Esprit d’Escalier

Just two years after its notorious decision in Gray’s case, the Supreme Court took a more skeptical view of the executive’s claims of broad emergency powers

There is a wonderful French phrase that describes the flash of wit that only comes well after the conversation in which it would have served is over ― say, as one is walking down the stairs, leaving the party: esprit d’escalier. We’ve all had it, no doubt. A so has the Supreme Court ― or so it seems to me after reading an old decision co-blogger Mark Mancini recently pointed out to me, In re Price Bros and The Board of Commerce of Canada, (1920) 60 SCR 265.

This case offers a spirited example of robust statutory interpretation being used to counter-act an overbroad grant of discretion to the executive in wartime legislation. For this it deserves to be more widely known (and I take it that this was Mark’s first interest in the decision). But, for my part, I cannot fail to note the sad contrast with the Supreme Court’s better-known engagement with such things just two years earlier, with In Re George Edwin Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150.

Recall that in Gray, a majority of the Supreme Court adopted an extremely broad reading of the powers delegated to the Governor-in-Council by the War Measures Act, 1914. Specifically, the key issue there was whether the governor could, by regulation, override an exemption from the obligation to do military service that had previously been granted by statute. In the leading judgment (in which three of the four judges in the majority concurred), Justice Anglin recognized that

[n]o doubt the amendment of a statute or the taking away of privileges enjoyed or acquired under the authority of a statute by order-in-council is an extreme exercise of the power of the Governor-in-council to make orders and regulations of a legislative character. (180)

Still, he found that it was justified, in view of the breadth of the grant of powers in section 6 of War Measures Act

to do and authorize such acts and things and to make from time to time such orders and regulations as he may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.

These words were followed by an enumeration of specific subjects the regulations could address, but since that was introduced by a clause providing that the enumeration was “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms”. For Justice Anglin, this meant that it would be wrong to apply to ejusdem generis maxim of statutory interpretation, which suggests that mention of examples means that the general category has to be understood by reference to these examples.

And Justice Anglin insisted, too, that

The exercise of legislative functions such as those here in question by the Governor-in-council rather than by Parliament is no doubt something to be avoided as far as possible. But we are living in extraordinary times which necessitate the taking of extraordinary measures. (181-82)

Chief Justice Fitzpatrick made a similar point:

It seems to me obvious that parliament intended, as the language used implies, to clothe the executive with the widest powers in time of danger. Taken literally, the language of the section contains unlimited powers. Parliament expressly enacted that, when need arises, the executive may for the common defence make such orders and regulations as they may deem necessary or advisable for the security, peace, order and welfare of Canada. The enlightened men who framed that section, and the members of parliament who adopted it, were providing for a very great emergency, and they must be understood to have employed words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said. (158-59)

Meanwhile, Price Bros concerned an order of the Board of Commerce requiring a paper company to supply specified quantities of newsprint to certain newspapers. (Remember those?) Simplifying somewhat, the Board’s jurisdiction to make such an order was supported on two grounds. First, a previous order under the War Measures Act invested the Board with the powers of a “Commissioner and Controller of Paper”, including, specifically, the power to make orders of this nature. Second, the Board separately had jurisdiction under the Combines and Fair Prices Act (the forerunner of the Competition Act) to regulate trade in a “necessary of life”, defined as

a staple and ordinary article of food (whether fresh, preserved, canned, or otherwise treated) clothing and fuel, including the products, materials and ingredients from or of which any thereof are in whole or in part manufactured, composed, derived or made, and such articles of any description as the Board may from time to time by special regulation prescribe.

The Supreme Court, with only Justice Mignault dissenting as to the War Measures Act, and unanimously as to the Combines and Fair Prices Act, found that the Board’s order was ultra vires.

Justice Idington, who had dissented in Gray, effectively rejected its holding that the delegation of power under section 6 of the War Powers Act is practically unlimited and isn’t confined to the matters enumerated in that provision. For him, one of these subjects had to support the impugned regulations, and none could. In particular, authority to regulate “trading, exportation, importation, production and manufacture” cannot

apply to the mere direction of selling newsprint paper by a manufacturer thereof to a person wishing to use it. Indeed, after much consideration, I cannot think how that purely business transaction of a very ordinary type can be said to have any relevancy to the matters therein specified of possibly vital importance in many ways conceivable in a state of war. (270)

Justice Brodeur, who had also dissented in Gray, was of a similar view.

