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.

The Public Confidence Fairy

Public confidence in the courts cannot be the foundation of judicial independence

Judicial independence is often justified, both in the decisions of the courts and in the broader public discourse, by the need to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice. It seems to me that this justification is not compelling. To borrow Paul Krugman’s well-known phrase (coined perhaps in this column in the New York Times), it relies on a mythical “confidence fairy”, whose existence would be convenient perhaps, but is supported by no evidence. Whatever the accuracy of Krugman’s economic argument (which may well be misbegotten even on the terms of his own preferred intellectual framework), it seems to fit the judiciary rather well.

The notion of confidence in the judiciary as crucial to judicial independence has been a staple of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence since the seminal judgment in R v Valente, [1985] 2 SCR 673, where Justice Le Dain, for the unanimous court, wrote that, along with impartiality,

independence [is] fundamental not only to the capacity to do justice in a particular case but also to individual and public confidence in the administration of justice. Without that confidence the system cannot command the respect and acceptance that are essential to its effective operation. (689)

In Ell v Alberta, 2003 SCC 35 , [2003] 1 SCR 857, Justice Major, again for the unanimous court, wrote that “[c]onfidence in our system of justice requires a healthy perception of judicial independence to be maintained amongst the citizenry.” [23] There are other examples too; no need for me to multiply them. As for an instance of the same idea appearing in the broader public discourse (albeit that it is carried there by lawyers), one might look at this op-ed by Joseph Arvay, Sean Hern, and Alison Latimer, arguing that the insulation of judicial appointments from politics would make Canadian courts truly independent and thereby enhance the public’s confidence in them. (I criticized this argument here.)

Why, then, is the popular argument that judicial independence is required (among other reasons) in order to maintain public confidence in the courts misguided? The claim seems to be an empirical one, establishing a causal relationship between the independence of a judiciary and the public’s trust in it. Confidence in a strongly independent judiciary should be high, and it should go up when judicial independence is further increased. For example, public confidence in the Canadian judiciary should have gone up in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision requiring independent commissions to recommend judicial salaries to legislatures. It should be possible to support such a claim with data ― polls showing that confidence in the judiciary grows when its independence is enhanced, or that it decreases in response to judicial independence being undermined. Only, those who make the claim never provide the data that would support it. That should make us skeptical.

What data there exist do not obviously support the argument. Statistics Canada’s recent study of Public Confidence in Canadian Institutions found that Canadians trust the “justice system and courts” less than they trust the banks ― only 20% of the respondents had “a great deal” of confidence in the courts, while 37% had “some.” (The courts still did better than Parliament, though.) Yet the Canadian judiciary is highly independent. What’s wrong with this picture? Admittedly, as a (somewhat old, but most likely still valid) report prepared by Mary Stratton and Diana Lowe makes clear, opinion polls purporting to ascertain the level of public confidence in the justice system tend to be pretty lousy. But Stats Can is, presumably, as good as we are going to get. Why are the proponents of the confidence thesis so sure about it?

And they are very sure indeed. Justice Binnie, speaking to the Venice Commission (a Council of Europe institution that advises it on constitutional matters and produces statements of constitutional best practices), has asserted that “[t]he Supreme Court’s independence as an institution and that of its judges is undoubted and has lead to strong public confidence in the administration of justice.”  Needless to say, Justice Binnie provided no evidence or explanation in support of his claim. But it is, it seems to me, more reflective of the judges’ and lawyers’ beliefs about what ought to be the case than of their knowledge of what actually is. (This knowledge, of course, is often woefully inadequate and reliant on the stereotypes carried in bien-pensant political discourse, as I pointed out here ― with supporting data.)

