The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A bill to improve Parliament’s constitutional scrutiny of legislation is a step forward ― but not good enough

Earlier this week, the federal government introduced Bill C-51, which will make some noteworthy changes to the Criminal Code ― mostly cleaning up offenses now deemed obsolete, but also codifying some principles relative to sexual that have been developed by the courts, and some other changes too. There has been quite a bit of discussion about these changes (see, for instance, this tweetstorm by Peter Sankoff), and I am not really qualified to speak to their substance, beyond saying that, all other things being equal, cleaning up the statute and making sure it reflects the law as applied by the courts are pretty clearly good things form a Rule of Law standpoint.

I do, however, want to say something about another, less commented, innovation in the bill: its clause 73, which would oblige the Minister of Justice to provide, alongside to any government bill introduced in Parliament, “a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a step forward, although not a sufficiently bold one, but also a troubling symptom of the constitutional favouritism that afflicts the government and seems to show no signs of letting up.

* * *

The idea that the Minister of Justice ought to provide advice to Parliament about the compliance of bills with rights protections actually pre-dates the Charter. It was first introduced in subs 3(1) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which required the Minister to

examine … every Bill introduced in or presented to the House of Commons by a Minister of the Crown, in order to ascertain whether any of the provisions thereof are inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of this Part and he shall report any such inconsistency to the House of Commons at the first convenient opportunity.

Identical language, but referring to the Charter, now appears in subs 4.1(1) of the Department of Justice Act. Yet these provisions, which might have involved Parliament, or at least the House of Commons, in constitutional discussions, have largely proven ineffective. There was, as we can tell from judicial decisions declaring federal legislation  invalid because contrary to the Charter (or, admittedly rarely, inoperative because contrary to the Bill of Rights), no lack of opportunities for inconsistency reports. Yet in well over half a century, only one such report has ever been made.

The reason for this is that, as the Federal Court explained in Schmidt v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 FC 269 successive Ministers of Justice interpreted the reporting requirements as only obliging them to notify the House of Commons if they, or rather the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers, couldn’t come up with “[a]n argument” that the bill is constitutional “that is credible, bona fide, and capable of being successfully argued before the courts”. [5] Because DOJ lawyers are clever and creative, and perhaps also a little optimistic about their ability to mount successful arguments, this interpretation allows the Minister to avoid making a report to the House of Commons even if the constitutionality of a bill is very much in doubt.

Contrast this situation with New Zealand. Section 7 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is a direct descendant of the Canadian inconsistency reporting requirements. It provides that the Attorney-General must “bring to the attention of the House of Representatives any provision in [a] Bill that appears to be inconsistent with any of the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights”. Attorneys-General have interpreted this as a duty to form their own opinion about whether proposed legislation is consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and not merely about whether they might make credible arguments for the proposition that it is. As a result they have made almost 40 “section 7 reports” on government bills, and over 70 in total, including on non-government bills, which are not covered under current Canadian legislation and still would not be under C-51, in just 25 years. (One reason why similarly worded provisions have been interpreted so differently in Canada and in New Zealand is that New Zealand, like the United Kingdom, separates the roles of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and the latter, although elected as an MP and a member of the Cabinet, by convention acts in a relatively non-partisan fashion. I would love to see Canada adopt this practice, but won’t hold my breath.) And New Zealand’s Attorneys-General have gone further than the Bill of Rights Act required them to. The have also made public the advice regarding the consistency with the Act of all bills since 2003 ― not only those that they found to be inconsistent.

If enacted, Bill C-51 wuld take Canada close to New Zealand in this regard ― and, to some extent, even further. It will go further both in that it will create a statutory requirement, as opposed to a mere policy (albeit on that has been consistently followed by governments of various partisan persuasions), and in that it will formally inform not only the public but Parliament itself. On the other hand, the requirement will not go as far as the New Zealand policy, because it will only apply to legislation proposed by the government ― and not by individual MPs or Senators.

* * *

Despite its limitations, of which more very shortly, this is a good change. Getting Parliament to engage more with constitutional issues that arise when it legislates would be a wonderful thing. To be sur, we should not be too optimistic about what ministerial explanations of Charter concerns will accomplish. In New Zealand, Parliament routinely ignores the Attorney-General’s warnings about the inconsistency of bills with the Bill of Rights Act. It may well be that if such warnings, or a fortiori statements to the effect that a bill gives rise to constitutional concerns but the government believes that it is nevertheless consistent with the Charter become more common in Canada, legislators will similarly ignore them. But even occasional engagement with such concerns is likely to be an improvement on the current situation, in which they are systematically ignored whether or not Parliament is the only place where they could be addressed.

