Constitutionalism from the Cave

The constitution is a binding law, not just an incomplete statement of political ideals

The imbroglio with the Ontario legislature’s enactment of Bill 5 to restructure the Toronto City Council a couple of months before an upcoming election, the Superior Court’s declaration of that legislation unconstitutional, the threatened invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” to override that declaration, and the Court of Appeal’s restoration of what little sanity could still be restored by reversing the Superior Court’s decision has generated a great deal of commentary. Some of this commentary has been very imaginative indeed in coming up with constitutional arguments that would have advanced the commentators’ preferred policy agendas and forestalled the seemingly obvious legal conclusions.

Of course, such a creative argument had prevailed at the Superior Court, which (as for example co-blogger Mark Mancini, as well as yours truly, explained) ignored clear constitutional language on its way to finding that Bill 5 violated the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. Even more unorthodox reasoning was unleashed in attempts to argue that the Ontario legislature couldn’t actually invoke the “notwithstanding clause”, the constitutional text once again be damned. Mark has written about open letter in which professors who wouldn’t dream of treating originalism as a serious interpretive methodology suddenly turned original-intentist ― but that, at least, was an explicitly political text. Other arguments along similar, or even more outlandish, lines purported to be legal ones.

This outburst of creativity is, of course directly related to a certain way of seeing the constitution that is prevalent in the Canadian legal community (including, but not only, in the academy). On this view, the Canadian constitution ― especially, though not only, the Charter ― is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts;  it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution. And, of course, this ideal constitution, just so happens to enact the political preferences of the persons urging this view, and presumed (often not incorrectly) to be shared by the judiciary.

Perhaps the latest contribution to the post-Bill 5 constitutional free-for-all is illustrative. It is a post by Colin Feasby, over at ABlawg, arguing that section 3 of the Charter, though it ostensibly only guarantees the right of Canadian citizens “to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein”, really also applies to municipal and other elections, and to referenda. Now, I have learned a lot from Dr. Feasby’s law of democracy scholarship (which has also been cited and relied on by the Supreme Court!). But this post is nothing more than a call for the judiciary to wilfully re-write the constitution we have so as to bring it closer to an idealized view of what a good constitution ought to be according to Dr. Feasby (and many others).

Dr. Feasby argues that “the lack of constitutional protection for important democratic processes” ― such as municipal elections ― “is an unnecessary defect in our constitutional arrangement”. “Unnecessary” a word that I wouldn’t use, and as will presently be apparent, Dr. Feasby uses it advisedly. However, I agree with him to this extent ― the lack of constitutional protections for municipal institutions is indeed a shortcoming of our constitution, as I have suggested here.

Dr. Feasby, though, is not suggesting a constitutional amendment to remedy the defect he identifies. Rather, he “proposes a way that the Supreme Court of Canada can remedy this defect”. He argues that “courts have a role in ensuring that the democratic process functions so that the sovereign will of the electorate may be expressed without distortion”, which is true, if somewhat beside the point in matters where the will of the electorate is not, legally speaking, sovereign, including in municipal elections. The question, though, is how far the courts’ role extends. Dr. Feasby thinks it allows the courts to embrace what he describes as a “purposive and … generous approach to interpreting Charter rights”, and “impose a rule” according to which

Where a government, Federal or Provincial, delegates a legislative role to a democratically chosen body or where a government, Federal or Provincial, effectively delegates a decision to the electorate in a referendum, section 3 of the Charter applies.

In other words, “a body elected in processes governed by section 3 cannot delegate its power to an elected body chosen by electors with lesser constitutional protections”.

Dr. Feasby anticipates two objections to his proposal. First, he expects people to argue that it would get in the way of worthy reforms of municipal and other institutions. His response is that “so long as those changes are consistent with the principles that animate section 3 of the Charter“, nothing would get in their way. Fair enough, I suppose. The other objection Dr. Feasby foresees is based on the concern about section 3 claims being brought by people who are not in the intended electorate for a given election (say, the residents of a municipality). Such claims should simply be rejected ― as would that of “Canadian citizens resident in Alberta” demanding “the right to vote in Provincial elections in Quebec”. That too seems fair enough.

There are other, more serious, problems with Dr. Feasby’s argument, however. A practical one is that, even in the form given to it by Dr. Feasby, it reaches very far indeed. Municipalities, band councils, and school boards are not the only entities that might be described as “democratically chosen” entities to which governments delegate legislative powers. Various professional bodies (such as law societies) and agricultural marketing boards come to mind; so do, perhaps, universities, whose powers ― which include the ability to regulate large swathes of student and staff conduct ― are ultimately exercised by (partly) elected boards and senates. (Whether the universities are subject to the Charter in at least some areas is an open question, but there are good arguments for that view.) It’s not at all obvious to me that, “the principles that animate section 3 of the Charter” can be usefully applied to such bodies, even assuming that they can be to municipalities and school boards. And it’s not at all obvious that the argument for rejecting the claims of persons excluded from the relevant electorate ― say, the consumers of professional services or of agricultural products ― can be dismissed as easily as  those of Albertans looking to vote in the Belle Province.