The very notion of public confidence in the judiciary is a theoretical one at best. As Dr. Stratton and Ms. Lowe’s report makes clear, people lack a clear understanding of what is meant by having confidence in the justice system. And that’s not exactly surprising, since the terms involved are vague, and political ignorance certainly extends to the judicial branch of government as well as to the legislative and the executive. Indeed, I suspect that to the extent that such a thing exists and can be measured at all, public confidence in the judiciary is likely to be a function of public agreement with high-profile decisions (a proposition which there is polling data to support, at least in the United States). But judicial independence exists precisely to ensure that judges will not be influence by the likely popularity or otherwise of their potential decisions. If actual, and not purely hypothetical, public confidence in the courts were the objective, judicial independence might have to be weakened rather than strengthened.

Why, though, does the belief in the confidence fairy persist? I’m afraid that at least a significant part of the reason for this is that the fairy is a very useful creature. In Valente, having stated that “[w]ithout that confidence the [justice] system cannot command the respect and acceptance that are essential to its effective operation,” Justice Le Dain draws the conclusion that “[i]t is, therefore, important that a tribunal should be perceived as independent, as well as impartial, and that the test for independence should include that perception.” (689) In other words, invoking public confidence in the judiciary allows courts (and their parasiti) to expand the constitutional protections of judicial independence, on the premise that they must be robust enough not only to ensure the judiciary’s actual independence, but also the perception of its independence among the general public.

It might of course be nice if public confidence in the courts really were a function of their independence. Because the courts in Canada in elsewhere in the common law world are in fact highly independent, the public would trust them and would accept even controversial or disagreeable judicial decisions. Perhaps the confidence in the courts would be so high that few of their decisions would even be controversial. Indeed this seems like a pretty fair description of the state of affairs within the Canadian legal community, if not among the general public. But wishful thinking is not a very solid basis on which to depend a fundamental constitutional principle. Whatever the true foundation of judicial independence (and I’ve ventured a couple of hypotheses over the years here and here), it must be something different ― and more substantial ― than the confidence fairy’s magic.


Why Do the Write Thing?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler, both of them former legal academics and current barristers, Sir Geoffrey having also served as Attorney-General and Prime Minister in between, are about to publish a book advocating that New Zealand enact a “written” constitution. They have also set up a Twitter account and a website to both promote the book and seek out comments, which they say in the book’s description “will be reflected in a second edition to be published in 2017.” The Twitter account has published the following infographic listing reasons for adopting a written constitution:

These reasons apply not just in New Zealand but pretty much everywhere ― if they are indeed good reasons, that is. So the experience of countries that have adopted “written” constitutions ― including Canada and the United States ― should be relevant to assessing whether they are. If these reasons support the adoption of a “written” constitution, their effects should be observable in Canada (to the extent that our constitution is “written”), the U.S., and elsewhere. The countries with written constitutions should be doing better than those without (and notably New Zealand) on all these counts. With respect, it seems to be me that for the most part they are not. In this post I explain why.

But just before I do that, a brief comment is in order on the phrase “written constitution,” which as you may have noticed I only use in scare quotes. The reason for this is that “unwritten” constitutions tend in fact to be written down somewhere, so that they are not really unwritten at all. This is especially true of New Zealand’s “unwritten” constitution, which is written down both in legal sources such as the Constitution Act 1986, the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor-General of New Zealand, or judicial decisions, and in extra-legal ones, such as the Cabinet Manual 2008, which re-states most if not all of the constitutional conventions and other important rules governing the executive branch, in authoritative although not legally binding format. When people speak of a “written” constitution, they tend to speak of a codified or an entrenched constitution, and usually, but not always, both. This is how Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler use the term: on their website, they say that “[p]eople have rights and they should be provided in a constitution that is supreme law and binds the Parliament.”

* * *

The above “reasons to adopt a written constitution” can be grouped in a few categories. Some of them have to do with the democratic process; others with the limitation of state power; others still with transparency and accountability. Let me consider these in turn. (I will not say anything about the enhancement of national identity, partly because I am not qualified to speak to the subject in New Zealand, and partly because I am, as a general matter, profoundly skeptical of any action, and especially any legal change, that pursues this objective.)

