The Court on Conventions

Shameless self-promotion for my latest academic article

In academia if not so much elsewhere, the sesquicentennial of Confederation is being used an occasion for some retrospectives on Canada’s constitutional development that go back further than what Ian Holloway ironically calls the “year zero” of 1982. One such retrospective was a very successful conference organized by Matthew Harrington that was held at the Université de Montréal a couple of weeks ago; another, not coincidentally, is a book/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review edited by prof. Harrington. The book consists of chapters by various Canadian academics examining specific areas of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in the realms of constitutional structure, individual rights, and private law.

My own contribution deals with constitutional conventions. In a nutshell, it is a review of the Court’s engagement with constitutional conventions, from the 1930s and into the early 21st century ― I don’t discuss the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, because that discussion would have required a separate, and longer, paper. (That paper is what I presented at the UdeM conference; I hope to have it ready for submission soon enough.) I do review some of the scholarly responses to that jurisprudence, and reiterate my own view that the Court’s take on conventions is misguided and should be revisited. Here is the abstract:

Conventions are among the most important rules of the Canadian constitution. Yet orthodox legal theory does not recognize them as being rules of law, a view which the Supreme Court of Canada endorsed in the Patriation Reference. Nevertheless, both before and after the Patriation Reference, the Court’s jurisprudence engaged with existing or alleged constitutional conventions. This article reviews this jurisprudence, and the scholarly commentary that responded to it. It concludes that the Court’s endorsement of the orthodox view that there exists a rigid separation between conventions and law was poorly justified, and ought to be abandoned.

The paper is available on SSRN. As Lawrence Solum says, download it while it’s hot!

An Invitation

Can those who endorse “living tree” constitutional interpretation tell us why, and what it entails?

When Benjamin Oliphant and I wrote our twin articles on originalism in Canada, we did our best to avoid normative conclusions other than a call for further reflection on, and greater consistency in, constitutional interpretation. But, for me at least ― I cannot speak for my co-author, of course ―, the normative inquiry seems like a natural step to be taken soon. (We’ll see when and in what form.) And, right now, my preliminary view is that Canadian constitutional jurisprudence ought to be (more) originalist (than it is now), because the alternative, the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation, suffers from various problems.

But before really getting into an argument about why this is so, I probably need to understand what it is that I want to argue against better. I have no wish to attack a straw-man. And there is a greater than usual danger of doing so in debates about constitutional interpretation. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, originalism is often poorly understood in Canada, and only obsolete or caricatured versions of it are criticized. In part, this is as no doubt due to a lack of a good Canadian review of what originalism is, which is why we devoted a good deal of space and effort to producing one. Unfortunately, I am not sure that there is an equivalent statement of the views of the other side in this debate either.

So, I would like to ask for my readers’ help. Presumably, many of you think that the constitution ought to be understood as a “living tree”. That’s what the Supreme Court often tells us, after all, even as it not infrequently does something else altogether. It would be very helpful, in advancing the debate about constitutional interpretation, if both sides articulated their views clearly. Presumably, the “living tree” camp has had a while to form its beliefs, even if it has not had much need to explain them in recent decades. Can some of those in this camp take a stab at doing so now?

One way of going about it would be to bring into sharper focus the living constitutionalists’ objections to originalism. To do that, they might address some of the issues that Lawrence Solum describes, in a most helpful recent post on his Legal Theory Blog, as being the main ones “that divide originalists and living constitutionalists.” Here they are, reformulated as questions for living constitutionalists and adapted to the Canadian context:

1) Do you think that the linguistic meaning (communicative content) of the constitutional text changes over time after its entrenchment (say in 1867 or 1982)?

2) Do you think that the Supreme Court, Parliament, and the provincial legislatures should have a power to modify or override the communicative content of the constitutional text in response to changing circumstances and values?

3) Do you think that the original meaning of constitutional text is either radically indeterminate or so underdeterminate that originalism would not meaningfully constrain constitutional practice?

4) Do you think that the original meaning of our constitutional texts is epistemically inaccessible (i.e. we cannot know, or at least show that we know, what it is)?

5) Do you think that that judges are incompetent to investigate original meaning or so biased that they will be unable to act in compliance with original meaning (perhaps even if dispassionate scholars could do so)? In other words, do you think that originalist judges would simply be ideologues?

(Professor Solum asks an additional question, whether those who reject originalism want to “simply retire the Constitution as a framework of government”, but I’m pretty confident that few if any Canadian living constitutionalists do. Perhaps they have other objections to originalism though. If so, I would love to hear about those too.)