For their part, Justices Duff and Anglin, who had been in the majority in Gray, neither contradicted nor endorsed this analysis; nor did they so much as mention Gray. (Nor did their colleagues, for the record.) They focused on a somewhat different issue: that regulation of the paper trade in 1920, a year and a half after the armistice and almost a year after peace was officially concluded, could not sensibly be said to be “necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada” “by reason of the existence of … war”. Justice Duff was all circumlocution, but Justice Anglin went so far as to say that it would take bad faith to really think so, and the government must rather have been mistaken about its war powers subsisting despite the war having ended, to “[t]he common knowledge possessed by every man on the street, of which courts of justice cannot divest themselves”. (279)

As for the other argument, to the effect that the Board could regulate newsprint as a “necessary of life”, the Court was, as mentioned above unanimous in rejecting it, and indeed in finding it rather unserious. Justice Anglin’s reasons, though, are worth a closer look, because they offer yet another point of contrast with Gray. In that case, he had found that the prefatory “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing” excluded the application of the ejusdem generis canon of interpretation. Not so here with the “articles of any description” clause, though Justice Anglin explicitly noted that

[a]t first blush the words “of any description” appended to the general words “other articles” would almost seem to have been inserted  to indicate an intention to exclude the application to this section of the ejusdem generis rule, and to require that the general words “other articles” should here be given their ordinary general construction. (283)

But, Justice Anglin said, “consideration of the character of the Act and of the context as a whole” suggests “that Parliament cannot have meant that words the ‘other articles’ should bear their ordinary broad signification”. (285) For one thing, Parliament wouldn’t have needed to describe staple foods explicitly, if it were otherwise; for another, because the designation of an item as a “necessary of life” by the Board allowed for the imposition of criminal penalties for its “accumulation or withholding from sale”, he found it

inconceivable that Parliament meant to confer such wide and unheard of powers. I rather think that no one would be more surprised and shocked than the legislators themselves were they informed that they had done so. I am therefore satisfied that Parliament must have intended that the words “other articles of any description” in sec. 16, notwithstanding their obvious and emphasized generality, should receive a much more restricted construction. (286)

Justice Anglin observes, for good measure, that Poarliament “must be taken to have been fully cognizant of … the ejusdem generis rule of construction so frequently acted on by the courts”. (286)

All that makes sense to me; there is much to like about Price Bros. But wouldn’t the arguments that prevailed there ― and prevailed rightly ― have applied with equal force in Gray? If general language referring to “articles of any description” could be read down to only apply to a comparatively narrow class of items; if the courts, rather than an administrative board, could authoritatively interpret what is necessary for life; if Parliament must be taken to be cognizant of the ejusdem generis principle when legislating; a fortiori, if the limited reading of the War Measures Act offered by Justices Idington and Brodeur deserved no express disagreement; why wasn’t any of that so in the earlier case?

The answer, I’m afraid, seems inescapable. When the judges saw “extraordinary times”, a “time of danger”, “a very great emergency”, they saw also “extraordinary measures” taken by “enlightened men”. Once the danger had passed, the enlightened men became capable of incompetence if not bad faith, and judges gathered their wits, or redressed their backbones. A Marxist take on it all might point out that the Supreme Court refused to take the side of a simple farmer torn off from his land and sent to do and die, but did side with capitalists denied the opportunity of profit. But I am no Marxist, and have no reason to suppose that this is fair. More likely, the older maxim is the better: Inter armes tacent leges.

So perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps we should even be happy that the judges did, after all, recover ― mostly. Consider Justice Mignault’s partial dissent in Price Bros: Neither common knowledge nor even proclamations by the King satisfied him, and he insisted that only a proclamation by the Canadian government, in the form prescribed by the War Measures Act, would have put an end to the government’s emergency powers under that Act. The government had not troubled itself with issuing such a proclamation. This might be something to ponder as we are dealing with one emergency, and facing strident calls for governments to proclaim and assume enormous powers to try to deal with yet another, climatic, one.