One particular issue to think about here is the role of the Senate. It is at least arguable that it would be more justified in opposing the House of Commons (at least by insisting on amendments, but perhaps even by outright defeating legislation) because of constitutional concerns than for any other reason. Having such concerns outlined by the Justice Minister would make it easier for the Senate to do this, and might thus contribute to make it a more significant legislative actor. That said, the Senate did give way to the House of Commons on the assisted suicide legislation, despite constitutional concerns, so any such changes are, for now, a matter of speculation.

As the above comparison between Canada and New Zealand shows, a lot will depend on just how the Justice Ministers approach their new statutory duties. This is where we come to the less attractive features of clause 73. Its wording is very open-ended ― to repeat, it requires reports bills’ “potential effects … on [Charter] rights and freedoms” (emphasis mine). In a way, this is useful, in that it allows the Minister to offer a nuanced assessment, and perhaps candidly say that there is no clear relevant guidance from the courts. But if a Minister wants to fudge, or simply to say, consistently with currently practice, that plausible ― but not necessarily compelling ― arguments can be made that a bill’s effects can be justified under section 1 of the Charter, clause 73 would allow that too. As Lisa Silver has noted, ministerial “statements may be self[-]serving”. On the whole, then, I would count the clause’s vagueness as a bad thing.

The other bad thing about it is that, as I noted earlier, it only applies to legislation introduced by the government. Now, it is true that most significant legislation is, in Canada anyway. But there have apparently been concerns that the last Conservative government used private members’ bills to advance policies that had its private support but with which it was unwilling to be too publicly associated. Whether or not that was true, something like that might happen in the future. And of course any bills introduced in the Senate would be exempt from scrutiny, at least until the rather hypothetical for now day when there are cabinet ministers from the Senate. In short, the exclusion of legislation not introduced by the government from the current scope of clause 73 is potentially dangerous ― and I have a hard time seeing why it should be there.

It gets worse ― indeed, in my view, it gets outright ugly. Clause 73 confirms what I have denounced the government’s tendency to treat the Charter as a favoured part of the constitution, and ignore the others, notably the Constitution Act, 1867. The clause will, if enacted and approached in good faith by the Justice Ministers (the latter a big if, as I noted above), force the government to alert Parliament to the repercussions of proposed legislation on a part of the Constitution. But why only part? Why that part? Why shouldn’t Parliament be alerted to issues surrounding the division of powers, not to mention aboriginal rights and, arguably above all, the constitution’s amending procedures? And what about the (quasi-constitutional) Bill of Rights, while we’re at it? (Though it is often forgotten, the Bill of Rights does protect some rights that have been left out of the Charter, perhaps most significantly the right to a fair trial in civil cases, and so remains relevant despite the Charter’s enactment.) Of course, the current provisions requiring inconsistency reports only concern the Charter and the Bill of Rights, but since the point of Clause 73 is to expand them, why is this expansion so selective? As I have previously explained, the vision of the Constitution that it reflects is a defective and a pernicious one. To that extent, Clause 73 deserves condemnation ― and cries out for amendment.

* * *

Let me conclude, then, with a quick sketch of what an amended version of Clause 73 that addresses the criticisms outlined above might look like:

(1) The Minister shall, for every Bill introduced in or presented to either House of Parliament cause to be tabled, in the House in which the Bill originates, a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on

(a) the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or recognized, declared or otherwise protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights;

(b) the aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982; and

(c) the scope of and limitations on Parliament’s legislative powers under the Constitution of Canada.

(2) The statement shall, in addition to any other matter, note whether, in the Minister’s opinion, it is more likely than not that the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution of Canada.

(3) The statement shall be tabled

(a) in the case of a bill introduced in or presented by a minister or other representative of the Crown, on the introduction of that Bill; or

(b) in any other case, as soon as practicable after the introduction of the Bill.

(4) The purpose of the statement is to inform members of the Senate and the House of Commons as well as the public of those potential effects and the constitutionality of proposed legislation.

This is, in all likelihood, an imperfect effort. In particular, it might be unnecessary to require Ministerial statements on private members’ bills that never make it past first reading. I’d be grateful for any input on this, and on the corrections that might be necessary to my proposal, from those more knowledgeable than I about Parliamentary procedure and legislative drafting. But I do think that my substantive concerns are serious. I would be very nice indeed if Parliament were made to address at least some of them.