Beyond clarifying their objections to originalism, it would be great if some proponents of “living tree” constitutional interpretation clearly articulated their positive commitments or beliefs. To this end, I would like to suggest a few more questions, though I do not mean the list to be exhaustive:

6) Is updating constitutional meaning the exclusive prerogative of courts, or can other institutions (Parliament, the legislatures, the Crown) do it too? Why? If political actors can “actualize” constitutional meaning, should the courts defer to their attempts to do so?

7) When courts or other constitutional actors update constitutional meaning, what should they be taking into account? There are several possibilities: judicial precedents; popular opinion; the rules or principles expressed or implicit in non-constitutional law (perhaps especially legislation) as it stands from time to time; the judges’ own philosophical beliefs; perhaps others.

8) Are there any constraints on courts or other constitutional actors updating constitutional meaning? What are they? Are such constraints useful or indeed essential?

I am not being facetious here. When I say that these are questions to which I do not know and would like to learn the answers, I mean it. They are big questions, of course, and you might think that to answer them in an appropriately serious fashion you would need to write an article, or even a book, and have no time for that. Fair enough. Or you might make that your next project, in which case I will be looking forward to reading you whenever you are ready! But if you would like to attempt some short answers, that would be fantastic. I would be delighted to publish them, if you are ok with me doing so, or I will keep them for my own edification. It’s all up to you.

Arguing against Originalism Badly

Noura Karazivan’s flawed argument against using originalism to understand constitutional structure

Noura Karazivan has recently published an article called “Constitutional Structure and Original Intent: A Canadian Perspective” in the University of Illinois Law Review. Prof. Karazivan raises interesting questions: what is, and what should be, the mix of originalism and living constitutionalism in the Supreme Court’s treatment of constitutional structure ― understood as the set of institutions that make up Canada’s government, and the relations among them. Unfortunately, prof. Karazivan’s argument suffers from her failure to engage seriously with contemporary originalist thought, or indeed to take note of recent work exploring it in the Canadian context, and her answer to the normative question, which decisively favours living constitutionalism, is unsatisfactory.

* * *

Prof. Karazivan’s starting point is an orthodox proposition: “[i]n Canadian constitutional law, there is no doubt that a broad, purposive, and progressive approach”, described by the famous “living tree” metaphor, “is preferred” for the interpretation of any and all constitutional provisions, (630) though she acknowledges that the Supreme Court uses other interpretive methods too. In addition to being used in the interpretation of constitutional text, living constitutionalism has played a crucial role in a number of decisions concerning constitutional structure. For example, in l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, the Court’s “conclusion would probably have been different” had it not engaged in “actualizing” its place in the constitutional structure, and only looked “its role in 1875”. (648)

Yet in a couple of recent decisions, says Prof. Karazivan, the Court adopted a more originalist approach to constitutional structure, rather than the evolutionist one that it normally favours. Prof. Karazivan focuses on Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, but also mentions Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 31. In the former, “the Court greatly relied on the intent of the 1867 framers”, (646) who wished the Upper House to supply “sober second thought”. The Court disregarded the practice of partisan appointments to the Senate, the Senate’s contemporary role, and even “the impact of the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982”, (647) which arguably transferred the role of protector of constitutional rights from the Senate to the judiciary. Meanwhile, in Trial Lawyers, the superior courts’ historic dispute-settling role was crucial to the decision.

Prof. Karazivan argues that the Supreme Court was wrong to resort to originalism in these decisions. She gives four reasons. First, she takes Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 SCR 486 to stand for the proposition that the judiciary is not bound by the intent of constitutional framers. Second, originalism can make no democratic claim in Canada, since the Constitution Act, 1867 was the work of “a group of white men, mostly Parliamentarians, concerned with the preservation of British institutions on Canadian soil”, while “[t]he constitutional negotiations in 1982 were even less ‘democratic'”. (651; square quotes in the original) In short, “Canada does not have a great constitutional moment”. (651) Third, the Canadian constitution is simply too rigid for the courts not to update it from time to time. Finally, a “living tree” approach to interpretation yields a fuller understanding of both the constitution as a whole and its various components, as well as being “in line with Canadian constitutional structure and tradition”. (654)

* * *

As I said at the outset, this is unconvincing. Prof. Karazivan repeats pieties about the superiority of living constitutionalism to originalism without understanding what originalism actually is. Although she refers, in passing, to the distinction between originalist interpretation that seeks the intent of constitutional framers and that which centres on the constitution’s original public meaning, her article focuses on original intent ― which relatively few contemporary originalists are still committed to. Prof. Karazivan also enlists a number of cases, such as the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference and Reference re Employment Insurance Act (Can.), ss. 22 and 23, 2005 SCC 56, [2005] 2 SCR 669, in support of the proposition that living constitutionalism is the dominant approach to interpretation in Canada, while originalism has been rejected. Yet Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown that not only do these cases not support the claim of a wholesale rejection of originalism, but they are arguably (in the case of the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference) or quite clearly (in the case of Employment Insurance Reference) consistent with public meaning originalism.

