Judicial Review and Co-operative Federalism

I would like to return to Justice Blanchard’s reasons for judgment granting the injunction preventing destruction of Québec-related gun-registry data pending judgment on the merits in this case, about which I posted here a couple of days ago.

The case, says Justice Blanchard, is “exceptional,” “a first in Canadian judicial history” (par. 21). The reason it is exceptional is the opposition between the “diametrically opposed views of what is usually called the common good.” I think this is wrong. While the conflict between the federal and a provincial governments’ views of the common good might be especially clear in the gun-registry data litigation, there is nothing exceptional about it. Most federalism cases, certainly all cases that pit a province against the federal government, involve a similar conflict between views of the common good. For example, the federal government thinks that the common good requires a national securities regulator; Québec and Alberta think that it is best served by provincial regulators. The result is a court case. When the two levels of governments agree on a vision of the common good, the co-operate and don’t go to court, the constitution be damned. Healthcare is the prime example: neither s. 91 nor any other provision of the Constitution Act, 1867 give Parliament any role regulating and paying for healthcare, but it does both, because (and perhaps only so long as) the provinces share its view of the public good in this area, and have no inclination to challenge it in court.

What is in fact (almost) unique in the gun-registry litigation is that, as I argued in my first comments on the topic, it actually stems from a co-operative relationship – but one that has broken down. “Normal” federalism cases involve conflicts over who has the power to decide whether and how to regulate certain areas of human activity. Who, of Parliament and provincial legislatures, for example, has the power to decide (whether and) how the securities industry should go about its business. (Not, by the way, who should have this power, as a matter of economic policy; but who actually has it under the specific constitutional arrangements we have in place.) In these cases, courts are called upon to regulate the competitive aspects of federal-provincial relations. The gun-registry litigation is different because what it really is about is not competition for the power to regulate (indeed it is acknowledged that, on the one hand, Parliament has the power not to regulate gun registration if it does not want to, and provincial legislatures have the power to regulate gun registration if they feel like it); it is about “fair terms of co-operation” between the two levels of government, to borrow a phrase from John Rawls (who of course uses it in a different context).

Courts are not often called upon to police the fairness of the terms of co-operation between the federation and its constituent units, and it seems not to be sufficiently theorized. For example, critics of federalism-based judicial review (who are many in the United States, including for example Larry D. Kramer in this article) do not pay any attention to it; Jeremy Waldron’s criticism of judicial review, which is primarily (but not exclusively) directed to rights-based judicial review, is similarly incapable of addressing it. (Some judicial and academic attention in the United States has been directed at one specific problem which arises from co-operative federalism: the tendency of the federal government to attach stringent conditions to grants of funds to sub-federal units, which the Supreme Court of the U.S. addressed in South Dakota v. Dole and will address again in ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare.”) Yet judicial review of the fair terms of federal co-operation deserves attention as a distinct constitutional phenomenon. To give but one example, and return, in conclusion, to the gun-registry litigation, Justice Blanchard’s incredulity at the idea of an award of damages as a remedy in a federalism dispute would probably be appropriate if the dispute were, as usual, about competitive federalism; but it might be unfounded in a dispute about the fair terms of federal co-operation.

More on the Gun-Registry Litigation

Having sought – and obtained – cheap popularity with my potty-mouthed post yesterday, I now return to the (extra)ordinary world of constitutional law, and to my favourite topic so far: Québec’s attempt to gets its hands on the gun-registry data the federal government wants to destroy.

I just came across – a bit late – on the reasons for the decision of Justice Marc-André Blanchard, granting Québec’s motion for an interlocutory injunction to stay the application of the federal legislation requiring the destruction of the gun-registry data, about which I posted here and here.

