A different ERA?

The ERA – the the Expenditure Restraint Act, S.C. 2009, c. 2, s. 393 – is actually the same that was at issue in Association des Réalisateurs c. Canada (Procureur Général), 2012 QCCS 3223, which I blogged about a month ago. But the conclusion of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 ONCA 530, is different from the one Québec’s Superior Court reached in Réalisateurs. The two cases are alike, however, in being very much about the specific facts at issue.

As I explained in the post about Réalisateurs,

The Expenditure Restraint Act sets out upper limits on the extent of pay raises that the government and a number of crown corporations are entitled to grant their employees, as part of a package of measures responding to the global economic crisis and the ensuing budgetary difficulties. Provisions of collective bargaining agreements stipulating higher raises are invalid to the extent that they exceed the limits allowed by the statute …

In  Réalisateurs, the ERA operated retroactively to modify an agreement concluded between the union and CBC/Radio-Canada. The court found that an interference with the union members’ Charter right to engage into a meaningful collective negotiation over fundamental conditions of their employment (which, it went on to hold, which not justified by s. 1 of the Charter).

The situation in Justice Counsel is different. By the time the ERA came into force, the union and the government had not yet concluded a collective agreement. Despite lengthy negotiations, they had been unable to agree, and decided to resort to arbitration. In these circumstances, the Court holds,  “the ERA had the effect of taking wages off the table for the arbitration, [but] that does not, standing alone, amount to an infringement” of the right to negotiate collectively (par. 39). That right entails an ability to make representations, which must be listened to in good faith, but no particular outcome need follow, and binding arbitration is not constitutionally required. The union was able to make representations over the course of the negotiations, and the negotiations’ failure is no proof that they were not listened in good faith. On these facts, the ERA didn’t take away from the union anything it had a right to.

The decision is thus quite narrow, because the circumstances of the parties involved are unusual. It does not tell us very much about the ERA‘s constitutionality as applied to other unions. In my post about Réalisateurs, I criticized the courts for not showing sufficient restraint in extending constitutional protection to civil service union contracts. What I had in mind were the substantive rules applied in these cases. But here is another mode of judicial restraint: deciding a case on narrow – but relevant – facts, and avoiding broad issues altogether.

Not in My Backyard

Radio-Canada reports that Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) and the (federal) National Capital Commission (NCC) are fighting over the right of candidates in Québec’s election to post signs on Gatineau’s Rue Laurier. The NCC has taken down some signs, citing its policy prohibiting the posting of any signs the streets that form its “Confederation Boulevard,” a showpiece route on both the Ottawa and the Gatineau sides of the river, which includes Rue Laurier. The CEO says that the policy doesn’t apply to provincial elections. The NCC says its lawyers are on the case.

I think the CEO is right, but the case is not free from doubt. Living in a federation ain’t easy.

The first question to consider is whether one of the two regulations at issue here is unconstitutional. As the Supreme Court held in Munro v. National Capital Commission, [1966] S.C.R. 663, the federal government has the competence, under the “national concern” branch of the “peace, order, and good government” power, which I discussed in some detail here, to legislate and make regulations for “the development, conservation and improvement of the National Capital Region in accordance with a coherent plan in order that the nature and character of the seat of the Government of Canada may be in accordance with its national significance.” (671) I would think that includes the power to regulate the appearance of the landmarks of the National Capital Region, for example by prohibiting the posting of signs. The province, of course, has the power to legislate with respect to the use of property, as well as to provincial elections. So both the NCC’s regulation and the provincial law authorizing the display of election posters on public property (section 259.2 and, more generally, Chapter IV.1 of Title IV of the Election Act, R.S.Q. c. E-3.3) are valid exercises of the respective powers of the two levels of government.

The next question is whether the provincial law, although generally valid, is inapplicable in this case pursuant to the doctrine of inter-jurisdictional immunity. As the Supreme Court explained in Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society, 2011 SCC 44, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 134, at par. 58, this doctrine

is premised on the idea that there is a “basic, minimum and unassailable content” to the heads of powers in ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 that must be protected from impairment by the other level of government. … In cases where interjurisdictional immunity is found to apply, the law enacted by the other level of government remains valid, but has no application with regard to the identified “core.”

