, sharply critical. As Michael Geist has explained, the report articulates

a vision of a highly regulated Internet in which an expanded CRTC … would aggressively assert its jurisdictional power over Internet sites and services worldwide with the power to levy massive penalties for failure to comply with its regulatory edicts. 

The discussion has mostly focused on the wisdom of the BTLR Report’s 97 recommendations for regulating the way in which Canadians engage with the online world, and also on their impact on freedom of expression. But one aspect of the report ― indeed, not merely an aspect but a fundamental element of the report’s underlying philosophy ― has, I think, received less attention, although Professor Geist alludes to it with his reference to “an expanded CRTC”: the report’s commitment to administrative power. This is, perhaps, a less obvious issue, but we should not underestimate its significance. If followed, the report’s recommendations would not merely expand the CRTC, but make into a bureaucratic behemoth. We must not let this happen.


The BTLR Report recommends multiple amendments to the legislation governing electronic communications in Canada that would tend to produce the “highly regulated internet” to which Professor Geist refers. Yet the striking thing is that most of the proposed changes do not describe the regulations that they call for with any precision. Instead, they say that the CRTC should be given vast powers to bring into being the report’s imagined brave new world.

The CRTC would be givens new powers to make rules of general application. Most ominously, it would be given the ability to regulate “media content undertakings” ― that is, all manner of entities creating their own content, whether written, sound-based, or visual, as well as those providing platforms for the content created by others, everything from a humble podcast to giants like Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube. These “undertakings” would be required to register with the CRTC, which would be

enable[d] … to establish classes of registrants, to amend registrations, and impose requirements — whether through conditions of registration or through regulations — on registrants (Recommendation 57)

These requirements could, in particular, include “codes of conduct, including provisions with respect to resolution mechanisms, transparency, privacy, and accessibility”. (Recommendation 74) At the same time, the CRTC would be given

the power to exempt any media content undertaking or classes of media content undertakings from registration in instances in which — by virtue of its specialized content or format, revenues, or otherwise — regulation is neither necessary nor appropriate to achieve media content policy objectives. (Recommendation 58)

In other words, the CRTC would decide ― with virtually no guidance from legislation ― both what the rules for “media content undertakings” would be an who would in fact have to comply with them at all. In particular it would be to

impose discoverability obligations on all audio or audiovisual entertainment media content undertakings, as it deems appropriate, including …  prominence obligations [and] the obligation to offer Canadian media content choices(Recommendation 62). 

The CRTC could impose similar requirements on “on media aggregation and media sharing undertakings” ― again “as appropriate” (Recommendation 73). The CRTC would also be directed to “intervene, if necessary … in order to respond quickly to changes in the communications services, improve transparency, and promote trust” in the face of technologies that “combine algorithms and artificial intelligence with Big Data” (Recommendation 93).

The CRTC would also be empowered, and indeed required, to regulate behaviour of individual market actors. It would be given the remit “to ensure that rates are just and reasonable” in “key electronic communications markets” (Recommendation 29). Indeed, in a rare instance of seeking to restrain rather than expand the CRTC’s discretion, the BTLR Report suggests that the ability of the CRTC to “forbear” from regulating the justness of rates should be eliminated (Recommendation 30). The CRTC would also be given the power to “regulate economic relationships between media content undertakings and content producers, including terms of trade” (Recommendation 61). In relation to CBC/Radio-Canada, the CRTC would be tasked with “overseeing all its content-related activities” (Recommendation 83).

But the report would not only have the CRTC make the law for the online world. It would also be given a substantial autonomous power of the purse. It would be given the power to designate “from an expanded range of market participants — all providers of electronic communications services — … required contributors to funds to ensure access to advanced telecommunications”. (Recommendation 25) Among the requirements the CRTC would be able to impose on those required to register … would be “the payment of registration fees” (Recommendation 57). It could, further, “impose spending requirements or levies on all media content undertakings, except those” mainly providing written news (Recommendation 61), “some or all” of which it could use to fund “to the production of news content” through “an independent, arm’s length CRTC-approved fund for the production of news, including local news on all platforms” (Recommendation 71).

