Look, Look, over There!

What role should comparative law play in constitutional adjudication in Canada?

This is, I think, the last post I write on Frank v Canada (Attorney-General), 2019 SCC 1, where the Supreme Court held that denying the franchise to Canadians who have been resident abroad for more than five years is unconstitutional. I summarized the decision here, commented on it here, and added further comments on the issue of expatriates’ supposed lack of connections to individual ridings here. In this post, I address a further issue that I left out so far, because it is only tangentially related to the question of the constitutionality of disenfranchising expatriates: that of the significance of foreign jurisdictions’ approaches to this issue.

In their dissenting opinion, Justices Côté and Brown invoke the “limits adopted by other Westminster democracies in which election regimes are, as here, structured around geographically defined electoral districts” [164] as support for the proposition that disenfranchising Canadians after five years abroad is reasonable. They mention, specifically, three other “Westminster democracies” ― the United Kingdom itself, as well as Australia and New Zealand. They note, by way of a rejoinder to the majority’s dismissal of this argument (on which more presently), that “[a]t different times in its history, Canada would well have taken some lessons from other countries” ― or at least from New Zealand, which enfranchised its aboriginal citizens (albeit in a way that radically under-represented them) and women well before Canada did. For Justices Côté and Brown, the fact that peer democracies “have adopted comparable time limits on voting for long-term non-residents … provide[s] compelling evidence” [167] for the proposition that the Canadian law they are examining is rational, and therefore constitutional.

Chief Justice Wagner, for the majority, is not impressed with this. For one thing, he insists that that the dissent’s comparisons do not really work in its favour. The United Kingdom only disenfranchises its expatriates after fifteen years, not five; meanwhile, “in Australia, the voter’s right can be extended indefinitely upon application, while New Zealand’s three-year limit is reset each time the non-resident returns to the country”. [74; hyperlinks added ― oddly, I think, the Chief Justice provides no citations.] Thus, disenfranchising expatriates after five years of non-residence (even if they visit Canada during this period) is a harsher approach than that taken by the countries on which the dissenters want to rely. (The dissenters, for their part, dismiss this as “minutiae of policy preferences of Canadian legislators (and, for that matter, legislators in Australia and New Zealand) on matters about which this Court as an institution has little comparative expertise”. [166])

More fundamentally though, the Chief Justice is skeptical about whether there is anything at all to be learned from the experience and choices of other jurisdictions: “I place little stock”, he writes, “in comparisons with other countries for the purpose of determining whether this legislation is constitutional.” [74] Whatever may be done elsewhere, it need not be a rational response to the particular problems that Parliament purports to be solving by limiting the right of Canadians abroad to vote, or that it is the least restrictive option available. Besides, “Canada is an international leader” [62] when it comes to enfranchising citizens to whom other countries deny the vote (such as prisoners), and part decisions of the Supreme Court paid little heed to what other countries do. For the dissent, these are “highly political, rhetorical arguments … that … stand in tension with the majority’s own invocation of internationalism and of a ‘globalized’ world of connectivity and communication”, [167] and which smack of “exceptionalism”. [166]

There are some important questions here. Should we, contrary to the Chief Justice, “place stock in comparisons with other countries” when assessing the constitutionality of legislation? Are there particular areas where we might want to make exceptions to whatever general principle we adopt ― for example, on account of Canada’s being “an international leader”? And if we ought to be looking at comparative materials, how should we go about it?

On the general issue of the relevance of comparative law, my answer is “it’s complicated”. Where the interpretation of constitutional text is concerned, being a public meaning originalist, I think that foreign or international materials can assist a Canadian only insofar as there is evidence that they would have been understood to bear on text’s meaning at the time of its enactment. That might sometimes be the case, especially with the Charter, but the evidence has to be provided whenever an argument about the relevance of such materials to the question at hand is made. Moreover, the simple existence, somewhere in the world, of a particular view about the meaning of a right that might have been “within the contemplation of the framers of the Charter“, as the Supreme Court put it in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391, is not enough. What needs to be shown is that this particular interpretation was actually understood as the one the Charter itself would bear.

When it comes to the application of section 1 of the Charter, which allows legislatures to limit rights, provided that the limitation is a “reasonable” one and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”, the issue is no longer one of interpretation (except insofar as the terms of section 1 itself have to interpreted). Here, I think that international and comparative materials may cast some light on what may be acceptable “in a free and democratic society”. However, the views of other free and democratic societies are not dispositive on the question of what is actually reasonable and demonstrably justified in the specific context in which rights are being limited in Canada. The Chief Justice is quite right to insist that the analysis has to proceed with reference to the Canadian circumstances, including (but not limited to) the objective for the sake of which a Canadian legislature is seeking to limit rights. Sometimes, the circumstances of other jurisdictions will be similar enough to make their experiences and choices interesting; sometimes they will not be.

Smug dismissals on the basis that Canada is a “world leader” are unwise, if for no other reason that one can only be such a leader if the direction in which the world is supposed to move is clear, and this will rarely be obvious in rights cases. But, at the same time, claims the effect that, since some respectable jurisdictions restrict rights in a particular way, it is rational and therefore permissible, for Canada to do likewise are similarly unhelpful. Such claims ignore local circumstances and, crucially, the textual requirement of section 1 that limitations on rights be demonstrably justified. “Other people do it” is not a demonstration; it is, at most, a relevant consideration for such a demonstration. To insist that, ultimately, a Canadian government defending a Canadian statute limiting the rights protected by the Canadian constitution demonstrably justify this limitation is not a rhetorical, let alone a political move. It is nothing less than what the constitution itself, in no uncertain terms, requires.

Still, foreign laws might be of some, albeit limited, interest to Canadian courts in Charter cases. This brings me to the question of how Canadian judges should consider them. Here, I’m afraid the Frank dissent offers a good lesson in how not to do it. First, one should not cherry-pick a few examples that seem to support one’s preferred position. Why focus on the UK, Australia, and New Zealand? They are, we are told, “Westminster democracies in which election regimes are, as here, structured around geographically defined electoral districts”, but why are “Westminster democracies” the only relevant ones here? The electoral systems of the United States and France, for example, are also “structured around geographically defined districts. Why should we ignore them?

Second, one should not cherry-pick aspects of those foreign laws to which one refers either. If one wants to invoke a foreign law as a model, one doesn’t get to dismiss aspects of that law that don’t support one’s conclusions as “minutiae of policy preferences”. The fact that Australian citizens can actually vote from abroad, so long as they keep making the relevant annual applications, and that New Zealand citizens and permanent residents can reset their respective disenfranchisement clocks by simply visiting the country considerably undermines the point that the Frank dissent attempts to make by appealing to them.

Third, one really shouldn’t misunderstand the foreign law on which one relies, or present it in a way that is misleading. I’m not sure which of these to things Justices Côté and Brown do in Frank, but in any case, New Zealand, unlike the UK and Australia (and the US and France) uses a proportional electoral system. It does have “geographically defined electoral districts” that ensure local representation, but it’s the party vote that determines the composition of the House of Representatives, so I think that it’s just wrong to equate this system to Australia’s or the United Kingdom’s ― or Canada’s. (Conversely, if New Zealand is an apt comparison, why not Germany, on whose system New Zealand’s is closely modelled?)

In short, when judges choose to embark on a consideration of comparative law, they must do their best to ensure that this endeavour is not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete. Of course, there are limits to what judges can do in looking at other jurisdictions. Some help is sometimes available to them ― for example, in the shape of reports of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission ― but this will not always be enough. I think it is also fair to ask whether some countries’ experiences ought to carry more weight than those of others in the minds of Canadian judges. I’m not sure how to answer that question though, other than to point out the obvious fact that similarities, or lack thereof, between Canada’s constitutional texts and those of another jurisdiction’s constitution ought to matter in assessing the interest that jurisdiction’s law can have for Canadian judges. But choosing, or appearing to choose, only a few jurisdictions favourable to one’s inclinations, or giving a partial picutre of their law so as to bolster one’s conclusions, or both, is not good enough.

Comparative law has a place in constitutional adjudication in Canada. However, this place should be limited, and carefully circumscribed. The fact that some other countries limit the rights of their citizens in a particular way does not, by itself, mean that it is appropriate for a Canadian government to limit the rights of Canadians likewise. Moreover, we must be sure of understanding foreign law before invoking it in support of the limitation of our constitutional rights. The Frank dissent, ought to serve as a warning in this regard.

