What’s Left of Freedom?

In the Trinity Western cases, the Supreme Court eviscerates religious liberty in Canada

In my last post, I discussed the administrative and constitutional law issues relating to judicial review of the decisions of the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario to deny accreditation to the law school set up by the Trinity Western University, which the Supreme Court upheld in in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33.  Here, I turn to the religious freedom aspect of the decisions. (Once again, the British Columbia decision is the one that sets out the judges’ reasoning in full, and I will refer to it below.) As indicated in the last post, in my view the Supreme Court’s decisions are disastrous, because they more or less nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Trinity Western requires its students (as well as faculty) to sign and abide by a “Covenant” that proscribes, among other things, sex outside heterosexual marriage. This is widely seen as discrimination against gay and lesbian (potential) students, and was the reason for the law societies’ decisions not to accredit Trinity Western’s law school. Trinity Western argued that these decisions infringed its and its students’ freedom of religion, and that the infringement could not be justified under the Charter.

As on the issues covered in the last post, the Court is split. The majority judgment signed by Justices Abella, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gascon holds that there is indeed a prima facie infringement of religious liberty, but that it is not especially serious and is easily outweighed by the need to prevent harm to students. The Chief Justice, concurring, also finds that there is an infringement of religious freedom, and indeed a rather more serious than the majority lets on, but one that is nevertheless outweighed by the law societies’ desire to avoid condoning discrimination. By contrast, Justice Rowe, also concurring, thinks that religious freedom is not at stake at all. Justices Brown and Côté dissent, finding an infringement of religious freedom that is not justified.

* * *

The majority is of the view that constitutional protection extends to “the socially embedded nature of religious belief” and to “[t]he ability of religious adherents to come together and create cohesive communities of belief and practice”. [64] Trinity Western “is a private religious institution created to support the collective religious practices of its members”, whose rights were “limited” [61] when it was denied accreditation, because their ability to put into practice a “sincere[] belie[f] that studying in a community defined by religious beliefs in which members follow particular religious rules of conduct contributes to their spiritual development” was thereby undermined. [70] The majority adds that, while the freedoms of expression and association, as well as equality rights, were also raised in the cases, “the religious freedom claim is sufficient to account for [these] rights of [Trinity Western]’s community members in the analysis.” [77]

The Chief Justice agrees that “the freedom of religion of members of the Trinity Western community” [120] has been infringed. To be sure, as individuals, they can go on holding their beliefs regardless of whether the law societies accredit the Trinity Western law school. However, they would be “prevent[ed] from carrying out a practice flowing from [their] belief about the environment in which [Trinity Western] would offer a legal education”. [125] The Chief Justice adds that the freedoms of expression and association must be included within “the ambit of the guarantee of freedom of religion”. [122]

Justice Rowe, by contrast, denies that anyone’s freedom of religion is being infringed. He starts from the premise “that religious freedom is based on the exercise of free will”, because it “involves a profoundly personal commitment”. [212] For Justice Rowe, it follows from this that, although religion can have a “communal aspect”, it is individuals, and not institutions ― such as Trinity Western ―, who can invoke the right to religious freedom. [219] “[M]embers of the evangelical Christian community” [219] who attend Trinity Western can assert religious rights, but Justice Rowe is skeptical that they “sincerely believe in the importance of studying in an environment where all students abide by the Covenant”. [235] They prefer to do so, but do they really think they have to?Even assuming that this is so, however, Trinity Western’s evangelical students are not entitled to constitutional protection for their belief, which “constrains the conduct of nonbelievers — in other words, those who have freely chosen not to believe”. [239] They cannot, in the name of religious freedom, impose their views on those who do not share them. Since the legislation that sets up Trinity Western requires it to admit non-members of the evangelical community, these non-members are entitled to have their freedom protected too. As for “alleged infringements to … expressive and associate [sic] freedom rights … and … equality rights”, the members of the Trinity Western community “have not discharged their burden” of establishing them. [252]

The dissent sees things very differently. In the opinion of Justices Côté and Brown, the law societies’ denial of accreditation to Trinity Western “undermines the core character of a lawful religious institution and disrupts the vitality of the [Trinity Western] community”. [324] This community has the right to set its own rules for its self-governance, and the law societies are not entitled to dictate how it should do so as a condition of providing it with a benefit. Such dictation

contravened the state’s duty of religious neutrality: [it] represented an expression by the state of religious preference which promotes the participation of non-believers, or believers of a certain kind, to the exclusion of the community of believers found at [Trinity Western]. [324]

The dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are also correct in recognizing an infringement of the Charter‘s guarantee of religious freedom, though as we shall see, the majority’s recognition, in particular, is well-nigh meaningless, and it is too bad that neither the majority nor the Chief Justice articulate the issue in terms of state neutrality. The key to the Charter aspect of the case is that Trinity Western has been denied something that there is no doubt it would have been granted but for the religious belief and practice which it embodies. While some, including both critics and supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision, have suggested that the case should really have been about freedom of association, I think it makes sense to frame as being about the state neutrality aspect of religious liberty. (That said, freedom of association would also have been a plausible approach ― at least if one ignores the Supreme Court’s refashioning of this provision into one that only benefits labour unions).