More broadly, we have also shown that the Supreme Court has never squarely rejected the more plausible forms of originalism, and indeed that various forms of originalist reasoning make frequent, if erratic, appearances in the Court’s reasoning. In particular, as both we and J. Gareth Morley and Sébastien Grammond have observed, originalist reasoning features heavily not only in the Senate Reform Reference, which prof. Karazivan decries, but also in the Nadon Reference, which she commends. Mr. Oliphant and I have also pointed out that cases on the jurisdiction of superior courts have had an originalist bent well before Trial Lawyers. In short, at the level of description, prof. Karazivan’s story, in which a largely living constitutionalist Supreme Court issued a couple of aberrant originalist decisions is much too simple.

Prof. Karazivan’s normative argument is even weaker. Her appeal to the authority of Justice Lamer’s opinion in the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference has to be set against not only the arguable  consistency of this opinion with public meaning originalism, but also its author’s resort to more explicitly originalist reasoning elsewhere. For instance, in B(R) v Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, [1995] 1 SCR 315 he wrote that

[t]he flexibility of the principles [the Charter] expresses does not give [the courts] authority to distort their true meaning and purpose, nor to manufacture a constitutional law that goes beyond the manifest intention of its framers. (337)

Prof. Karazivan’s denial that Canada had “a great constitutional moment”, and her insistence that the drafting of the Constitution Act, 1867 (by “white men”) and that of the Constitution Act, 1982 (presumably by persons unknown) would be simply bizarre were they not sadly typical of the ritual denigration of Canadian constitutional history in which even Supreme Court judges have been known to engage. The truth, though, is that Canada did have not one, but two great constitutional moments ― in the mid-1860s and the early 1980s. My friend Alastair Gillespie has been exploring the first of these in a compelling (and ongoing) series of papers for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which, as I have written in a recent post for the CBA National

make clear [that] the Fathers of Confederation wrestled with such seemingly contemporary questions as whether diversity is a source of weakness of strength for a political community, what claims such a community may legitimately make on minorities within its midst, and what rights these minorities may assert against the community. The settlement of 1867 was a remarkable achievement in this regard.

To be sure, the Fathers of Confederation were indeed white men ― as were those who took part in the framing of the US Constitution, to which prof. Karazivan does not deny the status of a “great constitutional moment”. This is one reason, among others, why I do not find the democratic case for originalism very compelling. But the sexism and racism of our 19th-century forbears is not a reason for dismissing the substance of their achievements; and least of all for allowing a group nine men and women, who are if anything even less representative of society than the Fathers of Confederation on every dimension except for gender, the power to re-write the constitution. As for the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it was preceded by wide-ranging public consultations which resulted, for example, in the adoption of section 28 at the urging of feminist groups, as Kerri Froc has shown. Why prof. Karazivan claims it was undemocratic, I cannot understand.

That the constitution is rigid and difficult to amend is a feature, not a bug that needs to be removed by the backdoor expedient of judicial reinterpretation. The politicians who came up with and agreed to the amending formula in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 obviously thought it was flexible enough. Why were they wrong? That said, had prof. Karazivan taken public meaning originalism, and in particular the work of those originalists who recognize the distinction between constitutional interpretation and constitutional construction, seriously, she would have realized that many, perhaps most originalists do not advocate for a static constitutional law. They insist that the meaning of the constitution’s text is fixed, but recognize that this text can in fact be applied to facts and circumstances quite unforeseen at the time of its drafting through the development of constitutional doctrine.

Finally, I fail to see how living constitutionalism can lead us to a better understanding of the constitution. The argument, insofar as I understand it, seems question-begging. Saying treating the constitution as a “living tree” allows us to understand it better presupposes that the object of constitutional interpretation is the contemporary constitution rather than the intention of the constitutional text’s drafters or its original public meaning ― which is very much the point in issue. To be sure, Canadian constitutional tradition is laden with denunciations ― usually quite ignorant denunciations ― of originalism. But as the emerging Canadian scholarship that takes originalism seriously shows, these denunciations do not tell us the whole story. Nor can they serve as a normative justification in the absence of any more compelling ones.

* * *

As I mentioned at the outset, prof. Karazivan addresses an important question, that of the place of originalism in the Supreme Court’s understanding of constitutional structure. Unfortunately, she does so in a way that reflects a simplistic or outdated understanding of originalism, and as a result oversimplifies relevant precedents and offers thoroughly unconvincing arguments against originalism. That her arguments do not succeed does not show that the Court is right to be as originalist as it is, or that it ought to be more so. That case remains to be made. But so does prof. Karazivan’s in favour of living constitutionalism. Her article does not advance it.

