First of All Our Laws

Natural law in a Québec Court of Appeal decision in 1957

Starting with the Reference re Alberta Statutes, [1938] SCR 100, but mostly in the 1950s, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a series of decisions which came to be known as upholding an “implied bill of rights” in the Canada. The actual holdings of these decisions were often relatively narrow ― they held, for example, that provinces could not outlaw political or religious ideas, because doing so was part of Parliament’s criminal law power. Yet both the obiter comments of some judges and the general trend of these cases seemed to give a fairly clear indication that the Supreme Court would, to some extent at least, resist the arbitrary exercise of both legislative and executive power in Canada, and protect civil liberties.

Understandably less well-known are the decisions of the lower courts that tended to the same effect. In Morin v Ryan, [1957] Que QB 296 (CA), for instance, the Québec Court of Appeal awarded damages to a plaintiff it founded to have been defamed by being characterized as a “militant communist” ― a decision F.R. Scott described as “a healthy check on incipient McCarthysm”. Another such decision, which I have recently come across, is Chabot v School Commissioners of Lamorandière, (1957) 12 DLR (2d) 796.  Like many of the “implied bill of rights decisions” it concerned the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses ― in this instance, in the context of a school system organized along religious lines.

The applicant’s children were attending a Catholic public school ― the only kind there was in their rural municipality. After the family joined the Witnesses, the parents wrote to the school to request that the children not be required to take part in the daily prayers and to study religion-related content. What we would now call a “reasonable accommodation” seems to have worked well enough for a while, but eventually ― perhaps after some trivial misbehaviour by the children, though many of the judges seem quite skeptical of this ― the arrangement broke down. The children were expelled, and the school authorities made it clear that they would only re-admit them on condition that they take part in the full programme of religious activities. The father sought a mandamus to compel the school to admit his children with the condition that they be exempted from religious exercises.

At the Court of Appeal, the case was heard by a bench of seven judges ― a testament, I take it, to its special importance. Six sided with the father. Justice Rinfret, as he then was (Édouard Rinfret, that is, not to be confused with his father Thibodeau Rinfret, the Chief Justice of Canada), dissented, protesting that

no one wants to place any obstacles in the way of the religious liberty of the appellant or his children, no one aspires to force him to send his children to the school of the commissioners; if he does it, it is of his own volition, because he wanted to; but if it is his wish and if he insists on sending them there, he is obliged to … follow the regulations [as to religious exercises and studies] established by competent authority. (826)

The law, after all, allowed religious “dissentients” to establish their own schools. If the Chabot family was one of the few, or even the only one, in its small town, that was not Catholic, the law paid no heed to that; they should still set up their own school, or comply with the rules of the Catholic majority.

But the majority did not see it this way. For them, the issue was one of religious liberty ― and indeed of natural rights. On its face, to be sure, the case was about interpreting the applicable legislation and regulations, and deciding whether they were ultra vires the province, notably in light of some of the already-decided “implied bill of rights” cases. Justice Casey, for instance, starts by putting the case before the court in this context:

During the past few years our Courts have been called upon to consider those fundamental rights commonly called freedoms of speech and of religion, and while differences have arisen in solving specific problems, never has the existence
of these rights been put in doubt. (805)

But, more than in those cases, the judges who decided Chabot were explicit in their references to implicit rights prior to positive law and which guided their interpretation and application of that law. Thus Justice Pratte says that “it appears useful to recall that the right to give one’s children the religious education of one’s choice, like freedom of conscience, is anterior to positive law”. (802) Having quoted a couple of English decisions to this effect, and a passage from Aquinas cited in one of them, Justice Pratte writes that

if one considers natural law, first of all our laws, it is necessary to conclude that children who attend a school are not obliged to follow a religious teaching to which their father is opposed. (802)

Similarly, Justice Casey was of the view that “[w]hat concerns us now is the denial of appellant’s right of inviolability of conscience [and] interference with his right to control the religious education of his children”, which rights “find their source in natural law”. (807). Justice Hyde (with whom Justice Martineau agreed), also took the position that the school authorities’ position amounted to an assertion that they could

force upon [non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools] the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and oblige them to go through forms of worship in accordance with that faith. It requires no text of law to demonstrate that this cannot be so. (813; paragraph break removed.)

Justice Taschereau (that is André Taschereau, not to be confused with his cousin Robert Taschereau, then judge on the Supreme Court and later Chief Justice of Canada), sounded a perhaps slightly more Dworkinian note:

It would … be contrary to natural law as well as to the most elementary principles of our democratic institutions that a father could not exercise the right or fulfil his obligation to instruct his children without renouncing his religious faith (834; emphasis added.)

Of the majority judges, only Justice Owen was more cautious, saying that “[t]here are differences of opinion as to the nature of [religious freedom], whether it is a civil right
or a political or public right”, although he too had no difficulty in concluding that it “is a right which is recognized and protected in Canada”, while pointing to limited legislative, and no constitutional, authority.

