I Said Don’t Do It

The federal government is wrong to involve Québec in the process of appointing the next Supreme Court judge

In 2014, after the Supreme Court invalidated the appointment of Justice Nadon to one of its seats reserved for Québec judges or lawyers, the federal government got the Québec government to propose a shortlist of candidates for the vacant-again position. This process resulted in the appointment of Justice Gascon to the Supreme Court. The federal government meant the outsourcing of the shortlist to be a one-off; the Québec government was hoping that it would create a precedent. Québec’s wishes were ignored when the next appointment to one its seats (that of Justice Côté) was made.

But now Justice Gascon is now retiring ― sadly, much before his time ― and a version of the process that produced his appointment is being brought back. As the Canadian Press reports,

[t]he federal and Quebec governments have reached what the province is calling a historic deal that ensures it will play an active role in the process of selecting the next Supreme Court of Canada justice from Quebec.

An advisory committee similar to those used for previous appointments made by the current federal government submit will then

submit a shortlist of candidates to the federal and provincial justice ministers. … [T]he premier of Quebec will also provide an opinion and forward a recommendation to the prime minister, who will make the final decision weighing the recommendation of the federal justice minister and Quebec’s input.

The provincial government’s role is, if I understand correctly, not as important as in the 2014 process, since it doesn’t extend to unilaterally determining the Prime Minister’s range of choices. But it is still significant. The province seems delighted. The Canadian Press writes that the provincial justice minister “called the deal precedent-setting” ― yes, again ― “saying it would allow the province to take a ‘direct and significant part’ in the judicial appointment”.

The rest of us should not be happy. In fact, we should be rather angry. I criticized the 2014 process at some length here, and I believe that that criticism is still applicable, albeit in a slightly watered-down form, to the new process. It is common enough for members of the Canadian chattering classes to claim that the federal government’s power of appointing Supreme Court judges without taking provincial preferences into account is a defect in our federal system. But this view is mistaken. Here’s part what I said in 2014 (with references updates):

[H]ow much of a flaw is it really that the federal government appoints judges unilaterally? In practice, the Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster decisions ― the one concerning the eligibility of Justice Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433 and that in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704 ―, as well as Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837, which declared a proposed federal securities regulator unconstitutional belie any claim that the Supreme Court is biased in favour of the federal government.

And even at the level of theory, there is a good argument to be made for unilateral federal appointments. Canadian history has borne out James Madison’s famous argument in Federalist No. 10 that small polities are more vulnerable to “faction” and the tyranny of the majority than larger ones. Our federal governments have tended to be more moderate than provincial ones, and less susceptible to takeovers by ideological entrepreneurs from outside the Canadian mainstream, whether the Social Credit of Alberta or the separatists of Québec. Foreseeing this, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 gave the power of appointing judges of provincial superior courts to the federal rather than the provincial governments. It stands to reason that the judges of the Supreme Court, whose decisions have effect not only in one province, but throughout Canada, should a fortiori be appointed by the government more likely to be moderate and representative of the diversity of the views of the country ― that is to say, by the federal government.

Québec’s case is illustrative. The federal government presumably is comfortable with, or at least not very worried about, outsourcing the selection of potential Supreme Court judges to a relatively friendly, federalist government. Would it have felt the same way if the Parti Québécois ― not only separatist, but also committed to the infamous “Charter of Québec Values” (which the federal government had vowed to fight in court!) had won the recent provincial election? 

The latest developments sure give us some food for thought on this last question. The Parti Québécois, it is true, not only remains out of government, but is currently the fourth-largest party in Québec’s legislature. Yet its idea of purging the province’s public service of overtly religious persons ― especially if they are overtly religious in a non-Catholic way ― is alive, kicking, and in the process of being enacted into law, as Bill 21, by the Coalition Avenir Québec’s government. This is the same government, of course, that its federal counterpart wants to involve in the appointment of the judges who may yet be called upon to pronounce on Bill 21’s consistency with the constitution.

Back in the sunny days of 2015, when illusions about the current federal government being formed by the “Charter party” were still possible, the Prime Minister wrote the following to his Attorney-General:

[Y]our overarching goal will be to ensure our legislation meets the highest standards of equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law. I expect you to ensure that our initiatives respect the Constitution of Canada, court decisions, and are in keeping with our proudest legal traditions. You are expected to ensure that the rights of Canadians are protected, that our work demonstrates the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that our government seeks to fulfill our policy goals with the least interference with the rights and privacy of Canadians as possible.

The “Mandate Letter” in which these wonderful commitments are set out is still on the Prime Minister’s website, although its original addressee was eventualy fired for acting like an actual Law Officer of the Crown and not a political weather-wane. But the same Prime Minister’s government is now going out of its way to hand over part of its constitutional responsibility for appointing the judges of Canada’s highest court to a provincial government bent not only on trampling on fundamental freedoms, but also on insulating its actions from review for compliance with the Charter. I should have thought that this is an odd way of respecting the Constitution of Canada, of ensuring that the rights of Canadians are protected, and of demonstrating the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But what do I know?

Well, I know this. Five years ago wrote that

[t]he power to appoint Supreme Court judges belongs to the federal government, and it alone, for good reason. … [T]he constitutional edifice built in 1867 (and 1875, when the Court was created, and then 1982 when it was, so it says, constitutionally entrenched) has weathered some great storms, and given us all shelter and comfort. It is in no danger of crumbling. Do not try to rebuild it.

Don’t do it. Just don’t.

Devaluing Section 33

What happens to “Charter values” when a statute invokes the “notwithstanding clause”―and what this might mean for Québec’s Bill 21

Here is a little puzzle I have thought of when reading an intriguing Policy Options post by Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause” by a legislature ― for example, by Québec’s legislature enacting
Bill 21, an anti-religious dress code ― does not prevent the courts from pronouncing the statute to which it applies contrary to the Charter. The “notwithstanding clause” does not insulate the statute from judicial review, but merely means that the statute continues to operate regardless of that review’s outcome. I am tentatively inclined to agree, and may have more to say on this soon. But for now, I want to raise a somewhat different issue.

