Missing the Forest for the Living Tree

What Lord Sankey actually meant with his living tree metaphor

It is often said that the only interpretive method sanctioned in Canadian constitutional law is one that recognizes , in a well known articulation in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698, “that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life”. [22] The “living tree” metaphor comes from a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98, better known as the “Persons Case” because it resolved the question of whether women could be “qualified persons” for the purposes of section 24 of the then-British North America Act, 1867, which governs appointments to the Senate.

As Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown, the conventional view that living constitutionalism is our law is mistaken: the Supreme Court in fact frequently, if unsystematically, resorts to other interpretive methods, and indeed the Same-Sex Marriage Reference itself is consistent with an originalist approach. Moreover, as we discuss at some length, and as I long-ago suggested here, and now-Justice Bradley Miller has demonstrated, the view that Edwards employed and requires what has come to be known as “living tree” interpretation is simply wrong. It cannot be sustained on a fair reading of the case, which turns on the deployment of orthodox statutory interpretation techniques.

But of course the people who invoke Edwards and the “living tree” metaphor aren’t making it up: the words really are there. But what exactly do they signify, if not that the meaning of the constitution changes over time? Here is my best reading: it is shorthand for the Canadian constitution as a whole ― the constitution considered, in J.A.G. Griffith’s phrase, as “just what happens” ― as opposed to the text of what we now call the Constitution Acts.


Recall that Lord Sankey’s judgment proceeds in two main sections: first he deals with what he refers to as “[t]he external evidence derived from extraneous circumstances”, (DLR 99) namely the suggestion that the reference to “persons” in section 24 was specifically a reference to male persons because it implicitly incorporated the common law rule excluding women from public office. This, Lord Sankey says, “is a relic of days more barbarous than ours”, (99) and he is generally unimpressed with the strength of this “external” evidence, which had swayed the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Towards the end of that section of his judgment, Lord Sankey starts pivoting to the interpretation of section 24 itself. He notes that

No doubt in any code where women were expressly excluded from public office the problem would present no difficulty, but where instead of such exclusion those entitled to be summoned to or placed in public office are described under the word “person” different considerations arise.

The word is ambiguous and in its original meaning would undoubtedly embrace members of either sex. On the other hand, supposing in an Act of Parliament several centuries ago it had been enacted that any person should be entitled to be elected to a particular office it would have been understood that the word only referred to males, but the cause of this was not because the word “person” could not include females but because at Common Law a woman was incapable of serving a public office. (104-105)

The question is whether such implicit understandings are binding. Lord Sankey warns that “[c]ustoms are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared”. (105) He says, accordingly, that history ― in this case, the history of the exclusion of women from public office ― is not determinative. With this he turns to the examination of “the internal evidence derived from the [B.N.A.] Act itself”, (106) beginning not far from where he left off: with a warning that the Judicial Commitee “must take great care … not to interpret legislation meant to apply to one community by a rigid adherence to the customs and traditions of another”. (106)

And then, after a quick glance at the history of Confederation, Lord Sankey comes to the famous metaphor:

The B.N.A. Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits. The object of the Act was to grant a Constitution to Canada.

“Like all written constitutions it has been subject to development through usage and convention:” (Canadian Constitutional Studies, Sir Robert Borden, 1922, p. 55) .

Their Lordships do not conceive it ta be the duty of this Board—it is certainly not their desire—to cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation so that the Dominion to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, may be mistress in her own house, as the provinces to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, are mistresses in theirs. (DLR 106-107)

A couple of further general considerations follow. For one thing, Lord Sankey notes that, while it is true that a “large and liberal” interpretation is appropriate for a constitutional statute, “the question is not what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said”. (107) (This blog’s readers need go no further than yesterday’s post by co-blogger Mark Mancini for a re-articulation of this principle.) For another:

[T]heir Lordships [are not] deciding any question as to the rights of women but only a question as to their eligibility for a particular position. No one either male or female has a right to be summoned to the Senate. The real point at issue is whether the Governor-General has a right to summon women to the Senate.

And then Lord Sankey gets on with really deciding the case by deploying the whole arsenal of usual statutory interpretation techniques. In my earlier post on Edwards, I compared this to “Ravel’s Boléro, an almost-endless repetition of the same simple theme with different instruments”.

Putting all that together, it is clear that Lord Sankey’s judgment is, above all, textualist. He attaches little attention to early history or to intentions and expectations. (Justice Wakeling of the Alberta Court of Appeal, among others, should take note.) By the same token, he is not trying to re-write the text, or to give words new meanings they didn’t have at the time of their enactment. As he says, if the statute referred to men alone instead of using language that in its “original meaning” could encompass women, the case would be open and shut. To repeat, the “living tree” is absolutely not an invitation to update the constitution. But what is it?

To the extent the metaphor does work, it is to help warn against the temptation to “cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction”. Rather, Lord Sankey says, they must receive “a large and liberal interpretation” ― consistent, however, “not [with] what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said” ― to ensure freedom of action “within certain fixed limits” ― fixed, mind you! ― for governments, federal and provincial alike. In this sense, Edwards really is about the right of the Governor General, which is to say of the federal government of the day, to appoint women to the Senate. It is this freedom that must not be unnecessarily curtailed, or “cut down” as Lord Sankey says.

The actions of the government in the constitutional sphere ― “just what happens” ― are the living tree. This tree can grow as society changes, because the government will take actions, which will then develop into practices, and these in turn into “usage and conventions”, in response to social change. But this growth is constrained by constitutional text, whose meaning, while free of presuppositions long pre-dating its enactment, may not change.


It is unfortunate that people appeal to the authority of Lord Sankey’s judgment in Edwards without actually thinking about what that judgment says and does. Justice Rothstein admitted, in a lecture, that he’d never read it until retiring from the Supreme Court. I suspect he is not alone. Of course people who extol Lord Sankey also pay not heed to his overtly originalist opinion in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

But the Aeronautics Reference is a niche interest, a hidden gem. Edwards, by contrast, is supposed to be the most iconic case in all of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence, a font of wisdom and a national symbol, a literal monument. And it truly is a great case, with a great judgment given by a great jurist. If only people would pay it the well-deserved compliment of reading understanding what makes its greatness by reading it closely from beginning to end instead of just taking a line out of the decision, they wouldn’t miss the forest for the living tree.

Just Asking

Should the power over criminal law be transferred to the provinces?

Let me ask you what might be a provocative question: is there a good reason why criminal law and criminal procedure should be a matter of federal jurisdiction in Canada? The initial choice of the Fathers of Confederation to make them matters for Parliament under section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867 was justified and turned out well, I think. But the reasons that were relevant at Confederation, and for a century thereafter, no longer hold true. Should we amend the constitution to make criminal law a provincial power ― and, if so, on what conditions?

I should note that this post is just me thinking on the screen. I do not mean it as a definitive word on anything. I am not an expert on criminal law, and might be missing something important. By all means, tell me if, and why, you think I’m wrong (or more wrong than usual). Still, I thought these questions are worth thinking about.


So far as I can tell ― and I haven’t done any actual research on this, so I may just be spewing out preconceptions and received wisdom here ― criminal law and procedure being a federal power continues the basic divide established as early as the Quebec Act 1774. Private disputes would be “determined agreeably to the said Laws and Customs of Canada“. To preserve the ability of the French Canadian majority in Québec to control (most of) its private law, “property and civil rights” became subject to provincial jurisdiction at Confederation. By contrast, the Quebec Act maintained English criminal law in force:

whereas the Certainty and Lenity of the Criminal Law of England, and the Benefits and Advantages resulting from the Use of it, have been sensibly felt by the Inhabitants, from an Experience of more than nine Years, during which it has been uniformly administered; be it therefore further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the same shall continue to be administered, and shall be observed as Law in the Province of Quebec, as well in the Description and Quality of the Offence as in the Method of Prosecution and Trial.

The lenity of the Criminal Law of England was such that dozens if not hundreds of offences could lead to hanging, but that was still better than judicial torture, which had existed under ancien régime French law. Here again, Confederation ensured that the status quo would continue, by putting criminal law within Parliament’s jurisdiction ― in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the United States and that would prevail in Australia.

This was as well. I doubt there was any chance of French criminal law being brought back to Canada in the 19th century ― even maintaining the old civil law proved a frightful challenge, which was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Civil code of Lower Canada (as I explained here). But given the relative moderation of federal politics in comparison with what went on in some of the provinces, notably with the authoritarian regimes of the Social Credit in Alberta and the Union Nationale in Québec, federal control over criminal law has been a blessing. It was the reason, notably, for the invalidation of Québec’s ban on “communistic propaganda” in the notorious “Padlock Act” in Switzman v Elbling, [1957] SCR 285.

But something very important happened since then: the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2 of the Charter protects Canadians across the country from dictatorial legislation such as the Padlock Act. Sections 7 to 14 of the Charter entrench substantive, formal, and procedural provisions historically associated with the “certainty and lenity of the criminal law of England”. Section 24 of the Charter and section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provide remedies against governments and legislatures that disregard these rights. These judicial protections (subject to an obvious caveat, to which I will get shortly) are likely to be more effective than the structural devices employed at Confederation. After all, we know that Parliament keeps enacting, and the courts ― to the chagrin of “tough-on-crime” politicians and even some misguided judges ― keep invalidating absuvie criminal laws. As a result, it’s not obvious to me that the centuries-old reasons for making criminal law a federal matter are still valid.