Justice Rowe, in my view, is quite mistaken. For one thing, I don’t understand how he, as an appellate judge, can make findings, or even speculate, about the sincerity of individual’s religious beliefs. For another ― and this, as we’ll presently see, is a problem not just for him, but for the majority too ― the suggestion that a court can distinguish between beliefs that are well and truly obligatory and those that are mere “preferences” goes against the approach adopted by the majority of the Supreme Court in Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551, which rejects testing the “validity” of religious beliefs, or asking whether a given practice is regarded as truly mandatory or supererogatory. Most fundamentally, Justice Rowe is wrong to claim that Trinity Western is trying to impose its beliefs on anyone. It demands forbearance from certain actions ― without inquiring into the reasons for this forbearance, in the same way as the state normally demands compliance with laws but doesn’t require citizens to subscribe to the principles behind them. Such demands are indeed quite antithetical to the freedom of conscience ― and one can only hope that Justice Rowe will remember this if or when the Law Society of Ontario’s Statement of Principles policy comes to his court for review ― but this is not what is going on here.

* * *

For the majority, denying Trinity Western accreditation was the only way for the Law Societies to further their statutory mandate (as they understood it), and the denial was “proportionate” to that mandate. It “did not limit religious freedom to a significant extent”, [85] and “does not prohibit any evangelical Christians from adhering to the Covenant or associating with those who do”. [86] Trinity Western itself can still receive accreditation by removing the “Covenant”, or making compliance with it voluntary, and “a mandatory covenant is … not absolutely required for the religious practice at issue”. [87] As for the students who wish to attend it, they prefer to go to a law school governed by the mandatory “Covenant”, but do not have to.

Meanwhile, denying Trinity Western accreditation contributed to “maintaining equal access to and diversity in the legal profession”. [93] Even though accrediting Trinity Western wouldn’t restrict LGBTQ students’ options in comparison with what they currently are, it would leave them with fewer options than their peers which “undermines true” or “substantive equality”. [95] The denial of accreditation also serves to protect any LGBTQ students who were to venture to Trinity Western from “the risk of significant harm” to their dignity, [96] and prevents Trinity Western from “impos[ing]” [102] its religious beliefs on them (and others). The majority concludes that this is just one of the cases where “minor limits on religious freedom are often an unavoidable reality of a decision-maker’s pursuit of its statutory mandate in a multicultural and democratic society.” [100]

The Chief Justice agrees that the denial of accreditation “was minimally impairing”, [127] but she takes the infringement of Trinity Western’s rights more seriously than the majority. Interference with a “lengthy and passionately held tradition” “of religious schools … established to allow people to study at institutions that reflect their faith and their practices” [130] is no trivial matter. Besides, court cannot assess the significance of religious beliefs and practices, or conclude that they are of minor significance because some believers “may be prepared to give [them] up”. [132] Finally, the Chief Justice rejects the argument that Trinity Western is imposing its beliefs on others:

Students who do not agree with the religious practices do not need to attend these schools. But if they want to attend, for whatever reason, and agree to the practices required of students, it is difficult to speak of compulsion. [133]

On the other side of the balancing exercise, the Chief Justice is skeptical that denying Trinity Western accreditation will do much for LGBTQ students, few of whom would ever consider attending it. However, she gives more weight to “the imperative of refusing to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, pursuant to the [law societies’] statutory obligation to protect the public interest”. [137] The Chief Justice finds that “[d]espite the forceful claims made by” Trinity Western, she “cannot conclude that” denying it accreditation “was unreasonable”. [148]

The dissent, by contrast, sees no good justification for the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western ― even on the assumption (which, as explained in the previous post, the dissent denies) that the law societies have a free-standing mandate to advance “the public interest”. To be sure, Trinity Western’s “Covenant” is exclusionary; but  this exclusion “is a function of accommodating religious freedom, which itself advances the public interest by promoting diversity in a liberal, pluralist society”. [327] Canada has traditionally accommodated religious difference, instead of insisting, as the majority does, that it must sometimes be curtailed in the pursuit of statutory objectives. Moreover, “it is the state and state actors — not private institutions like [Trinity Western] — which are constitutionally bound to accommodate difference in order to foster pluralism”. [330] The state is supposed to be secular ― and that means

pluralism and respect for diversity, not the suppression of full participation in society by imposing a forced choice between conformity with a single majoritarian norm and withdrawal from the public square. Secularism does not exclude religious beliefs, even discriminatory religious beliefs, from the public square. Rather, it guarantees an inclusive public square by neither privileging nor silencing any single view. [332]

Besides,  “the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has already determined that the public interest is served by accommodating religious communities” [335] when it exempted Trinity Western from the application of the provincial anti-discrimination legislation.

