What You Wish For

As promised, here are some thoughts on the Supreme Court’s opinion in l’affaire Nadon,  Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21. As I mentioned in my last post, which summarized the majority opinion and Justice Moldaver’s dissent, I think that the majority opinion is a weak one. I should note that my views here seem to be very much in the minority. The commentary I have seen so far is very enthusiastic. Carissima Mathen has written that “[t]he Court has held the government to account [and] asserted its independence“; Adam Dodek has described it “an instant landmark ruling, a classic ruling,” and Paul Daly, as “a huge day for the Canadian federation.” I am sorry to dissent from such esteemed jurists.  Yet dissent I must, because, in my view, the majority’s opinion neither responds to some of the most serious arguments against it, including those articulated by Justice Moldaver, nor considers the unfortunate consequences that it is bound to have. 

With respect to the statutory interpretation issue of whether s. 6 of the Supreme Court Act allows the appointment of former, rather than current members of Québec’s bar or s. 96 judiciary to the Supreme Court, I basically agree with Justice Moldaver’s dissenting opinion. With respect to the meaning of s. 6, the majority opinion acknowledges that it must be read together with s. 5, which provides the minimum criteria of eligibility, notably the 10-year bar membership requirement and, to use Justice Moldaver’s expression, “cherry-picks” among the possible ways in which these provisions can be combined. If the 10-year requirement must be read into s. 6, then why not the possibility to appoint former judges or lawyers?

The key to the majority opinion is really its view that the purpose of s. 6 is not only to ensure that the Supreme Court has sufficient expertise in the civil law, but also that it is seen as having such expertise and representation of Québec’s “social values,” whatever those might be and, further, the assertion that the Court can only be so seen if its members are, at the time of their appointment, current members of Québec’s bar or s. 96 bench. With respect, this view is mistaken.

As Justice Moldaver, I do not believe that there is any substantial connection between current membership in Québec’s bar or s. 96 bench and a judge’s legitimacy as Québec’s representative on the Supreme Court. Judges of Québec’s provincial court are steeped in Québec’s legal and social reality, yet they are excluded; so are judges of the federal courts, even though they are specifically appointed there as representatives of Québec’s civil law system, and regardless of the amount of time they have spent on there. At the same time, a lawyer who spends his or her career abroad but maintains membership in the Québec bar is eligible. How this mix of eligibility criteria serves to make potential appointees more legitimate representatives of Québec is beyond me. Prof. Mathen and Michael Plaxton have argued, and the Supreme Court’s majority has agreed, that although imperfect, it is still a reasonable proxy for the purpose of ensuring the Court’s legitimacy, but the fit between these criteria and the alleged purpose is so loose that it seems more reasonable to me to suppose that the statutory purpose must be different from that which these criteria so poorly support.

Indeed, taking the idea that current membership in Québec’s legal profession is required to make a judge a legitimate representative of the province on the Supreme Court leads to the absurd conclusion that the longer a Québec judge sits on the court, the less legitimate he or she is, by virtue of his or her allegedly growing detachment from Québec legal culture and “social values.” I do not believe that anyone has ventured such a suggestion, but it seems to follow from the logic adopted by the Supreme Court’s majority. That logic, in my view, reflects ― and reinforces ― a sadly narrow view of what it means to be a Quebecker and a Québec jurist. As André Pratte has pointed out,

[i]f we follow [this] reasoning, a lawyer who practiced for 10 years in Rivière-du-Loup would be a more suitable representative for Québec than a brilliant jurist who, for example, spent a part of his career with the International Court of Justice. (Translation mine).