This problem becomes even more pressing if we take up Bruce Ryder’s suggestion “that a province that is bound by s.3 democratic norms shouldn’t be able to do an end run around them after creating subordinate governments” ― seemingly regardless of whether these “subordinate governments” are themselves meant to be democratically elected. If this principle were taken seriously, it would amount to a non-delegation doctrine on steroids, preventing the exercise of legislative power by undemocratic bodies ― which means pretty much all of the administrative state. Anti-administrativist though I am, even I don’t actually favour this approach. In truth, I don’t suppose that Professor Ryder favours it either. He simply makes an argument that furthers his preferences in a particular controversy, and doesn’t worry about its implications in future cases. I’m afraid this is symptomatic of the treatment of the constitution not as a law, but as a series of results-oriented propositions subject to permanent revision from one case to the next.

Equally symptomatic of this way of thinking is the fact that Dr. Feasby apparently does not see coming another objection, a principled rather than a practical one. This objection is, quite simply, that his proposal is a perversion of the constitutional text, a blatant attempt to expand it beyond what it was quite clearly designed to do, and what it not only originally meant but still means. Even if one believes that the constitutional text should be read according to the meaning of its terms today, “an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly” does not mean “an election of members of a municipal council”, or “an election of the benchers of a law society”. Dr. Feasby invokes the “living tree” view of the constitution, but he advocates something different than just reading the text in light of evolving social mores or trying to use “progressive interpretation” to “accommodate[] and address[] the realities of modern life”, as the Supreme Court put it in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698, at [22]. It’s not as if municipal election were a new phenomenon unknown to the framers of the Charter. It’s just that Dr. Feasby thinks that the Charter is only an imperfect statement of an “aspiration … to be a truly free and democratic society”, which can be given whatever contents a court, under the guidance of progressive advocates, can come up with in a given case.

Needless to say, I do not share this view. It is contrary to the terms of the constitution itself (specifically, section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides both that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada” (emphasis mine) and that “[a]mendments to the Constitution of Canada shall be made only in accordance with the authority contained in the Constitution of Canada” ― which says nothing about the Supreme Court amending the constitution in the absence of the political consensus required to do so. It is destructive of the Rule of Law. And it is especially galling because many of the same people who advocate this view of the constitution not as binding law but as merely suggestive of (their) political ideals demand that political actors ― such as the present Ontario legislature ― that do not fully share these ideals comply with judicial decisions based on them. I think it’s right to demand that political actors comply with the law, including the law of the constitution. But why on earth should elected officials comply, not with the law, but with the philosophical preferences people who are not elected to anything? There can be no real constitutionalism in Plato’s cave. It’s time to climb out.

Deuxième Moisson

Tout comme il y a quatre ans, le DGE essaie de censurer une intervention de la société civile dans la campagne électorale québécoise

Les campagnes électorales ont leurs habitudes, leurs rituels. Les autobus, les slogans, les débats des chefs. Certaines de ces traditions sont communes à bien des sociétés démocratiques, d’autres sont plus locales. Une qui est particulièrement québécoise ― mais ne devrait pas pour autant être source de fierté ― c’est la lettre du Directeur général des élections (DGE) sommant un représentant de la société civile qui tente de se prononcer sur les enjeux de l’heure de se la fermer. Le rituel vient d’être renouvelé, comme le rapporte La Presse, avec cette fois Équiterre, dans le collimateur du DGE pour avoir diffusé les résultats d’un questionnaire remis aux principaux partis politiques et portant sur leurs politiques en matière d’environnement.

Je racontais un tel épisode, impliquant les producteurs d’un court documentaire critique du Parti québécois et de sa « Charte des valeurs », alias la Charte de la honte, lors de la campagne électorale de 2014. J’ai dit, à l’époque, que les penseurs et juristes « progressistes » qui ont cherché à limiter le rôle de l’argent en politique en limitant sévèrement les dépenses autorisées en période électorale récoltaient là ce qu’ils avaient semé. Ils s’imaginaient que les limites de dépenses feraient taire les riches, mais en réalité, elles s’appliquent d’abord à avant tout aux étudiantsaux syndicats ou aux individus impopulaires. En 2014, on a visé les défenseurs du pluralisme. En 2018, on vise les environnementalistes. La tendance, encore une fois, se maintient.

Il faut souligner qu’il y a quatre ans, le DGE avait alors fini par faire marche arrière ― au bénéfice de la liberté d’expression, mais au mépris de la Loi électorale. En tordant le sens des définitions pourtant claires de ce qui est et n’est pas une « dépense électorale » (prévues aux articles 402 et 404 de la Loi), le DGE a réussi à éviter l’opprobre médiatique qu’allait provoquer un épisode de censure. Mais la Loi électorale, elle, n’as pas été changée pour permettre à la société civile d’intervenir dans les campagnes électorales. Il n’est pas impossible, je suppose, que le DGE se démène encore pour ne pas censurer Équiterre, même si ce sera, comme je l’expliquerai à l’instant, très, très difficile. Cependant, même si la manoeuvre réussit, la censure ne sera que partie remise jusqu’à la prochaine campagne électorale. C’est à la Loi électorale, et non à son application par le DGE, qu’il faut s’attaquer pour régler le problème une fois pour toutes.

L’article 402 de la Loi électorale définit comme « dépense électorale »

le coût de tout bien ou service utilisé pendant la période électorale pour:

1° favoriser ou défavoriser, directement ou indirectement, l’élection d’un candidat ou celle des candidats d’un parti;
2° diffuser ou combattre le programme ou la politique d’un candidat ou d’un parti;
3° approuver ou désapprouver des mesures préconisées ou combattues par un candidat ou un parti;
4° approuver ou désapprouver des actes accomplis ou proposés par un parti, un candidat ou leurs partisans.