The dissent also rejects the Chief Justice’s position that accrediting Trinity Western would amount to condoning its discriminatory beliefs:

State recognition of the rights of a private actor does not amount to an endorsement of that actor’s beliefs … Equating approval to condonation turns the protective shield of the Charter into a sword by effectively imposing Charter obligations on private actors. [338]

The state is not entitled to impose its values on those who are not subject to constitutional obligations. While it may not favour particular beliefs, neither may it deny recognition to persons or institutions who hold beliefs that are at odds with its own commitments.

On this, again, the dissenters are exactly right. The majority and the Chief Justice are allowing the law societies to circumvent the decisions of the framers of the Charter and the British Columbia legislature to permit illiberal and discriminatory private actors to retain and act on their religiously motivated beliefs. Yet religious freedom demands no less. When the state uses its regulatory (or, in other cases, its fiscal) power to deny benefits to persons and institutions whose only “fault” is that they hold religious beliefs of which the state does not approve, it not only fails to discharge its duty of neutrality, but actively seeks to eliminate religious diversity or, at best, to push dissentient religious views into the closet. (I use this phrase advisedly.) Moreover, the Chief Justice’s logic ― that the state is entitled to deny a license, benefit, or privilege to persons or entities whose views it ought not to condone ― extends well beyond the realm of religious freedom. Can racist parents be prevented from sending their children to public schools? Holocaust deniers from getting driver’s licenses? Can flat-Earthers be denied passports, or EI payments? In fine, can any interaction a citizen might have with the state be conditioned on that citizen’s not holding proscribed beliefs?

The majority, of course, is no more respectful of religious freedom than the Chief Justice ― and probably less so. Like Justice Rowe, it would, contrary to Amselem, set up secular courts as ecclesiastical tribunals responsible for determining what is and what is not mandatory as a matter of religious dogma. Like Justice Rowe, it confuses rules of conduct and reasons for complying with them and denies the agency of persons who voluntarily choose to submit to rules whose raison d’être they might disapprove of. As for its understanding of “substantive” equality, it requires denying options to all so as not to admit of any disparity, even one that literally leaves “enough and as good” ― and indeed, more than enough and better ― options to those ostensibly excluded; in other words, a levelling down.

* * *

I’m not sure how much is left of the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty after the Trinity Western decisions. Presumably, purely private devotion still cannot be forbidden or compelled ― to that extent, it is fortunate that the Chief Justice’s approach, which would have opened even private religious views to scrutiny the moment a citizen starts interacting with the state, has not prevailed. But any relationships between religious persons or entities with others ― even entirely consensual relationships ― are now open to regulation in which the religiously motivated actions can be regulated or prohibited as impositions of belief, or subjected to the imposition of the state’s values, whether or not there is any legislative basis for such imposition in the circumstances. Purely symbolic harms are deemed to provide sufficient justification for regulation, and multiculturalism is made to serve as an excuse for silencing and assimilating non-conformists. It is telling that the arguments that purportedly justify the denial of accreditation to Trinity Western are not meaningfully different from that those that supposedly support bans on Muslim face veils, which are also said to be necessary to prevent the imposition of retrograde, discriminatory views on those who do not freely embrace them.

Almost five years ago, I commented on an article by Douglas Laycock called “Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars,” which decried the growing hostility to religious freedom among large sections of the political left. Professor Laycock connected this hostility to the religious right’s own attempts to suppress the liberties of the people it regarded as morally misguided. But, contrary to the claims of the Supreme Court’s majority and Justice Rowe, no such thing happened at Trinity Western. However distasteful its views ― and I do find them distasteful, not just the homophobia but the illiberalism more broadly ― Trinity Western wasn’t trying to impose them on unwilling outsiders. Professor Laycock was hopeful that “[w]e could still create a society in which both sides can live their own values, if we care enough about liberty to protect it for both sides”. (41) The Trinity Western cases show this possibility is no longer a realistic one in Canada, for the foreseeable future. The winners in the culture war have chosen not to take prisoners, and to accept nothing short of an unconditional surrender. The Supreme Court holds that they are entitled to do so.

Still Unhappy

The Canadian Judicial Council’s report on the former Justice Camp does little to ease my concerns

First of all, my apologies for the silence in the last couple of weeks. Let me return to something that happened during that period: the Canadian Judicial Council issued its Report to the Minister of Justice in the matter of Robin Camp, the “why didn’t you keep your knees together?” judge. The Council confirmed the recommendation of the Investigative Committee it had previously set up that the judge be dismissed, and Justice Camp finally resigned ― which, as I argued in my post on the Committee’s report he should have done long ago. Unfortunately, Justice Camp’s failure to do so gave the Committee the occasion to issue a report that was, in my view, seriously flawed. The Judicial Council’s own Report does little to remedy these flaws.

