Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Nothing to Celebrate

Québec’s irreligious dress code proposal isn’t an opportunity to extol democracy, or to do away with judicial review of legislation

In a recent post at Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, to insulate Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation making irreligion the province’s official creed from judicial scrutiny “is an opportunity for democratic renewal” in discussions about matters constitutional. In doing so, they come another step closer to overtly taking a position that has always been implicit in the arguments of many of section 33’s fans: that the enactment of the Charter was a mistake. Indeed, they go further and, intentionally or otherwise, make the same suggestion regarding the courts’ ability to enforce the federal division of powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. It is brave of Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet to make this argument with Bill 21 as a hook. Yet courageous though it is, the argument is not compelling.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet dismiss claims to the effect that, while section 33 prevents the scrutiny of Bill 21 for compliance with the Charter’s guarantees of religious freedom and equality, other constitutional arguments remain available. (I have presented one such argument, building on Maxime St-Hilaire’s work, here.) To them, they are no more than a “legalistic … distraction”. Opponents of Bill 21 should, rather, be “making the democratic case for protecting religious freedom”. Indeed, we should be celebrating “the legislative process … with its tradition of active debate”, which allows Québec to take a “collaborative approach to fleshing out important rights”. We should also be celebrating street protests, open letters, and even threats of disobedience issued by some of the organizations that will be responsible for applying Bill 21 when it becomes law. After all, letting the courts apply the Charter “can wind up overriding rights in ways similar to Bill 21”, while causing “an atrophying of the democratic process as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted”. In short, “rights should not be taken for granted, nor left to judges. They require the thoughtful participation of the people themselves.”

I agree with this last point. Rights are unlikely to enjoy much protection in a political culture in which they are seen as something of concern to the courts alone. In one way or another ― whether through judicial acquiescence or through legislative override ― whatever constitutional protections for rights might exist in such a society will be cast aside. Québec is an excellent example of this. And, for my part, I have made a political, as well as a legal, case against Bill 21 here. The two can, and should, coexist.

And this is where Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet go badly wrong. In their headlong rush to praise politics, they denigrate the law. Without seriously addressing their merits, their dismiss plausible (albeit, to be fair, not unassailable) legal arguments as mere legalism. This applies not only to an argument based on the Charter, but also to one based on federalism. Presumably, we should count on the political process to sort out which of two different but equally democratic majorities should have the ability to impose its religious views on Canadians ― or any other issues about which order of government has the ability to legislate with respect to a particular subject. Similarly, Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet appear to see no harm in state institutions, such as school boards, threatening to act lawlessly, the Rule of Law be damned.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet also take a remarkably optimistic view of the political process. They say not a word of the fact that the “active debate” for which the praise Québec’s legislature may well be curtailed by the government. They call for democratic persuasion in the face of a law that is designed to impose few, if any, burdens, at least in the way in which it is likely to be enforced, on Québec’s lapsed-Catholic majority, and great burdens on a few minority groups that have long been subjects of suspicion if not outright vilification. A thoughtful advocate of democratic control over rights issues, Jeremy Waldron, at least worried in his “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” about the possibility that political majorities will put their interests above the rights of minority groups. “Injustice”, he writes, “is what happens when the rights or interests of the minority are
wrongly subordinated to those of the majority”, (1396) and we may legitimately worry about the tyranny of the majority when political majorities dispose of the rights of minority groups without heeding their concerns. Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet show no sign of being so worried, or of entertaining the possibility that the Québec society’s commitment to religious liberty is fundamentally deficient.

To be sure, Professor Waldron (rightly) reminds us that minorities “may be wrong about the rights they have; the majority may be right”. (1397) He also insists that, in societies genuinely committed to rights, it will rarely be the case that questions of rights will provoke neat splits between majority and minority groups. Still, we should be mindful of his acknowledgement that it in is cases like Bill 21, where majorities focus on their own preoccupations and are willing to simply impose their views on minorities, that the arguments in favour of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights protections are at their strongest. There is also a very strong argument ― and a democratic argument, too ― to be made in support of judicial enforcement of the federal division of powers, which serves to preserve the prerogative of democratic majorities to decide, or not to decide, certain issues.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet do not recognize these arguments, which leads me to the conclusion that they see no room for (strong-form) judicial review of legislation, under any circumstances. I believe that this position, at least so far as the Charter is concerned, is implicit in most if not all of the recent attempts to rehabilitate section 33. If one argues that we should trust legislatures to sometime come to views about rights that deserve to prevail over those of the courts, indeed perhaps to correct judicial mistakes, then why trust them in some cases only, and not in all? The application of this logic to federalism isn’t as familiar in the Canadian context, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.