One last point. The strong disagreement about the role of comparative law between the majority and the dissent in Frank helps us think through important questions that are relevant in a variety of constitutional cases. It is a reminder, in the face of some recent grumblings, that allowing debates among judges to be publicly aired enriches our law and improves it.

Doré Adrift

Why the Supreme Court’s approach to the Charter in the context of administrative law fails to live up to its promises

When Dunsmuir came out, I was in the middle of taking administrative law in law school.  Our class had spent hours learning about “patent unreasonableness”.  But when Dunsmuir abolished it, the professor was faced with a dilemma for the exam: forget patent unreasonableness or pretend that Dunsmuir never happened?

While our professor chose the latter, I imagine admin law professors hope the recent reconsideration of Dunsmuir cases in Bell/Vavilov/NFL (the “trilogy”) will be not be decided during the semester.  While Dunsmuir itself appears to have had a shelf life of about a decade, Doré v Barreau du Quebec, 2012 SCC 12 is approaching the seven year itch. Doré, of course, changed how Courts decide whether government actors violate the Charter. Doré seems safe for now, even as the amici curiae in the trilogy wish to rework it.  But given the lack of longevity to administrative law decisions and its many critics, there is an increasing sense that Doré could (or should) soon belong to the growing graveyard of administrative law jurisprudence.

But offering a eulogy would be premature.  Instead, enough time has passed to conclude that, thus far, Doré and its progeny have disappointed based on the very implicit promises and rationale contained in Doré itself.

Doré’s Path

As many readers are aware, the 2012 decision in Doré abandoned Oakes formal multi-stage proportionality test for assessing whether government action and actors (i.e., tribunals and other government delegates) comply with the Charter.  The Oakes test was the test used by the Supreme Court between the 1989 decision in Slaight and Multani in 2006.  Doré has since been followed by the Court in Loyola (2015) and the twin TWU decisions (2018). Oakes still applies to reviewing the constitutionality of legislation.

Under an Oakes review, a Court first assesses whether a government decision limited the Charter in the first place.  If so, it moves to the second step where the state has the onus to prove:

  • the government’s objective is pressing and substantial;
  • the decision is rationally connected to the objective(s);
  • the decision minimally impairs the affected rights; and
  • there is proportionality between the decision’s benefits and harmful effects. 

For all of Oakesshortcomings, it was applied rather rigorously in the recent Canadian citizenship case and has been hailed by the UK Supreme Court as the “clearest and most influential judicial analysis of proportionality within the common law tradition of legal reasoning”.

Doré explicitly abandoned Oakes’ formal two-step approach in favour of a global assessment of whether:

“given the nature of the decision and the statutory and factual contexts, the decision reflects a proportionate balancing of the Charter protections at play” (para. 57).   

This loosely structured test is Doré’s “administrative law” approach to judicially reviewing government action.  Whereas the state has the onus to justify itself at each stage of Oakes, everything is “put on the scales” at once under Doré’s “more flexible” approach (paras. 36-37). 

Doré brought “Dunsmuir deference” to decision-makers’ decisions on Charter issues (paras. 36, 54-56; TWU, para. 79).  According to Dunsmuir, deference in judicially reviewing government action means that “courts will give due consideration to the determinations of decision makers” (para. 49) in deciding whether a decision “falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes” on a standard of reasonableness (para. 47).  In other words, a court will defer to a decision maker unless their decision is shown to be unreasonable and outside this acceptable range.  The alternative standard, correctness, means a court will take its own independent analysis of a decision, as it does with an Oakes review, and substitute its own view.

Doré’s Promises

Doré offered rationale and a number of promises to justify the break from Oakes.  This is a scorecard of how they have subsequently turned out:

1.The Expertise of Decision-makers.  The rationale in Doré for deferring to decision-makers on Charter issues is that, by virtue of their “expertise and specialization”, they will “generally” be in the best position to consider the Charteron the specific facts of the case” (paras. 47, 54; TWU, para. 79 (“typically”).  This suggests that some decisions don’t deserve deference. But this doesn’t appear to have held true.

One may have thought that the facts in TWU would challenge the supposed “distinct advantage that administrative bodies have in applying the Charter” (Doré, para. 48).  That is because in TWU, the administrative body applying the Charter, the Law Society of BC (“LSBC”), made its decision to bar TWU graduates from practicing law solely because of a popular vote of its membership.  This membership is what Chief Justice Bauman of the BC Court of Appeal facetiously referred to in oral argument as “the largest tribunal in British Columbia”.  While this decision was under judicial review, the LSBC itself conceded in its written submissions and in oral argument before the BCCA that the membership effectively made the decision.  Indeed, the referendum itself said the membership’s decision “will be binding and will be implemented by the Benchers”.  The lower courts unsurprisingly found this to be fettering by the LSBC “abdicating” its statutory duties. 

On this factual background, the dissenters in TWU, Justices Brown and Côté, sensibly stated that the “LSBC membership could never, through means of a referendum, engage in the balancing process required by Doré” (para. 298). However, the majority of the Supreme Court were forced to downplay the membership vote as being mere “guidance or support” (para. 50) in order to defer to LSBC’s “institutional expertise” (para. 50) and by extension the rationale for deference in Doré

But what kind of expertise did the majority require of the LSBC to justify any deference to it?  Surprisingly, the majority said the LSBC only had to be “alive to the [Charter] issues” (paras. 51-56).  Being “alive” suggests, perhaps, that deference is deserved for decision-makers who don’t drop dead before rendering a decision.

In assessing the rationale for deference in Doré, one must critically consider: what “expertise” and “specialization” did the membership of the LSBC bring?  Or the Benchers, who merely adopted the membership’s will?  Remarkably, the majority in TWU still deferred to the LSBC in spite of the LSBC urging the Supreme Court of Canada not to defer to them and apply a correctness standard instead.

In sum, when the rationale for deference is absent – expertise, specialization, and proximity of the facts to the Charter – deference still apparently applies in a Doré review.  It may be time to reconsider this.

2.Doctrinal Coherence.  One justification for discarding the Oakes framework established in Slaight was that Doré would lay down a new, solid legal foundation on which to construct coherent doctrine (paras. 35-39).  Doré itself said its administrative law approach was employed in cases such as Baker and TWU (2001).

If Doré’s goal was “to start from ground zero in building coherence in public law”, as the decision itself suggested (para. 34), the commentary on Doré cast significant doubt on its methodology and doctrine (calling E.T. v. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and Justice Stratas).  Almost seven years later, we still don’t know the basics about applying Doré in practice.  The majority of the Court has remained silent on a litany of criticisms of Doré (see point #4 below) – including ones made by members of the Court itself – having to do with the distinction between Charter values and Charter rights, the absence of the “prescribed by law” requirement in s. 1 of the Charter, and the identification of who bears the onus to prove proportionality under Doré.  (an interesting fact is that the Attorney General of Canada argued in the lower level courts in BC that the LSBC decision could not pass the “prescribed by law” requirement).

And while Doré suggests a court defer to a decision-maker’s own identification of the relevant statutory objective against the Charter (paras. 55-57), that approach was not followed in Loyola and TWU.  This departure has never been explained. The lack of clarity and consistency that Doré was supposed to remedy have caused new frustrations for lawyers and judges alike (again, see #4 below). 

I will add two thoughts.  First, a Doré review seems doctrinally flawed that a Court would defer to the state on whether the state has properly balanced the relevant Charter protections.  Why should the state get the first crack in deciding whether its own actions violate the Charter?  This deference gives the state a distinct advantage over Canadians whose rights are limited by effectively putting the onus on applicants to prove why the state is not owed deference (i.e., why it did not balance the Charter properly). This effectively reverses the onus in Oakes and deprives the Charter of its overarching purpose as a shield against the state. 

One wonders whether there is a principled limit to this reasoning.  If a government delegate is accorded deference to their decision, because of their “expertise and specialization” and familiarity with the Charter (Doré, para. 47), why should this not, in principle, extend to discretionary decisions of other government actors with expertise and specialization such as police officers or border agents whose actions are currently reviewed according to objective tests?  What is the principled reason that they are not afforded deference when the Court decides whether a detention violates s. 9 of the Charter, or their search engages s. 8 of the Charter, which protects against “unreasonable” searches? 