The majority’s reasoning does not get any better when it gets into the constitutional part of its opinion. Indeed, the neither the majority nor Justice Moldaver really explain how any part of the Supreme Court Act gets to be constitutionally entrenched, despite not being mentioned in the Schedule to the Constitution Act, 1982, apart from asserting that the Court is so important that it just has to be. But the Court was already important before the entrenchment of the Constitution Act, 1982 ― yet not constitutionally protected. Indeed, our original supreme court ― i.e. the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was stripped of its jurisdiction by ordinary acts of Parliament. (The Supreme Court’s willingness to reason in this way, however, is probably very bad news for the federal government’s unilateral Senate reform plans.) Nor does the majority explain why eligibility criteria, including the length of required bar membership, are part of the Supreme Court’s “composition.” As a strictly textual matter, this does not seem obvious to me, and Justice Moldaver’s doubts in this respect would, at the very least, have deserved a response.

The majority’s opinion is thus poorly argued (indeed, it is more asserted than argued, if argument entails responding to counter-arguments), yet it will have unfortunate consequences. In particular, it will limit the pool of Québec jurists available to sit on the Supreme Court; and, from now on, it will deter talented and ambitious Québecois from applying to sit on the federal courts, which will undermine these courts’ quality and, ironically, their ability to represent Québec’s legal community and tradition.

Another consequence of the majority’s reasoning, which I do not mind but which ought to displease some of the the Court’s decision’s supporters, is that a law restricting future Supreme Court appointments to bilingual candidates would be unconstitutional. Since the constitutionally entrenched “composition” of the Court “refers to ss. 4(1)5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act, which codify the composition of and eligibility requirements for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada as they existed in 1982″ (par. 91; emphasis mine), the addition of a requirement of bilingualism would be every bit is unconstitutional as the removal of a (purported) requirement of current membership in Québec’s s. 96 bench or bar. Now this consequence may well be a feature, not a bug of the majority’s opinion. Be that as it may, I think it is important to point out this effect of the decision, which no commentator, as best I can tell, has yet addressed.

To be sure, the issue of the meaning of the Supreme Court Act’s eligibility provisions was not a simple one. Emmett Macfarlane has a point when he writes that “there were clear legal reasons to support either outcome” ― not clear, perhaps, but serious ones. Still, I think that on the issue of the legislation’s purpose, Justice Moldaver wins hands down. And even if the legal issue could have gone either way, the Court ought to have considered the consequences of its decision and reasoning, which in my view clearly weighed in favour of allowing the nomination of federal court judges to the Québec seats of the Supreme Court. Of course, it is the federal government and the Prime Minister who are ultimately responsible for the shambles that Justice Nadon’s nomination has become. They wanted to pick a fight with the legal community ― they got it, and the country will be worse off as a result. But the same can be said of Québec’s friends and defenders, who will have ended up undermining the province’s representation on the federal courts and perhaps the Supreme Court too, not to mention making impossible the enactment of legislation requiring judicial bilingualism which many of them deemed desirable or even necessary. Be careful what you wish for.

Le langage de la justice

Un article paru sur le site de Radio-Canada parle d’une étude réalisée par un avocat, Mark Power, de Heenan Blaikie, pour le compte de la Fédération des associations des juristes d’expression française de common law, portant sur la constitutionnalité de nominations de juges unilingues à la Cour suprême. Selon Me Power (ou du moins selon l’article de Radio-Canada, puisque l’étude n’est pas disponible en ligne) de telles nominations contreviendraient à la garantie du bilinguisme officiel enchâssée à l’article 16 de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés.  Dans la mesure où la chance d’être compris par un juge de la Cour suprême dépend de la langue dans laquelle on s’adresse à lui, tous les juges parlant l’anglais, mais pas tous parlant le français, les deux langues officielles ne sont pas égales. Certes, la Cour dispose de traducteurs et d’interprètes, mais ceux-ci feraient des erreurs et ne seraient donc pas des substituts adéquats à des juges bilingues. Ce raisonnement et cette conclusion, à supposer qu’ils sont bien présentés par Radio-Canada, soulèvent plusieurs questions.