My general objection to the Committee’s report was that it was not clear on what basis it recommended that Parliament dismiss Justice Camp. Perhaps it was his (inconvertible) sexism. Perhaps it was his “antipathy” towards, indeed his “bias” against, the law he was applying, or maybe not the law itself but the values underlying it, though it is possible that that was only because this law was “laden with concerns about gender equality bias and discrimination”. Perhaps it was because Justice Camp’s behaviour contributed to a public impression that the system is rigged against the victims of sexual assault. All of these factors were present in Justice Camp’s case, but what about some future one where they would not be? Parliament’s power to remove a judge from office is too grave to be exercised on an uncertain basis.

Unfortunately, the Judicial Council does not clarify matters. Its own report, beyond assertions that it has carefully considered that of the Committee, consists mostly of and of responses to Justice Camp’s objections. The responses are arguably sufficient so far as they go, but while they may have persuaded Justice Camp to finally fall on his sword, they provided little guidance for future that may be somewhat, but not entirely, similar to his. We still do not know whether the various factors identified by the Committee are all necessary, or which of them are, for a judge to be removed. As I did in my earlier post, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of being precise here. Each case is unique and calls for a judgment on its own fact. But I still believe that more clarity about the circumstances in which it is permissible to interfere with judicial independence would have been in order.

The Council might have tried to address one specific point tried to make ― not that I think it did so because I made it! ― about the potential chilling effect of the Committee’s report on judges who might be less than enamoured with the law as it happens to stand from time to time. The Council wants us to know that it is

mindful that any criticism Council levels against a judge must not have a chilling effect on the ability of judges, generally … to call attention to deficiencies in the law in appropriate cases. Indeed, judges have a duty to be critical of existing legislation in specific circumstances, for example where a judge forms a view that a specific provision contravenes our Constitution or otherwise operates in a deficient manner. We do not in any way intend to deter judges from asking the hard questions and taking the difficult positions that are sometimes necessary to discharge their judicial responsibilities. [35]

This is a useful clarification, although in my view it does not go far enough. It does not address the Committee’s confusing, and in my view unsustainable, attempt to distinguish (permissible) criticism of a law’s practical effects and (impermissible) criticism of values underpinning the law. Nor does it address the unjustified asymmetry between judicial commentary that criticizes the law and that which goes out of its way to approve it, though admittedly the latter sort of commentary was not in issue here. Be that as it may, the Council notes that “some of the Judge’s comments in this case were not in the nature of legitimate legal inquiries or comment” [36], perhaps because they were irrelevant to factual and legal issues before him. But again, this strikes me as too vague to provide useful guidance for the future about the scope of “legitimate … comment”.

It is said that hard cases make bad law ― not hard in the sense of intellectually challenging, but hard in the sense of emotionally difficult. But perhaps so do easy ones. Justice Camp’s case was easy ― in the sense that it was easy to want him gone from the bench. But that may well have encouraged the people who decided it ― thoughtful jurists though they are in their day jobs ― to spare themselves some difficult line-drawing exercises. I can only hope that we do not come to regret this.

Unhappy Camper

The shortcomings of the report into the misconduct of Justice Camp

The Inquiry Committee set up by the Canadian Judicial Council to investigate whether Justice Robin Camp ― the “why didn’t keep your knees together” judge ― has “committed misconduct and placed himself, by his conduct, in a position incompatible with the due execution of the office of judge” has produced a report concluding that he did. The Report has been praised, not least for its pedagogical qualities. But of course, its primary function is not to be a teaching aid in educating lawyers and judges about rape myths and the conduct of sexual assault trials, useful though it may be in doing that. It is, first and foremost, the potential foundation for Parliament’s exercise of one of its most tremendous powers: that of moving an address for the removal of a judge. And in that respect, in my view, the Report falls short of what would have been desirable.

To be clear: I do not say this out of any sympathy for Justice Camp. His conduct towards the complainant (and, to a lesser extent, the prosecutor) during that notorious trial was appalling, as the Report details. And, unlike Brenda Cossman, I do not think that whatever efforts Justice Camp has undertaken since to educate himself about the history and purposes of sexual assault law are enough to allow him to go on in office. This re-education, whatever its value, cannot address the fact that he had the conceit of conducting a trial in an area of law about which he knew next to nothing. Since he is now at the Federal Court, there would be no sexual assault trials in Justice Camp’s future even if here were to stay there, but there could be plenty of other cases in areas of the law about which he does not know much ― and I do not think that litigants who appear before him in such cases can be assured that he will make enough efforts to educate himself about those. So there are sufficient reasons in the report for Justice Camp to resign ― indeed, to make resignation the only right course of action.

But are there sufficient reasons for Parliament to fire him? That is not so clear to me. The Report never quite articulates a clear reason why Justice Camp should be removed from office. Instead, it seems that a combination of several factors, which may or may not have been sufficient on their own (we are never told), lead to that conclusion. Such an approach is not necessarily objectionable in other contexts, but it is a problem here, because, not knowing which of the Report’s concerns might have been the decisive one, governments, activists, or simply disgruntled individuals with an ax to grind may be tempted in future cases to use any one of them as a stand-alone motivation for an attempt to remove another judge. And this is disturbing, because these concerns can potentially extend to circumstances quite unlike those involved here, and the exercise of any power, but especially one as awesome (in the old sense of the word) as the removal of a judge, in the absence of clear principles limiting this power, is worrying.