If Bill said that public servants guilty of wearing religious symbols are to lose their jobs, or that overtly religious persons cannot be hired for the positions to which clause 6 applies, then that rule would be protected by the “notwithstanding clause”, and so would be its straightforward application. But in fact Bill 21 does not itself specify what happens if its prohibition, in clause 6, on “wearing religious symbols” is disregarded. Rather, clause 12 merely provides that “[i]t is incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority” over those to whom that prohibition applies “to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance”. The taking of those necessary measures would presumably be an administrative decision, subject to judicial review. And this is where things get interesting, in the sordid way in which anything having to do with judicial review of administrative decisions is interesting.

In a sane system of judicial review of constitutionally suspect administrative decisions ― like the one set out in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 ― a decision to discipline, and eventually to dismiss, a public servant for breaching the prohibition on wearing religious symbols would, I think, have to be valid, so long of course as Bill 21 is protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. Such a decision is impliedly authorized by the statute, so to challenge its constitutionality one would need to challenge the statute itself, and the “notwithstanding clause” means that, whatever other consequences that challenge may have, the statute continues to operate.

But we no longer have a sane system of judicial review of administrative decisions that raise Charter issues. (I should make clear that I have grave misgivings about Slaight‘s correctness on the merits; it is only its approach to judicial review that I approve of.) What we have, instead, is the approach first set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, under which the issue is not whether an administrative decision is authorized by a statute interpreted so as to comply with the Charter, but whether it gives as full an effect to “Charter values” in light of the statute’s objectives. How the “notwithstanding clause” fits into this scheme is not at clear.

The question is, does the application of the “notwithstanding clause” to a statute suspend the application of “Charter values” to decisions authorized by that statute? And the answer to that question is by no means obvious. Doré itself, of course, is silent on the matter, as are its successors Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293. So too is the text of section 33 of the Charter, which speaks of legislation “hav[ing] such operation as it would have but for the provision of th[e] Charter” (emphasis mine) in respect of which section 33 is invoked. The Charter says nothing about “values”.

Are these values the same as Charter rights, in which case they might be ousted along with the “provisions” muted by the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”? The cases at least suggest otherwise. In particular, in Loyola, the majority spoke of “Charter protections” as a category encompassing “values and rights” [35; emphasis mine], suggesting that values and rights are different. It added that “Charter values [are] those values that underpin each right and give it meaning”. [36] And so, one might at least make a serious argument to the effect that the values remain intact regardless of the temporary inapplicability of the Charter‘s provisions (and rights), and that Doré‘s injunction that “administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” [35; emphasis in the original] remains in full force, notwithstanding the “notwithstanding clause”.

The reluctance of the framers of Bill 21 to spell out, in the legislation itself, the unpalatable consequences they presumably intend, combined with the perverseness of the administrative law doctrines endorsed by the Supreme Court, may thus result in the nullification of one of the bill’s most significant features ― its attempt to exclude judicial scrutiny. I hope that no one doubts my distaste for Bill 21. I have denounced its illiberalism here, arguing that Quebeckers ― and the rest of us ― need to stop fearing “the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them”. And I have myself defended what some might think of as a workaround designed to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 21 despite its invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”. And, more broadly, I have long argued that the “notwithstanding clause” would be best left untouched. But I cannot say I find the idea of relying on “Charter values” to subvert the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”, even one as distasteful as Bill 21’s, especially satisfactory either. The whole concept of “Charter values” is a figment of the judicial imagination, and it usually serves, no matter the protestations of the TWU majority, to water down constitutional rights and to subvert the authority of the supreme law more broadly.

One should note, also, that even if the argument that Charter values continue to apply despite the “notwithstanding clause” is successful, there would remain the issue of weighing these values against statutory objectives. I will not say much about this here, beyond observing that there is glaring conflict between the ostensible aims of Bill 21 as a whole, stated in its clause 4, which are “(1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”, and its real aims, and in particular, the aim of the ban of wearing religious symbols. I am not sure how a court would deal with this, but here again the reluctance of the framers of of Bill 21 to forthrightly admit that they are trying to simply purge Québec’s officialdom of overtly religious individuals may well open a space for judicial subversion.

It may yet be, then, that the story of Bill 21 will turn out to have something that will look, from the standpoint of the protection of individual rights, more or less like a happy ending. But we should not let ourselves be deceived. Two wrongs do not make a right. One can hardly make up for the Québec legislature’s unwillingness to be bound by constitutional law by exploiting similar unwillingness on the part of the Supreme Court. And maybe, just maybe, the court would in fact recoil before the prospect of following the implications of the Doré line of cases all the way to the nullification of section 33 of the Charter. Who knows ― they might even seize the opportunity for getting rid of Doré and restoring some sanity to the Canadian law of judicial review.

To be honest, I’m not sure which outcome is more desirable. On the one hand, I want to see Bill 21 undone. On the other, although the Québec legislature would have no cause for complaint if it is tripped up by its own cowardice, those of us who care about the Rule of Law could not happy by its further subversion, even if we like the immediate results. But then again, I have the luxury of worrying about the Rule of Law from a distance. Those personally affected by Bill 21 may feel differently about this.

Nothing to Celebrate

Québec’s irreligious dress code proposal isn’t an opportunity to extol democracy, or to do away with judicial review of legislation

In a recent post at Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, to insulate Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation making irreligion the province’s official creed from judicial scrutiny “is an opportunity for democratic renewal” in discussions about matters constitutional. In doing so, they come another step closer to overtly taking a position that has always been implicit in the arguments of many of section 33’s fans: that the enactment of the Charter was a mistake. Indeed, they go further and, intentionally or otherwise, make the same suggestion regarding the courts’ ability to enforce the federal division of powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. It is brave of Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet to make this argument with Bill 21 as a hook. Yet courageous though it is, the argument is not compelling.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet dismiss claims to the effect that, while section 33 prevents the scrutiny of Bill 21 for compliance with the Charter’s guarantees of religious freedom and equality, other constitutional arguments remain available. (I have presented one such argument, building on Maxime St-Hilaire’s work, here.) To them, they are no more than a “legalistic … distraction”. Opponents of Bill 21 should, rather, be “making the democratic case for protecting religious freedom”. Indeed, we should be celebrating “the legislative process … with its tradition of active debate”, which allows Québec to take a “collaborative approach to fleshing out important rights”. We should also be celebrating street protests, open letters, and even threats of disobedience issued by some of the organizations that will be responsible for applying Bill 21 when it becomes law. After all, letting the courts apply the Charter “can wind up overriding rights in ways similar to Bill 21”, while causing “an atrophying of the democratic process as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted”. In short, “rights should not be taken for granted, nor left to judges. They require the thoughtful participation of the people themselves.”