Now, it is not entirely clear quite what relationship between positive and natural law the judges envisioned. Certainly they were prepared to let natural law guide their choice between plausible interpretations of ambiguous legislative provisions, and either to read down or to declare ultra vires regulatory provisions inconsistent with their chosen interpretation and thus with natural law. But would they go further and actually invalidate positive law for inconsistency with natural law? None of them finds it necessary to do so, but there is at least a hint that they might. Justice Hyde seems to suggest that compliance with natural law might be a constitutional requirement, saying that the school authorities’ power to determine the curriculum

cannot be construed to override [a] basic principle of natural law. It would require very specific provisions in the Act to that effect to justify any such interpretation and then, of course, the constitutionality of such provisions would be a matter for consideration. (813)

Justice Casey might be going further still, stating that rights which

find their existence in the very nature of man … cannot be taken away and they must prevail should they conflict with the provisions of positive law. Consequently if the regulations under which, rightly or wrongly, this school is being operated make it mandatory that non-Catholic pupils submit to the religious instructions and practices enacted by the Catholic Committee then these regulations are ultra vires … and invalid. (807; emphasis added)

That said, the same Justice Casey cautions that

while in principle no one should be coerced into the practice of a religion, or subjected to compulsion in following outwardly the dictates of conscience, or prevented from practising as he sees fit the religion of his own choice, this immunity disappears if what he does or omits is harmful or opposed to the common good or in direct violation of the equal rights of others. (805)

Meanwhile, Justice Pratte suggests that Québec’s education system was designed so as to “take into account the rights of the family in the matter of education.” (800) His and his colleagues’ decision, then, might only rely on natural law the better to advance the positive legislator’s objectives, as well as to protect natural rights.

The majority’s overt invocation of natural law reads like something of a curiosity sixty years later. The rights it sought to uphold have, more or less, been subsumed in the positive protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ― and, perhaps even more so, in Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Liberties. Nevertheless, the questions the Court addresses are also very modern. The issue as stated by Justice Taschereau ― whether a parent “[c]an … be obliged to renounce his religious beliefs as a condition to the admission of his children to a public school of the school municipality where he lives?” (832) ― is exactly the same as that which faced the Supreme Court in Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, the kirpan case. The answer the Supreme Court gave was not as novel as its critics keep on pretending it was, nor did it have to hinge on constitutional provisions which some of them affect to find illegitimate. Half a century before Multani, Québec’s highest court came to similar conclusions, on the basis of what it ― rightly in my view ― saw as truths antecedent to, and more permanent than, any constitution.

Still Playing Favourites

Despite its broader focus, the Court Challenges Program remains objectionable

The federal government has officially announced that it is bringing back the Court Challenges  Program, which provides money to individuals or groups who pursue litigation in which they assert certain constitutional or quasi-constitutional rights. In comparison with past iterations, the program will subsidize claims based on a broader range of rights ― not only equality and language rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act, but also those based on sections 2, 3, and 7 of the Charter (protecting, respectively, “fundamental freedoms” of religion, expression, and association; the right to vote; and the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person). Yet even with this broader focus, the program reflects a flawed and indeed disturbing approach to the constitution by the government.

As I wrote in a post for the CBA National Magazine’s blog last year, we should question the government’s decision to prioritize the enforcement of some parts of the constitution over others. I noted that the government does have a special statutory mandate, under the Official Languages Act, to promote the recognition of both official languages and, especially, the vitality of minority linguistic communities throughout the country ― but of course a court challenges programme is only one of a myriad ways in which this might be done. And there is certainly no mandate to promote some Charter rights in particular. Why are, for instance, the due process rights protected by sections 8-14 of the Charter left out? Nor is there any reason, to promote the respect of Charter rights but not that of other constitutional provisions, such as those pertaining to the division of powers.

The choice of priorities for the Court Challenges Program is symbolic, and as I wrote last year

the symbolism is wrong. In choosing to fund court litigation based on language and equality rights, Parliament isn’t just sending the message it values these rights. It also says that it values these rights more than others. In other words, Parliament is playing favourites with the different provisions or components of the constitution. Yet they are all, equally, “the supreme law of Canada,” which Parliament is bound to respect in its entirety. Thus, in my view, signalling that it regards respecting parts of the Constitution more than the rest, in itself contradicts the principle of constitutionalism.

The government’s public statements today only confirm my impression. The Prime Minister has tweeted that the Court Challenges Program “will help protect the language & equality rights of all Canadians” ― singling out the rights targeted by the old versions of the programme, and omitting even those added by the one announced today. Meanwhile, the Justice Minister brags about “reinstating the Court Challenges Program as we celebrate #Charter35 to show our commitment to human rights and the rule of law” ― without any mention of, you know, that other anniversary we are also celebrating this year, which someone committed to the Rule of Law might also want to notice.

I have other objections to the Court Challenges Program too ― notably, to the fact that it funds challenges not only against federal laws, but also provincial ones, which strikes me as disloyal behaviour for a partner in the federation. If provinces want to pay people to challenge their own laws, they do can do it on their own ― but they should have the choice. And of course, it is doubtful that such a program is really the most effective way for the federal government to uphold the Rule of Law. Giving teeth to its internal reviews of proposed legislation for Charter and Canadian Bill of Rights compliance might be one good place to start instead; there are others as well.

But as the program is first and foremost symbolic, and in light of the Prime Minister’s and the Justice Minister’s statements, my objection to the program’s symbolism, to its playing favourites with the constitution which the government ought to respect in its entirety, is perhaps the most important one. Although plenty of people in legal academia (including Grégoire Weber, who is currently an adviser to the Justice Minister) and the bar have praised the return of the Court Challenges Program, I have not seen a response to my objections. It’s not that I am entitled to have my objections responded to, of course ― but I would be very happy to publish a guest-post if anyone cares to do it. Any takers?

A Pile of Problems

A critique of Steven Penney’s take on the Supreme Court’s distinction between criminal and administrative penalties

Steven Penney has recently posted to SSRN an interesting article, published last year in the Supreme Court Law Review, criticizing the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence distinguishing the imposition of “administrative” and “criminal” penalties. People (and corporations) who risk the latter kind of penalties ― “true penal consequences” as the Court calls them ― benefit from a variety of procedural protections which section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “[a]ny person charged with an offence”. Those facing only “administrative” penalties ― which can include suspensions of licenses (to drive or to practice a profession) and fines, even fines ranging in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars ― are not protected by the Charter.

