L’intention ne compte pas

J’ai reçu, évidemment, des critiques pour mon billet soulignant la ressemblance entre le projet de « Charte des valeurs » du gouvernement péquiste et la Loi sur la restauration de la fonction publique nazie, qui chassait les Juifs (et les opposants politiques) de la fonction publique allemande. La plus sérieuse de ces critiques, qui mérite une réponse, est à l’effet que l’analogie n’est pas valide, qu’elle est même injuste, parce que l’intention du gouvernement Marois n’est ni la même ni même comparable à celle du gouvernement Nazi. Les péquistes ne cherchent pas à éliminer un groupe social détesté, ni même, me dit-on, à l’exclure de la société. Ainsi, aussi indésirables, et même inacceptables, que soient les effets que produira cette « Charte des valeurs », on ne devrait pas la comparer à une loi dont les effets, par ailleurs semblables, était recherchés. Avec égards, je ne suis pas persuadé par cette critique.

Si l’histoire politique du 20e siècle nous a appris une chose, c’est bien que les intentions, affichées ou même réelles, derrière les politiques publiques ne signifient pas grand chose. Les meilleurs intentions, lorsqu’on cherche à les réaliser par les moyens abusifs, produisent la misère ou l’oppression. Ce n’est pas seulement que la fin ne justifie pas les moyens ― mes critiques, je m’empresse d’ajouter, ne prétendent pas cela. C’est que la fin est carrément sans importance face à certains moyens. Certaines mesures sont si répressives que le but dans lequel elles sont adoptées non seulement ne les justifie pas, mais ne saurait être invoqué même à titre de circonstance atténuante.

L’oubli de ce principe a des conséquences déplorables pour notre compréhension de l’histoire, notamment une certaine trivialisation des crimes communistes, surtout en comparaison avec les crimes Nazis. On a tendance à penser que, parce que les intentions des communistes étaient nobles, leurs actes, qui ont causé plus de morts que ceux des Nazis, ne méritent pas la même condamnation que ceux de ces derniers. Des jeunes exaltés arborent fièrement le portrait de Che Guevara, et on les regarde, tout au plus, avec une certaine condescendance, se disant qu’il faut que jeunesse se passe. On ne regarderait pas de cette façon un jeune qui se promènerait avec un uniforme SS.

Tout ça pour dire qu’accorder trop d’importance aux intentions qui motivent la répression est une erreur. L’injustice ne consiste pas à comparer des mesures aux conséquences semblables si leurs intentions sont différentes. Elle consiste, au contraire, à laisser une intention prétendument bénigne obscurcir une énormité que celui qui a cette intention s’apprête à commettre. Et, pour prévenir cette injustice, il me me semble d’autant plus important de souligner le parallèle entre la mesure proposée par le gouvernement péquiste et la loi nazie ― justement parce que leurs motivations ne sont pas les mêmes.

Le Point Godwin

J’ai promis, dans mon dernier billet, où j’analysais la constitutionnalité de la « Charte des valeurs » proposée par le gouvernement du Québec, de dire des méchancetés au sujet de celle-ci. Eh bien, en voici la plus grande. Ce projet ressemble drôlement à une loi Nazie de 1933, la Loi sur la restauration de la fonction publique (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, GWB). Cette loi, proclamée seulement quelques mois après l’arrivée d’Hitler au pouvoir, a exclu de la fonction publique et de l’enseignement les personnes d’ascendance « non-aryenne » ― c’est à dire les Juifs ― ainsi que les indésirables politiques. En ce qui me concerne, j’ai du mal à voir en quoi l’expulsion de fonctionnaires, de profs, de médecins ou d’éducatrices dont la religion leur impose le port de signes qualifiés d’ « ostentatoires » en vertu de la « Charte des valeurs » est différente de cette première purge nazie.

Il me vient à l’esprit un seul argument possible ― possible, mais non persuasif. Être Juif, selon la compréhension nazie, n’était qu’une question de sang. Ce n’était, évidemment, pas un choix qu’une personne pouvait faire. Porter un symbole religieux ostentatoire, dira-t-on peut-être, est un choix. La première ministre a prétendu qu’ « on peut aider cette personne-là sûrement à cheminer et à accepter de vivre avec les règles que la société se donne ».