But this brings me to the last point I’ll make here, and it might be a somewhat hopeful one. Gray is usually taken as authority for Parliament’s ability to delegate vast powers to the executive, especially in emergency contexts. That’s true, so far as that goes. But it’s worth noting, first, that just two years after it was decided it may already have been seen as something of an embarrassment, including by the same judges who decided it. Perhaps more significantly, at the very least, Price Bros should be taken as authority for the proposition that courts should not take the executive’s assertions about the existence of emergencies and the need for emergency powers on faith. However deferential they may be while the emergency is ongoing, their willingness to check the executive in this respect is a salutary constraint on powers that could easily destroy the constitution in its absence.

Inter vira enim loquuntur leges

The pandemic and delegation of power to the executive

Writing in La Presse earlier this week, Martine Valois raises some pointed questions about the extent of the powers the Québec government is exercising by various forms of delegated legislation, without control or even clear authorization by the National Assembly. Professor Valois’s op-ed is worth reading in full, but I would like to focus on one specific point she makes, about a decree that

allows [the government] to suspend orders given by the Superior Court in relation to supervised visits between a child and a parent. In our legal system, which is based on the Rule of Law and separation of powers, a minister cannot suspend a judicial decision. (Translation mine)

Maxime St-Hilaire has a response to Professor Valois over at À qui de droit, which is also worth reading. He is sympathetic on the whole, but on the specific point I am highlighting here, he disagrees. Professor St-Hilaire points out that “incompatible legislation can modify, suspend, or annul the effects of a judgment”, (translation mine here and below) and it is far from certain that this power cannot be delegated to the executive. Professor St-Hilaire points to cases such as In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150 and the Chemicals Reference, [1943] SCR 1, which accept “imprecise delegation of extremely broad powers ‘of a legislative nature’ to the executive, provided that such legislation can be revoked, and all the more so in an emergency situation”. This power is subject to constitutional limits, arising notably out of the federal division of powers, the protected jurisdiction of superior courts, and the constitutional amendment formula, but none are relevant here.

My own, tentative, view is somewhere in between those of Professors Valois and St-Hilaire. I’m not convinced that the principles of the Rule of Law, let alone separation of powers, can be applied to as to generate a legal prohibition on the delegation of a power to suspend or override court orders. At the same time, however, I think there is a strong case to be made for the proposition that such delegations should not easily be read into general legislative provisions, and that the specific provision invoked by the Québec government does not in fact authorize it to suspend court orders.

I think it is reasonably clear that, in application of the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, legal rights determined by the judgment of a court can be modified by statute. And it is also clear that, subject to exceptional limitations (notably those in relation to taxation which I recently discussed here), legislatures can delegate their power to change the law to the executive. Is the power to modify rights fixed by court order an exception to this general rule? As readers will recall, I am more open to the possibility of constitutional principles producing specific legal effects, including invalidating some legislative provisions, than many other scholars. But I am not convinced that such an exception can be derived from the principles Professor Valois invokes. No doubt the Rule of Law counsels against upending court orders, but like the more general requirement of legal stability, this is probably not an absolute rule. And no doubt separation of powers says that the executive should not adjudicate disputes, but this is not what is going on here: court orders are suspended, in blanket fashion rather than case-by-case, and will, presumably, then be reinstate, in blanket fashion too.

But while this disposes of the suggestion that there is an absolute, constitutional prohibition on delegating a power to interfere with court orders, the question of whether a given delegation actually accomplishes this is a separate one. The Québec government’s authority to suspend the effect of court judgments is aid to rest on the residual clause in section 123 of the Public Health Act. Section 123 provides that “while the public health emergency is in effect, the Government … may, without delay and without further formality” take a certain number of measures “to protect the health of the population”. Seven types of measures are enumerated, from compulsory vaccination, to closures, quarantines, and evacuations, to building works and expenditures. The residual clause, section 123(8), follows this enumeration, empowering the government to “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population”. The question, then, is whether this broadly-worded, but residual, provision, authorizes the government to suspend court orders.