Why I am Not a Conservative Either

Thoughts on Chief Justice Joyal’s very interesting speech on the Charter and Canada’s political culture

Glenn D. Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, gave the keynote address at last January Canadian Constitution Foundation’s recent Law and Freedom Conference. His talk, “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture: Are We All Ambassadors Now?”, was interesting and thought-provoking. Although the prepared text has been available on the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law for some time, the CCF only posted the recording of his remarks yesterday, so now is the time for me to comment. Chief Justice Joyal sought to attract his audience’s attention to fact that Canadians have come to believe that courts, rather than legislators, are the forum in which important social issues must be settled. This is both a consequence of our lack of respect for legislatures, and a reason for why elected institutions find themselves in a weak position vis-à-vis the courts. Chief Justice Joyal would like to change our political culture. I am not persuaded that change in the direction he envisions would be for the better.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to thank Chief Justice Joyal for referring to my exchange with my friend Asher Honickman on the scope and judicial approach to section 7 of the Charter in the Q&A. (My posts are here, here, and here.) After Justice Stratas on the same occasion last year, Chief Justice Joyal is the second sitting judge to mention my blogging, and this is, needless to say, most gratifying for me personally, but also as a believer in the value of this still-underappreciated medium.

* * *

Political culture, according to Chief Justice Joyal’s definition is the set of

attitudes and beliefs that citizens and its specific institutional actors hold about the political system. Political culture can also be seen as the conglomeration of ideas and attitudes which set the parameters in which debate over policy justifications take place.

(The quotes, here and below, are from the text published by ARL)

Historically, Canada’s political culture was a mix of “liberal” and “non-liberal” (partly “Tory” and partly “social-demoratic”) ideas, which were bound together by a belief in Parliament and the legislatures as the arbiters of social conflict and makers of common rules for the common weal. Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force, however, the belief in legislative authority has been eroded. Instead, “a broad cross-section of the Canadian citizenry and its institutional actors” have developed

an almost unconditional willingness to accept or endorse the idea of judicial adjudications in respect of what are often complex and even insoluble social and political problems. What were once political issues are now frequently transformed into legal issues.

This, in turn, has created a “new and imbalanced relationship between the judiciary and the legislative branch”.

According to Chief Justice Joyal, these developments were not contemplated by those who made the Charter. It was, after all, a compromise between Pierre Trudeau’s federal government, which insisted on an entrenched set of protected rights, and provinces that were wary of restrictions on Parliamentary sovereignty and the “innovations” introduced by an “extremely potent judiciary” in the United States. Measures were taken to prevent a repetition of the American experience in Canada. The Charter contains section 1, which allows rights to be limited, and section 33, which

was meant to signal to the courts, a caution, a caution in respect of any misconception that the judiciary might have were they, the judiciary, inclined to give the absolutely most expansive scope to the enumerated Charter rights.

For its part, section 7 was drafted

to avoid any language that would mandate substantive review and that would have the effect of permitting s. 7 to be interpreted to mean just about anything that could attract five votes on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Yet these “common expectations” about how the Charter would be applied and what role it would play have not been fulfilled. The Supreme Court read section 7 to require substantive review of legislative choices. It engaged in interpretation and re-interpretation of the Charter that expanded the set of rights that its framers had chosen to protect. It loosened the rules of standing and justiciability, causing more claims to be brought. It weakened precedent, allowing issues to be re-litigated just a decade or two after they were (we thought) settled. It applied section 1  by engaging in the “traditionally legislative function” of “ad hoc interest balancing and cost benefit analysis”. The notwithstanding clause, meanwhile, turned into a “nuclear option” ― and a dead letter.

Chief Justice Joyal worries that this all has caused legislatures to be marginalized. Indeed, there has been a “flight from politics toward the zero-sum game of Charter litigation”, which

often leaves the broader citizenry on the sidelines in a potentially disempowered state[,] not always able to understand, discuss or debate, the highly technical and legalistic formulations and tests which now often form the basis of a final determination concerning a significant societal issue.

This trend ought to be reversed, in part through “continuing efforts at renewal of parliamentary and political institutions”, so as to “restor[e] a peculiarly Canadian institutional balance in the judicial/legislative relationship”, featuring “a resuscitated and bold legislative branch [able] to once again assertively shape attitudes and policies”, and even to “articulat[e] and promot[e] its own interpretation” of the Charter. The traditional Canadian political culture, with its mix of liberal and non-liberal sensitivities and belief in the public good as expressed in legislation ought to prevail over the

more American liberal / rationalist approach to rights protection, [which] gives expression to what used to be a very un-Canadian distrust of government [and] arguably removes more and more areas from legitimate spheres of government action and influence.

