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.

Someone’s Got to Do It

Was the Supreme Court right to change the law on the right to a speedy trial?

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, in which the Court, by a 5-4 majority and over the vigorous disagreement of the concurrence, held that criminals prosecutions in which a trial does not conclude by a set deadline will be presumed to breach the right to be tried within a reasonable time, protected by paragraph 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The deadline is of 18 months from the day charges are laid for cases that proceed without a preliminary inquiry, 30 months otherwise.) This decision, I said, raises a number of significant questions regarding constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. I addressed the first of these questions in my last post, saying that while one aspect of the majority’s decision was clearly at odds with constitutional text, I am not sure that this is true of its main feature, the fixed presumptive ceilings. Here, I address the other questions.

* * *

I will start with the one on which I have a pretty firm view ― that which concerns the court’s decision-making process. The concurrence castigates the majority for having imposed its presumptive “ceilings” ― and thereby transformed long-standing understanding of paragraph 11(b) ― without having been asked to do so by the parties and without adversarial debate. It adds that there was limited evidence in the record about both the current state of affairs ― which the majority characterized as “a culture of delay” ― and about the potential consequences of the new approach. I think that these criticisms are justified.

There is no question that the majority’s decision is a fairly radical departure from the existing law. Indeed, the majority is clear that it wants to change the way all the actors in the criminal justice system operate, and that governments may well have to spend more to meet their new constitutional obligations. Whether or not this new departure is a good idea, and whether or not it is consistent with the Court’s constitutional role ― questions to which I will come shortly ― it should not have been taken lightly. And while I have no doubt that the majority did consider it seriously, I do not think that it has done enough. Given the magnitude of the change it was considering, and the fact that it was not canvassed by the parties in argument, the Court should, it seems to me, have re-opened the argument and invited the parties to make submissions that would have addressed its concerns. Indeed, I wonder if the Court could have invited Attorneys General, only one of whom (Alberta’s) intervened, to participate in the debate.

Alternatively, the Court could have decided the case on the basis of the existing framework (perhaps modified as suggested by the concurrence), and suggested ― in its reasons ― that it would, in a future case, be willing to entertain submissions on whether that framework should be overhauled in the future. This would of course have delayed the implementation of any proposed changes, but it would also have allowed for any decision on whether these changes are a good idea to be made on the basis of a record put together and tested by the parties, and not only of the majority’s own limited research.

Speaking of the the research, Michael Spratt points out that the majority “did not do what every elementary school student is taught to do — show his or her work.” He calls the majority’s framework “a product of judicial alchemy and … entirely unprincipled.” I would not go this far, but an opinion that doesn’t show its authors’ work makes them vulnerable to such charges. As I said here after the Court’s decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, “I am happy to assume that the Court did its work, but others may not be, and neither they nor I should have to take that on faith.” Sure, the reasons in Jordan are very long, but the majority could have produced some sort of annex to explain the results of its research much better than it has done. It is a question of transparency, and arguably even simple respect for the public over which the Court is exercising a considerable power.

* * *

Put these (significant) concerns about process to one side, and the question whether the majority was right to decide the case the way it did gets much trickier. Admittedly, I am not especially well qualified to answer it, so take what follows with a generous helping of salt. And admittedly, more qualified people have been quite critical of the majority decision in Jordan. Mr. Spratt is especially scathing, arguing that “[t]he Supreme Court’s latest decision pays lip service to the constitution while doing little to improve the pace of Canadian justice.” In a very well argued interview with Jim Brown, on the CBC Radio’s The 180, my friend Joanna Baron has defended “incrementalism,” in preference to the majority’s approach that risks allowing too much time for trials in provincial courts, and not enough in the superior courts. Lauren Heuser, in a National Post op-ed, calls “the ceiling on trial times … worryingly firm,” especially in that it prevents courts from making exceptions on account of the “the depravity of an offence.” She writes that “[m]ore than a few people will be uncomfortable when suspected perpetrators of serious crimes walk free on perceived legal technicalities.”

Ms. Heuser’s suggestion, at least, is easy enough to dispose of. The Charter does not speak of “a right to be tried within a reasonable time, except for those accused of depraved offences.” The Jordan majority is quite right to say that only the complexity of the legal or factual issues, rather than the gravity of the charge, can justify a prosecution taking longer to conclude. Those who think otherwise need to amend the constitution.