Il y a des questions pratiques, celle par exemple de savoir ce qui constitue un niveau de bilinguisme adéquat. Ainsi, l’article mentionne deux juges unilingues. (Il s’agit des juges Rothstein et Moldaver.) On juge donc le niveau de bilinguisme de la Juge en chef suffisant, mais l’ayant entendu prononcer un discours et répondre aux questions en français, je me demande si je ne préférerais pas, si je devais plaider en français devant elle, qu’elle ait recours aux services d’un interprète. Son français n’est pas mauvais―il remarquablement bon même, considérant qu’elle ne l’a appris qu’après sa nomination à la Cour suprême―mais il est loin d’être parfait, et je serais peut-être rassuré si les détails de ma plaidoirie lui étaient traduits par un spécialiste.

Il y a des questions d’interprétation constitutionnelle. Certaines de celles-ci concernent l’enchâssement du processus de nomination des juges de la Cour suprême dans la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982. L’alinéa 42(1)(d) de celle-ci semble élever “la Cour suprême du Canada” au rang constitutionnel, mais la Loi sur la Cour suprême ne fait pas partie de la liste de lois faisant partie de la Constitution du Canada selon l’Annexe de la même Loi constitutionnelle, si bien qu’on ne sait pas vraiment si la Cour suprême est enchâssée ou non. Cependant, si elle l’est, la règle selon laquelle une partie de la Constitution (en l’occurrence, l’article 16 de la Charte) ne peut modifier ou invalider une autre (les règles concernant les qualifications et la nomination des juges de la Cour suprême) empêcherait la conclusion que la nomination de juges unilingues est inconstitutionnelle. Une autre question d’interprétation concerne le libellé du paragraphe 16(1) de la Charte, qui dispose « [l]e français et l’anglais … ont un statut et des droits et privilèges égaux quant à leur usage dans les institutions du Parlement et du gouvernement du Canada ». La références aux « institutions du Parlement et du gouvernement du Canada » se retrouve aussi dans le texte de l’article 32 de la Charte, en vertu duquel celle-ci « s’applique … au Parlement et au gouvernement du Canada ». Or, cette disposition a été interprétée comme ne s’appliquant pas directement aux tribunaux, le Parlement et le gouvernement faisant référence aux branches législative et exécutive du gouvernement, et la branche judiciaire étant manifestement omise. Si les termes identiques utilisés par le constituant au paragraphe 16(1) de la Charte reçoivent la même interprétation, alors il faudrait conclure que cette disposition est silencieuse quant au statut des langues officielles devant les tribunaux.

Et puis il y a la question de principe. Est-il raisonnable de nommer des juges bilingues de préférence à des juges unilingues mieux qualifiés―car c’est ce qu’exigerait l’introduction d’une exigence de bilinguisme? Selon Me Power, il y aurait un risque d’injustice résultant d’erreurs de traduction. Peut-être bien. Mais n’y a-t-il pas aussi un risque d’injustice résultant de la nomination de juges qui ne sont pas d’aussi bons juristes? Et ce risque-ci serait présent non seulement dans la petite proportion d’affaires plaidées en français où le vote d’un juge unilingue anglophone est déterminant, mais dans chaque dossier traité par la Cour suprême.

À qualité égale, un juge pleinement bilingue serait peut-être préférable à un collègue unilingue. Et encore. Comme je le mentionnais plus haut, la Juge en chef McLachlin n’était pas bilingue au moment de sa nomination, mais elle a appris le français. Idéalement, son exemple devrait inspirer ses collègues unilingues. Mais le plus important n’est pas que les neuf juges de la Cour suprême parlent tous le français et l’anglais. C’est qu’ils parlent tous le langage de la justice.

En Français S.V.P./In English Please

In 2008, the Township of Russel, just outside Ottawa, passed a by-law requiring any new commercial sign to be bilingual. An angry activist and a shopkeeper challenged the validity of the by-law. The Court of Appeal for Ontario has rejected their challenge, in Galganov v. Russel (Township), 2012 ONCA 409, released last Friday.