Meanwhile, there are other considerations, some also longstanding but others less so, that support transferring this power to the provinces. The former category includes the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that power should be decentralized and exercised as closely to the citizen as it can be effectively exercised. It’s not clear to me why the provinces couldn’t competently and effectively legislate over criminal law and criminal procedure. As it is, they already legislate over provincial offences under section 92(15) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Since criminal law reflects moral considerations, it would make sense for Canadian provinces, with differing moral outlooks of their electorates, to be in charge of defining this law for themselves. Other usual benefits of decentralization, such as the possibility of provinces experimenting with different policies, within constitutional constraints, would also apply.

The more novel benefit of transferring the power over criminal law to the provinces would be to nip in the bud the tendency for Parliament to rely on the criminal law power to enact regulatory schemes that invade areas of provincial jurisdiction ― or, rather, since this tendency is already well-developed, to pluck off its increasingly putrid flower. Examples of this tendency, all upheld at least in part, include laws dealing with tobacco advertising, the registration of firearms, assisted human reproduction, and most recently genetic non-discrimination. (Shannon Hale blogged here on her and Dwight Newman’s critique of the Supreme Court’s lax approach to Parliament’s criminal law power in Reference re Genetic Non‑Discrimination Act, 2020 SCC 17.) Denying Parliament the power to make criminal law would not only allow us to reap the benefits of federalism in this area, but also to preserve them in others.

Now, I do think that some safeguards must be in place for this change to the distribution of powers to work well. One is already part of the Canadian constitution’s design. Others will need to be implemented as part of a package of amendments together with the transfer of jurisdiction over criminal law to the provinces.

The (mostly) existing safeguard the appointment of the judges of the superior courts, who preside at the most significant criminal trials, by the federal rather than the provincial governments. This has been an important barrier against the power of populist provincial governments. It will become an even better one if the federal government exercises its appointment power without being distracted by populist tough-on-crime considerations that caused it, for example, to introduce police officers into the selection committees that vet prospective judges. However, for this system to continue to work well, it will need to be coupled with an assurance that at least the more serious criminal cases will continue to come to the superior courts, either for trial or, at least, on appeal. Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 may do this already, but I would prefer an explicit addition to section 11 of the Charter.

The other additional safeguards I would want to see include, first and foremost, the repeal of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause“, which allows Parliament and, more to the point, provincial legislatures, to suspend the effective protection of the rights entrenched in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. At a minimum, the protections of the rights of the accused in sections 7-14 should be free from the threat of override; but it is highly desirable that the substantive protections of fundamental freedoms in section 2 should be so too. Section 15 is perhaps less relevant here, but there is no reason to maintain the “notwithstanding clause” for its sake. The reason for contemplating transferring the criminal law power to the provinces, despite the greater risk of populist takeovers, is that the Charter protects against its being abused. This protection must be effective at all times, and not at the provincial legislatures’ sufferance.

Lastly, some additional adjustments to the division of powers scheme will be necessary. For one thing, a federal equivalent of the current section 92(15) will be necessary to replace Parliament’s plenary criminal law power. Just like the provinces now, Parliament should be able to provide for penal enforcement of its legislation. Moreover, some measure of extra-territorial criminal power will need to remain with Parliament as well. There is of course some danger that even this limit grant of power will be abused. This is what has happened in the United States, despite Congress not having any explicit criminal law powers. The crimes created under the power to enacted laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” Congress’s other powers have become literally innumerable: when the American government tried to count all of the offences on its books, it failed. (Some are documented by a darkly humorous Twitter account.) However, the Canadian jurisprudence on the division of powers generally, and on ancillary powers in particular, is much more robust than its American counterparts, so one can reasonably hope that this American disaster can be avoided in Canada. For another, while the federal power over penitentiaries in section 91(28) will no longer make much sense, a more limited power to maintain a carceral system for those convicted of the remaining federal offences will be necessary.


Needless to say, there is very little chance of my proposals ― even assuming that they make sense which, to repeat, they may well not ― ever being taken up. Even apart from Canada’s general, and I’m inclined to think generally sound, aversion to constitutional tinkering, I just don’t see Parliament giving up such a high-profile legislative power that has, for politicians, the virtue that its exercise allows for relatively low-cost grandstanding and virtue-signalling. But who knows. And, if nothing else, I think we should from time to time ask ourselves whether the existing division of powers makes sense, if only to remind ourselves of the reasons why we have it and why, on the whole, it is a good and useful thing.

What Needs to Be Said

Sometimes people say things that need to be said. These things may make us uncomfortable. They may force us to look in the mirror. They may ask us to really sit and think about our conduct. We might not like to hear these things, but they might start a discussion. Or maybe they will force us to change our ways.

Enter Stratas JA in Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164. Here, Stratas JA says what needs to be said. In the decision, Stratas JA shines a light on two increasing tendencies in Canadian law: (1) the tendency of some intervenors, contrary to governing jurisprudence, to insert international law or policy preferences in the interpretation of legislation, particularly in the discernment of legislative purpose and (2) the tendency for some judges, in extra-judicial speeches or otherwise, to weigh in on matters of public policy, typically left to the political branches. Stratas JA has launched an important conversation that we should embrace, tough as it is.

International Law and Statutory Interpretation

Let me start with the basic facts of the case. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

Here’s where it gets hairy. Sometimes, international law can enter the act of legal interpretation. If you want to know more about how this is the case, see my post on Stratas JA’s decision in Entertainment Software. The point is that international law can only be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity. Parliament remains sovereign because it controls the international law it adopts; indeed, “[s]ometimes it is clear…that the purpose of a legislative provision is to implement some or all of  an international law instrument” (Kattenburg, at para 25) (see Gib Van Ert, here, for some nuance on this). Other times, there is ambiguity that permits the consideration of international law (Kattenburg, at para 25). But other times, probably most times, international law plays no role in the interpretation of legislation, where there is no indication that the governing law explicitly or by implication incorporates international law. That was the case here.

Yet many of the intervenors in this case were motivated to bootstrap international law into the authentic interpretation of legislation. For many, the argument was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law principles. This was despite the fact that nothing in the governing law was designed “to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 20). To make this point, some of the interveners attempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32).

There are many problems with what’s going on here, and Justice Stratas rightly rejected the efforts to make the case about the West Bank issue rather than the reasonableness of a regulatory decision. First, at the level of fundamental principle, judicial review of administrative action is about policing the boundaries of the administrative state, at the level of a particular regulatory decision. Some times these decisions can have major consequences, for the party subject to the decision or for the legal system on the whole. But the focus is not the at-large determination of major issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus is on the decision under review. And so the attempts by the moving parties to buttress the record, to force the Court’s hand into saying something, anything, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inappropriate, to say the least. Justice Stratas rightly, and humbly, rejected the call to enter this fraught political territory.

Another problem is the attempt to use international law to guide, where it is inappropriate to do so, the ascertainment of legislative purpose. When courts interpret statutes, they do not do so with the aims of achieving a result that the judge thinks is “just,” “right,” or even “fair.” The goal is to interpret statutes authentically, so that we can plausibly determine what the legislature meant when it used certain words in enacting a law. Contrary to fashionable legal realism, courts and decision-makers must do their best not to reverse engineer a desired outcome through interpretation (see Vavilov, at para 121, but also see the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Here, the intervenors clearly tried to use international law to reach a desired policy outcome. But all of the intervenors, piled up together, shouldn’t be able to encourage courts to engage in this pure policy reasoning. Indeed, as Justice Stratas notes, “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). And to the extent that doing so is contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, Justice Stratas was right to call out this pernicious behaviour.

None of this is to suggest that intervenors do not play an important role in Canadian law. None of this is to suggest that international law cannot, in appropriate circumstances, play a role in the interpretation of legislation. But a new Canadian textualism is emerging that rebuffs policy reasoning and at-large international law arguments. All for the better.

The Role of the Courts

In Kattenburg, Justice Stratas also made a number of comments that, I think, needed to be said about the activities of some Canadian judges. Here is the gist of his comments:

[45]  As for judges, some give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies, whether they be liberal, conservative or whatever. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go. They write op-eds, deliver speeches and give interviews, extolling constitutional rights as absolutes that can never be outweighed by pressing public interest concerns and embracing people, groups and causes that line up with their personal view of what is “just”, “right” and “fair”. They do these things even though cases are under reserve and other cases are coming to them.

This comment raises the important question of the difference between the legal world and the political world. It has become increasingly common to hear that law=politics. In some sense, this is true. Law is the product of political deliberation. And because judges are only humans, there is always a risk that a judge’s experiences and personal views may guide the interpretation of legislation. No legal system can reduce this risk to zero, and perhaps it is unwise to do so.

But this is a completely different proposition from the normative question: should the political views of judges affect the interpretation of laws or judicial review of administration action? Obviously the answer is no. So, in legislative interpretation, we create a series of rules to guide legal interpretation. We ask courts and decision-makers to focus on text, context, and purpose—authentically. In other words, while law is the product of politics, that fact does not give judges the right to interpret laws as they wish.

