Textual Judicial Supremacy

The Canadian constitution’s text makes it clear that judges must have the last word on its interpretation

In my comment on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, I criticized the dissenting judges’ demand that courts defer to Parliament’s choice to limit rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 1 of the Charter provides that it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. This wording, I wrote, “requires a demonstration” that a given limitation of a protected right is justified, “not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best”.

My friend and sometime debating partner Geoff Sigalet put it to me in conversation that my interpretation is incorrect, and indeed pernicious. I am wrong, he believes, to think that judges must have the last word on what is and what is not “demonstrably justified”. Section 1, after all, doesn’t say “demonstrably justified to the satisfaction of a court”. Couldn’t a legislature pass its own judgment on these matters, a judgment that would be entitled to the respect of courts and of malcontents such as I? I am not persuaded. In my view, the constitutional text―not specifically section 1, but rather section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982―does require that judges, not the legislature or the executive, have the last word on whether the Charter has been infringed, including the question of whether a limitation on a right is demonstrably justified.

Section 52(1) provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”. Pursuant to section 52(2), the supreme constitution, inconsistency with which invalidates any other law, includes the Charter, the other parts of the Constitution Act, 1982―notably the amending formulae in Part V of that Act―and the Constitution Act 1867, which provides, among other things, for a distribution of legislative powers between the Dominion and the Provinces, as well as protections for judicial independence, free trade (nullified by the Supreme Court), etc. Note that section 52 makes no distinction between the Charter and other components of the Constitution of Canada. All are equally the supreme law of Canada. There is thus no textual warrant for treating the Charter differently from the rest of the constitution; if the courts have the last word on the meaning and application of the rest, they do so when it comes to the Charter too.

Now section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 is not, substantively, an innovation. As Brian Bird helpfully details, it is a replacement for section 2 of the imperial Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865, which provided for the supremacy of imperial legislation applicable to the colonies over that of the colonies to which such legislation applied. In particular, section 2 ensured the supremacy of what was originally an imperial statute, the British North America Act 1867, which we now call the Constitution Act, 1867, over any legislation enacted in Canada (except, of course, to the extent that the BNA Act itself authorized the Parliament of Canada or provincial legislatures to modify or depart from some of its provisions). Section 52(1) takes up the baton of constitutional supremacy, and ensures that it is now provided for by a Canadian law, subject to modification through the Canadian constitutional amendment process, rather than by an imperial statute whose very title is unsuitable to Canada’s circumstances as an independent nation.

As Mr. Bird further points out, the Supreme Court has recognized that section 52(1) preserved continuity in Canada’s constitutional arrangements. In the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721, the Court emphasized that “[s]ection 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not alter the principles which have provided the foundation for judicial review over the years”, (746) under the Colonial Laws Validity Act regime. Meanwhile, in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, the Court held, again with reference to both the Colonial Laws Validity Act and to section 52, that accused persons could always demand that a court rule on the constitutionality of the statutes they are said to be infringing, “whether that challenge is with respect to ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 or with respect to the limits imposed on the legislatures by the Constitution Act, 1982“. (313) In short, the regime of constitutional supremacy that existed with respect to the then-British North America Acts prior to 1982 remains in force, following the patriation of the constitution and the enactment of section 52(1), for these texts and, on the same terms, for the Constitution Act, 1982.

I think these decisions are quite clearly correct. Textually, section 52(1) is an updated, but substantially identical, reincarnation of section 2 of the Colonial Laws Validity Act. It uses the words “inconsistent with” in place of “repugnant to”, and “of no force and effect” in the place of “absolutely void and inoperative”, but the underlying principle is the same: one set of laws (formerly, all imperial legislation “extending to” Canada; now, more narrowly, “the Constitution of Canada”) has a higher status than ordinary laws enacted in Canada, whether by Parliament or by the provincial legislatures. As a result, such ordinary laws are invalid insofar, although only insofar, as they contradict the higher law. If anything was to change on April 17, 1982, when section 52(1) succeeded the Colonial Laws Validity Act, such a momentous would surely have been flagged by clear language, something very different from what we find in section 52(1).

The only innovation in section 52(1) is the use of the phrase “supreme law” to characterize the Constitution of Canada. The supremacy of Westminster legislation is a given in the post-Glorious Revolution and pre-Statute of Westminster, 1931 system, so it is implicit in section 2 of the Colonial Laws Validity Act. Section 52(1) makes the supremacy of what is left of imperial legislation explicit. But the phrase “supreme law” (emphasis added) also suggests that, like any law, the Constitution of Canada is subject to interpretation and enforcement by the courts―not by legislatures. Granted, by 1982, the Supreme Court had conceded deference on the interpretation of some legal provisions to administrative adjudicators. But that concession was premised―wisely or not is beside the point here―on these adjudicators’ expertise, including legal expertise in their particular area of jurisdiction. I do not think that Parliament would have been understood to have such expertise.