* * *

I am, I’m afraid, part the problem that Chief Justice Joyal identifies. I distrust government ― partly because I believe that power corrupts, partly because I democratic government is subject to ineradicable problems of political ignorance (and courts might not be much of a solution), partly because of what public choice theory has taught us. I am a (classical) liberal, an unapologetic one. Whether this is un-Canadian, or indeed peculiarly American, I hesitate to say. I do, however, reiterate my belief that one should not fall for the old trope of reading differences of national psyche into the alleged contrast between “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” and “peace, order, and good government”. My friend Alastair C.F. Gillespie and Brian Lee Crowley pointed out, in introducing what is looking to be a fascinating series of papers on Confederation by Mr. Gillespie, that “[c]omparisons of American revolutionary ideals and Canada’s supposedly ‘Tory’ Constitution have sometimes been too crudely made” and argue that “Canadians should … take pride that our founders’ speeches breathe an atmosphere of liberty, even if that liberty was not yet wholly realized.” (4-5) But be that as it may, I am rather skeptical that a return to politics would do us much good.

Now, unlike the dominant tide in Canadian political culture against which Chief Justice Joyal wants to push back, I am not uncritical of the courts ― of their power and of the manner in which they exercise it. But when I argue that courts overstep the bounds of their constitutional role, it is not out of any special solicitude for legislatures. It is because I believe that all power must be limited, and that those who wield it must not fancy themselves the saviours of society, when they are only its servants. This applies to the judicial power ― and also to the legislative and the executive. So I share Chief Justice Joyal’s discomfort at some of the post-Charter jurisprudential developments ― at the excessive ease with which courts have sometimes granted public interest standing, the creation of constitutional “rights” out of whole cloth, the often unprincipled application of section 1 balancing.

But, to repeat, these matters worry me because they, and other things, like extra-judicial statements that call into question judges’ commitment to the Rule of Law, raise the spectre of a judiciary that denies any constraint on its power ― and not because they portend an erosion of legislative power or mark a departure from the “common understandings” of 1982. Constitutional texts have a way of not working out the way their framers expect them to (my go-to example on this is the upending of the mechanism for electing the president set up by the Constitution of the United States), especially of course when the framers rely on “understandings” instead of actually writing down what they mean. So I am not bothered by the development of the norm, perhaps even the convention, against the use of section 33 of the Charter (which, as I have argued even in the face of some decisions that I would desperately like to see undone, has served us well ). Nor am I bothered by the Supreme Court’s reading of section 7 as encompassing substantive as well as procedural principles of justice, which ― as Benjamin Oliphant and I show in our recent Queen’s Law Journal article ― was at least a defensible interpretation of that provision’s original public meaning, even though it clearly contradicted its framers’ intent. It is only the meaning, in my view, that is binds the courts. (Chief Justice Joyal suggested, in the Q&A, that we might distinguish between “garden-variety” cases in which meaning might be controlling, and other, especially important ones, in which we must refer to intent. I do not see how such a distinction could operate.)

Ultimately, I do not share Chief Justice Joyal’s concern that

judicial incursion into subject areas and issues of profound political, moral and social complexity[] has the potential effect of removing these issues from the civic and political realms where ongoing and evolving debate and discussion may have taken place.

A very similar concern motivates Jeremy Waldron’s critique of (strong-form) judicial review of legislation. The critique is a powerful one, but here is, I think, the “principled” objection to it. (Ilya Somin’s objection based on political ignorance is also an important one, but it is more contingent, in theory anyway.) The concern with what Chief Justice Joyal describes as the “de facto constitutionalization of political and social issues” assumes that some issues are inherently “political” and/or “social”, and must therefore be resolved through society’s political institutions. Prof. Waldron’s position is, in effect, that every conceivable issue is of this sort, though Chief Justice Joyal’s views do not extend so far. (Chief Justice Joyal said, in his talk, that we must “respect” the Charter.) But I am not persuaded by the claim, whether in its more radical Waldronian form, or in Chief Justice Joyal’s more moderate one.

The frontiers between law’s empire and that of politics are not immutable. There is no reason to believe that the position that every social issue is by default subject to politics is entitled to be treated as a baseline against which a polity’s constitutional arrangements ought to be measured, and any departure from it justified and limited. It is the position of some political cultures ― say that of post-New Deal political culture in the United States, which reached its peak in the 1940s before declining in the subsequent decades, as the U.S. Supreme Court started vigorously enforcing guarantees of (non-economic) individual rights, or of New Zealand even to this day. But these political cultures have no automatic claim to superiority or to permanence. They are liable to be supplanted, just as they supplanted their predecessors.