I agree with this last point. Rights are unlikely to enjoy much protection in a political culture in which they are seen as something of concern to the courts alone. In one way or another ― whether through judicial acquiescence or through legislative override ― whatever constitutional protections for rights might exist in such a society will be cast aside. Québec is an excellent example of this. And, for my part, I have made a political, as well as a legal, case against Bill 21 here. The two can, and should, coexist.

And this is where Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet go badly wrong. In their headlong rush to praise politics, they denigrate the law. Without seriously addressing their merits, their dismiss plausible (albeit, to be fair, not unassailable) legal arguments as mere legalism. This applies not only to an argument based on the Charter, but also to one based on federalism. Presumably, we should count on the political process to sort out which of two different but equally democratic majorities should have the ability to impose its religious views on Canadians ― or any other issues about which order of government has the ability to legislate with respect to a particular subject. Similarly, Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet appear to see no harm in state institutions, such as school boards, threatening to act lawlessly, the Rule of Law be damned.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet also take a remarkably optimistic view of the political process. They say not a word of the fact that the “active debate” for which the praise Québec’s legislature may well be curtailed by the government. They call for democratic persuasion in the face of a law that is designed to impose few, if any, burdens, at least in the way in which it is likely to be enforced, on Québec’s lapsed-Catholic majority, and great burdens on a few minority groups that have long been subjects of suspicion if not outright vilification. A thoughtful advocate of democratic control over rights issues, Jeremy Waldron, at least worried in his “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” about the possibility that political majorities will put their interests above the rights of minority groups. “Injustice”, he writes, “is what happens when the rights or interests of the minority are
wrongly subordinated to those of the majority”, (1396) and we may legitimately worry about the tyranny of the majority when political majorities dispose of the rights of minority groups without heeding their concerns. Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet show no sign of being so worried, or of entertaining the possibility that the Québec society’s commitment to religious liberty is fundamentally deficient.

To be sure, Professor Waldron (rightly) reminds us that minorities “may be wrong about the rights they have; the majority may be right”. (1397) He also insists that, in societies genuinely committed to rights, it will rarely be the case that questions of rights will provoke neat splits between majority and minority groups. Still, we should be mindful of his acknowledgement that it in is cases like Bill 21, where majorities focus on their own preoccupations and are willing to simply impose their views on minorities, that the arguments in favour of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights protections are at their strongest. There is also a very strong argument ― and a democratic argument, too ― to be made in support of judicial enforcement of the federal division of powers, which serves to preserve the prerogative of democratic majorities to decide, or not to decide, certain issues.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet do not recognize these arguments, which leads me to the conclusion that they see no room for (strong-form) judicial review of legislation, under any circumstances. I believe that this position, at least so far as the Charter is concerned, is implicit in most if not all of the recent attempts to rehabilitate section 33. If one argues that we should trust legislatures to sometime come to views about rights that deserve to prevail over those of the courts, indeed perhaps to correct judicial mistakes, then why trust them in some cases only, and not in all? The application of this logic to federalism isn’t as familiar in the Canadian context, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.

Yet in my view, this is a mistake. As the circumstances surrounding Bill 21 show, politics is often little more than the imposition of the preferences of one group on another by brute force. This is as true in a democracy as it is under any other political regime. Democracy makes it more likely (although it does not guarantee) that the triumphant group will be a majority of the citizenry, which may or may not be a good thing. Democracy means that governmental decrees are, in principle (although not always in practice) reversible, and this is most definitely a good thing, and the reason why democracy is the least bad form of government. But I see no basis for pretending that democratic politics is somehow wise, or that it fosters meaningful debate about rights or other constitutional issues. Yes, there are some examples of that, on which opponents of judicial review of legislation like to seize. But these examples are few and far between and, more importantly, nothing about the nature of democratic politics makes their regular occurrence likely.

And of course it is true that strong-form judicial review of legislation, or judicial enforcement of rights (and of federalism) more broadly, sometimes fails to protect rights as fully as it should. I’m not sure that Dr. Sigalet and Ms. Baron’s chosen example, Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567, is especially compelling ― I think the case was wrongly decided, but the majority’s position at least rested on the sort of concern that can in principle justify limitations on rights. The more recent decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case are much worse in this regard, and provide compelling examples of an abject judicial failure to enforce the rights of a (rightly) maligned minority against an overbearing majority. Judicial review provides only a chance that what the political or administrative process got wrong will be set right, not a guarantee. But there is no compelling reason to think that the (usual) availability of judicial review causes the political debate about rights or other constitutional issues to atrophy. After all, as I have argued here, politicians are just as wont to ignore the constitution when they know or think that their decisions are not judicially reviewable as when they know that they are.  

In short, I am all for making the case for rights, and even federalism, outside the courtroom, and in ways that do not only speak to those carrying the privilege, or the burden, of legal training. I am all for making submissions to legislatures to try to prevent them from committing an injustice ― I’ve done it myself. And I’m all for protest, and even for civil disobedience by ordinary citizens when the politicians won’t listen ― though I have serious misgivings about officials declining to follow the law, partly for the reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini outlined here, and partly due to concerns of my own. But if the legally-minded among us should not neglect the political realm, then the politically-inclined should not disparage the law. The would-be prophets of popular sovereignty ought to remember Edward Coke’s words in his report of Prohibitions del Roy :

the law [is] the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protect[s] His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege.

This is no less true of today’s democratic sovereign, though it be no less apt to stand on its own dignity as James I.

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

Last week, the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] announced that it is refusing to to implement Bill 21, introduced by the Quebec government. The law would ban workers in the public sphere in positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols” while at work. The government, apparently cognizant of the challenges this could raise under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signalled its intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause to immunize its law from constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary.

In pre-emptively declining to implement the law, the EMSB invoked constitutional objections under the Charter against the ban:

Vice-Chair Joe Ortona, who drafted the resolution, said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to paragraph 2 (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and contrary to paragraph 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Furthermore Mr. Ortona said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to subsection 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees that everyone is equal before and under the law and guarantees the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on religion and contrary to section 3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression.