Why Do the Write Thing?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler, both of them former legal academics and current barristers, Sir Geoffrey having also served as Attorney-General and Prime Minister in between, are about to publish a book advocating that New Zealand enact a “written” constitution. They have also set up a Twitter account and a website to both promote the book and seek out comments, which they say in the book’s description “will be reflected in a second edition to be published in 2017.” The Twitter account has published the following infographic listing reasons for adopting a written constitution:

These reasons apply not just in New Zealand but pretty much everywhere ― if they are indeed good reasons, that is. So the experience of countries that have adopted “written” constitutions ― including Canada and the United States ― should be relevant to assessing whether they are. If these reasons support the adoption of a “written” constitution, their effects should be observable in Canada (to the extent that our constitution is “written”), the U.S., and elsewhere. The countries with written constitutions should be doing better than those without (and notably New Zealand) on all these counts. With respect, it seems to be me that for the most part they are not. In this post I explain why.

But just before I do that, a brief comment is in order on the phrase “written constitution,” which as you may have noticed I only use in scare quotes. The reason for this is that “unwritten” constitutions tend in fact to be written down somewhere, so that they are not really unwritten at all. This is especially true of New Zealand’s “unwritten” constitution, which is written down both in legal sources such as the Constitution Act 1986, the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor-General of New Zealand, or judicial decisions, and in extra-legal ones, such as the Cabinet Manual 2008, which re-states most if not all of the constitutional conventions and other important rules governing the executive branch, in authoritative although not legally binding format. When people speak of a “written” constitution, they tend to speak of a codified or an entrenched constitution, and usually, but not always, both. This is how Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler use the term: on their website, they say that “[p]eople have rights and they should be provided in a constitution that is supreme law and binds the Parliament.”

* * *

The above “reasons to adopt a written constitution” can be grouped in a few categories. Some of them have to do with the democratic process; others with the limitation of state power; others still with transparency and accountability. Let me consider these in turn. (I will not say anything about the enhancement of national identity, partly because I am not qualified to speak to the subject in New Zealand, and partly because I am, as a general matter, profoundly skeptical of any action, and especially any legal change, that pursues this objective.)

I do not think that anything about the strength of a polity’s democracy (to which I also take the “easier to participate” and, in part, “government is more accountable” claims to refer) turns on whether that polity’s constitution is codified, entrenched, both, or neither. Polities with unentrenched and uncodified constitutions, including of course New Zealand but also, to a lesser extent, Canadian provinces (whose constitutions are partly entrenched) can be well-functioning democracies. They can, and already do, have free and fair elections which produce regular changes of government. Is democracy stronger ― whatever that means ― in Canada or in the United States than it is in New Zealand? Quite a few Canadian election reformers passionately believe the opposite, because Canada has a first-past-the-post electoral system (as does the U.S., mostly), while New Zealand has moved to a version of proportional representation. Whether or not we agree with them ― I do not, as I’ve explained here ― it is to say the least not obvious where the democratic gains from moving to a codified or entrenched constitution are.

Codification and entrenchment will have some effect on the limitation of state power (including to protect human rights and the Rule of Law, and to prevent abuses). A codified constitution might be clearer and thus easier to understand than an uncodified one. An entrenched constitution is ― ostensibly anyway ― less malleable than one that can amended by ordinary legislation, and can in principle better protect individual and minority rights. But the gains on these various counts are actually rather smaller than they might at first appear.

So far as clarity is concerned, I’m not sure that the current sources of New Zealand’s constitution are especially unclear, as these things go ― they do not strike me as any more obscure than Canadian or American ones. One should also keep in mind Chief Justice Marshall’s warning, in McCulloch v Maryland, that

[a] constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would, probably, never be understood by the public. (200)

As for stability, an entrenched constitution is only as stable as the judiciary lets it be. As Grégoire Weber, among others (including yours truly), has pointed out, the Supreme Court of Canada has lately been re-writing the Canadian constitution a couple of times a year at least. The Supreme Court of the United States is regularly accused of similar mischief. Admittedly, if there could be guarantees of the courts strictly adhering to some version of originalist constitutional interpretation, this danger would be minimized. But there can be no such guarantees anywhere, and in New Zealand in particular, originalism is not the preferred interpretive approach to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, so there seems to be little reason to think that judges could be persuaded to approach an entrenched constitution in this spirit.

The same goes, of course, for protecting rights. The protections provided by an entrenched constitution can be no stronger than the judiciary’s inclination to enforce them. Admittedly, the attitude of Canadian judges changed when the partly entrenched Canadian Bill of Rights was supplemented by the mostly entrenched Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I’m not sure if the same sort of change would occur in New Zealand ― which, after all, already largely respects individual rights. Would, for example, the adoption of an entrenched constitution, change anything to what seems to be a consensus that it is perfectly fine to disenfranchise prisoners serving long terms? I doubt it.