C’est du délire. La personne qui sent un devoir supérieur de porter un voile, une kippa, un turban ne peut pas « cheminer » pour, graduellement, changer d’avis. Elle peut, contre sa conscience, se soumettre à la force. Certaines le feront. La plupart ne le feront pas, parce qu’elles se sentent incapables de le faire. La foi peut se manifester, entre autres, par un choix vestimentaire, mais elle n’est une chose superficielle à laquelle on peut renoncer pour le bien commun. L’obligation qu’on éprouve envers sa conscience est supérieure à celle qu’on éprouve envers la loi, envers la société. Mme. Marois et tous ceux qui soutiennent le projet de son gouvernement s’en rendraient compte d’ailleurs, s’ils prenaient le temps de se demander comment ils se sentiraient si, disons, un autre gouvernement ré-instituait le Serment du test. En bonne conscience, on n’a pas plus le choix de ses obligations religieuses que de sa race, de sa nationalité ou de son sexe.

C’est pourquoi j’insiste sur ce parallèle entre la proposition du PQ et la loi nazie sur la fonction publique. Attention: je ne dis pas que les péquistes sont des nazis. Je suis loin de croire, par exemple, que le PQ s’est inspiré d’Hitler pour façonner sa  proposition. Non, au contraire, il est fort probable les auteurs de celle-ci soient tout simplement ignorants de l’histoire. Je ne dis pas, non plus, que si Hitler, ayant commencé par la purge de la fonction publique, a fini par les chambres à gaz, le PQ va en faire autant. Certainement pas. Je fais seulement le parallèle entre deux politiques spécifiques.

Je m’attends néanmoins à ce qu’on m’invoque « la loi Godwin », ou plutôt l’interprétation de cette loi voulant que la personne qui compare son adversaire aux Nazis doit être considérée comme ayant, ipso facto, perdu l’argument. Sauf que, cette « loi » ne saurait être érigée en dogme. Comme l’explique, par exemple, Glenn Greenwald, on n’a pas besoin d’avoir construit des chambres à gaz pour faire certaines des choses qui ont rendu Adolf Hitler l’homme le plus honni de l’histoire. Lorsqu’un politicien fait une de ces choses, invoquer la loi Godwin comme argument massue destiné à mettre fin à la discussion n’est qu’un moyen d’éviter une  discussion inconfortable ― exactement la même chose que la comparaison à Hitler sert à accomplir dans les cas proprement visés par la loi Godwin.

Je ne veux pas, moi, mettre fin à la discussion ― encore que j’eusse préférée que la discussion autour de la « Charte des valeurs » n’ait pas eu lieu. Cependant, puisque cette discussion nous a été imposée, je pense qu’elle gagnerait à tenir compte de faits historiques pertinents. La « Charte des valeurs » est une énormité sans précédent dans l’histoire récente du Québec et du Canada. Il est impératif de bien en saisir l’ampleur.

ADDENDUM: Je souligne, au passage, pour ceux qui seraient intéressés à purifier le discours politique des références nazies qu’ils feraient bien de commencer par la désignation de ce qu’on appelle en anglais le Kitchen Accord comme la « Nuit des longs couteaux ».

ADDENDUM #2: Je réponds à une critique de mon analogie, telle qu’articulée par Mathieu dans son commentaire ci-dessous, dans ce billet.

Something about the Zeitgeist

Justice Scalia is often snarky. But he gets as good as he gives. Both tendencies were recently on display, after Justice Scalia apparently asserted that judges interpreting law in accordance with the “spirit of the age” were among the causes of Nazi barbarities, including the Holocaust ― a none too subtle dig at “living constitutionalism” and, perhaps, “judicial activism” of all sorts (whatever judicial activism is). The first reaction of some (myself included) was to think of Goodwin’s law. Others wax sarcastic about “peak Scalia.” Both snark and counter-snark are unjustified.

Start with the snark. Of course, when the spirit of the age is rotten, interpreting law in accordance with it will give foul results. But what about Justice Scalia preferred originalist approach? It will give better results if the law one interprets was written in a more enlightened age than the interpreter’s own; but if a law reflects the prejudice and ignorance of times past, then it is interpreting it in accordance with the spirit of those times that will give us bigoted jurisprudence. If one believes, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, then originalism is, on balance, an unattractive interpretive approach, although this does not exclude the possibility that it will sometimes yield just results, perhaps even more just results than the alternatives.