Yet in my view, this is a mistake. As the circumstances surrounding Bill 21 show, politics is often little more than the imposition of the preferences of one group on another by brute force. This is as true in a democracy as it is under any other political regime. Democracy makes it more likely (although it does not guarantee) that the triumphant group will be a majority of the citizenry, which may or may not be a good thing. Democracy means that governmental decrees are, in principle (although not always in practice) reversible, and this is most definitely a good thing, and the reason why democracy is the least bad form of government. But I see no basis for pretending that democratic politics is somehow wise, or that it fosters meaningful debate about rights or other constitutional issues. Yes, there are some examples of that, on which opponents of judicial review of legislation like to seize. But these examples are few and far between and, more importantly, nothing about the nature of democratic politics makes their regular occurrence likely.

And of course it is true that strong-form judicial review of legislation, or judicial enforcement of rights (and of federalism) more broadly, sometimes fails to protect rights as fully as it should. I’m not sure that Dr. Sigalet and Ms. Baron’s chosen example, Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567, is especially compelling ― I think the case was wrongly decided, but the majority’s position at least rested on the sort of concern that can in principle justify limitations on rights. The more recent decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case are much worse in this regard, and provide compelling examples of an abject judicial failure to enforce the rights of a (rightly) maligned minority against an overbearing majority. Judicial review provides only a chance that what the political or administrative process got wrong will be set right, not a guarantee. But there is no compelling reason to think that the (usual) availability of judicial review causes the political debate about rights or other constitutional issues to atrophy. After all, as I have argued here, politicians are just as wont to ignore the constitution when they know or think that their decisions are not judicially reviewable as when they know that they are.  

In short, I am all for making the case for rights, and even federalism, outside the courtroom, and in ways that do not only speak to those carrying the privilege, or the burden, of legal training. I am all for making submissions to legislatures to try to prevent them from committing an injustice ― I’ve done it myself. And I’m all for protest, and even for civil disobedience by ordinary citizens when the politicians won’t listen ― though I have serious misgivings about officials declining to follow the law, partly for the reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini outlined here, and partly due to concerns of my own. But if the legally-minded among us should not neglect the political realm, then the politically-inclined should not disparage the law. The would-be prophets of popular sovereignty ought to remember Edward Coke’s words in his report of Prohibitions del Roy :

the law [is] the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protect[s] His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege.

This is no less true of today’s democratic sovereign, though it be no less apt to stand on its own dignity as James I.

Abellian “Law”

It is with an utter lack of surprise that I yet again fill the virtual pages of Double Aspect with thoughts on another of Justice Abella’s comments on the nature of judging. Both Leonid and I have continuously written about how Justice Abella frequently displays a judicial arrogance  that is inconsistent with the role of a judge in a constitutional democracy, both descriptively and normatively. I hesitate to write yet again on the same subject.

But I am moved to do so by the utter lack of accuracy in Justice Abella’s recent speech at Fordham University, where she described a bastardized version of the Canadian approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. Here are the comments in a release from Fordham:

“Our judges don’t draw lines over whether to follow a linguistic word approach or an intentionalist approach,” she said. “We just look at how we think this provision should be interpreted in light of all the things you worry about: what did the legislature mean, what do the words say, what was the purpose of the statute, all of that.”

Justice Abella discussed the importance of the Edwards v Canada case, more commonly known as the Persons Case, which concluded that women were eligible to sit in the Senate of Canada. In the 1929 decision, Lord Sankey stated that the British North America Act is “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.” Justice Abella spoke about this idea, the living tree doctrine, as a basic guiding principle.

“[The living tree doctrine] is constitutional but it’s also philosophically foundational,” she said. “It’s how we approach not only the constitution but also our statutes. What is the fair, appropriate, and just meaning of the phrase? We read it in the most reasonable way possible.”

I need not repeat yet again, from the constitutional perspective, why Justice Abella’s comments are wrong as a normative matter respecting the living tree.  I want to concentrate on the seemingly more mundane matter of statutory interpretation, and Justice Abella’s statements that we apply a “living tree” methodology in that context. She is flat-out, embarrassingly wrong as a positive law matter; but as a normative matter, the view is dangerous.

On positive law grounds, it is completely untrue that courts in Canada apply a “living tree” approach to the interpretation of statutes as a matter of course. The Supreme Court has held, time and time again, that statutes should given the meaning they had at the time they were adopted. This was the definitive statement of Dickson J in Perka, at 264-265, citing authorities noting that “The words of a statute must be construed as they would have been the day after the statute was passed…” and “Since a statute must be considered in the light of all circumstances existing at the time of its enactment it follows logically that words must be given the meanings they had at the time of enactment, and the courts have so held.”  Most recently, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota stated on Twitter, this was the approach adopted by the Supreme Court in R v DLW  where the Court cited Perka, noting that while broad terms might be afforded a more flexible interpretation, the original meaning governed in that case. Justice Abella dissented. So, contrary to her belief,  the general rule is that the original meaning of a statute applies.

