The Supreme Court’s Hubris in Mikisew Cree Nation v Canada

In Mikisew Cree Nation, the Supreme Court dealt with a novel argument: does the duty to consult [DTC] attach to legislative action? The Court, rightly, answered no, holding unanimously that the Federal Court had no jurisdiction under the Federal Courts Act over a judicial review brought against Parliament’s law-making power. But the Court split into four sets of reasons on the substantive matter of whether the DTC applies to legislative action. While rejecting the challenge in this case, Karakatsanis J in the lead opinion left the door open to these sorts of challenges in the future. For the reasons I’ll explain below, I think this is a profoundly unprincipled way of reasoning about the issue—first, because it is an attempt to expand judicial power in violation of the separation of powers, and second, because it undermines the national certainty the Supreme Court is designed to provide.

The facts of the case are simple. In 2012, two omnibus bills affecting environmental protections were introduced and passed in Parliament, receiving Royal Assent. The Mikisew, with proven Aboriginal rights under Treaty 8, alleged that the Crown had the DTC them on these legislative changes to the environmental protection regime—arguing that it affected their constitutionally-protected rights. The Federal Court agreed with the Mikisew, holding that they were entitled to notice of the parts of the bills that would affect their interest, as well as an opportunity to make submissions. The Federal Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the Federal Court had no jurisdiction over the matter.

The first opinion in the Supreme Court was written by Karakatsanis J. On the issue of jurisdiction, Karakatsanis J held that the Federal Courts Act only contemplates judicial review of Crown actors (defined as Her Majesty in right of Canada in s.2(1) of the Federal Courts Act) or federal boards, commissions, or other tribunals. On the first count, Karakatsanis J concluded that Her Majesty in right of Canada refers only to Crown actors in their executive, rather than legislative, capacity [15-16]. As well, the Crown is not a “board, commission, or other tribunal” as defined in ss. 2(1) and 2(2) of the Federal Courts Act.

This is enough to dispose of the case. But Karakatsanis J went on to address the merits, concluding that the DTC, which applies to “Crown conduct,” can only apply to executive action—not the actions of Ministers introducing legislation (acting in their legislative capacity). While Karakatsanis J acknowledged the “overlap” between executive and legislative functions in Westminster systems, here what was challenged was a direct exercise of legislative power under the Part IV of the Constitution Act, 1867 [33]. This challenge, to her mind, implicated the separation of powers, parliamentary sovereignty, and parliamentary privilege [35-37]. But Karakatsanis J did not close the door to the challengers completely. She first noted that “the Crown’s honour may well require judicial intervention where legislative may adversely affect—but does not necessarily infringe—Aboriginal or treaty rights” [3]. She then concluded her reasons by saying that “other protections may well be recognized in future cases” [52].

Abella J, concurring on the jurisdiction point, nonetheless wrote separately to say that the Court’s aboriginal law jurisprudence, specifically pertaining to the honour of the Crown, compelled a result that the DTC applied to Parliament. To her mind there was no “doctrinal or conceptual justification which would preclude a [DTC] in the legislative context” [81]. The “formal label applied to the type of action that the government takes…”, to Abella J, has no impact on the sanctity of rights protected in s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982—whether that action is legislative or executive. Abella J would introduce a requirement that legislatures consider whether their chosen legislative process affecting Aboriginal rights “…accords with the special relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples of Canada” [93].

Brown J also wrote separately, while concurring on the jurisdictional point, to attack Karakatsanis J’s mixed message on the DTC in a legislative context. To him, Karakatsanis J’s reluctance to close the door completely on the issue would “throw this area of the law into significant uncertainty” [104]. To Brown J, “…the entire law-making process—from initial policy development to and including royal assent—is an exercise of legislative power which is immune from judicial interference” [117]. This is because, while the separation of powers in Canada is not rigid, this does not mean that the roles of the legislative and executive branches are “indistinguishable for the purposes of judicial review” [119]. The history of parliamentary sovereignty—for example, the hard-fought adoption of the Bill of Rights of 1688—compelled the conclusion that “…parliamentary and judicial functions have been clearly separated from Crown control” [128]. And so, Karakatsanis J’s opinion was “searching for a problem to solve (while at the same time declining to solve it)” [135]. This situation would invite courts to, potentially in the future, take a greater supervisory role over the legislative process in a way that is at odds with the separation of powers [135, 142].

Finally, Rowe J also wrote separately, outlining mainly the practical problems with an approach invited by Karakatsanis J. Specifically, what types of legislation would trigger the DTC? Who would need to be consulted? And at what stage in the legislative process would consultation take place? [165].

***

There is much in this decision worth noting, but I want to focus on Karakatsanis J’s problematic reasons and their implications for the separation of powers and the Supreme Court’s general method of deciding cases.

Each of the opinions decided the case on the question of jurisdiction. That is, the Federal Court had no judicial review jurisdiction over the decision of a legislature—not a Crown actor per se nor a federal “board, commission, or other tribunal.” This should have decisive, and Karakatsanis J should have gone only so far as to explain that finding—particularly for the purposes, for example, of preventing forum-shopping whereby a new claimant could bring relief against the Crown in a provincial superior court and make the same arguments (s.17 of the Federal Courts Act contemplates a system of concurrency where claims can be brought against the Crown in provincial or federal court so long as statute does not say otherwise). Obviously, the jurisdictional finding in this case dovetails with a finding that legislation is not “Crown conduct.”

