The Tragedy of Lord Sumption

Thoughts on Lord Sumption’s views on the relationship between law and politics

In my last post, I summarized at length Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, delivered earlier this year. As I noted there, Lord Sumption’s views on politics, law, and the relationship between the two are challenging ― especially, but by no means only, to those of us who support judicial review of legislation. Here, I would like to explain why I think there is much truth in what Lord Sumption says, but also to point out the weaknesses and even contradictions in his claims.

By way of reminder, Lord Sumption begins by arguing that the domain of law has been expanding for the last two hundred years, as people have (once again) turned to the state as the provider of physical and economic security and moral certainty. But this expansion has brought with it concerns that the state’s power reaches too far. Representative politics can help mitigate these concerns by generating compromise and accommodation between majorities and minorities. Yet as politics loses its lustre, people turn to law to control the outcomes politics produces. Law promises (and sometimes delivers) principled decision-making, but it does so at the cost of compromise and accommodation and thus, ultimately, legitimacy. The courts end up creating and defining new constraints on politics, and there is little to choose between such constraints being undemocratically imposed in the name of liberalism or of some other ideology. Moreover, in the long run, politics, with its capacity to legitimate limitations on state power provides better security for rights than the law. Yet politics is ailing. Constitutional reform, and especially constitutional entrenchment, will not save it. If democracy is hollowed out, Lord Sumption grimly concludes, we will not notice, “and the fault will be ours”. (V/7; NB: I will use roman numerals to designate the lecture, and arabic ones for the page in the transcript; links to individual transcripts are in the previous post.)


Significant parts of Lord Sumption’s argument run along the lines drawn by Jeremy Waldron, notably in “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review”. The emphasis on the importance of disagreement and the preference for settling disagreement about rights through the political process, in part because it is more egalitarian than adjudication, sound Waldronian. The skepticism about the capacity of judges, or indeed of anyone else, to find out the truth of the matter about moral issues, is Waldronian too. Lord Sumption does not mention Professor Waldron, or indeed any thinker more contemporary that A.V. Dicey, so it’s not quite clear whether how direct Professor Waldron’s influence on him is. However, original or not, these points are important and bear repetition.

Lord Sumption’s critique of the undemocratic character of “dynamic treaties” ― or, I would add, any constitutional documents interpreted as “living instruments” ― builds on these arguments. He focuses on the judicial creation of rights on the basis that “a modern democracy ought to have” (III/3) them ― or, in other words, of what I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” ― as qualitatively different from mere application of fixed texts to new facts. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this strikes me as compelling. Lord Sumption’s argument tracks public meaning originalist views, a point to which I will return, but since he does not disclose his influences, I don’t know whether he is at all interested in originalist theory. It is worth noting that, in a later lecture on “Judicial Review and Judicial Supremacy“, Professor Waldron too has focused on living constitutionalism, and specifically the claim that a constitutional court is entitled “to develop new views about (what the court thinks) the constitution ought to have forbidden (though it did not) and to act on these views” (40) as especially problematic.

One additional point on which Lord Sumption echoes that lecture of Professor Waldron is the rejection of comprehensive systems of values as suitable objects for judicial enforcement. Professor Waldron does not want judges to “begin to think of themselves and present themselves as pursuing a coherent program or policy rather just responding to” (27) individual violations of the constitution that happen from time to time. Lord Sumption’s forceful rejection of values systems ― which he equates with one another for this purpose, so that entrenchment and judicial enforcement of a liberal dogma is, in a sense, no different from that of “Islamic political theology or the dictatorship of the proletariat” (IV/4) ― seems to reflect this concern. If asked to take judicial review of legislation as a given, as Professor Waldron does in the “Judicial Supremacy” lecture, Lord Sumption would also urge a piecemeal rather than a systematic approach as the more modest one.


But Lord Sumption’s argument is not simply a reprise of Professor Waldron’s. What makes him interesting, and challenging not just for supporters of judicial review of legislation but also for critics, is that his vision of politics is a gloomy one. Those who have misgivings about judicial review, including Professor Waldron or, to take a couple of Canadian examples, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in a lecture on “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture” and Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a Policy Options post earlier this year, tend to be fairly optimistic about democratic politics. Professor Waldron, especially in “The Core of the Case”, thinks that democratic majorities will protect rights about as well as courts, although in later work he has recognized that some minorities (such as criminal suspects) might end up being routinely shortchanged by the democratic process. He has also forcefully criticized the views of those who equate the Rule of Law with the protection of property and contract rights and, on this basis, are skeptical of social legislation and the welfare state. Chief Justice Joyal, for his part, has extolled “bold” and

“purposeful” governance … expected to include and achieve … the realization of big and bold federal and provincial objectives [and] to assist in the accommodation and brokering of … diverse and conflicting interests underlying the various societal ills and problems. 

Accommodation and compromise are the best outcomes that Lord Sumption sees democratic politics produce. “Bold” and “purposeful” governance? He seems pretty skeptical. It is not just that he sees and laments the decline in the authority of political institutions ― Chief Justice Joyal saw and lamented that too. More interestingly, I take Lord Sumption to raise the possibility that, even when it functions well, democratic politics is dangerous.

Much of Lord Sumption’s first lecture is devoted to establishing this proposition. Pointing out “rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity” (I/4), as well the voters’ tendency to be “afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with”, (I/6) he seems to echo Lord Acton’s prescient warning, in the Lectures on Modern History, about seeing the “[g]overnment [as] the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man”, (289) though again he does not refer to Acton or to any other source. Lord Sumption’s concern at the far-reaching and unrealistic expectations that people have of government and government’s tendency to restrict liberty to try to meet these expectations points to an ineradicable flaw of democracy.

What is more, at times, Lord Sumption seems to accept that certain rights are could appropriately be entrenched beyond the reach of democratic politics. He mentions, repeatedly, rights not to have one’s life, liberty, or property interfered with arbitrarily or without the ability to challenge the interference in court, as well as democratic rights. At other times, admittedly, Lord Sumption seems to say that, in the United Kingdom anyway, an entrenched constitution ― even, it might seem, one limited to protecting these rights, would be inappropriate. This contradiction is never fully resolved, although perhaps what Lord Sumption means is that a narrowly drawn constitution protecting these rights is theoretically desirable, but does not offer sufficient benefits to be worth the dislocation that would occur if it were to be enacted in the UK. Be that as it may, Lord Sumption’s nods in the direction of a limited entrenched constitution and his support for a fairly robust version of the principle of legality ― including in cases like R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, which others have criticized as impinging on Parliamentary sovereignty ― suggest concern at what democratic institutions, if left unchecked, might do to important rights and constitutional principles.

This is what prompts me to see Lord Sumption’s vision of law and politics as tragic. He doesn’t have much hope for law, and says we must trust in politics, but his “praise of politics”, to borrow the title of his second lecture, is damningly faint. If all goes as well as it might, he says, we’ll keep muddling through, and not oppress too many people while lurching between overbearing optimism and fretful censoriousness. And perhaps, all will not go so well, although we will not even notice.


Is this the best we can do? I do not want to give quite so easily, and so I would like to try to rescue law, and perhaps, in a way, even politics, from Lord Sumption’s critique. This is almost a matter of necessity: after all, Lord Sumption himself thinks that some measure of entrenchment may well be justified, or at least excusable, and between that and his admonition to avoid dislocating established and functioning constitutional orders, those of us living in polities with entrenched constitutions should probably try to make them work before thinking about abolishing them. Moreover, even if we agree with Lord Sumption that entrenching rights is a bad idea, we still need to think about structural features of constitutions, to which Lord Sumption pays almost no attention. (This is another element of his thinking that he shares with Professor Waldron.) And besides, I am as worried as Lord Sumption by the overbearing, illiberal tendencies of contemporary democracy, and less willing to resign myself to them.