This makes sense. No matter what one thinks the strengths of living constitutionalism are in the constitutional context, the argument loses force in the statutory world.  At a formal level, constitutions are restrictions on the legislature, and one could argue that they are developed by the judicial branch through strong-form judicial review, in Canada. But statutes are clearly the product of the legislative branch (or their delegates). Judges have no warrant–at least since 1688–to legislate. At a functional level, it could be true that Constitutions are not easily amended, and so judges should develop their meaning to new facts. But that same argument is so clearly wrong in the statutory context, where statutes are passed and amended by legislatures all the time.

One might try to steel-man Justice Abella’s comments by relying on the comments in R v DLW and other general interpretive principles. It is true that “dynamic interpretation” is indeed a distinct method of interpretation, recognized in Canada: see Ruth Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes at 175 (2014). While it is true that the Court in R v DLW and other cases have noted that statutory terms can take on a “dynamic meaning,” this is far from the ordinary rule, generally only applicable in defined circumstances given defined statutory language: see Sullivan, at 177. And even if it was, the dynamic approach is not inconsistent with original meaning, and it does not support Justice Abella’s broad misunderstanding of textualism. One can speak of two types of original meaning:

  1. Situations in which statutory terms should be statically applied to the same situations that were in their contemplation at the time of enactment.
  2. Situations in which statutory terms are broad and must be applied to new facts as they arise.

 

Both of these situations are consistent with original meaning. In the first case, both meaning and application are largely frozen at the time of enactment. Sullivan says an interpretation of this sort is justified when “…new facts are functionally equivalent or analogous to facts that were within the ambit of the legislation when it first came into force” (Sullivan, at 179), for example. In the latter case, though, the legislature has spoken more broadly, and this is where a “dynamic” approach enters the fray. But this does not mean that the statute receives a new meaning according to some Abellian idea of an unbridled living tree: it just means that its contours are applied to new facts. We constrain the meaning–the scope of application– using text, context, and purpose. I always use the example of the Kyllo decision in the US, in which the Court endorsed the proposition that the 4th Amendment (protecting against searches and seizures) applied to infrared searches of the home. The scope of the 4th Amendment always protected the home, and it applied to the new facts of infrared searches.

The situation, then, is much more subtle and sophisticated than Justice Abella suggests, and the subtletly does not work in her favour.

Undeterred, she goes on to suggest that courts in Canada take an “anything goes” approach to statutory interpretation, seemingly rejecting textualism. This mistake is even more bizarre, considering the very recent decision in Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. Justice Abella, in her Fordham talk, suggests that courts do not draw lines between “textualism” and “intentionalism” in Canada. But she herself attempts to do so (wrongly) in her dissent, at para 107 of the decision:

The debate between those who are “textualists” and those who are “intentionalists” was resolved in Canada in 1998 when this Court decided that “there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament. We do not just look at the words.

Not only that, but the majority in decision in Wellman comes down on the side of text over abstract, judicially defined purposes. Justice Abella was in dissent–she did not win the argument, for very good reasons. So, again, Justice Abella finds herself claiming that the law is something when it is not.

Two normative conclusions can be drawn about Justice Abella’s odd talk at Fordham, one about the merits of what she says the law is and one about the role of a judge in Canada. Take the latter first. It would be one thing if what Justice Abella said was an honest, innocent mistake. But I find it that hard to believe in these circumstances. Wellman just happened, and Justice Abella lost the argument she now claims she won. Why a judge in our democracy would say this—especially to an international audience—is unclear. We should expect better

The merits of the suggestion that courts in Canada apply a living tree approach to statutes are also lacking. First, as Craig Forcese said on Twitter, the suggestion would amount to a complete reversal of the ordinary structure of our Constitution. The judicial function is, to state what I thought was the obvious, completely separate from the legislative. Justice Abella seems to have much in common with the old English judge who told an unfortunate lawyer trying to give his best interpretation of the statute: “Do not gloss the statute, for we know better than you, we made it.” We’ve moved far beyond these days, and it is odd for a “progressive” judge like Justice Abella to suggest we go back in that direction. Parliamentary sovereignty should stand for something.