Quite aside from the merits of the issue, there is a legitimate question of administrative law, here: can an administrative agency like a school board, empowered by statute, simply decline to enforce a law that it believes is unconstitutional? More specifically, can the agency decline to enforce the law if the law invokes the notwithstanding clause? Whatever the answer is, should agencies be able to come to their own determinations of constitutional law?

The place to start is probably the Martin and Conway line of cases. The core issues in those cases were the conditions under which an administrative agency can choose not to apply statutory provisions in its enabling statute that it considers to be unconstitutional—and if so, whether there is a power to issue personal remedies under the Charter. So these cases go, if an agency has the express or implied power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision (see Martin, at para 37), then it presumptively has the power to determine questions of constitutional law. The implied inquiry looks to a number of considerations (see Martin at para 41):

Relevant factors will include the statutory mandate of the tribunal in issue and whether deciding questions of law is necessary to fulfilling this mandate effectively; the interaction of the tribunal in question with other elements of the administrative system; whether the tribunal is adjudicative in nature; and practical considerations, including the tribunal’s capacity to consider questions of law. Practical considerations, however, cannot override a clear implication from the statute itself, particularly when depriving the tribunal of the power to decide questions of law would impair its capacity to fulfill its intended mandate. As is the case for explicit jurisdiction, if the tribunal is found to have implied jurisdiction to decide questions of law arising under a legislative provision, this power will be presumed to include jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of that provision.

The presumption can be rebutted by the party seeking to dislodge the Charter jurisdictional presumption, by pointing to an express or implied withdrawal of authority to decide constitutional questions: the concern is discerning whether there is an intention to “exclude the Charter, or more broadly, a category of questions of law encompassing the Charter, from the scope of the questions of law to be addressed by the tribunal (Martin, at para 42).

So the question at the outset for the EMSB is whether it has been conferred the ability to decide questions of law, either explicitly or impliedly. The enabling statute for the EMSB is the Education Act. Under s.111 of that statute, the province of Quebec is divided into “two groups of territories,” with one group constituting English school boards, like the EMSB. The EMSB, under the statute, is “a legal person established in the public interest” (s.113). There is at least some reason (even if weak) to believe under the Education Act the EMSB has the power to decide questions of law, but only a limited one pertaining to its particular mission under the Education Act. For example, under the statute, the EMSB has the power to “ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented” (s.222) and can exempt students from that basic regulation “[f]or humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student” (s.222). Assume for now that these rather vague and limited provisions confer a general power to decide questions of law: that general power, interpreted in light of the text, context, and purpose of the Education Act as it relates to school boards, would probably only relate to the organization of quality educational services (s.207.1), although one could argue that the same concern could apply to the context of Bill 21.

Even if this could be seen as an implicit signal of constitutional jurisdiction under the Education Act, it is a bit orthogonal to the core interpretive question. Martin, the key case on point, says that the real question is whether the EMSB has power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision in its enabling statute (see paras 27-28, 35). But here, there is not only no challenged provision yet, but it is not the EMSB’s enabling statute. This presents two further problems: can agencies issue prophylactic constitutional rulings? And even if they can, can they do so by choosing not to apply a statute that is not their enabling statute?

It would seem odd, in light of the Supreme Court’s cases, to suggest that an administrative agency can prophylactically choose not to apply a law that otherwise applies to it. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute, and so are subject to the statutory conditions that the legislature imposes on them. Under Bill 21, the terms of the statute clearly apply to school boards (see Schedule I, (7)). Short of some dispute arising within the confines of the statutory regime created by the Education Act, there does not seem warrant for the EMSB to go out on a limb and refuse to apply a statute that has yet to have created any particular problems within its statutory jurisdiction. This seems to be what Abella J suggested in Conway, where she concluded that tribunals could “have the authority to resolve constitutional questions that are linked to matters properly before them” (Conway, at para 78).

More important than this issue, though, is the idea that the EMSB can choose not to apply a statute that is not its enabling statute. The main Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue, even the ones that predate Martin, involve the enabling statute of the decision-maker under consideration (Conway, at para 49: “These cases dealt with whether administrative tribunals could decide the constitutionality of the provisions of their own statutory schemes.” Consider the cases on this point: in Cuddy Chicks, the issue was whether the Ontario Labour Relations Board could determine the constitutionality of a provision in the Labour Relations Act. In Martin, the question was whether the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal could decide a s.15 Charter claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and associated regulations. All of these cases involved claims tied to the regime under which the decision-maker was established, with cases “properly before them.” And this makes sense: it would be odd for Parliament to delegate power to an administrative agency, confined by a statutory scheme, to pass on the constitutionality of other statutory provisions that may only tangentially be related to the part of the Education Act (for example) that the EMSB must apply.

Even if none of this were true, the notwithstanding clause effectively limits any independent choice an agency could have about the constitutionality of the statute under which it is invoked. For one, even if one could impute an intention to the legislature that presumptively allows the EMSB to make constitutional determinations, the notwithstanding clause is a good reason to say that the legislature has rebutted that presumption with respect to the particular category of question at issue here: this is the upshot of Martin and Conway. More fundamentally, a use of the notwithstanding clause cannot be legally questioned by any actor in the system, including the judiciary. The EMSB cannot legally second-guess the choice of the provincial government (its master) to insulate legislation from constitutional scrutiny. The invocation of the notwithstanding clause flows down the entire machinery of the state, and whether we like it or not, its use is legally justifiable by the fiat of the legislature.

To my mind, the use of the notwithstanding clause also renders null any arguments that one could make that the EMSB is justified in its prophylactic ruling because of an abstract notion of “Charter values.” Despite the fact that the spectre of Charter values is increasingly being called into question, and the precedential force of cases like Trinity Western should be questioned because of the lack of reasoning on the point (see, embarrassingly for the TWU majority, para 59), the notwithstanding clause is a legislative command that compels executive actors to ignore the Charter when implementing the law in question. There would be no point in invoking the notwithstanding clause if administrative actors could choose to “independently” opine on the constitutionality of laws in the face of it. The lightning rod for a consideration of Charter values is discretion, and the notwithstanding clause neutralizes any discretion at all on the constitutional question.

