Keeping Time, Time, Time

The Supreme Court changes the meaning of the right to be tried within a reasonable time

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a very important, and fairly radical, decision on the “right … to be tried within a reasonable time,” which paragraph 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “any person charged with an offence.” In R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, a divided Court overturned precedent and introduced presumptive caps on the amount of time that can elapse before a trial no longer takes place “within a reasonable time.” This decision raises significant questions about the judicial role, especially in the face of inaction by other branches of government.

Mr. Jordan, along with a number of others, had been charged with multiple drug offences. His trial concluded a little over four years later, two months of which he spent in prison, and the rest under restrictive bail conditions. The trial judge found that while Mr. Jordan was responsible for four months of that delay, the prosecution was responsible for two more, while the rest ― more than two and a half years ― “was attributable to institutional delay” [15]. However neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal accepted Mr. Jordan’s argument that the delay was an infringement of his rights under par. 11(b) of the Charter.  This was notably so because Mr. Jordan was facing other charges and serving a separate sentence, with conditions more or less equivalent to those of his bail, while waiting for his trial, meaning that his liberty would have been restricted even without the delay in this case.

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The majority opinion, co-written by Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Brown, with whom Justices Abella and Côté concur, treats Mr. Jordan’s case as symptomatic of “a culture of delay and complacency towards it” [29]. The existing rules for the application of par. 11(b), which involved assessing the reasonableness of the delay in a given case in light of its length, causes, and impact on the accused are too complicated and vague, causing “its application [to be] highly unpredictable” [32] and subjective. A focus on the prejudice the delay causes to the accused misses some of the less tangible harms delay produces, not least those to the administration of justice as a whole, and devalues the right to a speedy trial. Finally, the existing rules are “designed not to prevent delay, but only to redress (or not redress) it” [35]. The “culture of delay” must change,

[a]nd, along with other participants in the justice system, this Court has a role to play in changing [it] and facilitating a more efficient criminal justice system, thereby protecting the right to trial within a reasonable time. [45]

The way in which the majority wants to play that role is by changing the applicable rules. As mentioned at the outset, the majority opinion introduces

ceiling[s] beyond which delay is presumptively unreasonable. The presumptive ceiling is set at 18 months for cases going to trial in the provincial court, and at 30 months for cases going to trial in the superior court (or cases going to trial in the provincial court after a preliminary inquiry), [46]

excluding any delay for caused or waived by the defence. The Crown can still show that exceptional circumstances outside of its control have arisen and that they explain ― and excuse ― a case taking longer than these timeframes, but unless it does so, a stay of proceedings will be the automatic consequence of such delay. Meanwhile, an accused will be able to show that delay below these ceilings is unconstitutionally unreasonable, but to do so they will need to demonstrate not only that the delay is “markedly” greater than reasonable, but also that they diligently sought to have the case heard sooner. (This test is reminiscent of that which Justice Moldaver applied in the Court’s recent decision in R. v. Vassel, 2016 SCC 26.)

The majority justified its decision by asserting that

[a] presumptive ceiling is required in order to give meaningful direction to the state on its constitutional obligations and to those who play an important role in ensuring that the trial concludes within a reasonable time: court administration, the police, Crown prosecutors, accused persons and their counsel, and judges. [50]

In the majority’s view, its approach is simpler than the existing rules, and eliminates the undue focus on prejudice to the accused. The majority acknowledges that even the ceilings it imposes are “a long time to wait for justice,” but insists that they “reflect[] the realities we currently face,” [57] ― as reflected, it seems, in “a qualitative review of nearly every reported s. 11(b) appellate decision from the past 10 years, and many decisions from trial courts” [106] ― while cautioning that the Court “may have to revisit these numbers and the considerations that inform them in the future.” [57] Ultimately, the majority hopes that its approach “will help facilitate a much-needed shift in culture,” [112] including

by reminding legislators and ministers that unreasonable delay in bringing accused persons to trial is not merely contrary to the public interest: it is constitutionally impermissible, and will be treated as such. [117]

In its conclusion, the majority adds that “[g]overnment will also need to consider whether the criminal justice system (and any initiatives aimed at reducing delay) is adequately resourced.” [140]

Applying its approach (including a transitional framework for cases already in the system prior to its ruling) to the facts of Mr. Jordan’s case, the majority finds that the delays that afflicted it were unreasonable. In the process, it castigates the Crown for not having had a plan for bringing the matter to trial expeditiously, and for doing “too little, too late” when it became aware of the problem.

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The Chief Justice and Justices Cromwell, Wagner, and Gascon do not disagree with this conclusion. They too are of the view that the delay in this case was unreasonable. However, Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion is sharply critical of the majority’s approach to par. 11(b), which it calls “both unwarranted and unwise.” [254] While it accepts that some revisions to the current framework are in order, it rejects the imposition of fixed ceilings on acceptable delays.

Drew Yewchuk summarizes the concurrence’s approach and exposes some difficulties with it in a post at ABlawg. Here I will briefly sum up Justice Cromwell’s critique of the majority opinion. Justice Cromwell argues that the majority’s approach will not be as simple to apply as the majority hopes, because “[t]he complexity inherent in determining unreasonable delay has been moved into deciding whether to ‘rebut’ the presumption that a delay is unreasonable if it exceeds the ceiling in particular cases.” [254]

As a matter of principle, the reasonableness of pre-trial delay “cannot be captured by a number; the ceilings substitute a right for ‘trial under the ceiling[s]’ … for the constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time.” [147] Indeed,

The proposed judicially created “ceilings” largely uncouple the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the concept of reasonableness which is the core of the right. The bedrock constitutional requirement of reasonableness in each particular case is replaced with a fixed ceiling and is thus converted into a requirement to comply with a judicially legislated metric. This is inconsistent with the purpose of the right, which after all, is to guarantee trial within a reasonable time. Reducing “reasonableness” to a judicially created ceiling, which applies regardless of context, does not achieve this purpose. [263]

No foreign jurisdiction imposes numerical guidelines for speedy trials either. As for the majority’s approach to cases where trial is completed with the 18- or 30-month limit, it is “a judicially created diminishment of a constitutional right, and one for which there is no justification.” [264]

Each case must be decided separately, based on its own circumstances ― including, to some (limited) extent the prejudice to the accused, as well as society’s interest in the prosecution. The creation of definite ceilings is a legislative task, and it should be accomplished, if at all, by legislation. Besides, there is no evidence to support the majority’s approach, and it was neither put forward by any of the parties nor “the subject of adversarial debate.” [147] Nor was the majority’s assessment of the jurisprudence subject to scrutiny by the parties. The impact of its decision is unknown, but “[f]or the vast majority of cases, the ceilings are so high that they risk being meaningless,” thus “feed[ing] … rather than eliminat[ing]” [276] the culture of delay that the majority is concerned about, while for a small but significant minority, the ceilings risk proving too rigid, leading to stays being entered in the most important prosecutions.  

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There are many questions to be asked about this case. They concern the constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. Since this post is already very long, I will only briefly address the first one here, and put off the other three to a separate discussion, which I hope will follow… in a reasonable time.

What I mean by the constitutionality of the majority’s decision is its consistency with the Charter’s text. The concurrence effectively argues that the constitutional text requires treating reasonableness as a standard and prohibits translating it into a bright-line rule. (Notice, though, that Justice Cromwell doesn’t quite put the point in this way: he says that the majority’s approach is inconsistent with “purpose of the right” ― consistently with the Supreme Court’s tendency to treat constitutional text as secondary, at best, to the “purposes” it is deemed to implement.) The majority, it seems to me does not make much of an effort to address this argument.

I am not sure who is right, to be honest. The idea of reasonableness does indeed normally refer to a standard, not a rule. But ― precisely for that reason ― the constitutional text that entrenches this standard calls for judicial elaboration or, as modern originalists would say, construction. In other words, the constitutional text itself does not give answers to the questions that arise in the course of adjudication. It must be supplemented by judicially-developed doctrines. The question is whether the courts can make numerical rules part of their doctrines. (And it really is only part; the majority is probably right to say that the concurrence somewhat overstates the degree to which the test a numerical one.) Or is it simply inconsistent with the meaning “reasonableness”? Again, I am not sure, but I do not think that the matter is as clear as the concurrence suggests. The fact that reasonableness requirements have not been construed in this way so far, in Canada or abroad, is significant, but hardly dispositive. It really is too bad that the majority does not address this issue.