The defenders of these political cultures,think that pervasive economic regulation is the legislatures’ prerogative, should they choose to exercise it. (Prof. Waldron is explicit about this, in some of his work on the Rule of Law.) To be clear, I am not suggesting that they would support any given form of regulation as a matter of policy ― only that they think that legislatures are entitled to regulate, wisely or not. But previously, many economic issues would not have been considered to belong to the domain of politics at all; the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 would likely have been shocked to learn about the extent of the economic regulation in which the institutions they created now engage. They would have thought an employee’s wages a matter to be settled between him and his employer, not a concern for society at large and thus not a fit subject for legislation. Of course, they did not provide mechanisms for courts to enforce these limits on legislative power, in part, one may suspect, because they did not expect them to be necessary. But that does not mean that they thought the legislatures were entitled to interfere in people’s lives in the ways that came to be increasingly accepted half a century later. The political culture changed ― not for the better in this instance, in my opinion. But why should we accept this change, and foreclose or resist subsequent change that reduces instead of expanding the domain of the political?

* * *

Chief Justice Joyal’s address is a powerful and eloquent statement of what might be described as the foundation for a (small-c) conservative constitutional vision for Canada. (This is not to say that he would accept this label, or perhaps even that it is an especially accurate one. But insofar as any label can be useful, this one is as good as any I can think of.) Having, along with Andrew Coyne and Bob Tarantino, complained about the (big-c) Conservative government’s failure to articulate such a vision in its near-decade in power, I welcome this statement. Moreover, I happen to share some of Chief Justice Joyal’s concerns about the acquiescence of the mainstream Canadian legal and political culture in the increasingly unbridled exercise of the judicial power by the Supreme Court.

However, although I may learn from conservatives, and sometimes make common cause with them, ― and am particularly happy to do so when they are as intelligent and articulate as Chief Justice Joyal ― I am not a conservative myself. I do not share the conservative vision of the constitution. Like Hayek, “I am not I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake” (2) on whatever (constitutional) innovation might be put forward in the name of “progress”. As a liberal, I want “to go elsewhere” (2) ― not back to the 1970s, or indeed even to the 1870s ― but to a never-yet seen political culture in which, in Lord Acton’s words, “[l]iberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” If, as Chief Justice Joyal suggested in the conclusion of his speech, this ideal is at odds with the Canadian identity, so much the worse, I say, for that identity.

Too Conventional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erasing Constitutional White Spots

A critique of Vanessa MacDonnell’s theory of quasi-constitutional legislation

One of my first posts on this blog dealt with the topic of quasi-constitutional rights and quasi-constitutional laws, in which such rights are mostly, although not exclusively, found. I have not really returned to that subject since, except in commenting on one case in which the interpretation of one quasi-constitutional law, the federal Official Languages Act. In the latter post, I suggested that the majority opinion in that case, Thibodeau v Air Canada, 2014 SCC 67, [2014] 3 SCR 340, meant that “a statute’s ‘quasi-constitutional’ standing is in reality, quasi-meaningless”. Still, the label is there as part our law, and it seems intriguing. Vanessa MacDonnell has taken a more focused interest in it than I, or anyone else for that matter, and recently published an article called “A Theory of Quasi-Constitutional Legislation“. Although I’m not fully persuaded by the theory prof. MacDonnell proposes, it she makes a number of points that deserve our attention.

The central tenet of Prof. MacDonnell’s theory is that quasi-constitutional legislation is legislation that implements “constitutional imperatives”. These imperatives are often, but not necessarily, found in the rights-protecting provisions of entrenched constitutional texts, but the overlap between constitutional and quasi-constitutional law is far from exact. That is because “[s]ome quasi-constitutional statutes implement rights that are not generally thought to impose affirmative obligations on the state”. (516) This is the case for privacy-protection and access-to-information legislation, and perhaps most significantly for human rights legislation. It is not clear that Parliament and provincial legislatures had to enact these laws, in the sense that courts would have invoked the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or some other constitutional rule or principle to force them to do it. But once such laws are enacted, they have a special status to which the “quasi-constitutional” label refers.