To my mind, there is little warrant for the EMSB to prophylactically say it will not enforce Bill 21, given its limited statutory domain and the use of the notwithstanding clause. And this is likely how it should be. It is one thing for an administrative agency, when implementing a statute in the context of a concrete dispute, to have to pass on the constitutionality of a statutory provision—in its own statute—in order to resolve the dispute. In that case, there are at least colourable reasons why the agency should have the power to do this: if one believes in the idea that agencies have expertise on matters arising within the confines of their statute, one could say that they could also have expertise on Charter matters arising in relation to that same statute. One could also say that the legislature delegated to the agency the power to make Charter determinations, even through the imperfect proxy of a general power to decide questions of law. These same justifications lose their force when considering statutory provisions outside the enabling statute. While Bill 21 certainly does affect the realm of the EMSB, the EMSB is not conferred a general power to make constitutional determinations arising under other statutes.

Is Québec’s Dress Code Unconstitutional?

There is a serious argument to be made that Québec’s ban on religious symbols infringes the federal division of powers

Back when a previous Québec government sought to impose a dress-code on the province’s employees, I suggested here and here that, should the province seek to insulate its legislation from review based on its manifest violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Québec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by invoking these Charters’ respective “notwithstanding clauses”, the question of constitutionality could still be raised. That is because such legislation may well infringe not only the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, but also the federal division of powers, to which the “notwithstanding clauses” do not apply. 

The idea of a dress code for (some) public employees is back, in the shape of a bizarrely named Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “laicity” is not a synonym of “secularism”.) And as Bill 21 invokes the “notwithstanding clauses”, the issue of its consistency with the federal division of powers must be addressed.


Fortunately, Maxime St-Hilaire has posted a thorough review (en français) of the relevant case law over at À qui de droit. With his kind permission, a (very slightly shortened and re-formatted) translation follows:

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way allows Parliament or a legislature to suspend the federal division of legislative powers. Only the federal emergency power makes it possible to do this, temporarily.

Recall that, in 1852, before Confederation, the legislature of the United Province of Canada enacted a Freedom of Worship Act. In 1867, the protection of religious freedom was not, as such, assigned to either Parliament or the legislatures. The Freedom of Worship Act remains purportedly valid as a law of Québec.

However, in Saumur v City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299, which involved a by-law subjecting the distribution of any literature in the city’s streets to the approval of the chief of police, four of the nine judges took the position that religious freedom was outside the scope of provincial jurisdiction, and within that of Parliament. In somewhat different ways, the four took the position that, being a restriction on freedom of religion, the by-law could not be justified as an exercise of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights in the Province” provided by section 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, or that over “Municipal Institutions in the Province”, or any other provincial power, including that over “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”, provided by section 92(16). Rather, religious freedom was a matter within the scope either of the federal criminal law power (section 91(27)), or of the section 91 residual federal power over “Peace, Order, and Good Government of Canada”. Two other judges were content to raise this argument without either endorsing or rejecting it: “It may well be that Parliament alone has power to make laws in relation to the subject of religion as such”. (387; per Cartwright J). Only three of the nine judges took the position that freedom of religion fell within the scope of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights” or, perhaps, “Matters of a merely local or private Nature”.

Saumur was ultimately decided on the basis of the by-law’s interpretation, rather than its validity. Two years later, in Henry Birks & Sons (Montreal) Ltd v City of Montreal, [1955] SCR 799, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a Québec statute specifically allowing municipalities to prohibit the opening of shops on designated Catholic holidays was ultra vires the province, because in pith and substance it was colourable criminal law. Justice Kellock (with the agreement of Justice Locke), went so far as to suggest that 

[e]ven if it could be said that legislation of the character here in question is not properly “criminal law” within the meaning of s. 91(27), it would, in my opinion, still be beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature as being legislation with respect to freedom of religion dealt with by the [Freedom of Worship Act]. (823)

This was also the view of Justice Rand, for whom “legislation in relation to religion the provision is beyond provincial authority to enact”. (814)

In Dupond v City of Montreal, [1978] 2 SCR 770, Justice Beetz, for the majority, argues that the freedom of religion belongs partly to the federal criminal law power, so far as the imposition of religious observance is concerned, and partly a matter of provincial competence over purely local matters (similarly to the “freedoms of speech [and] of the press”). (796-97)

This was confirmed in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, where Justice Dickson, for the majority, held that

Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the Lord’s Day Act depends on the identification of the purpose of the Act as compel­ling observance of Sunday by virtue of its religious significance. Were its purpose not religious but rather the secular goal of enforcing a uniform day of rest from labour, the Act would come under s. 92(13), property and civil rights in the province and, hence, fall under provincial rather than federal competence. (354)

Since the freedom of religion includes the freedom of conscience, and thus the freedom not to believe, it is tempting to argue that any law that imposes either a form of religious belief or non-belief falls under Parliament’s exclusive power over criminal law. However, as explained in Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act2010 SCC 61, [2010] 3 SCR 457, to belong to the realm of criminal law, a law must “suppress an evil, … establish a prohibition, and … accompany that prohibition with a penalty”. [233]

However, it seems settled that both Parliament and the legislatures are able to protect or to justifiably limit, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter, the freedom of conscience and religion, through the use of their ancillary powers. The power over religion is thus a shared one within the federal division of powers. The Supreme Court has confirmed this, for example in R v Edwards Books and Art Ltd, [1986] 2 SCR 713. Justice Dickson, uncontradicted on this point, expressed the following view:

[T]here exist religious matters which must similarly fall within provincial competence. … It would seem, therefore, that the Constitution does not contemplate religion as a discrete constitutional “matter” falling exclusively within either a federal or provincial class of subjects. Legislation concerning religion or religious freedom ought to be characterized, I believe, in light of its context, according to the particular religious matter upon which the legislation is focussed. … 

Applying the above principles to the appeals at bar, it is, in my opinion, open to a provincial legislature to attempt to neutralize or minimize the adverse effects of otherwise valid provincial legislation on human rights such as freedom of religion. (750-51)

There is nothing impossible about a Québec statute on secularism enacted notwithstanding the Charter being held invalid as a violation of the federal division of powers. The outcome will depend largely on the evidence and arguments related to the (real) purpose of the law. If those challenging the law were able to persuade the court that the purpose of (and not only the means taken by) the statute is religious in the legal, that is to say broad, sense of the term, and restrictive, the court could strike it down in whole or in part, notwithstanding its use of the notwithstanding clause.