If the scenario seems absurd, consider that courts in BC have directly reviewed police decisions in issuing roadside prohibitions under Dunsmuir deference (!!).  If a Charter issue arose in such a case, “Doré deference” to the police officer’s decision would presumably apply.  In this way, Doré review could potentially erode Charter protections in contexts likely not anticipated by Doré.

Second, taking that dichotomy further, if legislative decisions by decision-makers are reviewed for Charter compliance under the test in Doré, as suggested by the majority in TWU (i.e., the LSBC benchers) (para. 54), what is the principled reason for utilizing Oakes, and not Doré, to review the constitutionality of legislation? 

If the answer is that rules of general application like legislation and regulations should be assessed under the more stringent Oakes standard, this has problematic consequences for the way government operates. The existence of Doré review for government actions means the government has an incentive to structure their power to confer broad discretion to govern opaquely by action, not regulations, so that those actions are reviewed under the deferential Doré review, rather than with the more stringent justification demanded by Oakes.  In other words, the mere existence of a Doré review provides an incentive for the state to provide its actors with Doré deference rather than an Oakes review (e.g., direct judicial review of the police issuing roadside prohibitions).

The different levels of Charter protection Canadians have against government actors means there is a hierarchy of rights protection depending on the identity of the state actor.  It also means there are increasing ways for the state to exploit that hierarchy as there is little incentive for the state to govern transparently or decision-makers to provide reasons when it can deferentially operate under an administrative apparatus free from an Oakes review.

3.An administrative law approach to the Charter should prevail.  This was the main promise of Doré: that Courts “embrace a richer conception of administrative law” by allowing a flexible approach that would be “nurtured” by the Charter (paras. 27-29, 37, 47).

Doré itself was criticised for failing to apply administrative law to critically engage in the reasons of the decision-maker. In Loyola, the Court moved back towards Oakes. It clarified that the Doré test incorporated the minimal impairment test (paras. 4, 41).  In practice, however, the government in Loyola failed the pressing and substantial/rational connection stages in Oakes (without referring to Oakes) in concluding that the decision failed to advance the ERC Program’s objectives in any significant way (paras. 6, 68, 148, 159).   The majority of the Court mystifyingly ignored applying Doré altogether in Saguenay, Justice Counsel, and Ktunaxa.

In TWU, and without citing a single case on the concept, the majority appeared to undermine the well-settled administrative law prohibition of fettering to achieve its result.  The administrative law professor must wonder: what does fettering mean anymore in light of TWU? (If you are one such professor, I would be keen to hear your thoughts). On the other hand, the majority in TWU borrowed from some of its recent administrative law decisions, while ignoring others, to justify the LSBC’s failure to provide reasons and provide post-facto justifications for its decision. 

And as noted by Mark Mancini, the simplicity of Doré was complicated by the subsequent decisions in Loyola, Ktunaxa,and TWU by introducing the threshold question of Oakes as to whether the Charter is limited in the first place. While this is a welcome development, the return of the two stage limitation/justification assessment is another shift toward Oakes (Doré, para. 29).

If practice makes perfect, the applications (or lack thereof) of Doré in Loyola, Saguenay, and TWU are underwhelming in terms of modelling an approach to judges and lawyers that infuses administrative law principles into its decisions.  The more Doré is applied, the more it is applied in a complicated manner.  The touted “flexibility” of Doré can be used to incorporate administrative law in theory, but it can also legitimize judicial preferences in practice.

4.Using Oakes for Administrative Law was Consistently CriticizedDoré justified abandoning Oakes because a few academics were “concerned” by Slaight, and academics were allegedly “consistently critical” of Multani, the last SCC decision that applied Oakes (paras. 27, 33-34). 

By comparison to Multani, Doré’s critics are legion.  In a similar six year time period, Doré has sustained an avalanche of academic criticism easily eclipsing Multani’s use of Oakes. Doré was mentioned unfavourably more than any other Supreme Court of Canada decision in Double Aspect’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” symposium (here, here, here, and here).  Doré been the subject of surprisingly candid criticism from appellate court judges.  In the twin TWU cases, four justices expressed concerns with Doré in response to TWU’s calls to fix Doré.  Justices Brown and Côté offered the stinging criticism that Doré “betrays the promise of our Constitution” (para. 266). 

To use a football analogy, will the Court continue to call seemingly ineffective passing plays when the crowd is screaming for them to run the ball?  Perhaps not, but with each passing decision of the Court, Doré’s critics are growing louder.

Conclusion

Judged on its own terms, Doré is struggling to achieve its vision.  This vision, however, comes at a cost to ordinary Canadians whose rights may be limited.  Given the never-ending construction project that is administrative law in Canada, practitioners “are placed in an impossible situation”.  The lack of clarity, varying simplicity, and unpredictability in a Doré review means lawyers are unable to effectively advise clients because they must speculate as to the possible outcome. Clients are left with uncertainty. If Doré stays on life-support, one wonders: who is being served by keeping Doré alive?

Doing Right on Rights

Why the Supreme Court was right to find the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad unconstitutional

In my last post, I summarized the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions delivered in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, which held that the denial of the franchise to Canadians who have resided outside the country for more than five years is unconstitutional. As noted there, I believe that the majority, whose opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Wagner was correct so to hold. In this post, I explain why, and also make some observations about the strongly-worded dissent by Justices Côté and Brown. To make my biases clear once again, I remind readers that I am a Canadian abroad myself, and have been for six of the past eight years. While I vote rarely and reluctantly, I am emotionally invested in the issue of whether my right to do so can be taken away. Feel free to discount the following accordingly.


While I am the subject of emotions, let me say this. Justices Côté and Brown assert that the denial of the right to vote to Canadians abroad “is not a distinction based on moral worth”. [168] By my lights, that’s precisely what it is. On their own view, it is the product of “normative conceptions of what the Canadian political community is, and how it can best be protected and made to flourish”. [139] The conception embraced by Parliament in enacting the provisions invalidated in Frank sees the Canadian political community as excluding Canadians abroad, who are consequently less worthy of the franchise. Indeed, they are, according to the dissent, a threat from which the community must be protected, since it is “unfair to Canadian residents for their lawmakers to be elected by long-term non-residents who have no connection of any currency to their electoral district”. [153]

This is utterly wrong. As the Chief Justice rightly observes, many Canadians who live abroad maintain strong ties with Canada (and, I would add, often with the local community where they used to live and, in many cases, intend to return). As the Chief Justice also says, “[c]onversely, there may be citizens who have never left Canada but whose subjective commitment to the country is much weaker and who are less well versed in local issues”. [68] Indeed, though it would be impolitic for a judge to say so, “may be” in this sentence should read “obviously are”. As, for example, Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan respectively have shown, voters are both ignorant and irrational ― rationally so, but ignorant and irrational all the same. Yet we would not generally accept disenfranchising voters on that basis; we do not inquire into the degree of connection a voter has with his or her local community, or the country, before issuing him or her a ballot paper. It is only, it seems, in the case of expatriates that these things actually matter. To me, this is strong evidence that what is at work here is not really a concern with the fairness or integrity of Canada’s electoral system, but a judgment, or rather prejudice, about the moral worth of those Canadians who are taken to have left the community, and must “rejoin[]” [153] before being allowed to take part in the community’s affairs.

Now, it is true that most Canadians abroad do not, in fact, go to the hassle and the expense of requesting a special ballot and returning it to Elections Canada. This means, of course, that the idea of non-resident voters swamping elections and deciding them at the expense of residents is far-fetched if not entirely implausible. But more importantly, as the Chief Justice points out, this means that those who do take the trouble value their involvement in Canada’s political life ― probably more so than a great many of their resident fellow-citizens. In the Chief Justice’s words, they “demonstrate[] a profound attachment to Canada”, [75] and it seems absurd to pretend otherwise on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.


This brings me to another issue: that of the correct approach to deciding whether legislation is unconstitutional because it unjustifiably contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justices Côté and Brown issue what they regard as a profound challenge to the way we not only discuss but also think about the relationship between Charter rights and policies that interfere with them. They note that it is commonplace to speak of such policies as “infringing” or even “violating” rights, only for these “infringements” or “violations” to be upheld, or “saved” by applying section 1 of the Charter. Yet, as they further point out, section 1 provides that the Charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” ― limits, not infringements or violations. So we should stop talking about justified infringements, and talk about limits instead. The majority is not interested, observing that the words “limits” and “infringements” have long been used interchangeably. (The Chief Justice is probably too polite to note this, but I am not: Justices Côté and Brown themselves spoke in terms of “infringement” as recently as seven months ago, in their excellent dissent in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.)