Turning to transparency and accountability, it seems to me that the great problem here is not the form of the constitution, but political ignorance. Ignorance of basic facts about the constitution is prevalent in the United States, where merely a third of the respondents to a recent poll could name the three branches of government ― despite a constitution whose very structure begins with these three branches. Pointing out that Donald Trump has never read the U.S. Constitution is a great rhetorical move (and I say this unironically), but while the charge is doubtless accurate so far as it goes, many of Mr. Trump’s fellow citizens (and not only among his voters) are every bit as guilty of it as he is. Ironically, Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler might just succeed in improving the public’s understanding of New Zealand’s constitution simply by encouraging conversations about it, without any changes being made. I wouldn’t be too optimistic though. As Ilya Somin and others explain, people have no incentive to become informed about the workings of  government, and the existence of an entrenched constitution changes nothing to this reality.

That said, New Zealand already has a number of accountability mechanisms, some of which seem to be functioning better than those in place in Canada. Though I’m far from an expert in the field, New Zealand’s access-to-information legislation might be stronger than its Canadian (federal) counterpart, for instance. And New Zealand’s government is much better than that of Canada at proactively making a lot of information (such as the advice it receives on the compliance of its laws with the Bill of Rights Act available to the public. (I might write about this in the future ―not too distant, I hope.) Perhaps entrenching these accountability mechanisms would give them greater symbolic weight. But it would also freeze them in place, which may not be a good thing ― not to mention that it would yield a constitution suffering from the “prolixity of a legal code.”

* * *

In a polity like New Zealand ― which already has a well-functioning, if in some people’s view imperfect democratic system, and which largely, if again imperfectly, respects human rights ― the gains from constitutional entrenchment are likely to be marginal in the short or even medium term. There will be some costs, too, though I have not discussed them here. Of course, the case of federal states may well be different ― it is usually said that a federal state needs an entrenched constitution to protect the division of powers (though note that Switzerland’s constitution is effectively not entrenched as against the Federal Assembly, its parliament, and that many on the American left would like the division of powers under the U.S. Constitution to be unenforceable against Congress). But this reason for constitutional entrenchment does not apply to New Zealand.

Other than the speculative prospect of a long-term crumbling of the polity’s commitment to human rights and the Rule of Law that would somehow not affect the judiciary, is there a good reason to entrench New Zealand’s constitution? Well, maybe, but it’s not one that Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler name. Entrenching the constitution makes sense if one’s goal is to shift power from Parliament and the executive to the courts. The courts’ incentives are different than those of the “political branches.” They might be more solicitous of minorities at the margins, but as or more importantly, they may also be less solicitous of special interests, because these special interests can do little for them. (Tough this is far from certain ― some special interests may find keen listeners on the bench, if for example they can provide the plaudits and recognition that judges, not unlike politicians, may come to crave.) It may be that in a unitary, Westminster-type system, democracy becomes too potent a force, and judicial review of legislation is the only countermeasure available, so it must be used faute de mieux, even in the knowledge that judicial power too will be abused and can degrade the constitution and the Rule of Law as much as the legislative and the executive.

These are serious reasons in my view. But whether they are conclusive or not, one thing is certain. Shifting power from elected officials to judges does not strengthen democracy ― it weakens it, deliberately. It does not make law clear. And it certainly does not make those who wield power more accountable. It might be worth doing regardless. But not for the reasons that Sir Geoffrey and Mr. Butler give us.

How Power Corrupts IV

Thoughts on Bryan Caplan and David Henderson’s discussion of power’s corrupting effects

Longtime readers may recall my posts trying to catalogue the various ways in which political “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have written about power’s subtle but corrosive effects on those who wield it, even once they no longer do; about the violence that those who exercise power inflict on others; and about power’s inextricable connection with lies. I have occasion to return to this topic, thanks to a discussion between Bryan Caplan and David Henderson over at EconLog.

Prof. Caplan argues that “politicians are, by and large, evil people.” They might be well-intentioned, but good intentions are not enough:

virtuous people can’t just conform to the expectations of their society. Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to … investigate whether their society’s expectations are immoral.

Moreover, this obligation weighs more heavily on people exercising political power:

[i]f you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times.

But politicians never do that, since “[t]hey’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.” Indeed, they have no incentive to exercise this moral “due diligence,” because “[p]olitical systems reward them for seeming good by conventional standards.” At best, they will “do what most people consider good.” At worst, they will just pretend.

Prof. Caplan’s point about incentives is particularly important for the inquiry into the corrupting effects of power. Even if aspiring politicians start out agreeing with prof. Caplan about the importance of questioning prevailing moral standards, they will soon abandon such questions, which are only likely to land them in electoral trouble. The quest for power and the struggle to retain it do not just allow a person’s bad sides to shine; they also mar the good ones.