The CRTC would acquire additional adjudicative powers too. For example, Recommendation 38 suggests that it should resolve disputes over the location of telecommunication infrastructure. More significantly, it would be both prosecutor and judge when “imposing penalties for any failure to comply with the terms and conditions of registration” imposed on “media content undertakings” (Recommendation 57), with “resolv[ing] disputes” among which it would also be tasked (Recommendation 61). Not that this adjudication would necessarily look like that done in the courts, since the BTLR Report would empower the CRTC “to issue ex parte decisions where the circumstances of the case justify it”. (Recommendation 75)

The prophet of the administrative state in Canada, John Willis, described administrative agencies as “governments in miniature”. One hesitates to describe the law-making, trade-regulating, money-grabbing CRTC envisioned by the BTLR Report as in any sense miniature, but it sure looks like a government unto itself, albeit a rather undemocratic one. In addition to the Commissioners who would exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers, it would have a sort of representative body, the Public Interest Committee, “composed of not more than 25 individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and experience representing the diversity of public, civic, consumer, and small business interests, and including Indigenous Peoples”. (Recommendation 15) It’s not quite clear who would be appointing these people, but it certainly does not seem that, despite their supposed mandate to represent the public, they would be elected. Not to worry though: there would also be funding, out of fees collected by the CRTC, for “public interest interventions” (Recommendations 12 and 13), in case, I suppose, the Public Interest Committee doesn’t sufficiently intervene to represent the public interest. And, in addition to the prosecutorial and judicial functions of the Commissioners, there would be

an independent, industry-funded, communications consumer complaints office with the authority to investigate and resolve complaints from individual and small business retail customers of services covered by the respective Acts,

whose “mandate and structure” the CRTC would “create and approve” (Recommendation 96).

Meanwhile, outside control over this machinery will be be reduced. The Commissioners, who are currently appointed to renewable five-year terms, would instead serve for seven years, with no possibility of renewal (Recommendation 4). A limited form of Parliamentary supervision, the laying of government “directions” to the CRTC before the Houses of Parliament would be abolished in the interests of swift regulation (Recommendation 6). And, of course, given the vagueness of the legislative guidance to the CRTC and the breadth of its mandate, it is unlikely that the courts would intervene much to police its regulatory activities.

To sum up, the CRTC would be put in control, with very few restraints, of Canadians’ interaction with the online world, and with one another. Who can speak online and on what conditions ― the CRTC would have control over that. How much they have to pay for the privilege, and where the money goes ― the CRTC would have control over that. How disputes among them, and between them and the CRTC itself, are to be resolved ― the CRTC would have control over that too. The only “checks” on it would come from handpicked representatives of the “public interest” as the CRTC itself conceives it ― not from Parliament or the courts.


The empowerment of the CRTC proposed by the BTLR Report is, of course, no accident. It proceeds from a specific philosophy of government, which the Report describes quite forthrightly. According to its authors,

The role of government is to establish broad policies. The role of regulators is to implement those policies through specific rules and in a transparent and predictable fashion. Legislation is the key instrument through which government establishes these policies. It should provide sufficient guidance to assist the CRTC in the discharge of its duties, but sufficient flexibility for it to operate independently in deciding how to implement sector policy. To achieve this, legislative statements of policy should set out broadly framed objectives and should not be overly prescriptive. (46-47)

In other words, government ― Parliament is left out of the equation entirely, as if it has nothing to do with legislation ― should mostly leave the CRTC alone. Indeed, it is important to preserve “proper balance between the government’s role in policymaking and the regulator’s role in implementing those policies independent of government influence”. (47) And, judging by the amount discretion ― to make law and dictate the behaviour of individual organizations, to levy fees and spend money, to identify, prosecute, and condemn alleged offenders and to adjudicate disputes ― the BTLR Report would vest in the CRTC, the “balance” is really all on the side of the regulator.

This is the philosophy the BTLR Report would impose on the 2020s and, perhaps, beyond. It ostensibly envisions “the CRTC’s shift toward a future-oriented, proactive, and data-driven style of regulation”. (44) But its ideology comes, not from the future, but from a distant and, as article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” by Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson about which I blogged here shows, detestable past. As Professors Calabresi and Lawson explain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s

administration and a compliant Congress created a vast array of new “expert” regulatory agencies, many of which followed the “independent” model by insulating the agency heads from at-will presidential removal, and many of which contained (and still contain) statutory authorizations to the agencies so vague as to be literally meaningless. … These agencies, controlled neither by the President nor by Congress, made life-altering decisions of both fact and law subject only to deferential judicial
review. (829)

This is the governance model proposed by the BTLR Report. Its original backers

fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and
should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions. They believed instead that there were “experts”—the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls—who should administer the administrative state as freely as possible from control by representative political institutions. (829)

(For more on the beliefs of 1930s pro-administrativists, see also this post by co-blogger Mark Mancini.) Judging by their proposals, the views of the authors of the BTLR Report are rooted in just this kind of thinking. They mistrust the free market as well as democratic institutions, and want fundamental decisions about what is, by their own account, an unbelievably important part of our lives to be made by officials deemed wiser than everyone else.