It is true, as Professor St-Hilaire says, that “imprecise delegation of extremely broad powers” is possible under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gray and Chemicals. But these cases do not stand for the proposition that imprecise delegation must always be taken to enable the government to do whatever it wants. In both, the Court was at least prepared to entertain the possibility that the powers claimed by the executive had not been validly delegated. Both cases concerned the interpretation of a provision of the War Measures Act which granted vast powers to the executive to:

do and authorize such acts and things, and make from time to time such orders and regulations, as [the Governor in Council] may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada; and for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms, it is hereby declared that the powers of the Governor in Council shall extend to all matters coming within the classes of subjects hereinafter enumerated… 

In Gray, the issues were, first, whether this was a “Henry VIII clause”, empowering the executive to make regulations that override statutes and, second, whether the subjects of the regulations made under this provision had to be of a similar nature to those enumerated. The majority of the Supreme Court held that the opening part of this provision was broad enough to serve a Henry VIII clause, while the proviso in the second part ousted the application of the ejusdem generis presumption. In Chemicals, the main issue was whether the power delegated by Parliament to the Governor in Council could further be delegated to officials. The Court held that it could, because the power was so sweeping that it was a necessary implication that it would, in part, by exercised by others.

Section 123 of Québec’s Public Health Act is not an exact equivalent to the provision of the War Measures Act interpreted in Gray and Chemicals. Indeed, its structure is almost the opposite. The War Measures Act provided a broad initial delegation to do anything the executive “may … deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada”, followed by a set of examples said, in Gray, to be not so much illustrative as “marginal” cases for which Parliament thought it expedient to dispel possible doubt. Section 123, by contrast, starts by enumerating a series of specific measures the government is authorized to take, followed by the residual clause in section 123(8). The enumerated measures are the obvious, central examples of a government might need to do in a public health emergency, and there is no language ousting the application of the ejusdem generis presumption. If anything, given this difference in statutory language, Gray arguably provides support for an argument a contrario for the proposition that the residual clause is not to be read as broadly as the War Measures Act delegation. If the Québec legislature really wanted to delegate “extremely broad powers” to the executive, it would have done so differently.

But there is more. Gray and Chemicals are good law so far as they explain the general ability of Parliament to delegate broad powers (including Henry VIII powers and the ability to subdelegate) to the executive. But in another respect, there is a strong argument to be made for the proposition that the law has moved on. In Gray, only Chief Justice Fitzpatrick referred to the argument that “the powers conferred by” the War Measures Act “were not intended to authorize the Governor-in-council to legislate … so as to take away a right … acquired under a statute”, but he easily rejected it. The issue did not arise in Chemicals. But the idea that authority to interfere with existing legal rights must be granted clearly if not expressly, that it will not be readily inferred from open-ended provisions delegating power to the executive, known as the principle of legality, has been much developed in the last few decades. The development has gone further in the United Kingdom than in Canada, but Justice Cromwell’s concurring reasons in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, unchallenged by any of his colleagues, provide at least some support for the proposition that it is in fact part of Canadian law.

There is, therefore, a serious argument to be made for the proposition that while interference with court orders may be authorized, it needs to be authorized clearly. An “imprecise and broad” delegation, let alone a residual clause following an enumeration of subjects that have nothing to do with court orders, is not enough. There is, of course, no precedent directly on point, and the argument I am advancing here is just that. However, as for example Lord Sumption explained in his Reith Lectures (which I summarized here), it is quite proper for courts, even on a limited view of their power that disclaims substantive review of public policy, to ensure that the legislature has squarely confronted the implications of exorbitant powers it grants the executive (or indeed other unusual consequences that may result from its enactments).

As both Professors Valois and St-Hilaire note, the Rule of Law tends not to fare well in real and perceived emergencies. The Rule of Law is, above all, an ideal, and in such times ideals to be disregarded. Its protection as a matter of positive constitutional law is limited. As a result, contrary to what Professor Valois suggests, I do not think the principle can serve as a categorical bar to legislatively authorized interference with court orders.

At the same time, however, the Rule of Law should not be sold short. At a minimum, it requires courts to read legislation ― even emergency legislation ― carefully, and not to find in it powers beyond those actually given by legislatures. But, more than that, the principle of legality suggests that when a legislature wants to interfere with the ideal of the Rule of Law, it must at least understand what it is doing and even, perhaps, be prepared to pay the political price for it.