I do not think that anything about the strength of a polity’s democracy (to which I also take the “easier to participate” and, in part, “government is more accountable” claims to refer) turns on whether that polity’s constitution is codified, entrenched, both, or neither. Polities with unentrenched and uncodified constitutions, including of course New Zealand but also, to a lesser extent, Canadian provinces (whose constitutions are partly entrenched) can be well-functioning democracies. They can, and already do, have free and fair elections which produce regular changes of government. Is democracy stronger ― whatever that means ― in Canada or in the United States than it is in New Zealand? Quite a few Canadian election reformers passionately believe the opposite, because Canada has a first-past-the-post electoral system (as does the U.S., mostly), while New Zealand has moved to a version of proportional representation. Whether or not we agree with them ― I do not, as I’ve explained here ― it is to say the least not obvious where the democratic gains from moving to a codified or entrenched constitution are.

Codification and entrenchment will have some effect on the limitation of state power (including to protect human rights and the Rule of Law, and to prevent abuses). A codified constitution might be clearer and thus easier to understand than an uncodified one. An entrenched constitution is ― ostensibly anyway ― less malleable than one that can amended by ordinary legislation, and can in principle better protect individual and minority rights. But the gains on these various counts are actually rather smaller than they might at first appear.

So far as clarity is concerned, I’m not sure that the current sources of New Zealand’s constitution are especially unclear, as these things go ― they do not strike me as any more obscure than Canadian or American ones. One should also keep in mind Chief Justice Marshall’s warning, in McCulloch v Maryland, that

[a] constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would, probably, never be understood by the public. (200)

As for stability, an entrenched constitution is only as stable as the judiciary lets it be. As Grégoire Weber, among others (including yours truly), has pointed out, the Supreme Court of Canada has lately been re-writing the Canadian constitution a couple of times a year at least. The Supreme Court of the United States is regularly accused of similar mischief. Admittedly, if there could be guarantees of the courts strictly adhering to some version of originalist constitutional interpretation, this danger would be minimized. But there can be no such guarantees anywhere, and in New Zealand in particular, originalism is not the preferred interpretive approach to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, so there seems to be little reason to think that judges could be persuaded to approach an entrenched constitution in this spirit.

The same goes, of course, for protecting rights. The protections provided by an entrenched constitution can be no stronger than the judiciary’s inclination to enforce them. Admittedly, the attitude of Canadian judges changed when the partly entrenched Canadian Bill of Rights was supplemented by the mostly entrenched Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I’m not sure if the same sort of change would occur in New Zealand ― which, after all, already largely respects individual rights. Would, for example, the adoption of an entrenched constitution, change anything to what seems to be a consensus that it is perfectly fine to disenfranchise prisoners serving long terms? I doubt it.

Turning to transparency and accountability, it seems to me that the great problem here is not the form of the constitution, but political ignorance. Ignorance of basic facts about the constitution is prevalent in the United States, where merely a third of the respondents to a recent poll could name the three branches of government ― despite a constitution whose very structure begins with these three branches. Pointing out that Donald Trump has never read the U.S. Constitution is a great rhetorical move (and I say this unironically), but while the charge is doubtless accurate so far as it goes, many of Mr. Trump’s fellow citizens (and not only among his voters) are every bit as guilty of it as he is. Ironically, Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler might just succeed in improving the public’s understanding of New Zealand’s constitution simply by encouraging conversations about it, without any changes being made. I wouldn’t be too optimistic though. As Ilya Somin and others explain, people have no incentive to become informed about the workings of  government, and the existence of an entrenched constitution changes nothing to this reality.