The most important thing in the decision that I, at any rate, had missed in the media reports is that the injunction Blanchard J. granted not only prevents the destruction of existing gun-registry data but also requires that new data continue to be compiled, as if the registry were not abolished, at least until the trial. Québec is not challenging the power of Parliament to put an end to data collection in its merits claims; it only seeks the preservation of the status quo pending the outcome of this litigation and the possible establishment of Québec’s own gun-registry using the federal data. Blanchard J. agrees that, in case Québec succeeds in obtaining the federal government’s gun-registry data, it would make no sense to leave a gap in the data between the moment the federal government stops collecting data and Québec’s own registry is put in place, which cannot possibly be done right away.

I will note two other things. First, Blanchard J. insists on the fact that this case is an important ways novel and exceptional, especially because it results from conflicting interpretations of the public good advanced by two legislatures, both of them democratically legitimate. I think I hinted at this problem, though not exactly in the way Blanchard J. does, in the second of my observations on Québec’s claim.

And second, the federal government argued that the injunction should not issue because Québec’s harm was not irreparable since any expenses involved in re-collecting unconstitutionally destroyed data could be compensated by an award of damages. Blanchard J. rejected this claim on the basis that “it appears not unreasonable to assert that a monetary remedy in a constitutional controversy concerned with division of powers … seems bizarre” (par. 60; translation mine). Now I’m not at all convinced that this is right in the present case, which is, as the judge points out, highly unusual. But what I find really interesting is that it is none other than the federal government who seems to answer in the affirmative the question I raised on this blog: could a province recover damages for the federal government’s destruction of the gun-registry data, if that is found to be unconstitutional? I’m pretty proud I saw that one, although I still have doubts about the possibility of such a claim, and I suspect that if one were brought, the federal government’s lawyers would have doubts too.

Another Gun-Registry Litigation Update

Radio-Canada reports that the safeguard order preventing the destruction of Québec-related gun registry data has been extended until the end of the hearing on the merits in June. I thought that this had already been the case, but I suppose that the previous extension was only good until the issuance of today’s opinion.

Further Gun-Registry Litigation Update

Radio-Canada reports that the safeguard order preventing the destruction of the long-gun registry data relative to Québec has been extended, presumably until the merits hearings now due to be held in June. The federal government had claimed that the safeguard order was not necessary because no data would be destroyed before August – yet both Radio-Canada’s report and the CBC indicate that the process has already started, except for Québec.

This raises an interesting issue, which I already referred to. Québec argues that the unilateral destruction of the gun-registry data by the federal government is unconstitutional. If it prevails at the merits hearings (and eventually on appeal, if any), then it will turn “turn out” that the federal government acted unconstitutionally in destroying the data. Would this have any legal consequences? Perhaps not. For now, it seems that no one, except the Québec government, is very interested in the data. But suppose a newly elected government in an other province wants to create a provincial registry. Because of the destruction of the data, this is going to be complicated and expensive. Could it sue the federal government for acting unconstitutionally (and recklessly so, since Québec’s suit ought to have alerted it to the dubious constitutionality of its actions), and try to recover damages to pay some of the costs? Would the federal government argue that the province is estopped, not having itself raised the issue (and joined Québec’s suit)? Off the top of my head, I do not recall any remotely similar cases, but this could get interesting.

Gun Registry Litigation Update

There is news regarding Québec’s attempt to obtain “its” long-gun registry data before it is destroyed by the federal government, about which I wrote here and here. The merits hearing was supposed to take place today. However, Radio-Canada reports that  the judge was concerned that the matter is too complex and there is not enough time to deal with it now. The La Presse story seems to confirm that the merits hearing will now take place in June.

The question now is what happens to the safeguard order, which prevents the federal government from destroying the gun-registry data until tomorrow (when the merits hearing was originally scheduled to end). The federal government asks that it not be extended, and claims that it is not necessary because no data destruction will take place before August. The news reports do not make Québec’s position clear, but it is safe to assume that it is opposed. Indeed, if the federal government is right that it is not going to do anything before August, one may wonder why they oppose the extension of the safeguard order.

There is no news of the judge’s decision yet, but I will update or have a new post when it comes out.

UPDATE: The hearing will continue tomorrow.