Cette définition s’applique aux dépenses des candidats et des partis aussi bien qu’à celles de la société civile, et il n’est pas surprenant qu’elle ratisse large. La production et diffusion du questionnaire d’Équiterre tombe sous le coup de cette définition, puisque celui-ci vise à diffuser certains aspect des programmes des différents partis et aussi, par l’usage de symboles visuels (coche verte, crois rouge) à approuver ou désapprouver les mesures préconisées par ceux-ci.

Deux problèmes se posent cependant. D’une part, il y a à la fois l’insuffisance et la vétusté des exemptions prévues à l’article 404. Contrairement à la disposition équivalente de Loi électorale du Canada, celui-ci n’exempte pas les communications d’un groupe (par exemple, un syndicat) à ses membres et n’est pas technologiquement neutre, exemptant la diffusion de nouvelles ou éditoriaux « dans un journal ou autre périodique » ou encore « par un poste de radio ou de télévision », mais pas par de nouveaux médias opérant sur internet. En 2014, le DGE a fini par décrire le documentaire en cause comme étant un « média citoyen » pour l’exempter de l’application de l’article 402. C’était, selon moi, à tort, puisque la Loi électorale n’exempte que certains médias, et n’autorise pas le DGE à en inventer de nouvelles catégories exemptées. Quoi qu’il en soit, je ne vois pas comment on pourrait user du même procédé pour aider Équiterre.

D’autre part, la Loi électorale limite excessivement les dépenses électorales des membres de la société civile. En fait, elle les interdit presqu’entièrement, ne faisant qu’une exception minimaliste à l’alinéa 13 de l’article 404, qui permet à un individu (ou un groupe de personnes ne possédant pas la personnalité morale) de s’enregistrer pour, ensuite, engager des dépenses d’au plus 300$ ― mais sans pourtant « favoriser ni défavoriser directement un candidat ou un parti ». Équiterre, si je comprends bien, est une personne morale, et ne pourrait se prévaloir de l’exemption, même si sa part du coût de la production du questionnaire dont on lui reproche la diffusion s’élevait à moins de 300$. De plus, il me semble clair que le questionnaire, même s’il se veut non-partisan, vise à favoriser l’élection de partis ayant des politiques environnementales qui reçoivent l’approbation d’Équiterre et à défavoriser l’élection des autres.

Ces restrictions sont draconiennes. Il est ridicule d’interdire aux acteurs de la société civile de prendre part au débat pré-électoral pour peu qu’ils choisissent d’obtenir la personnalité morale. Il est ridicule d’avoir un plafond de dépenses ― non-indexé, contrairement à celui des partis et candidats! ― de 300$. Il est ridicule d’exiger qu’une personne voulant engager des dépenses tout à fait minimes doive préalablement s’enregistrer auprès du DGE. Il est ridicule d’interdire les interventions qui favorisent ou défavorise l’élection de partis nommés. Même si l’on accepte le principe général de la limitation de dépenses et celui de la primauté des candidats et des partis en période électorale, les restrictions imposées par le législateur québécois sont ahurissantes. Elles ne sont pas justifiées. Elles sont, selon moi, inconstitutionnelles, même si la Cour d’appel du Québec en a déjà décidé autrement.

Ainsi, je pense que le DGE fait son travail en s’en prenant à Équiterre. Il applique la Loi électorale. Cependant, les dispositions en cause n’ont pas lieu d’être. Le législateur québécois devrait s’empresser de les revoir de fond en comble, sinon de les abroger. À défaut, ou d’ici là, c’est malheureusement à Équiterre d’en contester la constitutionnalité. Cette contestation ne sera pas facile, mais, selon moi, elle aura des chances réelles de succès. La Cour suprême a certes avalisé les dispositions de la Loi électorale du Canada limitant la participation de « tiers » aux campagnes électorales, mais, comme je l’ai déjà souligné, celles-ci sont bien plus permissives que celles de la loi québécoise. En attendant, le décret ordonnant la tenue d’élections générales demeure un bâillon.

 

It Doesn’t Work That Way

Legislation interfering with a municipal election does not violate freedom of expression ― contrary to what an Ontario judge has found

Last week was a busy one for me, as I was travelling to, around, and from Western Canada, having a good time, and giving five talks in four days, but the rest of the Canadian constitutional law world had an even busier one, courtesy of Justice Belobaba of Ontario’s Superior Court, and Doug Ford, its Premier. The former delivered a judgment invalidating the reduction, a mere two months before an election, of the number of seats on the Toronto city council: Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney-General), 2018 ONSC 5151. The latter responded to this judgment by bringing forward legislation that will invoke section 33 of the Charter, and allow the election to go ahead notwithstanding the fact that, according to Justice Belobaba anyway, holding it in this manner violates the freedom of expression. The Twitterverse was all atwitter; the commentariat commented; professors professed various shades of disbelief and indignation.

It would not be possible for me to recap and respond to everything, but I do want to make some observations ― even at the risk of repeating things that have already been said, and that I have missed. In this post, I will address Justice Belobaba’s reasoning. I will post separately on the use of the “notwithstanding clause” by Ontario’s legislature ― and some of the responses to it by commentators. Co-blogger Mark Mancini made a number of important points on both issues in an excellent (as always) post last week, and I largely agree with him. In particular, when it comes to Justice Belobaba’s decision, Mark is right that it “massages a chosen constitutional right” so as to “best achieve [the] result” it is after ― constitutional text and doctrine be damned. Here are some additional reasons why.