And if the philosophy behind the BTLR Report’s proposed future goes back a mere century, its institutional vision is considerably older still. In fact, at the risk of sounding a bit like Philip Hamburger (which, after all, isn’t a bad thing!) I would argue that it amounts to a counter-revolution against the 17th-century subjection of executive authority to law, and a reversal of the the post-1689 constitutional settlement. To be sure, everything the BTLR Report proposes to do would be covered by the fig leaf of ― deliberately vague and unconstraining ― legislative authority. But in substance, the proposals amount to executive law-making contrary to the Case of Proclamations, executive dispension from the law contrary to article 2 of the Bill of Rights 1688, executive adjudication contrary to the case of Prohibitions del Roy, and executive taxation contrary, this time, to article 4 of the Bill of Rights. James I and James II would be proud.


So when we hear that “this time it’s different” ― that the online world is like nothing we’ve seen before ― that its actors “pose a unique set of challenges for contemporary regulators”, as Paul Daly argues ― and that this justifies the sort of overwhelming regulatory response recommended by the BTLR Report, we need to be skeptical. For all that the issues raised by the modern world are ― now as a century ago! ― said to be quite unlike anything that came before, the solutions offered are the same old. More unfettered bureaucratic power is always said to do the trick. When all you have is a hammer…

More recently, a very different philosophy seemed, however briefly, to prevail in the online world. In the 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“, John Perry Barlow proclaimed:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The Declaration isn’t much more remembered than the term “cyberspace” itself, nowadays, and the weary giants whom Barlow was taunting have come after the cyber-libertarians like Pushkin’s Stone Guest. If the authors of the BTLR Report get their way, the we would indeed be governed, to keep with the 17th century English political thought, by Leviathan himself.


NOTE: A petition to “the Government of Canada to Reject the recommendations regarding the legislation and regulation of free speech, free expression and the free press made by the” BTLR Report is open for signature at the House of Commons website. Please sign it!

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.

A Matter of Unwritten Principle

Unwritten constitutional principles have an important, and rightful, place in Canadian constitutional law

The most striking thing, to me anyway, about the symposium on dissents from Supreme Court judgments that this blog hosted over the holidays was the popularity of Justice LaForest’s dissent in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3. No fewer than five of our contributors mentioned it as one of their top three: Dwight Newman, Emmett Macfarlane, Jonathan Maryniuk, Howard Kislowicz (although he cautions that he might not actually agree with Justice LaForest), and Bruce Ryder. They have all praise Justice LaForest for emphasizing the importance of constitutional text, as opposed to the unwritten, extra-textual “underlying principles” on which the majority relied. Agreeing with them, albeit relying on a different dissent, that of Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 was Asher Honickman.

This degree of agreement among an ideologically and professionally diverse group sets off my contrarian instincts. So in this post I want to take issue with one aspect of Justice LaForest’s dissent, and with the esteemed scholars who are extolling it. I want to argue that unwritten principles have an important place in Canadian constitutional law, both as a descriptive and as a normative matter. To be clear, it’s not that I have come to like, or even regard as defensible, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference. Indeed, I stand by my assessment of it as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions! But my beef with it was, and is, not simply that it relied on unwritten principles, but that in doing so it disregarded clear, on-point constitutional text, and further that I do not think “it plausible that complex institutional arrangements”―such as independent commissions to determine judicial pay―”are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them”. In other circumstances, reliance on unwritten principles can be much more justifiable.