There are a number of examples of prominent judges who have, extrajudicially, blurred the lines between law and politics. At least two judges of the Supreme Court have suggested that their job is to decide what is best for Canadians, for example (see Justice Moldaver here and then-Chief Justice McLachlin here). This is a real misapprehension of the judicial role. Judges aren’t tasked with making the best normative decisions for Canadians. That is Parliament’s job. Of course, the problem is that politics can be slow and frustrating. But that is no reason to bypass the legislature for a quick judicial resolution.

Another example, but by far not the only one, is Justice Abella. Justice Abella frequently enters the public fray to provide her views on certain legal issues. Quite separate from the content of these interjections, it is typically not the role of a Supreme Court judge to write popular columns, putting their thumbs on the scale of pressing public issues that might make their way to the Court. It is one thing to set out one’s view of the law in reasons for decision. We can agree or disagree on that reasoning, in the legal academy. It is another to take to the streets, as a judge, and participate in the political process by setting out one’s view of the law—whatever it is–in the context of popular publications. On a related note, in fact, this is not just an affliction of judges that might be considered “progressive.” As I wrote here, in the United States, conservatives are increasingly looking at the courts as an instrument of power, rather than as neutral and objective arbiters of the law.

I could go on and on. The point is that Justice Stratas is on to something in Kattenburg. The comments come as we see, increasingly, the veneration of judges as heros, who are celebrated when they enter the political fray by many in the bar. RBG on the left, with the action figures and paraphenalia. Scalia on the right, to a somewhat lesser extent. In Canada, the “stanning” of judges like Justice Abella as if they were celebrities. Judges are just “lawyers who happen to hold a judicial commission” (Kattenburg, at para 41). When put that way, it seems remarkably odd that we celebrate certain judges the way we do. We should celebrate judges for applying the law and following precedent to the best of their ability. We should refrain from celebrating the results of cases over the reasoning. And judges, themselves, should generally stay out of political debates. Indeed, lawyers are just lawyers, and law school confers no special insight on issues of moral or political weight, compared to the rest of the population.

Sad for some lawyers to hear, I am sure. But it needed to be said.

The Sex Appeal of Power

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently, in both politics and law. The idea is what I call the “one-way ratchet fallacy” of power. It goes like this: when an institution or entity obtains power of some kind, that power will only ever be used to fulfill certain goals rather than others. That is, people might assume that power will always run in favour of the policy outcomes they like. This is, in a word, naïve—but at worst, it is a gross misunderstanding of the problems with power. The increasing tendency to think this way only reinforces the need for law and custom to limit, rather than unleash, power.

Two examples come to mind that illustrate this phenomenon. The first is an issue near and dear to my heart, and that issue is constitutional interpretation. In Canada, a major misunderstanding of the Persons Case holds that Canada’s Constitution is a “living tree”—in other words, the Constitution must “grow” to fit the emerging realities of today’s society. Under this theory, judges in a system of strong judicial review decide when and in what direction the Constitution should evolve.

Putting aside the fact that only some work has been done to actually provide rules to govern the “living tree” theory, and also putting aside the fact that the Supreme Court has never provided such guidance (and in fact does not consistently endorse this theory), there is a certain “ideological sex appeal” to living constitutionalism, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once said. That appeal is that the law and the Constitution can be used to achieve policy outcomes that one likes, ensuring that the Constitution protects certain outcomes that are consistent with “evolving standards of decency” (to borrow an American phrase). Unsurprisingly, progressives see the potential in living constitutionalism. It is a good way to ensure the Constitution keeps up with modern times and, potentially, modern progressive causes.

But, there is a major risk that should cause those who endorse living constitutionalism to pause. Living constitutionalism contains within it a dangerous assumption: that judges will always be on the side of angels. The risk was put eloquently by Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal in a talk a few years ago. The general gist of it is this: imagine, some years from now (or maybe we do not even need to imagine) that there is some existential crisis affecting our society. Courts are asked to deal with a legal issue arising out of that crisis. Would we rather the court decide the matter according to settled doctrine, painstakingly developed over generations? Or on the personal say-so of judges? There is a risk that the personal say-so of a judge might run in a direction that progressives would not like. Basically, without rules governing the exercise of legal power by judges, it’s a coin flip in terms of result.

Lest anyone think that this is an inherent flaw of progressives, those on the right can also fall victim to the alluring sex appeal of power. A good example is the recent Trump administration move to “ban” government contracting and other relations with businesses and others that offer some critical race theory training. Now, it is more than fair to say there are major debates raging right now about critical race theory. That’s a somewhat separate issue. What is important here is that the power of the government is being used to root out certain ideas rather than others.

This is a different issue from living constitutionalism, since here it could be argued that governments have the power to implement their view of the “public good;” law, by its nature, is supposed to be governed by rules that are as close to “neutral” as possible. So those on the right might feel emboldened by Trump’s move because it implements their view of the good. But once the precedent is set that governments can police ideology by picking winners and losers in business, and ferret out views it doesn’t like from the inside, it is just as possible that a future administration could fall victim to the sex appeal of power in the opposite direction. Power can be used, in the future, to limit the spread of ideas that those on the right might find appealing: free market economics, personal liberty, whatever it is.

While the situation is admittedly slightly different than the living constitutionalism example, this situation calls for a political custom surrounding the exercise of power. As Dicey said, laws are not enough; there must be a “spirit of legality” that governs the exercise of power. This is understood as a reference to customary norms governing the exercise of power. Surely, one custom might be that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers based on ideology (within reason).

The living constitution example and the critical race theory example illustrate the sex appeal of power. It can be exercised in a certain political direction, to be sure. And it might feel good for power to be exercised to the benefit of certain political factions. But the more power is granted to certain actors, and the more that laws and customs liberate that power, the more we might expect the one-way ratchet to keep ratcheting up. In politics, this might be one thing. But in law—especially when it comes to constitutional interpretation—the sex appeal of power is positively dangerous.

When the Surgeons Miss

Federalism and the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act Reference

Guest Post by Shannon Hale*

It is ironic that sometimes health-related cases pose the greatest risks to the health of the constitution when federalism goes under the knife.

Just over two months ago, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Reference re Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (GNDA Reference). At issue was whether the federal government validly enacted parts of the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (GNDA) that prohibit the forced testing and disclosure or unauthorized use of health-related genetic tests as a condition of providing goods and services or contracting (ss. 1 to 7).

The Court split three ways on this issue, with the majority, led by Karakatsanis J., ultimately deciding that the federal government had the legal authority to pass the law. The GNDA Reference provides much food for thought on division of powers analysis and federalism, especially since some of the conclusions drawn in that decision may undermine the ability of legislators and policymakers to make various policy choices with legal certainty.

Dwight Newman and I discuss the implications of the GNDA Reference in a forthcoming paper in Constitutional Forum. Our paper focuses on how the majority outcome achieves an arguably pragmatic and desirable policy result at the expense of established federalism jurisprudence, legal predictability, and effective intergovernmental cooperation.

I wanted to write about the GNDA Reference because of its far-reaching effects on federalism, in particular its impact on provincial autonomy to make policy choices that are responsive to regional diversity. As a former policy wonk, I admit that there are several situations in which it could be easier and more efficient for the federal government to legislate. Yet, the Canadian constitutional structure emerged from a political compromise and it is intentionally designed to mitigate against such centralization of power (Reference re Secession of Quebec at paras 55-60). An important policy goal or concerns about efficiency should not factor, or appear to factor, into the Court’s reasoning on whether the government in question validly passed a law. As we point out in our paper, the Court must be—and appear to be—above policy debates to maintain its institutional legitimacy.

The GNDA Reference also interests me because of the GNDA’s surprising origins and the even more surprising three-way split on the Court over the law’s characterization.

The GNDA was introduced as a private member’s bill in the Senate and it was voted into law despite opposition from Cabinet, including from the then federal Justice Minister who had thought the law was unconstitutional. Although the Court was aware of the GNDA’s unusual legislative history, that did not factor heavily into its analysis (see, for example, GNDA Reference at paras 18, 161). Nor should it. As Karakatsanis J. clarifies, the “sole issue before [the Court] is whether [the federal government] had the power to [enact the GNDA]” (at para 18).

Unfortunately, what seems to end up happening is that the merits of a particular policy—preventing genetic discrimination—distract Karakatsanis J. from the demands of the established legal tests in division of powers cases. As we explain in greater detail, Karakatsanis J. adopts a purpose-driven approach that more closely resembles the “pressing and substantial objective” step of the Oakes analysis in Charter jurisprudence than the focus on the law’s “true subject matter” in pith and substance analysis (see, for example, Reference re Firearms Act (Canada) at para 18).

Of equal concern is the three-way split on pith and substance. It is not uncommon for the Court to disagree on the law’s pith and substance. But if these disagreements become the norm rather than the exception there is a danger that the Court could create the perception that judicial preferences, not established legal principles, dictate the outcome in division of powers cases.

This perception grows when the Court strays from established legal tests to shoehorn the analysis to reach a result that also favours a particular policy outcome. The task before the Court is not to weigh the merits of particular policies; it is to determine whether the government in question has the legal authority to make laws about those policies.

