Chekhov’s Gun

Why Dwight Newman’s defence of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause is unpersuasive

Anton Chekhov liked to say that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off”. And conversely, once the rifle is part of the set, then go off it must. But must this theatrical directive apply to constitutional law? Some evidently think so―at least when it comes to the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian  Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Dwight Newman in a National Post op-ed, and Gerard Kennedy in a post for Advocates for the Rule of Law, are the latest of those who have ventured this opinion in the wake of Saskatchewan’s decision to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to continue funding the education of non-Catholics at Catholic “separate” schools, despite a court finding that this is unconstitutional. Their arguments are no more persuasive than those I considered in my previous post on this topic.

Professor Newman notes that “[t]he notwithstanding clause was a vital part of the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charter being adopted in 1982. Without it, some provinces were unwilling to come on board.” In his view, “[t]hose who argue that the notwithstanding clause is somehow illegitimate actually bear the onus of explaining how the rest of the Charter would be legitimate without it”. But the fact that the existence of a legal power was a necessary part of a constitutional compromise does not justify the use of such a power. The federal power of disallowance over provincial legislation was a necessary part of the compromise that made Confederation possible, yet using it now would violate a firm constitutional convention. Does Professor Newman think that opposing the use of this power involves thinking that sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 are illegitimate too?

Professor Newman adds wants to bolster the propriety of using the “notwithstanding clause” by pointing out that “[i]t tracked a similar clause in the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights … and was an important clause in bringing together different constitutional traditions”. Yet although they are worded similarly, section 33 of the Charter and section 2 of the Canadian Bill of Rights have very different functions. The Charter‘s notwithstanding clause makes it possible to deny some of its provisions the status of Supreme Law that they would otherwise have by virtue of subsection 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. By contrast, the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Bill of Rights serves to protect it against implied repeal by subsequent legislation, and thus to elevate what would otherwise be an ordinary statute to what has been described as “quasi-constitutional” status. Though they can both be described as reconciling the protection of individual rights with Parliamentary sovereignty, the two notwithstanding clauses are thus motivated by opposite concerns. That of the Canadian Bill of Rights is rights-protecting; the Charter‘s is legislation-protecting.

Professor Newman makes some substantive criticisms of the court decision Saskatchewan wishes to override. I hope that I will be able to return to them later on. Suffice it to say that I am still of the view, expressed here, that the decision on the issue of religious freedom was quite obviously correct. Professor Newman also claims that those who criticize Saskatchewan’s use of the notwithstanding clause “miss the realities of governing”―notably the need to prevent the uncertainty about the eventual application of the court decision, indeed the “chaos” that would result from its application. Of course, uncertainty is not eliminated, but merely postponed by invoking the notwithstanding clause, which has to be renewed every five years. More importantly though, as I have already explained, the government has a way to avoid creating “chaos” while complying with the constitution. It only needs to fund all non-public schools equally, without discrimination in favour of Catholic ones.

More importantly still, the “realities of governing” objection, and the concern about uncertainty, could be applied to any number of Charter decisions. Uncertainty has followed the Supreme Court’s decisions declaring unconstitutional the blanket ban on assisted suicide and extreme trial delays, for instance, to name only two. If uncertainty, or public concern, is enough to set aside a judicial decision about rights, then we should drop the pretense of having a judicially enforced Charter of Rights, and go back to the good pre-1982 days of Parliamentary sovereignty. Mr. Kennedy is perhaps more forthright about this, arguing that anyone “who seeks to have a court expand”―or simply declare―”the meaning of Charter rights must be prepared to have the scope of those rights subsequently narrowed by the legislature”.

This is really the heart of the debate. Do we want a judicially enforced constitution, or should we go back to Parliamentary sovereignty? I’m not saying, by the way, that turning the clock back to 1982 would be some sort of catastrophe. Canada was a free country in 1982―albeit a free country where the Lord’s Day Act was good, unassailable law. New Zealand, which does not have rights protections enforceable against Parliament, is a free country, freer than Canada in some ways, though not in others. I think that abandoning judicially enforced rights would be a step backwards, which is why I am so critical of those who want to do it, but it would not be a step into the abyss.

But even though it would not be a crazy thing to do, giving up on judicial enforcement of constitutionally guaranteed rights would involve a substantial change to our constitutional arrangements. Professor Newman claims that those opposed to the use of the “notwithstanding clause” “may be wedded to a different vision of Canada—one oriented only to individualistic rights”. But in truth, however exactly we count them, uses of the “notwithstanding clause” have been a marginal phenomenon for 29 years, ever since Québec gave in to nationalist protests to prevent the use of English in advertising. Professor Newman’s individualistic dystopia is actually our reality. It is he and his fellows, not Andrew Coyne or I, who are “wedded to a different vision of Canada” from that in which we live.