Justice LaForest’s attack on judicial reliance on underlying principles starts from his understanding of what makes judicial review of legislation legitimate:

The ability to nullify the laws of democratically elected representatives derives its legitimacy from a super-legislative source: the text of the Constitution.  This foundational document (in Canada, a series of documents) expresses the desire of the people to limit the power of legislatures in certain specified ways.  [314]

In a democratic society, judicial review is tolerable so long, but only so long, as it amounts to nothing more than the enforcement of choices democratically made through the process of constitutional entrenchment and amendment. Its “legitimacy is imperiled … when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority”. [316] “Textual authority” is be all, end all of judicial review:

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867” [107].  On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. [319; emphasis in the original]

This paean to democracy and to textualism as a means of giving effect to democracy is appealing. As many of the contributors to the dissents symposium pointed out, it seems to have carried the day in in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, where Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court, proclaimed that

in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box. [66]

This was, I am afraid, a crassly cynical statement, considering that the invitation to resort to the protection of the ballot box against retroactive legislation was being extended to non-voters ― to corporations, and to (understandably) very unpopular corporations at that. But, like Justice LaForest’s, this argument has undeniable rhetorical appeal.


Yet it is, in my view, a mistake to claim that it has prevailed as a matter of positive law. Before getting to its current status, let me point out that the idea that underlying constitutional principles exist and constrain government goes back at least to Justice Martland and Ritchie’s powerful dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753. (It is at least arguable that it actually goes back much further, to Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 and indeed Attorney General of Nova Scotia v Attorney General of Canada, [1951] SCR 31, even the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, but I will ignore these cases here.)

The key passage in Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent is the following:

It can fairly be said … that the dominant principle of Canadian constitutional law is federalism. The implications of that principle are clear. Each level of government should not be permitted to encroach on the other, either directly or indirectly. The political compromise achieved as a result of the Quebec and London Conferences preceding the passage of the B.N.A. Act would be dissolved unless there were substantive and effec­tive limits on unconstitutional action. (821)

From there, it was not such a large step to say that these limits on unconstitutional action could, and must be, enforced by the courts, even if they were not spelt out in the constitutional text.

A different unwritten principle, that of the Rule of Law, was also crucial in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721. This is well known. Equally well known is the Supreme Court’s reliance on underlying constitutional principles, four of them, in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, to try to construct a legal ― although seemingly not an enforceable ― framework for dealing with separatism. (The Court referred to Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent, although it did not acknowledge that it was, in fact, citing to a dissenting opinion!) Less famous, and not employing the rhetoric of unwritten principles, but relying on this idea in substance, are the cases of Amax Potash Ltd v Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, and Air Canada v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1986] 2 SCR 539. In both of them, the Supreme Court held, without relying on any specific written constitutional provision, that provinces could not prevent litigants from arguing that provincial legislation was unconstitutional, because this would undermine the Canadian constitutional order as one in which government powers are constrained and limited.

Did the Imperial Tobacco case repudiate all this? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Supreme Court was less categorical there than the passage most often quoted, including above, would seem to suggest. Justice Major did not reject the argument based on the Rule of Law principle out of hand. He reviewed the previous cases where the principle had been invoked (though not Amax Potash and Air Canada), and concluded that it was a relatively narrow one and did not “speak directly to the terms of legislation”. [59] Yet “[t]his does not mean that the rule of law as described by this Court has no normative force”. [60] According to Justice Major, the Rule of Law mostly constrains the executive and the judiciary rather than legislatures but, at least as to them, it does have a real content.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, however, embraces the Rule of Law principle even more clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding. With Vavilov, unwritten principles, especially the Rule of Law, are back as a fully operative, and crucially important, source of our constitutional law, if indeed they had ever been displaced from that position. While Vavilov does not invoke them to explicitly invalidate legislation, it makes quite clear that legislation that conflicts with them will not be given effect.


Is this something to be regretted though? Was Justice LaForest right that judicial review in a democracy must only ever be textualist judicial review? I don’t think so. As Stephen Sachs explains in an important essay (which I discussed here), “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Some societies ― including democratic societies ― may well make the choice to have unwritten law as part of their binding constitutional constraints. They might write down some constitutional rules without thereby excluding others, and then a single-minded focus on constitutional text as exhaustive of constitutional law would means that “we could be reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165) The question is whether Canada is that kind of society or the one envisioned by Justice LaForest.

Actually, here is another question, which might help answer the previous one: are there any societies of the kind described by Justice LaForest, where the constitution, in the sense of the supreme law, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of written textual provisions? In the United States, for example, constitutional law includes unwritten principles (though they are not labelled in exactly this way), especially separation of powers, but also federalism. The Australian constitution has been held to incorporate implied freedoms. There might be examples to support Justice LaForest’s views, of course, but, to say the least, these views aren’t a self-evidently correct description of the concept of constitutionalism in a democratic society (which is, I think, how Justice LaForest means them). Nor are they an obviously correct interpretation of constitutionalism in Canada, given the numerous cases referred to above.