One thing I’d note is that the descriptions ― common in the media as well as in Justice Belobaba’s reasons ― of the redesign of the Toronto Council as having been imposed “in the middle of the city’s election” [6] need to be put into perspective. The legislation received royal assent almost 70 days before the voting was to take place. The time remaining in the election campaign was identical almost to the day to the duration of the last federal campaign ― whose length was unprecedented and, pretty much everyone agrees, quite excessive. No doubt federal and municipal elections are very different beasts; but we should perhaps hesitate before accepting the claim that the provincial legislation effectively subverted the voting process in Toronto.

Yet this is essentially what Justice Belobaba accepts when it comes to the first issue he addresses, that of “whether the enactment of Bill 5 changing the electoral districts in the middle of the City’s election campaign substantially interfered with the candidate’s [sic] right to freedom of expression.” [27; footnote omitted] Having so stated the issue, Justice Belobaba follows up with a rhetorical query: “Perhaps the better question is ‘How could it not?'” [28] Actually, there is an answer to this question, but it is worth pointing out that merely asking is not a harmless stylistic flash, but a reversal of the burden of proof, which lies on the applicants when it comes to establishing violation of their rights.

Justice Belobaba insists that pre-existing electoral arrangements “informed [the candidates’] decision about where to run, what to say, how to raise money and how to publicize their views”. [29] The new legislation disrupts plans and means that some, perhaps much, of the campaigning that has already taken place will now go to waste. As a result, it “substantially interfered with the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters”. [32] It also “undermined an otherwise fair and equitable election process”. Justice Belobaba relies on Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 for the proposition that “where a democratic platform is provided … and the election has begun, expressive activity in connection with that platform is protected against legislative interference”. [37]

Yet Libman held no such thing. It was concerned with the constitutionality of a law that prohibited persons not having joined a referendum campaign committee for spending money to make their views on the referendum issue known. This wasn’t about fairness ― indeed, fairness in the Supreme Court’s view supported the silencing of “third parties”, if not quite a complete one ― or about interference with an ongoing campaign. The contrast with the legislation here is quite telling. No one is being prevented from communicating any message to anyone. No one is told to stay out of the redesigned election campaign. Sure, the legislation is disruptive and ill-timed, and that’s a valid policy objection to it, but not any disruption of a municipal election is a violation of the candidates’ rights. Suppose a government ― whether provincial or even federal ― announces a major new policy on funding municipalities, and the announcement happens to coincide with a municipal election somewhere, effectively forcing the candidates to adjust their messaging, their spending plans, and so on, has that government thereby infringed the Charter?

As Mark noted in his post, the Charter protects our right to speak, but does not give us any assurance that our speech will be listened to, or be persuasive. Justice Belobaba’s reasons take constitutional law in a new and unwarranted direction. It’s worth noting, too, that with fixed election dates now being the norm federally and provincially, the “permanent campaign” is here to stay. Decisions about how and where to campaign are being made all the time. If any law that interferes with them, or forces prospective candidates or campaigners to revise their plans, is an interference with their freedom of expression, then there is literally no electoral legislation, regardless of when it is enacted, that is not a prima facie Charter violation. This too strikes me as an absurd consequence of Justice Belobaba’s decision.

Justice Belobaba, however, has an even broader objection to the legislation restructuring the Toronto City Council. He says that the restructuring infringes the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression because the wards that it creates are simply too large for citizens to receive “effective representation” from their councillors. This defect, unlike interference with an ongoing election, would not be cured by delaying the application of the legislation until the next one. As Mark and many others have noted, Justice Belobaba imports the doctrine of “effective representation” from the cases that applied section 3 of the Charter ― which protects the right to vote, but doesn’t apply to municipal elections. Justice Belobaba argues that voting is an expressive activity, so there is no reason not to import tests developed in the context of the right to vote into freedom of expression cases. Like Mark, I think this is objectionable. Why bother with having a distinct, and carefully circumscribed, guarantee of the right to vote if it is anyway subsumed into freedom of expression?

But I would go further than my esteemed co-blogger, who I think is a bit too quick to concede the possibility of “overlap” between the right to vote and freedom of expression. As I have argued here, “[v]oting in an election is actually an incredibly bad way of sending any sort of message to anyone”. A ballot does not say who speaks, why, and what it is that they actually want. The act of voting is no more expressive than that of picking up a particular item from supermarket shelf; if anything, it is less so, since there usually fewer, and less palatable, choices in the voting booth. I do not mean to disparage voting. It is an incredibly valuable thing, this ability to make a choice, even among unpalatable options, of who is going to exercise power over us. But it is valuable for reasons that are quite different from those that make freedom of expression valuable ― even freedom of expression in the political context. It makes sense to have distinct constitutional protections for these activities, and distinct doctrines implementing these guarantees. There probably are cases of genuine overlap between some Charter rights, especially within and among the various “fundamental rights” protected by section 2, and to some extent between at least some of these rights and equality rights in section 15. But the right to vote is its own thing, and there are good reasons of principle as well as of legal craft to keep it separate from others.