In consideration of this, Karakatsanis J should have ended her comments at the finding that the court had no jurisdiction because the enactment of legislation is not “Crown conduct.” For her to go further and leave the door open to future legislative challenges based on the honour of the Crown–which also undergirds the DTC– is severely flawed for two reasons: (1) it is not prescribed by the structure of the Constitution, nor would it be a good policy idea and (2) it introduces uncertainty.

Brown J is right to point out the contradictory nature of Karakatsanis J’s opinion. On one hand, she writes that parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and parliamentary privilege preclude the challengers’ preferred outcome. This is all correct for the reasons outlined by Brown J and Rowe J. But then, in service to unknown goals, she decides that these principles can be violated just a bit—that in a future case, they could be compromised to permit the sort of challenges sought by the claimants here where rights are adversely affected by “the Crown” in enacting legislation even when the legislation itself is constitutional (see Karakatsanis J’s reasons at paras 3, 25, 44 and 52). This means, to Karakatsanis J, that the separation of powers/parliamentary sovereignty are negotiable in a manner uncontemplated by the Constitution. Her guiding light seems to be the hobby-horse of changing circumstances; some future time when the separation of powers and parliamentary sovereignty will give way to allow these sorts of challenges.

Query why these principles preclude challenges based on a failure to abide by the DTC now, while in the future, they could allow challenges based on an “adverse effect” on Aboriginal rights. The same principles apply. Under the current doctrine, in order for a DTC violation to occur, asserted Aboriginal rights must be “adversely affected” (Rio Tinto, at para 31).  But Karakatsanis J now purports to say that a DTC violation and adverse effect are two different things–and that the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the separation of powers could allow an independent claim based on the latter in the future. The honour of the Crown is not a free-standing right to challenge legislation, and most importantly, no matter the legal label, the Crown does not enact legislation. 

Notwithstanding this unprincipled distinction drawn by Karakatsanis J regarding the DTC, it is completely unclear why the constitutional principles relied on by Karakatsanis J would operate to, in the future, allow an “adverse effect” challenge based on the amorphous “honour of the Crown.” While the separation of powers and parliamentary sovereignty are principles that are necessarily variable in our constitutional monarchy, that variation is included in the structure, not as a product of the times. For example, Karakatsanis J herself notes that the Cabinet and the legislature operate in some ways as a piece—this is a basic feature of Westminster government. But as Brown J noted, the separation of powers does not expand and contract to permit something tomorrow that isn’t allowed today; in this case, a constitutional challenge that is fundamentally unknown to the legal system. Karakatsanis J frames the requirements of the separation of powers and legislative sovereignty in language that calls to mind a standard (see Brown J’s reasons at para 103). But these principles are rules that bind the actors in the constitutional system. They are only open to negotiation to the extent the Constitution prescribes that negotiation.

The target for Karakatsanis J—and more honestly, Abella J—seems to be the sphere of authority granted by the Constitution Act, 1867 to the legislature. Karakatsanis J seems to want to, slowly but surely, increase judicial oversight over that sphere and erode what the Constitution expressly contemplates. This is wrong simply because it is not prescribed by any constitutional text or principle. While the honour of the Crown is a constitutional principle, it is unclear why that principle is ill-served as applied to legislation by the existing Sparrow justification framework. In other words, why does the honour of the Crown compel the requirement of some new cause of action in violation of the very same principles relied on by Karakatsanis J?

The beneficiary of such a duty would not be Aboriginal peoples, but the judiciary. Its existence would expand judicial power beyond deciding cases towards ongoing supervision of the legislative process. This seems to be a legal fact wholly lost on the Supreme Court. It seeks to enlarge its power and process beyond its constating statue (the Supreme Court is simply a statutory court, no matter the pains it takes to say otherwise) and beyond the constitutional division and separation of powers. Judicial oversight of legislative acts could create distorted inefficiencies in our system of government that achieve no ends—in this case, I have doubts it would achieve the ends of reconciliation sought by the Court.

For some, this would be enough to counsel against the idea. But Karakatsanis J and Abella J seem to believe that this is required as a matter of policy. It seems, to them, that courts are able to vindicate the rights of Aboriginal peoples by monitoring the legislative process, and in fact, should in order to promote “reconciliation.” Even on this count, they fail. First, reconciliation would be an admirable goal if anyone, especially the Supreme Court, could adequately define what it means. But at any rate, the Supreme Court itself has recognized that its august halls are not suited to the promotion of Aboriginal rights (Clyde River, at para 24—an opinion jointly penned by Karakatsanis J). And this seems just logical. Why are nine patrician judges any better able to define reconciliation? Why should Aboriginal peoples have to spend years and thousands of dollars trying to define to these same nine judges what reconciliation is? This would be enough to question the wisdom of an approach advocated by Karakatsanis J and Abella J, but of course, there are also the practical concerns raised by Rowe J.