The Supreme Court stated the test for the application of the doctrine in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canadian Owners and Pilots Association [COPA], 2010 SCC 39, [2010] 2 S.C.R. 536, at par. 27.

The first step is to determine whether the provincial law — s. 26 of the Act —  trenches on the protected “core” of a federal competence.  If it does, the second step is to determine whether the provincial law’s effect on the exercise of the protected federal power is sufficiently serious to invoke the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity.

The “core of a federal competence” consists of the powers necessary to realize the purpose of the federal power (COPA, par. 35). It’s a rather vague definition, not least because the purposes of legislative powers are not well defined. Is it necessary for the purpose of ensuring “that the nature and character of the seat of the Government of Canada may be in accordance with its national significance” to be able to prohibit the posting on signs on municipal lamp posts? I’m not sure. But let’s assume that it is. I think that the second branch of the test is more clearly favourable to the CEO.

The second branch of the test requires a court to assess the seriousness of the provincial law’s interference with the federal power. It is not enough that the provincial law “affect” the federal power; in order to be inapplicable pursuant to the doctrine of inter-jurisdictional immunity, it must “impair” that power; that is, it must “seriously or significantly trammel[] the federal power” (COPA, par. 45). Although again this is a somewhat uncertain measure, I rather doubt that this test is met here. Even assuming that, as a general matter, it is important for the NCC to control the appearance of key streets in the National Capital Region, it is difficult to believe that the presence of election posters (which, annoying though they might be, tend to be neither especially big nor especially tasteless) for five weeks every fours years is a “significant” impairment with the NCC’s power to do so. The temporary presence of election posters does not prevent the NCC from keeping up “the nature and character of the seat of the Government of Canada.” It is hardly more than a very minor inconvenience.

The final question to consider, as in all cases where two valid and applicable federal and provincial laws seem to compel different outcomes, is whether the conflict between them is such as to trigger the doctrine of federal paramountcy, which makes the provincial law inoperative to the extent of its inconsistency with the federal one. As the Supreme Court explained in COPA, at par. 64, paramountcy applies either if it is impossible for the subject to comply simultaneously with federal and provincial law, or when compliance with the provincial law, although not actually a violation of the federal one, would frustrate its purpose. Here, it is obviously possible to comply with both laws, since nobody is required to put up election posters on Rue Laurier. But can it be said the the provincial law frustrates the purpose of the federal regulation? As the Supreme Court says in COPA, at par. 66, “the standard for invalidating provincial legislation on the basis of frustration of federal purpose is high,” and – essentially for the reasons I have given in the previous paragraph – I don’t think it is met here. The interference with the purpose of the federal regulation is minor and temporary. I don’t think it amounts to frustration.

So, that’s my two cents. But the applicable tests are vague, and the opposite case is certainly an arguable one. As a taxpayer, I hope the CEO and the NCC don’t waste my money on what it is, after all, a trivial disagreement. But as constitutional law junkie, I think it might make for an interesting case.

L’important, c’est de participer?

Il y a un mois, j’ai publié un billet sur la possibilité qu’un candidat déçu de ne pas recevoir d’invitation à un débat des chefs se tourne vers les tribunaux pour tenter d’obtenir le droit d’y prendre part. Depuis, le blogue a régulièrement eu des visites de la part de gens qui ont utilisé les termes de recherche tels qu’ “injonction débat des chefs”. Si souvent, en fait, que je me demandais si quelque chose se tramait. Eh bien, la réponse est oui, même si je n’ai aucun moyen de vérifier s’il y a vraiment un lien entre toutes ces visites et la campagne de Jean-Martin Aussant qui, comme le rapporte Radio-Canada, demande une injonction pour obtenir le droit de participer aux débats des chefs prévus la semaine prochaine. La demande en injonction d’urgence doit être entendue demain.

Je suis à peu près certain qu’elle sera rejetée. Comme je l’écrivais le mois dernier,

[L]es tribuaux sont réticents à octroyer de telles injonctions. Ils ne le font que dans les cas où la personne qui demande l’injonction démontre qu’elle y a un droit plutôt clair. Si le cas est douteux, l’injonction sera refusée. C’est ce qui se produit avec les débats des chefs. Les demandes d’injonction sont faites en catastrophe, une fois la campagne électorale déclenchée et la formule du débat annoncée. Or, le droit d’un chef qu’on n’y a pas invité d’y participer n’est pas clairement établi.