But the underlying critique ― that (relatively) firm ceilings are not an appropriate response to the problem of delay due to the infinite variety of the cases to which they will be applied is serious. I do not know nearly enough to reject it. But I would like to raise a question for those who endorse it. It is, quite simply this: what makes you think that a few tweaks to an approach that appears to have thoroughly failed are enough? Ms. Heuser writes that “[w]hile one can question whether this ruling was the best way to light a fire under Canada’s court system, few would dispute that a fire needed to be lit.” The Jordan concurrence does not seem to address the majority’s claim that the system suffers from a “culture of delay” directly ― which seems like a concession. The concurrence does argue that the majority’s radical approach is unnecessary, because the case isn’t even a close one under the old one, at least as modified in its opinion. But there remains the fact that both the trial court and the unanimous Cour of Appeal thought that the delay which the concurrence thinks is clearly unconstitutional was just all right. I share Ms. Baron’s general preference for incrementalism, but I’m not convinced that the time for incrementalism on this issue has not run out.

Now, that doesn’t mean that what the Supreme Court did was right. Just because something must be done, and x is something, it doesn’t follow that x must be done. But what other options were there? Mr. Spratt agrees that “[c]hange is indeed needed,” but insists that “we should hold little hope that a cynical judgment from the Supreme Court will change anything.” Well, maybe ― though I think it’s unfair to describe the majority opinion in Jordan as “cynical,” despite its flaws, and would be unfair even the majority is ultimately wrong. But while it is easy enough for a blogging defence lawyer to rail against the practices of police and prosecutors, and the policies of governments, and accuse the courts of complicity, such tirades, even if justified, hardly answer the question of what a court ought to do when it does recognize the existence of a problem, even if belatedly.

* * *

Sometimes, though, the answer to the question of what one is to do even in the face of a situation crying out action, is “nothing.” The courts’ role, like that of other institutions, is limited. The Jordan concurrence has suggested that numerical ceilings should only be imposed, if at all, by legislation. Ms. Baron is also of that view. The concurrence has also criticized the majority for overturning settled precedent. So has Ms. Heuser. Both these critiques amount to a contention that the majority overstepped the proper judicial remit. I am not persuaded of this.

I agree that the majority’s decision is essentially legislative. The fact that it felt the need to lay out a transitional framework underscores this ― transitional provisions are common in statutes, but almost unheard-of in judicial decisions. But that alone isn’t enough to show that it is not appropriate for a court to make such a decision. Some judicial decisions are essentially legislative: one that comes to mind is Andrews v. Grand & Toy Alberta Ltd., [1978] 2 S.C.R. 229, in which the Supreme Court imposed a hard cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded for pain and suffering in personal injury cases. Pace such legal philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and F.A. Hayek, courts do on occasion introduce new rules of law that cannot be derived in any straightforward way from either legal principles or from the practices prevalent in society, and most people seem prepared to live with these decisions. Legislatures often accept them even when they could overturn them.

So it’s not enough to say that the Court effectively made new law and thus usurped the legislatures’ prerogative. And of course, even if the legislatures had enacted statutes to impose ceilings on delays in the justice system, the courts would still have the last word on these statutes’ constitutionality. Ruling on ceilings in the context of a constitutional challenge to a statute is almost certainly better from a process standpoint, as such a case would likely feature a substantial record of the sort that was missing in Jordan. But in terms of institutional legitimacy, it would not be that different. Indeed, such a ruling would come with complications of its own, because it would confront the courts with very difficult questions under section 1 of the Charter, which are avoided when, as in Jordan, the constitutional challenge is not aimed at a rule or regulation ― most fundamentally, about whether delays that are intolerable if produced by a “culture of delay” can be saved as “reasonable limits” to the section 11(b) rights, under section 1, by a legislative ratification.

Ultimately, though, the issue is not whether, in a perfect world, the legislatures would act to limit delays, and how the courts should respond to such legislation. Rather, the issue is that legislatures have done nothing at all to remedy the problem of unconstitutional delays. If, the lack of evidence in the record notwithstanding, it is the case that delays are endemic, and that there is a “culture of delay” ― which no one denies ― the issue is the existence of widespread and ongoing violations of the constitutional rights of thousands of people. These violations have to be remedied. Sure, it’s not the courts’ job to pursue policy objectives to which the elected officials fail to attend. But we’re not talking about mere policy here. Sure, courts should beware of disregarding procedural constraints because doing so undermines the Rule law. But doesn’t systematic disregard for the constitution undermine the Rule of Law too? If the governments will not bring themselves in conformity with their constitutional obligations, shouldn’t the courts try to make them? And if the courts do not, who will?