Ostensibly, Professor Newman and Mr. Kennedy might not see themselves as advocating a complete de facto reversal of the 1982 constitutional settlement as it has been implemented by political actors as well as courts over 35 years. They might think that they are only defending occasional uses of the notwithstanding clause in response to particularly problematic judicial decisions. But as I’ve explained before, I do not think there is a tertium quid, some sort of happy Canadian middle ground between Parliamentary sovereignty and judicial enforcement of constitutional rights. If the norm against using the notwithstanding clause disappears, then it will be used proactively, profusely, and promiscuously. Like the Saskatchewan government now, others will use it whenever they think their policy ends justify the means, without paying attention to the rights the constitution is supposed to protect.

As Chekhov knew, placing a loaded rifle on the stage creates an unstable situation. A good dramatist will resolve the instability with a bang―and probably some casualties. But constitutional actors are not comedians. Even if they are put in a position where a loaded gun is within their reach, their responsibility is not to fire it, but to keep it safe if they cannot unload it, and to instruct those who follow them to do likewise. As for constitutional critics, they should not be cheering for the most theatrical resolution. They might enjoy a drama, but when the shots are fired, they are likely to be aimed at the audience.

Not Withstanding Scrutiny

The Saskatchewan government hasn’t justified its resort to the notwithstanding clause in the Catholic school funding case

Yesterday, I summarized and briefly commented on the decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench in  in Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, which held that funding Catholic schools for educating non-Catholic students was an unjustifiable infringement of religious liberty and equality guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my view this decision is correct. However, plenty of people disagree. Importantly, so does the government of Saskatchewan, which has announced that it will have the provincial legislation resort to the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause” to nullify the Court’s decision, ostensibly in the name of school choice. Some thoughtful people, like Emmett Macfarlane and Dennis Baker, are supportive of the idea. In my view, however, it is misguided and hypocritical, not to mention illustrative of why the notwithstanding clause should never be used.

The best justification for occasionally resorting to section 33 of the Charter, which allows a legislature to suspend for a renewable period of up to five years the operation of constitutionally protected right is that the legislature disagrees with the courts’ interpretation of that right. After all, if the truth about rights, to borrow a phrase from Jeremy Waldron, exists at all, it’s not obvious that courts have privileged access to it. Questions about rights, about what counts as justifiable limitations of rights, are difficult, and reasonable people can disagree about them. In the face of such disagreement, isn’t it acceptable for the people’s elected representatives to decide that their views ought to prevail over those of unelected judges?

Trouble is, this solemn scene ― representatives of the people deliberating about rights and coming to conclusions that are reasoned and reasonable, if different from the judges’ ― has not taken place in Saskatchewan. The government doesn’t say that it disagrees with Justice Layh’s views about the scope of religious liberty or equality. It does not argue that the constitutionally protected freedom of religion does not encompass a duty of religious neutrality on the part of the state. It does not say that granting funding for students outside of a school’s denomination to Catholic schools and to no others is consistent with neutrality or not discriminatory. It is content to state the objective of “school choice” ― which, by the way, I think is a laudable objective, but which the government’s lawyers didn’t even dare put to the Court ― as if the end justifies the means, and it is permissible to disregard Charter rights as soon as one has a worthwhile reason for doing so. This is not what the defenders of the notwithstanding clause, or indeed the critics of any judicial enforcement of individual rights, say they have in mind. Why, then, do they defend the Saskatchewan government?

The Charter, or any sort of system that protects individual rights against infringement by the state, is based on the idea that the end does not always justify the means. At most, there is a proportionality test, such as the one embodied in section 1 of the Charter. A pressing social objective can justify some limitations of rights, but no more than is necessary, and in particular, not if less restrictive means are available to the government. Of course, whether the means at issue in a given case are the least restrictive available is a difficult question, and legislatures and courts might disagree about that. But there is no sign that Saskatchewan’s government has given any thought to alternative ways of achieving its professed objective of school choice. Why, then, do those boosters of the “notwithstanding clause” that justify its use by the existence of reasonable disagreement defend this government?