In any case, whether or not the original public meaning of the phrase “supreme law” without further context requires judicial supremacy, the context removes whatever ambiguity the words alone might carry. There was no doubt that, under the Colonial Laws Validity Act regime, it was the courts’ power and duty to determine whether an enactment was “repugnant to” an imperial statute, and therefore “absolutely void and inoperative”. Even the “presumption of constitutionality” to which the courts occasionally referred was is, in principle, nothing more than the idea that legislatures would not intend to exceed their constitutional powers, and their enactments would therefore not lightly be read as doing so―provided that they admitted of a different reading. It was always the courts’ responsibility to verify that this was indeed the case. And, to repeat, there is no reason at all to suppose that this approach was intended or understood to change in 1982, and the courts have never said that it did change. Indeed, I do not think that those who argue for judicial deference in Charter cases seriously contend that section 52 calls for a deferential approach to federalism, or to the independence of the judiciary protected by Part VII of the Constitution Act, 1867, or to the amending formulae of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

But, as I have argued above, there is no textual basis for treating treating the Charter differently from the other parts of the Constitution of Canada when it comes to deciding which institution is given the last word on its interpretation and on whether it has been complied with. The constitutional text, read in its historical and legal context, tells us that judicial supremacy is sauce for federalism’s, judicial independence’s, and constitutional amendment’s geese; it is also sauce for the Charter‘s gander. Needless to say, the text cannot tell us whether this is a good thing. I am inclined to think so; others disagree. It’s certainly possible that our constitution is flawed in this, as it is flawed in many other ways. But the constitution is what it is, good or bad. Those who wish that it were different ought to persuade enough of us to amend it to have it changed.

La constitution retrouvée

J’ai écrit, il y a quelques mois, que le discours constitutionnel du Parti Québécois s’apparentait à celui du Tea Party américain (ainsi qu’à celui du UK Independence Party) en ce qu’il se fonde en bonne partie sur la notion d’une « constitution perdue ». La « constitution perdue » est celle d’une époque passée, abolie au terme d’un processus de changement constitutionnel illégitime qui a résulté en une usurpation du pouvoir populaire par une institution éloignée et non-démocratique:

La constitution perdue du PQ, c’est la constitution canadienne des années 60 et 70,  d’avant le rapatriement de 1981-82, d’avant la « la Charte à Trudeau » qui aurait imposé au Québec la doctrine honnie du multiculturalisme et le pouvoir des juges de la Cour suprême. Tout comme la constitution perdue du Tea Party, celle du PQ aurait été subvertie par un processus politique et judiciaire illégitime, le rapatriement et l’adoption de la Charte canadienne s’étant fait sans le consentement du Québec. Tout comme le Tea Party, le PQ déplore un transfert du pouvoir à un organe anti-démocratique (en l’occurrence, la Cour suprême du Canada) qui priverait la province de son autonomie traditionnelle et constitutionnelle. Cette autonomie est associée non pas strictement à la grandeur nationale, mais plutôt à une pureté culturelle qui joue le même rôle dans le discours nationaliste québécois que cette dernière dans le discours de l’exceptionnalisme américain.

Un texte publié ce matin par Pierre-Karl Péladeau à l’occasion du 32e anniversaire de la promulgation par la Reine de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982 illustre à merveille cette rhétorique ― et le caractère frauduleux de cette dernière.

M. Péladeau soutient que l’avis de la Cour suprême dans le Renvoi sur le rapatriement aurait « désarmé le Québec en lui faisait perdre son droit de veto ». S’appuyant sur des allégations soulevées par Frédéric Bastien, il affirme qu’

[a]fin de favoriser l’adoption de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés qui allait leur donner plus de pouvoir, au moins deux des neuf juges de ce nous pourrions dorénavant convenir d’appeler la Cour politique suprême ont partagé de l’information confidentielle avec Ottawa et Londres.

La Cour, selon lui,

était en flagrant conflit d’intérêts puisque la Charte allait lui octroyer d’énormes pouvoirs que d’aucuns ont qualifiés de gouvernement des juges.

Le résultat de cette décision « gravissime » n’aurait été rien de moins que la perte de la constitution. D’une part, « [l]es principes mêmes de la démocratie parlementaire en étaient ébranlés ». D’autre part, « Ottawa pouvait dorénavant ignorer les fondements historiques mêmes de la fédération ».

La Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, soutient M. Péladeau, aurait résulté en la perte de « notre compétence exclusive en matière d’éducation », en l’imposition du « multiculturalisme canadien », lequel « consiste[rait] à banaliser et saper la culture québécoise sur le territoire même du Québec », notamment par l’imposition d’accommodements raisonnables, « diminuant la propension des Néo-Québécois à s’intégrer à la majorité francophone et à nos valeurs de générosité et de solidarité. » Bref, avec

le rapatriement constitutionnel, le Québec a […] perdu son statut de foyer national d’un des peuples fondateurs du Canada. Il a été rabaissé au rang d’une province comme les autres où divers groupes cohabitent en vertu de diverses valeurs, règles et cultures.