Before getting to the challenge itself, the court addressed the preliminary issue of Howard Galganov’s standing to bring it. Mr. Galganov neither lives nor carries on a business in the township, and is not personally affected by the by-law. At common law, he does not have standing. But subs. 273(1) of Ontario’s Municipal Act, S.O. 2001 c. 25, provides that an illegal by-law can be quashed on application of “any person”. That’s great, says the court, but “any person” isn’t just any person. “The words ‘any person’ in s. 273(1) of the Act mean ‘any person who has standing under the common law relating to standing'” (par. 15). The old presumption that legislation will not be intepreted to depart from the common law unless clear language indicates that it does still has some life in it.

Be that as it may, another applicant, Jean-Serge Brisson, has a shop in the township, which carries a unilingual French sign, so there is no question about his standing to challenge the by-law. His first claim was that the by-law was ultra vires the township, essentially because the Municipal Act does not include an explicit grant of power over language to municipalities. The court rejected that submission, saying that these days, grants of powers to municipalities are broad and general, and there is no need to look for such a specific authorization as Mr. Brisson claimed was necessary, and holding that the by-law at issue was authorized by par. 11(2)(5) of the Municipal Act, which provides municipalities with the power to make by-laws “respecting the … [e]conomic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality.” Mr. Brisson argued

that, instead of promoting the economic or social well-being of the municipality, the By-law detracts from it.  This argument is based on the supposition that a commercial establishment with a bilingual exterior sign signals that it will be able to serve customers in both languages.  If a commercial unilingual English establishment is compelled to post an exterior bilingual sign, customers will be misled and upset if they cannot be served in French (par. 33).

The court gave this claim short shrift, on the ground that it was not supported by evidence; indeed, there was expert evidence to the contrary. Actually, one can question whether it is the court’s role to venture on such an inquiry at all. No court would question whether an act of Parliament really tended to promote the “Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada” – it is enough that Parliament thinks it does. However, Parliament is sovereign within the competence defined by division of powers provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867, and subject to the Charter. A municipality only exercises limited delegated powers, so courts are justified in ascertaining whether municipal by-laws are within the bounds of the delegation. The problem here is that delegation is so vast that its terms cannot be policed without the courts’ inquiring into the wisdom of the legislation, which is something courts are not very good at, and ought to be (though perhaps they are not) uncomfortable with doing.

Mr. Brisson’s second claim was that the by-law was unconstitutional because it contravened the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford v. Québec, [1988] 2 S.C.R. 712, which struck down Québec’s prohibition on commercial signs in languages other than French, the court accepted that the by-law did infringe freedom of expression as guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Charter. However, it held that the by-law was saved by s. 1 of the Charter. Its objective, “the promotion of the equality of status of both French and English,” is pressing and substantial, and it is rationally connected to the objective. As usual, the real question is that of proportionality. Apparently, Mr. Brisson’s main argument on this point was that the by-law prevented people from having signs in a language other than French or English. But the by-law does no such thing, the court points out. “Persons engaged in commerce can use any language of their choice along with French and English (par. 80). Indeed it is rather shocking that much Mr. Brisson and his lawyers placed much reliance on this claim.

The court went on to add that “in the past, Brisson has chosen to express himself only in English; he now chooses to express himself only in French on his exterior sign while continuing to employ English in other aspects of his business. To require him to employ English on his sign in addition to French is a minimal impairment of his right to freedom of expression” (par. 83). That, it seems to me, is bad reasoning. What does it matter that Mr. Brisson chose to express himself in English in the past, if now he wants to express himself in French only? The court seems to be questioning his good faith, or to be contradicting its own holding that his freedom of expression has been infringed. But that is not its role. It has nothing to do with answering the question that the case actually raises: does forcing shopkeepers to express themselves in French and English, whether they want to or not, the least restrictive means open to the township of achieving its pressing and substantial objective of promoting the equality of status between French and English. The court’s judgment, in my view, does not actually answer that question.