To repeat, this is not to defend the majority decision in the Provincial Judges Reference, or even to say that the outcome of Imperial Tobacco was wrong (though Justice Major’s disdainful characterisation of unwritten principles was). What arguably makes these cases different from the likes of Amax Potash, the Patriation and Secession Reference, and Vavilov, is that they involved invocations of principles to run around fairly specific textual choices. Judicial independence is protected to a greater extent, and retroactive legislation proscribed, in the context of criminal law, but not in the civil law. Right or wrong, this is the sort of “political compromise” to which Justices Martland and Ritchie referred, and courts must be careful not to “dissolve” it.

But, by the same token, they must not allow the political compromises that made Canada into a federal state, bound by a supreme constitution, and one where public authority is constrained by the Rule of Law, to be dissolved either. No doubt it is possible to take arguments based on constitutional principles too far, just as it is possible to misread or twist the meaning of constitutional text. But this is not a reason for peremptorily rejecting these arguments, let alone claiming that they are illegitimate in our constitutional order. Justice LaForest was wrong to suggest otherwise in the Provincial Judges Reference, and so, respectfully, are those who extol his dissent today.

St-Hilaire on Section 28

This is a quick note to announce that Maxime St-Hilaire will shortly be publishing a guest post on section 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its relationship with the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause”. We previously published a post on this subject by Kerri Froc, which prompted a response by Asher Honickman over at Advocates for the Rule of Law. I am pleased that Professor St-Hilaire, a longtime friend of this blog, is also contributing to this discussion.

A Tale of Two Scandals

Partisanship is undermining political accountability and constitutional checks and balances

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Here some harsh—yet entirely justified—words about unconstitutional actions of the executive branch of government:

[N]ot only were there no clear means of constitutional restraint, there was obvious intent to accomplish the scheme well outside the public eye. The scheme was blocked by the unlikely combination of whistleblowing and informal political pressure. Even worse, a defiant [executive] refuses to admit to any wrongdoing at all—even calling the key piece of evidence … a “perfect” call. It was essentially our good fortune (through the courage of the whistleblower) that the [voters] have access to partial information about the scandal so they can factor it into their electoral calculus. What’s the constitutional check for misconduct of that kind? Citizens can’t run to court to block this particular abuse of … power. We can’t even count on public knowledge for public accountability. The [executive] is still actively holding back material evidence. (Paragraph break omitted)

And here’s a trick question: what scandal is being described here? Is it Donald Trump’s attempt to use aid granted by Congress to suborn a Ukrainian announcement of an investigation into a political rival? Or is it Justin Trudeau’s attempt to have a prosecution of a corrupt engineering company stopped from going to trial to avoid financial difficulties for that company―and political embarrassment in Québec? The answer is, technically, that it’s former. The quotation is from the January 22 instalment of “French Press”, the thoughtful newsletter written by David French for The Dispatch. (While we’re at it, may we recommend Advisory Opinions, an equally thoughtful podcast Mr. French co-hosts with Sarah Isgur?) But, by our lights, Mr. French might as well have been writing about l’Affaire SNC Lavalin.

There too the effective head of the executive branch and his political henchmen sought to pervert the course of the execution of the law in their partisan interest. There too, they were discomfited by the unlikely decision of an official to blow the whistle instead of doing their bidding, and the resulting political pressure. There too, this political pressure was enough to arrest the illicit scheme itself, but not to bring about any real acknowledgement of wrongdoing; on the contrary, the master of the executive branch made a great show of having acted in the public interest. There too only partial information was allowed to filter out into the public domain through the medium of legislative hearings, and claims of executive privilege were raised to prevent key witnesses from speaking, or at least speaking fully. There too the courts would have been of no avail in any attempt to get to the bottom of what happened. The similarities between the two scandals are striking.