In my view, however, the concurrence is pretty clearly right that the majority’s approach to cases that fall below its ceilings is a departure from constitution text. The text provides a right “to be tried within a reasonable time” ― not a right “to be tried within a time that is not markedly unreasonable provided that one has been diligent.” Presumably the majority introduce these additional requirements in order to incentivize defence counsel to contribute to the cultural change which it seeks. But while understandable, this motivation cannot justify an obvious inconsistency with the constitutional text.

That said, the issues of whether there can and ought to be a “ceiling” above which the burden of proof shifts to the Crown, and just what ought to happen below that ceiling, are distinct. It may be that the majority is right about the first even if it is wrong about the second.

All right. That’s quite unreasonable already ― for now.

How To Do Constitutional Adjudication

Some thoughts on Asher Honickman’s take on the judicial role

As I mentioned in my previous post, I would like to respond to a number of points that Asher Honickman makes in a very interesting ― albeit, in my view, misguided ― essay written for CBA Alberta’s Law Matters and published at the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law. In the last post, I responded to Mr. Honickman’s critique of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence relating to section 7 of the Charter. Here, I want to consider his approach to the role of courts more generally. Mr. Honickman, as I previously explained,

tries to chart a middle course between what he describes as “judicial supremacy” and “legislative supremacy” ― the views that, respectively, “when it comes to interpreting the Charter … more is better” and judges should expand the scope of its provisions accordingly, and that the Charter as a whole was a mistake.

I have considerable sympathy for the attempt, but I am not sure that it is successful. At a very general level, I have no quarrel at all with waht Mr. Honickman describes as “the common-sense proposition that the Constitution should be interpreted based on what it actually says, not what some might wish it would say.” The devil, as usual, is in the details.

One issue Mr. Honickman raises is the relaxation of the stare decisis principle in constitutional cases, whereby the Supreme Court is willing, as it explained in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, not only to reconsider its own precedents, but also to allow lower courts to do so in response to changes in the legal background or the “social, political and economic assumptions underlying” these precedents. This is indeed a valid concern. As Lon Fuller and other Rule of Law theorists point out, the law must be stable, because if it changes too easily or too often, people will understandably no longer pay much heed to it, and it will cease playing its role of guiding action. Yet against that, we must also consider the possibility that legal rules will cease commanding respect if they are understood to be based on legal, moral, or empirical foundations weak from the moment they were laid, or eroded over time. I am not quite sure what the right solution to this conundrum is. I am a bit skeptical, for instance, of the Supreme Court’s choice to allow lower courts to actually depart from its precedents, as opposed to merely suggesting that it do so on appeal. But there is certainly more to be said for allowing departures from stare decisis than Mr. Honickman allows.

Mr. Honickman is also concerned that judges venturing into the realm of moral issues and “social policy” will, on the one hand, make them appear to be political actors and lead to a politicization of judicial appointments, and on the other, deter legislators “from tackling politically sensitive issues, preferring instead to punt them to the unelected and unaccountable judiciary.” The flippant answer to this is that this particular ship has sailed a long time ago. The less flippant one is that law generally, and constitutional law in particular, contains an ineradicable moral and ideological element, so that there is nothing wrong with perceiving judges as being ― in part ― moral agents and political actors. Mr. Honickman wishes to remove morality, policy, and politics from section 7 jurisprudence, but even if he were successful in that, I doubt that he could eliminate them from, say, decisions about state neutrality and accommodation of religion under section 2(a) of the Charter, or reasonableness of police searches under section 8, or equality under section 15. For better and for worse, the Charter‘s text itself makes it inevitable that that judges will be making decisions touching on morality and politics.

Besides, as I have argued here, we know that even when it comes to non-justiciable rules, politicians can fail to take the constitution into account at all. Judicial circumspection in the interpretation of justiciable constitutional provisions would not help politicians grow a backbone and take constitutional rights and principles seriously. Mr. Honickman is right that legislatures have more resources to deal with issues of policy, and are more representative of the popular opinion on matters of morality, than the courts. Yet all too often they fail to make use of this advantage. What I have referred to here as “democratic process failures” ― cases of “persistent inability of that process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable” ― occur with some regularity in democratic polities, while political ignorance, which can result in elected officials ignoring issues altogether or addressing them in ways that serve their own interests rather than the electorate’s is pervasive. Arguments to the effect that courts should act this way or that because, if they do so, politicians will behave better reflect hope rather than experience.

None of this amounts to a suggestion that judges should approach constitutional cases in any particular way. As I say above, I share Mr. Honickman’s concerns about judicial subjectivity and about an inflationary interpretation of constitutional texts that divorces constitutional law from the rules that actually were enacted through the democratic process. Judges are not angels. They are human beings, exercising power over other human beings (whether in their individual or collective capacities), and this power should be limited and subject to law like any other. This law should indeed be stable ― but it should also not be divorced from reality, and how to balance these two constraints is a very difficult question. Morevoer, if judges are to interpret the constitution in accordance with what actually says and not what we wish it to say, as Mr. Honickman rightly proposes, then they should not shy away from making the moral judgments constitutional text requires. And while we err dangerously in regarding judges as angels, we err too in not noticing the less-than-angelic behaviour, or indolence, of our legislators. Our approach to judicial review of legislation, whatever it is, should account for these realities.

Seven’s Sins?

A response to Asher Honickman’s take on the section 7 of the Charter

In a very interesting essay written for CBA Alberta’s Law Matters and published at the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law, Asher Honickman discusses the role of the judiciary in constitutional cases, focusing on section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Honickman tries to chart a middle course between what he describes as “judicial supremacy” and “legislative supremacy” ― the views that, respectively, “when it comes to interpreting the Charter … more is better” and judges should expand the scope of its provisions accordingly, and that the Charter as a whole was a mistake. Mr. Honickman’s argument is both rich and well stated. It is also, in my humble opinion, largely misguided. Because it is both rich and concise, it does not lend itself to an easy summary. I would urge the reader to take his or her time to go through it. For my part, I will respond to some specific points Mr. Honickman makes, over a couple of posts. I will start here with his take on the past, present, and future of section 7 itself.

Mr. Honickman argues that the Supreme Court misinterpreted section 7 from the beginning of its engagement with it in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486, expanding its scope well beyond the procedural issues to which it was intended to apply. More recently, the Supreme Court expanded section 7 further by recognizing principles of fundamental justice which not particularly fundamental or even particularly legal. Moreover, the Court unjustifiably relaxed the requirement that a section 7 claimant be “deprived” of the rights the provision protects, and accepted findings of deprivation, or infringement, based on “the indirect effects of the law [and] on contentious social science evidence.”

Mr. Honickman concedes that “[r]eturning now to the original meaning [of section 7] would be impracticable, as it would mean erasing more than thirty years of Charter jurisprudence.” He suggests, however, that section 7 be applied only in the context of the administration of justice ― if not to procedural matters, then at least when the impugned rules create an offence. Moreover, “the state action must amount to a real deprivation, which is a higher hurdle to overcome than mere infringement,” and the deprivation must be readily apparent by looking at the law’s “purpose and its immediate legal effects,” without recourse to social science evidence. Finally, principles of fundamental justice must not be added to without caution; in particular, the prohibitions on overbreadth and gross disproportionality are too vague and insufficiently capable of consistent application to qualify.

One of Mr. Honickman’s targets is the tendency of Canadian academics and activists to demand that section 7 be used by courts to force governments to provide all manner of goodies. For example, in Tanudjaja v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, the Court of Appeal for Ontario was asked to consider a claim that governments, both provincial and federal, were obliged to implement social programmes to help people access housing. The Court found the claim not to be justiciable, and refused ― rightly, as I have argued. To that extent, I agree with Mr. Honickman: section 7 is, and ought to remain, a shield to protect individuals from the state, not a sword to put to the throat of elected representatives in order to force them to spend money and enact regulations at the behest of interest groups.