Prof. Penney traces the intellectual roots of this distinction to the Canadian rejection of the “Lochner era” in American constitutional jurisprudence, which is generally thought to have involved judicial subversion of valuable economic regulation intended to protect society’s less powerful members.  Prof. Penney shares the concern that motivated this rejection, but argues that it has been taken too far. The “shadow of Lochner“, as his article’s title has it, has dimmed the guiding lights of the Charter, even as

[l]egislatures have increasingly relied on administrative and civil enforcement regimes to address forms of wrongdoing previously left to the criminal law. In many instances, the sanctions accompanying these regimes are harsh, the targets are ordinary people, and the rules protecting adjudicative fairness are weak. (309)

Prof. Penney argues that section 11 of the Charter should be interpreted more broadly, to provide procedural protections to persons involved in administrative as well as criminal proceedings. The government’s ability to justify restrictions to or departures from these protections under section 1 should be enough to prevent them from standing in the way of truly important economic regulation ― but the necessity of these restrictions or departures would have to be justified.

This is an intriguing argument. I have written here about Thibault c. Da Costa, 2014 QCCA 2347, a case in which the distinction between administrative and criminal penalties was used to uphold the imposition, on a financial advisor who had swindled some of his clients, of fines that were higher than those authorized by the applicable legislation as it stood at the time of the acts. In the criminal context, paragraph 11(i) of the Charter, which entitles persons charged with an offence “if found guilty of the offence and if the punishment for the offence has been varied between the time of commission and the time of sentencing, to the benefit of the lesser punishment”, prohibits this. But the Québec Court of Appeal took the view that the proceedings here were not really criminal, because the fines imposed were not “true penal consequences”, and so their retrospective increase was upheld. I wrote that the decision, although legally correct, was disturbing. Prof. Penney discusses two decisions of the Supreme Court that also apply this distinction to disturbing effect (as he, persuasively in my view, argues):  Guindon v Canada, 2015 SCC 41, [2015] 3 SCR 3 and Goodwin v. British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), 2015 SCC 46, [2015] 3 S.C.R. 250.

At the same time, however, Prof. Penney’s article suffers from a some flaws that are, sadly, characteristic of Canadian constitutional thought. One issue I have with Prof. Penney’s argument is that it mostly does not question the conventional wisdom on the “Lochner era” in which it finds the roots of the problem it tries to push back against. According to this conventional wisdom, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), held up, in prof. Penney’s words, “a rigid and formalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights to limit state efforts to enact and enforce progressive economic legislation”. (308) This is questionable; indeed, recent scholarship argues that it is simply wrong. David Bernstein, whose book prof. Penney cites but does not engage with, has shown that, far from being intended to protect the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the legislation invalidated in Lochner served to protect (relatively) big ― and unionized ― established businesses against smaller, family-owned competitors. Many other laws invalidated in the “Lochner era” ― which were never as numerous as subsequent criticism made them out to be ― were similarly objectionable. Meanwhile, this reviled jurisprudential era has served as the foundation for the subsequent expansion in the enforcement of constitutional rights in the non-economic realm.

This history matters. Rectifying the record is useful for its own sake of course. Prof. Penney says that “[t]he story of Lochner is well known” (310) ― and, in the next sentence, misstates the year in which it was decided; an accident, no doubt, but an ironic one. Prof. Penney quotes a passage from Justice Cory’s reasons in R v Wholesale Travel Group Inc, [1991] 3 SCR 154 describing the “so-called ‘Lochner era'” as the period of time when “courts struck down important components of the program of regulatory legislation known as ‘the New Deal'”. But of course the “Lochner era” began well before Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, and most of the laws struck down during this period had nothing to do with it. In short, “the story of Lochner” is rather less well known than one might be tempted to suppose; what people think they know about it may be ideological myth more than reality. More importantly, however, recovering Lochner‘s philosophy ― an opposition not to any and all economic regulation, but to the sort of regulation that privileges some groups in society above others ― might also make us rightly more suspicious than we tend to be of the  regulatory schemes that the courts end up protecting by invoking the administrative-criminal distinction. In my post on Thibault I suggested that courts should be wary of “the specious claims professional organizations, and governments which choose to delegate their regulatory powers to them, make about their role” when they ask themselves whether the penalties at issue are administrative or penal in nature. Remembering Lochner‘s lesson ― that economic regulation is not always as benign and protective as it seems ― might help here.

My other, and more important, objection to prof. Penney’s argument concerns his approach to constitutional interpretation. He “claim[s] … that the Supreme Court’s construal of ‘charged with an offence'” in section 11 of the Charter as excluding administrative proceedings  “is too restrictive”. (323) It is too restrictive, prof. Penney argues, because of the bad consequences it produces ― in the sense that individual rights to “adjudicative fairness in contesting substantial state-imposed penalties” (324) are under-protected. As I suggest above, I think that prof. Penney is right to decry the under-protection of these rights. But it is not enough to say that, because interpreting a constitutional provision in a certain way produces unpleasant consequences, a different interpretation can and ought to be adopted.