I take the dissent’s textual point. The word section 1 uses is “limits”, and it arguably makes more sense to say that the state can justifiably limit rights, not that it can violate them. But I fail to see what great change to the way we actually think about rights and scrutinize the state’s possible interference with them follows from this. Contrary to some, indeed quite a few, of the participants in this blog’s recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium, Justices Côté and Brown show no interest in reconsidering the test for verifying the permissibility of limitations on rights that was first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. They apply the same proportionality analysis, warts, subjectivity, and all, under the label of assessing the “limit” on the right to vote as the majority does when considering “infringement” of this right. They have much to say about the fact that the right to vote is a “positive” one, requiring legislation to “breathe[] life into” it, [142] but that it is true of many of the rights the Charter protects (notably, but by no means only, the various rights of criminal suspects and accused) and, more importantly, it simply does not follow that the legislation that “breathes life into the right” may not fail to do so to a constitutionally required standard. (Similarly, Justices Côté and Brown point out that the legislation imposing a five-year expiry period on expatriates’ franchise replaced that which gave no expatriates the vote. So what? The test of constitutionality is not whether Parliament comes closer to respecting the Charter than it once did, but whether it respects the Charter now.)

The real methodological disagreement between the dissent and the majority (as well as Justice Rowe’s concurrence) has to do with the level of deference each accords Parliament. The majority insists, at the outset, that “[a]ny limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification”. [1] Although, as noted in yesterday’s post, it later wavers a little on this point, its approach is, indeed, one that refuses to take the government’s claims about the need for or usefulness of the legislation it examines on faith. By contrast, the dissent waxes deferential, “eschews rigid and technical application” [124] ― it’s not quite clear of what, but presumably of the justification requirements ―, and plays up “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”. [126]

Yet here the dissenters’ professed textualism fails them. To repeat, section 1 of the Charter says that “only such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (emphasis mine) can be countenanced. The constitutional text, therefore, requires a demonstration ― not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best. And this requirement, in turn, suggests that contrary to what Justices Côté and Brown say Charter rights can only be limited in order to deal with an identifiable problem, to address some specified mischief, and not merely because a legislature thinks that in an ideal political community these rights would be limited in this way. The enactment of the Charter, as a law superior to ordinary legislation, has taken that moral judgment out of the Canadian legislatures’ hands. (To be clear, this is a separate question from that of the permissibility of what used to be called “morals legislation”, which proscribes what the legislature sees as immoral behaviour, such as taking drugs. There is no argument that expatriates act immorally by voting.)

In short, by all means, let’s be careful with our language, and speak of reasonable limits on rights instead justified violations. But let’s also insist that limitations on rights, to qualify as reasonable, must be ones whose justification is capable of being demonstrated, rather than merely asserted, and is in fact demonstrated, rather than taken for granted. Indeed, I think that this substantive concern is rather more important than the semantic one. In Frank, it is the majority, not the dissent, that follows an approach that is closer to that required by the constitution.


In my view, the majority decided Frank more or less as it should have. It correctly insisted that any exclusion from the franchise except the one based on citizenship must be justified. Contrary to the dissent’s strident warnings, it does not follow that no exclusions could ever treated as reasonable limits ― only that the justification process for upholding these limits cannot be elided by saying that some limits on the right to vote must obviously be admissible. This goes even for the denial of the right to vote minors (which, as Ilya Somin, for example, has argued, is not as self-evidently reasonable as the dissenters would like us to think). I think that it would be quite easy to sustain the disenfranchisement of three-year-olds, the dissent’s scaremongering example, should anyone challenge it; but as for the denial of the vote to teenagers, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the governments put through their justificatory paces.

The majority is also right to be skeptical of the government’s arguments based on an ill-defined “social contract” of which expatriates are allegedly no part. I’m not too impressed with the Chief Justice’s definition of Parliament’s objective in terms of “fairness” ― fairness is too capacious a word for my liking, and the dissent’s suggestion that Parliament was pursuing a currency of relationship between the voter and his or her community seems closer to the mark. But one should also acknowledge that objectives that are largely symbolic (or, as Justices Côté and Brown see it, moral) do not lend themselves to easy definition, and so inevitably compromise the quality of the Charter analysis. The majority’s skepticism about the existence of a rational connection between the objective of fairness and disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is also warranted. Indeed, I would have liked the Chief Justice to have been bold enough to say that, given both the possibility that expatriates maintain current links with Canada and their Canadian communities, and the lack of any assessment of whether any other voters do so, disenfranchising expatriates alone based on their deemed lack of connection to Canada is actually irrational. But the Chief Justice is not the first judge not to want to go there.

I’ll live with that, because the Chief Justice ends up making the right arguments at the “minimal impairment” stage of the analysis. Like I had in criticizing the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in this case, he points out that Canadians abroad can and do maintain close links with Canada; that they are affected by Canadian laws and government policies; that, moreover, “Parliament can change laws on its own initiative and thus alter the extent to which Canadian legislation applies to non-resident citizens”, [72] so that one cannot invoke the limited scope of current extra-territorial legislation to deny expatriates the vote ― I had called this “let[ting] the statutory tail wag the constitutional dog”; and that in any event “attempting to tailor Charter rights to the extent to which citizens are burdened, or not burdened, by Canadian laws would be an impossible exercise”. [71] If all this is not enough to qualify the disenfranchisement of expatriates as irrational, than it certainly suffices, as the Chief Justice says, to show that it is grossly overbroad, and not “minimally impairing” of the right to vote.

The Chief Justice’s reasons are not perfect. He does, as the dissent points out, get somewhat carried away in patriotic praise for the Canadian democracy, and there are shades of what I’ve been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” in his claim that “a broad interpretation of” the Charter‘s guarantee of the right to vote “enhances the quality of our democracy and strengthens the values on which our free and democratic state is premised”. [27] Constitutional interpretation must aim at ascertaining the text’s meaning, not at strengthening values or anything of the sort. Still, what the Chief Justice’s opinion for the majority does is substantially in line with the constitutional text, despite its rhetorical imperfections. (And still on the subject of rhetoric, or style: can someone please ask the Chief Justice and his colleagues to stop using the initialism “AGC”? It is a recent innovation ― the Court hadn’t done it at all before 2010 ― and not a good one. It is ugly and has a jargon-y feel that is quite at odds with the Chief Justice’s stated desire to make the Court’s work more accessible, including to laypersons.) But as majority opinions of Supreme Court have gone in the last few years, the one in Frank is up there with the best.


The Supreme Court has held that Canadians who live abroad cannot be disenfranchised based on, in effect, stereotypes about their lack of relationship with their home country. This is a relief. In doing so, it has insisted on carefully and critically examining the government’s claimed reasons for limiting Charter rights, and this is a good thing too, one that doesn’t happen often enough. There is something to learn from the dissenting opinion, too, about our constitutional vocabulary, and I hope that this lesson is not lost just because the substance of that opinion is bitterly disappointing. But the constitution was upheld in Frank, and so right was done. May 2019 bring more of that.

“A Profound Attachment”

The Supreme Court holds that disenfranchising Canadians abroad is unconstitutional

Yesterday, the Supreme Court at last delivered its judgment on the constitutionality of disenfranchising Canadians abroad, Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1. By five votes to two, the Court holds that disenfranchisement is indeed unconstitutional. This is, as I have long argued (especially in criticizing the decision to the contrary by the Court of Appeal for Ontario), the right result. Full disclosure, in case this is necessary: I am myself a Canadian abroad, and while I would not have been disenfranchised at the coming election under the rules the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, and am only an occasional and reluctant voter anyway, I am emotionally invested in this issue.

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” The Canada Elections Act sets out the details of how this right can be exercised ― and denies it to some groups of citizens. One of these disenfranchised groups consists of Canadians who have not resided in Canada for more than five years, although those who are representatives of a Canadian government or members of the Canadian forces, as well as members of such persons’ families, are not subject to disenfranchisement.

The government conceded that denying their right to vote breached section 3 of the Charter, but contended that the breach was justified as a reasonable limit authorized by the Charter‘s section 1. The majority ― Chief Justice Wagner (who wrote the majority opinion) and Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Gascon ―, as well as Justice Rowe, who concurs, reject this view. In dissent, Justices Côté and Brown say that the denial of the franchise to Canadians abroad is justified.