I would only add a few comments. To begin with, following up on Professor St-Hilaire’s conclusion, it is important to note (as I already did in my original posts) that what might, to some, feel like a runaround to avoid the effects of the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter is nothing of the sort. Some runarounds have been proposed in the last couple of days, for example by Louis-Philippe Lampron and Pierre Bosset, who suggest that unwritten constitutional principles can be invoked to impose limits on the legislature’s ability to invoke section 33. This is just not plausible. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, the Supreme Court made it clear unwritten principles cannot be used to make up perceived shortcomings in the scope of the Charter’s protections. This logic must apply to the “notwithstanding clause” as much as to the gaps in the Charter‘s substantive rights. By contrast, however, the limits on a provincial legislature’s legislative power that pre-existed the Charter remain intact and enforceable. Section 31 of the Charter itself tells us as much. It provides that “[n]othing in this Charter extends the legislative powers of any body or authority.” 

Next, I would argue that the purpose of Bill 21 is quite clearly religious, or rather anti-religious. These two things, as Professor St-Hilaire points out, are equivalent for constitutional purposes. The bill’s preamble proclaims that “it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec” and that “it is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order”. Clause 1 provides that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “lay” is not a synonym of “secular”; this is another calque, just like “laicity”.) Clause 2 sets out “principles” on which “[t]he laicity [sic] of the State is based”, including “the separation of State and religions” and, supposedly, “the religious neutrality of the State”. (This is a rather transparent lie, since the bill would exclude religious individuals from a variety of functions within the purportedly neutral state.) And Bill 21’s centrepiece is, of course, Clause 6, which provides that various public employees and some contractors “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”. Only “religious symbols” ― not political ones, or those that have to do with any other aspect of people’s identities ― are targeted. This is a regulation of religion, and nothing else.

Consider, then, the arguments that the Québec government might make in defence of its legislation. The authority for it, if it exists at all, presumably comes from section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, or section 92(4) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The former provides that, subject to limitations that are not relevant here, “the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province”. The latter grants the provinces power over “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers”. The scope of section 45’s predecessor provision, section 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867, was explained by Justice Beetz in his majority reasons in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2. To determine whether an enactment qualifies as an amendment to the constitution of the province, one must first ask:

is the enactment in question, by its object, relative to a branch of the government of Ontario … ? Does it for instance determine the composition, powers, authority, privileges and duties of the legislative or of the executive branches or their members? Does it regulate the interrelationship between two or more branches? Or does it set out some principle of government? (39)

However, even if the answer to this first question (or set of questions) is in the affirmative, one must keep in mind the restrictions on the provinces’ legislative authority imposed by the federal division of powers, and other limits imposed by the constitution of Canada as a whole. One can certainly argue that Bill 21 imposes duties on members of the three branches of Québec’s government, and sets out a “principle of government”. But if its true purpose is not so much to regulate the functioning of the provincial government as to compel religious non-observance, then it is still not valid legislation amending the provincial constitution. And I would add that, although the government might claim that it is not trying to prevent anyone from being religious outside of their working hours, religiosity is not something that can be switched off from 9AM to 5PM and then back on again. 

Indeed, Justice Beetz’s comments in OPSEU on section 92(4) are suggestive here. Justice Beetz wrote that limitations on civil servants’ political activity at both the federal and the provincial level “constitute a term or condition of tenure of provincial office, enforced by compulsory resignation or dismissal. Their object is to ensure in this respect, not partial virtue, but global political independence for provincial officers.” (48) One can certainly say that Bill 21’s limitations on religious expression are a term or condition of tenure of provincial office. But if the government argues that their object is to ensure not partial, but global irreligion on the part of its employees, then the proposition that Bill 21 is not aimed at banning religious observance should be a tough sell.


Quite apart from constitutional issues, Bill 21 is a disaster from the standpoint of political morality. It is a massive violation of religious liberty of those who already are, or might in the future like to become, employed by the Québec government or hold provincial office. While less discriminatory on its face than Québec’s previous attempts at a dress code, in that it purports to ban all religious symbols and not just “ostentatious” ones (i.e. the hijab, the kippah, and the turban, but not the cross worn by Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who constitute the majority of Québec’s population), it still transparently invites discrimination. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that anyone will be looking for crosses under civil servants’ shirts. Hijabs, kippahs, and turbans, on the other hand… But the constitution, despite the Québec government’s attempt to shove it aside, might yet stand in the way of this iniquity.

Lessening Us: The Supreme Court and SNC-Lavalin

The SNC-Lavalin episode gets worse, if that is possible.

In an apparent effort to distract from the SNC-Lavalin affair, a leak on Monday claimed that the rift between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould began far before the term “deferred prosecution agreement” entered the public lexicon. Apparently, it all started when Wilson-Raybould recommended Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court of Canada. For those unaware, Chief Justice Joyal has, over the years, advanced a welcome antidote for the Charterphile Canadian legal community. His views are not extreme or inappropriate; rather, they are intelligent appreciations of the cultural and institutional changes that the Charter introduced. The fact that he was rejected out of hand for a Supreme Court appointment—and the fact the circumstances of his appointment have been leaked—are indictments of both Canada’s legal and political system.

The most important part of all of this is the morally repugnant way in which Chief Justice Joyal’s application for the bench was released by some unknown party. Originally, it was reported that Trudeau scuttled Wilson-Raybould’s recommendation because of his disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal’s views. Then, it was reported that Chief Justice Joyal actually withdrew his application, because his wife was suffering from metastatic breast cancer. The fact that this was leaked, and that Chief Justice Joyal’s personal life was implicated in the process, is a low for Canadian politics. No one should have to endure public scrutiny on a matter as personal–and tragic–as a cancer diagnosis.

What makes it even more tragic is that, as Chief Justice Joyal noted, his personal situation seems to be used as an agenda for the broader SNC-Lavalin controversy. The implication of all of this is that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the information to the press in order to show just how misguided Wilson-Raybould was as Attorney General. If there was any doubt, the episode shows just how far some politicos will go to undermine not only norms surrounding judicial appointments but also the personal lives of those in the way.