A final broader point about the Supreme Court’s method of deciding cases. Part of the reason for the Supreme Court’s existence is its ability to settle law. In fact, the Supreme Court was founded under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867 “for the better Administration of the Laws of Canada.” It does nothing of the kind when it leaves open the door just a crack to an argument that it otherwise rebuffed. This seems to be a repeat habit for the Court. In Gosselin, the Court did the same thing regarding positive rights under s.7 of the Charter. In Wilson, Justice Abella wrote separately to argue for a new standard of review framework in absence of arguments on that front, and despite acknowledging that a future case would have to deal with the issue. And for now, the separation of powers and legislative sovereignty preclude DTC-like legislative challenges—but not forever.

This method of deciding cases wholly undermines certainty. As Brown J notes, it invites enterprising litigants and judges to argue that this case—their case—is the one that was contemplated by the Court or a judge of the Court in Gosselin, or Wilson, or Mikisew. Courts should decide cases. If they seek to depart from precedent in the future, they should be able to do, according to generally recognized and principled criteria. But the Court shouldn’t write its own precedents with the express understanding that they will be overturned.

In a way, all of this expresses the Supreme Court’s hubris. It’s hard to believe that the Court would want to download onto the lower courts a general duty to supervise legislative action, especially when it would be structurally incompatible with the Constitution, practically difficult, and likely unsuccessful as a way to vindicate Aboriginal rights. What we should seek to avoid is a jurocracy, as Herbert Weschler once put it. But, with the door open to a some sort of DTC in the legislative context, we are well on our way.

Constitutionalism from the Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dead Intent of the Framers

The tragedy of Doug Ford looks less like a tragedy after all, with the Court of Appeal for Ontario staying the decision of Justice Belobaba that ruled Ford’s planned council cut unconstitutional. The use of the notwithstanding clause is off the table, for now. But it would be hasty to move on too quickly. How academics and lawyers spoke about the planned use of the notwithstanding clause provides a window into how we justify and critique the use of state power.

For example, some 80 law school faculty across Canada came out against the Ford government’s planned invocation  of s.33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in an open letter. The faculty, relying on a strong-form version of originalism (original intent, long outdated as a form of originalist reasoning), argue that Premier Ford transgressed the intention of the Charter’s framers:

The framers of the Constitution included the notwithstanding clause as a compromise to achieve consensus. But, they firmly believed that the notwithstanding clause would only be used in exceptional circumstances. This has indeed been the case since the Charter’s enactment in 1982.

If the excerpt above seems an insignificant part of the letter, the faculty use the original intent of the (yet undefined framers) to define a political norm that governs the frequency of use of the notwithstanding clause.

In 36 years, the notwithstanding clause has rarely been used. Liberal governments, NDP governments and Conservative governments at the federal and provincial levels have all been extremely reluctant to use the notwithstanding clause. Faced with judicial decisions declaring legislation unconstitutional, governments in Canada have sought alternative ways of bringing their laws into compliance with the Charter. This is precisely what the framers of the Constitution had hoped and predicted. The notwithstanding clause was only to be used in the most exceptional circumstances.

The faculty, to their credit, do not attack the legality of Ford’s planned use of the notwithstanding clause. So long as the form requirements are met, the notwithstanding clause can be invoked. Rather, they seek to define, using framers’ intent, the political boundaries that should govern this extraordinary power.

At first blush, I agree that the invocation of the notwithstanding clause should be subject to political norms and should be critically examined by citizens. There should be a justification of the use of the notwithstanding clause. This is different from the sort of legal restriction on statutory decision-making explained in Roncarelli v Duplessis. In an administrative law sense, state power is subject to the law, and the exercise of powers contemplated by statute are controlled by that statute.  That analogy is ill-fitting for a power unrooted to statute that exists in the text of Constitution itself. Nonetheless, one can meaningfully argue that a political norm of justification should accompany the use of the override. As I’ve said in this space before, Premier Ford has failed on this score.

The interesting part of the faculty letter, though, is not the substantive argument. Rather, it is the analytical footpath. The faculty seek to call up the live hands of Jean Chretien et al who “framed” the Charter to support their point of view. In fact, Chretien, former Ontario Attorney General  Roy McMurtry, and former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow (the individuals who bartered the notwithstanding clause into the Charter through the famous Kitchen Accord) have come out to say that  the notwithstanding clause should only be used “in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort.”

It is surprising that a fairly large contingent of the Canada law professoriate endorse the proposition that the intent of the framers should mean anything in this case. Others have written about the problems with original intent originalism—determining the class of relevant “framers,” determining how to mediate between different intents among these “framers,” determining the level of generality at which intent is expressed, and the list goes on. These practical problems underline a broader theoretical problem–why, in a normative sense, should the views of Jean Chretien et al bind us today? How can we be assured that these “framers” are speaking on behalf of the meaning adopted by Parliament and the legislatures?

Even if we should accept that this intent leads to the acceptance of the relevant political norms, there is no evidence offered in the letter that other potential “framers” of the Charter shared the view of Chretien, Romanow, and McMurtry as to the use of the notwithstanding clause. For example, Brian Peckford (former Premier of Newfoundland who apparently presented the proposal of the provinces to Prime Minister Trudeau), wrote a piece arguing that Premier Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause was perfectly appropriate. He made no mention of any understanding or political commitment on the part of any other Premiers or parties as to the expected use of the notwithstanding clause. In this sense, the framers’ intent means nothing; it is dead in terms of helping to interpret even the political norms surrounding the use of the notwithstanding clause.