In reality, the government’s position is doubly hypocritical. It is hypocritical, first, because although it is posing as the defender of school choice, it is the government that is ultimately responsible for limiting the choices of the parents at the centre of this litigation. The government funds public schools. Its funding was not sufficient to keep a rural school open. The school board decided to close it, and have students be bussed to a different one. Instead of accepting this, some parents took advantage of constitutional rules allowing them to set up a “separate” Catholic school―in a village where there had never been one―, and non-Catholic parents, who had never had any particular interest in Catholicism, decided to also send their children there. If the choices of these parents mattered as much as the government now says they do, the local public school would have stayed open, and this case would not have arisen.

The government is hypocritical, second, because it has perfectly constitutional options to provide even more school choice than it now does ― in which it appears to take no interest. The government could provide all groups, including all religious groups, with funds to educate students from outside their communities. That would be real, meaningful school choice ― not the rather limited choice of a public or a Catholic school, which is only a choice, as Justice Layh points out, for those who do not mind their children receiving a Catholic education. Sure that might be costly system ― but if school choice is important enough to override constitutional rights, surely it’s worth a little tax raise?

Instead of admitting that its position is driven by fiscal, and presumably ultimately electoral, considerations rather than an authentic concern with school choice, the government compounds its hypocrisy with misleading threats. It claims that “[t]he ruling [in Good Spirit School Division] could also risk provincial funding of 26 other faith-based schools including Luther College, Regina Christian School, Saskatoon Christian School and Huda School.” The press release conveniently doesn’t mention the fact that this funding, which was not actually at issue in the Good Spirit School Division case, is less that the funding Catholic schools receive, and that at least the Huda School was on the side of the plaintiffs in the proceedings. Indeed, I wonder how the people involved the Huda School feel about being used in this way to make the government’s case considering the testimony of the school’s president at trial. Here’s how Justice Layh describes it:

he asked why the Huda School cannot receive funding to educate non-Muslim students, just like Catholic schools receive funding to educate non-Catholic students. The Huda School does not discriminate against hiring non-Muslim teachers (unlike Catholic schools). The majority of its teaching staff is non-Muslim. Dr. Aboguddah testified that the Huda School would welcome non-Muslim students to its growing school of 430 students (in 2016) which would provide an opportunity to build bridges with the broader Canadian community to reduce the stereotyping and negative image affecting the Muslim community in light of recent world events. [397]

A Rabbi similarly testified “that certain advantages would accrue to the small Jewish school in Regina if it received complete government funding for non-Jewish students.” [440] Again, if the government were committed to meaningful, non-discriminatory school choice, it would fund schools equally, regardless of who is behind them. The constitution would not stand in its way. It is its choice not to do so ― and it ought to accept the constitutional consequences of this choice.

Like a court looking to uphold a dubious administrative decision on a reasonableness standard, Profs. Macfarlane and Baker, and those who agree with them, offer their own reasons for why Justice Layh’s decision was wrong. I might return to that in a future post. Here, my point is that the government of Saskatchewan does not give any such reasons. Its justification for overriding this decision cannot withstand scrutiny. And it’s the government, not the thoughtful (if in my view mistaken) scholars, that gets to use the “notwithstanding clause”. If government were run by profs. Macfarlane and Baker, I would have fewer qualms about its ability to override judicial determinations of constitutional rights. But it is not.

As this case demonstrates, real-life governments are largely uninterested in thinking about constitutional rights. If they are allowed to disregard judicial decisions, they will not engage in serious deliberation themselves. They will press ahead with their political objectives, sloganeering and lying along the way. I have said this before ― in the face of judicial decisions with which I virulently disagreed ― and I say so again: if we are serious about constitutionally entrenched rights, we are better off with a categorical presumption against allowing legislatures to resort to the “notwithstanding clause”.

Don’t Fix It

There is no good reason to start using the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause”

In an article in the Walrus on the 35th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Lauren Heuser raises the issue of what is probably the least loved provision in our constitution ― the Charter‘s section 33, a.k.a. the “notwithstanding clause”. Section 33 allows Parliament and provincial legislatures to immunize legislation from judicial review and invalidation under sections 2 and 7 to 15 of the Charter ― provisions protecting, among other things, the freedoms of religion and expression, the due process rights of the accused in criminal cases, and most equality rights. Ms. Heuser wants us to reconsider the existing norm, some would even say convention (although I do not think it is one yet) against using section 33. She is wrong.

Ms. Heuser quotes Howard Anglin, who points out (correctly) that section 33 was an essential component of the political compromise that made the enactment of the Charter possible, and Emmett Macfarlane, who insists that this compromise reflects a “recognition that the courts wouldn’t always get it right”, and not only a hidebound commitment to “parliamentary sovereignty with no reason”. Ms. Heuser concludes ― it’s not clear to me whether Mr. Anglin and prof. Macfarlane share the conclusion ― that

[c]ontrary to what much of the public has been led to think, then, it is not necessarily inappropriate for government officials to push back when they believe a court gets a ruling wrong;  this is as legitimate as a citizen asserting her Charter right to justify some action.