One question that needs to be asked is whether attempts to impose legal constraints on government are necessarily bound to degenerate into living constitutionalist creation of unwarranted constraints by the courts. Lord Sumption seems to think so. He implicitly accepts the living constitutionalist view that constitutional terms such as “due process of law” have no fixed meanings, and that adjudication based on such terms is inevitably going to answer the question not “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist”. (IV/5) And, to be sure, there is no shortage of living constitutionalists who agree with him, from the hosts of the Stereo Decisis podcast to Supreme Court judges giving constitutional benediction to rights they invent. As I have suggested here,

if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. 

But while Lord Sumption is right about this, I believe he errs in accepting that adjudication of rights issues must devolve into judicial benediction of rights or ― what is equally non-judicial ― dogmatic deference to legislative choices. In many ― I think in most ― cases, an originalist court that seeks to ascertain the public meaning of constitutional texts, and perhaps to engage in good-faith development of constitutional doctrine based on the texts’ original purposes can actually avoid adjudicating primarily on the basis of its normative priors. As William Baude has pointed out, this requires an effort at self-restraint on the court’s part: the court must accept that its first task is to ascertain the meaning of existing law, without rushing to conclude that this meaning is obscure so as to impose its own views on the parties. But I do not think that such an effort is impossible for courts to undertake. Indeed, even that ostensible champion of living constitutionalism, the Supreme Court Canada, already engages in originalist adjudication, admittedly of varying quality, in a non-negligible number of cases, as I have most recently discussed here.

Emphasizing the importance of constrained, originalist constitutional adjudication ― rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that the courts will do what they please with constitutional texts ― is all the more important because it can help resolve not only cases about fundamental rights but also those dealing with structural aspects of constitutions. Lord Sumption says almost nothing about federalism and separation of powers; to me, the way in which he breezes past them in his discussion of the United States is quite disappointing, a rare moment of incuriosity in an otherwise very thoughtful lecture series. Lord Sumption’s preferred understanding of democracy, as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” (III/7) seems to put structural issues front and centre. And given his sharp comments about the pernicious effects of bypassing the usual parliamentary mechanism in favour of a referendum on Brexit, I think he ought at least to give some thought to the question of whether, quite apart from entrenching rights, the decision-making processes of representative democracy may require robust constitutional safeguards against elected officials inclined to sacrifice them for momentary political advantage.

Ultimately, though, I think that Lord Sumption is too quick to reject the desirability of substantive limits on legislation, as well as to ignore the need for structural safeguards. He thinks that it is not a problem that, under the existing UK constitution, “the limits on what Parliament [or legislatures] can do depend on political conventions [that] derive their force from shared political sentiment which would make it politically costly to disregard them”. (V/2) (The situation is the same under the Canadian constitution except with respect to issues on which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has something to say.) Yet Lord Sumption gives cogent reasons to think that democratic politics often do not make it costly for Parliament to overreach and overregulate; and, on the contrary, that voters will, in the long run, demand too much conformity and control. These concerns echo those already expressed F.A. Hayek’s, in The Road to Serfdom. They are not new. They should be addressed, if possible, with more than vague hopes of compromise.

Indeed, I also think that Lord Sumption oversells compromise. He is right that one cannot expect to always get what one wants in politics, and that unwillingness to give an inch to partisan opponents one believes to be unprincipled at best, if not outright evil, is a real problem. But surely compromise isn’t valuable on any terms. To say so is only to encourage extremist opening bids by people who will expect us to agree to slightly more moderate versions of their still unreasonable demands in the name of accommodation. (The Québec government’s defence of its anti-religious dress code as moderate is a good example of this.) Compromise is important, but it cannot always be justly expected. As Lord Sumption himself recognizes, there are laws that make civilized coexistence or full membership in a democratic community impossible.


Lord Sumption’s Reith lectures are well worth listening to or reading, and reflecting on. They challenge those of us who support judicial review of legislation with an accessible but powerful restatement of the Waldronian case against that constitutional device and affirmation of the importance of democracy. They challenge Waldronians and other supporters of democratic institutions with a frank and not at all optimistic assessment of these institutions’ output. They are not right about everything ― but, insofar as they are wrong, they are wrong in interesting ways. As I said in introducing my summary of the lectures, I think that incoming law students, in particular, would benefit from engaging with Lord Sumption’s ideas. But so would those with more experience of the law. I am sure I have.

What Do You Want?

A proposal for an expanded (and entrenched) statutory bill of rights is confused and misguided

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Patrick Visintini and Mark Dance make the case for a new legislative bill of rights, to supplement the guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They argue that “a dusted-off” and much-expanded version of the Canadian Bill of Rights would produce a variety of benefits, at once empowering legislators and securing the neglected rights of the citizens. Yet these ambitious objectives are contradictory, and the argument rests on a confused, if all too common, vision of the constitution.

Messrs. Visintini and Dance lament the popular conception of members of Parliament as “nobodies”. If I understand them correctly, they are also none too pleased with the fact that, unlike in the process that led to the enactment of the Charter, “[c]ritical debates about rights in Canada have been largely left to lawyers and judges, expanding rights through constitutional interpretation rather than amendment”. A legislative update to the Bill of Rights “could reverse both these trends”, ensuring that legislators once again contribute to the protection of rights, overcome the pressures of ” electoral interests and ironclad party control” and “hold[] themselves and the federal government to account for future law-making and administrative action”.

This Bill of Rights 2.0 (my cliché; don’t blame Messrs. Visintini and Dance) would have further benefits too. It “would enhance the public’s ability to understand, track and organize to defend their rights”. It could be the vehicle for enshrining in law “now-pertinent rights [that] never made it into the Charter: environmental rights, victims [sic] rights, housing rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and self-government”. And it could

serve as a shield against judicial reactionaries. While we enjoy a relatively state-of-the-art constitution and a Supreme Court that understands those laws as a “living tree,” we may not always be so lucky. We cannot assume that we will always be immune to the American affliction of constitutional originalism, petrifying our living Constitution where it stands or even shrinking it to fit in the “ordinary meaning” that it would have had in 1982.

Messrs. Visintini and Dance also propose “[r]equiring a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament to add to or amend the new Bill of Rights”. In their view, this “would practically guarantee that cross-party consensus and collaboration would be needed” to effect such changes. They are not quite clear on whether they envision their proposed bill of rights being enacted by such a majority in the first place, although they refer appreciatively to the cross-party collaboration in the run-up to the enactment of the Charter.

More democracy! Less partisanship! More rights! Less Parliamentary abdication! More living constitutionalism! Less non-consensual tinkering with rights! If it all sounds too good to be true… that’s because it is. You can’t have all these things at once. What Messrs. Visintini and Dance are proposing is to empower Parliament, but just this once, for a grand act of abdication that will put a new plethora of rights beyond the reach of ordinary legislation, and empower the courts whose takeover by “reactionaries” they seem to fear. This makes no sense.

The point of a quasi-constitutional, or a fortiori constitutional, legislation protecting rights is to take them off the political agenda to some non-negligible extent and involve the courts in their enforcement. (Given their preference for immunizing their bill of rights from amendment by ordinary law, it is arguably a constitutional rather than a quasi-constitutional instrument that Messrs. Visintini and Dance are proposing.) Normally, one advocates enacting such laws because one thinks that the political process is not especially trustworthy, if not generally then at least with respect to the particular issues covered by one’s proposal. Of course, it may be that the political process will function well enough for the specific purpose of enacting rights-protecting legislation. Perhaps this was the case with the Charter, though looking beyond the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution one might argue that politicians did a lot of damage too, removing property rights protections and introducing the “notwithstanding clause”. Be that as it may, it is odd to expect any lasting empowerment of legislators to result from the enactment of a law whose raison d’être is to curtail their power.

