The A-Word

Why is it that we cannot have a sane conversation if the word ‘abortion’ comes up? It is a difficult moral issue of course, but so are others, from the death penalty to the balance governments must strike between freedom and equality, or freedom and security. Yet although debate on these issues is often heated, it seldom degenerates so much  as any public discussion about abortion quickly does.

Latest case in point, the debate on the motion presented by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to re-open debate about abortion in Parliament, on which the Globe reports here. Mr. Woodworth’s own rhetoric is of the worst you’re-with-us-or-you-like-pedophiles kind; he claims that those who disagree with his view that abortion should be criminalized “see the child as an object and an obstacle, even a parasite.” But his opponents are no better. Both the opposition and the government Whip, Gordon O’Connor, invoke the spectre of back alley abortions, of women having “no choice” and being driven to “desperation” (in the words of former MP and Senator Lucie Pépin, in her appeal to sign a petition created by the Liberal Party.

Much of the petition’s actual wording is a misrepresentation. It claims that “In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled: ‘The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.'” The reference is obviously to R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30. Only, the language quoted does not appear in the decision―it is lifted from the headnote. More importantly, it is a summary of the concurring opinion of Justice Wilson, the only one who probably thought there was a constitutional right to abortion in all circumstances; the two plurality opinions (each supported by two judges) struck down the abortion provisions on narrower grounds, and left the door open to Parliamentary reconsideration.*

But we are told now that even talking about it would lead to horrors that “should never happen in a civilized society” (Mr. O’Connor). Really? Nordic countries are usually thought of as models of social liberalism and gender equality. Yet all of them make abortion illegal at some stage in the pregnancy. (My source is, alas, Wikipedia… I do hope it is reliable on this.) Norway―which imposes a 40% minimum female membership requirement on its corporations’ boards of directors―allows abortion on demand for only 12 weeks, and on application (which is almost always granted) until the 18th week of the pregnancy. In Sweden, abortion on demand is allowed until the 18th week, but only in very exceptional circumstances afterwards. In Denmark, abortion on demand is allowed for 12 weeks. And―though I stand to be corrected―I haven’t heard horror stories of back alley abortions in these countries we often look up to.

Of course this may well be a case where we should not be looking up to them. Perhaps they get it wrong, and the current Canadian state of affairs is right. But how can we know this if we are not allowed to have a conversation that includes the A-word?

* I have written to the LPC about this. I will update if and when I get an answer. UPDATE: I never got one.

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”

Are Provincial Election Spending Restrictions Ultra Vires?

Here’s a simple, crazy question: is legislation limiting electoral campaign expenses unconstitutional because ultra vires the provinces? I think that the argument in support of an affirmative answer makes sense, even though I wouldn’t expect Canadian courts to buy it. Here it is.

Campaign spending restrictions restrict free speech on political matters. Nobody disputes that, and the Supreme Court recognizes this in cases such Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569. Nonetheless, such laws (if not too restrictive – as the law in Libman was found to be) can be justified under s. 1 of the Charter, and are therefore constitutional. Or are they?

In the “implied bill of rights” cases, starting with the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] R.C.S. 100, the Supreme Court pushed back against attempts by the provinces (first Alberta and then Québec) to curtail political speech disagreeable to authoritarian provincial governments. As there was no Charter then, it used the federal division of powers to ground its judgments. Speech, especially political speech, was said to be within the exclusive competence of Parliament, outside the reach of provincial legislation. Whatever its subject, it was not of merely provincial importance. In the words of Chief Justice Duff and Justice Davis in the Alberta Statutes Reference, at p. 134,

[a]ny attempt to abrogate this right of public debate or to suppress the traditional forms of the exercise of the right (in public meeting and through the press) would, in our opinion, be incompetent to the legislatures of the provinces, or to the legislature of any one of the provinces, as repugnant to the provisions of The British North America Act, by which the Parliament of Canada is established as the legislative organ of the people of Canada under the Crown, and Dominion legislation enacted pursuant to the legisla­tive authority given by those provisions. The subject matter of such legislation could not be described as a pro­vincial matter purely; as in substance exclusively a matter of property and civil rights within the province, or a matter private or local within the province.

Saumur v. City of Québec [1953] 2 S.C.R. 299 and Switzman v. Elbing [1957] S.C.R. 285 are to the same effect.

Overruling such hallowed precedents, showing the Supreme Court’s commitment to individual rights even in the absence of explicit constitutional authorization, seems unthinkable.