The suggestion that judges should make up statutory meaning as they go along would have positively corrosive effects in many areas of law. Criminal law is an obvious example, but administrative law is another. Judges, rather than Parliament, would be the master of agencies if they could expand or narrow the scope of delegated power exercised by these agencies depending on the judges’ particular worldview. Not only does this stand inconsistently with the Court’s own professed idea of deference, it is dangerous to subvert Parliament’s laws in service of a judge’s ideology.

And this, I suppose, is the point. While I believe that Justice Abella means well, she reveals an unfortunate arrogance that crops up in speech after speech. For one, she claims the law is her opinion when it is not. Then, she takes on the mantle of judging what a statute should mean, given her own impressions of what it requires. It takes someone with much self-confidence to do this. Whether or not we should have confidence in her is quite another matter altogether. A Supreme Court judgeship is not enough, in a democracy, to give its holder the mantle of deciding what laws should mean or which laws should apply. Someone who believes so is better suited to be a politician than a judge.

 

Judicial Supremacy, Again

Another attack on judicial supremacy misses the mark

Last week, the Québec government put forward a bill that will, under cover of the Canadian Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” and its provincial analogue, declare irreligion the province’s official creed and bar a multitude of office-holders and public employees from wearing religious symbols. Just a couple of days before, over at Policy Options, Brian Bird published the latest contribution to the judicial-supremacy-bad-legislatures-good genre that has been undergoing something of a revival in Canada of late. It is, alas, no more compelling than all the others.

Mr Bird beings by asking two questions: “Is leaving this responsibility [for upholding the constitution] solely in judicial hands the best way of upholding the supreme law of a liberal democracy such as Canada? Does our Constitution even call for judicial supremacy in constitutional matters?” The first question is misdirection. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that, since the courts are able to enforce the constitution, the other branches of government should ignore it. The answer to the second question, as I have argued here, is a resounding “yes”.


Let me start with that second question. (A fuller statement of my views on it is in the post linked to in the previous paragraph.) Mr. Bird claims that section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”, “does not identify courts as the sole or final arbiters of constitutionality. It identifies no particular branch of the state as uniquely responsible for these tasks.” That much is true: section 52(1) does not explicitly mention the courts. But that’s because it doesn’t have to.

As Mr. Bird himself helpfully explained elsewhere, section 52(1) was not an innovation in the Canadian constitutional system, but rather a replacement for the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865, which required the courts to uphold the supremacy of imperial statutes, including what we now call the various Constitution Acts. If the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982 had wanted to deny the judiciary this authority, they would have given us some indication of the fact, instead of remaining cryptically silent. Far from doing so, the framers also sought to entrench the Supreme Court in the constitution ― or so the Supreme Court itself has told us. Why in the world would they have done that if they didn’t think that the court had a special responsibility for enforcing the constitution itself?

And there is more, as I pointed out in the post linked to above:

[T]he phrase “supreme law” (emphasis added) [in section 52(1) also suggests that, like any law, the Constitution of Canada is subject to interpretation and enforcement by the courts―not by legislatures. Granted, by 1982, the Supreme Court had conceded deference on the interpretation of some legal provisions to administrative adjudicators. But that concession was premised―wisely or not is beside the point here―on these adjudicators’ expertise, including legal expertise in their particular area of jurisdiction. I do not think that Parliament would have been understood to have such expertise.

Mr. Bird, for his part, suggests that “the Constitution’s status as the ‘supreme law’ … demands compliance with the Constitution, not a particular mechanism for enforcing compliance.” Yet the normal mechanism for enforcing compliance with law is adjudication, and even to the extent that enforcement can be delegated to non-judicial institutions (and, to repeat, these are supposedly expert institutions specialized in administering specific areas of the law) the courts retain a power of review over their work. If the 1982 framers contemplated some other mechanism for ensuring compliance with the law they were enacting, they would undoubtedly have said so. In short, in my view the original public meaning of section 52(1) ― in the context of its predecessor provision’s text and history ― clearly requires “judicial supremacy in constitutional matters”.


Coming back, then, to Mr. Bird’s first question, whether we would not be better off if all branches of government, and not just the courts, were engaged in upholding the constitution, one can only say, “of course we would”. Mr. Bird does not identify anyone who might disagree but, for the record, I support his view that “[l]egislatures should repeal unconstitutional laws”. I have misgivings about Mr. Bird’s suggestion that “the executive should not enforce” laws it deems unconstitutional, partly for positive law reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini raises in his latest post, and partly for philosophical reasons I refer to here. But the point is a difficult one, and Mr. Bird may well be right. And of course both legislatures and the executives, so far as the law allows, are free to, and should, do more to uphold the constitution than the courts will let them get away with.