Provided that a legislature can justify itself by “explaining how a court’s policy analysis failed to take account of relevant considerations or contravened the will of the democratic majority”, resorting to section 33 should not be regarded as a political impossibility.

Ms. Heuser is not alone in trying to rehabilitate the “notwithstanding clause”. Attempts to do so are made with some regularity in nationalist circles in Québec, where the Charter is still seen as an illegitimate imposition on the province’s legislative competence. The most recent such attempts have been in response to the purported iniquity of courts giving effect to the constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time. (Over at À qui de droit, Maxime St-Hilaire has argued convincingly that Québec could not validly override the Supreme Court’s decision in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631 even if it tried, and Finn Makela has ventured what strikes me as at least a plausible political explanation for why politicians ignore these legal arguments. I would only add that this is not the first time there has been talk of invoking section 33 when it was manifestly impossible to do so.) But whoever is making this argument, and whatever their motivations, they are wrong.

Here’s what I wrote when I considered invoking section 33 in response to what I considered to be some of the worst decisions ever made by the Supreme Court under the Charter, those that elevated to constitutional status the rights to bargain collectively and to strike:

[T]he norm … against using the notwithstanding clause is, on balance[,] a very good thing. Courts sometimes make mistakes, even very bad mistakes, as [the labour rights decisions] demonstrate. But, pace Jeremy Waldron, the Supreme Court of Canada’s record on rights issues is still so much better than that of Parliament and the provincial legislatures that we’re better off with not merely a rebuttable presumption, but a bright-line [rule] against legislative corrections of perceived judicial mistakes. The likelihood of the perception being itself mistaken is simply too high.

This should, I think, take care of prof. Macfarlane’s and Mr. Anglin’s arguments. Sure the courts don’t always get it right, and section 33 was put into the Charter as a remedy against courts systematically getting it wrong (as the Charter’s framers thought ― wrongly ― the American courts had during the so-called “Lochner era”). But in light of our experience with the Charter we know that the courts get it right more often than the legislatures that would be relying on section 33 would.

As for Ms. Heuser’s suggestion that legislatures would be justified in setting aside judicial decisions whenever these “contravene[] the will of the democratic majority”, taking it seriously would make those provisions of the Charter that are subject to section 33 so many dead letters. By hypothesis, all democratically enacted legislation reflects the will of the majority, and any judicial finding that such law is unconstitutional contravenes this will. There are occasions when we may be able to show that what I have previously called a “democratic process failure” has occurred, and the law did not in fact reflect the majority’s will. But demonstrating that this has happened is not straightforward, and for obvious reasons legislators will be the last people in the world to accept such claims. Ms. Heuser would, in effect, give them carte blanche to override any judicial decision they disagreed with. This is not a crazy position, to be sure, but those who support it should recognize that they are advocating for a substantial revision of our whole approach to judicial review ― a clear change to constitutional practice rather than a return to the roots.

For the reasons outlined above, I would not support such a change. Although I disagree with the Supreme Court more than most Canadian constitutional lawyers, I still trust its judges more than I trust legislators. That section 33 was the price to pay to have the Charter at all is not a reason to use it now ― or ever. The status quo ain’t broke, and there is no need to fix it.

Marriage Drama

A row about civil and religious marriage in Québec is quite unnecessary

In early February, Québec’s Superior Court delivered what should have been a fairly routine judgment dismissing a weak constitutional challenge to provisions of the province’s Civil Code that have usually ― although not always ― been regarded as requiring a person celebrating a marriage to notify the registrar of civil status. Instead, Justice Alary’s decision, Droit de la famille — 16244 has, not unlike some trivial incidents in a couple’s life, sparked a furious row. The row is, as usual, meaningless ― though it can make us reflect on the institution of marriage.

The case before Justice Alary involved a man who objected to the financial consequences of a divorce, and argued that he had been unconstitutionally compelled to enter into a civil as well as a religious marriage. Unbelievers, he said, have the option of simply cohabiting if they do not wish their relationship to have the legal and economic consequences the law attaches to a marriage. People of the “Judeo-Christian faith” (his terminology) lack that option, as their religion requires them to get married in order to live together. So the legal consequences of a marriage are, in his view, an infringement of the believers’ freedom of religion and of their equality rights. They should have the option of getting married religiously without incurring the legal consequences of a civil marriage.