Relying on the Court’s decision in Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which invalidated the disenfranchisement of long-term prisoners, the Chief Justice writes that the right to vote must be given a “broad and purposive interpretation”, and “any intrusions on [it] are to be reviewed on the basis of a stringent justification standard”. [25] The Chief Justice rejects deference to Parliament, insisting that “reviewing courts must examine the government’s proffered justification carefully and rigorously”. [43] Unlike in cases that involve “complex” or “nuanced” choices among competing priorities, deference “is not the appropriate posture for a court reviewing an absolute prohibition of a core democratic right”. [44] Later, however, when considering whether the prohibition is “minimally impairing” of the right, the Chief Justice grants that “some deference must be accorded to the legislature by giving it a certain latitude”. [66]

As for residency requirements for voting, they are “an organizing mechanism”, “an important device” [28] that helps structure our electoral system, but have no constitutional value in themselves: “In clear language, the Charter tethers voting rights to citizenship, and citizenship alone.” [29] In any case, there already are Canadian citizens who are allowed to vote from abroad, suggesting that residence within cannot be an implicit pre-condition for having the right to vote.

Applying the test for the justification of Charter infringements set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103, the Chief Justice begins by rejecting the idea, accepted by the Ontario Court of Appeal, that “preserving the social contract” whereby citizens’ obedience to laws is exchanged for a say in making them as a pressing and substantial objective capable of justifying the infringement of rights. While Sauvé had invoked the language of social contract theory, correctly understood, it stands for the proposition “that deeming that a citizen has ‘withdrawn’ from the social contract is not a legitimate basis for denying him or her the right to vote”. [52] However, the Chief Justice accepts that “maintaining the fairness of the electoral system to resident Canadians”, [55] which he seems to interpret by focusing on the existence of a connection between voters and the Canadian polity, is an important governmental objective.

At the second stage of the Oakes test, Justice Wagner finds that the government “has not definitively shown that a limit of any duration” on the ability of Canadians to vote from abroad “would be rationally connected to the electoral fairness objective advanced in this case”, [60; emphasis in the original] but declines to reach a firm conclusion. He argues, however, that neither the existence of residence requirements for voting in provincial elections nor the prevalence of such requirements abroad make their imposition by Parliament rational, and observers that “there is no evidence of the harm that these voting restrictions are meant to address”, [63] or even any complaints about those non-resident citizens who already are able to vote.

As often, it is the next stage, originally described as that of “minimal impairment” although the word “minimal” has not been taken literally, that is crucial. The Chief Justice finds that disenfranchising Canadians after five years abroad, “[f]ar from being a measure that is carefully tailored so as to impair voting rights no more than is reasonably necessary, … seems to have been simply a ‘middle-of-the-road’ compromise”. [67] There is no “correlation between, on the one hand, how long a Canadian citizen has lived abroad and when he or she intends to return and, on the other hand, the extent of his or her subjective commitment to Canada”. [68] Indeed, whether the issue is knowledge of and commitment to Canada, the impact of Canadian laws on a given voter, many Canadians abroad will be better qualified as voters than those residing in the country. Chief Justice Wagner concludes by noting that “[a] non-resident citizen who takes the trouble to vote by way of special ballot … has demonstrated a profound attachment to Canada. We have nothing to gain from disenfranchising such citizens.” [75] In the same vein, he notes that any positive effects of this disenfranchisement are speculative, while the negative impact on those disenfranchised is real and present.


Justice Rowe agrees that disenfranchising Canadians who live abroad is unjustified, but writes separately to emphasize the “significance and centrality of residence to our system of representative democracy”. [84] He details the history of residency requirements in Canadian election legislation (including the slow expansion of voting rights for Canadians abroad), and pointedly rebukes the majority by claiming that “residence has been historically and remains today more than just an ‘organizing mechanism’. It is foundational to our system”. [90] As a result, Justice Rowe says, while “[s]ection 3 [of the Charter] protects the right to vote … it does not follow as a corollary that there is a right to vote in the constituency or province of one’s choosing”. [91] Provincial and territorial residency requirements, in particular, would be subject to different considerations than federal ones (including because provincial laws are more local in nature and applicability than federal ones).

Whatever might be justifiable in other cases, however, Justice Rowe concludes that the disenfranchisement of long-term expatriates is not. He accepts that it pursues the objective of electoral fairness, although he notes that fairness for resident citizens is being pursued at the expense of non-residents. Justice Rowe also accepts that fairness can reasonably be pursued by preventing “those who are largely unaffected (non-residents) [from] participating in decisions that would affect others (residents)”. [103] Passing over the question of whether the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is minimally impairing of their right to vote, he moves on to the balancing of its salutary and deleterious effects. The former, he finds, are “negligible”, [106] since very few expatriates actually vote. The latter are not. Expatriates who are disenfranchised “may not feel the local consequences of particular federal policies in the constituencies in which their votes would be counted, [but] they stand nonetheless to be affected by certain federal laws and policies, perhaps in life altering ways”. [107] As a result, the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is not justified.


Justices Côté and Brown dissent. They not only disagree with the outcome reached by the majority and Justice Rowe, but want to approach the issue quite differently. They stress that the right to vote “is a positive right which, unlike most Charter rights, requires legislative specification in order for the right to be operative”, [113; emphasis in the original] so that the denial of the franchise to expatriates is not the product of legislative action, but of a “failure to extend the right to vote” to them. [128] This right is also not absolute: “Nobody suggests that s[ection] 3 entitles three-year-old Canadian citizens to vote.” [114] Indeed, they deny that the legislative provisions at issue “disenfranchise” long-term expatriates, since they had not been allowed prior to these provisions’ enactment, or ever. They also accuse the majority (and, implicitly, any number of past judgments) of “distort[ing] the limitations analysis” [120] by speaking of a “breach” or “infringement” of the right to vote rather than of a “limitation” on this right, as the terms of section 1 of the Charter would suggest. (A breach, they insist, is caused by a limitation that is not justified.)

Thus the real question, Justice Côté and Brown argue, is whether the long-term expatriates’ right to vote has been reasonably limited. The way to answer this question is to apply the Oakes test. However, while they make a point of agreeing with the majority that the burden of justification under this test rests on the government, Justices Côté and Brown insist, citing the dissenting opinion in Sauvé (without acknowledging that they are relying on the dissent) on “a ‘flexible contextual approach’ … one that eschews rigid and technical application”. [124, citing Sauvé at [84]] They also argue that it is wrong to look for “a concrete problem or mischief” that rights-limiting legislation is meant to address, because it is “undeniable … that Parliament can constitutionally legislate in pursuit of, or in response to, considerations of political morality or philosophy”. [126] There is “moral nuance inherent in defining and defending the boundaries of rights — that is, in justifying rights limitations” — and, like “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”, it must be “afford[ed] due respect”. [126]

Justices Côté and Brown define Parliament’s objective as “privileg[ing] a relationship of some currency between electors and the communities in which they are eligible to vote”. [132] (In doing so, they spend four extensive paragraphs cautioning against reliance on statements by individual legislators during the course of parliamentary debate… and conclude by pointing to statements that support their understanding of the objective.) This objective “is clearly inspired by a particular moral philosophical understanding of the relationship between citizen and state in a democracy”. [140] Indeed, electoral “legislation is never designed to solve a problem or address a particular mischief. Rather, it breathes life into the right [to vote] so that it may be recognized and exercised.” [142] While limitations on the right to vote require justification, Justices Côté and Brown attack the majority for considering that, other than citizenship, “all other specifications [of this right] are necessarily unconstitutional”. [142] Justices Côté and Brown note that other groups are excluded from the franchise ― they mention citizens who have never resided in Canada and minors ― and argue that these exclusions too must be regarded as examples of Parliament’s permissible pursuit of philosophical objectives. Indeed, they say, majorities in Sauvé and here have acted in furtherance of philosophical views of their own.

Ultimately, ensuring a current relationship between voters and their communities is a pressing and substantial objective because it “ensures reciprocity between exercising the right to vote and bearing the burden of Canadian laws” [152] and “protects the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, which is founded on geographical representation”. [153] This integrity would be undermined by allowing people to vote in constituencies with which they lack a community of interest.