Beyond that, however, I do not share Mr. Honickman’s views. I do not think, for instance that the issue of the original meaning of section 7 is as clear as he suggests. In our paper on whether the Supreme Court has actually rejected originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation in Canadian law, Benjamin Oliphant and I argue “that Justice Lamer’s reasoning in Motor Vehicle Reference [was] quite similar to the type of analysis that many (‘new’) originalists would support,” (22) given its close attention to the text and context of section 7. In particular, while Mr. Honickman thinks that Justice Lamer (as he then was) was wrong to ignore the meaning which courts had attributed to the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” in the Canadian Bill of Rights, that phrase was, as Justice Lamer noted, used in an explicitly procedural context in the Bill, rather than as a qualifier of a general guarantee of rights to life, liberty, and security of the person.

Nor am I persuaded that there is a very significant difference between “deprivation” and “infringement” of section 7 rights. A day’s imprisonment would, everyone would agree, constitute a “deprivation” of liberty, but is it really a worse imposition than years without the ability to take elementary precautions imposed by the Criminal Code’s prostitution-related offenses invalidated in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, as Mr. Honickman suggests? I don’t think so. What is, and what is not, a “deprivation” is arguably a matter of degree ― the term used by the framers of the Charter is vague. I agree that it should be taken to refer to somewhat serious interferences, but I’m not sure that the Supreme Court has ever done otherwise.

Nor do I think that we should be distinguishing between “direct” and “indirect” effects of laws whose constitutionality is called into question. Admittedly, as I wrote in my first comment on Bedford,

I think that the Supreme Court conceded too much when it accepted a low, and arguably meaningless, causation standard to find that the impugned provisions caused harm to sex workers. The violence and exploitation which prostitutes suffer are not just “sufficiently connected” ― whatever that means ― to the law. They are its entirely foreseeable consequences.

But while I believe that the Court ought to revise its formulation of the causation standard, I do not think that a notion of “directness” is very helpful. To repeat, the harms caused by the prostitution provisions that gave rise to the constitutional complaint in Bedford were arguably indirect, but real and foreseeable all the same. And while I have, ever since Bedford came out, struggled with some very significant problems that can arise when courts rely on, and indeed expect to be presented with, extensive social science evidence in constitutional cases, I do not think that courts should forswear the use of such evidence, because failure to understand the world in which their decisions apply can cause these decisions to be very badly mistaken.

Finally, I am not persuaded by Mr. Honickman’s criticism of some of the principles of fundamental justice identified by the Supreme Court. The prohibition on gross disproportionality is at least an arguable case ― it certainly involves a measure of subjectivity in its application. But that of overbreadth is a time-honoured legal principle. It is, for instance, a staple of the First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States. Of course, Mr. Honickman is right that identifying a law’s purpose is a somewhat subjective exercise, and that it can potentially be manipulated by judges acting in bad faith, or simply indulging in results-oriented reasoning. But the exercise is a fairly routine one, being at the heart of the application of section 1 of the Charter, and indeed of ordinary statutory interpretation. That it can be done badly does not mean it cannot be done well or should not be done it all. Excessive judicial enthusiasm at identifying principles of fundamental justice is a potential problem for the interpretation of section 7 ― I criticized, for instance, the B.C. Court of Appeal for having pronounced the independence of the bar such a principle, with far-reaching and in my view disturbing implications, though fortunately the Supreme Court did not follow its reasoning. Still, the same could be said of just about any constitutional right. I don’t think that that’s a reason to always construe such rights narrowly.

In short, I am mostly not persuaded by Mr. Honickman’s criticisms of the current section 7 jurisprudence, interesting though they are. While I  share many of his concerns about where that jurisprudence may be headed in the future, I do not think that the way to address them, or to prevent them from becoming reality, is necessarily to reject the current approach, and to narrow down the scope of arguably the most fundamental of all Charter rights. Whatever section 7’s sins, they are not mortal ones.

 

A Third View on Legislating Two Languages at the SCC

In the last number of days, Professor Grammond and incoming AUT Law School lecturer (and my very generous blogging host) Léonid Sirota have posted thoughtful analyses of whether Parliament can legislate a requirement that judges of the Supreme Court understand French and English without the assistance of translation. Grammond argues yes; Sirota says no. The two authors differ in their readings of the Supreme Court Act Reference and, specifically, in their interpretation of what is captured by “composition of the Supreme Court of Canada” in section 41(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Both, in my view, are right in some respects, but wrong in others.

In any amendment analysis, the first question is always: is the proposal an “amendment to the Constitution of Canada” within the meaning of Part V? In other words, does the proposal change an entrenched part of the Constitution of Canada? If yes, then we’re in Part V territory. If not, the proposal can be enacted through ordinary legislative channels. A legislated French-English bilingualism requirement would certainly be a change to the existing eligibility criteria for judges of the Supreme Court. The trickier issue is whether such a requirement is a change to an entrenched part of the constitution.

Grammond argues that it is not. In his view, section 41(d) does not shield all aspects of the Court’s composition from unilateral change, only a protected core of matters related to composition. Looking to the framers’ intent and the fundamental character of the Court, he contends that “composition” in section 41(d) only protects Quebec’s representation on the Court and the Court’s role as the guardian of the constitution against court-packing and abolition, not eligibility criteria at large. Grammond contends that a legislated bilingualism requirement would not affect anything within this protected core and therefore does not trigger section 41(d). He applies the same logic to section 42(1)(d), the provision that subjects amendments in relation to “the Supreme Court of Canada” to the 7/50 procedure. He contends that the core of section 42(1)(d) captures the Court’s role as the final court of appeal and its independence. Again, a bilingualism requirement would not affect either of these “fundamental characteristics”: “Requiring bilingualism does not detract from the Court’s role as a final court of appeal and does not jeopardize its independence”. As a result, the 7/50 rule does not apply and Parliament can pursue a bilingualism requirement through the ordinary legislative process.

Sirota disagrees. He challenges Grammond’s reliance on framers’ intent, asking us to focus instead on the text of Part V and what ‘composition’ “actually means”. Sirota admits that it is not obvious that ‘composition of the Supreme Court’ includes eligibility for membership on the Court as opposed to just the number of judges and their place of origin. But the Supreme Court has said that it does and so we’re stuck. Sirota is also uncomfortable with one implication of Grammond’s approach, namely that some but not all eligibility criteria would be captured by ‘composition’. Sirota doubts whether this approach is either “preferable or even tenable” as a matter of textual interpretation. It seems that on this reasoning, the Supreme Court Act Reference confirms that the current set of eligibility criteria for appointment to the Court is entrenched; a bilingualism requirement would alter the status quo; therefore, legislating bilingualism amounts to a constitutional amendment.

With much respect, I am not fully persuaded by either account. One reads ‘composition’ too broadly, the other too narrowly.

In hard cases (that is, in cases that don’t involve an explicit addition or deletion of words from the constitutional texts), determining whether Part V is triggered calls for a qualitative assessment. This is in line with Grammond’s approach. On my reading of the jurisprudence, when it comes to Court reform and determining whether sections 41(d) or 42(1)(d) apply, the key question is: does the proposal make a ‘qualitative difference’ or ‘substantive change’ to the constitutionally-protected character of the Court? The Supreme Court Act Reference and the Senate Reference provide some insight into the content of this constitutionally-protected character: it is concerned with the “essence of what enables the Supreme Court to perform its current role” (SCA Reference, para 101) and those matters that are “crucial to [the Court’s] ability to function effectively and with sufficient institutional legitimacy as the final court of appeal for Canada” (SCA Reference, para 93). In other words, this constitutionally-protected character captures the Court’s ‘fundamental nature and role’ and the features of the Court that bring this fundamental nature and role to life, but not the routine matters associated with the maintenance and operation of the Court. In addition, it protects the Court’s “competence, legitimacy, and integrity” and its “proper functioning” as the final appellate court for Canada, but not all aspects of the Court’s institutional design (SCA Reference, paras 93 and 101).

What does this mean for the interpretation of ‘composition’ in section 41(d)? It means that section 41(d) does not capture all matters dealing with the composition of the Court or the eligibility of potential appointees. The reasoning in the Supreme Court Act Reference does not dictate otherwise and this is where Sirota’s reasoning seems to go too far. Admittedly, the majority concluded that “the notion of ‘composition’ refers to ss. 4(1), 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act, which codify the composition of and eligibility requirements for appointment to the Supreme Court as they existed in 1982” (para 91). But it does not follow that any change to the existing eligibility criteria triggers the amending formula. First, the majority notes that only a “substantive change” to the existing criteria will trigger the formula (para 105). Second, the majority ties its conclusion on entrenchment to the principle that the composition of the Supreme Court is essential to its ability to function effectively and legitimately, and the scope of ‘composition’ should be defined as giving effect to that principle.