(Prof. Caplan also has a follow-up post in which he discusses politicians’ propensity to lie, and ties to his argument about their being evil. It’s worth a look, but since I have already dealt with that particular topic in a prior post, I will say no more of it here.)

Prof. Henderson responds that, though well put, prof. Caplan’s case is not “compelling,” in the sense that nothing much follows from it. For one thing, “politicians aren’t equally evil. In fact, a few seem to be quite good.” And for another, prof. Henderson reminds us of the inconvenient truth that, to achieve our goals ― he speaks of liberty, but of course it is no different if you believe in “justice,” or “equality,” or anything else ― we probably have to “deal[] with politicians.” And if we want to do that, we might as well treat them respectfully, even if suspect them of actually being evil.

Turning, as I did in my first post on this topic, to The Lord of the Rings, we might call this the Gondor problem. The ring of power might be dangerous, says Boromir, but we’ve got a country to save, and we’d be silly not to use it. And note that, in a very real way, Tolkien lets himself out of this problem a little easily. His characters, other than Boromir (and the more obvious “bad guys”) forswear the use of the One Ring, to be sure, but many of them are quite comfortable with wielding the more conventional instruments of power ― notably military force ― as well as the Three Elvish rings. While we are consistently told that these instruments cannot stop Sauron, especially if he get hold of the One Ring, they are nonetheless necessary tools to allow the One to be destroyed, as well as for solving the more minor problems characters face (such as the occupation of the Shire).

The most significant exception to this trend is, tellingly, Frodo, who pointedly refuses to take up arms during “the scouring of the Shire.” Frodo is clearly engaging in something like prof. Caplan’s moral due diligence, asking himself and others whether it is permissible to engage in violence to get rid of the “ruffians” who are occupying and exploiting the Shire. But his conclusion that violence is to be avoided to the greatest extent possible, and there is to be no killing of hobbits, does not make him very popular at all. He is, we are told, more or less sidelined during the events, and is not acknowledged as “the famousest of hobbits” in their aftermath. This is, of course, in keeping with what prof. Caplan says about politicians ― and, tellingly too, Frodo never seeks public office in the Shire, unlike all of his less morally diligent (or at least more morally conventional) companions.

But while Frodo does the right thing, is he right? It is painfully clear that that his attempts to operate by persuasion alone are not enough. If the hobbits want to live in their libertarian quasi-paradise instead of the semi-socialist dystopia, they have to fight for it. The conventional morality of Merry and Pippin  leads them to what seems to be the only right conclusion, even though they fail to engage in right thought process. Perhaps this is accidental; Frodo just happened to be wrong, and his companions, right. Maybe Tolkien should have written a different book if he really wanted to be consistent in his message about the corrupting effects of power. But I’m not sure that this alternative book would have spoken to us in the way The Lord of the Rings does; that its dilemmas would have been as recognizable and as gripping.

One way in which power corrupts those who exercise it and even those who merely seek to do so is by giving them incentives to blind themselves to the possible immorality of their actions. Yet it is not obvious that there is a way to renounce the use of power completely. As in my prior posts, I conclude, therefore, with a reminder of the importance of the instruments we have developed to limit both the scope and the duration of the power any one person as able to wield. Of particular importance to this post is constitutionalism enforced by independent courts. An entrenched constitution provides a set of (partly) moral constraints on the exercise of power, which if effectively enforced ought to limit the damage that morally negligent or even wilfully blind politicians are able to inflict on those whom they govern. Like other power-constraining instruments, this one is far from being perfect, but it is better ― a good deal better, sometimes ― than nothing.

Making Sense of Constitutional Crises

Not surprisingly, my suggestion that the Governor General dismiss Stephen Harper as Prime Minister for his (Mr. Harper’s, that is) unconstitutional policy of not appointing Senators turned out to not to be any more popular than my earlier suggestion that the Governor General just appoint Senators on his own, without the Prime Minister’s blessing. That idea was met with admonitions about the importance of the conventions of responsible government, said to be such that it is better for the Governor General to dismiss a Prime Minister who fails to give constitutional advice than to act on his or her own. But no one really wants the Governor General to dismiss the Prime Minister, for doing so would trigger, it is said, a constitutional crisis. It is not, Andrew Coyne said, a sensible thing to do.