It is hard to avoid the impression that Justice Belobaba strongly disliked the legislation on whose constitutionality he had to pronounce, found it unjust, and convinced himself that the constitution simply had to provide a remedy for it. His disclaimers about “the importance of judges exercising judicial deference and restraint” [8] (a sentiment with which I disagree ― there is no reason for deference and restraint in the face of legislation that actually is unconstitutional) ring quite hollow. He bends constitutional doctrine to get his way ― to, and past, breaking point. His decision is bound to do mischief, and should not be allowed to stand. Over to you, Court of Appeal. And for all that, it doesn’t follow that the government’s response to Justice Belobaba’s ruling was appropriate. More on that soon, I hope.

Rendering Unto the Judiciary

Justice Martineau’s recent article on judicial courage

In a recent piece published in the Western Journal of Legal Studies, Justice Martineau of the Federal Court puts forward a concept of “judicial courage” as a descriptive and normative claim about what judges do in a democracy. Judicial courage, to Justice Martineau, is an ideal that stands in contrast to judicial “conservatism” under which law is the complete answer to most or all cases [2]. To Justice Martineau, law is a necessary but insufficient condition for the flourishing of justice and democratic institutions. Instead, we also need a shared ethic or commitment towards a culture of constitutionalism, which judges help along by displaying “courage” in particular cases. Justice Martineau is drawn by a “liberal” version of the judiciary, imbued with moral authority rather than simple legal authority.

While Justice Martineau’s piece demonstrates a clear reflection of the issues at stake and his status as an eminent legal thinker, allow me to be skeptical of his core claim, as I read it: that courage can be a helpful descriptive and normative organizing principle. To me, judicial “courage” is far too subjective, and could ultimately give rise to unconstrained faith and power in a judiciary unbound by doctrine. There would need to be some limiting principle and definition to the ideal of “courage” to ensure that judges exercise it in proper cases.

This is not to say that the problem Justice Martineau addresses in his piece is unimportant. The piece uses the concept of judicial courage as an answer to a perennial problem: how do we deal with internal threats to the legal system from those sworn to uphold it? To Justice Martineau, courts are central in preventing the rise of these sorts of actors

I have no difficulty in endorsing his point of view. Judges have a duty to act responsibly. Detractors of “judicial activism” dismiss elitist thinking—particularly as it is opined by unelected members of the judiciary. People should put their faith in Congress or Parliament, who know better. But their optimistic reliance on the positive side of political virtue and wisdom ignores the transformative action of fortuna when power has become corrupted or concentrated in the hands of a sociopath. This can happen in any democracy [31].

My concern is the faith this puts in courts to almost always do the right thing. Just because the legislative branch can be manipulated does not mean that the judiciary cannot be, or that strong-form judicial review is necessarily the best remedy. As Vermeule argues, much of constitutional law can be construed as a form of risk management. Part of the risk of constitutional design is the risk posed by imperfect humans. For example, in designing the American constitution, some of the Federalist framers began from the presupposition that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” of the system (The Federalist Papers, No. 10). To Hamilton, in fact, “No popular Government was ever without its Catalines & its Caesars. These are its true enemies.” Constitutionalism must start from the premise that there will be bad actors in the system, like a Caesar or Hitler, who might seek to use internal democratic channels to subvert the rights of others. This observation extends equally to the judiciary.

The Americans responded to this problem by adopting a strict separation of powers, in which no one branch could accumulate all power. The judiciary is obviously included in that system of limited government, restrained just as much as the legislature and executive. Why should we bank on such a system? Ex ante, the separation of powers is the best organizing principle on which to base a Constitution. A bill of rights will only be a “parchment guarantee” if any actor in the system can accumulate all the power. Before doing anything in a constitutional democracy, we’d want to insure against this risk.

We should be careful about tinkering with this machinery. For that reason, in a system of separation of powers, there should be good reasons for one branch to step into the territory of the others. Hamilton alluded to this possibility when he said that in cases of a weak government, it may need to “overstep the bounds” (on this point, see Vermeule’s recent paper) in cases of emergency. But the same goes for the judiciary. Extraordinary constitutional circumstances should exist before an unelected judicial branch interferes with the elected process if the separation of powers is a main organizing principle–and if we care about guarding against the risk of overreach.

And this is the rub of the matter. If it is “courageous” for courts to interfere with democratically-elected mandates that may be unfair, it is perhaps even more courageous for courts to stay their hand and let the democratic process unfold in service to the separation of powers. Which is true in a given situation should be subject to clear rules that guard against judicial overreach and limit the role of the judiciary to real instances of constitutional concern. But we are so far from this reality in Canada. I need not go over the Supreme Court’s sins in this regard, but the Court has failed to apply a consistent set of rules governing its judicial review function; sometimes tacitly accepting originalism, sometimes trotting out the living tree, all the while relaxing its approach to precedent.

To this comes Justice Martineau’s objection. A wholly rules-bound judiciary is likely to allow grave democratic injustices to stand. Hitler, after all, was a product of a democracy. Justice Abella has gone as far as to eschew the rule of law, instead proposing a “rule of justice.” To Justice Abella, the rule of law is “annoying” because it sanctioned the Holocaust, segregation, and other democratic evils. On her account (and Justice Martineau’s) courts always pursue justice, whereas the legislature will only do so if “justice” coincides with its own political interest

Direct democracy alone is an insufficient condition for a good society, if only for practical reasons. In fact, courts play an integral role in a properly separated system. This system, to Justice Martineau, must be vindicated by a culture of constitutionalism, in which the people agree to be bound by law [13]. The American framers agreed. But the real question is who should foster this belief. Justice Abella and Justice Martineau seem to think it is the role of courts to encourage this culture of constitutionalism; and even more, they seem to think that courts are uniquely suited to do so.