The jurisprudence that prof. Penney criticizes arguably illustrates the perils of this approach. In prof. Penney’s telling, the Supreme Court is concerned about the costs of enforcing the Charter‘s procedural protections for the state’s ability to impose economic regulations, more than it is about the consequences of not enforcing these protections when “true penal consequences” such as imprisonment are not at stake. A consequentialist approach to constitutional interpretation can go either way; there is no guarantee that it will always be right-protecting. Consequentialism, in turn, is one possible way of implementing the “living tree” interpretive methodology that the Supreme Court and Canadian academia loudly insist is the only appropriate one. It’s not the only way ― one might be a living-treeist without being a consequentialist. But saying “living tree” is not enough to decide cases. Once one accepts that constitutional meaning can change, one has to figure out what it should change to, and this is where consequentialism comes in. If one wants to foreclose, or at least to limit, its influence in constitutional interpretation, one should, I suspect, abandon living-treeism, at least in the radically unspecified form in which it is practised in Canada.

Now, it is not clear that doing so will lead to results that prof. Penney or I would find pleasant in this particular case. The main alternatives to living-tree constitutional interpretation are the different versions of originalism. (For a primer, see Benjamin Oliphant’s and my paper recently published in the Queen’s Law Journal.) An originalist approach to section 11 of the Charter would consist in asking whether (depending on the version of originalism one subscribes to)  “charged with an offence” would have been understood in 1982 as applying to administrative proceedings or was intended to apply to them by the Charter‘s authors. And I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that, insofar as these questions do have an ascertainable answer (they might not; perhaps the phrase “charged with an offence” is irreducibly vague, forcing an originalist interpreter into the “construction zone” that is, on some views, not very different from living tree interpretation), this answer does not turn on competing, and potentially variable, cost-benefit analyses, which will inevitably be influenced by personal preferences, of judges or scholars. Originalism is not necessarily more rights-protective than living-treeism ― though as prof. Penney shows, living-treeism isn’t always very rights-protective either. But originalism does hold out a promise of a constitutional law that is actually law-like, in that it is independent of the individuals who apply it. In the long run, this is not only valuable in itself, but arguably also more likely to protect individual rights in situations where doing so is likely to be seen as undermining important social objectives ― which after all is the whole point of constitutional rights protection.

Prof. Penney’s article is valuable because it attracts our attention to a number of serious problems affecting our constitutional law. On the one hand, there is problem of insufficient constraints on the imposition of “administrative” penalties, which the article decries. On the other, there are the twin problems of reliance on a blinkered version of history and on open-ended “living tree” constitutional interpretation that opens the door to consequentialist reasoning unconstrained by anything other than personal preferences, which the article exemplifies. Proponents of prof. Penney’s interpretive approach might say that my argument is contradictory, since it suggests that the constitution might not give us the resources to address the problem prof. Penney identifies. But if that is so, the solution is not to surreptitiously re-write the constitution under the guise of an interpretation that will only be adhered to by those who share the interpreter’s beliefs, but to amend it in a way that will be binding on all future interpreters, whatever their personal views.

New Swearwords

The Prime Minister wants to make a meaningless addition to our unconstitutional citizenship oath

As the CBC reports, the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship directs him to “[w]ork in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to make changes to the Oath of Canadian Citizenship to reflect the Truth and Reconciliation’s [sic] Calls to Action.” What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested was adding the clause “including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” to the undertaking to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada”. This addition is silly ― and, meanwhile, the oath remains unconstitutional, as I have long argued here and in an article published in the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

Having new citizens undertake to “faithfully observe … Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” is meaningless exercise in symbolic politics. The treaties in question do not bind citizens. Citizens trying to ascertain the duties they subscribe by taking the oath in this form would find none. The treaties do not require them to do or not to do anything. They impose obligations on (and give rights to) the Crown ― i.e. the government. An individual citizen can no more “observe” these treaties than he or she can fail to do so.

The addition of meaningless language further devalues the citizenship oath ― though admittedly it is already not worth very much. Many citizens, new and old alike, including indeed the authors of the guidebook used to help prepare would-be citizens for their citizenship test, misunderstand the reference to the Queen in the existing oath, thinking that it means that “we profess our loyalty to a person”. What is more, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario observed in the course of dismissing a challenge to the constitutionality of the reference to the Queen, in  McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, 121 OR (3d) 1,

a former plaintiff in this proceeding who had taken the oath of the citizenship, has publicly recanted the oath to the Queen while, at the same time, confirming the remainder of the oath. Mr. Charles was informed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration that his recantation had no effect on his citizenship status.

The government of Canada, in other words, thinks that the oath means nothing at all (imagine, by contrast, a judge’s reaction to a witness telling her that he “recants” his promise to say nothing but the truth), and goodness knows what those who take the oath think it means. The Prime Minister’s new plan does not change that.

Nor does it address the unconstitutionality of the oath in its current form. While it has upheld the oath, I have argued here that the McAteer decision is a “parade of judicial horribles“. It misreads the relevant precedents and relies on conclusory assertions about the value of the citizenship oath while ignoring the oath’s history as an embodiment of distrust and the distinctive way in which an oath (contrary to a statutory command) operates by enlisting the conscience of the person who takes it. As I explain in more detail in my article, the citizenship oath in its current form is an imposition on individual conscience that is not justified by any pressing and substantial objective, is not rationally connected to the purposes it supposedly serves, is not minimally restrictive (since it could easily be re-written to accommodate the scruples of those who object to it), and is not proportional to the harms it inflicts on objectors. It is, in short, contrary to s 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and cannot be “saved” by s 1.

This is what the Prime Minister ought to have asked the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister to address. Instead, he chose to focus on a meaningless gesture. I have written here that “oaths of allegiance are like swearwords ― significant yet meaningless, and not something to be said in polite company”. Another feature of swearwords is that their precise contents matters very little; only the emotions they convey are of any significance, as this latest news confirms.