And, all of this for views that are not at all controversial and are important counterpoints to the ongoing debates about the Charter and its institutional features. A good example of Chief Justice Joyal’s welcome assessment of the major counter-majoritarian difficulty introduced by the Charter is his 2017 speech to the Law and Freedom Conference. The main theme of the speech outlined the consequences of the “judicial potency” that the Charter introduced, a feature that “was not anticipated back in 1982.” These consequences are ones that are not often discussed, are certainly true. For example, consider a few of the consequences Chief Justice Joyal noted:

  • The constitutional requirements imposed by the Charter do not “mesh” well with the legislative process, making it more difficult to make laws.
  • The Charter has moved important debates outside of the realm of the legislature and into the realm of courts.
  • This movement outside of the legislative realm creates “a public discourse dominated by the concept of ‘rights’,” one that is defined by “judicial formulations and tests.”
  • The political culture introduced by the Charter conflates constitutionality with policy wisdom, when there is no need to necessarily merge the two concepts.

Agree or disagree, these are all important consequences of the system of judicial review introduced by the Charter, and the way in which Canadian lawyers have reacted to that power of review. There is no doubt that the Canadian legal community largely suffers from “Charteritis,” (not my term–check out David Mossop’s 1985 article entited “Charteritis and Other Legal Diseases”). And for that reason, Chief Justice Joyal’s remarks in 2017 were a welcome appreciation of the symptoms of that disease.

But in the leak published on Monday, the nuance and force of Chief Justice Joyal’s conclusions were completely lost. Apparently, when Wilson-Raybould recommended Chief Justice Joyal to the bench, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned about the 2017 speech. Trudeau was apparently concerned that Joyal would be less willing to protect rights that have come from judicial interpretation of the Charter, including rights to abortion access and LGBTQ2 rights.

If this is true, this base understanding of Chief Justice Joyal’s legal views is completely wrong. There is nothing in his 2017 speech that would indicate a preference—one way or another—for any particular issue that would come before the Supreme Court, should he have been a judge. All of Chief Justice Joyal’s broader views are perfectly consistent with a respect for stare decisis and the cases that have entrenched rights, whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided.

Chief Justice Joyal’s views have nothing to do with these issues, simply put. They merely stand for the idea that, in the age of the Charter, the legislatures have assumed a different role. This is simply an empirical fact. There are consequences to this. One is that, rather than dealing with issues through the cut-and-thrust of political debate, we have moved those debates into the courts, which are often ill-suited to deal with these sorts of problems. The issue of Aboriginal rights and title is a perfect example. Because of the recalcitrance of governments over generations, Aboriginal groups have, strategically, moved to the courts to vindicate their rights. But that does not mean that the judicial forum is a better place to do so. The Tsilqho’tin case is a good example of this—a case which took decades of time and untold resources to reach the Supreme Court. Even people who believe in the Charter, and in the judicial role that it introduced, should recognize that legislatures should still be important areas of public debate that should be equal constitutional actors in their own right, owed respect by the Supreme Court’s judges.

While it is perfectly appropriate for the Prime Minister to want to appoint people to the bench who reflect his view of the Constitution, those views should at least be informed and educated. Based on the media reporting so far, it appears that the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to understand that one can have different approaches to Charter interpretation—or a less positive view of the broader implications of the Charter—and still have a respect for the document as a matter of constitutional law. Even if one thinks those views are wrong, this is no reason to misunderstand what Chief Justice Joyal’s views actually represent.

Taken together, this whole SNC-Lavalin episode continues to lessen us–our law and our politics.

Does the Constitution Mean Anything?

In defence of textualism in constitutional interpretation

The Stereo Decisis podcast recently devoted an episode to a discussion of a case that I have covered here, 9147-0732 Québec inc v Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373, in which the Québec Court of Appeal held that corporations could avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “cruel and unusual treatment and punishment”. While the hosts Robert Danay, Oliver Pulleyblank, and Hillary Young disagreed on the merits of the issue before the court, they were, I take it, agreed on one thing: the approach to interpreting section 12 on which my post relied is not compelling. And indeed my post was pointedly textualist, and intended as a bit of a provocation to the adherents to Canadian consensus approach to the constitution, which is anything but. I am glad that it worked, and that we are, as a result, having a bit of a debate on constitutional interpretation; and all the more so since, in the course of this discussion, my critics nicely expose the weakness of their position.

Briefly, I had argued that section 12 does not apply to corporations because the word “cruel” refers to the wilful infliction of or indifference to pain or suffering, and pain or suffering is something that corporations are not capable of. I added a discussion of the evolution of the provisions intended to limit punishments from the Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights, 1688 and the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, to section 12, during the course of which the prohibition on “excessive fines” (to use the language of the Bill of Rights) fell by the wayside and was left out of the Charter. Considerations about whether it would have been a good idea for the Charter’s framers to have made a different choice and included a protection against excessive fines, which in effect is what the Québec Court of Appeal decided, are in my opinion irrelevant.

The hosts of Stereo Decisis took issue with that. We just can’t interpret the Charter simply by looking at what it says. Mr. Pulleyblank insisted that “‘[c]ruel and unusual’ is a bad phrase. It doesn’t really mean cruel and it doesn’t really mean unusual.” And beyond this particular provision, Professor Young said that the Charter is written in “rather loose language”, so that answers to questions about its meaning “can’t be found in the words”. Rather, they can only be obtained by asking what the Charter ought to mean. “You have to look beyond the words”, to “normative” considerations, such “how you feel about the Charter versus legislative authority”. The Québec Court of Appeal, for instance, had to decide whether “this particular right should apply to corporations”. (Emphasis mine) And that decision can yield, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “a norm that is different than either of those words [cruel and unusual] or both of those words together”.

Normative considerations are what caused the hosts to disagree about the outcome of the case. Mr. Danay said that “[w]e ought not to try to limit Charter rights. … If the Charter seems like it could protect something, probably a better reading … would be to protect that thing.” Professor Young, by contrast, saw a greater role for deference “to legislation enacted by elected legislatures”, and added that “[i]f we were talking about human beings’ rights, I would be less inclined to interpret so narrowly but I’m not super sympathetic about arguments for corporations’ rights against cruel and unusual treatment”. It was, as Mr. Pulleyblank summed it up, “just a disagreement” about “the impact on the democratic process”.