The real question, however, is not whether it would be desirable for Canadian legislatures and executives to endeavour to enforce the constitution, but whether they are at all likely to do so. The answer, sadly, is that they are not. While it is true, Mr. Bird notes, that “[g]overnment lawyers frequently give opinions on the constitutionality of proposed legislation [and] [i]n some cases … have a statutory duty to do so”, the standard they apply for concluding that proposed legislation is constitutional is ridiculously low. (It is close, in effect, to a puke test, or to asking whether a colleague defending the statute would be laughed out of court.) And, as I have noted here, when politicians are required to make their own constitutional judgments (in areas that are not justiciable), they “take the constitution no more seriously than when they act under adult judicial supervision. Actually, they do not care about it at all.”

This is not a uniquely Canadian affliction, of course. In New Zealand, successive Attorneys-General have applied a higher standard than their Canadian colleagues to concluding that a proposed enactment would infringe the Bill of Rights Act 1990, but their not infrequent reports to this effect have largely been ignored by Parliament. And even when the courts have pointed out inconsistencies between ordinary legislation and the Bill of Rights Act, contrary to Mr. Bird optimistic prediction, these indications have not “influence[d] the deliberations of governments and … foster[ed] dialogue between branches of the state on constitutional issues”. Legislation flatly contrary to the Bill of Rights Act remains on the books unaltered.


The attack on judicial supremacy and attempts to discredit the judiciary as constitutional enforcer tend, ultimately, to be based on unwarranted optimism about the interest of the “political branches” for the constitution. In my view, there is little cause for such hopefulness. It is true that jurisdictions with judicially enforceable constitutions, such as New Zealand, may remain fairly free ― though it is also true that New Zealand is vulnerable to illiberal policy shifts against some of which a supreme constitution might offer a modicum of protection. But there is nothing to be gained, and likely something to be lost, by giving up on judicial enforcement of supreme constitutional law.

The revival of arguments in favour of this option, coinciding as it does with a shameless political trampling on constitutional constraints and rights illustrated by Québec’s anti-religious legislation, is puzzling and counter-productive. The courts, of course, are very far from perfect in their capacity as constitutional enforcers. But we should be insisting that they become better at this job, not suggesting that they might as give it up.

Lessening Us: The Supreme Court and SNC-Lavalin

The SNC-Lavalin episode gets worse, if that is possible.

In an apparent effort to distract from the SNC-Lavalin affair, a leak on Monday claimed that the rift between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould began far before the term “deferred prosecution agreement” entered the public lexicon. Apparently, it all started when Wilson-Raybould recommended Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court of Canada. For those unaware, Chief Justice Joyal has, over the years, advanced a welcome antidote for the Charterphile Canadian legal community. His views are not extreme or inappropriate; rather, they are intelligent appreciations of the cultural and institutional changes that the Charter introduced. The fact that he was rejected out of hand for a Supreme Court appointment—and the fact the circumstances of his appointment have been leaked—are indictments of both Canada’s legal and political system.

The most important part of all of this is the morally repugnant way in which Chief Justice Joyal’s application for the bench was released by some unknown party. Originally, it was reported that Trudeau scuttled Wilson-Raybould’s recommendation because of his disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal’s views. Then, it was reported that Chief Justice Joyal actually withdrew his application, because his wife was suffering from metastatic breast cancer. The fact that this was leaked, and that Chief Justice Joyal’s personal life was implicated in the process, is a low for Canadian politics. No one should have to endure public scrutiny on a matter as personal–and tragic–as a cancer diagnosis.

What makes it even more tragic is that, as Chief Justice Joyal noted, his personal situation seems to be used as an agenda for the broader SNC-Lavalin controversy. The implication of all of this is that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the information to the press in order to show just how misguided Wilson-Raybould was as Attorney General. If there was any doubt, the episode shows just how far some politicos will go to undermine not only norms surrounding judicial appointments but also the personal lives of those in the way.

And, all of this for views that are not at all controversial and are important counterpoints to the ongoing debates about the Charter and its institutional features. A good example of Chief Justice Joyal’s welcome assessment of the major counter-majoritarian difficulty introduced by the Charter is his 2017 speech to the Law and Freedom Conference. The main theme of the speech outlined the consequences of the “judicial potency” that the Charter introduced, a feature that “was not anticipated back in 1982.” These consequences are ones that are not often discussed, are certainly true. For example, consider a few of the consequences Chief Justice Joyal noted:

  • The constitutional requirements imposed by the Charter do not “mesh” well with the legislative process, making it more difficult to make laws.
  • The Charter has moved important debates outside of the realm of the legislature and into the realm of courts.
  • This movement outside of the legislative realm creates “a public discourse dominated by the concept of ‘rights’,” one that is defined by “judicial formulations and tests.”
  • The political culture introduced by the Charter conflates constitutionality with policy wisdom, when there is no need to necessarily merge the two concepts.

