Dreaming Double

As promised, some thoughts on Jeremy Waldron’s new paper on bicameralism, which I summarized last week.

First, Waldron’s take on bicameralism reflects his usual fondness of and optimism about legislatures. Legislatures can really be great at making policy, resolving disagreements, and protecting rights, he is convinced, if only they function well. “Legislative due process” is an important concern of his; he is sharply critical of legislatures that do not properly scrutinize and debate the bills they enact into law, for example.

He presents bicameralism as a means to enhance “legislative due process” by introducing a second locus of debate about bills and also possibly by adding different points of view to the mix by virtue of making the two chambers of the legislature representative in different ways. In theory, this sounds great. In practice, I wonder whether bicameralism can live up to its promise. Bicameralism will not serve to increase the amount of debate unless both chambers are in fact committed to fully debating the bills before them. But – to take up the mischievous-or-superfluous argument that Waldron criticizes – if there is commitment on the part of one chamber to debate bills in full, how much is there to be gained by then adding a second full debate? Different modes of representation need not produce different perspectives (as the increasing similarity of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the U.S. shows), especially if the process of representation, however it is organized, is dominated by political parties. Representatives’ views are likely to be function of their partisan commitments much more than of the way they are elected.

Waldron is aware of this danger. Although he accepts that party politics are here to stay, he worries about the executive dominating the legislature, and thinks that an executive-dominated second chamber would be worse than useless. He has two (closely related) solutions for this problem. First, prevent members of the second chamber from serving in the Cabinet. Second, make the second chamber not about government, but about oversight, and hope that voters notice the difference (and vote accordingly). But here again, I have strong doubts about the effectiveness of his proposals. The Canadian Senate shows that even people without any prospect of serving in the Cabinet can be quite partisan. In the U.S. too, many Senators probably lack executive-branch ambitions, yet are fiercely partisan (as are, of course, members of the House of Representatives, for the vast majority of whom the Senate is the height of their ambitions). And I wonder about the possibility of a second chamber exercising good -faith scrutiny – not tainted beyond redemption by partisan affinity or hostility – over the work of a first.

So, Waldron’s arguments in favour of bicameralism seem more hypothetical than real; and there are other problems with bicameralism that he does not fully address. The main one is that of conflict between the two chambers, for which the responsible-government constitutional system is simply not equipped. The lack of any provisions to address this issue, by the way, is a disastrous flaw in the current Senate reform proposal in Canada. Of course, any such provisions would profoundly affect the working of Parliament and require constitutional amendment (even if, and it’s a big if, the current proposal does not).

The problem is this. If the second chamber does exercise its scrutiny role properly (even more if it is motivated by partisan opposition to the government), it will sometimes reject important government bills. What then? If the bill is a matter of confidence (as are all money bills, and possibly some others), its defeat by convention triggers the government’s resignation or dissolution of Parliament, usually the latter. But is it a good idea to hand to a second chamber with a “will of its own” (as Waldron wants it) the power to threaten and eventually to force dissolution at any disagreement? If this power can be exercised for partisan purposes, as it seems bound to be, this is a recipe for disaster, with elections coming as often as the second-chamber majority thinks it can install its allies in power. On the other hand, so long as the government thinks it has more to gain from an election than the second-chamber majority, it will be able to ride roughshod over the second chamber’s scrutiny by making any bill a matter of confidence and thus threatening dissolution if it is rejected.

Now we might specify that defeat of a bill in the second chamber never constitutes a loss of confidence in the government, so that it does not trigger resignation or dissolution. But then, we need a mechanism other than an election for getting over the conflict between the two chambers, at least for those bills that need to be passed, such as budgets.  How this is to be done is not obvious (though not impossible), but whatever mechanism is, its existence dilutes the power of the second chamber to reject the government’s proposals and thus diminishes the benefits Waldron hopes for it.