This is a dangerous form of originalist reasoning adopted by the faculty, and should be used sparingly with appropriate caution. It is open to abuse. Lawrence Solum argues that theories of originalism have two features (1) fixation and (2) constraint. That is, the meaning of a constitutional provision is fixed at the time of framing; and in terms of original meaning originalism, the original public meaning of the constitutional text constrains the constitutional practice of courts. To my mind, the sort of originalism relied on by the faculty fails to both fixate and constrain constitutional meaning, precisely because there is at least an open question as to the expected legal and political practice of the notwithstanding clause. There is even a question as to who should fit into the relevant class of framers, and who should not. In this sense, the form of originalist reasoning invited by the faculty is not, in substance, different from living tree constitutionalism—unfixed and unconstrained. It is an invitation to dress up the desired political outcomes of its proponents with the imprimatur of a legal doctrine.

Putting aside the faculty focus on political norms, if framers’ intent is accepted as an appropriate doctrinal model, the debate in courts will focus on which particular framers support one side of a case or another. Will some lawyers introduce affidavit evidence from Jean Chretien? Another side, Brian Peckford? Rather than focusing on the meaning of words in their context—their original meaning—framers’ intent will incentivize lawyers to spin historical tales, told through the intent of those whose view may not actually represent the state of the law.

That said, we shouldn’t bristle at the opening provided by the faculty. There is, perhaps for the first time, a willingness to accept forms of originalism. If the faculty intended to fix the constitutional political practice of the notwithstanding clause at the time of framing, that intent is better vindicated by original meaning (to the extent it can be discerned) precisely because it fixes and constrains. Of course, a rational person would rather bet on a system of rules that prevents political hijacking of legal interpretation, because political power can be wielded in any direction. A safer gamble—a better methodology—is a form of doctrine less amenable to political reasoning. Given the faculty acceptance of some model along these lines, I look forward to seeing how a focus on fixation and constraint can influence other areas of the Charter.

Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right

Constitutional politics and the notwithstanding clause

Yesterday, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court released his decision on the Ford government’s plan (“Bill 5”) to cut Toronto City Council in half, deciding that it infringed the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression. In response, Ford announced his government would reconvene the legislature and pass a bill to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Charter, under which Charter rights can be “overridden” (though this word isn’t used in the text) for a period of five years.

It was an eventful day all around, and there were many comments from people more qualified than I to speak on freedom of expression, the notwithstanding clause, and the interaction between the two. I will, however, comment on two points in this sordid saga: (1) the conflation of s.2(b) and s.3 of the Charter in Justice Belobaba’s decision; (2) the notwithstanding clause

Freedom of Expression in the Electoral Context

First, to the decision. Justice Belobaba began the analysis by properly noting that the question was “not whether Bill 5 is unfair. The question is whether the enactment is unconstitutional” [7]. But just as quickly, Justice Belobaba ultimately concluded that the province had “clearly crossed the line” [9] because (1) Bill 5 was enacted in the middle of an election campaign and (2) it doubled the population size of wards in the city, breaching a voter’s right to “effective representation” [20]. On the timing issue, Justice Belobaba concluded that the freedom of expression right was impacted because of “confusion” and “uncertainty” owing to Bill 5 [30]. The ultimate conclusion was that “…the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters” was impacted by Bill 5.

While I won’t dwell on the point, this seems a stretch. Section 2(b) is broad and the Supreme Court rightly affirms the particular importance of political speech (see Libman, at para 31). But it doesn’t guarantee a right to expression in perfect circumstances—nor does it proscribe government conduct that could make political speech “ineffective.” The fundamental question under s.2 is whether a government law “limits” speech. There is a distinction between effectiveness of speech and freedom of speech; the latter is a necessary condition, the former is not. If courts begin to delve into the messy business of striking down government laws that merely affect the effectiveness of speech, the Charter could end up restricting the marketplace of ideas in ways that are typically repugnant to a liberal order. Practically, it also means that in some cases the court will need to determine whether a law renders speech “ineffective,” which would require some fairly metaphysical evidentiary standards, not to mention a voyage into the content of the speech. It is even more difficult to prove an infringement in cases where, as here, the purported restriction speaks only to the environment (confusion and uncertainty) in which candidates campaign, not to legal restrictions on the political campaigns and voters themselves, such as in the typical s.2(b) electoral cases: BC FIPA, Thomson Newspapers, Libman.

I’m more concerned with the second finding in the decision—the essential application of s.3 of the Charter concerning voting rights in a case where it does not apply. Section 3 textually reads that it applies to voting for federal and provincial representatives. Under the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, the purpose of s.3 is to guarantee “effective representation” (Reference Re Prov Electoral Boundaries) in these fora. Mathematical parity is not the test, but what constitutes effective representation appears to be a fraught question. But in this case, against the backdrop of one affidavit, Justice Belobaba concluded that the expressive right to vote for effective representation had been breached because the ward population size had been doubled [51, 60]. This is fundamentally the language of s.3, not s.2(b). Justice Belobaba, to his credit, is alive to this concern. He ultimately concludes that voting is a form of expression rendered ineffective by Bill 5, and whether or not it is rooted in s.3, it can be transposed to the s.2(b) context [43 et seq]. But here again we get into the business of effectiveness—especially what constitutes an effective vote. The language is striking, calling to mind a category mistake; should we be in the business of assigning value to votes based on resulting effectiveness?