Triggering constitutional crises is, indeed, a dubious idea. The trouble ― and really the key point of my last post ― is that we already are in a constitutional crisis, courtesy of Mr. Harper. The crisis, to be clear, does not lie in the Senate’s reduced numbers and diminished capacity (though that will become a crisis in itself eventually). The crisis, rather, consists in the fact that the effective head of the executive branch of government is refusing to comply with a clear and, so far, undisputed constitutional obligation. Perhaps it is nevertheless true that we should not try to solve this crisis by creating another one. But to say that is not to answer the question of how we should solve the problem of a lawless, constitution-flouting head of government.

I should stress that, in my view, Mr. Harper’s position on Senate appointments is a unique and unprecedented act of defiance. It is often said that his government has a history of engaging in actions or introducing legislation that they know is unconstitutional. Yet it had, until now, always proffered at least some arguments, albeit often weak ones, in defence of its legislation. While it has occasionally dithered about complying with its constitutional obligations (such as appointing a judge to replace Justice Nadon on the Supreme Court, or responding to the Supreme Court’s decision on assisted suicide), it ultimately did comply. Here, Mr. Harper has made no attempt to articulate a constitutional argument in defence of his position, and his commitment is too firm for him to back down on his own.

Emmett Macfarlane and Michael Plaxton both suggested that we should wait for courts to rule. But again, it is not clear that they will or ought to rule in favour of Aniz Alani, who is challenging Mr. Harper’s policy of not appointing Senators ― not because there is any doubt about that policy’s constitutionality, but because there is doubt about the courts’ power to remedy it. (Prof. Macfarlane has an interesting suggestion in that regard, arguing that non-appointment amounts to a constitutional amendment in violation of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. I think that would be a compelling argument at some point, but it is at least arguable that we are still far from having reached that situation.)

And just as importantly, I think it is worth at least asking whether we are right to think that judicial remedies are always better than political ones. They seem less shocking, less prone to generate crises. But what makes them so? The fact that judges are outside politics, perhaps. But then, so is the Governor General. And not everyone will agree that judges really are outside politics at all. (This also brings to mind an exchange I had with Mr. Coyne when he graciously accepted to publish an op-ed of mine arguing that the Supreme Court was wrong to constitutionalize some rights of organized labour in a series of decisions this winter. I suggested that we should, as a last resort, pursue a constitutional amendment to reverse these decisions. Mr. Coyne was skeptical of the amendment idea ― but not of my suggestion that governments should try to get the Court to reverse itself. But why should that judicial remedy be less problematic than the political remedy afforded by the amendment procedure?)

Those who disagree with me probably believe that the dismissal of the Prime Minister, even an avowedly lawless Prime Minister, by the Governor General would cause more harm than good to our institutions. They might be right. But I wonder if they are letting the short-term, shit-hits-the-fan consequences of this, admittedly radical, action blind them to the less visible, but insidious consequences that nothing being done will have for the Rule of Law, and especially for the respect for the constitution. Many of our constitutional rules only exist so long as political actors abide by them and, ultimately, all public law is dependent on the government’s commitment, which cannot be coerced, to comply with binding legal rules. This commitment is fraying, and I can only hope that this process will somehow be stopped before it is too late.

L’amour des deux citrons

J’ai déjà eu l’occasion de dénoncer les grossières exagérations et le simplisme époustouflant, le tout assaisonné d’une bonne dose d’ignorance et même de mensonge, de Frédéric Bastien, un historien qui passe ses temps libres à pourfendre le juges canadiens qu’il croit être des tyrans assoiffés de pouvoir. Il en remet dans son plus récent billet sur le Blogue Politique de L’Actualité, dénonçant le contrôle judiciaire de la constitutionnalité des lois et ce qu’il considère comme l’inconstance et l’hypocrisie du gouvernement conservateur en la matière. Ce n’est pas vraiment la peine de revenir ici sur le fond du débat concernant le contrôle judiciaire, puisque je l’ai fait à maintes reprises sur ce blogue, et que, de toute façon, M. Bastien n’y ajoute rien de nouveau ou d’intéressant. En revanche, son attitude envers Stephen Harper et son gouvernement mérite un commentaire.

Cette attitude est un mélange de dénonciation, de regret et de plaidoyer. Certes, M. Bastien en veut à M. Harper de ne pas avoir davantage cherché à s’affranchir de qu’il dénonce comme un « gouvernement des juges », notamment en invoquant la clause non-nonobstant (suite à l’arrêt Bedford, par exemple),  et plus encore d’avoir menacé d’invoquer la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés pour faire invalider la « Charte des valeurs » péquiste. Cependant, il conclut sur ce qui a l’air d’un appel :

S’ils étaient restés plus fidèles à leurs idéaux, les conservateurs auraient pu ratisser bien plus large au Québec, où l’on compte beaucoup d’électeurs opposés à la Charte, au multiculturalisme et au gouvernement des juges. Cet appui potentiel leur fera cruellement défaut lors de la prochaine élection.