Despite its good intentions, the majority outcome may actually make the situation on the ground worse for Canadians. Our paper examines how the majority outcome will create considerable confusion for provincial insurance schemes and could result in higher insurance premiums across the board. It is also interesting how the majority outcome prevents genetic discrimination in some insurance contexts but not in others, which seems to be at odds with Karakatsanis J.’s view that the pith and substance of the GNDA is to prevent genetic discrimination “in the areas of contracting and the provision of goods and services” (GNDA Reference at paras 63-65).

Another problem with the majority outcome is that it fails to rein in the federal criminal law power. That power can swallow up a lot of provincial jurisdiction, leaving provincial governments with little room to make policy choices about issues that matter most to its people.

Karakatsanis J.’s approach to “gaps” in the law is also troubling. There are many reasons why provincial governments may or may not legislate an issue. Sometimes the lack of a provincial law is the product of an intentional choice. If the federal government can pass a law because the provinces haven’t, in the future, provincial governments may rush to pass a law to secure its control over an issue.

While some may say a bad law is better than no law, a “use it or lose it” approach to lawmaking may not necessarily reflect good policy. Provincial governments should be free to pass laws on issues within their jurisdiction without fearing that the federal government will pass a law if they fail to act. As the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law”. And in this case the main casualty is federalism.


*Shannon Hale is a Research Associate at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law for the September-December 2020 term

The Self-Own of Court-Packing

2020 dealt us another major blow last week, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Justice Ginsburg, agree or disagree with her jurisprudentially, was an inspiration to many. Rightly so. She was a trailblazer. Incidentally, for anyone interested, there is a great movie about her life in the law: “On the Basis of Sex.” Available on Crave, I think.

Predictably, though, the good feelings towards Justice Ginsburg have quickly morphed into a sickening volcano of politics. The story starts back in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia upon his death. The Senate, which has the advice and consent function on new judges under the US Constitution, and led by Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to even hold a vote on Garland. The rationale at the time was that, with a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled Senate, “[t]he American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” The gamble worked out for the Republicans, who won the Presidency in 2016 and were able to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Scalia’s old seat.

The Republicans put a mark in the sand in 2016, and if we lived in a world of consistency and honour, the Republicans would forestall their choice for the Supreme Court until after the 2020 election. But unfortunately, the Republicans see an opportunity. Mitch McConnell has announced that the Senate will consider the President’s nominee before the election. His justification for doing so, compared to 2016, is that now the same party holds the White House and the Senate. This is, to put it in a word, ridiculous. But in this imperfect world, I do not see any way for the Democrats themselves to stop the nomination from moving forward–save for some courageous Republicans.

The Democrats, angry by this, have lost their patience. Prominent Democrats have opened the door to court-packing, a play that would expand the court and allow Democrats (should they win the presidency) to “pack” the court with sympathetic judges. The underlying theory behind this move is simple: the Republicans have gamed the Supreme Court for too long, and the system itself is illegitimate. The Democrats have to react accordingly by bringing a gun to a gun fight. Or, perhaps more generously, the Democrats need to “expand democracy” (loads of problems with this that I cannot deal with here).

I think this is a flawed way of thinking that will simply lead to a race to the bottom. More promising are calls for a comprehensive deal between the parties. But if the choice is to pack the court or retain the status quo, I say retain the status quo, much as it pains me to say it. Life—and law—is not about utopia, but about choosing the least of bad options. And this is one of those situations.

There are reasons of principle and pragmatism for my conclusion. The entire point of the Supreme Court—in both Canada and the United States—is to act as an apex court in a system of judicial review. Despite the fashionable trend towards eroding the distinction between law and politics, judicial review is a quintessentially legal task, asking whether government laws or action remain consistent with some external norm, such as the Constitution. To do so, over time, courts (in theory) develop settled doctrine and precedent to govern the application of the law. To be fair, we have never reached this Nirvana in law. But in the application of law, we do our best to depoliticize the process as much as we can, so that the work judges do has some legitimacy attached to it.

Whether one accepts this or not, as time has gone on, especially in the United States, the Supreme Court appointment process itself has become politicized, undermining the perception of the review role of the court. Ideological litmus tests abound, and as noted above, at least in recent memory, the Republicans have played games with the nomination process. This raises a question. Even if the application of law is, ideally, removed from the spectre of “politics” (a vexing terminological question I am conveniently sidestepping here), there is still a question of perception. In other words, the system must also be supported by a “spirit of legality,” as Dicey put it. In service of that spirit, it is my view that political actors sometimes need decline to exercise power they strictly have in legal form in order to create an institutional culture of respect for the law. This goes both ways.  While it is true that the Republicans have the “raw power” to move a nomination through the Senate, they may want to keep their powder dry in the name of the rule they created in 2016, and as a means to protect the legitimacy of the Court in the public eye. And the Democrats will want to abstain from moving on court-packing, because it too transforms the trappings of the court into an ideological fever-pitch. Even if one believes the system is illegitimate, making it more illegitimate is a self-own.

I am alive to the criticism that I live in a world that either never existed or is long gone. That is, at least since Bork (and likely before), the Supreme Court selection process has been a breeding ground for partisan considerations. This is true. But that is not a reason to go further down the rabbit hole. If anything, it is a moment to reflect how far we have come, and what we need to do to ensure our institutions retain legitimacy. As Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg note, court-packing is anathema to the Rule of Law.

Arguments from principle nowadays are not very convincing to many, left and right, who view themselves as engaged in a culture war where institutions are just organs of power, rather than bodies with designed and limited powers. So let me speak their language on my second point. Court-packing will be like a drug for the Democrats. It will feel really good to dunk on the Republicans for a few years. But as Joe Biden aptly noted in 2019:

In other words, on and on the merry-go-round goes. And it will never end. The Democrats have to ask themselves an important question if they go down the road of court-packing: are you so sure that you will end up on the winning end of the deal, over the years? How much would you be willing to bet? The Republicans have gamed the Court far more effectively than the Democrats over the years. There is no reason to believe that would stop in a post-court-packing world. In other words, as a matter of strategy, unless the Democrats are sure they would end up winning, the smart play is to simply hold fire.

Holding fire is not desirable for many in today’s world, as I alluded to above. Today, the name of the game is power. Those who consider themselves engaged in a culture war view the matter as a tactical one, in which power that is held must be used to extinguish the other side. But there are more important things than winning a political battle. Institutions that are designed to apply law, for all of us, is one of those important things.

On the other hand, holding fire is not the ideal solution here, by far.  While there are many permutations on offer, I am quite convinced that Ilya Somin’s suggested solution is one worth exploring. Here it is:

  1. The Republicans promise not to confirm any Supreme Court nominee until after January 20 of next year, at which time whoever wins the election will get to name Justice Ginsburg’s replacement.

2. In exchange, the Democrats promise not to support any expansion of the size of the   Supreme Court for at least the next ten years.

This solution puts protecting the institution at the forefront before political victories. And it buys time for the sides to cool down the temperature and do the right thing. There are  other options on the table: term limits, mandatory retirement, the list goes on. In a healthy constitutional democracy, all of these things should be on the table. Of course, I have no hope that this these solutions will come to pass. That in itself is an indictment of the American constitutional democracy as it stands.

All in all, court-packing poses the question to the Democrats: are you confident in your side winning the war over the long term? If you aren’t, court-packing is a gamble that could hurt the Democrats over the long haul. And nowadays, maybe that is the most important consideration for culture warriors to keep in mind. Self-owning is never fun.

Unstuck

Ontario’s Superior Court strikes down the anti-carbon tax-sticker law, but still doesn’t get freedom of expression

Last year, I wrote about Ontario’s Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019 (the “Act”) ― both about the disgraceful way in which it became law and about its unconstitutional speech compulsion, which I argued should not even be considered as a potentially justified limitation of the freedom of expression under section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because it was tantamount to the imposition of an official ideology. The constitutionality of the Act was in fact challenged by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and, last week, in CCLA v Ontario (Attorney General), 2020 ONSC 4838, the Superior Court of Ontario struck it down.

At first glance, this is a welcome development for the freedom from compelled speech. Not only is the compulsion invalidated, but Justice Morgan’s approach might seem to bear some resemblance to the one I had proposed: in effect, he denies the government the chance to justify the Act under section 1. But look at Justice Morgan’s reasons more closely, and they turn out to be very narrow. Indeed, they could be used to support significant speech compulsions in the future.

This is not altogether surprising. Justice Morgan was constrained by the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, 121 OR (3d) 1, upholding the constitutionality of the requirement that applicants for the Canadian citizenship swear an oath to bear “true allegiance” to the “Queen of Canada”, which I have described as a “parade of horribles“. And indeed it was none other than Justice Morgan who had written the first instance decision in that case. While it wasn’t quite as bad as that of the Court of Appeal, it did not evince much understanding of the harms of compelled speech either.


The Act required all gas stations to display a prescribed sticker alerting customers to the amount of the “federal carbon tax” levied on the gas they were purchasing. The evidence adduced by the CCLA showed that it was meant as a not-so-subtle intervention in the 2019 federal election campaign, in which the Ontario government supported the anti-carbon-tax position of the federal Conservatives and opposed the pro-carbon-tax Liberals. This partisan dynamic is a key factor in Justice Morgan’s reasoning.