Justices Côté and Brown also consider that the limitation of the right to vote from abroad to those citizens who have not been outside Canada for more than five years is reasonable and therefore proportionate to Parliament’s objective. They insist that, under the majority’s reasoning, no time limit on voting rights could be upheld, including for provincial elections. They add that the majority is wrong to ignore the treatment of expatriates’ voting rights by New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom: “the majority’s patriotism risks descending into exceptionalism”, and blinding it to “some lessons” that “Canada would well have taken … from other countries” [166] (or at any rate from New Zealand, which enfranchised its aboriginal people and women well before Canada did). Indeed, the majority’s position is “highly political, rhetorical”, and “in tension with the majority’s own invocation of internationalism and of a ‘globalized’ world of connectivity and communication”. [167] As for the effects of the legislation, the deleterious ones are minimized since the denial of expatriates’ voting rights “is not … based on moral worth”, [168] while the salutary ones ― which consist in the attainment of Parliament’s objectives ― are considerable.


As I noted at the outset, I believe that the majority is correct (though Justice Rowe makes some valuable points about provinces and territories). The dissent, I confess, perplexes me. But this post is much too long as it is. I shall publish my comment separately ― and quickly, I hope.

Not This Way

The trouble with a proposal for “a Canadian originalism”

In a recent C2C Journal article, Benjamin L. Woodfinden offers thoughts on “How to Take Back the Charter” ― that is, on how to make its interpretation and application palatable to those who do not share the fashionable view of “the Supreme Court as a guardian council of philosopher-kings (and queens) guiding Canadians toward a more just society”. I am mostly sympathetic to the impulse that animates the argument, but find Mr. Woodfinden’s proposals puzzling, even troubling.

Addressing himself to (presumably small-c) “conservatives”, Mr. Woodfinden suggests that they “need a judicial philosophy, a coherent, organized, alternative vision with the philosophical and jurisprudential rigor [sic] and institutional capacity to challenge the vision” of the Supreme Court as arbiter of Canada’s values. (Mr. Woodfinden singles out Justice Abella for particular criticism in this regard, and I have no quarrel with that.) And, to implement this vision, Mr. Woodfinden says, it is necessary to “nurture some alternative voices and promote their ascent through the legal community and onto our courts”, undertaking in Canada the work that the Federalist Society has been carrying out for decades in the United States.

Substantively, Mr. Woodfinden’s proposed alternative ― which he calls “a Canadian originalism” ― is a blend of nostalgia for the good old pre-Charter days, the “glorious tradition of parliamentary government” on which “[t]he Charter was in some ways an artificial imposition”, and an almost equally antiquated form of “old” originalism. Mr. Woodfinden attaches great weight to the intentions of the framers of the Charter, as well as well as their expectations of what the Charter would, or at least would not, be taken to mean. Even as he ruefully says that preaching judicial restraint is no longer enough, he admonishes us that “the Charter’s framers did not intend to give free rein to activist judges”, and denounces those judges who “read new rights into the Charter”. Judges ought to “understand that when the law is silent, courts should be silent”, and not endeavour to make the world a better place through their decisions.

Again, I have sympathy for some of these claims. I once criticized the late and unlamented Conservative government for failing to articulate a constitutional vision that would have gone beyond rote appeals to judicial deference to legislatures. I share Mr. Woodfinden distaste for the Supreme Court’s ignoring or re-writing the constitution in such cases as R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15 and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245. I too think that Canada needs strong voices able to articulate an alternative to the dominant view of the relationship between courts, the other branches of government, and the constitution. Indeed, although Mr. Woodfinden says nary a word of this, I think that organizations such as the Runnymede Society and Advocates for the Rule of Law, to say nothing of this blog, are already hard at work to make this aspiration a reality. If Mr. Woodfinden wants to join our work, I am sure he would be welcome. If he thinks it is somehow deficient, he should let us know.

That said, there is a great deal that I do not agree with in Mr. Woodfinden’s argument. Perhaps that’s just because it’s not really addressed to me. After all, as I have noted here, I am not a conservative. Indeed, I take it that in Mr. Woodfinden’s eyes I am an “ally” of the “Court Party”, at least insofar as I share its refusal to regard the ability of legislatures to sidestep court rulings by relying on the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” “as the (democratically elected) legislature’s last line of defence against judicial usurpation”, and rather see it as a standing danger to individual rights. But, because I have no less of an interest in advancing the cause of intellectual diversity within the Canadian bar and bench than conservatives do, I will venture a critique of the way in which Mr. Woodfinden tries to go about it.

First, I think it’s worth pointing out that stories of a lost paradise of Canadian parliamentary sovereignty, away from which we were seduced by Pierre Trudeau and his alien ideas about protecting what Mr. Woodfinden calls “abstract rights”, are myths, not histories. A.V. Dicey, for instance, to whom our thinking about Parliamentary sovereignty still owes so much, argued that, whatever its preamble might say, the then-British North America Act, 1867 really created a constitution similar in principle to that of the United States, not the United Kingdom ― one that limited the powers of legislatures, and would “inevitably” fall to be interpreted by the judiciary. The Canadian Bill of Rights, enacted in 1960 thanks to a Conservative civil libertarian, John Diefenbaker, took a further step out of the orthodox world of Parliamentary sovereignty, by allowing courts to declare inoperative federal statutes that trenched on individual rights. The Charter was a further, and very significant, step in the limitation of legislative power, and the expansion of the judicial one. But it was not a wild leap into the dark.

Second, I do not find Mr. Woodfinden’s original intent originalism-as-the-next-best-thing-to-not-having-a-Charter at all attractive. Original intent originalism has been subject to powerful criticism not only from outside but also from within the originalist camp itself. It gives undue weight to unenacted intentions (insofar as a disparate group of people such as “the framers of the Charter” can even have joint intentions) and expectations, and cannot provide a solid justification for judicial review. At the same time, as Mr. Woodfinden himself acknowledges, it is true that the Charter, like other constitutional provisions, comes with its lot of vagueness (though we can question whether it is “amorphous”, as Mr. Woodfinden claims).

“New” originalism, which seeks to implement the original public meaning of constitutional provisions insofar as it can be determined, but also recognizes the necessity of “construction” ― that is, of a reasoned development of legal doctrines for implementing the constitution’s original meaning ― is a much more plausible approach than one that seeks to deny the legitimacy of any creative role for the judiciary. For this reason, I am actually not nearly troubled by some of the decisions that Mr. Woodfinden criticizes as he is ― notably Carter v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331, which invalidated the across-the-board criminalization of assisted suicide (though I have my reservations about it too). I think it is also worth emphasizing that adherence to the original meaning of the Charter may well result in more, not less, robust enforcement of some of its provisions ― notably section 15, which is not limited to being the anti-discrimination provision of the Supreme Court’s imagining.

To be sure, these are matters of debate. Not all originalists have embraced the “new” originalism that personally find most compelling. But this brings me to a third difficulty I have with Mr. Woodfinden’s proposal. He seems to expect that “conservatives” can and ought to settle on one fairly specific constitutional vision, that will do battle against the approach now dominant in the Canadian legal community. Perhaps this is concern-trolling on my part, since, to repeat, I am not a conservative, but I doubt that this is either possible or desirable. It’s worth recalling that the Federalist Society doesn’t actually take positions on legal issues. Its members largely agree about some things, and vigorously disagree about others. If Mr. Woodfinden really wants an intellectually vibrant and rigorous Canadian legal counterpart, he should not be too quick to declare what it ought to believe. The approach taken by the Runnymede Society ― to serve as a platform for a variety of heterodox voices, conservative and otherwise, strikes me as much more promising.

All that to say, Mr. Woodfinden is right that the Canadian legal discourse could do with an alternative voice ― better yet, alternative voices. The Supreme Court and its enablers in academia and elsewhere in the legal profession too often disregard the constitution, seeing as no more than an imperfect realization of their vision of justice. But Mr. Woodfinden’s way of making that argument leaves me cold. The (exaggerated) reverence for Parliamentary supremacy is not a feeling I share; the (obsolete) deference to the intentions of constitutional framers strikes me as indefensible; and I would rather see lively intellectual debate among a spectrum of positions than a clash of two monolithic constitutional visions. Of course, the way in which a better state of the constitutional discourse can be brought about about should itself be the subject of discussion, and Mr. Woodfinden makes a contribution to this necessary conversation. But it is one from which I must, on some key points, dissent.