Regardless, s.2(b) and s.3 are distinct Charter guarantees. They have distinct purposes, with “effective representation” being the purpose of s.3. While these purposes may sometimes overlap, it seems to me that the purposive approach to Charter interpretation has to insist on some analytical distinction between the rights to be of any use. If rights are to be interpreted in their “historic, political, and philosophic” context, surely that purposive context changes with the right in question. This has particular implications for the relationship between Charter rights and s.1 of the Charter. As Peter Hogg notes in his important article, how we construe Charter rights at the infringement stage has implications for the s.1 stage. If a right is construed broadly at the first stage (the purpose is construed broadly), then we leave s.1 for more work to do. Similarly, a right that is characterized with a narrow purpose may leave less work for s.1. This is a rough-and-ready purposive analysis, but it means that regularly mixing and matching Charter rights can have consequences for the evidence required to prove a Charter breach, the evidence required to sustain one, and the intensity of review that courts apply to particular infringements.

There is also the obvious problem here of essentially applying a Charter guarantee where it doesn’t apply to municipalities (despite Justice Belobaba’s comments regarding Haig, I think he fundamentally imported s.3). I call this “constitutional substitution.” It means that a court, seeking to vindicate a result that seems unfair or unjust in the abstract, massages a chosen constitutional right that will best achieve that result. It is perhaps an uncommon phenomenon, but it is present in this decision—s.3 does not apply, s.2(b) does. While I’m alive to the idea that the s.2(b) electoral cases could implicate s.3, those cases dealt with different legislative schemes that, again, directly impacted/limited the ability of participants in the political system to participate (ie) through financial restrictions.

I don’t mean to advocate for a “watertight compartments” approach to Charter rights, in part because I think the reality of constitutional facts makes this difficult. That said, as Mike Pal very aptly noted, we have no real doctrinal means to deal with overlap of constitutional rights as opposed to the reconciliation of rights. We should start from the premise that the Charter lists distinct guarantees that the Supreme Court has insisted should be interpreted with distinct purposes. From there, we deal with the hard cases that arise where rights overlap, such as in the case of s.2(b) and s.3. And this isn’t the only area of the Constitution where rights can overlap—the recent Ktunaxa ruling demonstrates a contested area between the freedom of religion guarantee and Aboriginal rights under s.35. While each overlap may have to be resolved differently, some unified principles would be helpful.

Brief Comments on the Notwithstanding Clause

I can’t do much to add to the already booming discussion on the notwithstanding clause. I for one accept its legitimacy as part of the constitutional order, in part because of the evidence that it formed a part of the pact leading to the Charter, adopted itself by our elected representatives and because one part of the Constitution cannot be breached by another. The notwithstanding clause is a power that can be used by elected officials assuming they follow the form requirements set out in the Ford case (no relation).

I will venture two points. First, simply because the notwithstanding clause is legitimate itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused illegitimately. The exercise of state power—even a constitutionally entrenched power—does not operate in a vacuum. We should expect a duty of good-faith in a constitutional democracy to attach to the use of such powers; put differently, and without entering the foray into constitutional conventions, we should expect elected officials to abide by constitutional norms as they are defined.

Part of this norm, given the atrophied s.33, should be a public justification for the use of the extraordinary override. The populist justification put forward by Premier Ford is lacking for this reason. No one says that the seminal Ford case compels Premier Ford to do anything but pass a properly formed bill. But in a deliberative, representative democracy, we should expect leaders to justify their use of extraordinary state power, especially as it applies to the override of constitutional rights, themselves adopted by legislative actors. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, we expect in a representative democracy that our leaders will not appeal to factions (as in a direct democracy) but to the highest ideals of the legal order.

A second point about the notwithstanding clause, especially on constitutional substitution. The effect of Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to open the door to the use of the notwithstanding clause on s.3 of the Charter, the essence of his legal findings. Yet this is doubly prohibited by the Constitution. As I say above, s.3 only applies to Parliament and the legislatures and at any rate cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. Though Justice Belobaba framed his findings under s.2(b), his ultimate conclusion was framed in the right to effective representation that would be infringed by having councilors who cannot respond to voter complaints [57]. He was most concerned with being able “to cast a vote that can result in meaningful and effective representation” [59]. This is in substance a finding under s.3. Yet by framing the finding under s.2(b), Justice Belobaba opens the door both to the application of s.3 to municipalities and to the use of the notwithstanding clause against, in essence, a s.3 finding. If we accept that the right to effective representation is infringed, we should worry about the notwithstanding clause’s use here.

Vote ‘em out

I offer these comments tentatively, largely because we are in unchartered waters. At the same time, two final points. First, I disagree with those who say this is a constitutional crisis. Constitutions are meant to be durable, to withstand pressure by those seeking to break constitutional norms, or even the inadvertent pressure of complacence. In some ways (putting aside the constitutional substitution concern) this is a textbook case of the court issuing a ruling and the government responding.