Yet the dismissive responses to Justice Scalia’s comments are also a bit too quick. It is worth noting that, as Josh Blackman points out, Justice Scalia is not the first to remark on the role of the Nazi judges’ interpretive approach in enabling the crimes of the regime they served. Cass Sunstein has made the same point:

In the Nazi period, German judges rejected formalism. They did not rely on the ordinary or original meaning of legal texts. On the contrary, they thought that statutes should be construed in accordance with the spirit of the age, defined by reference to the
Nazi regime. They thought that courts could carry out their task “only if they do not remain glued to the letter of the law, but rather penetrate its inner core in their interpretations and do their part to see that the aims of the lawmaker are realized.” (1; references omitted.)

Closer to home, Justice Lamer, as he then was, observed in R. v. Collins, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 265, that “[t]he reasonable person is usually the average person in the community, but only when that community’s current mood is reasonable” (emphasis mine). The point Justice Scalia was, I think, trying to make ― in however exaggerated a fashion ― is the same as that at which Justice Lamer was getting in this passage: the “spirit of the age,” the Zeitgeist, can be foul, and when it is, it is the judiciary’s duty to resist it as best it can, to prevent it from contaminating the law.

We can, of course, debate whether originalism is the best, or even an adequate way of doing so. We can say that perpetuating the iniquities of the past is no solution to the injustices of the present. But the idea is not absurd. It deserves discussion, not derision. It’s a shame that the spirit of the age, what with its addiction to soundbites and gotcha lines, appreciates the latter more than the former.

Then and Now

Much has been said and written in the last few years, both in Canada and in the United States, about the role of money in politics and also about the importance of electoral procedures in enfranchising ― or disenfranchising ― citizens. But this is not a new problem, as a description of the English electoral arrangements in the 18th century in E.M. Wrong’s book, History of England, 1688-1815, shows.

The role of money was perhaps most obvious in elections for county representatives, at which “the poll could be kept open for fifteen days if one voter an hour were produced, and the voters’ expenses to the county town and back was often high” (p. 71). As a result, elections were “ruinous” (71): “[i]n 1803 a contest between three candidates for the two Yorkshire seats cost nearly half a million pounds,” (71) which, in 2012 money amounts to the mind-blowing amount of more than 43.5 million pounds, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. That is more than the total expenditures of all the political parties in the last general election in the UK (a sum that does not include, however, expenses by individual candidates). In consequence, though the franchise for these seats was relatively wide, “in most counties some family or alliance of families was too strong to be challenged, and these divided the representation between themselves” (71). Today, expanding voting options, for example by keeping polls open for longer (notably for early voting) is widely seen as enfranchising voters and thus making elections more democratic. In the 18th century, it wasn’t necessarily so.

In some elections the role of money was even more crude. Some boroughs were represented in Parliamenut but had very few voters ― one “had but six houses and at one time one elector” (72-73). Even in somewhat less extreme cases, the vote of every single voter in such “rotten” boroughs mattered a great deal. But contrary to what an optimist might be tempted to expect from the literature on political ignorance (which argues that voters are rationally ignorant because their individual decisions matter very little), the individual power of these voters did not necessarily motivate them to learn about the issues and choose the best candidate for the country. Rather, they chose to profit from their position: “at Stockbridge the 57 electors were known to have asked £60 each for their suffrages. As voting was open, the result of bribery could be ascertained” (73).

A more entertaining comparison concerns another much-discussed topic, the requirements that would-be voters must satisfy to prove their right to exercise the franchise. The issues in the 18th century were not ID or burqa-wearing voters, but rather the proof of one’s property qualification:

In a dozen [boroughs] any one, not receiving poor relief, who could prove himself possessed of a hearth by coaxing a kettle to boil—”pot-walloping”—had the vote. Before an election men could be seen repairing a doorway—for a door was evidence of householding—lighting a fire, spreading a table in public, to prove their electoral qualification. (72)

Invocations of history are often meant as lessons for the present, though such lessons more often then not go unlearned. But if there is a lesson here, I am not sure what it might be. Sometimes, I think, it enough to enjoy the similarities and the differences between the past and the present for their own sake, as curiosities.