That said, New Zealand already has a number of accountability mechanisms, some of which seem to be functioning better than those in place in Canada. Though I’m far from an expert in the field, New Zealand’s access-to-information legislation might be stronger than its Canadian (federal) counterpart, for instance. And New Zealand’s government is much better than that of Canada at proactively making a lot of information (such as the advice it receives on the compliance of its laws with the Bill of Rights Act available to the public. (I might write about this in the future ―not too distant, I hope.) Perhaps entrenching these accountability mechanisms would give them greater symbolic weight. But it would also freeze them in place, which may not be a good thing ― not to mention that it would yield a constitution suffering from the “prolixity of a legal code.”

* * *

In a polity like New Zealand ― which already has a well-functioning, if in some people’s view imperfect democratic system, and which largely, if again imperfectly, respects human rights ― the gains from constitutional entrenchment are likely to be marginal in the short or even medium term. There will be some costs, too, though I have not discussed them here. Of course, the case of federal states may well be different ― it is usually said that a federal state needs an entrenched constitution to protect the division of powers (though note that Switzerland’s constitution is effectively not entrenched as against the Federal Assembly, its parliament, and that many on the American left would like the division of powers under the U.S. Constitution to be unenforceable against Congress). But this reason for constitutional entrenchment does not apply to New Zealand.

Other than the speculative prospect of a long-term crumbling of the polity’s commitment to human rights and the Rule of Law that would somehow not affect the judiciary, is there a good reason to entrench New Zealand’s constitution? Well, maybe, but it’s not one that Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler name. Entrenching the constitution makes sense if one’s goal is to shift power from Parliament and the executive to the courts. The courts’ incentives are different than those of the “political branches.” They might be more solicitous of minorities at the margins, but as or more importantly, they may also be less solicitous of special interests, because these special interests can do little for them. (Tough this is far from certain ― some special interests may find keen listeners on the bench, if for example they can provide the plaudits and recognition that judges, not unlike politicians, may come to crave.) It may be that in a unitary, Westminster-type system, democracy becomes too potent a force, and judicial review of legislation is the only countermeasure available, so it must be used faute de mieux, even in the knowledge that judicial power too will be abused and can degrade the constitution and the Rule of Law as much as the legislative and the executive.

These are serious reasons in my view. But whether they are conclusive or not, one thing is certain. Shifting power from elected officials to judges does not strengthen democracy ― it weakens it, deliberately. It does not make law clear. And it certainly does not make those who wield power more accountable. It might be worth doing regardless. But not for the reasons that Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler give us.

Constraint and Candour

The case for a constrained judiciary ― but also candour about adjudication

At the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law (ARL), Asher Honickman has posted a reply to my post here on “How to Do Constitutional Adjudication” (which was itself a reply to some of his arguments in a previous ARL essay making “The Case for a Constrained Approach to Section 7” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). I would like to respond, focusing mostly on what I have been referring to as “democratic process failures” and their relevance to constitutional adjudication. I think that Mr. Honickman mis-characterizes my arguments on this point, but perhaps that’s because they were not clear enough to begin with.

* * *

First, though, a note on what is, as I know from conversation, a persistent but perhaps unimportant disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me. I wrote that

law generally, and constitutional law in particular, contains an ineradicable moral and ideological element, so that there is nothing wrong with perceiving judges as being ― in part ― moral agents and political actors. [Moreover], the Charter‘s text itself makes it inevitable that that judges will be making decisions touching on morality and politics.

Mr. Honickman responds by conceding that “[t]he judge can no more divorce herself from her subjective experiences, beliefs and values than can the historian, the economist, or the physician,” but arguing that “it does not follow that judges should embrace their fallibility.” He wants judges to be “constrained by a ‘rule of law’ culture” that will limit, if not altogether remove, the negative consequences of the judges’ inability to be entirely objective.

I have no quarrel with this, but think this misses the point I was trying to make, which is that moral values and ideology are not just something that judges bring into the law because they are fallible, but something it is built into the law ― perhaps into the very concept of law. Mr. Honickman’s example is a telling one: history, economics, and medicine are supposed to be amoral. They describe the world and suggest ways to change it, but whatever values their practitioners bring to their craft are external to the disciplines themselves. Law is different. It has, Lon Fuller argued, an “internal morality.” It is, Jeremy Waldron says, inherently protective of human dignity. The Rule of Law, which Mr. Honickman wants judges to uphold, is itself a moral concept. (This view is not universal ― Joseph Raz, in particular, famously challenged it. But I find it quite persuasive.)