Conversely, if one has sufficient confidence in the ability of legislators to deal with rights issues on an ongoing basis, or even if one simply has faith (a naïve faith, as I have argued here) that keeping legislators in control of constitutional issues will force them to take these issues seriously, the enactment of (quasi-)constitutional laws empowering the courts to set aside legislative decisions is counterproductive. One could still advocate for a legislated bill of rights in the New Zealand style, one that does not allow the courts to refuse to apply inconsistent statutes at serves, at most, to alert Parliament to the possible existence of a rights issue. One might, just, support the Canadian Bill of Rights, which allows a Parliamentary majority to override a judicial decision declaring a statute inoperative due to inconsistency with rights. But one would not demand that this law be protected from amendment by the ordinary legislative process.

Besides, if one professes confidence in the legislators’ ability to come up with a good bill of rights, as Messrs. Visintini and Dance do, one should not in the same breath demand that courts re-write those legislators’ work product. If the Special Joint Committee did good work, then what’s wrong with a constitution that has the meaning its members chose to give it? If they really want reverse the trend of judicial interpretations displacing the good work done by Members of Parliament in 1981-82, then Messrs. Visintini and Dance should be demanding originalist judges, not denouncing these (mostly hypothetical) creatures as suffering from an “American affliction”.

It’s not that I am opposed to expanding constitutional protections for rights, though my preferences would be quite different from those of Messrs. Visintini and Dance. Property rights, freedom of contract, and due process in the administration of civil and administrative justice would be my wish-list. I would also want any such expansion to follow proper procedures for constitutional amendment; it is far from clear that the entrenched bill of rights proposed by Messrs. Visintini and Dance can be enacted consistently with Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. But one should be clear about what the point of such a change to our present constitutional arrangements would be. It would serve the cause not of legislative empowerment, or even accountability, but that of counter-majoritarian individual liberty.

And if one would rather serve those other causes, which have something to be said for them, there is plenty that one can campaign for. Improved legislative procedures are one area for reform: fewer omnibus bills, less delegation of broad law-making authority to the executive, more free votes perhaps. Many governments are elected promising to do some of these things at least. Few, if any, follow through. As an election is coming up, there is plenty of room for worthy, if perhaps quixotic, advocacy here. One could also demand more effective control over the administrative state. Again, less delegation of power to bureaucrats, but also more effective parliamentary scrutiny of the exercise of that power which has been delegated, as well as reform of the law of judicial review of administrative action. In particular, Parliament could, and should, repeal privative clauses, and clarify that administrative determinations of law are subject to full review on a correctness standard. One could also try to persuade the Supreme Court to finally abandon its deference to bureaucrats on constitutional issues. There is no point in creating new rights if administrators, rather than independent courts, are given the ability to determine their scope and effect.

In short, would-be promoters of democracy and accountability in Canada have plenty to do. A new bill of rights will not advance their purposes; other, less sexy but more realistic, measures might. Democracy, accountability, individual liberty, or glamour: they need to figure out what it is that they are after.

In the Beginning

Learning about, and from, Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 proposal for what would become the Canadian Charter

Canadian judges and lawyers, including of the academic variety, tend not to think very highly of our constitutional history. This is, in part, because we ― and I must include myself in this ― do not know it as well as we should. There is an unhealthy feedback loop at work: a predisposition to be dismissive of the past fosters ignorance about it, which in turn makes it easier to be dismissive. The good news is that, once one starts looking into this history about which we have so much to find out, it is easy to find fascinating stories to learn, and to learn from.

Case in point: the proposal for “A Canadian Charter of Human Rights“, put forward in early 1968 by then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, made available by the wonderful resource that is the Primary Documents project. I have to admit: I didn’t really know anything about this text before coming across it recently. But it is, surely, of considerable interest, if we accept that ― like every other rights-protecting text from the Magna Carta onwards ― the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the direct descendant of the 1968 proposal, isn’t just a shadow in Plato’s cave, but a document that was written and enacted by particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place. And in addition to both the interest that I think this text deserves and the way in which it illustrates the value of constitutional history more broadly, it also sheds some light on ongoing debates.


Trudeau began his introductory chapter by claiming that “Interest in human rights is as old as civilization itself.” (9) (This, I am afraid, is reminiscent of bad student work.) For a long time, he wrote,

these rights were known as ‘natural’ rights; rights to which all men were entitled because they are endowed with a moral and rational nature. … These natural rights were the origins of the western world’s more modern concepts of individual freedom and equality. (9)

Trudeau appealed to Cicero and Aquinas, as well as Locke and Rousseau, and quotes at some length from the Declaration of Independence. I’m not sure that his presentation of the concept of natural rights is fully accurate, but his reliance on these authorities as the starting point of an argument for constitutional protection of human rights is relevant to the recent debates about the nature and origin of the rights protected by the Charter.

Another point which has been the subject of recent discussion that Trudeau’s introduction addressed was that of Parliamentary supremacy. Trudeau was quite clear that his proposal involved “some restriction on the theory of legislative supremacy”, although this theory, he said, “is seldom pressed to its full extent”. (11) Equally clear, as will appear below, was his understanding that the courts would have the last word on the meaning and import of the rights guarantees that he proposed adding to the Constitution. The point of the exercise was to secure “the fundamental freedoms of the individual from interference, whether federal or provincial”, and also to “establish that all Canadians, in every part of Canada, have equal rights”. (11)


This theme of inviting judicial enforcement of rights’ guarantees is further developed in the next chapter. Trudeau discusses the Canadian Bill of Rights, and finds it wanting because it is “not a constitutional limitation on Parliament, only an influence”, (13) and has not been vigorously enforced by the courts. Even if it had been, it would, like provincial legislation protecting human rights, be subject to repeal through the ordinary legislative process. In short,

a constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights is required which will declare invalid any existing or future statute in conflict with it. Language in this form would possess a degree of permanence and would over-ride even unambiguous legislation purporting to violate the protected rights. (14)


The next Chapter outlines the contents of the proposed “charter of human rights”. It explains how existing law deals with each right it proposes to protect ― what the existing protections, if any, are; how they are limited; and also how legislative powers affecting the right are distributed between Parliament and the provincial legislatures. In some cases at least, there is thought given to the wording of future constitutional clauses ― for example, “whether freedom of expression is best guaranteed in simple terms without qualification, or whether the limitations of this freedom ought to be specified” (16) ― which suggests that the Charter‘s text is not just a collection of “majestic generalities” that could just as easily have been cast in very different, if equally general, terms. And there is a great deal of speculation about the way in which the courts will treat various rights, if they are constitutionally entrenched. This speculation is informed by references to Canadian case law, where it exists, as well precedents from the United States. There are also occasional references to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Some future controversies are already foreshadowed in Trudeau’s discussion. For example, the section on the freedom of religion highlights “the imposition of Sunday closing of businesses on Christians and non-Christians alike” ― which would, indeed, produce one of the first Supreme Court decisions based on the Charter, R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. For its part, the section on “life, liberty and property” ― note that, as Dwight Newman and Lorelle Binnion have pointed out, Trudeau was quite keen on entrenching some form of constitutional protection for property rights ― anticipates the issue in another early Charter case, Re BC Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 SCR 486 about whether substantive or only procedural constraints exist on deprivations of “life, liberty and the security of the person”. In 1968, Trudeau thought, based on the jurisprudence under the “due process clause” of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

that the guarantee [of due process] as applied to protection of “life” and personal “liberty” has been generally satisfactory, whereas substantive due process as applied to “liberty” of contract and to “property” has created the most controversy. It might therefore be possible to apply the due process guarantee only to “life”, personal “liberty” and “security of the person”. The specific guarantees of procedural fairness set out elsewhere in the bill would continue to apply to any interference with contracts or property. In this fashion the possibility of any substantive “due process” problems would be avoided. (20)

Of course, the example of property rights shows that what was ultimately enacted in 1982 was not always what Trudeau had wanted in 1968. Still, given the widespread conviction that the Supreme Court’s holding in the Motor Vehicle Act Reference that the “principles of fundamental justice” which must be respected when depriving a person of “life, liberty or security of the person” were not only procedural but substantive too went against with the wishes and expectations of the Charter‘s framers, it is interesting to note that the Supreme Court’s interpretation is actually quite consistent with Trudeau’s original proposal.