 

Too Conventional

The UK Supreme Court’s conventional, and indefensible, thinking on the issue of constitutional conventions

In R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5, the UK Supreme Court holds that the approval of the UK Parliament, but not ― as a matter of law anyway ― of the “devolved” legislatures of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales is required before the UK government can serve notice of its intention to leave the European Union. Mark Elliott has already posted a full and, to me, a largely compelling critique of the decision on his (excellent) blog, Public Law for Everyone. The Judicial Power Project has posted shorter comments by eminent public lawyers, including John Finnis and Timothy Endicott. They and others say most of what there is to say about Miller, but I want to take note of its treatment of one specific issue, that of constitutional conventions, on which I part ways both with the Court and with the commentators who, however critical they are of its reasoning on other .

The Miller Court is perfectly orthodox on this point, reaffirming the Diceyan distinction between law and convention, the former being justiciable and the latter not. In my view, the Court is wrong to do so. Its reasoning on this point shows that the line which it attempts to draw between law and convention is so thin as to be evanescent. Indeed, it is at least arguable that its reasoning on the main issue, that of the availability of the royal prerogative to trigger the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, is in direct contradiction with that which underpins its refusal to treat conventions as legal, judicial cognizable rules.

As the majority judgment explains, one of the issues in Miller concerned the effect of the so-called Sewel Convention, which

was adopted as a means of establishing cooperative relationships between the UK Parliament and the devolved institutions, where there were overlapping legislative competences.  In each of the devolution settlements the UK Parliament has preserved its right to legislate on matters which are within the competence of the devolved legislature. [136]

However, from the outset, there was an expectation that, as a matter of convention, the UK Parliament “would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters” without the consent of the affected devolved legislature. “That expectation has been fulfilled,” says the majority. [137] It has been embodied in “memoranda of understanding” between the UK government and devolved authorities, and more recently in a statutory provision, section 2 of the Scotland Act 2016, which “recognised” the convention.

For the Court, none of that meant that it could pronounce on the applicability of the Sewel Convention to the matter at hand ― that is to say, on whether the convention required the UK government to seek the devolved legislatures’ consent before seeking to withdraw from the EU ― or indeed to any other issue. That is because “[i]t is well established that the courts of law cannot enforce a political convention.” [141] The quoted at length from the various opinions in the Patriation Reference, Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, finding there support for its view that the political and the legal are distinct realms, and that while courts “can recognise the operation of a political convention in the context of deciding a legal question …  they cannot give legal rulings on its operation or scope, because those matters are determined within the political world.” [146]

But why is there this impenetrable barrier between the legal and the political? The majority’s explanations are sparse, to put the matter rather generously. In addition to the quotations from the Patriation Reference, we are told that “[j]udges … are neither the parents nor the guardians of political conventions; they are merely observers”, [146] and directed to Colin Munro’s assertion that “the validity of conventions cannot be the subject of proceedings in a court of law” (“Laws and Conventions Distinguished” (1975) 91 Law Quarterly Review 218 at 228″).

Munro’s words, at least, have been flatly contradicted by events ― namely, by the Patriation Reference itself, as well as by the other cases in which the Supreme Court of Canada and other Canadian courts have pronounced on the “validity” of alleged conventions: notably Re: Objection by Quebec to a Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1982] 2 SCR 793 (a.k.a. the Québec Veto Reference), Public School Boards’ Assn. of Alberta v. Alberta (Attorney General), 2000 SCC 45, [2000] 2 SCR 409, and Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Assn. v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2001 SCC 15, [2001] 1 S.C.R. 470. Contrary to Munro’s assertion (and Dicey’s stated belief that conventions were matters of such exalted political importance that they were “too high” for mere lawyers ― a belief contradicted by his own magisterial treatment of the subject!), courts can deal with conventional questions.

Indeed, it seems to me that the Miller majority is less forthright about this than it really ought to have been. In introducing one of the quotations from the Patriation Reference, the majority describes it as being from “a dissenting judgment on one of the questions before the court”. [142] It does not say what question. So let me remind the reader: that’s the question of whether a convention prevented the federal government from seeking Patriation without provincial consent. The majority knows this, of course, and thinks it better not to be explicit.

Whatever the merits of this rhetorical approach, with Munro’s impossibility assertion out of the way, what is left is the Miller majority’s argument is the the claim that courts should not deal with conventions because, due to their political nature, the courts are not their “parents” or “guardians”. This echoes the position of the Patriation Reference‘s majority on the legal question that conventions are “political in inception” and thus by their “very nature” incapable of “legal enforcement”. (774-75) But this too, is not much of an argument. Statutes too are “political in inception”, yet courts enforce them ― as “guardians”, in the Miller majority’s terminology. Of course, conventions often look less like statutes than like common law rules, in that they lack a well-defined authoritative formulation ― though this is not true of the Sewel convention, which has been in fact authoritatively, if somewhat vaguely, stated for as long as it has existed. But even we take the analogy to common law rules, what is it that stops courts from being “parents”, or perhaps adoptive parents, to new common law rules into which conventions crystallize?

In the Patriation Reference, the legal question majority had to address this contention:

The leap from convention to law is explained almost as if there was a common law of constitutional law, but originating in political practice. That is simply not so. What is desirable as a political limitation does not translate into a legal limitation, without expression in imperative constitutional text or statute. (784)

This response is bizarre, in that there obviously is a “common law of constitutional law”, including the rules on the Royal prerogative at issue in Miller, as the Patriation Reference majority well knew. Is the suggestion that that law did not “originate in political practice”? But what exactly did it “originate in”? Did the judges ― say Coke in the Case of Proclamations ― simply make it up, or pluck it out of thin air?