Reviens, Stephen, tout est pardonné!

M. Bastien n’est pas vraiment meilleur politologue que constitutionnaliste : la campagne anti-Charte, anti-multiculturalisme et anti-juges qu’a menée le PQ pour vendre sa charte de la honte ne l’a guère aidé aux dernières élections provinciales, un fait que, comme tant d’autres, M. Bastien passe sous silence. Toutefois, il y a bien une part de vérité dans ses affirmations. Cette vérité, c’est que, si tant est que les Conservateurs ont articulé quelque chose comme une théorie constitutionnelle, celle-ci s’approche de celle articulée par certains constitutionnalistes québécois : une théorie constitutionnelle hostile au pouvoir judiciaire et, notamment, aux interventions des tribunaux pour protéger les droits individuels contre les politiques gouvernementales.

À première vue, il y a là quelque chose de profondément ironique. Comme le rapportait Sean Fine dans le Globe and Mail, les Conservateurs se sont engagés dans l’aventure ― et ils savaient que c’en était une ― qu’était la nomination du juge Nadon à la Cour suprême parce qu’ils étaient persuadés de ne pas pouvoir trouver, dans le milieu juridique québécois, un juge partageant leur philosophie. Or, c’est précisément au Québec qu’on trouve, plus qu’au Canada anglais, un courant de pensée juridique en sympathie avec les Conservateurs. Cependant, en y regardant de plus près, on se rend compte que l’ironie n’est pas une, et on constate aussi l’hypocrisie de la position de M. Bastien et de ses acolytes.

Les juristes (et les non-juristes, tels que M. Bastien) québécois qui pourfendent la Charte et le « gouvernement des juges » sont, autant que je sache, généralement sinon tous fortement nationalistes, voire séparatistes. Et s’ils sont d’accord avec M. Harper sur le sujet du pouvoir judiciaire, ils ne partagent point ses opinions sur la place du Québec dans la fédération canadienne et ses institutions ou, plus généralement, les relations entre le gouvernement fédéral et les provinces. Ceci les disqualifie sans doute comme juges potentiels aux yeux de M. Harper, peu importe les points communs qu’ils peuvent avoir avec lui.

Mais cette divergence d’opinions a aussi une autre conséquence. Sur les questions relatives au fédéralisme et à la place du Québec dans le Canada, la Cour suprême a, ces dernières années, rendu de nombreuses décisions qui coupant court à l’action unilatérale du gouvernement fédéral ― on n’a qu’à penser au Renvoi relatif à la Loi sur les valeurs mobilières, 2011 CSC 66, [2011] 3 R.C.S. 837, au Renvoi relatif à la réforme du Sénat, 2014 CSC 32 ou encore, justement, à la décision dans l’affaire Nadon, le Renvoi relatif à la Loi sur la Cour suprême, art. 5 et 6, 2014 CSC 21, [2014] 1 R.C.S. 433. En fait, ce sont ces décisions qui, plus encore que celles fondées sur la Charte, qui ont entraîné le conflit entre le gouvernement de M. Harper et les tribunaux. Or, ces décisions devraient confronter les constitutionnalistes nationalistes opposés au contrôle judiciaire de constitutionnalité des lois au fait que ce sont justement les tribunaux qui protègent le Québec (ainsi que les autres provinces) des tentatives du gouvernement fédéral de s’arroger les pouvoirs que la constitution ne lui confère pas et de diminuer le rôle des provinces (y compris du Québec) au sein de la fédération.

Il est donc intéressant de constater que M. Bastien n’a rien écrit au sujet du renvoi sur le Sénat ou de l’affaire Nadon. Pourtant, ces jugements posent de façon très aiguë la question, si chère à ce dernier, du pouvoir judiciaire. En constitutionnalisant la Loi sur la Cour suprême dans l’affaire Nadon et en inventant la notion d’ « architecture constitutionnelle », qui inclut possiblement les conventions constitutionnelles, dans le renvoi sur le Sénat, la Cour suprême a carrément ré-écrit la constitution canadienne. Quelle cible, en apparence, pour M. Bastien! Or, il demeure silencieux.

Qu’il me soit permis de croire, donc, que son opposition au pouvoir judiciaire en est une de circonstances plus que de principe. Qu’elle ne vaut que lorsque la Cour suprême prend des positions qu’il déteste. Et que M. Bastien est un hypocrite qui se ferme les yeux sur des faits cruciaux ― et qui essaie tant bien que mal de les cacher à ses lecteurs. Certes, son accusation d’hypocrisie à l’endroit de M. Harper n’est pas sans fondement. Mais ils se valent l’un l’autre. À quelque part, il est dommage que l’amour entre eux soit impossible.