There are instances, admittedly, where Trudeau’s powers of prediction failed. For example, he wrote that “a court would likely be extremely reluctant to substitute its opinion of a proper punishment for that of the legislature”. (21) Stephen Harper, not to mention Justice François Huot of the Québec Superior Court, might have a thing or two to say about that. Trudeau thought that constitutionalizing the presumption of innocence would not mean “that the various federal and provincial penal statutes which contain ‘reverse onus’ clauses … will be declared unconstitutional”. But of course it was just such statute that was in fact declared unconstitutional in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103.

And property rights weren’t the only ones that he thought important but the Charter ended up not protecting: so was the right to a fair hearing in civil and administrative proceedings. On the other hand, some rights that Trudeau did not think advisable to incorporate in the constitution were read into it by judicial fiat. Thus, notably, Trudeau listed “the right to form and join trade unions” along with other rights “which seek to ensure some advantage to the individual and which require positive action by the state”, (27) and which should not be protected by his proposed “charter of human rights”. That is because “[i]t might take considerable time to reach agreement on the rights [in this category] to be guaranteed and on the feasibility of implementation”. (27) Someone should have told the Supreme Court before it decided in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391, that a right to collective bargaining would have been “within the contemplation of the framers of the Charter“. [78]


The very brief final chapter in Trudeau’s text suggests that egalitarian and linguistic rights might have to be implemented gradually, after political and legal rights have been protected, and muses on the advisability of special provisions for wartime and other emergencies. Section 32(2) of the Charter, which provided that equality rights would only come into effect three years after the rest of the Charter, seems to reflect the former concern, as does, in part, section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982 which requires Québec’s consent ― which has never been given ― for the application of section 23(1)(a) to the province. No special provision has been made specifically to accommodate the concern about emergencies, though Trudeau actually contemplated the possibility of leaving it to “the courts to determine what limitations are made necessary in times of crisis”. (30)


In case I have not made this sufficiently clear already: these are only one man’s ideas about what a future constitutional charter of rights for Canada should look like and accomplish. To be sure, the man was influential ― indeed his influence was decisive in Canada having a constitutional charter of rights 14 years later ― and the ideas were given the stamp of approval by the government of which he was part. But many years would pass, and many governments would change, before these ideas would become law, and then, as noted above, only in a much modified form.

It is the law that was enacted that binds Canadian governments, and Canadian courts. As I have unfortunately had occasion to note here, Pierre Trudeau’s political programme is not the appropriate object of constitutional interpretation, “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”. For the better and for the worse ― often much for the worse ― the ideas of other political actors and members of the civil society helped shape Charter as it developed from a political proposal to a constitutional law.

Nevertheless, the original proposal of which the Charter is the consequence deserves our attention. Although in no way binding or definitive, it sheds some light on important controversies surrounding the Charter, some of which are ongoing to this day ― in part, I would argue, because we have not paid sufficient attention to history. Studying this history is a way not only of indulging our curiosity ― though there’s nothing wrong with that ― but also of reminding ourselves that the Charter, and our constitution more broadly, was the product of specific circumstances and ideas. For all their flaws, these circumstances and ideas were more interesting and praiseworthy than those who denigrate them in order to make the constitution that they produced into a blank canvas onto which their own preferences can be transposed care to admit. The constitution is neither such a blank canvas nor a projection from a Platonic world of forms that must be interpreted by philosopher kings in judicial robes for our edification and government. It is a law, and must be interpreted as such.

Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court issues its most originalist decision in years, but pretends it applies a different methodology

Military justice is a somewhat exotic topic; I don’t think my professors mentioned it even once in my time in law school, for instance. The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40, delivered last week, is concerned with the functioning and limits on the jurisdiction of this parallel justice system. However, it should not only be of interest to the aficionados of this area of the law. Stillman was a relatively rare case where constitutional interpretation is front and centre, and it provides good illustrations of a number of problems with the way we do things on this front.

The issue before the Court was the meaning of the exception to the right to trial by jury guaranteed by section 11(f) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “in the case of an offence under military law tried before a military tribunal”, and specifically of the phrase “military law”. There is no question that specifically military offences created by the Code of Service Discipline that is part of the National Defence Act are “military law”; but what about the ordinary civilian offences (notably those created by the Criminal Code), which are incorporated by reference by section 130(1)(a) of the Act? The majority, in an opinion by Justices Moldaver and Brown (with the agreement of Chief Justice Wagner and Justices Abella and Côté) find that these too are “offence[s] under military law”. Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe disagree and dissent.

Both the majority and the dissenting opinion present themselves as applying a purposive approach to the interpretation of section 11(f) of the Charter. However, they do not just differ in the outcomes that they reach. The majority’s professed purposivism shades into public meaning originalism. The dissent’s has more than a whiff of I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave”, the substitution by judicial fiat of the constitution that we perhaps ought to have for the one we actually have.


The majority begins by saying, with reference to a well-known passage in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, that the provisions of the Charter ― both rights and, it insists, exceptions ―

are to be read purposively, rather than in a technical or legalistic fashion. And, just as courts must take care not to “overshoot” the purpose of a Charter right by giving it an unduly generous interpretation, so too must they be careful not to “undershoot” the purpose of a Charter exception by giving it an unduly narrow interpretation. [22]

The purpose of the right to trial by jury is to protect the accused against the state and also to involve the public in the administration of justice. That of the exception is to preserve the longstanding, separate system of military justice, which serves to maintain discipline and morale in the armed forces. The majority reviews the history, remit, and functioning of this system at considerable length.

Justices Moldaver and Brown then come to the interpretation of the phrase “military law” itself. With reference to Parliamentary debates at the time of the enactment in 1950 of the version of the National Defence Act in force in 1982, they point out that “‘military law’ was understood as ‘the law which governs the members of the army and regulates the conduct of officers and soldiers as such, in peace and war, at home and abroad'” and included “a provision transforming ordinary civil offences into service offences”. [74] They note, further, that the Criminal Code “at the time of the Charter’s enactment defined (and still defines) “‘military law’ as including ‘all laws, regulations or orders relating to the Canadian Forces'”, [75] and point to the Court’s decision in MacKay v The Queen, [1980] 2 SCR 370, where the majority opinion spoke of civilian offences incorporated by reference by the National Defence Act as being part of “military law”. Justices Moldaver and Brown concluded that it is “far more likely that the purpose of the military exception was to recognize and preserve the status quo” than to “reverse[] this longstanding state of affairs”. [78]

Justices Moldaver and Brown go on to reject the argument of the accused persons that the phrase “military law” only refers to purely military offences rather than the civilian ones incorporated by reference in the National Defence Act. To accept this, they say, would be contrary to MacKay and to the text of section 11(f).

They also reject the dissenters’ suggestion that to fall within the purview of “military law” within the meaning of section 11(f) an offence must be sufficiently connected to military service. The majority opinion in MacKay accepted that no special connection was required to make the incorporation by reference of civilian offences a valid exercise of Parliament’s power in section 91(7) of the Constitution Act, 1867, over “Militia, Military and Naval Service, and Defence”. Meanwhile, in R v Moriarity, 2015 SCC 55, [2015] 3 SCR 485, the Court upheld this incorporation against a challenge based on section 7 of the Charter, holding that the subjection of general criminal offences to the military justice system was rationally connected to that system’s purposes. While these cases raised different issues, “there must be coherence among the division of powers analysis, the overbreadth analysis, and the meaning of ‘an offence under military law’ in s. 11(f) of the Charter”. [97] To be sure, tying the scope of the exception in section 11(f) to Parliament’s power in section 91(7) means that Parliament can to some extent determine when the exception applies, but this no different from Parliament enacting criminal law and thereby triggering the application of various rights granted the accused. Besides, the requirement of a sufficient connection to military service is vague, and would cause difficulties in application.


Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe see things very differently. Previous decisions are not dispositive, and the requirement of a connection between the offence and military service is essential to avoid unduly limiting the right to trial by jury and giving Parliament and military prosecutors the ability to shape the contours of this right. Constitutional authority (in terms of division of powers) to enact an offence is not, in itself, a guarantee that the enactment will also comply with the Charter; nor is compliance with one right synonymous with compliance with others. Nor can the exercise of discretion by prosecutors, to bring charges in military court only when appropriate, be a substitute for the judicial enforcement of constitutional rights.

The dissenters appeal to the same passage from Big M setting out the principle of purposive interpretation as the majority, although they warn that exceptions to Charter rights should be approached with caution. The purpose of section 11(f), in their view, is to uphold “the interests of the accused and of society in holding a jury trial when prosecuting serious criminal offences”. [141] These interests must not be undermined allowing trials not sufficiently connected with military service to be held in the military, rather than the civilian, justice system.

Turning to history, Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe point out that the jurisdiction of military courts long remained narrow and was seen as a supplement to that of the civilian courts, only to be resorted to when civilian courts were unavailable. They also refer to MacKay, but to Justice McIntyre’s concurring opinion rather than the majority’s; this concurrence stressed the need for a military connection to bring an offence within the jurisdiction of military courts. This requirement was “adopted by the Court Martial Appeal Court … one year after the Charter, and has been applied with some regularity over the past thirty years”. [164] Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe conclude that “[t]his historical overview … highlights when military courts should have jurisdiction” ― namely “where quick and efficient justice was necessary to uphold discipline”, [166] and not otherwise.

As a result, the possibility that offences committed by persons subject to military justice but which are not sufficiently connected to their military service is an infringement of section 11(f) of the Charter. Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe conclude that this infringement is not justified in a free and democratic society. They go on to find that reading the requirement of connection to the military into section section 130(1)(a) of the National Defence Act in the best remedy in the circumstances.


The majority is right, although its reasoning is unnecessarily complex. The purported purposivism of both opinions obscures what is really going on. As suggested above, the reasons of Justices Moldaver and Brown are, at heart, originalist. The key passage in their opinion is that which discusses the way in which the phrase “military law” had been used by officials, by the Criminal Code, and by the Supreme Court itself, in the decades prior to 1982. Although they do not say so in so many words, Justices Moldaver and Brown thus go a long way towards establishing the public meaning of that phrase at the time of the Charter‘s enactment. Ideally, they would have stopped right there.

The references to the purpose of section 11(f) as a whole or of the military justice exception are superfluous. Purposive analysis may well be a helpful way to undertake constitutional construction ― that is, the development of legal doctrine in areas where constitutional text does not offer sufficient guidance to resolve concrete disputes (for example because the text is vague, or employs terms that appeal to moral or practical reasoning) ― as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have suggested. (I summarized and commented on their article here.) But, as Stillman shows, purposivism does not meaningfully contribute to constitutional interpretation ― that is, the activity of ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional text itself. When, as in this case, it is possible to find out what the text means, and to resolve the dispute based on that meaning alone, the speculation that the text was presumably intended to say what it said rather than something else adds nothing to the analysis.

It may be, of course, that the pretense of purposivism is necessary to make originalism palatable to (some of) the current members of the Supreme Court. If so, it might be a reasonable price to pay; but then again, it might not. When Stillman is cited in the future for its unanimous embrace of purposivism, will it be in support of the majority’s empty ― and harmless ― version of the methodology, or of the dissent’s, which consists of emphasizing purposes at the expense of the original meaning of the text?

The dissent starts with a view of how the constitution ought to treat the relationship between civilian and military justice, and insists that this view must become law. It pays little heed to the meaning of the phrase “military law”, reading into it a limitation that is, in its view, desirable, but has no obvious foundation in the constitutional text. While Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe appeal to history, they cherry-pick the record and ignore the crucial period: that immediately preceding the enactment of the Charter. The practice of the previous centuries may be interesting, but it cannot be dispositive given that matters stood very differently by the time the Charter came into being. Still less can the jurisprudence of Canadian military courts in the decades that followed, and its embrace of Justice McIntyre’s concurrence in MacKay, have any bearing of the Charter‘s meaning. The dissent’s use of history appears to be more result-oriented more than a genuine attempt to ascertain “the historical origins of the concepts enshrined” in section 11(f), to borrow Big M‘s language. If this is what purposivism is, then we should run, not walk, away from it.


The reasoning of the Stillman majority is perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511. In the meantime, of course, there has been the thoroughly unoriginalist decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, [2018] 1 SCR 342. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have written, it would be wrong to pretend that the Supreme Court is consistently originalist; but it would also be wrong to deny originalism’s place in Canadian constitutional law. Even seemingly decisive setbacks, like Comeau, are only ever provisional.

And it is not just the Court as a whole that is inconsistent; so are individual judges. Every member of the Stillman majority signed onto the Comeau judgment. Justice Wagner, as he then was, and Justices Côté and Abella were the dissenters in Caron, favouring an approach that privileged the supposed intentions of the framers of the provision at issue over its original public meaning. This time they join a majority opinion where original meaning does the heavy lifting. Justice Karakatsanis, by contrast, had co-authored the majority opinion in Caron, but now dissents.

One rather suspects that the judges simply do not give much thought to constitutional interpretation, at least beyond what they see as the needs of individual cases. If this is so, then there is little reason to expect that occasional ― but erratic and not especially well-reasoned ― resort to originalism by the Supreme Court will not continue. As Mr. Oliphant and I argued, however, it would be highly desirable if more thought were given to constitutional interpretation, and if the Court went about this task in a more consistent and principled manner.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to add that I am inclined to think that, at the level of policy, the concerns raised by Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe deserve serious consideration. In my comment on Moriarity, I wrote that

there is … a broader question to be asked about the extent to which an institution to which a person belongs ought to be able to discipline that person for behaviour occurring outside the institutional context, for the sake of maintaining “morale,” or harmony, or respect, etc.

I still think so. To be sure, the armed forces are a rather unique sort of institution. Perhaps there is good reason to give them the sort of broad jurisdiction over the actions of their members that, as Stillman holds, the Charter allows. But perhaps not. Yet this is a matter for Parliament to consider. The constitution, on this point, does not constrain it.

Not This Way

The trouble with a proposal for “a Canadian originalism”

In a recent C2C Journal article, Benjamin L. Woodfinden offers thoughts on “How to Take Back the Charter” ― that is, on how to make its interpretation and application palatable to those who do not share the fashionable view of “the Supreme Court as a guardian council of philosopher-kings (and queens) guiding Canadians toward a more just society”. I am mostly sympathetic to the impulse that animates the argument, but find Mr. Woodfinden’s proposals puzzling, even troubling.

Addressing himself to (presumably small-c) “conservatives”, Mr. Woodfinden suggests that they “need a judicial philosophy, a coherent, organized, alternative vision with the philosophical and jurisprudential rigor [sic] and institutional capacity to challenge the vision” of the Supreme Court as arbiter of Canada’s values. (Mr. Woodfinden singles out Justice Abella for particular criticism in this regard, and I have no quarrel with that.) And, to implement this vision, Mr. Woodfinden says, it is necessary to “nurture some alternative voices and promote their ascent through the legal community and onto our courts”, undertaking in Canada the work that the Federalist Society has been carrying out for decades in the United States.