* * *

Part of the reason why the Report suggests that Justice Camp ought to be removed from office is simply the sexist stereotyping that many of his comments during the trial and his subsequent reasons for judgment reflect. But it is only a part, and as I read the Report not the decisive one. Rather, the Report puts a great of emphasis on the fact that Justice Camp’s comments demonstrated his “antipathy towards laws designed to protect vulnerable witnesses, promote equality, and bring integrity to sexual assault trials”. [6] The Report suggests that “antipathy” towards the law the judge is charged with applying, or maybe to the values underlying this law, in itself amounts to bias ― though it is not quite clear whether this is only in the unique circumstances of a sexual assault trial, but perhaps more generally.

The Report notes that “[g]enerally, judges refrain from commenting on the merits or wisdom of laws enacted by Parliament or the provincial legislatures”, but also “that judges are permitted to criticize the law in certain contexts”, [86] especially in constitutional cases. The Report concludes, however, that

Justice Camp’s comments about [the ‘rape shield’ provision] of the Criminal Code are far removed from … permissible criticism. His comments were gratuitous and stemmed from a limited understanding of what he was so quick to criticize. Moreover, his criticisms were not based on thoughtful analysis nor even any analysis at all. [88]

This criticism is to be contrasted with, not compared to, the good sort of criticism that “ha[s] nothing to do with the values underlying those provisions” that a judge is criticizing, “and everything to do with the well-known and widely accepted fact that” the application of these provisions did not serve these values well. [89] The report finds that “Justice Camp held a bias, whether conscious or unconscious, in the form of an antipathy towards the present laws governing sexual assault trials”; [104]  indeed, “his bias, whether conscious or not, led him to express disdain for the law in its current state”, [108] to formulate “comments … reasonably understood as being disparaging of legislative attempts to remove discredited myths from sexual assault law”. [182]

What the Report sees ― quite fairly, I hasten to add ― as Justice Camp’s “disdain for the careful development of the law through legislation and jurisprudence designed to bring balance and equality to a process that historically discriminated against women” [276] is, if I understand correctly, every bit as important as his underlying sexism in justifying Justice Camp’s removal. On the one hand,

[s]exual assault law and sexual assault trials are laden with concerns about gender equality, bias and discrimination. Justice Camp’s manifest failure to behave impartially and to demonstrate respect for equality in such a context, over a protracted period of time, has raised considerable public concern about how women who allege they have been sexually assaulted are treated in the judicial system. [287]

On the other,

[w]hen a judge displays disrespect or antipathy for the values that a law is designed to achieve or towards witnesses whose vulnerability is exposed, it encourages a similar disrespect or antipathy in others in the judicial system. Judges are not viewed simply as participants in the justice system. They are expected to be leaders of its ethos and exemplars of its values. … A judge who uses his role in a criminal trial to denigrate values he should respect commits serious and significant misconduct. [289, 291]

The Report makes an additional, and only distantly related point, stating that,

Justice Camp’s conduct … renders it more difficult for judges to make credibility findings adverse to a complainant in a sexual assault prosecution without fear of facing complaints that they too are part of a system rife with bias. [292]

Again, it is difficult to tell what contribution this argument makes to the report’s overall conclusion: is it important? is it necessary? is it sufficient? There is no telling.

* * *

None of the points the Report makes are wrong. But, as I suggested above, because we do not know how decisive each of them is, I worry about their being taken in isolation and used to attack judges in the future. Even if the attacks prove unsuccessful, they are liable to have a chilling effect that would undermine judicial independence.

Take the very last point, about Justice Camp’s conduct contributing to an impression that, to use a recently popular term, the system is rigged. It is very likely true. But how much can it matter? If a court issues a decision which is legally questionable and which provokes a public outcry, this is likely to “render it more difficult for judges” to reach similar outcomes “without facing complaints that they too are part” of a rigged system. But does this mean that any legally questionable, or indeed obviously mistaken, judicial decision is grounds for complaint to a judicial council (as opposed to appellate intervention, which is supposed to be the remedy for errors of law, even very bad ones)? I don’t think this is what the report means to suggest, but on its face, its argument is not limited to “credibility findings adverse to a complainant in a sexual assault prosecution”, and could be applied in all sorts of other situations.

The report’s discussion of judicial “antipathy” for or “denigration” of the law suffers from the same flaw. Is it always true that antipathy to a law that a judge ought to apply ― or perhaps to the values underlying this law ― amounts to bias and hence to misconduct? If so, then opinions such that of Judge Richard Posner in Khan v State Oil, 93 F.3d 1358 (1996) (7th Cir.), much of which was devoted to showing why the relevant Supreme Court precedent was “unsound when decided”, would amount to judicial misconduct (although Judge Posner actually applied the precedent that he was criticizing). And by the way, why is there, if indeed there is, a distinction between judicial criticism of the law, which may (at least sometimes) be tolerable (though this isn’t very clear), and judicial criticism of values underlying the law (which apparently is not)? Judges, after all, are not just sworn to uphold the values of the law ― they are sworn to uphold the law itself, though they sometimes forget this, so if criticism of values suggests that a judge might not do his or her duty, then presumably so does criticism of the law itself.