* * *

For all that, I am not certain that the Supreme Court got Jordan right. Its interpretation of the Charter is not beyond question; its procedural careless is disturbing; its chosen solution to what is admittedly a grave problem may be a bad one; and perhaps, all things considered, it should not have endeavoured to do more than mitigate that problem’s worst manifestations. But it is far from clear that this is so. There is more to be said in defence of the majority opinion in Jordan than most observers seem to think. Getting the government to comply with constitutional obligations is hard ― but someone’s got to do it.

A Voice of Moderation?

Thoughts on the Chief Justice’s Speech on “Democracy and the Judiciary”

Her court might not be very busy ― it had decided only 19 cases this year through May 31, the lowest number this century ― but Chief Justice McLachlin certainly is. Another Friday, another speech. After the one she gave at the Université de Montréal‘s symposium on Supreme Courts and the Common Law, there was one given on June 3 at the Empire Club of Canada. I criticized the Chief Justice’s remarks at the Université de Montréal over at the CBA National Magazine’s blog, because to me they suggested a misunderstanding of and a lack of belief in the common law, and indeed the Rule of Law itself. The Empire Club speech, in which the Chief Justice outlined her views of the history, current role, and future challenges of what she called “the third branch of Canadian governance [sic] – the judiciary” at times struck a different tone. Yet it too contained its share of historical mistakes, and ultimately was less of a statement of judicial moderation than it was perhaps supposed to be.

One interesting, and arguably telling, historical inaccuracy occurred in the Chief Justice’s description of the history of judicial independence. The Chief Justice traced this constitutional principle to the thought of

jurists like Lord Coke, who maintained that the task of judges was to apply the law as they saw it, not to do the King’s bidding. These jurists took the view that to do justice between the parties in the cases that came before them, judges must not only be impartial, but be seen to be impartial. And for impartiality, actual and perceived, they must have guarantees of independence, notably, fixed terms of appointment, fixed salary and security of tenure.

There is some truth here. Coke did value adjudicative impartiality ― indeed, as Fabien Gélinas has pointed out (at 12), it was Coke who popularized, and perhaps even coined, the maxim “nemo iudex in causa sua.” And, in Prohibitions del Roy, Coke took the position that judges had to decide cases according to law, and that the King, not being learned in the law, could not adjudicate. But it would have come as news ― though perhaps welcome news ― to Coke that judges must have guaranteed tenure. He was, after all, dismissed from judicial office after one run-in too many with James I, and that king’s son and grandchildren were also quite adept at dismissing recalcitrant judges. Judicial independence and security of tenure did not become part of the English constitution until the Act of Settlement, 1701. Importantly, as Peter Cane explained at the Supreme Courts and the Common Law symposium, it was part of a bargain of sorts whereby courts, as well as the Crown, submitted to Parliament and acknowledged its sovereignty. It may well be that the Chief Justice is just a little unclear about 17th-century constitutional history ― but it is still noteworthy that she is unclear in a way that elevates the role of jurists and judges, and obscures that of Parliament.

The Chief Justice’s take on Canadian legal history is also curious. She claims, for instance, that “[f]or eighty years after Confederation, Canada’s legal system functioned as a shadow replica of England’s legal system,” in that “England’s laws became Canada’s laws.” This is an exaggeration. The Canadian judicial system was never quite a replica of the English one (there being no distinct courts of equity, for instance) (UPDATE: See Jan Jakob’s comments below), and the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865 made clear that British legislation did not apply in Canada and in other colonies unless it was specifically intended to. The Chief Justice also seems to suggest that the Supreme Court was an afterthought for the fathers of confederation, saying that “befitting its secondary status, [it] wasn’t created until 1875.” Yet the majority opinion in l’Affaire Nadon, which the Chief Justce co-signed, points out that the issue was in fact considered, although “[a]t the time of Confederation, Quebec was reluctant to accede to the creation of a Supreme Court because of its concern that the Court would be incapable of adequately dealing with questions of the Quebec civil law,” [50] and that Sir John A. Macdonald “introduced bills for the establishment of the Supreme Court in 1869 and again in 1870 in the House of Commons.” [79] The Chief Justice seems to take a rather dismissive view of the early days of Canada’s early legal system in order to extol the modern Supreme Court. This rhetorical move is similar to the one she made in her Université de Montréal speech, in which she contrasted the supposed reasoning styles of pre-20th-century and modern common law judges. Yet in both cases, the contrasts are less stark, and the continuity between old and new is more important, than the Chief Justice lets on.