Agree or disagree, these are all important consequences of the system of judicial review introduced by the Charter, and the way in which Canadian lawyers have reacted to that power of review. There is no doubt that the Canadian legal community largely suffers from “Charteritis,” (not my term–check out David Mossop’s 1985 article entited “Charteritis and Other Legal Diseases”). And for that reason, Chief Justice Joyal’s remarks in 2017 were a welcome appreciation of the symptoms of that disease.

But in the leak published on Monday, the nuance and force of Chief Justice Joyal’s conclusions were completely lost. Apparently, when Wilson-Raybould recommended Chief Justice Joyal to the bench, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned about the 2017 speech. Trudeau was apparently concerned that Joyal would be less willing to protect rights that have come from judicial interpretation of the Charter, including rights to abortion access and LGBTQ2 rights.

If this is true, this base understanding of Chief Justice Joyal’s legal views is completely wrong. There is nothing in his 2017 speech that would indicate a preference—one way or another—for any particular issue that would come before the Supreme Court, should he have been a judge. All of Chief Justice Joyal’s broader views are perfectly consistent with a respect for stare decisis and the cases that have entrenched rights, whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided.

Chief Justice Joyal’s views have nothing to do with these issues, simply put. They merely stand for the idea that, in the age of the Charter, the legislatures have assumed a different role. This is simply an empirical fact. There are consequences to this. One is that, rather than dealing with issues through the cut-and-thrust of political debate, we have moved those debates into the courts, which are often ill-suited to deal with these sorts of problems. The issue of Aboriginal rights and title is a perfect example. Because of the recalcitrance of governments over generations, Aboriginal groups have, strategically, moved to the courts to vindicate their rights. But that does not mean that the judicial forum is a better place to do so. The Tsilqho’tin case is a good example of this—a case which took decades of time and untold resources to reach the Supreme Court. Even people who believe in the Charter, and in the judicial role that it introduced, should recognize that legislatures should still be important areas of public debate that should be equal constitutional actors in their own right, owed respect by the Supreme Court’s judges.

While it is perfectly appropriate for the Prime Minister to want to appoint people to the bench who reflect his view of the Constitution, those views should at least be informed and educated. Based on the media reporting so far, it appears that the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to understand that one can have different approaches to Charter interpretation—or a less positive view of the broader implications of the Charter—and still have a respect for the document as a matter of constitutional law. Even if one thinks those views are wrong, this is no reason to misunderstand what Chief Justice Joyal’s views actually represent.

Taken together, this whole SNC-Lavalin episode continues to lessen us–our law and our politics.

The Empty Canard of the Living Tree “Doctrine”

In 1989, Justice Scalia gave a speech entitled “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis.” These “canards,” are “certain oft-repeated statements…” that, while having “little actual impact upon the decision of the case” are “part of its atmospherics, or of its overarching philosophy…” Justice Scalia gave the example of the old adage that “remedial statutes should be liberally construed,” a canard because it is difficult to determine what a “remedial statute” is, and then because it is not a judge’s role to pick and choose statutes to be interpreted liberally and strictly.

In the last few days, both the Stereo Decisis podcast and my co-blogger Leonid have focused on a case out of Quebec in which our own Canadian canard was put to work: the idea that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be interpreted as a “living tree.” In the context of the case at issue, Leonid received flack from the Stereo Decisis podcast hosts for suggesting a textualist approach to the interpretation of s.12 of the Charter, while the hosts were focused on determining the normative commitments that should influence constitutional interpretation, having concluded that the language of the Charter is written in open-ended and ambiguous language. Lurking in the background of this debate between textualism (properly understood) and the openness of language is the idea that the Constitution should evolve to encompass certain normative commitments, whether or not they are discernible in the text. This is the core of the living tree approach.

But no one has ever described—with real precision—how a living-tree “doctrine” would work in practice, and so it is simply unconvincing to state, without more, that the Charter should or could encompass evolving normative commitments not fairly implicated by the text. Until the proponents of the living tree suggest some way—any way—that the doctrine should actually operate, it should be resigned to the dustbin of history. My point here is not to point out the flaws of the living tree methodology; others have done that. Instead, I want to suggest that for the living tree doctrine to become an actual doctrine, it should answer a number of fundamental questions. None of these questions are new, but they come into stark relief, requiring urgent answers, if the living tree is going to remain even a part of the Canadian constitutional atmosphere.