In my view, it follows that section 41(d) covers matters relating to composition that are constitutionally significant and the eligibility criteria tied to them. That is, it covers only those aspects of composition and eligibility that are necessary to ensure the Court’s competence, legitimacy, integrity, and proper role and functioning. From the Supreme Court Act Reference, we know that this understanding of ‘composition’ captures the requirement that Quebec be meaningfully represented on the Court. Accordingly, legislation altering the existing eligibility criteria in ways that would make a qualitative difference to Quebec’s representation would trigger section 41(d). By way of another example, this understanding of ‘composition’ would likely also capture the requirement that the judges be drawn from the community of people with legal training and expertise. Such experience is important for the Court to fulfill its role as Canada’s final appellate court. Therefore, legislation altering the existing eligibility criteria to allow for the appointment of people without any legal training or expertise would trigger section 41(d). By contrast, a proposal to amend section 5 of Supreme Court Act to allow the appointment of advocates of at least 9 years standing at the bar of a province (instead of 10) likely would not; nor should it.

Where does this analysis leave us when it comes to a statutory bilingualism requirement for judges of the Supreme Court? On this point, Grammond does not go far enough and I agree with Sirota – implementing such a requirement demands a constitutional amendment. In part, requiring French-English bilingualism for judges of the Supreme Court would be directed at enhancing the Court’s legitimacy within a federal constitutional culture that is officially bilingual and in its constitutional role as the final court of appeal for all legal issues and for all Canadians. Further, while a bilingualism requirement might not impact the proportion of judges from Quebec on the Court’s bench, it would add an eligibility criterion that narrows the pool of potential appointees, thereby calling for an assessment of whether this aims to alter the meaning of the Court’s composition in any other ways tied to constitutional values of legitimacy and representation. At the same time, a bilingualism requirement would be a qualitative change to the current legislative standards for – and accompanying eligibility criteria directed towards – judicial competency and institutional integrity of the Court. It would suggest that appointing judges with a legal background is no longer sufficient to ensure the Court can fulfill its role and preserve its integrity; rather, proficiency in both languages is needed.

A discussion of representation and language on the Court leads to a final note. When talking about a bilingualism requirement, the amendment issue is interesting and important. It helps us see the gaps in the doctrine of Part V and the difficulties in determining both what is entrenched in the Constitution of Canada and what amounts to an amendment. In the context of Court reform, it is an opportunity to think through the significance and limits of the Court in Canada’s constitutional order, as well as what we should expect of our political actors charged with appointing its judges and pursuing reform. (Some of my thinking on the Court in the constitutional order and on constitutional amendment as an opportunity rather than a hindrance can be found here and here.)

That said, a discussion of the amendment question should not eclipse continued reflection on the appeal and desirability of pursuing a strict bilingualism requirement. Such reflection must include a more satisfying consideration of the ways in which Indigenous legal traditions and languages should be accounted for in our understanding of the Court’s composition and the eligibility of appointees in Canada’s constitutional order. Such reflection also calls for a more robust analysis of how a French-English bilingualism requirement can be reconciled with needs to diversify the Supreme Court bench more generally.

The Comprehension of “Composition”

Parliament cannot require Supreme Court judges to be bilingual

Sébastien Grammond has published a guest-post over at Administrative Law Matters arguing that Parliament could legislate to prohibit the appointment of Supreme Court judges who are not bilingual. It is a bold and interesting argument, and I greatly admire prof. Grammond as a thinker and advocate. Nonetheless, I am not persuaded. I remain of the view that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 433, a.k.a. l’affaire Nadon, means that such legislation would be unconstitutional, as I suggested when criticizing that opinion.

To put my cards on the table, I should note that, as I have argued here and here, I believe that such legislation would also be ill-advised. I will let the reader judge whether this belief biases my constitutional analysis. I would also like to make clear that nothing that I say here should be taken as a repudiation of my views on the majority opinion in l’Affaire Nadon, which I continue to regard as very poorly reasoned and most pernicious.

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The reason I say prof. Grammond’s argument is bold is that it seems to directly contradict what the Supreme Court’s majority said in l’affaire Nadon:

Under s. 41(d) [of the Constitution Act, 1982], the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provincial legislatures is required for amendments to the Constitution relating to the “composition of the Supreme Court”. The notion of “composition” refers to ss. 4(1), 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act, which codify the composition of and eligibility requirements for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada as they existed in 1982. By implication, s. 41(d) also protects the continued existence of the Court, since abolition would altogether remove the Court’s composition. [91; emphasis added]

Prof. Grammond acknowledges that “[r]equiring that judges be bilingual is certainly an ‘eligibility requirement,'” so that the opinion of the majority seems to exclude imposing it otherwise than by constitutional amendment. Yet he argues that  it would be wrong to read this opinion “like a statute, as if the Court expressed a general rule that applies to all cases that come within the usual meaning of the words employed.” Prof. Grammond points to the fact that “the issue of bilingualism was not before the Court,” and suggest that we “understand the reasoning in that case and to see which parts of it can be applied to the issue of bilingualism.”

In effect, prof. Grammond suggests that the Supreme Court did not really mean what it said in the above passage. It would be “curious,” he writes, if “amendments to specific sections of legislation would be prohibited, even though the proposed amendment does not affect a substantial issue.” The constitutionality of amendments to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction made since 1982 would be called into question. Instead, what the Court really meant was that certain essential characteristics of the Supreme Court are constitutionally entrenched, while others are not. The bargain relative to Québec’s representation on the Court is such a characteristic, and perhaps, more generally, “the Court’s role as guardian of the Constitution.”  However, “aspects of the composition or eligibility requirements that do not relate to Quebec’s representation or the protection against abolition or court-packing are not protected by section 41(d),” and Parliament still modify them or add to them, by statute (though of course that statute would not be constitutionally entrenched). In other words, formal constitutional amendment would be necessary only to change those aspects of the constitution

in respect of which there is cogent evidence that the framers of the 1982 Constitution intended to freeze the status quo (such as Quebec’s representation on the Court or the structure of the Senate) or to [make] fundamental changes to our current political institutions (such as abolishing the Senate or the Supreme Court).

In any event,  prof. Grammond adds, Parliament remains free to supplement the eligibility requirements set out in the provisions of the Supreme Court Act to which the majority in l’Affaire Nadon refers, in the same way as it supplemented the requirements set out in sections 97 and 98 of the Constitution Act, 1867 when it provided, in section 3 of the Judges Act, that only lawyers of ten years’ standing can be appointed to the bench.

* * *

Let me start with prof. Grammond’s last point, because I will simply bite this particular bullet. Just because no one ever raised the issue of a rule’s constitutionality doesn’t mean that it is self-evidently constitutional. It might not be, even though no one has any particular reason to argue so. I don’t think that legislative competence can be acquired by adverse possession ― and that may well be the only way Parliament can claim to have validly enacted section 3 of the Judges Act. Nothing in sections 96 to 98 of the Constitution Act, 1867 allows it to do so ― their language confers no legislative authority, in contrast to that of section 100, which mandates Parliament to “fix” the judges’ salaries and pensions. So I don’t think that the existence of section 3 of the Judges Act supports prof. Grammond’s position.

As for the rest of prof. Grammond’s argument, it does not persuade me mostly because of the curious approach it takes to the constitutional text. As with the text of majority opinion in l’affaire Nadon, but with less justification, prof. Grammond seems to suggest that the text of the amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, can be more or less ignored, the better to allow us to focus on what really matters ― the intentions of its framers ― or at least those intentions “in respect of which there is cogent evidence.” The usual criticisms of original intentions originalism ― notably, that the intentions of a disparate group are well-night impossible to ascertain even if such a thing exists at all, that a constitution’s framers can have no intentions as to issues not anticipated at the time of the framing, and that there is no reason why private intentions, as opposed to the public and actually enacted constitutional text, should be authoritative at all ― apply here with full force.