Whatever the view of the Patriation Reference majority, the Miller majority is not entitled to its predecessor’s claim that “[w]hat is desirable as a political limitation does not translate into a legal limitation, without expression in imperative constitutional text or statute.” Its decision on the main issue in the case rests in part on its view that “[i]t would be inconsistent with long-standing and fundamental principle for … a far-reaching change to the UK constitutional arrangements to be brought about by ministerial decision or ministerial action alone,” without Parliamentary authorization. [81] This principle is not, needless to say, to be found “in imperative constitutional text or statute”. Longstanding or not, it is a view of “what is desirable as a political limitation” ― and, according to the Miller majority, it does “translate into a legal limitation” on the UK government’s powers. (To be clear: this is not the entire basis for the majority’s decision; but it is a important part of its reasoning.)

The belief that there is a fundamental difference in the nature of legal and conventional constitutional rules never rested on much of anything other than the assertions of scholars and, eventually, courts that have uncritically followed these scholars. The distinctions that they have attempted to draw between law and convention do not involve material differences.  Ironically, the Miller majority’s own reasons strongly suggest as much. When it considers the effect of the “recognition” of the Sewel convention by the Scotland Act 2016, it concludes by incorporating it into statute,

the UK Parliament is not seeking to convert the Sewel Convention into a rule which can be interpreted, let alone enforced, by the courts; rather, it is recognising the convention for what it is, namely a political convention. [148]

This seems to me to acknowledge that the source of a rule ― statute or convention, or in another case the common law ― is less material than “the nature of the content” [148] of that rule. Some rules, whether ostensibly legal or conventional, do not let themselves to judicial interpretation or enforcement. (Whether it is the case that the Sewel convention is such a rule is a separate question which I will not try answering here.) But other rules do lend themselves to judicial interpretation or enforcement ― and for them too, it should not matter whether these are ostensibly legal or conventional rules. The question the court ought to have asked itself is whether the rule is suitable for judicial application ― not whether it is law or convention.

My views on the distinction, or lack thereof, between law and convention (which I have sought to explain at greater length in my paper “Towards a Jurisprudence of Constitutional Conventions”, (2011) 11 OUCLJ 29, and briefly in a forthcoming piece in the Supreme Court Law Review) are, I am well aware, rather heretical. Yet to me the conventional thinking on the issue of constitutional conventions, and conventional arguments for distinguishing them from legal rules, are simply not convincing.

Losing Our Way

Neither “society’s tolerance” nor the “captive audience” doctrine justify censorship of anti-abortion ads

Over at ABlawg, Ola Malik has a post praising the decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s bench in Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform v Grande Prairie (City), 2016 ABQB 734. I have been scathing of that decision here, and I believe that Mr. Malik is wrong. His posts illustrates the sort of thinking, which is also at work in the Court of Queen’s bench decision, that will, if unchecked, render freedom of expression an empty phrase in Canada. Contrary to what Justice Anderson and Mr. Malik believe, it is not, and it cannot be, the state’s job to protect citizens from any discomforting ideas that might come their way.

By way of reminder, the decision at issue allowed a municipality to censor ads that an anti-abortionist group sought to post on the outside of its buses. In the court’s view, this decision was reasonable because the ads targeted a captive audience that could not help but see them, and because they risked causing upset and even harm, both because they featured the word “killing” and because they referred to a website that made derogatory statements about women who had abortions. In my post, I said that this “reasoning is disturbing if not perverse”, notably because it could be applied to censor any strongly expressed message (though it is, of course, rather more likely to be applied to “politically incorrect” views than, say to Oxfam’s or Amnesty International’s ads).

By contrast, Mr. Malik, a municipal prosecutor, is very happy about a decision that is “most helpful to municipalities seeking to limit the placement of controversial advocacy messaging in public places”. He claims that

speech which targets certain groups of people, especially those who are otherwise exercising their legal rights (in this case, women seeking abortions) cannot be said to promote the objectives which underlie freedom of expression.

He argues that Justice Anderson is right to have “endorsed the captive audience doctrine”, since the corollary of the freedom to speak is the freedom not to hear unwanted speech. Mr. Malik adds that “[h]ad the advertisement been … ‘merely informative and educational’, [77] the Court may have been less prepared to use the captive audience doctrine.” But the ad in question was actually harmful, and the Court, says Mr. Malik, was right so to find: “the Court recognized that hateful or offensive expressive activity in a prominent public space can have a harmful psychological impact on the well-being of civil society”. Mr. Malik cautions, however, that such findings “need[] to be arrived at with care”, so as to avoid “underestimating society’s tolerance for controversial and provocative messaging. And”, he says, “we need to be mindful that a test which references community harm doesn’t turn into a test of community censorship”.

With respect, community censorship ― or, more accurately, censorship by bureaucrats and judges purporting to act on the community’s behalf ― is precisely what Mr. Malik supports, whether or not he intends to do so. Freedom of speech is, among other things, te freedom to engage in “controversial advocacy messaging in public spaces”. It is, among other things, the freedom to criticize “certain groups of people”, including people “who are otherwise exercising their legal rights” ― to have an abortion, to eat meat, to minimize tax liabilities, to fail to give to charity, what have you. The law is not the measure of morality, and in a free society what is moral ― as well as what is legal ― is an appropriate subject for public debate and criticism. The issue is not just that, by allowing bureaucrats and judges to stifle debate and silence criticism, we might “underestimat[e] society’s tolerance”. It’s that the extent of society’s tolerance cannot be the measure of the freedom of expression that its members enjoy. If it had been otherwise, slavery would still be legal, homosexuality would not, and women would still be denied the vote. Advances in human rights are rarely achieved entirely within society’s comfort zone.

