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.