Il faudrait répondre à plusieurs questions difficiles pour l’établir, même dans le cadre d’un débat sur le fond, qui ne peut pas avoir lieu dans le cadre d’une demande d’injonction d’urgence:

 il faudra trouver un équilibre entre les droits de plusieurs parties impliquées : celui des réseaux de télévision à la liberté d’expression, qui inclut logiquement un droit de choisir le contenu de leur programmation, celui des partis invités de débattre contre qui ils veulent bien (et donc de ne pas débattre contre certains de leurs adversaires), celui des partis exclus de participer au processus électoral, celui peut-être des électeurs à être bien informés… Bref, il s’agirait bel et bien d’un débat complexe et dont l’issue serait pour le moins incertaine. En fait, j’aurais tendance à dire que les tribunaux rejetteront probablement la demande d’un chef de parti exclu, ne serait-ce que parce que l’accepter exigerait aussi de formuler des critères pré-déterminés selon lesquels les invitations devraient être faites. Les tribunaux, selon moi, ne seraient pas capables de le faire, et ne devraient même pas essayer.

Peut-être conscient de ces difficultés, M. Aussant invoque un autre argument, fondé sur “l’esprit de la Loi électorale et de son article 423.” Cet article dispose qu’

[e]n période électorale, tout radiodiffuseur, télédiffuseur ou câblodistributeur ainsi que tout propriétaire de journal, périodique ou autre imprimé peut mettre gratuitement à la disposition des chefs des partis et candidats du temps d’émission à la radio ou à la télévision ou de l’espace dans le journal, le périodique ou autre imprimé, pourvu qu’il offre un tel service de façon équitable, qualitativement et quantitativement, à tous les candidats d’une même circonscription ou à tous les chefs des partis représentés à l’Assemblée nationale ou qui ont recueilli au moins 3% des votes valides lors des dernières élections générales

 Or, bien que je ne l’aie pas discuté dans mon billet précédent, ce même argument a déjà été invoqué dans le même contexte par l’Action Démocratique du Québec, qui essayait d’obtenir pour son chef, Mario Dumont, une participation au débat des chefs en vue de l’élection de 1994. Dans Action Démocratique du Québec c. Parti Libéral du Québec, 1994 CanLII 5919 (QC CA), L’éminent juge Jean-Louis Beaudouin a statué que

 [l]’article 423 lu dans son contexte législatif permet, en effet, à un télédiffuseur de mettre gratuitement à la disposition de partis politiques et de candidats un temps d’antenne pour leur permettre de faire leur propre publicité.  Il s’agit donc d’encourager la diffusion de véritables messages publicitaires conçus, préparés et délivrés par le ou les représentants de chaque parti politique, comme bon leur semble.  Il ne s’applique manifestement pas dans l’hypothèse d’une émission d’affaires publiques où le débat n’est pas laissé à l’initiative des partis ou de leur chef politique, mais imaginé, élaboré et organisé par le diffuseur, selon un scénario précis où chaque participant est tenu de répondre à des questions formulées par les journalistes et où l’initiative est prise par ceux-ci et non laissé à ceux qui se prêtent à cet exercice médiatique.

[L]e droit invoqué n’est pas apparent et, en toute déférence pour l’opinion contraire, ne m’apparaît même pas pouvoir être sérieusement appuyé sur le texte précité.

Il ne suffit pas de torturer un texte pour le faire parler!!!!

(Le soulignement et tous les points d’exclamation sont du juge Beaudouin.)

C’est là non seulement un précédent qui lie le juge de Cour supérieure qui entendra la demande de M. Aussant, mais aussi la décision logique. On a l’impression que pour M. Aussant, en litige comme en politique, l’important, ce n’est pas de gagner, mais de participer.

Opus 100

This is my 100th post. I would like to take the opportunity to thank my readers, especially those who, in one way or another, have taken the time to tell me that I was doing something right and/or to keep going.