An Online Bill of Rights?

Just a quick note to let my readers here ― those, that is, who avoid my shameless self-promotion on social media ― know about my new post for the CBA National Magazine’s blog. Taking up Yves Faguy’s invitation (at Slaw) to discuss whether “we need a global digital bill of rights.” Drawing on a paper I wrote last year and presented (to mostly perplexed and sceptical audiences) at a couple of conferences, I make a Hayekian argument against this idea. In my view, an attempt to codify the rights that we ought to have online is unlikely to succeed for the foreseeable future. Both the technology and the social, contractual, and legal norms that define the online world change too quickly for any attempt to impose on them a rigid constitutional framework not to produce perverse, innovation-stifling consequences.

Coyne on Lazy Revolutionaries

In his latest Postmedia column, Andrew Coyne has some harsh and cogent observations about the Tories’ failure to come to terms with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and (Canadian) constitutional law more broadly. Mr. Coyne’s column is well worth reading, and some of his observations are similar to my own.

Mr. Coyne points out that despite their purported embrace of the principle of limited government, the Tories “get surprisingly antsy, once in office, about having their own discretion circumscribed.” In the face of recent judicial decisions having gone against the federal government, they complain about judges making policy in Parliament’s place (one suggestion that if judges want to make policy, they ought to get themselves elected even coming― to Mr. Coyne’s justified mirth ― from a Conservative Senator) and frustrating the will of the majority.

These complaints, Mr. Coyne argues, rest on a profound misunderstanding of the role of law (and, let us add, in more technical terms, of the Rule of Law):

[a]ll laws, not just constitutions or charters of rights, constrain government discretion. That’s the point. We want governments to act in predictable, non-arbitrary ways, confined to the powers we explicitly grant them through our elected representatives.

Constitutional law, Mr. Coyne adds, is no different, except in that changing it requires not only a decision of Parliament, but also the agreement of the provinces. And constitutional law, supreme over laws enacted by Parliament, has always been with us in Canada, and courts ― first the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and later the Supreme Court of Canada ― have always been enforcing it. The Charter expanded the scope of judicial review but did not invent it; nor was it the beginning of “judicial activism.” Furthermore,

The point of judicial review is not, as it is sometimes said, to give judges the last word. It is to hold Parliament to its word. If the law is to serve its intended role of constraining government discretion, you can’t simply leave it to governments, or even Parliament, to interpret it for themselves.

Besides, although courts (as well as other branches of government) sometimes get it wrong, Parliament can often achieve its objectives in ways that comply with their interpretations of the constitution. And if that’s not possible?

Amend the constitution. Appoint better judges. Make the case for a more restrained theory of jurisprudence. Change how the law is taught. Conservatives used to pride themselves on taking the long view of things.

Parliament can also put much more effort into screening the laws it enacts for constitutionality, thus avoiding conflict with the courts in the first place. And if people are concerned about the erosion of Parliament’s powers, they should worry more about the executive’s taking over its role, than about the courts.

This is largely right. One can quibble with a couple of things Mr. Coyne says. For instance, he is not quite right that pre-Charter constitutional litigation “usually involved disputes between different levels of government, each vigilant that the other not intrude on its prerogatives.” There was some of that, but also plenty of cases where individuals or, perhaps more frequently, businesses challenged the ability of a government to regulate them, arguing that the regulation in question breached the federal division of powers. But of course this only reinforces Mr. Coyne’s broader point, which is that the imposition of limits on elected officials by courts at the behest of citizens is not an innovation brought forth by Pierre Trudeau. Indeed, Mr. Coyne should perhaps have noted that many of the recent Supreme Court decisions that are so angering the Conservative government ― notably the Senate reference and the invalidation of Justice Nadon’s appointment to the Court ― have nothing to do with the Charter. In any case, a few details aside, Mr. Coyne’s article is impressively thoughtful and very persuasive.

One particular point of Mr. Coyne’s which I want to emphasize because it echoes some observations I made here is that the Conservatives have failed to “take the long view of things” and undertake any serious effort to fundamentally change Canadian constitutional law. Beyond vague and, as Mr. Coyne shows, contradictory or meaningless if not actively pernicious claims that judges should let Parliament make policy, they have not articulated anything like a constitutional theory that might be compelling enough for courts to embrace. They have not even tried to do so. This government, as I put here, is one of “lazy revolutionaries” ― unwilling to accept the world as it is, lacking respect for established institutions, and at the same time unwilling to do the long-term work necessary to change them. It is reassuring that it is finally being called out on it.