Thus I think that meaningful bicameralism in Westminster-style constitutional systems is bound to remain a dream, and attempts to realize it might turn into nightmares. It would be better, I think, to try to work on the hugely important issues Waldron is concerned about – legislative due process, executive domination of the legislature – by improving existing Houses of Commons (and unicameral provincial legislatures in Canada). Because, as Waldron notes, executives don’t like sharing power, this will be difficult enough.

Waldron on Bicameralism

The ever brilliant and ever productive Jeremy Waldron has posted three new papers on SSRN this week: one on “The Principle of Loyal Opposition,” one on separation of powers, and one on bicameralism. They all look very interesting, and also very relevant to the current Canadian events. I hope to blog on all of them, but I will start with the one on bicameralism, which of course is most relevant given the Harper government’s interest in Senate Reform.

I encourage you to have a look at the paper itself; I cannot hope to do justice to it in a blog post. In addition to being very intelligent, it is also quite funny. I won’t retell the jokes here, but suffice it to say that it starts off “with some observations about alcohol and sex.” Still, if that’s not incentive enough, here’s a summary of Waldron’s argument. Continue reading “Waldron on Bicameralism”

Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests

Faced with the lengthening strikes and the prospect of losing their semester – and thus having their graduation and their entry on the job market delayed – students at many of Québec’s CÉGEPs and universities have turned to the courts and have been seeking, and obtaining, injunctions forcing the schools to get back to teaching the courses they are registered for. The injunctions tend to prevent the student “strikers” from blocking entry to their schools and otherwise disrupting classes. The injunction obtained by a student in a technical programme at the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent is, I understand, fairly typical. Other injunctions, aiming directly at student protesters, have been obtained by universities.

The law, explained for example in the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent decision, is quite clear. Student associations do not have the same status as trade unions. They are not entitled to impose their “strike” votes on their members, as trade unions are. Students contract for education services, and pay, however little. They are entitled to have the classes they contract and pay for. They suffer great prejudice if they lose their semester. The protesters, on the other hand, can still protest if they feel like it, despite the injunctions.

Yet the courts’ stepping in to apply the law and grant these injunctions has produced an outcry, including from lawyers. The argument is that what’s going on is a “judicialization” of a social conflict; that the courts are improperly stepping in to resolve political questions. This is the issue I want to address today. What is the distinction between legal and political questions? And is a wrongful “judicialization” affecting the student protests in Québec? Continue reading “Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests”

A Charter Child’s Blues

This was originally written more than three years ago now, but I am fond of the text. I thought I would repost it tomorrow, on the Charter‘s 30th anniversary, but decided to do it today. Hopefully I’ll come up with something more celebratory tomorrow.

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I am a proud Charter child. A copy of the Charter is hanging in my room; right above my bed in fact. Every night I fall asleep secure in the knowledge that “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” You might I’m really taking too far – or even that I’m nuts. You can even tell me this in so many words. That’s fine. “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression.” But the Charter, according to our Chief Justice, belongs to the people, so it belongs to me too. I’m not the fat old lady, or the gentleman wearing some sort of cross between a Chinese hat and a sombrero, or a kid playing hockey, or any other character gracing my copy of the Charter. But collectively, they all are me. So why is that that I have been having the Charter blues?
Continue reading “A Charter Child’s Blues”

Privacy in the Past, Present, and Future

Our own actions – individual and collective – set the upper limit of our privacy rights. We will never have more privacy rights than we care to have, although we often have fewer. One stark illustration of this idea comes in Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Dead Past,” in which a group of scientists build and, despite the government’s best efforts, thoughtlessly disseminate the instructions for building a “chronoscope” – a machine for viewing any events in the (recent) past. Their original purpose was historical research, but the chronoscope is not very useful for that; what it is very good for is snooping and voyeurism. The story ends with the government official who tried and failed to stop the protagonists wishing “[h]appy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone.”