We ought, in my view, ask ourselves what the words of the constitutional text actually mean ― not what their authors intended. To ascertain the meaning of paragraph 41(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which entrenches “the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada,” we need to inquire into the meaning ― either in 1982 (on an originalist approach) or in 2016 (on a living constitutionalist one) ― of the word “composition.” Now, I’m not sure that it’s obvious that the “composition” of a body such as the Supreme Court includes, or included in 1982, the eligibility criteria for membership in that body, as opposed to the number of members and their provenance. The majority in l’affaire Nadon asserts that it does, without much effort at justifying this assertion. But while this interpretation may be questionable, I do not think that prof. Grammond’s, according to which the term “composition” encompasses some but not all eligibility criteria, is preferable or even tenable, as a textual matter. Thus, in my view, prof. Grammond’s criticism of the Supreme Court for failing to “offer reasons why” the provisions of the Supreme Court Act that it describes as entrenched by paragraph 41(d) “are crucial to the protection of Quebec’s representation” misses the mark. The Court did not have have to say why these provisions are crucial to protecting Québec. It only had to take note of the fact that they set the rules relevant to the Court’s “composition,” as it interpreted that term.

* * *

As I said at the outset, I admire prof. Grammond greatly. I am sorry to disagree with him. However, what I consider to be the flaws in prof. Grammond’s argument reflect an unfortunate tendency among Canadian constitutional lawyers not to pay enough attention to the constitutional text, and to give too much credence to the intentions, real or supposed, of the constitutional framers ― which, ironically, does not go away with, and may well be made easier by, these same lawyers’ purported rejection of originalism. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have argued in our papers on originalism in Canada, we need to give much more serious thought to constitutional interpretation than we tend to do.

Originalism ― The Talk

My remarks on originalism in Canada at the Courts and Politics workshop

Yesterday, I spoke about the place of originalism in Canadian constitutional jurisprudence at the Courts and Politics workshop that Kate Puddister and Emmett Macfarlane had convened at the University of Guelph. The whole things was a lot of fun and very educational, not least for me as one of the rare lawyers in a group of (mostly) political scientists, and I am very grateful to the organizers for inviting me.

My talk was, of course, based on the articles on the topic of originalism in Canada that Benjamin Oliphant and I have co-authored. Here is the draft of my remarks.

* * *

Few legal concepts have been so little understood yet so much vilified as originalism has been in Canada. Adam Dodek has said that “originalism” is a “dirty word” on this side of the Canada-U.S. border. Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Canadian jurists, including former Supreme Court judges, took to the media to remind us that originalism has no place in our law. It is my respectful contention today that they were repeating a myth that is at odds with the facts. Misunderstood, vilified, and unacknowledged, originalism is nevertheless a staple of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence.
Now, it is important to clarify what I mean by “originalism” ― and what those scholars who take originalism seriously mean by this term. In Canada, we are used to associating it with a number of rather unflattering metaphors. We think of “frozen rights,” of the “dead” constitution. We also think that originalism requires the interpreter of the constitution to defer to the subjective intentions of the individual framers, and we have much less reverence for, and ― perhaps partly as a consequence ― know less about the thoughts of, the framers of our constitution, both those who created it in the run-up to 1867 and those who added to it in 1982, than Americans know about their framers. Last but not least, we tend to do draw a simple equation between originalism on the one hand, and conservatism on the other.

Yet this view of originalism is a distorted one; it reflects, at most, the state of originalist thought in the early 1980s. Originalism itself is not frozen in time, and it is our loss when we pretend that it is and refuse to learn about what it is like today. In the interests of time, I will only briefly mention three salient characteristics of contemporary originalism ― keeping in mind that it is no longer, if it ever was, a single, unified theory, and that not all originalists necessarily subscribe to the beliefs of most of their fellows. First, originalism largely accepts that the meaning of a constitutional text does not settle each and every conceivable constitutional question. Insofar as a text is vague, or specifically refers to evaluative concepts (such as reasonableness or cruelty), giving it legal effect requires not only “interpretation,” but also “construction,” which is not bound by the views and expectations of constitutional framers, and can thus allow constitutional doctrine ― although not the meaning of the text itself ― to evolve. Second, as I just mentioned, the views of the framers, their expectations, their intentions are not dispositive in constitutional interpretation. While knowing them can help us understand the text, it is ultimately the text itself that is authoritative, and its public meaning, rather than the framers’ private is are generally regarded as the object of constitutional investigation. And third, while in its beginnings originalism was indeed an intellectual project of the American right, it has been embraced by both libertarian and progressive scholars, who have for example made an originalist case for same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In Canada, Kerri Froc has urged the reinvigoration of s. 28 of the Charter from a feminist ― and an originalist ― perspective.

With that in mind, I will discuss the ways in which originalism features ― albeit that it is never quite acknowledged ― in a number of the Supreme Court’s prominent decisions. In the papers, we discuss many other cases, and go back further in time, to the jurisprudence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (despite the fact that F.R. Scott chided it for failure “to apply the BNA Act as originally drafted”). In the interests of time, here I will focus on just a few recent decisions.

One type of cases that is shot through with originalist reasoning consists of those that involve “constitutional bargains,” compromises that led to the enactment or amendment of constitutional provisions. This notion goes back to Blaikie v. Québec, and indeed to much earlier Privy Council decisions, but it has been used to spectacular effect in the references regarding Senate reform and the appointment of Justice Nadon, a couple of years ago. The Court insisted that its role was to give effect to the agreements reached in 1867 and in 1875, respectively ― not to any modern conception of political morality or the public good. When it spoke of constitutional architecture in the Senate Reform Reference, the Court referred to the assumptions about how the constitution would operate that were held by the Fathers of Confederation ― not to the way in which the constitution actually operated, and still less to the way in which we might think it ought to operate, as a court truly committed to living constitutionalism might do. More recently, in the Caron case that dealt with legislative bilingualism in Alberta, both the majority and the dissent saw their task as consisting in giving effect to the bargain struck between the federal government and the inhabitants of the North-West, but disagreed about whether the public meaning of the words into which that bargain was put, or the intentions of the parties to the bargain, ought to determine its import.

Charter cases might seem an especially barren ground for originalists ― indeed, the Supreme Court’s embrace of the “living tree” metaphor as the guide to constitutional interpretation followed the enactment of the Charter, even though the Persons case, from which it is taken, was obviously not a Charter case. But here too, originalist reasoning is widespread. For one thing, the Court’s embrace of purposivism in Charter interpretation raises the question of whose purposes it seeks to uphold in applying the Charter. While it sometimes speaks as if the Charter had purposes of its own, independent of those of its framers and interpreters alike, this seems rather contrived. In any case, purposive interpretation is often similar to one or another sort of the originalist kind, sometimes the one following on intentions, and in other cases on public meaning.

A related point is that the Court frequently refers to the framers’ choices of wording ― which can be ascertained by referring to the Parliamentary record and the early drafts of what became the Charter ― to guide its interpretation. For instance, in R. v. Prosper, the Court invoked the fact that the framers of the Charter considered and rejected a broader version of the right to counsel than the one that ultimately made it into the constitutional text in order to justify not reading that text in a more expansive fashion. But the best-known instance of such reasoning is, no doubt, the exclusion of economic and property rights from Charter protection, which is based on the decisions made during the drafting of the Charter. (Indeed, when the Court recently chose to make an exception from this general principle for trade unions, it invoked a sort of hypothetical originalist argument, according to which other human rights documents protecting the unions’ rights were supposedly in the “contemplation” of the framers of the Charter.)

Finally, originalist reasoning features prominently in cases dealing with aboriginal law. To give just one example, the very recent decision in Daniels that the Métis fall within the scope of Parliament’s jurisdiction over “Indians” in s. 91(24) invokes the understanding of the term “Indian” in the years before and after Confederation, as well as the purposes for which that jurisdiction was assigned to Parliament. While I hesitate to call it entirely originalist, it at the very least comes close ― and it is perhaps worth pointing out that the decision was unanimous, and written by Justice Abella. No fire-breathing conservative, she.