Another statement of the Chief Justice that is worth discussing is her assertion that the fact that “[i]n the lead-up to 1982, the government of the day took as its goal the creation of a ‘just society'” was a “major change[] to the Canadian legal system.” For one thing, the Chief Justice’s chronology might be a bit off again ― Pierre Trudeau first ran on the “just society” slogan in 1968. (In 1972, a heckler asked him where it was. Trudeau retorted that he should ask Jesus Christ, who’d promised it first.) More importantly though, I do not  understand how a political statement by the government of the day can amount to a “major change to the … legal system.” The Chief Justice seems to be saying that Trudeau’s articulation of the just society is some sort of benchmark by which to assess the progress of our polity, but even assuming that that is true ― and a great many people would disagree ― I still don’t see how benchmark is a legal one. Of course, to some extent Trudeau’s ideas are reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ― but the Charter was never meant to provide a complete code of social justice, and the courts’ duty is to apply the Charter as it has been enacted, and not to expand it forever until the day the just society arrives.

It also seems to me quite inappropriate for a judge to take up what was, for better or for worse, a partisan slogan and try to make it into a constitutional ideal. By doing so, the Chief Justice only gives grist for the mill of those who already think that the Charter, and the courts that enforce it, are essentially Liberal self-entrenchment devices. As I wrote in a Policy Options Perspectives post a few months ago, it is dangerous to associate a part of our constitution with a political party ― and that party’s changing fortunes. When these fortunes sag, the constitution must retain its exalted position as the protection of our rights. I urged impartial observers to keep that in mind and avoid associating the Charter with the Liberal party. I had no idea that the Chief Justice of Canada, of all people, would need the same reminder.

While the Chief Justice’s take on Canadian legal history stresses the Supreme Court’s independence and importance, and perhaps stakes out for it a role as an engine of social progress, her other comments seem intended to show that the Court is actually a modest institution aware of its place in the constitutional structure. Along with other institutions, says the Chief Justice, the Court must strive “to maintain the proper constitutional balance between the judiciary and the legislative and executive branches of governance.” It is “Parliament and the provincial legislatures,” not the courts it seems, that “are pre-eminently suited to” “make law” ― quite a contrast to the Chief Justice’s enthusiasm, in the Université de Montréal speech, for judicial development of the law. Moreover, when reviewing the constitutionality of legislation,

courts … must approach the laws adopted by Parliament and the legislatures with due deference for their preeminent law-making role and their ability to arrive at optimal solutions through debate and research. Such deference is particularly important on complex social and economic issues.

Similarly, when reviewing administrative decisions, “the courts show appropriate deference for the expertise and mandate of administrative actors and agencies.”

What to make of this description of a modest judicial role, which seems to stand in tension with the Chief Justice’s claims regarding the exalted standing of the courts ― and her rather ambitious remarks made a week previously? Perhaps the modesty is a sham, or a sop to the particular sensitivities of last week’s audience (though I don’t know what these sensitivities are). But it seems to me that there is more to it than that. The Supreme Court really does believe in and practice deference to both legislatures and the executive when reviewing their decisions ― although it does so inconsistently.

Sometimes it is bold, as when it strikes down laws that try to limit the government’s expenditures on courts on the basis of little more than constitutional principles. Sometimes it is meek, as when it insists that it will not require administrative decision-makers to apply the law correctly, never mind the facts. And it is not always easy to anticipate which it is going to be in a given case ― or even to tell which it is in an already-issued opinion. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 44, of which I could never tell whether it was a capitulation disguised as a threat, or a threat disguised as a capitulation.)

Perhaps the Chief Justice believes in a sort of departmentalism-lite, whereby each branch of government is presumptively entitled to make its own legal and constitutional determinations but, unlike with real departmentalism, the courts keep the last word if they think that the other branches are really wrong. Such a doctrine might reconcile the exaltation of the Supreme Court, and a belief in the judges’ right to do as they please with judicially-articulated doctrines, with the insistence on deference to the other branches of government. (It would also fill the empty cell in the little table of attitudes to judicil review that I offered here, to sit alongside “conservative” or Diceyan, “progressive,” and “classical liberal” or “libertarian” approaches.) Never mind whether such a doctrine is good or justified. (I don’t think it is.) The Supreme Court is, again, too inconsistent to claim its mantle.

Maybe there is some other way to make sense of the Chief Justice’s speeches. In any case, it is worth saying that the seeming inconsistency of her positions is in itself a source of discretionary if not arbitrary power. Benjamin Oliphant and I have described the same phenomenon in the realm of constitutional interpretation in our work on originalism: the Supreme Court fails to adhere to any interpretive methodology with much consistency, and thereby maintains a roster of alternative approaches on which it can draw at its convenience, while avoiding scrutiny and criticism for deviating from previously-articulated principles. Whether or not they are intended to achieve this, the Chief Justice’s  speeches present a number of different conceptions of the Supreme Court and its role, which allows it to strike whatever pose it deems appropriate in any given case. This may be to the advantage ― the short-term advantage, anyway ― of the institution that Chief Justice McLachlin leads, but this advantage is gained at the expense of principle, transparency, and ultimately the Rule of Law itself.