What I meant, then, when I wrote that law is necessarily moral and ideological was not only, and not so much, that judges will inevitably fail to avoid bringing their subjective values into their work ― though they will, and I agree with Mr. Honickman that this is regrettable. What I meant is that even when judges perform their work to perfection and only apply such principles as can be readily inferred from the constitutional text (the Rule of Law, federalism, and democracy, say) and many of the text’s explicit guarantees (I mentioned freedom of religion, equality, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure), they are already engaged in a moral and ideological endeavour. The proper response to the unreconstructed Marxist or the social justice warrior who dismisses the Rule of Law and the rest of it as bourgeois ideology is not to say that it’s not, but to admit that it is, and that you will keep sticking to that ideology because it helps prevent Gulags instead of building them. That said, in practice, little turns on the difference between these two responses.

* * *

Coming back to the issue of democratic process failures, my contention was not ― as it seems to me that Mr. Honickman took it to be ― that these provide a self-standing ground for judicial intervention, regardless of constitutional text or doctrine. The text, in particular, remains the overarching limit on judicial power, the law to which this power is subordinate. Doctrine is a more complicated case, and perhaps the ground of some disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me, because I would favour a somewhat less stringent approach to stare decisis than he might prefer. Still, I share Mr. Honickman’s belief in the importance of constraint.

My reference to democratic process failures ― as well as that to pervasive political ignorance ― was specifically in response to Mr. Honickman’s insistence that the legislatures’ ability to resolve moral issues means that judges do not need to do so. Legislatures, I argued, will often fail to address moral issues, or will address them in ways that have little to do with the voters’ preferences or interests, and much to do with those of the legislators. The point is not that courts have a roving commission to find out and correct cases when this occurs, but that they should not hesitate to make moral judgments ― when authorized or required to do so by the constitutional text (and doctrine) ― under the pretext that the legislatures will take care of this.

I originally spoke of democratic process failure in my comment on Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, where the Supreme Court held that a blanket prohibition on medically-assisted suicide was inconsistent with section 7 of the Charter. Although there were problems with the way the Supreme Court articulated that decision, its interpretation of section 7 was at least plausible ― and in my view correct ― in light of the constitutional text and the doctrine as it had developed in the years since the Court first answered that question in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 519. The point of my discussion of democratic process failure was to address concerns about the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” said to be inherent in judicial review. Because of such failures, it is not the case that judicial review is always counter-majoritarian (though of course it often is).

This example shows that any court empowered to review the constitutionality of legislation is ipso facto “empowered to correct ‘democratic process failures,'” ― and thus that Mr. Honickman need not worry that such correction “will necessarily be ‘instrumentalist,’ finding and affirming rights that are not supported by the Charter itself, but which, in the judges’ view, make for good social policy.” To repeat, the Charter‘s provisions remain the source of the court’s authority and at the same time the constraint on this authority, while democratic process failure is the reason for which that authority is invoked. Accordingly, when faced with what it thinks is a democratic process failure, the Court’s role is not to figure out the preferences of a majority ― which, as Mr. Honickman correctly points out, may not be determinate ― but simply to do the usual judicial task and invalidate the impugned statute or government decision if it is contrary to the constitution. At most, the presence of a failure obviates the case, if any, for judicial deference to the other branches of government.

I agree with Mr. Honickman that the questions that I raised about democratic process failures ― most basically, how do we know, and how can a court know, that one has occurred ― are difficult to answer, though it’s not clear to me that there can be “no objective standard” to help in the enterprise. But this difficulty does not undermine the case for judicial intervention, because, and so long as, that intervention is justified on another ground ― namely that of inconsistency between the government’s action and the constitution. Whether a democratic process failure has occurred might influence the deference that the court ought to show the government’s decision-making process, but the basic propriety of judicial intervention does not turn on the answer to this question.