At risk of sacrilege, I think this puts too much faith in humans–the very risk the separation of powers guards against. To trust that the judiciary will always display “courage,” properly calibrated to the legal rule under consideration, is unrealistic. Judges will make mistakes, sometimes grievously so. This is a clear risk that is managed by the separation of powers. To be sure, the risks posed by legislative or executive abuse are different than those posed by courts, but they are no less concerning. Executive or legislative recalcitrance will be obvious, but judicial overreach is less so.

Instead, putting too much faith in the judiciary and expanding judicial power is much like eating chocolate cake. The cake is good at the moment, but later on it takes its toll. A court making up its own law will vindicate particular groups in the moment. But over the long term, a court unmoored by clear rules, directed only by “courage” or “justice,” could slowly eat away at the separation of powers and the role of elected legislatures until the culture of constitutionalism sought by Justice Martineau is really just a culture of court worship. Under this culture, courts take an expanded role, and citizens look to the courts to vindicate their particular versions of the good.

I fear we have come to this point in Canada. One need only look at the recent retirement of Chief Justice McLachlin as an example. Veneration of the Court is a veritable academic pastime, and too many view the judges as celebrities rather than fallible humans with a restricted role in the separation of powers. This is an implication of Justice Martineau’s invocation of “courage.” Without guiding rules, courage could mean many things to many different people. It could end up being a dangerous theory of judicial review that further politicizes and expands the role of courts.

In our system, there is no doubt that we need courageous judges, but what courage means in a system of separated powers is a complicated question. Without accounting for institutional realities, courage lacks definition as a descriptive and normative idea. Rather than putting our faith in judges, all should insist that actors within the political system stay true to their defined roles. Accordingly, for courage to be a helpful concept rather than a vessel for judges to fill with their own worldview, we’d need to develop clear doctrinal parameters on the concept.

Remarks on Bill C-76

Freedom of expression issues in an electoral reform bill

Earlier today, I had the chance to address the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is currently studying Bill C-76, a significant reform package for the Canada Elections Act. I am very grateful to the Committee for inviting me ― though I wish I’d been given more than just a few days to prepare ―, and also to its staff for making it possible for me to speak from an ocean and a continent away.

My remarks focused on the freedom of expression issues that C-76 fails to address or indeed amplifies in what I think is a dangerous quest to stop the “permanent campaign” ― dangerous because the only way to really stop the permanent campaign would be to impose permanent censorship on political debate. (Scott Reid, a Conservative member of the Committee asked me about this, and I said that I hope that Parliament will not go that far ― but I am worried that accepting the principle of regulating political speech outside of the electoral campaign period, we will not stop at just a couple of months, as C-76 does, for now.) More generally, my point was that members of the civil society ― whom election law denigrates by describing them as “third parties” ― should be heard, even at election time.

Here are my remarks. (The Chair’s reference to a miracle is due to some technical issues that prevented me from connecting to the meeting on time… but all’s well that ends well!)

The $100 Question, in Court

A challenge to Québec’s harsh limits on political contributions has a decent chance of succeeding

As reported last week by Le Soleil, a citizen of Québec, Yvon Maheux, is challenging the constitutionality of both the province’s $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties and some of the collateral consequences of a conviction for infringing this cap. In my view, much of the claim has considerable merit, and at least a reasonable chance of success. As I wrote when Québec was first considering lowering the amount its citizens were allowed to contribute to political parties from $1000 to $100, such a low limit is quite clearly unconstitutional, given the Supreme Court’s recognition that spending money to advance one’s political views is a form of expression that is entitled to the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As Mr. Maheux’s notice of constitutional question (kindly provided to me by his lawyer, Antoine Sarrazin-Bourgouin, whom I thank) explains, in 2016 he paid a provincial party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, $100 for taking part in a breakfast it organized, and then another $100 as a fee to take part in the party congress. For his trouble, he was prosecuted for breaching the $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties, provided for by section 91 of Québec’s Election Act. Section 564.2 of that Act provides that, if convicted, Mr. Maheux will face a minimum fine of $5000. Moreover, the infringement of the contribution cap is deemed a corrupt electoral practice (section 567), meaning that a conviction carries a number of additional consequences ― notably the disqualification from voting or running for office, as well as the loss of “the right to engage in partisan work”, both for five years (section 568).

This is a draconian regime. For one thing, the contribution limit is remarkably low. For another, the consequences for breaching it are astonishingly severe. Neither the Canada Elections Act nor Ontario’s Election Finance Act, for example, impose a mandatory minimum punishment for financial offences; nor do they deem making an excessive contribution a corrupt practice; nor do either Parliament or Ontario strip persons convicted of corrupt practices of their “right to engage in partisan work”. New Zealand ― which of course does not limit contributions to political parties at all, and is the least corrupt country in the world nonetheless ― does nothing of the sort either.

But does draconian, in this instance, also mean unconstitutional? The cases raises a number of distinct constitutional issues. The first is whether the infringement of the freedom of expression effected by the limitation of contributions one can make to a political party is justified under section 1 of the Charter. (That the limitation is a prima facie infringement of the freedom of expression must follow from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 and Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although these cases concerned spending independent of parties.) The other issues have to do with the constitutionality of the various consequences of a conviction for breaching the contribution limit.