The implication of this is that a considerable number of statutes or provisions that have not yet been characterized as “quasi-constitutional” should be so characterized. The Canada Elections Act, for one, of which prof. MacDonnell says that “[w]hile
the Court has not explicitly characterized the [it] as quasi-constitutional, it has interpreted it in the same generous manner as” if it were. (515) But one could also describe at least parts of the Criminal Code as implementing constitutional imperatives, notably the rights to life and to bodily integrity, protected by section 7 of the Charter and by a variety of the Code‘s provisions on murder, assault, etc. Other legislation, even delegated legislation, may well fit the bill too, though prof. MacDonnell does not provide examples. And a further implication of this expansion of the notion of quasi-constitutional legislation is that it will probably not be “of great use as an interpretive principle”. (520)

Instead, what the concept of “quasi-constitutional” laws should do is serve as a reminder that statutes, the legislatures that enact the statutes, and the cabinets that control the legislatures are not only constrained by constitutional limitations on what they are allowed to do, but also driven by constitutional requirements about what they ought to do. To be sure, it is not the case “that all or even most legislation is the product
of a process by which the executive assesses its constitutional obligations and
takes steps to implement those obligations”. (521) It is the effect, rather than the intention, that counts.

There is more to prof. MacDonnell’s article ― in particular, a discussion of how her theory of quasi-constitutional laws compares with British views “constitutional” statutes (though these may well be substantially updated by the UK Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in the Brexit litigation). But the above, I think, outlines the most important points she makes. As mentioned above, I don’t think that they are quite successful as a theory. If a theory is to be judged by the Dworkinian criteria of fit and justification ― does it describe our practice with reasonable accuracy? does it present our practice in its morally best light? ― I would argue that prof. MacDonnell’s comes short with respect to both.

It does not describe the Canadian courts’ practice well, because as prof. MacDonnell acknowledges, they have only recognized as “quasi-constitutional” a rather narrower range of legislation than is captured by her definition. In addition, to take up an issue I raised in my first blog post on this subject (which prof. MacDonnell kindly refers to, but not on this point), the Supreme Court has spoken of a “quasi-constitutional” right to the protection of one’s reputation, and a theory that only focuses on legislation seems to me to miss what is admittedly a small, but still a significant data point.

And as for presenting this practice in its best light, I am concerned about blessing a variety of legislative provisions by describing them as implementing “constitutional imperatives”. While I think that prof. MacDonnell is making an important point, as I will further explain shortly, it remains the case that many of these provisions are contestable. Some argue, and I am inclined to agree, that anti-discrimination legislation (“human rights” is a misnomer in this context) should not exist at all (though this is, admittedly, very much a minority view). Canadian access to information legislation, by contrast, is arguably too feeble, and perhaps come well short of giving effect to the imperatives of good governance and democracy. Meanwhile, many provisions of electoral legislation are tainted by the self-interest of those who enacted them (and indeed I wonder what it might mean to read them “generously”: generously to whom?). All that to say, while these laws are of constitutional significance, it might be a stretch to say they actually implement “imperatives”. Indeed, I do not suppose that prof. MacDonnell means that they are all fine in their present shape ― but I worry that her theory nudges us towards thinking of them in this way.

A further point of critique is that it is not very clear to me what “constitutional imperatives” are. For instance, is there a “constitutional imperative” to protect property rights ― which are, after all, recognized in the quasi-constitutional Canadian Bill Rights (as well as the Alberta Bill of Rights and Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms), although not in the Charter? If so, then a much greater part of the criminal law then prof. MacDonnell lets on has quasi-constitutional value. So does the better part of tort law, which largely protects either the physical integrity of individuals or property rights. (Prof. MacDonnell does not say whether common law rules can be quasi-constitutional, but if both primary and delegated legislation can be, why not?) And, if we recognize as “constitutional imperatives” things that are plausibly related to, but not actually required by, existing constitutional rights, then shouldn’t we also recognize as quasi-constitutional various social programmes which the more adventurous progressive activists are already trying, fortunately unsuccessfully for now, to have read into section 7 of the Charter?

All that said, I do think that prof. MacDonnell is making a couple of important points. She is right to remind us that the relationship between the constitution, even the constitution in the narrow sense of entrenched supreme law, and legislation is more complicated than we often think. The entrenched constitution is indeed only in part a series of limitations; in part it is also a skeleton on which the other institutions of government must add flesh for the organism of the state to function.

Prof. MacDonnell is also right to encourage us to think of a number of ostensibly “ordinary” statutes as belonging to some province, if not perhaps the innermost one, of the constitutional realm. It is perhaps telling that many of the laws that are described as “quasi-constitutional” in Canada, or could be so described on prof. MacDonnell’s theory, are thought of as constitutional tout court in New Zealand, where there the constitution has no entrenched component, and constitutional law is understood as covering, more or less, the organization of the country’s government. (I wrote more about this here.)