Here Be No Dragons

Andrew Coyne, with whom I am often inclined to agree, has written an angry column arguing that the current Supreme Court is “the most liberal-activist … in our history.” Mr. Coyne claims the Court’s decisions in l’Affaire Nadon, the Senate Reference, the collective-bargaining and right to strike cases, and above all Carter, the assisted suicide case, show that it has broken free of any constraints imposed by the constitution’s “written text, the historical record, precedent, [or] logical consistency.” Readers will remember that I have been sharply critical of the Court’s decisions in l’Affaire Nadon and in the labour rights cases (here and here), and that I have expressed some doubts about the reasoning both the Senate Reference and in Carter. And yet the charge of activism does not move me.

Judicial activism, I wrote a while ago, is “something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways.” The trouble is that there are too many definitions of what judicial activism is floating around for the concept to be very useful. Too often, it is used as a mere rhetorical bludgeon, a pejorative label intended to reject any interference by courts with policies enacted by legislators, or even simply to dismiss a decision one disagrees with.

Mr. Coyne is too sophisticated to indulge in such simplistic tactics. He proposes what might seem like a plausible definition of activism:

What makes a decision “activist” … is not merely that it results in this or that law “passed by a democratic Parliament” being overturned, but whether it does so in accordance with Parliament’s own previously expressed wishes: that is, whether the grounds for the decision can in fact be found in a sensible reading of the Constitution, or whether the court made it up. Even allowing for some difference of opinion over what is reasonable, it is clear that not every such reading can be defended, as it is sometimes  clear that no reading was even tried.

I don’t suppose that this is deliberate, but it sounds not unlike the Supreme Court’s definition of reasonableness in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190:

reasonableness is concerned mostly with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process. But it is also concerned with whether the decision falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law. [47]

An activist decision, we might say, is not a merely mistaken, but an unreasonable one. But as students of administrative law will know, this is not always a straightforwards standard to apply. Reasonable people can disagree about what is unreasonable. And so it is with the Supreme Court’s decisions about which Mr. Coyne complains.

Let me begin with those that trouble me less than Mr. Coyne.

The Senate Reference has its flaws. I have myself argued that the notion of “constitutional architecture” on which the Supreme Court rests its decision is obscure at best, and will need to be developed in subsequent cases if it is to become a working part of our constitutional law. But it is, in my view, hard to deny that the Court’s decision fits perfectly a line of cases going back to the original reference Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, and the Patriation Reference, which have consistently prevented both Parliament and the provinces from making important changes to the constitution unilaterally. Although its connection to written text is sometimes tenuous ― not least, in my view, because the text itself proved woefully inadequate to the task of guiding the Court (and the politicians to whom it is, in the first instance, addressed), the Senate Reference is not divorced from logic or precedent. Quite the contrary.

As for Carter, I have suggested that the way in which the Court presented its decision, justifying it largely by deference to the trial judge’s factual findings which it barely explained in its own opinion, is insufficiently transparent. It is an attempt to lead from behind the trial judge’s back, and this tactic is bound, in the long run, to undermine the trust people are willing to place in the Court. Yet the Supreme Court used the same approach in the prostitution case, Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, which Mr. Coyne specifically holds up as an example of justified exercise of judicial power to invalidate legislation. His concerns with Carter lie elsewhere. He is annoyed that the decision “finds a right to death in a section of the constitution devoted to the right to life.” But that provision is also devoted to a right to the security of the person, understood, pretty uncontroversially it seems to me, as a right not to be subjected to unnecessary physical or psychological suffering ― and there was compelling evidence that this was the effect of the assisted-suicide ban. And as for the fact that the Supreme Court reversed its own earlier decision upholding that ban, pace Mr. Coyne, it is true that we now know a great deal more about how an assisted-suicide regime might work than we knew 20 years ago. The Court may not have explained itself nearly well enough, but it didn’t make this up either.

I turn now to the decisions my assessment of which is closer to Mr. Coyne’s. Indeed, regarding l’Affaire Nadon, I know that he agrees with my criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision, since he said as much on Twitter. In my opinion, unlike the Senate Reference or Carter, that decision is unambiguously bad. It is poorly argued and will have (indeed, it is already having) unfortunate consequences. But is it really unreasonable, an indefensible decision for all that? Well, Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen had made a strong argument for it (which I critique here). The statute which the Supreme Court had to interpret was ambiguous, and the purposes behind it less than fully clear. The Court’s reading of the statute was wrong and pernicious. But as much as I disagree with it, I cannot bring myself to consider it as entirely divorced from the materials the Court had to work with, or absurd.