Can’t Take It

Can the police seize a computer (without searching it) if only one of its co-owners consents?

In R v Reeves, 2018 SCC 56, delivered last week, the Supreme Court held that section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the right not to be subject to unreasonable search and seizure, prevents the police from seizing (even without searching) a computer located in the common area of a home with the consent of only one, but not the other of the home’s occupiers. As in a number of other search-and-seizure cases, it is Justice Karakatsanis who takes the lead in articulating a narrow view the police powers. Unlike in R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] SCR 621 and R v Saeed, 2016 SCC 24, [2016] 1 SCR 518 she carries a strong majority of her colleagues ― all but one, in fact, on this issue ― with her. And unlike in those two cases, I suspect that Justice Karakatsanis’ pro-privacy disposition has not served her well.

The facts of the case are somewhat quirky. Mr. Reeves had shared a home ― and a computer ― with his common-law spouse, Ms. Gravelle. So far, so ordinary. However, following a family violence incident, Mr. Reeves was barred from being at the home without Ms. Gravelle’s consent, which she eventually withdrew. Still, as a matter of property rights, both the home and the computer were still shared between Mr. Reeves and Ms. Gravelle. Ms. Gravelle also informed the authorities that she had previously found child pornography on the computer. A police officer came, and, with Ms. Gravelle’s consent, he took the computer back to the police station ― where it sat, seemingly of no interest to anyone, for four months, despite the Criminal Code requiring such seizures to be reported to a justice of the peace. Eventually, the police finally concocted a warrant application ― which the trial judge later found to be tendentious and deficient to the point of invalidating the warrant ― and searched the computer, duly finding the child pornography, leading to charges against Mr. Reeves, who argued that the evidence was obtained in violation of his Charter rights and should be excluded.

 There were two possible violations of Mr. Reeves’ rights for the Supreme Court to look into. First, the police officer’s entry into and search of the shared home; second, the seizure of the shared computer. (There was no dispute that the lengthy detention of the computer in violation of the Criminal Code and its search pursuant to a warrant that was subsequently invalidated were constitutionally problematic.) However, for the majority, Justice Karakatsanis does not pronounce on the requirements of the Charter with respect to police entry into a shared home with the consent of only one of its occupiers. She finds that the matter is best left for another time, when it will be more fully argued. Justice Moldaver, in a concurring opinion, agrees that now is not the time to dispose of the question ― and proceeds to lay out a detailed case for why the police have a common law power to enter to speak with one co-occupier of a shared home, while insisting that this argument is only tentative.

For the majority, the case turns on the question of the seizure of the computer. This, in turn, divides into two sub-issues: first, whether Mr. Reeves had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the machine; and second, whether Ms. Gravelle could obviate or waive his rights by consenting to the seizure anyway.

As Justice Karakatsanis explains, “[t]he reasonable expectation of privacy standard is normative, rather than descriptive” [28] ― it is not really about what the person concerned expected his or her privacy rights to be in the circumstances, but about where the balance between privacy and societal interests (in particular, in the investigation and punishment of offences) ought to be struck. In deciding this question, Justice Karakatsanis insists that “the subject matter of the seizure was the computer, and ultimately the data it contained about Reeves’ usage, including the files he accessed, saved and deleted”. [30] Even though, as the Supreme Court previously held, a separate warrant would be required to actually search the data contained in the computer, “Reeves’ informational privacy interests in the computer data were still implicated” [30] because he lost control of it, including the ability to destroy it. The data computers contain can be “highly private” [34], and thus not only the search, but also the mere seizure of “a personal computer from a home” “presumptively require[s]” “specific, prior judicial authorization”. [35] This is so even when the computer is shared and no one individual can expect absolute privacy when using it.

As for a co-occupier of a home consenting to the police seizing a shared computer, it “cannot nullify” [41] an existing reasonable expectation of privacy: “[t]he decision to share with others does not come at such a high price in a free and democratic society”. [44] Those others can report suspicions to the police, but it does not follow that the police can do anything they (the others, that is) consent to. It is not their (the others’) rights that are at stake, after all, and the fact that they too may have rights or privacy expectations over the same object or space is beside the point. As for what the police can do if a person actually brings an object in which another has a reasonable expectation of privacy to them, that “remains for another day”. [46] 

In the event, the majority, as well as Justice Moldaver, conclude that the Charter breaches in this case are serious enough to warrant excluding the evidence found Mr. Reeves’ computer. Justice Côté, in a concurring opinion, agrees with this outcome ― even though, as I am about to explain, she does not think that the seizure of the computer amounted to a Charter breach at all. (The Supreme Court, which only considers outcomes in its statistics, will triumphantly count Reeves as yet another unanimous decision ― yet as Peter McCormick recently explained here, it is a mistake to do so.)

On the key issue of the case ― the application of section 8 of the Charter to shared spaces and objects ― Justice Côté takes an approach that is the opposite of the majority’s. Unlike Justice Karakatsanis, Justice Côté directly addresses the question of whether police can enter shared spaces with the consent of a single occupier ― and answers in the affirmative, albeit with a possible qualification. Justice Côté writes that “it is not objectively reasonable for a cohabitant … to expect to be able to veto another cohabitant’s decision to allow the police to enter any areas of that home that they share equally”. [112] Such a veto would amount to a negation of “consenting cohabitant’s liberty and autonomy interests with respect to those spaces”. [112] It would also “require the police to identify, locate and obtain the consent of every person who lives in the home, or has any expectation of privacy with respect to common areas of the home”, [114] which is likely to be unduly burdensome at best, if not quite impossible. And applying this approach to shared virtual spaces or objects ― say, a text messaging chain ― would produce similarly perverse consequences. Meanwhile, the search of common areas of a shared home is unlikely to produce intrusions into a person’s deepest secrets.

Justice Côté takes a similar approach to the seizure of a shared computer. While acknowledging that searching such a computer would require prior authorization, she argues that the mere seizure consented by one of the computer’s co-users is not a violation of the other co-users’ rights ― and thus disagrees with the majority on this key point. Again, it is not reasonable to expect that a co-user will not allow the authorities to seize a shared computer, and concluding otherwise would deny the co-user’s  autonomy. The context of co-ownership and joint control influences the scope of one’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Furthermore, Justice Côté stresses the fact that only the seizure of the physical object, not the information it contains, is at issue, and reproaches the majority for conflating the two. She also points out that the majority’s approach may well amount to recognizing an expectation of privacy not just in favour of a co-owner of a computer, but also of, say, a guest who used it at some point in the past. Justice Côté adds that of course a co-owner should be able to take a shared computer to the police ― and letting the police take it is no different.

As noted at the outset, I am inclined to think that Justice Karakatsanis has indeed gone too far in protecting privacy here. Justice Côté is right that the majority conflate interests in maintaining control of a physical object and those in ensuring the privacy of the data that this object contains. And it is true that, by effectively granting a veto to each co-user (and perhaps even a past user ― perhaps the majority would distinguish that case, but it is indeed unclear how, and it’s unfortunate that Justice Karakatsanis doesn’t address the point), the majority compromise the autonomy ― and interfere with legitimate interests ― of other co-users. It would, as Justice Côté says, be odd if such people couldn’t take things of which they have legitimate control to the police ― and no less odd if they could not invite the police to take such things.

At the same time, a couple of points bother me about Justice Côté’s reasons. First, she might be too sanguine about the prospect of police not gaining access to particularly private information in common areas of shared dwellings. This may indeed be a reasonable assumption if the people living together are what in North America are misleadingly called) room-mates, and elsewhere, more accurately, flat-mates, who each have a private room. But if they are spouses, or otherwise family members, the distinction between common and private spaces within the shared home may not be drawn with any clarity. Perhaps this does not matter after all, but Justice Côté would have done well to address this issue.

I also am somewhat puzzled by Justice Côté’s references to the odd circumstance that Mr. Reeves had lost access to the theoretically-shared home and computer that were the objects of the police’s interest here. It’s not quite clear how much this fact matters to Justice Côté’s conclusions. I think it’s not particularly significant in her reasoning regarding police entry into a shared dwelling, but on the seizure issue, Justice Côté explicitly says that it is “relevant” that Mr. Reeves “lacked control [of the computer] as a result of his own actions”. [130] Yet not only was this “result” an indirect and unintended, albeit foreseeable one, but, more importantly, one is left in some doubt about how Justice Côté thinks more ordinary cases, where this “relevant” factor will not be present, ought to be decided.