Ultimately, Mr. Honickman and I might be disagreeing less about the judicial role than about democratic theory. Where I see “persistent inability of the democratic process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable,” Mr. Honickman sees “legislatures [that] do not base their decisions on the polls at any given time and look instead to the national interest.” The fact, which he acknowledges, that a passionate (or, I would add, strongly self-interested) and well-organized minority can prevail over the majority is not a bad thing in his view ― and, I suppose, fully consistent with the national interest. Even if democracy malfunctions, we should recall that it is “the worst system except for all the others” and correct its “imperfections … from within.” To me, this sounds like saying that because a free market is better than any alternative, we should not bother trying to correct market failures and hope that the market will correct itself, or that because government is necessary, our only response to government failure should be to improve regulatory mechanisms, instead of privatizing and deregulating. A few people accept the former argument, and many the latter, but to me, both seem fallacious. Democracy is indeed better than the alternatives, but if its shortcomings can be mitigated by means external to its normal processes ― such as judicial review ― then so much the better.

* * *

I share Mr. Honickman’s concerns about judges exercising their power without the constraints of constitutional text and legal doctrine. However, I do not think that the proper response to these concerns is to say that judges ought to be entirely non-ideological, and that they should leave matters of moral judgment to the legislative process, however flawed that process is. Like Mr. Honickman, I believe that judges should be enforcing constitutional rules, but I do not mind acknowledging the moral and ideological dimensions of many of these rules as well as the shortcomings of democracy, which judicial review can help remedy.

What’s Constitutional Law, Anyway?

Understandings of what is constitutional law depend on time and place

Law is beset with definitional problems. Quite apart from the law’s struggles to define terms external to it, and translation difficulties, 2400 years after Plato, we can even agree about what law is. And it is similarly difficult to define specific legal categories and fields. The process of developing my New Zealand constitutional law class is a good reminder that the boundaries of the field to which this blog is devoted are, at best, a matter of contingent convention.

Speaking theoretically, I would define a polity’s constitution as the set of rules that structure its political institutions, define and limit their respective powers, and govern the relationships between them. Constitutional law is the subset of such rules that are also recognized as belonging to the realm of law, as opposed to, notably, that of constitutional convention (though I have been known to argue that the distinction between the two is an artificial and an untenable one). But this very broad definition, while I believe that it has the merit of logical comprehensiveness on its side, has little to do with how the field of constitutional law is generally understood by its practitioners, whether at the bar or in academia. Put another way, when we say “constitutional law,” we normally mean something narrower than the entire set of legal rules about political institutions.

For one thing, important swathes of law that fit within the general definition above are considered to be independent study areas. This is notably, the case of administrative law, which deals with decision-making by various governmental agencies and the review of their decisions by courts; municipal law, dealing with local government; and variously defined areas of legal study having to do with the procedures and organization of courts. So in practice, when we say “constitutional law,” we refer to those legal rules about political institutions that are not conventionally assigned to other subjects.

Beyond that, though, just what we mean, though, depends on just who “we” are. This becomes clear if you compare, say, constitutional law treatises from different jurisdictions ― even those that are in many ways “similar in principle,” as Canada and New Zealand are. Of course, there are important differences between the two, which help explain some of the differences. Unlike Canada, New Zealand is a unitary state, and so does not need to figure out whether elephants, and other weighty matters, are a federal or a provincial responsibility. New Zealand also does not have an entrenched constitution, meaning that it lacks our over-complicated amending formula and that its New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is an ordinary statute that cannot be invoked to strike down other legislation. New Zealand’s constitution also has features that Canada’s lacks, such as provisions for citizen-initiated referenda and a still relatively-new electoral system (MMP) which has caused some evolution in the workings of the cabinet. Still, as significant as they are, these differences do not explain everything.