Why, for example, has the Supreme Court rarely applied the doctrine in any substantial way, despite it being a favourite among legal academics? One would be hard pressed to think of a case where the living tree was a decisive factor in favour of one party or another, or where it was applied to some distinct substantive end. In fact, in Comeau, the interprovincial beer case, while the Court mentioned the living tree doctrine, it was quick to point out that the metaphor is not an open invitation to constitutionalize modern policy outcomes [83]. So much for a leading interpretive theory of constitutional interpretation, especially when it appears that, on least some occasions, the Court has endorsed the opposite of a living tree approach.

Even if the living tree stood tall in the pantheon of constitutional interpretation, no one can answer how the doctrine should actually operate. In the United States, some attempts have been made by leading scholars to cloak living constitutionalism in the credentials of an actual interpretive theory. David Strauss, for example, links living constitutionalism to a sort of common law constitutionalism. To my knowledge, few if any in Canada have attempted to “steel-man” the living tree doctrine to turn it into something resembling an interpretive doctrine. The lack of effort is telling in the unanswered questions: should the living tree apply to expand the actual scope of rights, or should it just apply to new applications unknown to the framers? If the latter, how is this distinguishable from originalism, properly applied? After all, the dominant school of originalism is public meaning originalism, not original expected applications originalism. If this is all the living tree approach denotes, then it is a duplicative piece of atmospherics that is better left to the pages of poets rather than the law books.

Most strikingly—and this was laid bare in the Stereo Decisis podcast episode—how should a living tree “doctrine” mediate between different normative considerations? If the text gives us no answers, how we are to determine which values should be granted the imprimatur of constitutional protection? How do we determine whether society has evolved, such that a certain value is now constitutionally cognizable? How do we define “society?” These questions have never been answered in Canada.

Even if they could be answered, as Leonid points out in his post on the matter, there is nothing to suggest that courts are institutionally or normatively capable of getting to even defensible answers on these questions. These are not questions that are based on evidence, facts, or even legal norms. They are philosophical, involving inquiries into the mind of the cultural zeitgeist. Are we certain—or even confident—that judges can answer these questions?

If the proponents of the living tree want it to be a serious doctrine of constitutional law, these are all questions that should be answered. Until then, the status quo position should be that the living tree is a turn of phrase, taken out of context, that has no real substantive quality.

N.B. A reader has commented that Wil Waluchow has written about a sort of common law constitutionalism in Canada. I cannot speak with confidence as to whether Waluchow’s work is similar to the Straussian view, but at first blush it appears relevant. Whether it answers the legal questions posed in this post is another question.

Romancing the Law

An ode to formalism and reflections on Runnymede’s Law and Freedom Conference

I had the pleasure of attending last weekend’s Runnymede Society conference in Toronto. As always, the conference was a welcome opportunity to meet with old friends and new, and to reflect on a number of pertinent issues in Canadian law.

Perhaps because of my own research interests in the last year, I was particularly interested in a theme that seemed to run throughout the conference: the degree of confidence that each of us has in law, particularly the statutory law. Justice Stratas’ talk with Asher Honickman highlighted that there are many in the legal community that, if not giving up on law, are questioning its relevance in a society that is now defined by greater calls for context, nuance, individualized application, and discretion.  The virtues of rules—the creation of economies of scale, the structuring of norms and expectations according to positive orders, the costs saved at the ex post application stage—are apparently counterweighed by the potential for overbroad application, rank injustice, and otherwise discriminatory treatment.

The degree to which we are worried about these vices, or encouraged by these virtues, is probably a function of our belief in legislatures and their work product. Even if legislatures do not get things “right,” there are good reasons to believe that what the legislature does is owed a wide degree of respect–because of the value of legislative compromises, the “finely-wrought” legislative procedure, and the representative nature of the legislature . Nowadays, though, a commitment to the law passed by the legislature is labelled pejoratively as “formalist.” In administrative law, offshoots of this belief are characterized, dismissively and without analysis, as “Diceyan” or an unwelcome throwback to the days of “ultra vires” (take a look at the oral argument in the Bell/NFL & Vavilov cases for many examples of this).  In statutory interpretation, a belief that text in its context will generally contain answers is dismissed as a belief in “the plain meaning rule,” mere “textualism”–notwithstanding the important distinction between these two methods. In constitutional law, a focus on constitutional text is “originalism.” None of these are arguments, but they have since infiltrated the orthodoxy of the academy.

The consequences of this argument-by-label should not be understated. Take the case of statutory interpretation. The Supreme Court of Canada tells us that we should interpret statutes purposively, but at the same time, that the text will play a dominant role in the process when it is clear (Canada Trustco, at para 10). This implies that purposes, while helpful to the interpretive process, should not dominate where the text is clearly pointing in another direction.