The Ghost of Patriation

If the ghost of communism is, or ever was, haunting Europe, Canadian constitutional law is haunted by what Fabien Gélinas described as the Ghost of Patriation. This ghost has been seen abroad again this week, stirred by an historian’s claims that, while the Supreme Court was considering questions about the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposed plan to seek Patriation without support from the provinces, the Court’s Chief Justice, Bora Laskin, leaked inside information about the Court’s deliberations to the government. The historian, Frédéric Bastien, apparently claims that this was an egregious violation of the separation of powers and that it made Patriation tantamount to a coup d’État and the resulting constitution illegitimate. Québec’s separatist government has seized on the claims, and even the Supreme Court has launched an internal inquiry, as the Globe reports.

Cooler heads are trying to put the ghost to rest by pointing out that, even if true, Dr. Bastien’s allegations are not enough to make out his claims about a coup d’État and the illegitimacy of the constitution. So Yves Boisvert argues in La Presse that while a breach of the secret of the Supreme Court’s deliberations, had it become known, might have been a cause for the Chief Justice’s resignation, it was not “a ploy that changed the course of history” (my translation). He points out that Justice Laskin found himself dissenting on the crucial question in the Court’s decision, usually referred to as the Patriation Reference, whether constitutional conventions prevented the federal government from acting unilaterally to amend the constitution. Indeed, Mr. Boisvert observes that whatever information Chief Justice Laskin might have given the government may well have been erroneous. Mr. Boisvert’s colleague, André Pratte, makes similar points in his editorial.

Messrs. Boisvert and Pratte are right. The coup d’État theory simply ignores the fact that by stating, in the Patriation Reference, that the federal government’s project was unconstitutional, albeit “only” in a conventional rather than a strictly legal sense, the Supreme Court thwarted unilateral Patriation. The Court’s majority, led by Justice Jean Beetz, held that constitutional conventions required “substantial” provincial support for constitutional amendments, which forced the federal government to negotiate with the provinces. Nine provinces eventually agreed on a (revised) Patriation plan, and the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed, in the “Québec Veto Reference,” that this was enough. The process of Patriation was constitutional in both the legal and the conventional sense.

Indeed, in my view Messrs. Boisvert and Pratte are wrong to concede, as both do, that Chief Justice Laskin’s actions amounted, or at least can be regarded as amounting, to a violation of the separation of powers. Separation of powers is an elusive concept, even by the low standards of constitutional theory, but if it has a core, it is something like the idea that political decisions of different sorts ought to be made by different institutions, whether because dividing political power in this way limits potential for abuse and tyranny, or because different institutions have peculiar strengths and good government requires decisions to be made by that institution which is most apt to handle each specific question. A pithy summary of the idea of separated decision-making is James Madison’s well-known phrase, in The Federalist No. 51, that each branch of government “should have a will of its own.” The actions of Chief Justice Laskin, even if they were as Dr. Bastien alleges, simply did not undermine the separation between the executive and the judiciary so understood. Even if he passed some information about the Supreme Court’s deliberations to the government, he did not involve the executive in the Court’s decision-making. He neither asked the Prime Minister how to rule nor took orders from him, even for himself, let alone his colleagues who disagreed with him. The ruling on the Patriation Reference was always in the Court’s hands, and the Chief Justice’s indiscretions did not change anything to that. Indiscretions, breaches of judicial ethics they were, if the allegations are confirmed. But not every breach of judicial ethics, however regrettable, is a violation of fundamental constitutional principle.

Patriation is bound to remain a murky and controversial episode of our history. As the men involved in it die, the first-hand memory of events fades. Perhaps we will never know the exact truth about what happened. On the other hand, the fading of the first-hand memories of the bitter divisions of those days should be an opportunity to leave behind the passions that reigned then. In order to do that, we would do well to leave the ghost of Patriation alone. He has haunted us enough, and earned his peace.

Most Interesting, If I May Say So

Following up on posting about a recording of an interview with H.L.A. Hart, here’s another interview with a giant, Lord Denning. It is the Master of the Rolls’ appearance in 1980 on Desert Island Discs, a BBC talk show on which some interesting person is invited to talk about the 8 records (as well as a book and a luxury item) he or she would take along to a desert island, as well as life, the universe, and everything.