A few observations on the concept of a captive audience, of which Mr. Malik makes much, are also in order. As I said in my first post, the idea that people who see buses in the street are a captive audience unable to avoid the message communicated by the ads posted on these buses is preposterous. If the state is able to censor any message merely because someone might be unwittingly confronted with it for a few moments, the state can censor anything at all. Unsurprisingly, this is not what the cases to which Mr. Malik refers, and those to which he doesn’t, hold.

The case to which he ascribes “the most comprehensive treatment of the captive audience doctrine” in Canada,  R v Breeden, 2009 BCCA 463, does not turn on the application of this doctrine at all, but on the question whether a person can be prevented from protesting at very specific locations (namely the lobby of a courthouse and that of a municipal council building) that were not, historically or currently, normally used for such expression. (This alone would suffice to distinguish the case from that of bus advertising even if the case really did support Mr. Malik’s use of it. But it does not.) In fact, to the extent that Breeden has relevance for the issue of captive audiences, its import is precisely the opposite of what Mr. Malik takes it to be. Justice Hall, writing for the unanimous court, pointed out that

[i]t was not suggested in this case that he express himself to a different group of people, rather simply that he change the location of his activity to the sidewalk area outside the buildings, where he would have access to the same potential audience. [27; emphasis mine]

The ability to communicate with “the same potential audience” was a crucial reason was the restriction on the place where this communication could take place was upheld.

As for the American jurisprudence, it is no more supportive of Mr. Malik’s position than Breeden. Mr. Malik quotes from the case of Lehman v City of Shaker Heights, 418 US 298 (1974); he does not say that the opinion he is quoting is a concurrence, by Justice Douglas, which would have found that all advertisement in buses ― not on their outside, mind you, so that the case for the proposition that the audience is a captive one is significantly stronger ― are an infringement of the commuters’ rights. Justice Douglas would not have allowed the city that owned the buses to pick and choose ads that were uncontroversial or harmless. On the contrary, he did

not view the content of the message as relevant either to petitioner’s right to express it or to the commuters’ right to be free from it. Commercial advertisements may be as offensive and intrusive to captive audiences as any political message. (308)

In any case, Justice Douglas was alone in this view. Justice Blackmun’s opinion (with the support of three others) referred to the issue of captive audiences, but only as one reason among several for which the city could reasonably have chosen to prohibit political advertising but not the commercial sort. Another such reason, it is worth noting, is “minimiz[ing] … the appearance of favoritism”. (304) The decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and Mr. Malik’s arguments, do no such thing ― they do not say that the municipality wanted to, or would or ought to have, banned pro-choice ads as well as anti-abortion ones. As for the for the other opinion in Lehman, that of Justice Brennan, it would have found content-based decisions about which advertising to allow unconstitutional.

Let me mention another American case, which Mr. Malik ignores: Cohen v California, 403 US 15 (1971), the famous “Fuck the draft” decision. That slogan was emblazoned on a jacket that the appellant had worn in a courthouse, and Justice Harlan, for the unanimous court, wrote that

in arguments … much has been made of the claim that Cohen’s distasteful mode of expression was thrust upon unwilling or unsuspecting viewers, and that the State might therefore legitimately [punish him] in order to protect the sensitive from otherwise unavoidable exposure to appellant’s crude form of protest. (21)

But, Justice Harlan responded,

[o]f course, the mere presumed presence of unwitting listeners or viewers does not serve automatically to justify curtailing all speech capable of giving offense. … Those [confronted with Cohen’s jacket] could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes. (21)

Mr. Malik, Justice Anderson, and anyone else inclined to agree with them would do well to study that opinion, and to take Justice Harlan’s advice to heart.

As Edmund Burke wrote long ago,”[t]he great inlet by which the colour for oppression entered into the world is by one man’s pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another”. This too is something that our would-be censors, who would determine concerning our happiness, or, in modern jargon ― since we have learned the words, without embracing the ideas, of John Stuart Mill ― protect us from harm, would do well to ponder. That a prosecutor, like Mr. Malik, supports censorship is disappointing; that a judge, like Justice Anderson, endorses it is distressing; but if our fellow-citizens were to agree with them, that indeed would be dispiriting.

Do You Really Have to Go?

Lessons for Canada and New Zealand on resignations of MPs

A recent article by Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald observes that the number of resignations of Members of New Zealand’s Parliament during the course of the terms for which they were elected has increased since the country moved from the first-past-the-post electoral system (which Canada now has) to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Ms. Young also writes about proposals to reduce the number of resignations. There may be something for both Canada and New Zealand to learn from each other here.

The overall numbers are stark: “In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies ― nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office. [NOTE: It occurs to me that the numbers don’t add up; but the correct figure is relatively unimportant here.] In the 20 years since … there have been 48 vacancies”, 45 of them caused by resignations. New Zealand’s Parliament was enlarged when MMP was introduced, but the increase of its membership from just below 100 to 120 does not account for the growth in the number of resignations. Of course, correlation does not equal causation; but there are in fact good reasons to think that there is causation here.

Most significantly, Ms. Young notes that of the 45 MPs who resigned, 30 were “list MPs”. Yet there are at one time only 50 (or, with the occasional addition of overhang seats, sometimes 51 or 52) such MPs in New Zealand’s Parliament, compared to 70 elected in single-member districts. The smaller pool of list MPs is providing two thirds of all resignations. And it’s not hard to see why that might be the case: when a list MP resigns, he or she is simply replaced “by the next available candidate on the party list.” There is little cost for the party, for getting a soon-to-retire or an out-of-favour MP to retire, and replacing him or her with a more eager or better liked one.