But perhaps criticism only amounts to bias when the law in question is “laden with concerns about gender equality, bias and discrimination”. Yet what area of the law is not laden with concerns about equality, bias, discrimination ― at least in the opinion of some theorist? (And whose opinion about these matters ought to count?) I am not being snarky here ― I certainly do not mean that the report is wrong about sexual assault law being laden with these concerns, or that various critical theorists are always wrong about the presence of bias in other areas of the law. What I am saying is that if the existence of concerns about bias, or perhaps about one specific form of bias (but then, why this one in particular?), are the limiting principle that defines when criticism of the law is and is not permissible, then the principle is hopelessly uncertain, and cannot do much limiting at all.

Let me make a final point in this vein, which is something of a pet peeve. If, as the report suggests, judicial antipathy to the values underlying existing law is in itself bias against those whom the law is meant to protect, then isn’t vocal sympathy for the values underlying existing law bias in favour of its beneficiaries? And isn’t bias in favour of a party or, as in this case, a witness, just as much a breach of judicial impartiality as bias against one? This isn’t just a theoretical concern: courts do sometimes go out of their way to commend the law, and while I have argued elsewhere that they should avoid doing so, I would not want judges who commit this particular judicial sin to be the subject of inquisition.

* * *

Perhaps I am making a little too much of the Report’s failure to draw clear lines between what is and what is not permissible. Perhaps a little chilling effect forcing judges to err on the side of circumspection in their commentary might even be a good thing. Then again, I doubt somehow that judges who go around the country or even the world telling people that their job is “to think about what’s best for Canadian society” rather than anything so lowly as merely applying the law will be deterred.

 It may be that judicial misconduct is, to some extent, one of those “I know it when I see it” things. But people disagree about what it is that they see. Where I see distressing arrogance, others see business as usual, and vice versa.  We might all agree about Justice Camp, but it is likely enough that we will not agree about some future cases. And while reasonable disagreement is inevitable in law and politics, and arguably something to be embraced rather than feared, there a few areas where clarity and generally understood rules are especially important. The realm of permissible interference with judicial independence is one of them. For this reason, the Report leaves me with a very uneasy feeling.

Can’t Work

The most serious argument I have seen a representative of the Québec government invoke in defence of its proposed “Charter of Values” is Bernard Drainville’s claim, in an interview to the Globe, that “[w]orking for the state is not a right, it is a choice that comes with certain responsibilities.” The argument is that since the proposed Charter would only apply to state employees, and working for the state is not a right, it would not infringe anyone’s rights ― it would only condition access to something of a privilege. Of course, being most serious argument in a heap of lies and lunacy need not mean much, but it is, I think, serious enough to deserve an answer. Nevertheless, the argument cannot work.

One obvious response to it is to invoke an anti-discrimination logic. Even if something is a matter of privilege or of discretion rather than of right, it cannot be granted on a discriminatory basis. Mr. Drainville would surely accept that a law that, say, excluded Jews from the civil service would be discriminatory and wrong, even though, as a general matter, no individual, Jewish or otherwise, has a right to be a civil servant. It is one thing to say that an individual does not have an entitlement to something that can only be obtained as a result of a competitive process (in this case, recruitment); it is quite another to exclude all members entire groups from even participating in the competition. And because the Charter of Québec values, as proposed, has a largely disparate impact on different religious groups, imposing basically no hardship on Christians or the non-religious, but a lot of hardship on the members of some religious minorities, it is discriminatory unless these restrictions can be justified on some independent basis, and not merely by saying that working for the state is not a right. (On the operation of anti-discrimination law in this context, I recommend this post by my erstwhile Federal Court colleague, and now labour and employment lawyer, Brian Gottheil.)

Mr. Drainville’s argument also fails on the logic of religious liberty and accommodation, although the reasoning here is a bit more complicated. Mr. Drainville’s position is a special case of the general principle that the case for solicitude towards a religious behaviour which clashes with some general rule is rather less strong if the clash can be avoided ― avoided, that is, not by the believer renouncing his or her religiously-motivated behaviour, but by adjusting his or her secular conduct so that the clash will not arise. To make this abstract formulation clear, consider the following examples: (1) a Sikh who wants to wear a kirpan to school, despite a general rule prohibiting dangerous objects in the school; (2) a Sikh who wants to wear a kirpan to attend a session of Parliament, despite a rule prohibiting dangerous objects in the parliamentary buildings; and (3) a Sikh who wants to wear a turban while driving a motorcycle, making it impossible for him to wear a helmet, despite a rule that makes helmets mandatory. I think that the argument for exemption in case (1) is extremely strong, because school attendance is mandatory, so that the believer has no way out of the conflict with the general rule. In case (3), by contrast, the argument for exemption is not all that strong, because riding a motorcycle is a purely optional behaviour, something done out of pleasure rather than necessity. The believer can drive a car instead, and get around without any interference with his religious duty. (Of course, we might say that the helmet requirement is a paternalist regulation and the case for it is very weak too, tipping the balance in favour of granting the exemption, but that’s a somewhat different argument.) Case (2) is, arguably, somewhere in the middle. Attending a session of Parliament is not mandatory; most people get on just fine without ever doing it. However, it is, I think, a matter of right in a democracy, and citizens should not be deprived of it without very grave reasons indeed. In my view, the case for the exemption is quite strong here, though not as strong as in (1).