Can they be distinguished? One might argue that regulation of provincial elections, as opposed to political speech generally, is a different subject, competent to the provinces. I think the distinction fails. The passage I quote above does not really leave room for it. Provincial politics and federal politics are obviously connected, so if federal political discussion is to be free, so must provincial political discussion. But there is another possibility. It is at least a somewhat plausible reading of the “implied bill of rights” cases that what they prohibit is not any regulation of political speech by the provinces, but only, to use an American term, “viewpoint restrictions.” A province can regulate speech; it just cannot single out one opinion for unfavourable treatment. And it is perhaps arguable, though I believe (for reasons I have no room to elaborate here but touch on in my Cyberpresse op-ed) not correct, that campaign spending restrictions are viewpoint neutral. If that argument fails, as I think it should, then provincial restrictions on election spending are ultra vires and thus unconstitutional.

A Person Yoda Is?

In today’s Legal Theory Lexicon entry on “Persons and Personhood”, Larry Solum suggests that if

an intelligent alien species were to arrive on Earth … [and] the members of the aliens displayed evidence of human-like intelligence and could communicate with us (e.g. were able to master a human natural language, such as English), then we might be tempted to treat members of this species as morally and/or legally entitled to the same rights as humans.

He also gives the example of “Chewbacca and Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Neither Chewbacca nor Yoda is a member of the species homo sapiens, yet both are treated as the moral and legal equivalents of humans in the Star Wars universe.”

As it happens, the issue whether aliens able to communicate with us should be entitled to legal personality has in fact been raised in a Canadian Court. In the case of Joly v. Pelletier, [1999] O.J. No. 1728 (QL), Justice Epstein of the Superior Court of Ontario granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff, who claimed that he was not a human being but rather a Martian whose DNA test results were being tampered with by the CIA, Bill Clinton, and sundry others, was not a person, and therefore not capable of being a “plaintiff” within the meaning of Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure!

For what it’s worth, I think that Professor Solum is right, and Justice Epstein, rather too formalistic, albeit quite amusing. But this raises further questions. If an individual intelligent alien is a person, what about collective intelligences, whether made up of insects (as in Isaac Asimov’s short story “Hallucination“) or bacteria (as in Asimov’s novel Nemesis)? What about a collective artificial intelligence (as in Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Invincible)? And perhaps most importantly: could any alien crazy enough to turn up on Earth these days be considered intelligent?

Quasi-Constitutional Rights?

What are “quasi-constitutional rights”? Is this a meaningful, a useful concept? Justice Lebel’s comments in a decision released last week by the Supreme Court raise the question.

The decision, Éditions Écosociété Inc. v. Banro Corp., 2012 SCC 18 is one of three released last Wednesday, all dealing with questions of when Canadian courts can, and when they should, assume jurisdiction over a tort action with multi-jurisdictional elements. In this case, the action was in defamation. The appellants were the publishers of a book savaging Canadian mining companies for their activities (allegedly involving massive human rights violations) in Africa. The respondents were one of these companies. The book was published in Québec, but over 90 copies were sold in Ontario, some to public libraries, and the book was promoted there. The respondents are based in Ontario, and sued for defamation there. The publishers tried to have the proceedings stayed either for lack of jurisdiction or because the Ontario court was a forum non conveniens; they argued that the respondents were engaging in libel tourism, suing for defamation in jurisdiction more favourable to plaintiffs than that in which the suit should logically have been brought (in this case, Québec). Their motion was dismissed, and their appeals rejected both by the Ontario Court of Appeal and now by the Supreme Court.

In discussing the issue of the choice of law in defamation actions, Justice Lebel wrote (for the unanimous court)

that the harm occasioned by the publication of a defamatory statement is not the publication itself, but rather injury to the plaintiff’s reputation. While the constitutional right to the protection of freedom of expression must be upheld in the crafting of the law of defamation, this Court has recognized that one of the primary purposes of the law of defamation is to protect the reputation of the individual, which was elevated to quasi-constitutional status in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130. [par. 57]

As those of you who read my lament about the Charter’s unfortunate effects will recall, I am not a fan of Justice Cory’s reasoning in Hill, linking reputation to innate dignity and privacy, which I called “grasping at constitutional straws.” At least, Justice Cory did not actually speak of a “quasi-constitutional status” for the right to reputation. Justice Lebel now does. What does that mean? Continue reading “Quasi-Constitutional Rights?”

Another Gun-Registry Litigation Update

Radio-Canada reports that the safeguard order preventing the destruction of Québec-related gun registry data has been extended until the end of the hearing on the merits in June. I thought that this had already been the case, but I suppose that the previous extension was only good until the issuance of today’s opinion.

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”