Second, I think the best way to understand Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to conclude that he saw a wrong, fashioned a remedy, and hooked it to a right. On most accounts, though the duty of procedural fairness does not attach to acts of the legislature, there was something unfair about the way in which Bill 5 was introduced and the context of the Premier’s contentious relationship with Toronto Council. Most likely this was an arbitrary decision by the Premier. In the face of this unfairness, Justice Belobaba found a way to get around the problem of s.3 by applying s.2(b) and by stretching the meaning of s.2(b) itself. I do not see this as a proper response to legislative unfairness. The best responses are for PC MPPs to oust Ford, or for the voters to do so.

Rendering Unto the Judiciary

Justice Martineau’s recent article on judicial courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCC Skepticism

In a recent piece in Maclean’s, Adam Goldenberg explains why the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) does not suffer from the same partisan interest the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) does. He lists three main reasons: (1) the nature of partisanship in the US; (2) the American conservative movement’s incubator for legal talent; and (3) American political parties galvanizing support on the strength of controversial court rulings. I accept all of these reasons and invite those interested to read Goldenberg’s piece.

But one more should be added, without which the story is incomplete: American citizens know where law is made.  They realize (even without knowing the legalities) that winning a constitutional debate in court wins the democratic debate for all time.  The matter is put beyond the reach of the regular democratic process. Canadians should be more critical of this reality in our own country.

Two forces have led us to this point. The first is both Canada and the US courts do not shy away from deciding controversial issues. In Canada, Bedford and Carter dealt with prostitution and assisted dying, respectively. In the United States, Obergefell dealt with same sex marriage. The fact that courts often delve into these issues (or, as defenders of the courts would say, are forced into these issues by the nature of an entrenched bill of rights) makes them a lightning rod for political attention.

At the same time, opinion polls in the United States show that Americans have record low confidence in their political institutions, and Canadians are no different. Confidence in government is at all-time lows. We see this in the context of Aboriginal law, where Aboriginal groups have moved to the courts as the primary vehicle by which they can vindicate their rights. One can surmise that they have done so because of the historical ineptitude of the Government of Canada.

These forces together understandably cause citizens to make a choice. Recalcitrant politicians and a lack of confidence in institutions? The slog of convincing one’s fellow citizens? Or, a sweeping court declaration which forces legislatures to respond?

In the US, citizens largely made the latter choice to resolve their plights. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in Planned Parenthood v Casey that the SCOTUS, rather than legislatures, were increasingly subject to intense political pressure by both sides of hot-button issues—in that case, abortion. The letters, comments, and protestors directed to the SCOTUS, not the legislatures, was an odd sight to Justice Scalia, who viewed the development skeptically. To Justice Scalia’s mind, because the American people “are not fools,” they recognized that the SCOTUS had become the leading institution where these value-laden issues were decided.

While Goldenberg notes that much of this political attention focuses on what the original meaning of the US Bill of Rights means in modern America, I think this overstates the case. The political attention is just that, naked politics, not shrouded in any legality. Many people want the court to achieve their explicitly political ends.  As for originalism, originalists have not held a majority of the US Supreme Court, at least in the last twenty years. Justice Scalia himself was known as a fiery dissenter. For example, under the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), the SCOTUS developed a profoundly non-originalist test—the so-called “evolving standards of decency” approach. While Justice Kagan’s point that we are all originalists now may be true, it is not true that originalism has been a wholly successful legal project in the United States.

No matter what one thinks of originalism, it provides a limiting principle on otherwise free doctrinal reign. But because it has not been embraced consistently in the US, and no other real principle has come forward, the political parties have latched on to the SCOTUS nomination process as a means to vindicate their particular versions of the good. Since the Bork confirmation hearings, both parties in the US have used the process because they know its consequences. They know that getting the “right” people on the Court will do far more to change laws than simply electing people to the legislature. We see this sort of discussion now with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the ludicrous proposal of “court-packing” to block a Republican nomination.

The Americans have gone too far, and Goldenberg rightly decries this development. But one has to ask whether it is all that bad given the stakes. People understandably want a say in the laws that govern them. If the SCOTUS takes a bigger piece of the pie of the law-making process, then citizens should have the right and the responsibility to campaign on “the court” as an issue.

In reality, Canada’s SCC is just as central in the Canadian polity as the SCOTUS is in the American. Despite the Court’s recent ruling in Comeau, the test to revisit previous precedents is fairly relaxed, and so litigants understandably invite the SCC to do so. This approach invites members of the Court to decide when, according to them, a particular precedent no longer jibes with modern times.  Whatever the strength of the Court’s stated commitment to living constitutionalism, it generally supports its “ideological sex appeal,”   viewing its role as deciding what is best for Canadian society. As Leonid pointed out in a previous post, the SCC has an ideology, but it is probably not evident to most.