Before getting to the substantive issues, Justice Morgan must address the Attorney General’s objection to the CCLA’s standing to challenge the Act. As it turns out, the CCLA has tried to enlist actual gas stations as plaintiffs or co-plaintiffs, but none would come forward. Justice Morgan explains that “retailers, with a view to market forces rather than to politics and constitutional law, have been loath to participate in this case” due to its political valence. [40] But the record to which Justice Morgan alludes suggests that this is not quite accurate: politics, in the shape of a fear of regulatory retaliation, seems to have been a motivating factor too. Be that as it may, Justice Morgan grants the CCLA public interest standing to pursue the case.

He must next decide whether the sticker requirement limits the freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Charter. To this end, he applies the test set out in the Court of Appeal’s McAteer decision:

The first question is whether the activity in which the plaintiff is being forced to engage is expression. The second question is whether the purpose of the law is aimed at controlling expression. If it is, a finding of a violation of s. 2(b) is automatic. If the purpose of the law is not to control expression, then in order to establish an infringement of a person’s Charter right, the claimant must show that the law has an adverse effect on expression. In addition, the claimant must demonstrate that the meaning he or she wishes to convey relates to the purposes underlying the guarantee of free expression, such that the law warrants constitutional disapprobation. (McAteer, [69])

Justice Morgan finds that the sticker is indeed a form of expression. Yet in his view its purpose is not to control expression. In particular, he takes the view that “it would be difficult for the government to control expression by compelling certain messages … but not restricting others”. [50] Objectors remain free “to disavow” [52] the message they are compelled to voice, for example by posting disclaimers; hence their expression is not “controlled”. However, it is adversely impacted by the Act.

The key point for Justice Morgan is that, unlike the citizenship oath in McAteer, the sticker does not promote democracy and the Rule of Law. Indeed, it does not even serve to truthfully inform. Justice Morgan attaches some importance to the sticker’s use of the “carbon tax” nomenclature, which in his view is at odds with the Court of Appeal for Ontario’s opinion, in Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, 2019 ONCA 544, 146 OR (3d) 65, that the policy at issue is not a “tax” within the meaning of the Constitution Act, 1867. Moreover, the sticker says nothing of the ways the money levied as carbon tax is distributed, in part to taxpayers, in part to provinces. As a result, it is a form of “spin”. [60] By requiring it, “the government is not so much explaining a policy [as] making a partisan argument”. [63] And “[b]y using law for partisan ends, the Ontario legislature has enacted a measure that runs counter to, rather in furtherance of, the purposes underlying freedom of expression”. [65]

This limitation of the freedom of expression is not justified under section 1 of the Charter. Indeed, unusually, Justice Morgan finds that the Act lacks a pressing and substantial purpose ― the first, and normally very low, hurdle a statute must meet to be upheld under section 1: “While truly informing the public about the components that make up the cost of gasoline would be a pressing and substantial purpose, promoting the Ontario governing party over the federal governing party is not.” [69] The Act is purely partisan rather than a real “policy choice”. [69] Justice Morgan goes through the other steps of the justified limitation analysis by way of an obiter, but it all comes down to his concern with partisanship. The Act is invalid.


Right outcome, but the reasoning is another matter entirely. Justice Morgan’s approach is illogical and conflicts with the Supreme Court’s precedents, notably inthat it collapses the two stages of the Charter analysis that the Supreme Court has always sought to keep distinct: first, the question of whether a right is being limited; second, that of whether the limitation is justified.

First, to say, as Justice Morgan does, that one’s expression is not controlled because one can disavow something one has been coerced to say is perverse. The fact that one is forced into disavowals shows sufficiently that what one is saying is not what one chooses to say.

The political context that Justice Morgan’s reasons depict highlights this problem. As he explains, it appears that gas station owners would rather keep quiet and sit out the political conflict about the carbon tax. This is their right ― the obverse of the freedom of speech is the freedom to stay silent. If they are forced into disavowals and denials, the gas stations will inevitably be taking sides in the political conflict they are trying to avoid ― if anything, this will be much more obvious than if they merely comply with the Act and display the required stickers. Of course, such a response is not what the Ontario legislature envisioned, but it would be caused entirely by the Act, and so it is absurd to deny that the Act amounts to a form of control of the gas stations’ expression.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s precedents mandate no such twisted inquiry. Ostensibly the most important freedom of expression case (I have argued here that it is only “leading from behind”), and the source of the “control” language used in McAteer and by Justice Morgan is Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec (Attorney General), [1989] 1 SCR 927. The distinction between legislation that has control of expression as purpose and that which doesn’t is described as follows in the joint opinion of Chief Justice Dickson and Justices Lamer and Wilson:

If the government’s purpose is to restrict the content of expression by singling out particular meanings that are not to be conveyed, it necessarily limits the guarantee of free expression. If the government’s purpose is to restrict a form of expression in order to control access by others to the meaning being conveyed or to control the ability of the one conveying the meaning to do so, it also limits the guarantee. On the other hand, where the government aims to control only the physical consequences of certain human activity, regardless of the meaning being conveyed, its purpose is not to control expression. (974)

Applied to speech compulsions rather than censorship, this means that any legislation that “singles out particular meanings” that must be communicated, or forces an audience to listen to a communication, necessarily has control of expression as its purpose. Such legislation limits (or, as the Supreme Court often says, prima facie infringes) the freedom of expression. There is no need to consider effects, let alone to ask the purely subjective question of whether they are worthy of “constitutional disapprobation”.

This inquiry into effects and “disapprobation” in effect forces claimants to show that the law which compels their speech is not justified, and more specifically that it pursues an end worthy of judicial condemnation. The success of such an argument in this case should not blind us to the fact that this is a high hurdle. As noted above, this approach collapses the usual section 1 test of whether a limitation on a right is justified into the threshold inquiry of whether a right is limited in the first place, and it means that the claimant rather than the government bears the burden of proof. It follows that Justice Morgan’s streamlined approach to the section 1 analysis is rather less supportive of freedom of expression than one might think. The important work is already done by the time he gets there, as he has, in effect, found that the Act is unjustifiable. Had he not so found, he would have upheld it without ever getting to section 1, just as the Court of Appeal upheld the citizenship oath in McAteer.

Last but not least, Justice Morgan’s emphasis on partisanship as the fundamental problem with the Act is also misguided. For one thing, as tempting as it might be to say that partisanship can never be a sufficient justification for restricting Charter rights, the Supreme Court has in the past upheld laws that protect political incumbents from criticism, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827. I think the Supreme Court was wrong to disregard the partisan valence of that legislation, but this shows that it will often be difficult to disentangle partisanship from other, specious considerations. Indeed, Justice Morgan himself suggests that a statute that is “a hybrid of policy and partisanship” would deserve to be treated as fully legitimate.

More importantly, Justice Morgan’s understanding of partisanship is very narrow. It does not encompass the promotion of a state ideology that rises, if perhaps only slightly, above the “horse race” version of partisan politics. He has nothing but sympathy for governmental “protection and promotion of Canada’s national and legal culture” [58] by means of forcing those who did not agree with this culture to voice loyalty to it. Needless to say, there is a political dimension to a “national and legal culture”, especially when this culture is coercively imposed by the state, even though Justice Morgan is oblivious to this. To him the distinctions between partisanship and high principle appear obvious. To the rest of us living in 2020, they are anything but.

Consider an obvious example: the late and unlamented “statement of principles” requirement that the Law Society of Ontario tried to impose on its members. Certainly its supporters argued in terms promoting a certain high-minded vision of social and legal culture (indeed they spoke of a “culture shift”). But then again, as we now know, there is a bitter partisan division over the issue within the ranks of the Law Society’s membership. So how would Justice Morgan approach the question of the constitutionality of the requirement? And would his approach be different now than it would have been before the partisan cleavage was revealed by the success of the StopSOP campaign in the 2019 Bencher election? Whatever we might think of the “statement of principles” or its opponents (of whom I was one), or of compelled speech more broadly, I hope we can agree that this is not a reasonable way of addressing such an important issue.


Of course it is a good thing that the Act is no more, and that the Ontario government, if it wants to continue its anti-carbon-tax propaganda campaign, will have to do it by itself, rather than by means of conscripting third parties. I have argued here that such ideological conscription is wrong when it serves to supposedly advance some rights-protecting agenda. It is no less wrong, obviously, when its aim has to do with fiscal and environmental policy. Governments have plenty of resources at their command. If they want to propagandize, they have no need to get unwilling individuals to do it for them.

Yet, the state of the law on compelled speech, and indeed on freedom of expression more generally, in Ontario at least, is cause for concern. It’s not just that few restrictions on freedom of expression are ever struck down. More importantly, the courts fail to understand what free speech means, and why it matters. Justice Morgan’s reasons for striking down the Act illustrate these failures just as much as his and the Court of Appeal’s earlier reasons for upholding the citizenship oath did.

Throwing Away the Key

Thoughts on life imprisonment without parole, in New Zealand and in Canada

Last week, Justice Mander of New Zealand’s High Court sentenced the Christchurch mosque shooter to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the murder of 51 people, attempted murder of 40 others, and terrorism. This punishment is provided for by section 103(2A) of New Zealand’s Sentencing Act 2002.

Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks in R v Tarrant, [2020] NZHC 2192hold some lessons for Canadians, as the Québec Court of Appeal is considering the appeals of both the Crown and the accused from the sentence the Superior Court imposed on the Québec mosque shooter in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354. In that decision, about which Maxime St-Hilaire and I wrote here, Justice Huot found the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders in a way that amounted to sentencing those who commit them to life imprisonment without parole to a cruel and unusual punishment and a deprivation of liberty contrary to principles of fundamental justice, contrary to sections 7 and 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Although stating that “the needs of denunciation, of setting an example, and of incapacitation” are especially “pressing” [766; translation mine], Justice Huot went on to find that life imprisonment without a realistic prospect of parole was contrary to Canadian values. Canada, he wrote, “is not a land where the most undesirable elements of the community are shut in a gaol and their very existence forgotten, the key of their liberty having been thrown into the river of a vast collective indifference.” [845; tanslation Professor St-Hilaire’s and mine] For him, the possibility of rehabilitation, even for the worst offenders, means that it is “sophistry to assert that [multiple murderers] should reasonably expect, in a free, civilized, and democratic society, to spend the rest of their days behind bars”. [975] Justice Mander’s cogent remarks help show that this was wrong.


Justice Mander, it worth noting, is by no means insensitive to considerations of humanity and anti-populism that apparently influenced Justice Huot so much. He considers the prospects of rehabilitation, and notes that “[t]he sentence [he] impose[s] must represent a civilised reaction based not on emotion but justice and deliberation”. [177] But these concerns are not dispositive in a case such as this.

Addressing Mr. Tarrant, Justice Mander explains that his

prime objectives are threefold. First and foremost, to condemn your crimes and to denounce your actions. Second, to hold you accountable for the terrible harm you have caused — in plain terms, to attempt to impose some commensurate punishment … on behalf of the whole community, which in particular includes the victims of your crimes and their families, all of whom are a part of New Zealand’s multicultural society. Third … to protect the community from a person capable of committing cold-blooded murder on such a scale and who presents such a grave risk to public safety. [124]

Justice Mander notes that section 9 of New Zealand bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibits the imposition of “disproportionately severe … punishment” (judicially interpreted as calling for a test of gross disproportionality ― similar to the one applied to test the constitutionality of legislation under section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). He notes, also, that “[t]here is European jurisprudence that indicates the imposition of a whole-of-life sentence in the absence of any effective review mechanism is incompatible with
international human rights instruments”. [139] Nevertheless, he finds that nothing short of a life sentence without parole would be proportionate to the crimes here.

Let me quote just one paragraph about the facts (this one drawn from Justice Mander’s discussion of the aggravating circumstances). It is horrible, and there is, alas, so much more horror in this case ― as there was in the Bissonnette one:

It is self-evident that your offending constituted extreme violence. It was brutal and beyond callous — your actions were inhuman. You deliberately killed a threeyear-old infant by shooting him in the head as he clung to the leg of his father. The terror you inflicted in the last few minutes of that small child’s life is but one instance of the pitiless cruelty that you exhibited throughout. There are countless more examples. You showed no mercy. [151]

In Justice Mander’s view,

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold you to account for the harm you have done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce your crimes. [179]

Indeed, in a comment particularly relevant to the comparison the sentence he imposes with Justice Huot’s preoccupation with not letting people spend their lives behind bars, Justice Mander observes that, were he “to impose a minimum period of imprisonment in an endeavour to meet the purposes that I am required to achieve in sentencing you for murdering 51 people, it could not be less than [Mr. Tarrant’s] natural life”. [180] Ultimately, he does

not consider, however long the length of your incarceration during your lifetime, that it could, even in a modest way, atone for what you have done. Ordinarily such an approach would be a poor guarantee of just and proportionate punishment, but I consider yours is one of those exceedingly rare cases which is different. [184]

I think that Justice Mander is right about all of this. Justice Huot, who would no doubt hurl accusations of “sophistry”, populism, and other assorted sins, would not only be wrong but, at the risk of sounding pompous, morally obtuse. Collective indifference and forgetfulness are not just, or even primarily, concerns in relation to those who commit terrible crimes. It would be no less ― and indeed much more ― wrong to be indifferent to the crimes themselves. And it will still be wrong decades from now.

As I recently wrote in discussing an Alberta judgment on the application of section 12 of the Charter, I think that the gross disproportionality test is a sensible construction of its “cruel and unusual punishment” prong, so far as individuals (rather than legal persons) are concerned. Well, I don’t think there is anything grossly disproportional, or indeed disproportional in any way, in denying the possibility of parole to a man who presents himself to a place of worship with the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible, and proceeds to do just that. On the contrary, I think justice may well demand no less. Perhaps there are policy considerations that would explain why a legislature might not put that option on the table. But at the level of principle, I think the New Zealand approach of making the life without parole sentence available in cases where the objectives of punishment cannot be met by a lesser one is right. The Canadian approach of making the parole non-eligibility terms of multiple murderers run consecutively amounts to the same thing, but less transparently, so I think the New Zealand one is preferable.

Granted, the sentencing court should consider repentance and the prospect, even if unlikely on balance, of rehabilitation. There seems to be a difference on this point between the Québec and Christchurch cases, and if this were the reason for Justice Huot’s decision not to impose, in effect, a life sentence without parole, it might have been defensible. (I’m not sure it would have been. Luckily I’m not a judge in charge of sentencing mass murderers, so I get to punt on this question.) But that’s not the main consideration that motivated Justice Huot. On the contrary, he felt strongly enough the need to denounce and punish Mr. Bissonnette that he rewrote (which is a nice way of saying “broke”) the law to impose a 40-year parole ineligibility period, instead of a 25-year one. That suggests that, ultimately, he thought that, as in the Christchurch case, punishment and denunciation dominate. And, if so, a sentence without parole is warranted.


I fully agree with Justices Huot and Mander that the measure of just punishment is not its ability to grab the headlines, and that a civilized justice system must move away from the “an-eye-for-an-eye” instinct. Cases such as these remind us, in any event, the futility of such fantasies. Even if we were in the business of killing murders, we couldn’t kill them six, or fifty-one, times over.

But Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks are a reminder that one need not be vengeful, or to simple-mindedly parrot the tough-on-crime line, to find, in truly shocking and exceptional cases, that the most severe punishment is warranted. Protecting the lives of the citizens is the state’s first responsibility on any plausible view of its role. Providing justice, in the form punishment, in response to those who take their fellow human beings’ lives is the second. In the face of contempt for human life and indifference to, if not actual pleasure in, human suffering, retribution is called for. In extreme cases, locking such people up and throwing away the key is only fair. I do hope that the Québec Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court if comes to that, take note.

Unusual Indeed

The trouble with a caustic, pseudo-originalist opinion of Wakeling JA

In my last post, I described the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, which upheld a mandatory minimum sentence for the offence of firing a gun into a place “knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person” is there. Two of the judges, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling delivered concurring opinions in which they called on the Supreme Court to reconsider its jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences and indeed on the interpretation of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, more broadly, notably R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773. I summarized the arguments made by both of the concurring judges in the last post.

Here, I consider specifically Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It is very unusual indeed, in both substance and form. It deploys unorthodox and, in my view, untenable, interpretive techniques, and arrives at startling conclusions. It is long, seemingly scholarly (though there is less real scholarship to it than meets the eye), and caustic. I don’t recall reading anything quite like it in Canada, though admittedly I do not read as many judgments as I would like, especially below the Supreme Court level.


Let me begin with Justice Wakeling’s approach to constitutional interpretation. Justice Wakeling does not explain what he is doing, which is unfortunate, because an explanation might have clarified matters ― not least to Justice Wakeling himself. Be that as it may, what Justice Wakeling seemingly does is resort to a sort of expected applications originalism. This is a way of describing attempts to interpret constitutional provisions by asking how their framers would have expected a question about their application to be resolved. This is a fool’s errand. Serious originalists have long given up on what Benjamin Oliphant and I have described as “speculative transgenerational mind reading”. (126) As Randy Barnett has written, “ascertaining ‘what the framers would have done’ is a counterfactual, not a factual or historical inquiry”. (71)

But Justice Wakeling’s version of expected applications originalism is particularly bad, because he refers to a great extent to events and real or purported beliefs that long predate the enactment of the Charter. Indeed his discussion of the Charter and the views, if any, of its framers is remarkably brief. Justice Wakeling points out that the late

Professor Hogg predicted in 1982 that Canadian courts would give section 12 of the Charter “the same interpretation” courts gave section 2(b) of the Canadian Bill of Rights. In other words, section 12 was of minimal value. Modern political realities made a constitutional death-penalty watch dog unnecessary. And that was the only role section 12 was intended to serve. [217; references omitted]

Most of what Justice Wakeling has to say about the meaning of section 12 goes back much further. The Bill of Rights 1688 is of special significance to him, as he argues that its

prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment was undoubtedly a response, either entirely or, at least partially, to the blood-thirsty sanctions Chief Justice Jeffrey and the other judges imposed on supporters of the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion that challenged the rule of the Catholic King James II during the Bloody Assizes of 1685 and the brutal flogging imposed on Titus Oates for his perjured testimony that cost a large number of Catholics their lives. [148]

From this, Justice Wakeling draws a straight line to the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, the Canadian Bill of Rights, and the section 12. He describes the US Supreme Court’s departure from the focus on “horrific penalties” akin to torture and its embrace of disproportionality as a touchstone for assessing violations of the Eighth Amendment in Weems v United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910) as “judicial heresy”, and writes of the author of the majority opinion in that case that “Justice McKenna’s fingerprints are all over” Smith, [187] and thus subsequent section 12 jurisprudence.