All of this is not to say that the Supreme Court has been consistently originalist. It hasn’t. But then again, it hasn’t been consistently anything in particular. One of the hopes that we have for this work is that it will encourage Canadian scholars ― and judges, if possible ― to reflect much more seriously on constitutional interpretation than they have been in the habit of doing. It is not enough to recite pieties about the “living tree,” because even in its capacious shade, the hardy weed ― or is it the hopeful offshoots? ― of originalism break through.

All That History

A historicist, if not quite an originalist, decision from the Supreme Court of Canada

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Daniels v. Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development), 2016 SCC 12, holding that Métis and non-status Indians fall within the scope of Parliament’s legislative power over “Indians” provided for in section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. While this outcome may have significant consequences, what interests me most is the approach that Justice Abella’s opinion for a unanimous court took to constitutional interpretation. While I would hesitate to call this approach originalist, it is clearly historical, and is (almost) entirely free from the Court’s habitual paeans to “living tree” constitutionalism.

The only real question for the Court was whether the Métis were “Indians” within the meaning of section 91(24). The government conceded that non-status Indians were. “The prevailing view,” Justice Abella noted, “is that Métis are ‘Indians’ under s. 91(24).” [22] This view is consistent with the way that the term “Indians” has been used throughout Canadian history, beginning before Confederation:

Before and after Confederation, the government frequently classified Aboriginal peoples with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage as Indians. Métis were considered “Indians” for pre-Confederation treaties such as the Robinson Treaties of 1850. Many post-Confederation statutes considered Métis to be “Indians.” [24]

Moreover, “the purpose of s. 91(24) in relation to the broader goals of Confederation” ― which was to ensure the federal government’s ability to maintain a good relationship with and control over the Aboriginal peoples, in particular those who might otherwise get in the way of its railway-building ― “also indicates that since 1867, ‘Indians’ meant all Aboriginal peoples, including Métis.” [25]

References to the use of the term “Indian” in pre-Confederation treaties and statutes enacted in the years immediately following Confederation, as well to the purposes that the head of power at issue served at Confederation, might be characteristic of originalist interpretation. However, Justice Abella then proceeds to examine the numerous instances in which governments both federal and provincial, as well as commissions of inquiry created by them, treated the Métis as included within the term “Indian,” over a period of time from 1894 to 1996 and beyond. This is no longer originalism, since the way in which the constitutional language was understood 30, or a fortiori 130 years after its enactment does not tell us much about either its original meaning or the intentions of its framers. If anything, this might justly be called living constitutionalism, were it not for the fact that this term is seldom used to describe the consistent attribution of the same meaning of a constitutional term. (I am not sure why that is the case, by the way.)

Justice Abella also noted that “while it does not define the scope of s. 91(24), it is worth noting that s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 states that Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples are Aboriginal peoples for the purposes of the Constitution,” which suggests that reading section 91(24) as including the Métis makes for a more harmonious constitutional order overall. She pointed out, too, that other decisions of the Supreme Court suggest that groups other than “Indians” in a narrow sense ― notably the Inuit ― can be included in the scope of s. 91(24). It is worth observing that, as Justice Abella noted, one of these decisions ― Reference whether “Indians” includes “Eskimo”, [1939] S.C.R. 104  ― “[r]el[ied] on historical evidence to determine the meaning of ‘Indians’ in 1867.” [39]

There is one brief allusion to the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation which the Supreme Court usually claims to favour in Justice Abella’s reasons. Distinguishing Daniels from R. v. Blais, 2003 SCC 44, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 236, Justice Abella quoted Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 S.C.R. 698 at par. 30 for the proposition that “[t]hat case [Blais, that is] considered the interpretive question in relation to a particular constitutional agreement, as opposed to a head of power which must continually adapt to cover new realities.” I do not think that the reference to “adaptation to new realities” does any work at all in Daniels. The balance of Justice Abella’s reasons shows that the understanding of section 91(24) has been consistent throughout its history.

Perhaps Daniels can be best understood as representing not any particular interpretive methodology, but the Supreme Court’s thoroughgoing if utterly unsystematic interpretive pluralism, of which Benjamin Oliphant and I speak in one of our recent papers. Historical, and even originalist arguments are an ineradicable part of this pluralism, but the court is not committed to them, and it can sometimes affect to dismiss them out of hand even as it uses them to great effect. Daniels is thus an important reminder that, to really understand the Court’s approach to constitutional interpretation, we must look carefully at what it does, and not just at what it says.

Originalism in Canada

A couple of papers about originalism, and a call for comments

As promised in my last post, I have something to show for my silence in the last few weeks. Benjamin Oliphant and I have been working very intensively on a study of originalism in Canadian constitutional law. In a nutshell, we argue that, contrary to popular belief, not only has the Supreme Court never really rejected originalism ― at least contemporary originalism, as opposed to the sort of originalism that existed 30 years ago or more ― as a mode of constitutional interpretation, but Canadian constitutional jurisprudence is, in reality, shot through with originalist reasoning. It is not, of course, thoroughly, much less systematically, originalist, but originalist arguments of various types appear in all manner of cases, and do so frequently enough that they cannot be dismissed as mere aberrations. We argue, therefore, that Canadian scholars and judges should stop ignoring both originalist theory and the originalist jurisprudence hiding in plain sight in the Supreme Court Reports, and start thinking about how to be more consistent and more principled in our use of originalist arguments.

The project grew as it advanced, and would have been much too long for a single article, so we ended up making two. The first paper is asks Has the Supreme Court of Canada Rejected ‘Originalism’?” Here is the abstract:

The notion that “originalism” is fundamentally incompatible with Canadian constitutional law has achieved the status of dogma, both in the courts and the Canadian legal academy. However, this understanding tends to be premised upon the rejection of early and undertheorized conceptions of originalism that have been largely left behind. Originalism has evolved considerably over the past few decades, as scholars from across the political spectrum have developed more nuanced and defensible approaches to constitutional interpretation, which by no means freeze constitutional law in the era of constitutional enactment. In fact, the two core propositions upon which Canada’s anti-originalist myth is based – that constitutional law must evolve to meet new social realities, and that the framers intentions may be relevant, but not binding – have been largely embraced by modern originalist scholarship. Drawing upon the vast diversity of originalist thought in the United States, the authors reconsider the cases most frequently cited for the belief that originalism is fundamentally incompatible with Canadian constitutional thought, and show how many fit rather easily within the new originalist paradigm. The authors conclude that once the frequent compatibility between various forms of originalism and living constitutionalism are appreciated, there is no reason to conclude that originalist thinking is inconsistent with Canadian constitutional law and practice, and no basis for relying on outdated assumptions or caricatures for its rejection.

The second paper takes a more detailed look at “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence.” Here is the abstract:

Amongst the fundamental assumptions underlying the practice of Canadian constitutional interpretation is the belief that originalism – whether directed at the original intentions, expected applications, meaning or understanding – plays no meaningful role in discerning the meaning of constitutional provisions. This paper sets out to correct that mistaken narrative. Through a survey of historical and contemporary decisions, the authors show that various forms of originalism have played a significant role in Canadian constitutional interpretation. Its influence can be felt both with respect to the structural provisions of the constitution – those relating to the division of powers, constitutional “bargains”, and the core jurisdiction of superior courts – as well as in the context of rights protecting provisions, such as those found in the Charter and aboriginal rights in section 35. At the same time, it cannot be questioned that the Court has rejected or refused even to consult original intentions or meanings just as frequently as it has found them persuasive or even dispositive. The Court has provided little guidance as to those circumstances in which various forms of originalism, or any other forms of constitutional argument, can and should be relied upon, which has led to a troubling state of uncertainty. The authors suggest that whether or not originalist approaches to constitutional interpretation should be accepted in any given case, it is not possible (or desirable) to avoid them entirely, and conclude that Canadian constitutional practice would benefit from openly engaging with originalist ideas and how they can be most fruitfully employed.

We would love to have your comments, thoughts, suggestions, or even anathemas, as we work on getting these papers published. Let us know what you think!