Thoughts on Québec’s Bid for Gun-Registry Data

As promised, a few thoughts on Québec’s claim that the destruction of the long-gun registry data is unconstitutional. In no particular order:

  1. This case forces the courts to grapple with the constitutional issues presented by co-operative federalism, of which the working of the gun registration regime seems to have been an example. Québec’s claim is based on its participation in the administration of the federal regulatory scheme; it would not hold up, or at least would be very weak, if Québec had not been involved in its running. If the long-gun registry had been a purely federal venture, there would have been no reason why Parliament, which had started it up, could not also put an end to it. But it is at least not crazy to say, as Québec now does, that provincial involvement in the regime’s operation means that the venture was not an exclusively federal one, so that provincial interests have to be taken into account in considering and implementing its termination.I don’t think our federalism jurisprudence, as it now stands, can sustain this claim. Perhaps the most relevant Supreme Court decision is the now-20 year old Reference Re Canada Assistance Plan (B.C.), [1991] 2 SCR 525, which dealt with the unilateral modification by Parliament of an agreement to help pay the costs of provincial social programmes. The Supreme Court stressed parliamentary sovereignty, and concluded that Parliament could do what it pleased. If that precedent applies to this case, Québec’s odds do not look good (and I do not recall Québec addressing it at all in its argument). But there might be a distinction between pure-cost sharing and a programme where the federal and provincial administrations are both involved. And in the last few years the Court has been emphasizing the importance of co-operative federalism, which, arguably, cannot work particularly well if either side is able, on a whim and despite protests from its erstwhile partner, to end its involvement in a co-operative project. Perhaps the questions about the best workings of a system of co-operative federalism are purely political; that seems to be the result of the Canada Assistance Plan case. But maybe it is time for Courts to start working out a legal framework.
  2. The claim that the government holds its property – which in this case means data rather than physical assets – more or less as a trustee for the people sounds interesting and quite possibly right as a matter of political morality, but it is not so clear what it entails in practice. Even if we agree that the government has to use its property in the public interest, there is presumably no higher authority than Parliament in deciding what the public interest is. If Parliament decides that it is in the public interest to destroy the long-gun registry data, how can courts second-guess it?
  3. If Québec succeeds in getting s. 29 of the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act declared unconstitutional, no long-gun registry data can be destroyed. The federal government is stuck with this data, which it does not want. What happens then?

Québec Tries to Save the Long-Gun Registry

With the angrily named Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, formerly known as Bill C-19, now law, Québec is fighting a rearguard battle to try to save “its” part of the registry. It is asking the Superior Court to declare unconstitutional s. 29 of Act, which provides for the destruction “as soon as possible” of the registry data, and to order the federal authorities to transfer to it the data relative to the firearms owned by Québec residents.

Radio-Canada has posted a copy of Québec’s lengthy application for an injunction (en français, bien entendu); it also reports that Québec has succeeded  in obtaining a safeguard order which will prevent, at least until the argument on the merits next week, the destruction of the data Québec is trying to obtain.

Very briefly, the basis for Québec’s argument is that firearms legislation has both federal and provincial aspects, so that it is constitutionally competent to create its own registry. Instead of doing so, it participated in the administration of the federal one, so long as it existed; but now, if the federal government does not want to keep its registry, Québec wants to have one of its own. The destruction of the data, which it helped amass and transferred to the federal government, would thus frustrate its legitimate legislative objective; indeed, the real purpose of s. 29 is to prevent provinces from constituting their own registries, and thus to prevent the exercise of a legitimate provincial power. S. 29 goes beyond what is justified by Parliament’s criminal law power, because it is an attempt to “cover the field” of long-gun registration regulation. Furthermore, the long-gun registry data belongs to Québec as well as to the federal government, and the latter is not entitled to destroy it. If it has no use for it, it must transfer the data to Québec, because in keeping with its obligations as a fiduciary of the data (as of any other government property).

The claim as a whole and Québec’s arguments in its support raise some very interesting constitutional questions, some of which I hope to outline in a post tomorrow.