This approach to the interpretation of section 12 makes no sense. Even on an originalist view, why should the meaning of the Charter be determined by what might have been the intentions or expectations not of its framers, but of those of the Bill of Rights 1688, the Eighth Amendment, or even the Canadian Bill of Rights? This isn’t expected applications originalism but expected applications pre-originalism. I know of no precedent or justification for it.

The better originalist approach is that which focuses on the public meaning of constitutional provisions. Historical antecedents are not irrelevant to establishing public meaning (and I have referred to the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688 myself in writing about section 12 here). However, they are useful in that they ― and their interpretation ― helps us ascertain how a contemporaneous reader would have understood the provision when it was enacted. That being so, the signicance of Weems and subsequent American jurisprudence is very different from that which Justice Wakeling attributes to them. Whether or not they were accurate interpretations of the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning is beside the point. What is noteworthy is that these interpretations would have been part of the context in which section 12 was enacted, and so colour the public meaning the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” had by the time the Charter was adopted.

A related problem with Justice Wakeling’s approach to interpretation is his use of texts that use wording different from that of section 12 to suggest that the meaning of section must be different. This can be a very useful interpretive tool, but it has to be wielded carefully and honestly. Justice Wakeling relies on three comparisons: with early the constitutions of some American States; with a rejected draft of the Canadian Bill of Rights; and with section 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. All of these texts explicitly refer to proportionality, whereas section 12 does not.

Of these, the American texts are somewhat expansive policy statements, of a kind that was mostly ― except, notoriously, in the case of the Second Amendment ― rejected in (what became known as) the US Bill of Rights. The absence of such a statement from the Eighth Amendment doesn’t prove that it disproportionality is not part of its permissible construction. (Somewhat similarly, the absence of an explicit reference to separation of powers, analogous to that found in some State constitutions, in the US Constitution doesn’t mean it does not in fact provide for separate powers.)

With respect to the proposed wording of the Canadian Bill of Rights, Justice Wakeling says that “[a] number of commentators criticized its vagueness”. [201; reference omitted] The concerns of the only such commentator whom Justice Wakeling actually quotes are telling, for he worried, in part about whether a reference to “inhuman or degrading” punishment might be taken to outlaw flogging. Yet Justice Wakeling himself notes that the British “Parliament has repealed the brutal punishments that prompted the 1689 Parliamentary prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments” [153] ― including “flogging”! [154] That commentator’s concerns, in other words, do not deserve to be taken seriously, on Justice Wakeling’s own account. (The reference to flogging is interesting in another way, to which I will shorty turn.) And anyway the exclusion of words like “inhuman” because of their vagueness does not prove that the words retained did not have an element of vagueness calling for construction.

Lastly, the reference to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act strikes me as quite inappropriate, since that statute was enacted eight years after the Charter. Some of its provisions sought to remedy avoid the Charter‘s real or perceived ambiguities; they tend to be more specific than the Charter‘s. (Compare, for example, New Zealand’s distinct provisions on “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the “manifestation of religion and belief” with section 2(a) of the Charter.) In the case of section 9, one might suppose ― I have not looked into this ― that they New Zealand drafters thought that the outcome of Smith was justified and wrote it into the statute in so many words for the avoidance of doubt. But their choice to do so does not mean tell us anything about the meaning of the Charter, whose drafters were obviously not aware of the subsequent work of their Kiwi counterparts.

The last interpretive issue I will address here is Justice Wakeling’s reading of section 12 as a mere enumeration, and a remarkably brief one at that, of prohibited punishments. One striking consequence of this reading is that Justice Wakeling thinks that, because imprisonment was a commonly used punishment when the Charter was enacted and thus not unusual,

section 12 … does not allow a court to declare jail sentences cruel or unusual punishments. … [O]ffenders may not invoke section 12 to challenge either mandatory-minimum or mandatory-maximum jail sentences or any other jail sentence. [244]

(It is worth noting that Justice O’Ferrall “question[s]” [115] and indeed seems to reject this view.)

Justice Wakeling repeats a mistake committed by Justice Scalia, including in his comments on the Eighth Amendment in the famous lecture “Originalism: The Lesser Evil”. Justice Wakeling refers to some of Justice Scalia’s decisions seeking to limit the import of the Eighth Amendment to the 1791 catalogue of barbarity ― but not to that lecture where, tellingly, Justice Scalia professed being a “faint-hearted” originalist, because he wouldn’t bring himself to countenance the punishment of flogging even if was practised in 1791. The catalogue approach, it seems, doesn’t really work.

In a lecture of his own, “Scalia’s Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism“, Randy Barnett explains why. He points out that

original public meaning originalism attempts to identify the level of generality in which the Constitution is objectively expressed. Does the text ban particular punishments of which they were aware, or does it ban all cruel and unusual punishments? (23)

As Professor Barnett notes, “[t]his is not to say … the broader provisions of the text lack all historical meaning and are open to anything we may wish them to mean”. (23) But that meaning, if there is one, must be established with reference to the time of those provisions’ enactment ― not to a period that preceded it by two or three centuries. Justice Wakeling’s own reasons suggest that, whatever may have been the case in 1689 or even 1791, the phrase “cruel and unusual” may well have acquired a broad and morally loaded meaning by 1982. He does not even contemplate this possibility.


This leads me to concerns about the form and tone of Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It has an air of scholarliness: at over 12,000 words and 200 footnotes, it has the heft of an academic article. And yet this is only an appearance. It is inimical to good scholarship ― even, I would argue, in a judicial opinion, and not only in an academic setting ― to ignore counter-arguments and relevant sources that do not support one’s claims. Meanwhile, a great many of those footnotes turns out to cite to Justice Wakeling’s own opinions; a flaw of much academic writing, my own not excepted, but manifested here to an inordinate degree.

And then there is the bitter vehemence of Justice Wakeling’s writing. From the outset, he heaps scorn on the Supreme Court’s precedents, calling the “reasonable hypothetical” approach to section 12 they command “remarkable, to say the least”, [124] and claim that “[t]here is no constitutional doctrine that justifies this unusual method”. The decision in Smith is “surprising[]” [219] and “unexpected”. [220] “The contribution” that an argument made by Justice Lamer ― to whom Justice Wakeling denies the courtesy of a “as he then was” ― “makes to the debate is difficult to comprehend”. [226]

But Canadian courts and judges are not the only targets of Justice Wakeling’s contempt. I have already referred to his desription of Weems as “heresy”. If this were said about a fellow judge on Justice Wakeling’s court, this would be as mean as any of Justice Scalia’s cantankerous dissents. Still, such disagreements can appropriately be aired. But judges do not normally take it upon themselves to critique their colleagues in other jurisdictions. Not only is Justice Wakeling not qualified to pronounce on what it orthodox and what is heretical under American law ― it’s just not his job. Not content with commentary on the past, however, Justice Wakeling dabbles in political prognostication too, declaring that he

suspect[s] that the likelihood that additional states will abolish the death penalty is probably about the same as the likelihood that the Supreme Court – with a majority of conservative-minded justices – will sanction additional limits on the availability of the death penalty. [181; reference omitted]

To be clear, I have no objection to a judge expressing disagreement with the jurisprudence of a higher court. On the contrary, judicial criticism of binding authority ― so long as that authority is followed ― can be valuable; no less, and arguably more, than that of scholars and other commentators. If the lower courts are saying that a legal doctrine is not working well, the higher courts would do well to listen ― though they need not agree, and they should not agree in this case, as I argued in my last post. Justice O’Ferrall’s opinion strikes me as perfectly fine. But not so Justice Wakeling’s.

I have been tone-policed enough to be wary of engaging in such critiques myself. But Justice Wakeling is, after all, a judge ― and I think that judges can rightly be held to a standard of equanimity that should not be applied to academics, whose role it is to critique, and sometimes criticize, the exercise of the judicial power. I have also defended the use of strong language in judicial opinions. Still, there are lines not to be crossed. A judge ought not to be dismissive or petulant; nor should he engage in political commentary or, I think, make any sort of pronouncement on the merits of the laws (enacted or judicially articulated) of other countries. Justice Wakeling is and does all of these things. If he wants to act like a politically preoccupied professor, he should resign his judicial office.


I do not know how widespread the views expressed by Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are. Perhaps the Supreme Court will take heed and reconsider its jurisprudence in relation to section 12. In any case it will face other difficult questions about the interpretation of the Charter. Justice Wakeling’s opinion illustrates a number of things not to do in such cases. Courts should not look to the ways the authors of constitutional provisions, let alone the authors of their predecessors, expected these provisions to be applied. They should not be careless, let alone deliberately unfair, when they compare different texts. They should not convert moral language into laundry lists. And, of course, they should not be mean-spirited. Justice Wakeling’s opinion is unusual indeed, and I hope it stays that way.