The internet, especially Web 2.0, is (almost) as good as the chronoscope, argues Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a short essay published in the Stanford Law Review Online. It also allows everyone to learn all about anyone, provided that the person – or indeed someone else – posted the information on the internet at some point. And the fact that people share their every thought and deed online shapes society’s expectations of privacy, which are the key to what constitutional protections we have in this area. Those parts of our lives which we do not expect to be private are not protected from observation at will by the government. And if we do not expect anything to be private, then nothing will be.

“Reasonable expectations of privacy” are also key to defining privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court’s latest engagement with the question of just what expectations of privacy are reasonable, in R. v. Gomboc, 2010 SCC 55, [2010] 3 S.C.R. 211, produced something of a mess. The issue was whether the installation without a warrant of a device that measures the electricity consumption of a house breached the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Four judges said no, because general information about electricity consumption does not reveal enough to make it private. Three said no because the law entitled to owner to ask the utility not to hand over such information to the police, and he had not exercised this right. Two said that the information was private. But what seems clear is that for Canadian law too, what we think about our privacy and what we do about it, individually and collectively, matters.

Are we then doomed, as Judge Kozinski suggests we might be? Perhaps not. With respect, his claims are a little too pessimistic. Judge Kozinski collects a great many frightening anecdotes about people’s willingness to wash their – and others’ – dirty laundry in public. But anecdotes seldom justify sweeping conclusions. And some studies at least seem to show that people do care about their privacy more than the pessimists assume,  if not always in ways or to an extent that would satisfy the pessimists. Old expectations of privacy might be fading, but new ones could emerge, along different lines. Judge Kozinski is right that the law cannot do much to protect people who do not care. But we must hope that he and his colleagues, as well as legislators on both sides of the 49th parallel, will be mindful of the possibility that changes in privacy expectations can go in both directions.

Purely Hypothetical Dragons

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. …  The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.*

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Much of the Conservative government’s legislative programme seems driven by fear and distrust of judges. Such reactions to judicial decisions are often justified by concern about “judicial activism.” But judicial activism is something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways. Or so I am tempted to conclude after reading an exchange at the Volokh Conspiracy (which, by the way, is 10 years old today) between prof. Orin Kerr and prof. Randy Barnett.

Prof. Kerr argues that the expression “judicial activism” can have a variety of meanings, some of them more interesting than others. A decision can be described as activist if 1) it rests on the judges’ personal (including political) views; 2) it expands the power of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other branches of government; 3) it departs from settled precedent; 4) it strikes down a statute or an administrative decision; or 5) it is wrong. Prof. Kerr believes that the meanings 1) to 3) are useful because “the terms allow us to have a useful debate about the proper role of the courts.” On the other hand, 4) and 5) are to be avoided; the former, because everyone (in the US, but I suppose this is mostly true for Canada too) agrees with (some) judicial review, the latter, because we don’t agree about what decisions are right.

Prof. Barnett responds by arguing that given its multiplicity of meanings, useful or otherwise, the term “judicial activism” is best avoided – but not without venturing yet another meaning for it, applying it to describe any decision which contradicts clear constitutional text.

(I have given the bare bones of both posts, which are very interesting, especially if you are conversant with or curious about US constitutional debates.)

It seems to me that prof. Barnett is right that we ought to avoid using the term “judicial activism” if at all possible, since it can mean so many things to different people. Prof. Kerr’s categories of judicial activism are very interesting, and no doubt capture much of what people mean when they use the term, but why use the vague, and vaguely pejorative, “judicial activism,” even in one of the useful meanings prof. Kerr identifies, when we can say more precisely what we mean? Judicial activism does not really exist, but we should keep in mind that it does not really exist in a number of different ways.

* As I recall it, in the Russian translation of the Cyberiad which I read, the three distinct kinds of dragon were said to be the nil, the negative, and the imaginary. If anyone knows what the Polish original was, I would love to hear about it.