As for the collective-bargaining and right to strike cases, Omar Ha-Redeye has argued (here and here) that they are a plausible, although in my view not an obvious, still less a desirable, evolution of the Court’s jurisprudence on the Charter’s freedom of association guarantee. Certainly there were plenty of labour law scholars who urged the outcome to which the Court came. Yes, as Mr. Coyne suggests, this outcome is divorced from economics and reality. But then there will be people who will argue that it is adverting to economics instead of only legal sources that would constitute activism. Here, I think that the Court’s decisions are utterly unreasonable from a policy standpoint. But as a matter of law? Wrong, yes. Unreasonable, indefensible? I’m not so sure.

All that to say that there is plenty to criticize about the merits of the Supreme Court’s decisions, and Mr. Coyne should by all means do so. But an argument about judicial activism, even if the concept is carefully, perhaps even sensibly, defined is unhelpful. There are no dragons in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Only some questionable, and some rotten, judicial decisions.

No Room for Housing Rights

Last week, in Tanudjaja v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the striking out of an application seeking to have the federal government’s and Ontario’s affordable housing policies, or lack thereof, declared unconstitutional. According to Justice Pardu, who wrote for herself and Justice Strathy, the case, brought by a group of individuals who are either homeless or have precarious and insufficient housing and an NGO, had no reasonable chance of success, notably because it was not justiciable. Justice Feldman, dissenting, would have allowed it to proceed to a hearing on the merits.

The applicants did not attack any specific law or administrative decision of either government, but rather argued that their overall approach to the problem of affordable housing and homelessness was constitutionally defective because contrary to their rights to life, liberty, and security of the person (protected by s. 7 of the Charter) and equality rights (protected by s. 15). They did list a number of policies which in their view particularly contributed to the problems they sought to address, notably the insufficiency of the funding devoted to a number of social assistance programmes. As for the remedies they sought, these ranged from a (seemingly purely symbolic) declaration that “Canada and Ontario have failed to effectively address the problems of homelessness and inadequate housing,” to declarations to the effect that Canada and Ontario have failed to their constitutional duties “to implement effective national and provincial strategies to reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness and inadequate housing,” to an order that they, “in consultation with affected groups,” implement such strategies, under the supervision of the Superior Court.

The issues raised by the applicants, said Justice Pardu, are simply not the sort that courts can entertain: neither the applicants’ claims of rights-infringement nor the remedies they ask for can be effectively dealt with in a judicial setting. Courts can rule on the constitutionality of specific laws, “but a comparison between the legislative means and purpose, is impossible in this case,” [28] whether for the purposes of s. 7 of the Charter or of s. 1. Besides,

there is no judicially discoverable and manageable standard for assessing in general whether housing policy is adequate or whether insufficient priority has been given in general to the needs of the homeless. This is not a question that can be resolved by application of law, but rather it engages the accountability of the legislatures. Issues of broad economic policy and priorities are unsuited to judicial review. Here the court is not asked to engage in a “court-like” function but rather to embark on a course more resembling a public inquiry into the adequacy of housing policy. [33]

On the remedies side,

a bare declaration that a government was required to develop a housing policy … would be so devoid of content as to be effectively meaningless [while].[t]o embark, as asked, on judicial supervision of the adequacy of housing policy developed by Canada and Ontario takes the court well beyond the limits of its institutional capacity. [34]

As a result, Justice Pardu said, regardless of the extent of the specific Charter rights invoked by the applicants, “[t]he application here is demonstrably unsuitable for adjudication,” [36] and was rightly struck.

Justice Feldman, dissenting, was not so convinced. She stressed that

The novelty of the claim alone is not a reason to strike the claim. … The purpose of a motion to strike is to weed out, at an early stage, claims that have no reasonable chance of success, either because the legal issue raised has been conclusively decided against the claim or because the facts, taken at their highest, cannot support the claim. The motion to strike should not be used, however, as a tool to frustrate potential developments in the law. [49]

After discussing in some detail the possibility that ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter might be interpreted as the applicants say they ought to be, Justice Feldman says that the justiciability of positive rights claims has not yet been clearly rejected by the courts. ” As a result,” she says, “courts should be extremely cautious before foreclosing any enforcement of these rights.” [81] The fact that the application here does not aim at any specific law could give rise to “a number of procedural as well as conceptual difficulties,” but that does not necessarily prevent it from being justiciable. The “application asks the court to view Charter claims through a different procedural lens. That novelty is not a reason to strike it out.” [84] As for the remedies, they could, if necessary, be confined to declaratory relief.