Justice Alary easily dismissed this argument. She held that while the plaintiff’s belief that he had to be (religiously) married to cohabit with his (formerly) beloved was sincere, he had not shown that the state had interfered with this belief.  “The impugned provisions,” she observed, “certainly [did] not prevent [him] from holding beliefs having a nexus with religion. Nor did they prevent him from ‘engaging in a practice’ having to do with religion, that is to say, from getting married.” [45; translation mine] Indeed, the reason for the plaintiff’s objections is not so much his faith as his economic assessment of the family law regime. As a result, there is no infringement of freedom of religion. Subsequently, Justice Alary also finds that there is no infringement of equality rights.

This strikes me as quite obviously correct. When the law forces a person to do something that his or her religion prohibits, or prohibits him or her from doing something religion requires, that person’s religious freedom is infringed. But nothing of the sort is happening here. As Justice Alary notes, neither the plaintiff or anyone else is prevented from entering into a religious marriage. Nor is anyone required to do so. What’s happening here is that the law attaches some (unpleasant) consequences to the plaintiff’s choice to do something ― namely, to get married. This choice is religiously determined, to be sure, but I don’t think that law can take notice of that, any more than it could take notice of the fact others might get married simply because their prospective spouse pressures them to do so and they feel that they have no meaningful choice. The law simply does not look into people’s reasons for getting married. The plaintiff’s argument is identical to a religious person’s claim to a tax rebate on the ground that he or she is required, by his or her faith, to spend money on charity or tithes while non-believers need not do so. The believer chooses to comply with religious obligations, and has to live with the civil consequences of that decision.

Perhaps unfortunately, Justice Alary was not content with this conclusion. She went further and, in an obiter, opined that a religious officer who celebrates a religious marriage need not perform a simultaneous civil ceremony and notify the registrar of civil status. A religious marriage can be purely religious ― without civil consequences. It is this obiter that provoked ― about a month after the decision was published! ― furious reactions in large sections of Québec’s legal community, which saw it as exposing women and children to detrimental consequences. Some are even calling for the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its provincial equivalent to be invoked to defend “Québec’s family law” and the “collective values of Québec’s society” (translation mine).

I find these reactions perplexing. Religious marriages without civil consequences are not exactly a shocking, unheard-of thing. As Yves Boisvert pointed out in a (somewhat flippant, but fundamentally correct) column in La Presse, there are all manner of religious groups in Québec. Some of them may perform marriage ceremonies that do not comport with the Québec Civil Code’s requirements for authorizing religious officers to perform civil marriages, and these ceremonies will, then, result in religious marriages without civil consequences. Before same-sex marriage was recognized by law, some religious groups blessed same-sex unions. (Indeed, one such group was a plaintiff in the case of Halpern v. Canada (Attorney general), in which the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down the opposite-sex definition of marriage.) Such marriages also could not have any civil consequences. As Anne-Marie Savard asks in a thoughtful post over at À qui de droit, “why must we regard this possibility as nothing more than a way for men to avoid their civil obligations,” (Translation mine) rather than a way for couples to organize their own affairs as they wish? As for calls for the notwithstanding clause to be invoked, they simply ignore the fact that Justice Alary found no infringement of freedom of religion. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the issue is simply being used, the facts be damned, by a cadre of nationalist jurists who seek for other reasons to break the existing taboos on the resort to the notwithstanding clause.

All that said, we can take the occasion for reflecting on the relationship between state, religion, and marriage. To me at least, it illustrates the folly of entangling the state in intimate relationships between men, women, and God (not all three being necessarily involved, of course). Why exactly do we need to attach civil consequences to marriage ― the sacrement, the ceremony that is? If it is the case that intimate relationships or cohabitation invariably produce unique dependency and require legal protections for their vulnerable members, then these protections should attach to cohabitation ― as indeed they already do in every province other than Québec. If this it is not the case that people involved in such relationships are incapable of meaningful choice, as Québec believes, then they should be free to contract into, or perhaps out of, an optional legal regime based on cohabitation. (For what it’s worth, I prefer the Québec position, but that doesn’t really matter now.) Either way, there is no need, and no reason, to attach civil consequences to a ceremony, whatever its name, and whether performed by a civil servant or a religious officer. If people believe that God attaches importance to a ceremony, that’s their right of course. But civil marriage simply has no raison d’être.

Attempts to point out to parties to a family row that they are fighting over trifles and should stand down seldom end well. I don’t suppose that my own belated intervention in this debate is going to change anything. Still, I thought that it was important take a calm look into what is going on.

NOTE: My apologies for the lack of posting in the last few weeks. I do have something to show for it though. More on that in a few days, hopefully.