Regarding the constitutionality of the limit itself, there is no precedent directly on point, I think, but it seems to me that the Québec government will be hard-pressed to show that it is minimally impairing of the freedom of expression. A legislature is entitled to some, perhaps considerable, deference in a line-drawing exercise of this sort ― Libman and Harper indicate that the courts will accept that there ought to be some limit on contributions, and any given figure is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Still, deference can only extend so far; there is a range of acceptable alternatives, but this range is not infinite. And even if a higher limit would (of course) be somewhat less likely to attain the legislation’s anti-corruption objectives, the issue, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s majority opinion … put it, is only “whether there is an alternative, less drastic means of achieving the objective in a real and substantial manner“. That no other jurisdiction in Canada (and perhaps elsewhere) has seen it fit to set a contribution limit anywhere near this low is a strong indication that Québec’s purposes can be substantially achieved through less drastic means.

The $100 limit also fails, I think, at the final stage of the section 1 analysis, which concerns proportionality between the rights limitation’s benefits and its effects on the rights claimants. These effects, in this case, are significant; indeed, the limit renders Quebeckers’ right to contribute financially to a political party of their choice virtually nugatory. Mr. Maheux’s personal story is an eloquent illustration of this fact. So is the simple arithmetic that shows that a donation of $2 a week would be illegal. This all is particularly galling because the Supreme Court’s law of democracy jurisprudence ― especially Harper but also, before it, Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912 ― suggested that participating in the activities of political parties was  political participation par excellence, to be valued and protected above others, as I explained here. Québec’s restrictive approach to political financing means that individuals such as Mr. Maheux can be prevented from developing their engagement with political parties, even as they are also prevented from participating in political debates as “third parties”, by spending money on advertising during electoral campaigns. Politics in Québec risks becoming even more of an insider activity ― ostensibly in the name of a fight against corruption. This makes no sense to me.

As for the consequences of conviction, there are three distinct issues. The first one is whether the disenfranchisement of those convicted, which is an obvious infringement of the right to vote protected by section 3 of the Charter, can be justified under section 1. In Harvey v New Brunswick (Attorney General), [1996] 2 SCR 876, the Supreme Court upheld the disenfranchisement, for five years, of a member of a provincial legislature who had been convicted of trying to induce a person who was not entitled to vote to do so. Harvey was, of course, decided before Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which struck down the general disenfranchisement of prisoners serving sentences of two years or more, but I don’t think that Sauvé calls it into question. The Harvey court accepted that the temporary disenfranchisement of those convicted of corrupt electoral practices was a proportionate way of pursuing the specific purpose of protecting the integrity of elections, with which the general disenfranchisement provisions at issue in Sauvé had nothing to do.

That said, accepting that legislatures can disenfranchise people who compromise the integrity of the democratic process, the question is how far this principle extends. We wouldn’t accept, I think, the disenfranchisement of people who negligently infringe some technical rule about the reporting of a candidate’s expenses. But, again, how do we ― and, more to the point, how does a court ― draw lines? Again, I am not aware of judicial guidance on this point, but looking at what other jurisdictions do is instructive. The lists offences that are labelled as corrupt (or illegal) practices and can lead to disenfranchisement are not identical, but both federally (in section 502 of the Canada Elections Act) and in Ontario (in section 97.1 of the Election Act) the focus is on interference with the composition of electorate (involving voting under various false pretenses or, conversely, preventing electors from voting), or the process of casting ballots. An individual exceeding contribution limits is not deemed guilty of a corrupt practice. Although it is far from certain that the Charter prohibits this, there is, I think, at least a viable argument to be made for this proposition.

The next, related, issue is whether it is permissible not only to disenfranchise a person found guilty of having engaged in some form of corrupt practice, but also to deny him or her the “right to engage in partisan work”. As mentioned above, I do not think that any Canadian jurisdiction except Québec does it; I don’t know if any other democratic country does. The prohibition is an obvious infringement of the Charter freedoms of expression and of association. Can it be justified? Once more, I am not aware of judicial decisions directly on point, but it is possible to venture a few observations. One is that Québec is deliberately targeting political expression and association, which are at the heart of the Charter‘s protections. Another is that it’s not obvious how a ban on “partisan work” is connected to the integrity of the electoral process as such, or even of the political financing regime; at the very least it is seriously overbroad, because much of what might be fairly described as “partisan work” ― a term that Québec’s Election Act does not define, but uses in a number of provisions that suggest that it should be given a broad meaning ― has nothing to do with with either voting or fundraising. Third, once again the experience of other jurisdictions suggests that Québec’s ban is not minimally impairing, and indeed that it is likely quite unnecessary. And fourth, given its breadth, the ban’s deleterious effects on those subject to it surely outweigh whatever social benefits it might be said to have.

Finally, in his notice of constitutional question, Mr. Maheux indicates that he will argue that the cumulative effect of these various sanctions ― not any of them individually, mind you ― amounts to a violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments in section 12 of the Charter. The test here is whether the punishment is grossly disproportionate, compared to the one that would have been appropriate in the circumstances. This is of course a highly subjective assessment, and I am pretty skeptical of this claim as a standalone ground for constitutional challenge. If a court grants Mr. Maheux’s claims under sections 2 and 3 of the Charter, it is superfluous to consider the section 12 argument. If it thinks that the infringements of sections 2 and 3 are individually justified, I can’t imagine it holding that collectively they are grossly disproportionate; this would strike me as an odd result.