So where does working for the state fall on this scale? Mr. Drainville says that being a civil servant is like riding a motorcycle (except, I guess, that it is less dangerous and exciting) ― a purely optional behaviour; if one doesn’t like the conditions that come with it, one just shouldn’t do it. But that is not quite so, especially in the context of 21st-century Québec (or indeed, albeit perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, any advanced society). The public sector employs a sizable part of the total workforce. But, more to the point, in some professions, it is the dominant, if not the only, employer. If one is a schoolteacher, one is likely to be working in a public institution (though there are, to be sure, some private schools). If one is a doctor, one has to pass through a period of public employment as a resident; in some areas (say, emergency medicine), state hospitals are the only potential employer. Cooks and janitors, who the PQ also considers to be bearers of state authority whose appearance needs to be secularized, could potentially leave public employment and take up similar, if less well-paying, jobs in the private sector. But for many professionals, that is simply not an option. For them working for the state is not a right (the state could, after all, privatize some of its activities, or simply fire them to save costs), but it’s not exactly a choice either. The case for accommodating their religious duties is much stronger than it is for the motorcycle-rider.

Of course, there are always alternatives. If a professional cannot work in Québec, chances are he or she will find a job in some other province. A hospital in Ontario is already advertising to McGill’s medical students, saying that (unlike Québec), “we don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.” But we might still hope that Mr. Drainville did not mean to say, like the officials of the Russian Empire, in the wake of late 19th-century Jewish pogroms, that “the western border is open to you.” Or did he?

Vive la Différence!

It was a long time in coming, but the Supreme Court has finally delivered its ruling regarding the constitutionality of Québec’s (absence of) legal regime for de facto (a.k.a. common law) couples. The dispute pitted a wealthy businessman, identified by the Supreme Court as “B”, against his former common law spouse (and mother of his three children), identified as “A”. (In Québec, they are better known by the pseudonyms Éric and Lola). She claimed that the fact that provisions of the Civil Code of Québec (CCQ) relative to the division of family property and support obligations applied to married but not to de facto couples, such as theirs, was a breach of the equality guarantee of s. 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yesterday’s decision, Quebec (Attorney General) v. A, 2013 SCC 5, rejected that claim. The reasons, unfortunately, are obscenely long, so I will forego my usual detailed summary. After an additional rant about their length, I will summarize each of the four sets of reasons very briefly, and make some comments about the issues the decision raises and, mostly, fails to address.

First of all, let me repeat what I just said: the length of this decision is unconscionable. It is over 200 pages long. As I wrote here, when ranting about a somewhat shorter judgment,

judges impose limits on the length of written submissions by lawyers. They should impose the same limits on their own work. [Judges] make[] much of the courts’ work being for the benefit of the public. It’s not when the product is of such length that no reasonable member of the public can be expected to read it.

Now, unlike in that case, part of the explanation for the judgment’s length here is that there are multiple sets of reasons, four of them in fact. But that still works out to over 50 pages on average―and none of these sets reasons had to canvass all of the issues in the case. I simply see no excuse for the Court’s prolixity.

The four sets of reasons are as follows.

1) Justice Lebel, writing for himself and Justices Fish, Rothstein, and Moldaver, would have held that the impugned provisions of the CCQ do not infringe s. 15(1) of the Charter. Although they distinguish between married and de facto couples, this distinction is not discriminatory because it neither perpetuates prejudice nor reflects a stereotype. Instead, it gives effect to people’s autonomy, a value which, along with equality and human dignity, underpins s. 15 of the Charter.

2) Justice Abella would have held that all the impugned provisions are unconstitutional. They are discriminatory because they impose a disadvantage on a group which, historically, has been the victim of strong prejudice. And they cannot be justified under s. 1 of the Charter, because the legislative purpose of preserving autonomy can be achieved by means less impairing of equality, such as a presumptive application of the legal regime for married couples to unmarried ones, subject to an ability to contract out of that regime.

3) Justice Deschamps, writing for herself and Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, agrees with justice Abella that the provisions in question breach s. 15(1). However, while would also have held that the legislature’s failure to provide support rights to members of de facto couples is unconstitutional, she finds that the provisions related to the division of family property are the least restrictive means of achieving the legislature’s aim of preserving autonomy, and hence are saved by s. 1 of the Charter.