For my part, I think that the majority is probably right here. As Justice Pardu says, there is no standard against which to measure the governments’ alleged failings. It is easy to say that not enough money is being allocated to solve the problems of housing affordability and homelessness ― but can the full solution of a social problem really be a moral, never mind a legal, standard by which to judge government action (or inaction)? Indeed, it is not clear that a full solution would exist even with unlimited funding. And if a partial solution, or movement towards a solution, are sufficient, as the relief sought by the applicants suggests, then how is a court supposed to decide what is satisfactory?

Justice Pardu is also right that the remedies the applicants seek will be either empty words or well beyond the capacity of a court to implement. Justice Feldman’s invocation of Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 44 as an example of a case where declaratory relief for a violation of the Charter was appropriate is ironically revealing. The Supreme Court’s declaration that Mr. Khadr’s rights had been infringed led to no meaningful action on the government’s part.

I share one concern with Justice Feldman, however. I believe that the claims in this case are not justiciable, but I’m not convinced that they are obviously, unarguably so. Is it impossible that a court will find them justiciable? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. If this were a ruling on the merits of the application, I would have no doubt that the majority is correct. But on a motion to strike, the issue is not whether the applicants’ claims are well founded, or even reasonably likely to be well-founded, but only whether there is any chance that they will succeed. So I’m not sure that, weak as they are, they do not meet this very low threshold.

The trouble is that, as best I can tell, there is no way to adjudicate the merits of the justiciability issue on a Charter application without having a full hearing on the merits of the application itself. So the court might be simply treating the motion to strike as an opportunity to rule on the merits of the justiciability issue, so as to avoid what it thinks is an unnecessary full hearing. And I agree that a full hearing is not necessary here. No amount of evidence of the inadequacy of the governments’ housing policies, were it to be introduced, could change the fact that a court of law is not the proper place to debate this evidence. Still, treating a motion to strike as in effect a preliminary merits hearing is not legally right.

These qualms aside, there are good reasons for the courts to refuse to adjudicate, if not any and all social and economic rights claims, then at least out of vast campaigns intended to reshape entire areas of government policy. There is the issue of competing priorities ― if not all claims on public support can be satisfied, which ones should be favoured? It’s not obvious, to say the least, that the answer to that question ought to be “those who got adjudicated first.” There is the issue of legitimacy of unelected judges having to order Parliament and legislatures to increase taxes. Charles I lost his head for trying to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval, and George III lost an empire for insisting that he had the right to tax without consent. It is, again, not obvious that judges would fare any better. There is the issue of federalism. Generally speaking, housing and homelessness are not the federal government’s responsibility (except on reserves). The federal government chooses to help the provinces discharge many of their constitutional responsibilities, and the provinces accept the money (and ask for more), but how a court could assign responsibilities between the two level of government ― something that takes sometimes difficult political negotiations ― is really beyond me. There is, finally, the issue of the law’s inherent conservatism. If a court decides that social programme X is constitutionally required, then programme X cannot be got rid of even to be replaced by a more effective but differently organized programme. If the courts decide that the Charter requires governments to build social housing, then governments cannot subsequently decide to spend that money, say, on vouchers that allow people to get their own places, even if, say, the experience of other countries shows that this leads to better outcomes for the people concerned. At best, the government would have to turn to the courts and demonstrate  that its proposed programme would be enough to discharge its constitutional obligations. But it could not really demonstrate this ― it would have to speculate, and it’s not clear that a court ought to be convinced by such speculation.

Canadian courts, unlike the powerless talking shops that generate international human rights by the hundred while knowing full well that there is no prospect of most these “rights” ever being implemented, wield considerable power, because they know that their decisions will be obeyed and enforced. They know that with great power comes great responsibility, and do not exercise it lightly. They also know that a power that overextends itself and disregards the people from whom it comes and for whom it is supposed to be exercised will not last long.

Raising Issues

Normally, a common law court decides a case brought before it on the issues raised by the parties. But sometimes it can ― and occasionally even has to ― raise an issue on its own. When it can do so, and how it must go about doing this are the main topics discussed in R. v. Mian, 2014 SCC 54, which the Supreme Court decided last week.