Be that as it may, Mr. Maheux’s challenge is mostly serious and, while we lack specific, on-point guidance from the courts because the provisions of Québec’s Election Act at which it is aimed are so unique, I think it has at least a reasonable chance of success ― perhaps even a very good one. At the level of political morality, the legislation that Mr. Maheux is attacking is indefensible. It is vastly more repressive than it needs to be, and appears to have been enacted in complete disregard of the rights of those affected by it (as well as of the desirability of a competitive political system). I hope that the law recalls Québec’s legislature both to its constitutional duties and to its senses.

Not That Kind of Voting

What New Zealand’s Electoral Commission’s attempt to boost turnout gets wrong about voting, and what we can learn from it

There will be a general election in New Zealand this Saturday. As is customary in such circumstances, there is some hand-wringing going on about what turnout is going to be like ― it was almost 78% in 2014, which in Canada, never mind the United States, would be considered sky-high, but is regarded as worryingly low in New Zealand. And the Electoral Commission is doing its part in trying to encourage people to vote, among other things by publishing this sleek video that recently showed up in my Facebook feed (and by using other ads based on the same theme):

The trouble, as I see it ― though I will not claim to speak for Kiwi abstainers ― is that, if you think about it for a second, this video’s true message about voting is precisely the opposite of the one it is intended to convey.

We “vote every day”, we are told: for snoozing or getting up; for dirty or clean underwear (that one, I suppose, is of particular relevance to politics); for whether to be a nice person or a not-so-nice one; and for a whole lot of other things. And it follows, apparently, that we should also vote in the election (or those entitled to do so should, anyway ― I am not, since I’m not yet a permanent resident). In other words, according to Elections New Zealand, voting for a party and a candidate to represent you in Parliament is just like making one of those everyday decisions that you are used to making, well, every day. Except, of course, that it isn’t, and in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously, if done with a modicum of seriousness, voting in a election is a good deal harder than deciding whether to hit the snooze button or to get up already. (I’ll call that sort of decision-making “voting”, as opposed to voting.) Voting requires one to acquire substantial amounts of information about the candidates and their platforms, about the world and the ways in which the candidates’ proposals fit or do not fit with what we know about it, and ideally also about how the electoral process itself works. (Another video from the Electoral Commission cheerfully showcases the voters’ utter ignorance about the latter point, as if equanimity were the appropriate response to it.) Relatively few people are well informed voters, and even some, perhaps quite a few, of those who are not at least realize that they have work to do in order to become at least somewhat knowledgeable ― though many will never do that work, for reasons to which I’ll presently return. And quite apart from informational difficulties, voting requires one to ponder incommensurable values (do vote, say, for the candidate with the better tax policy or the one more likely to respect the constitution?). By contrast, one doesn’t need to work very hard to “vote”. “Voters” typically have all the information they need from personal experience, and the values at stake are also less abstract and easier to sort out.

The second crucial difference between voting and “voting” is that the “voters” are the ones who live with the consequences of their decisions, whereas voters are not. If you keep on dirty underwear, you are the one who stinks. If you haven’t had occasion to learn that in the past, there’s a reasonable chance that you will learn now. By contrast, if you vote to keep a lousy politician in office, most (and perhaps  all) of the cost of that vote (however small a fraction of the total cost is attributable to an individual vote) is absorbed by others. You may even profit from your bad decision, either because the politician rewards his or her supporters at the expense of  the community as a whole, or simply because voting in that way gave you a satisfaction that is greater than the costs that vote imposes on you ―  though again the costs to the community as a whole are substantial. Moreover, it is often difficult to trace bad outcomes to bad votes, or good outcomes to good ones. The difficulty is sometimes subjective ― a voter who doesn’t understand a modicum of economics will not be able to tell that relative impoverishment resulted from the protectionist policies he or she supported. But it is often objective. Policy is complex, and it is difficult even for knowledgeable people to link causes with effects with much certainty. As a result, voters do not learn from the consequences of their decisions in the way “voters” do.

In short, voting and “voting” are rather different activities, and just because we do a lot of the latter, and do it reasonably well, it doesn’t follow that we should do the former, or that we can do it with any competence. We “vote” well enough because each “vote” is (usually) a relatively straightforward decision and, even when it is not, we have strong incentives to learn enough, and to be objective enough, to decide well, because we are the one living with the consequences of the decision. These reasons don’t apply to voting, which involves complex decisions and trade-offs, which are difficult enough to manage even for unbiased and well-informed decision-makers ― but we lack the incentives to be either of these two things because we do not in a meaningful way bear the consequences of our votes.

Of course, I have no idea whether the Electoral Commission will be successful at persuading people to go to the polls despite the faulty premises underlying its ad campaign. But if it does, this will, I am afraid, be an additional reason to distrust voters, who let themselves be fooled by what is really a well put-together effort at misdirection. Rather, the message we should take from the ad is the one that Ilya Somin delivers in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter: the more decisions we can make by “voting” rather than voting, the better off we will be. Whoever wins this week’s election should really think about that, rather than fret about turnout rates. Don’t worry though: I won’t be holding my breath.