The leading Canadian text, Peter Hogg’s Constitutional Law of Canada, consists mainly of extensive coverage of the provisions on the division of powers between the (federal) Parliament and the (provincial) legislatures, and of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its other chapters ― on the sources and evolution of the constitution, on the courts generally and the Supreme Court specifically, on the Crown and on Parliamentary sovereignty, seem comparatively a minor matter. (Indeed, the Chapter on the Crown does not even feature in the Student Edition of prof. Hogg’s book.)

The leading New Zealand treatise is P.A. Joseph’s Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand.  Some of its contents is similar to that of prof. Hogg’s book: there are chapters on the sources and the history of the constitution for instance, and one on Parliamentary sovereignty, though some subjects ― such as the Crown ― are treated in much more detail in prof. Joseph’s work. There is a chapter ― just one ― on the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, though it only deals with the Bill’s application provisions, and not with the substantive rights. But much of prof. Joseph’s book deals with subjects that do not make it into prof. Hogg’s: access to information legislation, for instance; the internal workings of Parliament, including its standing orders and legislative procedure; and the officers of Parliament ―including a (brief) discussion of Parliament’s restaurant and a (brief) section on the Mace!

These issues aren’t just accidentally missing from prof. Hogg’s treatise of course. In Canada, we tend not to think of them as falling within the scope of constitutional law at all ― we see them, it seems to me, as discrete areas of the law. This is, in some ways, unfortunate, because gives Canadian constitutional lawyers ― and I include myself in their number ― a somewhat blinkered view of the government’s workings and the ways in which it can be held to account. At the same time, I think it is perfectly understandable that, having federalism to worry about (and to complicate matters too ― prof. Joseph only needs to describe the operations of one Parliament; prof. Hogg would need to deal the more than a dozen, counting the legislatures of territories), and devoting a great deal of attention to the Charter, we lose sight of some other issues. The (shortened) student edition of Canadian Constitutional Law is as long as Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand, and of course it doesn’t cover administrative law. (A note to my students at AUT: it also every bit as expensive. I sympathize with your having to buy a very pricey textbook but, if it’s any consolation at all, at least you get the whole thing, and you won’t need to buy a separate book for Judicial Review ― you are actually getting a better deal than your Canadian counterparts.)

Besides, there are arguably at least some issues that might have deserved to be treated as constitutional law that are missing from both the Canadian and the New Zealand accounts. Take the central banks, and the rules regarding their independence and accountability. These are critically important institutions of government, yet how many constitutional lawyers think about them at all? I’m as guilty of having this blindspot, and likely others, as anyone else of course.

So I do not mean that one approach is better than the other. I am simply trying to illustrate the point I made above ― that what we think of as “constitutional law” depends on the jurisdiction we are in, and more specifically both on the set of available rules that are constitutional in the broad theoretical sense, and on the legal culture of that polity. That culture, it is worth pointing out, evolves, so that even within the same jurisdiction, understandings of what is constitutional law change. As the late Rod Macdonald pointed out in remarks delivered at a conference to devoted to the Charter’s 25th anniversary,

[w]hen Albert Abel published the 900-page 4th edition of Bora Laskin’s leading casebook Canadian Constitutional Law in 1973, he left out the chapter on civil liberties that Laskin included in the 3rd edition on the grounds that the subject was not really constitutional law.

And by the time prof. Macdonald was speaking ― and still today ― the Charter had come to dominate the writing and thinking about constitutional law in Canada, and its teaching:

Few are the constitutional law teachers today who do not sacrifice their teaching of history, politics, institutions, practices, conventions and federalism on the altar of the Charter.

Fabien Gélinas, who taught me constitutional law at McGill, sacrificed less than just about any of his colleagues. Still, preparing to teach in a jurisdiction where institutions, practices, and conventions, are still the focus of constitutional law is an interesting, although challenging, reminder of the contingency of our own understandings.