4) Chief Justice McLachlin agrees with Justice Abella that the impugned provisions are discriminatory, but she holds that they can all be justified under s. 1 of the Charter, because nothing short of the exclusion of the de facto couples from the mandatory regime imposed on married ones could preserve their full autonomy, which is the legislature’s goal.

The final tally is that the provision relative to support is upheld 5-4, while those relative to the division of property are upheld 8-1.

Now for some comments on the decision.

First, the decision shows that s. 15(1) of the Charter continues to bedevil the Supreme Court. R. v. Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 483, which was supposed to clarify the Courts equality jurisprudence, seems to have failed to do so. The court is fractured 5-4 on the issue of the difference between legislative distinctions, which are permissible, and discrimination, which is unconstitutional. Justice Lebel thinks that, to succeed in a s. 15(1) claim, the claimant must prove that “the disadvantage” he or she complains of “is discriminatory because (i) it perpetuates prejudice or (ii) it stereotypes” (par. 186). Justice Abella, who on this point has the support of a bare majority of the court, thinks not. Prejudice and stereotyping are indicia of discrimination, but no more than that. Whenever  “state conduct widens the gap between [a] historically disadvantaged group and the rest of society rather than narrowing it, … it is discriminatory” (par. 332).

Furthermore, remarkably, not one of the four judgments discusses the possible applicability of Kapp‘s holding that, pursuant to s. 15(2) of the Charter, a legislative scheme that is intended to remedy a historic disadvantage will not be considered discriminatory even if it does not address the situation of all the groups who have suffered from that or a similar disadvantage. The family law regime challenged by A arguably had an ameliorative purpose, to help disadvantaged members of formerly-married couples. Why no mention of s. 15(2) then? Maybe B and the Québec government simply did not raise it, in which case it seems to me that their lawyers made a serious mistake. Still, I find it surprising that the court―especially Justice Lebel―did not mention it at all.

Another issue that the court does not discuss is the subject of the equality rights that A asserted. Whose rights are at issue―the de facto couples’ or those of the economically disadvantaged members of those couples? The judgments, especially those of the majority of the judges who find that s. 15(1) has been breached, shift ceaselessly between the two possibilities. But the distinction matters. It is the couples who, historically were the victims of prejudice and disapproval because their behaviour was considered immoral. But it doesn’t make sense to say, as Justices Abella and Deschamps and Chief Justice McLachlin do, that the de facto couples are denied the protection granted to married couples. The CCQ provisions challenged by A do not protect couples―they protect the economically weaker members of those couples. The trouble for the s. 15(1) majority is that historic prejudice, on which they rely to justify their conclusion of discrimination, was not directed against individual members of couples. Furthermore, the disadvantage at which individuals such as A find themselves is due, in the first instance, to their partners’ (and sometimes, though not in this case, their own) refusal to get married, rather than to any decision of the state. And so the s. 15(1) majority judgments rely on discrimination against couples or disadvantage to individuals, as suits their needs, even though one has no direct connection with the other. I’m not sure whether they are merely confused or deliberately obfuscating.

And there is a further aspect of the equality claim that the s. 15(1) majority ignores. A complains of discrimination on the ground of her marital status. The Supreme Court has long recognized marital status as a prohibited ground of discrimination for the purposes of s. 15(1) of the Charter. But marital status is different from most of the other prohibited grounds, such as sex, age, religion, or sexual orientation, in that it is a creature of the law. Most other prohibited grounds of discrimination―citizenship is the only exception I can think of―are essentially pre- or extra-legal. A person is of a certain age, a certain religion, or a certain sexual orientation regardless of what the law has to say about it. But marital status is a category entirely defined by the law. In defining marriage and other “forms of conjugality,” the law also fixes the rights and obligations that attach to that status. This definition necessarily excludes certain people, from whom the rights and obligations are also withheld.  This cannot, in itself, be discriminatory. Now, distinctions on the basis of marital status, as of other categories defined by law, such as citizenship, can be discriminatory when they have nothing to do with the definition of that category. (Justice Lebel discusses this issue, par. 220-21, but the other judgments fail to respond to his points.) And a definition of a legal status can be discriminatory on some other basis―as, for example, the traditional definition of marriage was on the basis of sexual orientation. But I don’t think that it makes sense to say that a definition of a legal status can discriminate on the basis of that status.

The final comment I want to make concerns the role of the judiciary in this dispute. As I said here,

[i]t is one thing for courts resist attempts by legislatures or the executive to expand their coercive powers, or when politicians distort the democratic process in order to entrench themselves in power. It is something else for courts to intervene when legislatures try to strike a balance between the interests of different groups of citizens.

Courts should be more cautious in such cases, all the more so when the legislature actually considered the issue with some care, as the Québec legislature did the rights of de facto spouses.

For all that, the outcome of the case is right, and a relief. The majority reaffirms the importance of the choices people make, and their freedom to define their own legal position different from the state’s default rules. And it reaffirms the same freedom for Canadian provinces too, with Québec being allowed to stick with its unique approach if it so wishes. A win for individual liberty and for federalism, then. Vive la différence!