Ultimately, Reeves might not be a very important case. The one issue it actually decides, whether police can seize shared computers with the consent of one but not all of their users, may not recur all that often, insofar as people increasingly use personal laptops, tablets, or smartphones. I don’t actually know if they do, but I suspect that they might. Perhaps its chief interest is in the trends that it confirms: Justice Karakatsanis’ role as the Supreme Court’s leading pro-privacy voice, and Justice Côté’s as its leading independent thinker. On the whole, the Court needs both, even when they disagree, and even in cases where neither is quite right. 

Delusions of Grandeur

Justice Abella sets out a vision of the Supreme Court as arbiter of national values

I didn’t realize that writing op-eds for the media was part of the judicial job description, but apparently it is. There was of course Brett Kavanaugh’s instantly-notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And, ten days ago, Justice Abella followed in now-Justice Kavanaugh’s footsteps, with an op-ed of her own, in the Globe and Mail. The op-ed is an adaptation from a speech given on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Israel; but Justice Abella, presumably, thinks that it deserves a Canadian audience as well as an Israeli one.

Why that ought to be the case, I am not quite sure. Part of the op-ed is meaningless twaddle: we have, Justice Abella tells us, a “national justice context” that is “democratically vibrant and principled”. Part is rank hypocrisy: the Supreme Court’s “only mandate is to protect the rule of law”, says the person who has devoted many a talk to criticizing the very idea of the Rule of Law and arguing that it had to be replaced by something called the rule of justice. Part is rotten grammar: “human rights is [sic] essential to the health of the whole political spectrum” (emphasis removed). But all of it is a self-assured presentation of a role for the judiciary that has nothing to do with the Rule of Law, and this bears commenting on.

Justice Abella begins by proclaiming that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out “a uniquely Canadian justice vision, a vision that took the status quo as the beginning of the conversation, not the answer”. One might be tempted to think that this is a reference to section 33 of the Charter (which, for all its flaws, is indeed “uniquely Canadian”), or at least to some version of the “dialogue theory”, according to which courts and legislatures both participate in the elaboration of constitutional rights. But this would be a mistake. Justice Abella likes her judges “bold”, and her legislatures obedient. The “conversation” to which she refers only involves the members of the Supreme Court.

And while she begins by seemingly conceding that “[t]he Charter both represented and created shared and unifying national values”, Justice Abella then argues that it is the Supreme Court that has developed “a robust new justice consensus for Canada”. It is the Supreme Court that serves as “the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”. (Wait… didn’t the Charter already represent and create shared values? How come these values are, after all, contested?) Fortunately, says Justice Abella, the Canadian public and its elected representatives have fallen into line and followed the Supreme Court’s moral leadership: “[c]riticisms and questions were of course raised, but usually with civility.” If Canada is committed to “pluralism and diversity”, rather than “obliteration of the identities that define us”, that’s because “[a]ll this came from the Supreme Court”, and its teachings were accepted by both “the public” and “the legislatures”.

Hence the empowerment of the Supreme Court, coupled with its independence, is all to the good. “[D]emocracy, Justice Abella insists, “is strengthened in direct proportion to the strength of rights protection and an independent judiciary”. Indeed, the very “humanity” of a country would be imperiled by attacks on judicial power. Hence Justice Abella’s plea in defence of the Supreme Court of Israel, delivered, she says, in her capacity not only “as a judge”, but also “as a citizen of the world”. (I assume Justice Abella has not been shy about criticizing the feebleness of the judiciary in countries like Russia and China, too, though I don’t think she has published op-eds about them. Perhaps she has even criticized the backward ways of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which haven’t seen it fit to remit the adjudication of contested values in their societies to the courts, though I can recall no op-eds on that subject either.)

I have no firm views about whether Canadian judges should go around the world lecturing other countries about how to organize their constitutional arrangements, whether in their capacities as citizens of the world or as public officials. (How many ordinary citizens of the world are, after all, invited to give pompous speeches, and allowed 1200 words of op-ed space in a national newspaper to bring them to hoi polloi?) I do, however, have some thoughts on the substance of Justice Abella’s views regarding the role of the Supreme Court in Canada’s constitutional structure. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already presented his, but my take is somewhat different, so I hope the readers will forgive a measure of repetition.

Mark stresses the fact that, if the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter of national values, it is not at all clear why it should be staffed by judges—that is to say, by former lawyers, who are not trained for or especially good at this task. Why not economists and philosophers instead? Mark writes that

if courts make abstract, political, and resource-intensive value judgments for the society on the whole…—if we have sold the legislature down the river—then they should at least be good at it.

And if the courts are not, after all, to be replaced by philosophical-economic colloquia, that’s probably because what we really want is for judges to stick to law.

I largely agree with this, but there is an additional move in Justice Abella’s argument that Mark does not address: the claim that adjudication by the independent Supreme Court is somehow democratic and that, indeed, democracy is strengthened the more powerful the court is. I think it is a crucial argument. After all, legislatures, which Mark doesn’t want to “sell down the river”, are also staffed by people who tend to have no particular expertise in either economics or philosophy, and who are subject to all manner of perverse incentives to boot. Why should they be making value judgments for society? The generally accepted (which isn’t necessarily to say correct) answer is, because they are democratic institutions. That’s why Justice Abella wants to claim the democratic mantle for the institution that she extols (as do others who make similar arguments).

How successful is the claim? In my view, not very successful at all. It starts from the premise that there is more to democracy than elections. Let us grant that. Still, there are important questions that need answering. What is this “more” that a polity ought to have, beyond periodic elections, to be counted as democratic? Jeremy Waldron would mention things like separation of powers, meaningful bicameralism, and “legislative due process”, rather than judicial review of legislation. Justice Abella doesn’t even consider these possibilities, and thus does not explain why they are not sufficient. She thus does little to justify judicial review of legislation at all, let alone the robust, value-defining version that she favours. Others would add federalism and federalism-based judicial review, but not necessarily the rights-enforcing variety.  And even granting the insufficiency of structural devices to foster and protect genuine democracy, one can doubt whether it is this form of judicial review that we should favour. Aren’t more limited versions, along the lines of John Hart Ely’s “representation reinforcement” or the Carolene Products footnote 4‘s special protection for “discrete and insular minorities”) sufficient? Justice Abella has no answer to this objection either.

Instead, Justice Abella is content to assert that more judicial power is better, including for democracy. Surely, this isn’t necessarily so. Justice Abella herself, and most Canadian lawyers, would likely be horrified at the idea of judicial review enforcing property rights and freedom of contract against democratic majorities. They would insist, as Justice Holmes did in his dissent in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … It is made for people of fundamentally differing views”. (75-76) (The only exception to this, of course, concerns labour unions; fundamentally different views regarding their role in the economy have been read out of the Canadian constitution by the Supreme Court, led by Justice Abella.) On reflection, everyone—including Justice Abella—would agree that the protection of rights by an independent judiciary is not, in fact, always good. At the very least, it matters which rights are protected—and if it is the judiciary that effectively decides this, then it matters how it uses its power to do so.

This brings me to Justice Abella’s most remarkable claim—that it is indeed the Supreme Court that defines not just our constitutional rights, but Canadian values more generally. Mark characterizes this is “judicial supremacy”, but I prefer using this term to mean unyielding judicial control over constitutional meaning (the way Professor Waldron does here, for example). Justice Abella’s ambition is not so limited; she is not content to decide what our supreme law means; she wants to be the ultimate authority on what Canadians believe in. This is shocking stuff. In a free society, there can be no such authority, whether in the Supreme Court or elsewhere. In a free society, one cannot point to the constitution and say, Thatcher-style, “this is what we believe”. Citizens in a free society disagree, including about fundamental values. A constitution is only a judgment, albeit one reached by a super-majority—not, mind you, an actual consensus—about which of these values will be translated into legal constraints that will be imposed on the government until the constitution is amended. The courts’ job is to interpret these legal constraints, as they interpret other law; it is not to dictate “which contested values in a society should triumph”.

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority. It is unfortunate that a person so utterly misguided holds an office with as much power and prestige as that of a Supreme Court judge. Still, as important as this office is, it is less significant than Justice Abella imagines. We remain free to reject the values the Supreme Court would have us subscribe to. When these values amount to uncritical polite deference to philosopher-kings in ermine-collared robes, we have very good reason to do so.