But a focus on statutory text—especially the contention that text can ever be clear—is often derided as inconsistent with the contingent and “ambiguous” nature of language. So the argument goes, text can never truly be “clear,” and so textualism falls away. But whether the text of a statute will contain answers to an interpretive difficulty is, in part, a function of the judge’s belief in the coherence and determinacy of law—in other words, her appreciation of the point at which “law runs out”. A judge inclined to believe that the tools of statutory interpretation can be used to come to a defensible answer on a matter will commit herself to that task, and will probably not consider legislative language “ambiguous” in its purposive context. For her, law will maybe never run out, or if it does, it will only do so in the extreme case of true ambiguity, where no discernible meaning cognizable to human understanding could be appreciated. A judge less committed to the determinacy of law will be more willing to introduce extraneous materials—legislative history, Charter values—in order to come to a meaning that makes sense to her. For her, the law may “run out” quite early. The risk here, of course, is the enlargement of the scope for judicial discretion. For those who believe in the general soundness of statutory law, this creates the potential for conflict with the generally-elected representative body.

This is not a hypothetical problem. In the United States, Chevron administrative law deference rests on the judge’s appreciation of statutory language. At step 1, courts are asked to apply the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation to determine if Congress spoke clearly on a particular matter. If so, that meaning binds the agency. If not, at step 2, if there is ambiguity in a statute, courts defer to a reasonable agency interpretation. As Justice Scalia said, a judge committed to the text at step 1 will rarely need to move to step 2. In this way, there would be less scope for agencies to exercise virtually unreviewable discretion. Those who believe that law runs out earlier will, ceterus paribus, be more willing to allow multiple decision-makers to come to very different decisions on a matter so long as those decisions are roughly justified by a statute.

The various points on the spectrum of “giving up on law” will be the product of many factors, including factors particular to cases before courts. But at some level, a belief that text can, or should, contain answers seems to undergird the entire process of determining the meaning of a statute. I think there are good reasons to hold the belief that what the legislature produces is generally sound for reasons that are particular to the legislative process and the law in question. To my mind, judges should be wary of letting text “run out,” in part because of what replaces it; more abstract, generally less clear “second-tier” sources of legislative meaning (Note: sometimes text will be truly unclear, and a statutory purpose can be clearly gleaned from the text. Our law sees no problem with this, and neither do I).

This is not to presuppose that legislatures always make sense in their enactments. The process of making law is not designed to be a perfect application of human rationality or even of expertise. Legislatures sometimes don’t make sense. But there are good reasons to respect the legislative process. Importantly, seemingly non-sensical legislative compromises, run through readings in Parliament and the committee process, are sometimes the product of concessions to minority groups, represented through their Members of Parliament. These legislative compromises are sometimes essential, and should be respected even if they do not make sense. Judge Easterbrook puts it well: “If this [an outcome of statutory interpretation] is unprincipled, it is the way of compromise. Law is a vector rather than an arrow. Especially when you see the hand of interest groups.”

If the legislative process is imperfect, so is the process of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation will not always yield easy answers, or even the ex ante “correct” answer. The tools of statutory interpretation are often contradictory, some say outmoded, and sometimes unwieldly. But as Judge Posner said in his book Reflections on Judging, the tools of statutory interpretation are designed to impose meaning. Used authentically and faithfully, with a concomitant belief in the legitimacy of the law passed by the legislature, they help courts come to a defensible conclusion on the meaning of a provision; one that is consonant with the universe of laws in the statute book, with the particular statute’s larger purposes, and the immediate context of a statute.

It worries me that some no longer belief in this process—in the formal quality of law as law, in the idea that when the legislature speaks, it does so for a reason. Similarly, I worry that the invitation for judges to rely on values and principles extraneous to a statute—for example, Charter values, legislative history, etc—to impose a meaning on a statute is based on wrongheaded idea that judicial discretion is somehow absolutely better than legislative power. I, for one, think that we should expect judges in a constitutional democracy to believe in the law passed by the legislature. This is not judicial acquiescence, but there is perhaps a value to formalism. Parliament, to be sure, does not always get everything right. But there is a benefit to formalism: the way in which Parliament passes laws is subject to a formal process, interposed with legislative study. The way we elect our leaders and the way Parliament operates is, in a way, formal. The law it creates should be owed respect by those sworn to uphold it.

The debate over rules versus standards or discretion is one that is rife throughout history. But presupposing the debate, I always thought, was a belief in law itself. For those of us at Runnymede this weekend, we were invited to question whether that belief exists any longer.