Furthermore, prof. MacDonnell is right to point out that the nature and scope of quasi-constitutional rights can change more easily than that of those set out in the entrenched constitution. In her view, “[t]his is consistent with the living tree conception of Canadian constitutionalism”. (522) But if, as I am increasingly inclined to believe, “living constitutionalism” in the interpretation of entrenched constitutional texts is an unwarranted judicial power-grab, then the development of “quasi-constitutional” law is, alongside constitutional construction, the only form of legitimate living constitutionalism, and thus perhaps even more important than prof. MacDonnell lets on.

If not a very attractive theory of quasi-constitutional legislation, then, prof. MacDonnell gives us reasons to think and to re-think some of our old certainties. She offers an interesting account of some significant white spots on our mental maps, and if her own charts of these territories are not altogether exact, that detracts only a little from their value. Prof. MacDonnell’s voyage of discovery into quasi-constitutional law’s empire is a clear, if not a full, success.

Where Is the Grass Greener?

In a recent article in Constitutional Forum, Peter Russell argues that Canada needs to imitate New Zealand by creating a Cabinet Manual that would, notably, contain an authoritative although not legally binding statement of the principal constitutional conventions, especially those that regulate the formation of governments. While this would, in prof. Russell’s view, have a number of benefits ― “[a] Cabinet Manual”, he writes, “can be a quietly evolving instrument for reforming the ‘unwritten’ part of our constitution” and increase political accountability ―  “the biggest benefit a Cabinet Manual would yield for our society is to increase the knowledge of citizens about how
they are governed” (98).

Meanwhile, in New Zealand itself, a former Prime Minister and inveterate constitutional reformer, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, is campaigning, together with one of the country’s leading lawyers, Andrew Butler, for the enactment of a codified constitution that would eliminate conventions altogether. A major reason they cite for their effort is New Zealanders’ ignorance of their constitution ― which the Cabinet Manual lauded by prof. Russell has apparently done nothing at all to dispel. (Note, however, that their proposed constitution would require the publication of updated versions of the ― presumably slimmed down ― Cabinet Manual every six years (s 25).) A codified constitution, by contrast, will do wonders to rectify this sorry state of affairs

Prof. Russell does not really explain how the existence of a Cabinet Manual will bring about the “increase [in] the knowledge of citizens about how they are governed” that he anticipates. He provides no evidence of its having done so in New Zealand, although he does confidently assert that “[m]aking the Cabinet Manual available on the internet was a giant step in increasing the constitutional literacy of New Zealanders” ― mostly, it seems, thanks to the wonders of hypertext. If Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Butler (as well as many of my colleagues here in New Zealand) are to be believed, prof. Russell is simply wrong.

For their part, Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Butler do not really explain how the codification of constitutional rules will change anything to the citizens’ ignorance of and lack of interest in these rules. They hope that a codified constitution that dispenses with conventions “will educate people and public decision-makers on their rights and responsibilities … and provide a better framework for learning about civics” (25). But they provide neither evidence that this can happen, nor examples that it has. Canada and Australia, with their partly codified and partly conventional constitutions, would seem to offer perfect natural experiments that can test their assertions: if Canadians and Australians are more knowledgeable or better educated about federalism, which is codified in their respective constitutions, than they are about responsible government, which is not, then Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Butler are right. Otherwise ― and although I have no empirical evidence, it seems to me that it is indeed otherwise in Canada ― they too are simply wrong.

In fact, the idea that an authoritative text ― whether legally binding or merely informative ― telling people “how they are governed” is going to achieve much of anything to educate citizens on this admittedly crucial issue is naïve. Consider the situation in the United States, with its revered Constitution (and, let us note, a very short constitution in contrast to the 40-page one that Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Butler are proposing, never mind the length of a Cabinet Manual). As Ilya Somin reminds us, “[p]ublic ignorance” there

also extends to the basic structure of government. A 2006 poll found that only 42 percent can even name the three branches of the federal government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. There is also much ignorance and confusion about the crucial question of which government officials are responsible for which programs and issues. (164-65)

Neither prof. Russell nor Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Butler explain how their proposals will ensure that their respective countries will avoid the fate of the United States. Prof. Somin, by contrast, does have an explanation for the phenomenon that he observes, which is that

[f]or most people, political ignorance is actually rational behavior. If your only incentive to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of an incentive at all, because there is so little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election. … For most people, it is rational to devote little time to learning about politics, and instead to focus on other activities that are more interesting or more useful. (166)

No Cabinet Manual, and codified constitution, can change that. But unless they recognize this fact, well-meaning reformers are bound to think, with no particular justification, that whatever system they have must be responsible for the public’s ignorance of the constitutional basics, and that whatever system some other country has must be the solution to the problems they see in theirs. So Canadians will propose imitating New Zealand, while New Zealanders will want to imitate, and indeed go further than, Canada. Yet while the grass may always be greener on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the putrid flowers of political ignorance bloom on both.