 

How to do Originalism

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s recent decision in  Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, which held that Alberta is not under a constitutional obligation to enact legislation in French as well as English. There was, you will recall, a majority opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, who were joined by four of their colleagues, and a dissent by Justices Wagner and Côté, joined by Justice Abella. In this post, I would like to venture some comments on the disagreement between them. This disagreement was quite sharp. The dissenters insist that the majority’s reasoning both results from and perpetuates an injustice, although they never explicitly accuse the majority of being unjust. I suppose that dissenting judges often think that ― but it seems to me that the thought is rarely expressed. And yet, in a sense, the disagreement between the two opinions is very narrow, almost abstruse.

Both the majority opinion are originalist, in the sense that they accept that the meaning of the relevant constitutional provision is to be determined by reference to the ideas of the time of the provision’s enactment. The provision at issue in Caron is a passage from an Address by the Canadian Parliament to the Queen, adopted in 1867 pursuant to section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to ask for the incorporation of what was then Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory (to which I will collectively refer as “the North-West”) into Canada, and incorporate into the constitution as a schedule to the Imperial government’s Order that annexed most of these lands (except the portion that became the province of Manitoba) to Canada. The Address and the Order resulted from a complex series of events and interactions between the Canadian government and Parliament, the Hudson’s Bay Company (which owned and administered the North-West), the British government, and the inhabitants of the North-West and their government and delegates who negotiated their entry into Canada. The two opinions make extensive reference to these events and interactions, and to the thoughts of the people involved. Repeated out-of-hand rejections of originalism notwithstanding, it is alive and kicking in Canadian constitutional law, as Benjamin Oliphant and yours truly have been pointing out for a while now.

The majority and the dissent disagree, however, about the sort of originalism that ought to govern their interpretation of the 1867 Address. The majority’s approach is something like “original public meaning originalism,” which, as Lawrence Solum explains, “emphasizes the meaning that [constitutional provisions] would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoption[].” Much of the majority opinion is devoted to showing that the phrase “legal rights” used in the Address would not have been understood, in 1867 or 1870, as referring to linguistic rights. The majority’s summary of the reasons for its conclusion as to the interpretation of the phrase legal rights notes that

(i) Never in Canada’s constitutional history have the words “legal rights” been taken to confer linguistic rights;

(iii) The contemporary discussions show that neither Canada nor the representatives of the territories ever considered that the promise to respect “legal rights” in the 1867 Address referred to linguistic rights;

(iv) The contemporary evidence also shows that the territorial representatives themselves considered that their linguistic rights had been assured through the Manitoba Act, 1870, not the 1867 Address or the 1870 Order;

(v) Federal legislation and debates surrounding it in relation to the new North-West Territories in 1875 and 1877 show that no one involved thought that there had been any guarantee of legislative bilingualism in 1870. [4; emphases removed and added]

In other words, the majority’s focus is on the public meaning of the term “legal rights,” and more specifically its meaning to Canadians or Canadian lawyers generally (i, v), the Canadian government (iii, v), and the representatives of the North-West (iii, iv, v).

The dissent, by contrast, favours “original intent originalism,” which focuses on the intentions of the authors of the relevant constitutional provisions. Its review of the historical evidence focuses not so much on how the words “legal rights” would have been understood ― indeed, the analysis of these words takes up a very short portion of the dissenting opinion ― but on what the parties, and especially the inhabitants of the North-West, sought to accomplish. Their wishes, the importance they attached to legislative bilingualism are the dominant considerations for the dissenters. The dissent insists that “our reading of constitutional documents must be informed by the intentions and perspectives of all the parties, as revealed by the historical evidence.” [235; emphasis added] These documents are “a statement of the will of the people” [235] ― and one gets the impression that, for the dissent, the will to which is seeks to give effect is rather more important than the statement itself.

For my part, I prefer the majority’s approach. Prof. Solum’s brief introduction to originalism, to which I link above, points to some problems with the “original intent” version of that theory, which the dissent in Caron illustrates. One issue is the difficulty of ascertaining a collective “intent,” especially among a large and diverse group of constitutional framers or, as in Caron, in a situation where there were different parties with divergent interests involved. Indeed, although the dissent asserts, generally, that “[t]he Constitution of Canada emerged from negotiations and compromises … achieved when parties to the negotiations make concessions in pursuit of a mutual agreement and reach a meeting of the minds,” [235] the 1867 Address, which is, after all, the operative constitutional provision, was not the result of a negotiation at all. It was a unilateral statement by the Parliament of Canada, and it is therefore not obvious that the intentions or aspirations of the people of the North-West are actually relevant to its interpretation.

Another problem with “original intent” originalism, in Prof. Solum’s words, is that “[t]he intentions of the framers of a given constitutional provision can be formulated as abstract and general principles or as particular expectations” as to how the provision will be applied. Assuming the relevant actors in 1867-70 had a unified intent, was it that legislative bilingualism in the North-West would in fact be continued and respected ― as indeed it was for decades ― or that it would also be constitutionally entrenched? Actually, this questions points to a broader difficulty, which affects the majority opinion as much as the dissent, and of which more shortly.

Both of these issues to point to a third one, which is simply that the intent of the framers of a constitutional provision is difficult to ascertain, and that the legitimacy of an intention not codified in the constitutional text itself as a source of constitutional law is very questionable. As I wrote here in connection with Québec’s arguments in l’Affaire Mainville, there is a danger of litigants ― or, I would now add, judges ―

simply taking advantage of the fact that the intent of the framers cannot be known … and using it as a banner under which to carry its own interpretive theory that doesn’t have much to do with the only sign the framers left of their intent ― the text itself.

Be that as it may, I want to reiterate a point that I might have made here before. Denying the significance of originalism to Canadian constitutional law, as both judges and scholars are wont to do, does not actually make it go away. Canadian courts still make originalist decisions, such as Caron, and litigants still make originalist arguments. But, importantly, this all happens in an intellectual vacuum. Because we are only interested in the question whether to do originalism, and have a ready-made negative answer for it, the debates over how to do it, such as those prof. Solum describes in the post linked to above and here, have not happened this side of the border, and the American debates have been ignored. As a result, questionable approaches to constitutional interpretation can endure unchallenged ― even if, as in Caron and in l’Affaire Mainville, they do not prevail when the votes are counted.

I come back to the broader issue I have with both the majority and the dissent to which I referred above. Both opinions assume that, if the “legal rights” which Canada undertook to uphold in the the 1867 Address include linguistic rights, then they are constitutionally entrenched. But it is not clear to me that this must be so. After all, nobody thinks that the (other) “legal rights” that all agree were part of this undertaking, those of property and contract, were similarly entrenched beyond modification by ordinary legislation, whether federal or, eventually, territorial and provincial. Canada had to respect the rights that existed at the time the North-West was annexed, but that did not mean that Parliament or the legislatures created in the territories could not subsequently legislate to modify or even derogate from these rights. Why exactly are linguistic rights different? Neither opinion explains this.

The comparison with ordinary “legal rights” also casts doubt on the dissent’s assertion that legislative bilingualism or language rights more broadly are “not a political issue that can be left up to the government.” [243] Leaving rights to “government” ― or, more accurately, to legislatures ― need not mean that these rights will not be protected at all. To be sure, it may well be a good idea to entrench (some) rights beyond the reach of ordinary legislation. I have myself argued that the framers of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms erred in not doing so with property rights. But there is no need, it seems to me, to seek to infer the decision to entrench a right from tenuous evidence of intent, or from the desires of those whom this right would benefit. Contrary to what the dissent in Caron suggests, it is not at all clear that injustice results from a failure to do so.

The Caron majority thus arrived at what I believe is the right result, but even its reasoning might be questionable. Moreover, while its approach to originalist constitutional interpretation is better than the dissent’s, it is just as little explained and defended. Still, I hope that this case might give us the impetus to abandon the pretense that originalism has no place in our jurisprudence, and to start thinking more seriously about when, and how, as well as whether, it ought to be employed.

What Did They Mean?

Must the laws of Alberta ― like those of Manitoba (as well as Québec, New Brunswick, and of course Parliament itself) be enacted and published in both French and English? The answer to this question, which the Supreme Court addressed in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, decided on Friday, turns on the meaning of a short phrase in a document soon to be 150 years old.

The Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, found that Parliament’s promise to protect the “legal rights” of the inhabitants of the then-Rupert Land and North-Western Territory did not encompass a guarantee of legislative bilingualism. The dissenters, justices Wagner and Côté (whose opinion Justice Abella joined), begged to differ, repeatedly accusing the majority of committing an injustice. I will summarize the two opinions in this post, and venture some thoughts in a separate one.