On the whole, I would rate this blogging adventure as a time-consuming success. Despite some lapses during the last few weeks, I’m averaging close to three posts every four days, most of them of least 500 words. And there is at least some research that goes into most of them too. I don’t know how long I will be able to keep this pace, but I will try. Obviously I have learned a lot doing this. For one thing, I have read a great many cases decided by Canadian courts―from provincial courts to the Supreme Court―since the beginning of the blog in April. For another, blogging has forced me to give shape, coherent shape I hope, to thoughts that would otherwise have remained inchoate and might well have been lost. It is a thinking-out-loud exercise which I would recommend to anyone engaged in an intellectual pursuit, whether you feel like putting the results on the internet for all to see or not.

For myself, I think that doing it publicly was a good thing. Of course, I can only hope I am not making a fool of myself, especially whenever I venture out of my constitutional comfort zone and into internet- and technology-related issues I have only recently begun thinking about. But knowing that some people read what I have to say is great. Knowing that some non-lawyers read when I try to explain legal issues, and perhaps learn something they might find interesting or valuable is even better.

To be sure, some of my own favourite posts, into which I put a lot of thought, turn out not to be popular at all. (By way of shameless self-promotion, my candidate for best-undeservedly-neglected-post is this take on “Judicial Review and Co-Operative Federalism.”) But sometimes I was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of other things I’ve written. (For example here, on “An Ancient Parliamentary Right.”) So, no complaints. I’m just glad to be here.

Thanks for reading me!

Another Gun-Registry Case

I have written profusely about Québec’s attempt to obtain from the federal government the Québec-related data accumulated in the now-defunct federal long-gun registry. (My summary of the claim is here, and my comments on it are here.) Québec’s claim is based, in effect, on its alleged co-ownership of the data; it does assert that the abolition of the gun registry by Parliament is itself unconstitutional.

But, as I have now learned, there is another case going on, in Ontario, in which the plaintiff asserts just that. The Barbara Shlifer Commemorative Clinic, an NGO which assists women who are victims of domestic violence, contends that the abolition of the gun registry violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, more specifically its guarantees of security of the person (s. 7) and equality (s. 15), by disproportionately exposing women to an increased risk of firearm violence.

The federal government has moved to quash the application as disclosing no reasonable cause of action; this motion has been argued, but no decision has yet been delivered. The clinic has filed a motion for an injunction to prevent the destruction of the gun-registry data pending a decision on the merits, which will be argued in September. Furthermore, the City of Toronto has asked for leave to intervene in support of the application. The federal government opposed that motion, but it has now been granted by the Superior Court of Justice, in Barbara Shlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada, 2012 ONSC 4539 (the decision from which I learned about the case).

I will be following the developments in this case with interest.

Yes, Minister, But…

According to the Globe and Mail, the federal Justice minister, Rob Nicholson, was recently asked about the propriety of a hypothetical (actually, rumoured) appointment of a cabinet minister to the bench. The Globe reports that

“[h]e said he did not believe that certain individuals should be ruled out as judges. ‘I’ve never gone out of my way to say that certain groups of individuals – people who have served, for instance, in political office – that they should be eliminated or sit out or anything else.'”

As a general principle, I think that’s right. There are fine lawyers serving in political office, and it would be too bad if we deprived ourselves of their services on the bench. During my clerkship at the Federal Court, I have had the privilege of working on some cases for Justice Yvon Pinard, who had been a cabinet minister and the government’s Leader in the House of Commons during Pierre Trudeau’s last cabinet, immediately prior to his appointment to the court (at the ripe old age of 36). I believe he is a fine judge. Indeed I’ve been told, though I haven’t verified this, that he is the judge of the Federal Court whose decisions are least often reversed by the Federal Court of Appeal. (This is surely not the only, maybe not even the best, benchmark by which to measure a judge’s performance, but it is worth something.) And there are many other examples of former politicians who went on to have fine, or even distinguished, judicial careers, in Canada and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous of them was Earl Warren, governor of California, vice-presidential candidate, and later  an iconic Chief Justice of the United States.

The counter-argument, the basis for claims about the impropriety of appointing a politician to the bench, implies that such a judge would be partisan, biased, or insufficiently independent. But many lawyers are political partisans even without serving in political office. If we assume that they are capable of relinquishing partisanship upon appointment to the bench, I think we should also afford the same presumptive trust to former active politicians. Lawyers work for firms that appear before them when they become judges; or they work in government positions in which they consistently take the same side of an issue (as prosecutors for example), but we expect them to be able to serve as impartial judges. Again, there is no reason to treat politicians any differently.