A good example is the SCC’s opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. There, the SCC majority spoke of giving “benediction” to the right to strike. The full quote by the SCC majority is instructive: “[T]he right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right. It seems to me to be the time to give this conclusion constitutional benediction” [3]. In this example, it was the SCC that decided that now, rather than some past time, was the right time to expand a constitutional right, forever removing it from the realm of democratic debate. This is a political conclusion at heart, more an assessment of what modern times demand rather than what the law does.

And so, it is understandable that political groups should want to have a role in moving the Dworkinian Hercules. But as Goldenberg points out, Canadians have not latched on to these developments as a political matter. In fact, many of the criticisms I’ve advanced to the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour case are common in the US, but less common in Canada. Canadians seem to be  sluggish in response to these tendencies in our own SCC. I can’t speak to why this is; but perhaps it is true to say, as the National Post did, that Canadians are simply “different” than Americans—more trusting of government institutions.

In light of the stakes, Canadians could learn from Americans in taking an active, critical interest in what the SCC does. While I do not advocate a full-blown American approach to judicial nominations, there are various ways Canadians should respond to this phenomenon. Justice Scalia’s prescription was a rigorous application of original meaning originalism, which he thought was the antidote to the excesses of living constitutionalism. I am partial to this approach, but I need not argue this point to make the following assertion: Canadians should first fully reckon with what the SCC is actually doing, whether one thinks its good or bad. If the SCC makes law, as so many legal realists believe, we should hold them to the same standards we hold legislatures. We should, in short,  become Supreme Court skeptics, rather than fawning admirers of our nation’s highest jurists.

This is a distinctly second-order response to the issue, but the most realistic one in the intellectual and legal climate in which we find ourselves.  Canadian academics certainly engage vigorously with SCC decisions, but the extent to which this filters into the larger society (or the extent to which it is representative of all potential critiques) is an open question. We should be concerned with fostering a healthy skepticism of the SCC, similar to the skepticism we hold for legislatures.

This means fostering an open climate of academic, cultural, and political discussion about the SCC, and viewing judges as humans, rather than celebrities—no more capable of coming to conclusions about the nature of human rights than any Joe or Jane Six-Pack. This is a more radical proposition than one might think; consider Leonid’s comments in his recent post about New Zealand’s anti-court criticism bill.

This could also involve a more open nomination process. I saw nothing particularly wrong with the selection process of Justice Marshall Rothstein. His “confirmation” hearings, while in reality non-binding, at least gave those interested a look into the mind of a man who would serve on the SCC. We can have these hearings without devolving into an American three-act-play, or a challenge to the independence of the institution. The fact that Justice Rothstein’s hearing was a model of decorum is an example of this working well.

Goldenberg’s piece underlines the problems with the American approach, but I think it paints far too rosy a picture of our courts.  The Americans understand the consequences of their system and are taking part in it. Canadians, as Goldenberg seems to admit, do not. This is not a fact of which we should be proud.

 

 

Repurposing Constitutional Construction

Is Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick’s theory of originalist constitutional construction relevant to Canadians?

Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick’s important essay “The Letter and the Spirit: A Unified Theory of Originalism” has been available for some time already, but it is still worth a comment here. Professors Barnett and Bernick have great ambitions for their project, hoping that it will serve to rally and reconcile the adherents of most if not all of the various forms of originalism ― which Benjamin Oliphant and I once described as “a large and ever-growing family of theories of constitutional interpretation” ― and rather fractious one, too. Indeed, although Professors Barnett and Bernick also think that their approach can serve to shore up the distinction, sometimes said to be evanescent, between originalism and living constitutionalism, a version of their theory, albeit justified on grounds different from those that they put forward, might serve to reconcile originalism with much of what the Supreme Court of Canada says and does about constitutional interpretation.

The “unified theory of originalism” seeks to achieve what others, it is often said (including by at least some originalists), failed to do: constrain originalist judges, in particular in those cases where the original meaning of the constitutional text is not enough to do dispose of the dispute. “New originalist” theories, such as those previously put forward by Professor Barnett, sharply distinguished constitutional interpretation ― “the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text” (3) ― and constitutional construction ― “the activity of giving that content legal effect” (3). The text, as originally understood, might not tell us how a given dispute ought to be settled, and so a court would need to develop further rules, consistent with but not dictated by the text, to resolve the controversy. But originalist theories that accepted the interpretation-construction distinction tended to have little to say about how courts should go about articulating these rules. Indeed, Professor Barnett previously argued that constitutional construction is not an originalist activity at all, since it is, by definition, not a function of the original meaning of the constitutional text.

Not so, Professors Barnett and Bernick now argue: construction not only can but must be originalist. When “the letter” of the constitution, the original public meaning of its text, understood in its context, is not enough to dispose of case, the court’s construction of the constitution must be guided by its original “spirit” ― that is, the purposes animating the text being applied, or indeed the constitutional text as a whole. These purposes are not the intentions of the constitution’s framer’s as to the effects it would produce in addressing the specific dispute at hand ― which will often be non-existent, and might be inconsistent with the text even when they exist. Rather, they are “the functions” that the constitutional provisions being applied were meant to serve “at the time each constitutional provision was enacted”. (15) Although this approach to constitutional construction is thus a form of purposivism, the purposes to which it gives effect are not those of the court or of society at the time of adjudication, but those of the constitution’s designers. The focus is on “the design principles that explain the specific provisions and general structure of the Constitution”, (41) understood at the appropriate level of abstraction.