Counter-Rebellion

Judges of the Alberta Court of Appeal question the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences

Last month the Alberta Court of Appeal issued an interesting decision that concerned the constitutionality of yet another mandatory minimum sentence, this one in section 244.2 of the Criminal Code, for “intentionally discharg[ing] a firearm into or at a place, knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person is present in the place”. The mandatory minimum is four years’ imprisonment (or more if organized crime is involved). For fairly straightforward rasons given by Justice Antonio, R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, upholds the four-year mandatory minimum, rejecting the claim that it is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But in separate concurring reasons Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling go on to criticize the Supreme Court’s approach for dealing with such cases. Both concurring opinions raise important questions, not only about the correct approach to mandatory minimum sentences under section 12 of the Charter, but also about constitutional interpretation and construction more broadly.

In this post, I summarize Justice Antonio’s lead opinion, as well as the common aspects of the two concurring ones, and explain why I think the Supreme Court is right and Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are wrong about section 12. In a follow up post, I shall write in some detail about Justice Wakeling’s opinion, which is startling, and startlingly wrong, in its method and tone, and deserves special attention and criticism.


In R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and, more recently, R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773, the Supreme Court held that a mandatory minimum sentence that is “grossly disproportionate” to the gravity and blameworthiness of an offence is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12. Gross disproportionality can be shown either in the particular case or, alternatively ― and controversially ―, in a reasonable hypothetical, a set of circumstances that can be expected to occur and that would be captured by the impugned provision. This is the approach that the accused in Hills took.

Mr. Hills pleaded guilty to having repeatedly fired a rifle “suitable for big game hunting” [4] into the walls and windows of a family residence ― among with less frightening misdeeds, all part of a rampage undertaken in a state that a former Toronto mayor would have described as drunken stupor. The sentencing judge considered that the mandatory minimum would not be grossly disproportionate to his offence, but it could be in a reasonable hypothetical, mainly because the applicable definition of “firearm” captures weapons shown by an expert to be incapable of penetrating a typical building wall. One could therefore reasonably imagine the four-year sentence being imposed on a person who fired a weapon “at a place” whose occupants were not thereby endangered. The judge sentenced Mr. Hills to three and a half years’ imprisonment.

Justice Antonio (with whose reasons Justice O’Ferrall agrees, so far as they go) considers this to be an error. This is because the shots fired even from low-power weapons might “penetrate a door or window”. [80] Moreover, the weapons or the shots might alarm bystanders or the people inside the place at which they are fired, and generally undermine “the feeling the safety in communities”. [82] Justice Antonio also refers to Nur, where

 a 40-month sentence was imposed on a 19-year-old first offender who merely possessed a loaded firearm in a public place for a short period of time and did not discharge it or use it in a threatening manner. If 40 months was an appropriate sentence in the Nur case, then an additional eight months as a mandatory minimum penalty where a firearm was actually used does not amount to a grossly disproportionate sentence.

Justice Antonio concludes that a fit sentence for Mr. Hills would be four and a half years’ imprisonment.


As mentioned above, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling both call for the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith and Nur to be revisited insofar as they require the courts to undertake gross disproportionality analysis based on reasonable hypotheticals, and not only the facts before the sentencing court. Some of the arguments they make are similar. I address them here. Justice Wakeling’s opinion also makes additional points not raised by Justice O’Ferrall. I turn to them below.

The main argument on which Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling rely is that the use of reasonable hypotheticals to test the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is inconsistent with the import of section 12. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

[a]n interpretation [of the Charter] which relies on the presumed detriment to a non-existent offender if a certain term of imprisonment is imposed is not an interpretation which a citizen would contemplate. It is an interpretation which might legitimately surprise the citizen. It does not flow logically from the text of s.12 of the Charter. [108; see aslo Justice Wakeling’s comment at [126]]

For Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling, since section 12 protects an individual “right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, only the situation of the offender before the court can be taken into consideration, and the courts should avoid invalidating provisions that might only hypothetically result in unconstitutional applications. Just as laws are not invalidated because they might be invoked to effect unconstitutional arrests, they should not be disturbed because they might, in some cases, lead to unconstitutional sentences. As Justice O’Ferrall puts it, “[b]ut for the approved reasonable hypothetical analysis, the accused could [sic] care less about the constitutionality of the law. His complaint is with respect to his treatment or punishment”. [109]

Indeed, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling reject the test of “gross disproportionality” itself, which the Supreme Court has long used as a proxy for deciding whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

A sentence may be disproportionate from the perspective of both the offender and the offence and yet … prescribed to achieve the fundamental purpose of sentencing, namely protecting society. Even a grossly disproportionate sentence may not be found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment if, for example, in order to stem the tide of a deadly pandemic, Parliament found it necessary to prescribe extremely harsh punishments for what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors. [117; see also Justice Wakeling’s comment at [132]]

I do not think that any of this is right.

Start with the meaning of section 12. The concurring opinions go wrong because they fail to distinguish between the interpretation and the construction of constitutional provisions. Interpretation is the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text. Construction is the elaboration of doctrines that allow the text to be given legal effect. Some cases can be resolved at the interpretation stage. As I have argued here, the interpretation of section 12, and specifically of the word “cruel”, can tell us that this provision does not protect corporations. But in other cases courts need to engage in (good faith) construction to apply vague language ― and that of section 12 is vague, if not quite as vague as some commentators would have believe.

The word “cruel” is not infinitely malleable, but it is not self-explanatory either. Unless they are going to rely on seat-of-the-pants impressionistic decision-making in every case, courts need to work out a consistent way to determine whether a given sentence is cruel and unusual. This is an exercise in construction, which is a form of legal reasoning. Unlike in the realm of interpretation, the presumed (actually, purely conjectured) reactions of reactions of citizens are not a useful guide to what the courts should do here. The courts’ task is not to avoid surprises ― the framers of the constitution make a certain degree of judicial creativity unavoidable when they use vague language ― but rather, as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have argued, to give effect to the purpose of the provision.

Is the test of gross disproportionality a misguided construction of section 12? In my previous post on that provision’s meaning (linked to above) I have suggested that it is not, so far as the punishment of natural persons is concerned. I wrote that “disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty”, provided that “also causes or reflects indifference to suffering”, which may “always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings”. Justice O’Ferrall’s example is ambiguous and does not persuade me. It may be taken to suggest that in the circumstances of “a deadly pandemic” “what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors” become extremely blameworthy crimes. If so, there is no gross disproportionality in punishing them harshly, so long as the relevant circumstances exist. But if Justice O’Ferrall suggests that a public emergency justifies harsh punishment of unrelated offences, I don’t see how that follows.

If not the gross disproportionality test, is the reasonable hypothetical approach an impermissible construction of section 12? Actually, I think there are very good reasons for the courts to adopt it. Contrary to what Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling say, a mandatory minimum sentence impacts an offender as to whom it would not be cruel and unusual, albeit indirectly. As Justice Arbour explained in her concurrence in R v Morrisey, [2000] 2 SCR 90,

mandatory minimum sentences … must act as an inflationary floor, setting a new minimum punishment applicable to the so-called ‘best’ offender whose conduct is caught by these provisions.  The mandatory minimum must not become the standard sentence imposed on all but the very worst offender who has  committed the offence in the very worst circumstances.  The latter approach would not only defeat the intention of Parliament in enacting this particular legislation, but also offend against the general principles of sentencing designed to promote a just and fair sentencing regime and thereby advance the purposes of imposing criminal sanctions. [75] 

Justice Wakeling’s own reasons illustrate this dynamic. He breaks down the range of sentences permitted by Parliament into bands for the least and most serious cases, and those in the middle. On this approach, if Parliament enacts or raises the mandatory minimum, the sentences of most offenders, except perhaps the very worst ones, go up. Of course, Parliament is entitled to intervene in sentencing. But the fact that its intervention impacts all offenders means that it is appropriate to consider its constitutionality even in cases where the minimum sentence would not have been cruel and unusual. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it’s not an implausible construction of section 12 to say that it does not permit the inflationary floor to be sullied by the cruelty of sentences required to be imposed even on some, albeit not all, offenders.

The other reason for the courts to continue to police reasonable hypotheticals might sound more in policy, but it too is relevant to section 12. It is plea bargaining. A prosecutor can threaten an accused person with a high mandatory minimum sentence so as to secure a guilty plea to some other, less serious offence. By the very nature of such situations, there is no scope for the mandatory minimum to be challenged; indeed the offence to which it is attached never even features before a court. But to the extent that the mandatory minimum has served to secure a guilty plea from a person who might be innocent (or at least might be able to raise a reasonable doubt about his or her guilt), its deployment by the prosecutor is, arguably, a form of cruel and unusual treatment that offends the Charter.


It has been set that the judicial response to the last Conservative government’s “tough on crime” agenda has been nothing less than a rebellion. Justice Wakeling professes himself “extremely troubled by the fact that Canadian courts have been busy striking down Criminal Code provisions that impose mandatory-minimum sentences”. [123] The concurring opinions in Hills are a counter-rebellion of sorts, directed not against Parliament but against the Supreme Court.

But the rebels are wrong. Their approach to constitutional text, which collapses interpretation and construction and oversimplifies constitutional meaning is not compelling. They fail to see the repercussions of mandatory minimum laws that deserve the suspicion with which the courts have treated them. The Supreme Court has often read constitutional provisions ― both power-conferring and rights-protecting ones ― more expansively than it should have. But I am not convinced that this is the case with section 12 of the Charter.


PS: I have neglected blogging on judicial decisions in the last couple of months, and will try to make up at least some of this backlog. If you have a case I should get onto in mind, please do get in touch.