That said, there is a qualification which, although valid for any lawyer aspiring to the bench, might be worth special emphasis in the case of active politicians. A lawyer’s conduct, especially his or her conduct in his or her chosen profession, can obviously be scrutinized for signs that the lawyer may not be able to live up to the standard of conduct expected of a judge. As the Canadian Judicial Council explains,

    • Judges should, at all times, exhibit and promote high standards of conduct so as to reinforce public confidence. Judges should strive to conduct themselves in a way that will sustain and contribute to public respect and confidence in their integrity, impartiality and good judgment.
    • Judges should perform their duties with diligence while treating everyone before the court with courtesy and equality, being careful to avoid stereotyping or discrimination. Judges should avoid comments, expressions, gestures or behaviour which may be interpreted as showing insensitivity or disrespect.
    • In making their decisions, judges must be and must appear to be impartial at all times. Judges must be mindful of how inappropriate comments, improper remarks or unjustified reprimands can undermine the appearance of impartiality and actively work to avoid them.

Prior to their appointment to the bench, lawyers are not held to the same standard, and some deviations from it should not be disqualifying from a judicial appointment. But a lawyer who has a history of treating opponents as enemies, of going beyond the normal bounds of partisanship, of refusing to acknowledge contrary viewpoints, or of being hateful or contemptuous is, in my view, not qualified to serve as a judge. And, arguably, politicians are especially at risk of committing these deadly sins. A politician who claims that the opponents of his policy “stand … with child pornographers” probably should not become a judge. Yes, Minister, it is your colleague Vic Toews I am talking about.

Google as Regulator, Part Deux

A recent story, reported for example by the Globe and Mail, nicely illustrates Google’s dual, and perhaps ambiguous, role as “speaker and censor,” at once exercising, or claiming to exercise, an editorial judgment and making itself he agent of speech-restricting governments, about which I blogged some time ago. According to the Globe, “Google’s search algorithm will begin demoting websites that are frequently reported for copyright violations, a move that will likely make it more difficult to find file-sharing, Torrent and so-called file locker sites.” These websites will not be removed from search results, but they will be harder to find.

This is, it seems to me, an obvious example of “editorial judgment,” which – as I explain in more detail in the post linked to above – Google claims to exercise when designing its search algorithms. At the same time, it is an an example of Google acting, in effect, as a regulator, if not, in this case, as a censor. The decision to demote allegedly-copyright-infringing websites is not, one suspects, motivated by commercial considerations; at least not immediately commercial considerations, since, as the Globe puts it, the move “should please Hollywood” – and other content producers – and perhaps Google considers pleasing them as an investment that will pay off. Google’s state reason for this decision is that it will “help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily” (my emphasis). One usually associates concerns for legitimacy with public authorities rather than private corporations.

Indeed, some might want Google to take an even more public-spirited position. As Deven Desai, of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, notes in a post on Concurring Opinions, “this shift may open the door to more arguments for Google to be a gatekeeper and policer of content.” Indeed, although he does not favour such an approach, he points out that it is a “difficult question … why or why not act on some issues but not others.” Why, for example, copyright infringement but not hate speech? For now, even Google might lack the data and/or content-analyzing capacities effectively to recognize hate speech. But given how fast technology evolves, this might change sooner rather than later. As prof. Desai observes, if Google becomes a more overt internet regulator, it will be criticized, for example from a competition-law standpoint. But of course it will also be criticized if it refuses to take on that role.

Either way, there will be a lot of interesting questions for lawyers. At what point does Google, acting as a quasi-regulator, become a state agent subject to constitutional constraints? How does competition law, and its prohibition on abuse of a dominant position, interact with the constitutional protection of freedom of speech, if the latter encompasses Google’s freedom of editorial judgment about its algorithm? What sort of due process rights do or should people affected by Google’s editorial decisions have – and what legal framework – for example, administrative or maybe tort law – is appropriate for settling this question? This is a lot to think about. No answers from me for now.