The reason why this approach to construction is justified, indeed required, has to do with the nature of the relationships between the judges, the constitution, and the citizens subject to it. According to Professors Barnett and Bernick, judges (as well as all other government officials) are fiduciaries; they exercise discretionary powers and their “decisions … bring the government’s coercive power to bear upon us to our detriment, or that prevent the government’s power from being used to our benefit”. (19) Judges enter into their fiduciary relationship with the people by swearing an oath “to support this Constitution” and, like parties to a contract, they must perform their undertaking in good faith. Specifically, when the letter of the constitution leaves them with discretionary decisions to make, judges must not seek to exercise their discretion so as “to recapture foregone opportunities” (24) to implement their own constitutional preferences instead of “supporting” the constitution that was ratified (and amended) by the people, and so “to change the Constitution through adjudication” (31).

This justification might be of limited interest outside the American context. While thinking of government officials as fiduciaries might be helpful, Canadian judges do not swear “to support” the Canadian constitution. In fact, their oaths do not refer to the constitution at all, but rather to their “duties” or “powers and trusts”. As for the notion of good faith, it is a latecomer to Canadian contract law, or perhaps a foundling, and was no part of it in either 1867 or even 1982 ― though arguably that’s beside the point, because the Canadian judicial oaths do require judges to act “faithfully”. So I’m not sure if thinking of judges as having explicitly foregone opportunities for constitutional rectification in the course of adjudication is especially helpful in Canada. Certainly many Canadian judges do not think of themselves as having made any such undertaking. Having repeatedly argued that the state cannot dictate the contents of people’s conscientious obligations ― whether in the case of the citizenship oath or in that of the Law Society of Ontario’s “statement of principles” ― I will not insist on telling judges how to think of theirs.

But that doesn’t mean that Professors Barnett and Bernick’s ideas about how judges ought to engage in constitutional construction are irrelevant to Canada. The case for requiring fidelity to what they call the spirit of the constitution ― to the purposes for which the constitution’s provisions were designed and to what Lord Atkin, in the Labour Conventions Reference, described as “its original structure” ― does not, I think, depend on the wording and import of Canadian judicial oaths, or on the applicability of contractual principles of good faith. It rests, rather, on the nature of activity of judging and of interpretation. The idea that interpreters are to identify the purposes of legislation, the reasons for which it was enacted, and apply legislation in a manner that furthers these purposes is a longstanding one. As Lon Fuller pointed out in a passage from The Morality of Law that I have discussed here, it was captured in Haydon’s Case, (1584) 3 Co Rep 7a:

for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law,) four things are to be discerned and considered:

1st. What was the common law before the making of the Act.
2nd. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide.
3rd. What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth.
And, 4th. The true reason of the remedy; and then the office of all the Judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.

To apply this to constitutional rather than statutory texts, some minor adjustments are in order, notably to account for the fact that constitutions are not (primarily) enacted against a common law background, but the substance of this principle is still relevant in the constitutional context ― all the more so since Canadian constitutional texts are, for the most part, statutes in form.

And indeed the Supreme Court has often endorsed a purposivism that appeals to the sort of originalist considerations on which Professors Barnett and Bernick would have the courts focus. For example, in R v Big M Drug Mart [1985] 1 SCR 295, Justice Dickson (as he then was) held that that

[t]he meaning of a right or freedom guaranteed by the Charter was to be ascertained by an analysis of the purpose of such a guarantee; it was to be understood, in other words, in the light of the interests it was meant to protect. … [T]he purpose of the right or freedom in question is to be sought by reference to the character and the larger objects of the Charter itself, to the language chosen to articulate the specific right or freedom, to the historical origins of the concepts enshrined, and where applicable, to the meaning and purpose of the other specific rights and freedoms with which it is associated within the text of the Charter. (344; underlining in the original, paragraph break removed.)

To say that courts are to look for the functions constitutional provisions were intended to have at the time of their framing is simply a different way of putting the same thing. And this passage from Big M is not unique, as Mr. Oliphant and I show in the article referred to above, and also in the follow-up piece looking at “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“.

Of course, notwithstanding Justice Dickson’s admonitions in Big M, the Supreme Court of Canada has not been consistently originalist ― far from it, though as Mr. Oliphant and I demonstrate, it has been more originalist than living constitutionalists in Canada and elsewhere care to admit. The warning, arguably implicit in Justice Dickson’s comments, and explicit in at least Supreme Court cases warning against judicial re-writing of the constitution in the name of purposivism, which Professors Barnett and Bernick reiterate, has gone unheeded in some noteworthy Canadian cases, such as those that gave “constitutional benediction” to the alleged rights of organized labour. Precedents, such as Big M, articulating what might well be the right constitutional theory are no guarantee that this theory will be applied in a principled or consistent fashion. As William Baude suggests in a recent essay exploring originalism’s ability to constrain judges, “originalism can still have constraining power, but mostly for those who seek to be bound”. (2215) But those members of the Canadian judiciary who do indeed seek to be bound by the constitution could, I think, usefully consider the argument advanced by Professors Barnett and Bernick as a guide in their endeavours.