Substantively, Mr. Woodfinden’s proposed alternative ― which he calls “a Canadian originalism” ― is a blend of nostalgia for the good old pre-Charter days, the “glorious tradition of parliamentary government” on which “[t]he Charter was in some ways an artificial imposition”, and an almost equally antiquated form of “old” originalism. Mr. Woodfinden attaches great weight to the intentions of the framers of the Charter, as well as well as their expectations of what the Charter would, or at least would not, be taken to mean. Even as he ruefully says that preaching judicial restraint is no longer enough, he admonishes us that “the Charter’s framers did not intend to give free rein to activist judges”, and denounces those judges who “read new rights into the Charter”. Judges ought to “understand that when the law is silent, courts should be silent”, and not endeavour to make the world a better place through their decisions.

Again, I have sympathy for some of these claims. I once criticized the late and unlamented Conservative government for failing to articulate a constitutional vision that would have gone beyond rote appeals to judicial deference to legislatures. I share Mr. Woodfinden distaste for the Supreme Court’s ignoring or re-writing the constitution in such cases as R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15 and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4, [2015] 1 SCR 245. I too think that Canada needs strong voices able to articulate an alternative to the dominant view of the relationship between courts, the other branches of government, and the constitution. Indeed, although Mr. Woodfinden says nary a word of this, I think that organizations such as the Runnymede Society and Advocates for the Rule of Law, to say nothing of this blog, are already hard at work to make this aspiration a reality. If Mr. Woodfinden wants to join our work, I am sure he would be welcome. If he thinks it is somehow deficient, he should let us know.

That said, there is a great deal that I do not agree with in Mr. Woodfinden’s argument. Perhaps that’s just because it’s not really addressed to me. After all, as I have noted here, I am not a conservative. Indeed, I take it that in Mr. Woodfinden’s eyes I am an “ally” of the “Court Party”, at least insofar as I share its refusal to regard the ability of legislatures to sidestep court rulings by relying on the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” “as the (democratically elected) legislature’s last line of defence against judicial usurpation”, and rather see it as a standing danger to individual rights. But, because I have no less of an interest in advancing the cause of intellectual diversity within the Canadian bar and bench than conservatives do, I will venture a critique of the way in which Mr. Woodfinden tries to go about it.

First, I think it’s worth pointing out that stories of a lost paradise of Canadian parliamentary sovereignty, away from which we were seduced by Pierre Trudeau and his alien ideas about protecting what Mr. Woodfinden calls “abstract rights”, are myths, not histories. A.V. Dicey, for instance, to whom our thinking about Parliamentary sovereignty still owes so much, argued that, whatever its preamble might say, the then-British North America Act, 1867 really created a constitution similar in principle to that of the United States, not the United Kingdom ― one that limited the powers of legislatures, and would “inevitably” fall to be interpreted by the judiciary. The Canadian Bill of Rights, enacted in 1960 thanks to a Conservative civil libertarian, John Diefenbaker, took a further step out of the orthodox world of Parliamentary sovereignty, by allowing courts to declare inoperative federal statutes that trenched on individual rights. The Charter was a further, and very significant, step in the limitation of legislative power, and the expansion of the judicial one. But it was not a wild leap into the dark.

Second, I do not find Mr. Woodfinden’s original intent originalism-as-the-next-best-thing-to-not-having-a-Charter at all attractive. Original intent originalism has been subject to powerful criticism not only from outside but also from within the originalist camp itself. It gives undue weight to unenacted intentions (insofar as a disparate group of people such as “the framers of the Charter” can even have joint intentions) and expectations, and cannot provide a solid justification for judicial review. At the same time, as Mr. Woodfinden himself acknowledges, it is true that the Charter, like other constitutional provisions, comes with its lot of vagueness (though we can question whether it is “amorphous”, as Mr. Woodfinden claims).

“New” originalism, which seeks to implement the original public meaning of constitutional provisions insofar as it can be determined, but also recognizes the necessity of “construction” ― that is, of a reasoned development of legal doctrines for implementing the constitution’s original meaning ― is a much more plausible approach than one that seeks to deny the legitimacy of any creative role for the judiciary. For this reason, I am actually not nearly troubled by some of the decisions that Mr. Woodfinden criticizes as he is ― notably Carter v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331, which invalidated the across-the-board criminalization of assisted suicide (though I have my reservations about it too). I think it is also worth emphasizing that adherence to the original meaning of the Charter may well result in more, not less, robust enforcement of some of its provisions ― notably section 15, which is not limited to being the anti-discrimination provision of the Supreme Court’s imagining.

To be sure, these are matters of debate. Not all originalists have embraced the “new” originalism that personally find most compelling. But this brings me to a third difficulty I have with Mr. Woodfinden’s proposal. He seems to expect that “conservatives” can and ought to settle on one fairly specific constitutional vision, that will do battle against the approach now dominant in the Canadian legal community. Perhaps this is concern-trolling on my part, since, to repeat, I am not a conservative, but I doubt that this is either possible or desirable. It’s worth recalling that the Federalist Society doesn’t actually take positions on legal issues. Its members largely agree about some things, and vigorously disagree about others. If Mr. Woodfinden really wants an intellectually vibrant and rigorous Canadian legal counterpart, he should not be too quick to declare what it ought to believe. The approach taken by the Runnymede Society ― to serve as a platform for a variety of heterodox voices, conservative and otherwise, strikes me as much more promising.

All that to say, Mr. Woodfinden is right that the Canadian legal discourse could do with an alternative voice ― better yet, alternative voices. The Supreme Court and its enablers in academia and elsewhere in the legal profession too often disregard the constitution, seeing as no more than an imperfect realization of their vision of justice. But Mr. Woodfinden’s way of making that argument leaves me cold. The (exaggerated) reverence for Parliamentary supremacy is not a feeling I share; the (obsolete) deference to the intentions of constitutional framers strikes me as indefensible; and I would rather see lively intellectual debate among a spectrum of positions than a clash of two monolithic constitutional visions. Of course, the way in which a better state of the constitutional discourse can be brought about about should itself be the subject of discussion, and Mr. Woodfinden makes a contribution to this necessary conversation. But it is one from which I must, on some key points, dissent.

The Dead Intent of the Framers

The tragedy of Doug Ford looks less like a tragedy after all, with the Court of Appeal for Ontario staying the decision of Justice Belobaba that ruled Ford’s planned council cut unconstitutional. The use of the notwithstanding clause is off the table, for now. But it would be hasty to move on too quickly. How academics and lawyers spoke about the planned use of the notwithstanding clause provides a window into how we justify and critique the use of state power.

For example, some 80 law school faculty across Canada came out against the Ford government’s planned invocation  of s.33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in an open letter. The faculty, relying on a strong-form version of originalism (original intent, long outdated as a form of originalist reasoning), argue that Premier Ford transgressed the intention of the Charter’s framers:

The framers of the Constitution included the notwithstanding clause as a compromise to achieve consensus. But, they firmly believed that the notwithstanding clause would only be used in exceptional circumstances. This has indeed been the case since the Charter’s enactment in 1982.

If the excerpt above seems an insignificant part of the letter, the faculty use the original intent of the (yet undefined framers) to define a political norm that governs the frequency of use of the notwithstanding clause.

In 36 years, the notwithstanding clause has rarely been used. Liberal governments, NDP governments and Conservative governments at the federal and provincial levels have all been extremely reluctant to use the notwithstanding clause. Faced with judicial decisions declaring legislation unconstitutional, governments in Canada have sought alternative ways of bringing their laws into compliance with the Charter. This is precisely what the framers of the Constitution had hoped and predicted. The notwithstanding clause was only to be used in the most exceptional circumstances.

The faculty, to their credit, do not attack the legality of Ford’s planned use of the notwithstanding clause. So long as the form requirements are met, the notwithstanding clause can be invoked. Rather, they seek to define, using framers’ intent, the political boundaries that should govern this extraordinary power.