The case was an appeal from a decision on a voir dire to exclude incriminating evidence because it took the police more than 20 minutes to inform Mr. Mian of the reason for his arrest, and still longer for them to inform him of his rights. The Alberta Court of Appeal, however, was concerned about a question which the defence lawyer asked one of the police officers involved during cross-examination. The Crown hadn’t objected to the question at the time, and didn’t raise the matter in its submissions on appeal, but the Court of Appeal invited the parties to make written submissions on the matter and asked them to address it at the hearing, eventually allowing the appeal on the basis that the judge of first instance had failed to recognize the question’s impermissibility and that it influenced his reasoning. And so the main question for the Supreme Court was whether the Court of Appeal was right to raise this issue on its own.

As a general matter, says Justice Rothstein, writing for the unanimous Court, appellate courts may raise new issues. But it is a power they must exercise sparingly.

First though, it is important to understand what does and what doesn’t count as a new issue. Justice Rothstein explains (at par. 30) that

[a]n issue is new when it raises a new basis for potentially finding error in the decision under appeal beyond the grounds of appeal as framed by the parties. Genuinely new issues are legally and factually distinct from the grounds of appeal raised by the parties … and cannot reasonably be said to stem from the issues as framed by the parties.

However, questions asked at oral argument do not necessarily raise new issues, whether they address “components of the grounds of appeal put forward by the parties,” including by probing them in greater detail and by raising sub-issues, “or … go outside of those grounds in an aim to understand the context, statutory background or larger implications,” which “may be necessary for the court to gain a more complete understanding of the issues at hand” (par. 32). A further category of issues that will not be considered as “new” are those “that form the backdrop of appellate litigation, such as jurisdiction, whether a given error requires a remedy and what the appropriate remedy is the standard of review” (par. 34). The idea here seems to be that since such issues can arise on any appeal, “parties should not require notice to address them” (par. 34).

If it identifies a “new” issue, an appellate court must decide whether to raise it for the parties. The two competing considerations here are the integrity of an adversarial system that lets the parties make their own cases and, crucially for Justice Rothstein, thereby allows “judicial decision-makers remain independent and impartial and are seen to remain independent and impartial” (par. 39), and the need to actually do justice under the law, which sometimes requires intervening into the adversarial debate. Balancing these considerations, Justice Rothstein concludes that an appellate court may raise a new issue only if failing to do so will risk an injustice, and only if it can do so without appearing biased. He explains that “[o]f essence here is that courts cannot be seen to go in search of a wrong to right” (par. 42).

Failing to raise an issue will risk an injustice when “there is good reason to believe that the result would realistically have differed had the error not been made” (par. 45). But, Justice Rothstein cautions, there will not often be good reason to think so. While this can happen more frequently when one of the litigants is self-represented, “[i]t will only be in rare cases that counsel on both sides will have failed to identify an issue that would realistically have affected the result” (par. 48). In addition, the appellate court must be sure of having the jurisdiction to consider the issue, of having a sufficient factual record on the basis of which to do so, and of being able to avoid imposing a “procedural prejudice” (par. 52) on one of the parties.

To avoid procedural injustice, an appellate court “must make the parties aware that it has discerned a potential issue and ensure that they are sufficiently informed so they may prepare and respond” (par. 54), whether the response is written, oral, or both. At all times, “natural justice and the rule of audi alteram partem will have to be preserved” (par. 59). And, while courts should be careful to avoid giving the impression, in the notice they give to the parties, of having prejudged the issue, it is not necessary, save in rare cases, for a judge or panel who raised a new issue to recuse themselves.

Practically, this is all logical, sensible stuff, although I think there is some tension between Justice Rothstein’s suggestion that an appellate court may intervene in the adversarial process when it sees a risk of error that affects the outcome, and his claim that such cases will be very rare. Is the claim really right? Is it the case that lawyers will seldom miss material issues? I hope that this is indeed so.

On a theoretical level though, I wonder whether Justice Rothstein is right that the reason why courts should be reluctant to raise new issues is the danger of appearing biased. That’s surely a part of it. But I would have thought that no less, and perhaps more, important is the need to limit judicial power. As Fabien Gélinas argues in this fascinating paper, various rules that prevent courts from considering issues ― such as the rules on standing, ripeness/mootness, and justiciability ― all serve to circumscribe the courts’ power, justifying the well-known description of the judiciary as the “least dangerous branch” of government. I thought that the presumption against raising new issues serves the same purpose. Justice Rothstein suggests otherwise.

Be that as it may, he goes on to find that in this case, there was no need to raise the issue of the impermissible cross-examination question. It was not as significant as the Court of Appeal made it out to be, and Crown lawyers clearly did not think it was. The Court of Appeal should not have second-guessed them.