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To understand this case, a rather lengthy historical explanation is in order. In 1867, the territories that have since become Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, as well the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, the Nunavut, and parts of Québec and Ontario, belonged to and were administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867, provided for the “admission” into Canada by the Imperial government, on address of the Canadian Parliament, “on such Terms and Conditions in each Case as are in the Addresses expressed and as the Queen thinks fit to approve, subject to the Provisions of this Act.” Parliament approved the first such address in 1867, and another one in 1869. The 1867 address stated that Canada would uphold “the legal rights of any corporation, company, or individual” in the North-West ― the phrase on which the issue before the Supreme Court turned.

However, the Canadian annexation plans provoked a rebellion in the Red River Settlement, the main population centre in the North-West, in what would eventually become Manitoba. The rebels formulated a number of conditions on which they would accept Canadian sovereignty. Among them were demands for legislative as well as judicial bilingualism. They also demanded the creation, out of the territories, of a single province of Assiniboia, and made financial demands. 

The Canadian authorities responded, first, by issuing a Royal Proclamation promising among other things that “all your civil and religious rights and privileges will be respected” upon entry into Canada. Under pressure from the Imperial government, they negotiated with delegates from the North-West and eventually accepted that part of the new territories would enter Canada as a new province, Manitoba. The rest would become a federally administered Territory, whose creation was provided for by an Order of the Imperial government, to which the 1867 and 1869 addresses of the Canadian Parliament were annexed. That Order is part of the Constitution of Canada described in and entrenched by section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

In the first years after 1870, the new North-Western Territory was governed as though it were part of Manitoba. The laws enacted (in both French and English) by that province’s legislature applied. Then, in 1875, Parliament enacted a statute setting up a separate territorial government. A requirement of legislative bilingualism was included in that law in 1877, as a result of an amendment moved by a Senator from Manitoba. Legislation enacted in 1891 made clear that the Territory’s legislature could decide which language to use. In 1905, the province of Alberta (as well as Saskatchewan) was created out of a part of the Territory, and eventually it legislated to enact future laws in English only.

If Canada’s undertaking to protect the “legal rights” of the North-West’s inhabitants included language rights, such as legislative bilingualism, then this chain of enactments was invalid. Canada could not allow the North-Western Territory, or its successors the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to renounce legislative bilingualism, and the provinces had no authority to do so. This was the appellants’ main argument.

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For the Supreme Court’s majority, the phrase “legal rights” does not encompass legislative bilingualism. While the constitution generally “should be interpreted in a large and liberal manner,” [35] and linguistic guarantees are particularly important, “[t]hese important principles … do not undermine the primacy of the written text of the Constitution.” [36] Moreover, it is not enough to

simply resort to the historical evidence of the desires and demands of those negotiating the entry of the territories, and presume that those demands were fully granted. It is obvious that they were not. The Court must generously interpret constitutional linguistic rights, not create them. [38]

Having set out these interpretive principles, the majority explains why in its view they lead to the conclusion that “legal rights” do not include legislative bilingualism. First, “[l]anguage rights were dealt with explicitly in s. 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and in the Manitoba Act, 1870 in very similar and very clear terms. The total absence of similar wording in the contemporaneous 1870 Order counts heavily against the appellants’ contention.” [40] Second, “political leaders in the territories themselves expressly provided for language rights when they were meant to be protected and those rights were differentiated from other, more general, rights.” [52] Third, “[t]he parliamentary debates related to the adoption of the 1867 Address show that language rights were not subsumed under the term ‘legal rights’ or ‘droits acquis‘ / ‘droits légaux‘ [which were used in various French versions of the Address].” [53] Rather, “legal rights” referred to property and economic rights. Fourth,

[t]he end result of the negotiations regarding legislative bilingualism was the enactment of the Manitoba Act, 1870. Conversely, it was never the objective of the 1870 Order to dictate that French and English must be used by the legislative body governing the newly established North-Western Territory. [58]

While the delegates from the North-West “sought to entrench bilingual rights, just as … they sought for the territories to enter Canada as a province,” [60] they only succeeded with respect to what became Manitoba ― which, however, is where most of the North-West’s people lived. Fifth, the 1867 Address cannot be taken to reflect an agreement between Canada and the people of the North-West that would not be reached until 1870.

The majority further argues that the events after 1870 confirm that the relevant actors did not understand legislative bilingualism in the North-Western Territory to be a matter of constitutional obligation. Although the amendment establishing bilingualism in the Territory’s government was not contentious, nothing shows that it was perceived as fulfilling a constitutional duty. If anything, the government at the time thought that the matter was best left to the Territory’s legislature ― as was eventually done.

Before concluding, the majority notes that if the appellants were to succeed, legislative bilingualism would be “constitutionally entrenched not only for Alberta, but also for all of the former HBC lands, which now form part of Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Yukon, Nunavut and present-day Northwest Territories.” [102] Moreover, “[t]he logical extension of this reasoning would also lead inevitably to the conclusion that a variety of other demands made by the settlers have been constitutionalized by the words ‘legal rights,'” [102] including the to entrench the then-prevailing practice of appointing bilingual judges.

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The dissent took a different approach to the issue before the Court. In its view, “[t]he answer to the question whether Alberta is constitutionally required to enact … all its laws in French as well as in English is written across the history of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory” ― and not merely in the phrase “legal rights” in the 1867 Address. Ascertaining the meaning of that step is only the last step of its analysis.

Much of the dissenting opinion consists of an extensive review of the historical evidence. Its authors insist that “the content of the promises conveyed in the 1867 Address cannot be interpreted without reference to the context in which they were made.” [139] This review serves to stress, time and again, the importance of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West.

This population, the dissent notes, was composed of both French- and English-speakers; their legislature and their courts used both languages, as did the administrators appointed by the HBC; departures from these practices were met with discontent and resistance. Bilingualism extended throughout the North-West ― it was not limited to what became the province of Manitoba, and as the delegates who negotiated the annexation with the Canadian government represented the people of all the North-West, not only of the Red River Settlement, it would have been been inconceivable for them to limit their demands for legislative bilingualism to that province. Indeed, the Canadian government did not oppose these demands, nor was it in a position to do so, being pressed to conclude an agreement by the Imperial authorities.

For the dissent, the events after 1870 support the existence of a constitutional promise of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West. Little changed there in the aftermath of the annexation to Canada, since the bilingual administration of Manitoba exercised power. And once the territorial government was established, it was bilingual in practice, even before bilingualism was required by federal law.

This historical review takes up more than 100 paragraphs in the dissenting opinion. The “Application of the Principles of Constitutional Interpretation to the 1867 Address,” which follows it, fewer than 30. The principles in question “are that the Constitution must be interpreted contextually, that its provisions must be given a broad and purposive reading, and that its nature — as an expression of the will of the people governed by it — is relevant.” [216]

Applying these principles, the dissent concludes that the “historic” “compromise between the Canadian government and the territories’ inhabitants” [222] included a promise of legislative bilingualism. Referring to the French version of the 1867 Address, which spoke of the “droits acquis” ― the vested rights ― of the people of the North-West, the dissent states that “legislative bilingualism was one of these vested rights.” [226] It was also implicitly referred to by the Royal Proclamation, with its promise to uphold “civil and religious rights” ― which thus “recognized the cultural needs of the Métis” [229] of the North-West. That the protection of linguistic rights was not explicit as in other constitutional provisions is not determinative. To hold otherwise would be unjust and incompatible “with the broad and generous approach to constitutional interpretation that this Court has repeatedly taken,” [231] and with the “large and expansive meaning” which the authors of the 1867 Address “attributed … to the[] rights” it contained. [234] Finally, the dissent asserts that, like Confederation itself,

[t]he annexation of the territories … resulted from negotiations between a dominant English-speaking party and a party with a strong interest in protecting the French language. Like the French-speaking minority in the negotiations that resulted in Confederation, the inhabitants sought to have the protection of their linguistic rights entrenched in the Constitution, and this was granted to them. [239]

To give effect to “the will of the people” who enacted it, the interpretation of the Constitution must take their demands into account.

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So much for the opinions. I will try to have some thoughts on them shortly.