At first blush, I agree that the invocation of the notwithstanding clause should be subject to political norms and should be critically examined by citizens. There should be a justification of the use of the notwithstanding clause. This is different from the sort of legal restriction on statutory decision-making explained in Roncarelli v Duplessis. In an administrative law sense, state power is subject to the law, and the exercise of powers contemplated by statute are controlled by that statute.  That analogy is ill-fitting for a power unrooted to statute that exists in the text of Constitution itself. Nonetheless, one can meaningfully argue that a political norm of justification should accompany the use of the override. As I’ve said in this space before, Premier Ford has failed on this score.

The interesting part of the faculty letter, though, is not the substantive argument. Rather, it is the analytical footpath. The faculty seek to call up the live hands of Jean Chretien et al who “framed” the Charter to support their point of view. In fact, Chretien, former Ontario Attorney General  Roy McMurtry, and former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow (the individuals who bartered the notwithstanding clause into the Charter through the famous Kitchen Accord) have come out to say that  the notwithstanding clause should only be used “in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort.”

It is surprising that a fairly large contingent of the Canada law professoriate endorse the proposition that the intent of the framers should mean anything in this case. Others have written about the problems with original intent originalism—determining the class of relevant “framers,” determining how to mediate between different intents among these “framers,” determining the level of generality at which intent is expressed, and the list goes on. These practical problems underline a broader theoretical problem–why, in a normative sense, should the views of Jean Chretien et al bind us today? How can we be assured that these “framers” are speaking on behalf of the meaning adopted by Parliament and the legislatures?

Even if we should accept that this intent leads to the acceptance of the relevant political norms, there is no evidence offered in the letter that other potential “framers” of the Charter shared the view of Chretien, Romanow, and McMurtry as to the use of the notwithstanding clause. For example, Brian Peckford (former Premier of Newfoundland who apparently presented the proposal of the provinces to Prime Minister Trudeau), wrote a piece arguing that Premier Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause was perfectly appropriate. He made no mention of any understanding or political commitment on the part of any other Premiers or parties as to the expected use of the notwithstanding clause. In this sense, the framers’ intent means nothing; it is dead in terms of helping to interpret even the political norms surrounding the use of the notwithstanding clause.

This is a dangerous form of originalist reasoning adopted by the faculty, and should be used sparingly with appropriate caution. It is open to abuse. Lawrence Solum argues that theories of originalism have two features (1) fixation and (2) constraint. That is, the meaning of a constitutional provision is fixed at the time of framing; and in terms of original meaning originalism, the original public meaning of the constitutional text constrains the constitutional practice of courts. To my mind, the sort of originalism relied on by the faculty fails to both fixate and constrain constitutional meaning, precisely because there is at least an open question as to the expected legal and political practice of the notwithstanding clause. There is even a question as to who should fit into the relevant class of framers, and who should not. In this sense, the form of originalist reasoning invited by the faculty is not, in substance, different from living tree constitutionalism—unfixed and unconstrained. It is an invitation to dress up the desired political outcomes of its proponents with the imprimatur of a legal doctrine.

Putting aside the faculty focus on political norms, if framers’ intent is accepted as an appropriate doctrinal model, the debate in courts will focus on which particular framers support one side of a case or another. Will some lawyers introduce affidavit evidence from Jean Chretien? Another side, Brian Peckford? Rather than focusing on the meaning of words in their context—their original meaning—framers’ intent will incentivize lawyers to spin historical tales, told through the intent of those whose view may not actually represent the state of the law.

That said, we shouldn’t bristle at the opening provided by the faculty. There is, perhaps for the first time, a willingness to accept forms of originalism. If the faculty intended to fix the constitutional political practice of the notwithstanding clause at the time of framing, that intent is better vindicated by original meaning (to the extent it can be discerned) precisely because it fixes and constrains. Of course, a rational person would rather bet on a system of rules that prevents political hijacking of legal interpretation, because political power can be wielded in any direction. A safer gamble—a better methodology—is a form of doctrine less amenable to political reasoning. Given the faculty acceptance of some model along these lines, I look forward to seeing how a focus on fixation and constraint can influence other areas of the Charter.

Things I Dislike about the Constitution

10 problems with the Canadian constitution (according to its original meaning)

In an interesting Volokh Conspiracy post, Ilya Somin provides a “list of several areas where … the Constitution [of the United States] gets important issues badly wrong”. This is in response to concerns that (American) originalists, most of whom tend to be conservatives or libertarians, come to their position on how to interpret (their) constitution because they think that originalism yields results consonant with their political views. As Professor Somin notes, “[s]imilar charges, of course, are often made against living constitutionalists, who have long been accused of just coming up with ways to constitutionalize their (mostly liberal) political views”. But, even if one’s work is focused on those areas where one’s political and constitutional views are aligned, for any principled person there are likely to be areas where this alignment break down.

Here are some of mine (for the Canadian constitution of course, not the American one). It is a very tentative list. That’s partly due to my ignorance in some areas, especially that of Aboriginal law, and partly because there simply hasn’t been enough work done on the originalist interpretation of the Canadian constitution. There is still less written on the correct originalist approach to non-textual constitutional rules (notably constitutional conventions and principles) and also to provisions that are spent or obsolete and yet have never been excised from the constitutional text (notably sections 55-57 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provide for the intervention of the UK government in the Canadian legislative process, and which I have simply ignore here).

Anyway, this is a start. The list, after the first two items, is more or less in the order in which things come up if you read the Constitution Acts 1867 and 1982.

* * *

1. What is the constitution of Canada?

Let’s us start with the most conceptually fundamental problem. Section 52(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada includes” a number of legislative instruments, notably the Constitution Acts, 18671982. The word “includes”, as the Supreme Court has correctly recognized, means that the list it introduces is not exhaustive. So what else is part of the “Constitution of Canada”? I doubt that the term “constitution” has an unambiguous original public meaning, given its fluidity in the Westminster tradition, which the existence of constitutional texts in Canada only compounds.

This is a big problem, because it is “the Constitution of Canada” that, by virtue of section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, “is the supreme law of Canada”, invalidating any other inconsistent law, and by the (self-referential) terms of section 52(3) can only be amended “in accordance with the authority contained in the Constitution of Canada”? Section 52(2) fails to provide useful guidance on an issue of fundamental importance in our constitutional law. Ideally, it should be amended to clarify what is, and what is not subject to sections 52(1) and 52(3), in particular among Imperial legislation such as the Bill of Rights 1688, as well as “unwritten” constitutional rules and principles.

2. Parliamentary sovereignty

My biggest philosophical problem with the Canadian constitution is that, subject to the federal division of powers and the specific restrictions on legislative power found mostly in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, it is underpinned by the traditional view of Parliamentary sovereignty.  As much as I would like the constitution to include something like a Barnettian “presumption of liberty“, and whether or not such a presumption exists under the Constitution of the United States, correctly interpreted, it is a thing alien to the Westminster tradition as it evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t think there is or can be any serious dispute about that.

Under the Canadian constitution, subject to the aforementioned limitations, Parliament and the legislatures are free to enact laws that benefit some people at the expense of others or are otherwise  not rational means to advance the public interest. Now, these limitations are not insignificant. They would be more important still if the courts interpreted them correctly, instead of letting their pro-regulatory bias dictate their decisions, as the Supreme Court recently did in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, and if they adhered to the original requirement of exclusivity in the federal division of powers. Nevertheless, the scope of legislative power under the Canadian constitution is much too broad.

Parliamentary sovereignty is also pernicious because it is, paradoxically, the constitutional foundation of the administrative state. While I would not yet concede the constitutionality of judicial deference to administrative decision-makers, Parliamentary sovereignty is the best argument for it. And there is no doubt that Parliamentary sovereignty is the justification for the delegation of considerable legislative and adjudicative powers to administrative decision-makers in the first place. Whatever limits on such delegation might exist as a matter of the constitution’s original public meaning ― a subject that I would love to see explored ― I strongly suspect (based notably on decisions made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, whose outlook was more or less originalist), that any such limits are pretty broad. Thus, even if constitution, properly understood, is more constraining than the courts now recognize, Parliamentary sovereignty means that Canadian legislatures are entitled to create an extensive administrative state ― and that’s bad  for the liberty of the subject, the accountability of government, and the Rule of Law.