Yet David McGee, a former Clerk of the New Zealand Parliament, writes in the Herald that all these resignations are “deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it”. While does not elaborate this very much, he adds that “[m]embers in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to its work for the full term that they have signed up to”. And so Mr. McGee suggests a solution to this problem. “In the case of list members … any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.” This will disincentivize the parties, which prompt most these resignations, from ever doing so.

For Canadian advocates of electoral reform generally, and especially of MMP (which I take it is the most popular option among reformers), there is a warning here. Electoral reform is likely to bring in more resignations ― and more MPs brought in from lower down party lists, without the publicity or scrutiny of elections. An unintended consequence, no doubt, but arguably still an unpleasant one. And solution proposed by Mr. McGee is not very appealing either, it seems to me; it is too dependent, for its attractiveness, on complete success. If it fails to prevent resignations, then it will result in departures from the principle of proportionality of representation ― and in a finely balanced Parliament might even cause a change in the balance of power. And to achieve the absolute success it requires, Mr. McGee’s proposal incentivizes parties in a way that is arguably no less perverse than that of the current system for being its opposite: a party will do everything to keep a list member, even one involved in scandal or found to simply be incompetent, from resigning, and diminishing its power. As Edward Willis points out,

the ability for politicians to resign is usually understood to be an important accountability mechanism. Politicians do not always cover themselves in glory, and sometimes the people want (metaphorical) blood. Falling on one’s sword in a public manner demonstrates the accountability of the political system to the people at the level of the individual politician, and for that reason alone I would be hesitant to put anything in the way that would prevent or inhibit political resignations.

The same concerns arise with respect to Mr. McGee’s proposal for dealing with resignations of MPs elected by constituencies, Mr. McGee argues that

as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament. The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a byelection … but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

The only exception he would make to the application of these penalties would be for those MPs who resign “on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission”.

The idea is similar to one that has already been implemented in Québec, where the Act Respecting the Conditions of Employment and the Pension Plan of the Members of the National Assembly provides, since 2015, that the Assembly members who do not complete the term for which they were elected forfeit the “transition allowance” to which they would otherwise be entitled. Pursuant to section 12 of the Act, a member who resigns can only get his or her allowance upon proving, to the satisfaction of the Assembly’s Ethics Commissioner, that the “resignation is due to a serious family matter or to a major health issue affecting him or a member of his immediate family.”

When this idea was first floated in 2013 by the then-Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville ― who would later resign from the National Assembly in June 2016, right in the middle of a legislative term ― I criticized it here. I noted that the supposed “moral contract” between the voters and their representatives, which bound the latter to serve out their terms, appeared to be a matter of wishful thinking, if the experience of the leader of Mr. Drainville’s own party was anything to go by. Pauline Marois had resigned from the National Assembly in 2006, saying that “her heart [was] no longer in it”, and yet came back and was elected again in 2007, later becoming Premier. More importantly, though, I wrote that “requiring members of the assembly to serve out their terms would have perverse effects”, notably in that

it would incentivize a member mired in ethical problems, or even one charged with an offense, to cling to his or her seat rather than resigning and giving it up to another, better able to represent his or her constituents. And more broadly, citizens would not be well served by a representatives whose heart … was no longer in it, and who only show up at the Assembly in order to eventually collect their allowance. Mr. Drainville’s proposal would likely create such zombies.

Needless to say, not many people pay heed to my rants, and the proposal had sufficient bipartisan support that it was eventually enacted, not by Mr. Drainville’s Parti québécois, but by the Liberals who replaced them in government in the meantime.

If New Zealaders get serious about taking action against MP resignations, they would do well to consider Québec’s experience. It is still very brief, but perhaps already instructive. My worries about zombie-MNAs waiting to collect their allowance might have been exaggerated, though of course it is impossible to tell. What is clear, however, is that a financial penalty will not deter at least some legislators from resigning mid-term. Mr. Drainville himself did it, to take up a radio talk-show host job, after Pierre-Karl Péladeau resigned as Parti québécois leader and quit politics. Mr. Péladeau’s own resignation might have fallen within the scope of the “serious family matter” exemption, but his case also shows that a penalty that would be a serious matter for most people would have been of no concern at all to someone as wealthy as he is.

Indeed, this may be unsurprising. In New Zealand itself already denies any sort of golden parachute to members of Parliament who leave before the end of their term. Section 11 of the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Act 2013 only provides an “additional salary” to those who are “member[s] of Parliament immediately before the dissolution of a Parliament” ― and yet it has not stopped resignations. Admittedly, the amount to which members who serve out their term are entitled is only three months of salary, as opposed to up to a year in Québec. Still, that many choose to forego it ― even leaving just months before they would become eligible for it ― suggests that when a legislator becomes sick and tired of legislating, he or she may walk away from easy money just to get away from it. (Take that, all you cynics who think that politicians are only in it for greed or lust for power!)

Our institutions have flaws; sometimes, very visible, even obvious flaws. Members of Parliament resign without finishing the job for which they were elected; governments come to office without the support of a majority of the people. It is tempting to look for an easy fix to these flaws. But these fixes may be less effective than they seem, and may create problems of their own if implemented. Moving to an electoral system featuring party lists may raise the number of parliamentary resignations; requiring prospective MPs to pay a bond to ensure against their resignation may fail to provide that insurance, yet deter the less well off from standing for office. Tinkering with the rules may feel satisfactory, but it is perhaps better to remember that no system is perfect.