In my view, the hosts’ criticism of my textualist interpretation are weak, and their own approach grounded in vague normative considerations, unattractive. Now, it’s important to understand what textualism is not, and what it is. No textualist, for example, would say that answers to all constitutional questions can be found in the words alone. Sometimes, it is indeed necessary to go beyond the words of a provision. Some words that the Charter‘s framers used are vague. Context can clarify what at first glance appears to vagueness; in other cases, it might tells us that the most straightforward reading of a word whose import at first seems clear is not the most accurate one. Thus, contrary to what Mr. Pulleyblank rather derisively implied, my “going beyond the text” to look at section 12’s historical antecedents does not make me a bad textualist. Textualism is, in short, the idea that constitutional text, read in its proper context, binds ― insofar as it has an ascertainable meaning; it is not the view that text alone will always answer all constitutional questions. (In any case though, my ultimate commitment is to public meaning originalism, which starts, but does not always end, with textualism.)

So textualism can acknowledge the vagueness of a constitutional provision, but it will insist on not merely stipulating that its language is “bad” or “loose”, or that, if it is somewhat vague, it is incapable of providing any real guidance to the interpreter. The word “cruel”, in section 12, is a nice illustration. Of course, it is vague to a considerable extent. No amount of looking at dictionaries will tell us whether, say, a parole ineligibility period longer than an offender’s life expectancy is cruel (the main question in R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354) and, as a public meaning originalist, I do not think that knowing how the Charter‘s framers would have answered that particular question tells us much about the meaning of section 12 either. But it doesn’t follow that the word cruel is poorly chosen or that it has no real import at all. In the case before the Québec Court of Appeal, looking at the word’s ordinary meaning was helpful, indeed sufficient to dispose of the dispute (which an examination of the context confirmed).

The Stereo Decisis hosts never actually disputed this ― they did not refer to definitions of the word “cruel” that contradicted the claims that Justice Chamberland (who dissented at the Court of Appeal) and I made about it. (At least that’s how I understood them; as I was writing this post, Benjamin Oliphant suggested that “the hosts raise a worthwhile challenge to [my] interpretation of section 12. What if the words ‘cruel and unusual’ are properly understood to mean “grossly disproportionate’ … ?” I don’t think the hosts said that section 12 actually means this ― only that it has been read in this way by the Supreme Court. And I don’t think that “cruel” actually means “grossly disproportionate”. Again, dictionary definitions tend to emphasize wilful infliction of pain. Moreover, section 12 applies not only to “punishment” but to other “treatment” of the individual by the state. While it makes sense to speak of cruel treatment, I don’t think that “grossly disproportional” works here; disproportional to what?)

As I understood the Stereo Decisis hosts, they took what I can only describe as a dogmatic position that a word like “cruel” must be so vague as to provide no guidance. I don’t think that going into an interpretive exercise with a pre-determined view of this sort is right. Vagueness is not an all-or-nothing thing; a word, or a provision, can be vague as to some questions but not others. The interpreter needs to make a reasonable effort to glean what guidance can be had from the text and context before concluding that they “run out” and that the question facing him or her must be answered by looking at other considerations.

And then, the interpreter needs to face the question of what considerations should be looked at when, and to the extent that, a constitutional provision does run out. (In originalist terms, this is the question of what theory of construction one must adopt for those cases that interpretation does not settle.) The Stereo Decisis hosts suggest that we must go straight to very general normative views about the Charter and legislative power. As their discussion shows, however, this approach is not especially fruitful, in that it promptly leads to stark normative disagreement between those who would maximize the scope of the Charter‘s limits on government power and those who would reduce it in the name of preserving legislative authority. The two sides of this dispute have little to say to one another; both argue that the case should simply be decided by following their normative priors; they can only count heads to see who wins on any particular panel. Adjudication along these lines is not readily distinguishable from a legislative power struggle.

I do not mean to deny that cases where a court can do no better may arise from time to time. Still, I think that we should be uneasy about this prospect. Telling judges that it’s normal, rather than exceptional and worrying, for them to decide constitutional cases by reference to their own normative commitments produces nefarious consequences, as judges come to think that their personal understanding of right and wrong is more important than the law. From constitutional cases, this belief bleeds into other areas of the law ― into cases of ordinary statutory interpretation and even common law ones. This destroys the Rule of Law and removes the most important constraint on judicial power, which is the requirement to (normally) follow the law, be it constitution, statute, and precedent, that someone else has first set out.

Moreover, if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. (This is, of course, especially true of cases that involve individual rights; federalism disputes arguably require a neutral arbiter, but even there, it is not quite clear why the arbiter should be judicial in character.) And, as a descriptive matter, those who hold to the view that constitutional texts are more or less meaningless don’t even have access to the positive law argument I have made here that, as a textual matter, our constitution actually requires judicial supremacy. They must attempt to answer the question of whether it does so with normative arguments alone, and are unlikely to convince anyone not predisposed to agree with them.

It is much better, as well as more consistent with our Rule of Law tradition and with the positive law of our constitution, to insist that judges ascertain the meaning of the law given them, and if the meaning does not resolve the dispute they have to settle, that they endeavour to implement this law, not on the basis of their predilections, but of the law’s purposes. A judge who happens to share my distaste for most economic regulation can and should nevertheless conclude that, while an additional obstacle to such regulation’s excesses in the shape of an extension of the scope of section 12 to corporations would be normatively desirable, the constitution that we actually have does not raise this obstacle in the grasping legislatures’ way. But for him or her to be able so to conclude, that judge must be committed to elucidating and applying the law, instead of believing that judicial office gives one carte blanche to implement one’s own preferences.

Constitutional interpretation isn’t discussed enough in Canada. A general lack of interest, caused by overconfidence in a living constitutionalist orthodoxy, has meant that when Canadian lawyers confront questions of constitutional interpretation they are liable to reason in ways that are not compelling. Sadly, the Stereo Decisis discussion of the question whether section 12 of the Charter extends to corporation was illustrative. It relied on a mistaken assumption that constitutional language is infinitely malleable, with the result that, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “[i]f you want to go one way you can probably get there. If you want to go the other way you can probably get there.” Descriptively, this mischaracterizes our constitutional documents, which are rather less vague than is sometimes said. Normatively, a state of affairs in which constitutional law dissolves in competing assertions about the appropriate relationship between courts and legislatures, has little to recommend itself.

These two defects feed into each other. The less faith one has in the capacity of constitutional texts to guide their interpreters, the more power one is inclined to grant judges (even if only to seek to claw it back through free-floating doctrines of deference). The less one accepts limits on judicial power, the more one is tempted to see vagueness in every text, without seriously examining it. Still, I hope that, by discussing constitutional interpretation and calling into question beliefs about it whose truth has too long simply been assumed we will make much needed progress.