3. Lack of proportional representation of the provinces in the House of Commons

Proportional representation of the provinces was one of the key aims of Confederation, and it is seemingly enshrined in sections 52 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and 42(1)(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Yet this principle is qualified by sections 51 and 51A of the Constitution Act, 1867 and 41(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, to ensure that the representation of small provinces is not reduced. The result is that small provinces are over-represented, and also that the size of the House of Commons keeps increasing, and will likely have to keep increasing in perpetuity, since this is the only way to dilute this over-representation. I do not particularly like either of these things, but there they are, doubtless a necessary if unprincipled political compromise.

4. Lack of recognition of municipal institutions

While the Constitution Act, 1867 has served us well ― for the most part, as noted below ― in maintaining a robust division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces, but this is probably not enough. The kerfuffle about the imposition by Ontario of a downsizing on Toronto’s municipal council, which I take it has the support of pretty much nobody in the city, is only the latest evidence for the proposition that municipal self-government ought to enjoy at least some constitutional protection from provincial interference. While I do not know just what this protections should take, and do not argue that municipalities ought to be recognized as a full-blown third order of government, the situation in which they can be interfered with at will, for good reasons, bad reasons, and no reasons, seems undesirable. Yet as things stand, municipalities are subject to the provinces’ plenary power under section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867, and the right to vote in municipal elections is not protected by section 3 of the Charter, which by its clear terms only applies to “election[s] of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly” of a province. The ongoing litigation between Toronto and Ontario may yet see the courts accept some of the city’s strained constitutional arguments, but I do not think that there is any serious claim that the constitution’s original public meaning prevents the province from doing what it did, however unwise its decision was.

5. Taxation provisions

My thoughts here are  tentative, because I am by no means an expert on tax law, or even on just its constitutional aspects. I take it, however, is that the distinction between “direct” and “indirect” taxes that forms the basis of section 92(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867 and is ― as decisions of both the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court recognize ― based on economic views prevailing at the time that legislation was enacted, is obsolete. The Supreme Court is right to try to stick with the original meaning of the constitution taxation provisions, but it would probably be a good thing if these provisions were amended to reflect more up-to-date economic concepts ― and, ideally, provide a clearer distinction between the respective sources of income of the federal and provincial governments.

6. Trade and commerce

Here too my thoughts are somewhat tentative, but there are ways in which the federal power over trade and commerce inmight be both too broad and too narrow. For one thing, like Professor Somin, I lament the indubitable constitutionality of tariffs. Professor Somin writes that “[a] well-designed Constitution would at the very least make it far more difficult to enact trade barriers than ours does” ― but the Canadian constitution, by this standard, is no better than the American one. Section 122 of the Constitution Act, 1867 clearly authorizes Parliament to enact “Customs and Excise law”. At the same time,  section 91(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867 is arguably too narrow in that, read together with section 92(13), it leaves securities law, to provincial jurisdiction (as the Supreme Court correctly found in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837). Again I am no expert, but I take it that federal power in this area is widely regarded as desirable. It is worth noting that on the whole Canada has been well served by the decentralized division of powers embodied in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. But, while generally sound, this division is not perfect.

7. Lack of protections for judicial independence

The Canadian constitution has relatively little to say about judicial independence. The Judicature provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 incorporate the rule of the Act of Settlement 1700 that the judges of the superior courts can only be removed by the Crown on address of the two houses of Parliament, and it is at least arguable that the convention that no such address would be moved except on grounds of misbehaviour or incapacity is part of the context in which this provision must be understood. The Constitution Act, 1867 also provides for the payment of these judges by Parliament, but seems to provide no protection against the reduction of judicial salaries, let alone any requirement for salaries to be set through some non-political process. Of course it does not apply to the judges of federal or provincial courts. Section 11(d) of the Charter provides a right to trial by an “independent and impartial tribunal” to persons “charged with an offence”, but does not specify what this means; nor does it guarantee the independence of judges who do not exercise criminal jurisdiction.

I would like to see more research into the original public meaning of the term “independent tribunal” as it is used by the Charter and into its good faith construction, but I am pretty skeptical that the Charter requires the sort of independent commissions for setting judicial salaries that the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3, demands. I am still more skeptical of the appropriateness of reading extensive protections for judicial independence, including for courts not covered by the Charter, into the constitution through the unwritten principle of judicial independence. Yet I also think that such protections are highly desirable. If I were re-writing the Canadian constitution, I would provide such protections for all courts ― superior, federal, and provincial alike. The weakness of existing constitutional provisions in this respect is somewhat embarrassing.

8. Lack of protections for economic liberty

The Charter does not protect property rights, freedom of contract, or the right to earn a living by lawful means of one’s choosing ― except the latter against discrimination “among persons primarily on the basis of province of present or previous residence”. As I’ve argued in the past (here and here), this is very unfortunate. As Professor Somin, among others, often points out, the absence or weakness of constitutional protections for property rights or economic freedom often causes the poorest and most politically disfavoured or excluded members of society to be disproportionately targeted by the state or by private interests who are able to use their political connections to put its coercive power at their own service. It is most unfortunate that the framers of the Charter failed to understand this. Indeed, if I had to rank my objections to the constitution in order of their practical signifiance, this one would probably be at the top of the list.

9. Protection for affirmative action

Section 15(2) of the Charter insulates affirmative action or positive discrimination programmes from scrutiny based on the Charter‘s equality guarantee. This is not the place for a full argument, but I don’t like this one bit. Discrimination is still discriminatory even if its present targets belong to groups that historically were perpetrators rather than victims. If exclusion based on innate characteristics is demeaning, then job postings that say that straight white men need not apply are demeaning. The framers of the Charter were wrong to tolerate such practices.

10. The “Notwithstanding Clause”

I’ve written a good deal about this one already: see here, here, here, and here. In a nutshell, I don’t think that allowing politicians to set aside constitutional protections for fundamental rights is a good idea. Of course, courts can err by expanding these protections beyond their original scope, or by failing to recognize the reasonableness of legislative limitations. But in my view the expected costs of legislative error are much higher than those of judicial error. Yet there is no question that section 33 of the Charter, which permits Parliament and legislatures to legislate “notwithstanding” some of the rights the Charter normally protects is part of the law of the constitution, and I don’t think that there is yet a convention against its use, even at the federal level, let alone in some of the provinces.

* * *

This is a fairly lengthy list, and some of the items on it reach deep into the constitutional structure ― rather deeper, I think, than Professor Somin’s objections. Why, then, should I, or anyone, be an originalist, and insist that our flawed constitution is to be applied by the courts in accordance with its original public meaning, instead of urging the courts to make it just? Because, as Jeffrey Pojanowski argues, we should not be too demanding of constitutions. It is unrealistic to expect perfection, even if we believe that such a thing is conceptually possible. We should set our sights lower:

even if one has moral qualms about particular provisions of the constitution, any constitutional regime that passes a threshold of moral respectability has a moral claim to our support and respect. (586)

But for a morally respectable constitutional regime to serve as a law capable of guiding the expectations and conduct of citizen and government alike, its terms

must be known and reasonably durable. Were the constitution’s legal norms treated as merely good advice, a polity would not enjoy the moral benefits that positive law exists to provide in the first place … If one does not seek to identify and treat the original law of the constitution as binding, one imperils the moral benefits constitutionalism exists to offer the polity. We are back to square one, adrift in a sea of competing, unentrenched norms. (586-87)

The Canadian constitution is imperfect but, despite the shortcomings identified in this post, I think it easily passes the moral respectability threshold. So it deserves to be treated as law and not just as advice, good or bad according to the whims of the Supreme Court.