Lord Denning sounds every bit like you expect him to sound―the very model of an elderly, old-fashioned, perhaps a little cantankerous British gentleman. His musical choices are in character too, from “Greensleeves” to “Colonel Bogey” to “Land of Hope and Glory,” which he prefaces with a corny but, I am sure, sincere patriotic outburst about the “one country which we all love, which I love more than any,” and the assertion that “in all of my career I’ve always tried to stand up for the freedom of the individual against the executive or any great authority.”

In the meantime he talks about his life and career, serving in World War I, doing his law degree at Oxford in eight months, becoming a judge fairly quickly and rising to the House of Lords―and then going back to the Court of Appeal because there is more “fun” to be had there, but really, because there is more of a chance of ending up in the majority. In the House of Lords, he had “to be one of five, dissenting…  nobody takes notice of a dissenting judge.” And if Lords reversed one of his judgments in the Court of Appeal, well, “that doesn’t mean they’re right, you know!” Interestingly, in contrast to most of both American and Canadian judges who pronounce on the role of the judiciary, he is candid about his, and his court’s, role in changing the law, both “to keep the law in accordance with the needs of the time,” and as part of a”fight for what I think is just”―or both, sometimes, as in moving the law towards recognizing the equality of women (though “abandoned wives” doesn’t sound altogether egalitarian by today’s standards).

Although Lord Denning mentions a letter from a distraught law student to the Times asking him please not to change the law anymore until the exams are over, I am sure that he has helped many a first-year survive law school. Whatever their legal merits, his judgments are the highlight of any coursepack. He is probably what every law student would like to be―the defender of the widow and the orphan, of liberty and justice, the scourge of abuse of power and trickery, and a great raconteur to boot. If you are a little nostalgic for the good old days in his company, but don’t feel like getting out those contracts cases, just listen to this programme. It is, as he put it, “most interesting, if I may say so.”

Hart and Voice

As part of its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law, the Oxford University Press has put online the recordings of a substantive interview David Sugarman took with Hart, in 1988. (You have to scroll down to get to the audio links.) There’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Though much of what Hart tells there is covered in his biography by Nicola Lacey, The Nightmare and the Noble Dream, legal philosophy junkies will be happy to hear it, as the OUP’s title says, in his own voice.

A number of striking things come out of the interview, for example the fact that Hart became a successful barrister without having a law degree, an Oxford don without a single publication to his name, and Professor of Jurisprudence with about one. Times have changed, and I’m not sure it’s all for the better.

Another remarkable thing is this. Hart tells that his appointment as Professor of Jurisprudence was warmly welcomed by the Bar, because he had the practised law―unlike most of his predecessors and colleagues. Hart also tells of how he thought that jurisprudence, prior to his appointment, was not asking important, interesting questions. He wanted to change that. Well, he sure did change jurisprudence. Dan Priel credits Hart with “the Invention of Legal Philosophy” as it has been understood for the last 50 years. A course on legal philosophy,  in the Anglosphere, is likely to be little more than a study of Hart, people who developed his ideas (like Joseph Raz) and those who opposed them (like Ronald Dworkin).

Yet as prof. Priel writes in another essay, the sort of legal philosophy Hart pioneered has resulted in a “separation of law and jurisprudence.” As he points out,

legal philosophy is largely uninterested in legal practice. It is not uncommon to find a book in legal philosophy that does not cite a single case or statute and seems little interested in the actual attitudes of legal practitioners. Indeed, the feeling one sometimes gets from jurisprudential work is that referring to actual legal practice is something of a philosophical sellout. (1)

This, the result of the work of a former barrister, whose training in the law was entirely practical rather than academic! And prof. Priel highlights a further irony. This abstract legal philosophy is of no interest to anyone but the narrow circle of its practitioners―neither to the lawyers (or legal academics) who practices it purports to illuminate, nor to philosophers whose methods it purports to use. This, the result of the work of  a man who thought he would, at last, start asking interesting questions in the realm of jurisprudence!

It was, as Hart might have said, a noble dream. But the result turned out to be a nightmare. For all that, Hart was a giant, though a tragic one. Go listen to those recordings.

UPDATE: John Hart’s question in the comments made me go back to the original link and realize that the interviews are apparently not there anymore. Call it link-rot-lite, if you will. Anyway the interviews are (for) now available as a series of YouTube clips (audio only). Enjoy!