There are also some meaningful differences, to be sure. For one thing, the person who stood of in the way of the Trudeau government’s scheme to save SNC Lavalin was none other than the Attorney-General. No such high-ranking official has stood up to the Trump administration’s plans. For another, some heads have rolled as a consequence of l’Affaire SNC Lavalin: those of the Prime Minister’s principal secretary (albeit that he made a comeback only months later) and of the head of the civil service. Whether even such imperfect accountability is visited on the Trump administration is, at present, very doubtful. Another difference: obstructive as they have been, the members of Mr. Trudeau’s party in Parliament didn’t stonewall the investigation into his government’s misbehaviour to anything like the same degree as the members of Mr. Trump’s in Congress.

Still, this would be thin gruel for customary Canadian self-congratulation. In response to arguments to the effect that, since the executive’s shady plans were not allowed to come to pass, our constitutional system is working more or less as it should, we expressed here the

worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

Our constitutional system, we suggested, lacks the checks and balances that would ensure, or at least make it sufficiently likely, that a lawless executive could not get away with it. In particular, we were skeptical about the ability of the rules and conventions surrounding the accountability of the executive to Parliament to do this work.

Although we did not say much about this in that post, an important reason for this is partisanship, particularly the strong form of party discipline that characterizes the Canadian system. A majority party lines up behind the government formed by its leader, and has every incentive to close ranks, even at the cost of public-serving accountability. This is the inherent flaw of responsible government, which means that the ministry must have the support of a parliamentary majority (or at least an unchallenged plurality). In theory, this subordinates the executive to Parliament. In practice, the power dynamic is more often than not precisely the opposite. Of course, the obverse of this flaw is the executive’s ability to govern effectively and to implement its legislative agenda. All constitutional arrangements come with trade-offs. The question is not whether we can avoid trade-offs altogether, but whether we have made the right ones.

What is disheartening is that in the United States, whose constitutional framers made different trade-offs from ours, and where a different ― and seemingly more robust ― set of checks and balances was put in place to contain the executive, the same problem seems to have nullified those checks and balances. Mr. French writes that “[w]hen presidents work in secret to substitute their personal priorities for the public good … impeachment is the difference between punishment and permission when a president abuses his power while conducting affairs of state”. Yet if the president’s partisan allies refuse to even recognize the legitimacy of this procedure, they make him (or eventually her) just as unaccountable as a Canadian Prime Minister able to command a Parliamentary majority.   

This is not necessarily to disparage anything and everything about political partisanship. A case can be made for the proposition that Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency is the consequence of weak parties as much as of strong partisanship. But it should be clear by now that adjusting our constitutional systems to strong, and perhaps hypertrophied, partisanship is a challenge that a variety of democratic polities must face, and quickly. Our political scandals sound similar because our constitutional weaknesses are.

Lectures Introductory

My notes on the Constitutional Law of New Zealand, for your enjoyment

I taught the constitutional law of New Zealand every year since taking up my current job at the Auckland University of Technology in 2016. For a number of reasons, one of which was the absence until last year of a suitable textbook, I prepared extensive lecture notes ― in effect, an ersatz textbook ― that I distributed to my students. These run to a total of 120 typed pages, and just over 70,000 words. Now, for the foreseeable future, I will not be using them ― I will be teaching administrative law instead. So I thought this was a good moment for posting the whole thing online. Here it is, in case you are looking for an introduction to New Zealand’s constitutional system ― one that is, I hope, accessible and useful, despite its obvious limitations and flaws.

A word on those: the notes weren’t meant to be comprehensive. Their coverage is to an extent a function of the number of lectures I had in a semester, and of my (rather optimistic) beliefs about what I might cover in a lecture. Some important topics (like the separation of powers and the common law) are covered very little; others (like the Treaty of Waitangi and arguments for and against an entrenched constitution), insufficiently. Moreover, I tried to pitch the notes at a level that could be processed by students very early in their study of the law. Inevitably, this meant simplifying certain things, perhaps more, in some cases, than would have been ideal.

I hope that, despite their shortcomings, these materials will be useful or interesting to some readers. The lectures cover three main themes. The first two deal with constitutional fundamentals, including the nature, history, and sources of New Zealand’s constitution. The next five explain the structure of government, with two lectures each devoted to the executive and the legislature, and one to the judiciary. The last four address the limits on government power (primarily, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Treaty of Waitangi, and the Rule of Law principle). The notes mostly present the law as it is, but readers of this blog will not be surprised that I could not refrain from editorializing from time to time. My commentary and critique will, I hope, be easily identifiable as such.

This should be obvious, but in case it needs saying: I’d be delighted for anyone to use these materials as a resource or teaching aid. Do tell me if you find them useful!