Voici donc ce récit de la constitution perdue que nous offre le probable futur chef de l’Oppositon officielle, et propriétaire du plus important groupe médiatique du Québec. Ce récit ment, tant par ce qu’il dit que par ce qu’il ne dit pas.

Pour commencer, si la Cour suprême avait voulu, comme le prétend faussement M. Péladeau, accélérer le rapatriement, l’adoption de la Charte canadienne, elle n’aurait pas statué que les conventions de la constitution canadienne rendaient le rapatriement unilatéral par le fédéral illégitime. Le procès d’intention que fait M. Péladeau à la Cour ne peut résister à l’évidence de ce jugement, qui a grandement contrarié le premier ministre Trudeau et donné raison aux provinces. À l’époque du Renvoi sur le rapatriement, faut-il le rappeler, le Québec n’était pas seul dans son opposition au gouvernement de Pierre Trudeau ― il avait l’appui de toutes les provinces, en fait, sauf l’Ontario et le Nouveau-Brunswick. Par ailleurs, les juges de la Cour suprême n’ont pas établi, au terme d’une étude fort détaillée des précédents en matière d’amendement constitutionnel, l’existence d’un veto du Québec (ou d’une exigence plus générale d’unanimité). Il n’y a donc pas de raison de prétendre que le Québec a perdu son veto constitutionnel ― il n’en avait jamais disposé.

Les reproches que fait M. Péladeau à la Charte canadienne sont également dénués de fondements dans la réalité. La Charte canadienne a peu affecté la Loi 101, n’ayant que donné le droit à des enfants de parents éduqués en anglais au Canada (et non seulement au Québec) d’envoyer leurs enfants à l’école anglaise, et imposé un examen individualisé dans les cas d’enfants soupçonnés d’avoir recours aux « écoles-passerelles ». Les règles sur l’affichage que contenait la Loi 101 ont bien été partiellement invalidées ― mais c’était en vertu de la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne québécoise, dont M. Péladeau ne mentionne même pas l’existence. La même Charte québécoise impose les accommodements raisonnables ― dont, par ailleurs, les plus fréquents demandeurs et bénéficiaires, en matière religieuse, ne sont pas les « Néo-Québécois » (un terme péjoratif qui cache la présence de certaines communautés culturelles distinctes au Québec depuis des siècles), mais les Québécois « de souche » appartenant à des groupes religieux minoritaires. Du reste, la Charte canadienne ne s’oppose guère à la laïcité, comme le prétend M. Péladeau. Au contraire, une des toutes premières décisions de la Cour suprême à l’appliquer, R. c. Big M Drug Mart,  consistait, en fait, en l’invalidation de la Loi sur le jour du Seigneur, qui enfreignait manifestement ce principe.

Il faut aussi rappeler que la Charte canadienne permet aux législatures de restreindre les droits qu’elle protège, pourvu que ce soit « par une règle de droit, [et] dans les limites qui soient raisonnables et dont la justification puisse se démontrer dans le cadre d’une société démocratique. La seule chose que le Québec (et les autres provinces) ait perdue au terme du rapatriement de 1981-82 est donc la faculté de violer les droits de ses citoyens d’une façon injustifiable dans une société libre et démocratique. Est-ce vraiment à regretter? Et l’identité et la culture québécoise sont-elles faibles au point ne pouvoir être protégées que par des violations de droits injustifiables?

La constitution perdue que M. Péladeau essaie de nous faire regretter, celle qui permettait à nos gouvernements de faire fi de nos droits en adoptant des lois telles que la Loi sur le jour du Seigneur, n’a rien de très attrayant. Il n’est donc pas surprenant que M. Péladeau, tout comme ses compagnons d’armes idéologiques, ait recours à la tromperie flagrante pour nous séduire. Le résultat des dernières élections permet cependant d’espérer que les Québécois ne sont pas dupes. En ce jour d’anniversaire, il ne faut pas pleurer la constitution perdue, mais bien célébrer celle que nous avons trouvée.

The Ghost of Patriation

If the ghost of communism is, or ever was, haunting Europe, Canadian constitutional law is haunted by what Fabien Gélinas described as the Ghost of Patriation. This ghost has been seen abroad again this week, stirred by an historian’s claims that, while the Supreme Court was considering questions about the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposed plan to seek Patriation without support from the provinces, the Court’s Chief Justice, Bora Laskin, leaked inside information about the Court’s deliberations to the government. The historian, Frédéric Bastien, apparently claims that this was an egregious violation of the separation of powers and that it made Patriation tantamount to a coup d’État and the resulting constitution illegitimate. Québec’s separatist government has seized on the claims, and even the Supreme Court has launched an internal inquiry, as the Globe reports.

Cooler heads are trying to put the ghost to rest by pointing out that, even if true, Dr. Bastien’s allegations are not enough to make out his claims about a coup d’État and the illegitimacy of the constitution. So Yves Boisvert argues in La Presse that while a breach of the secret of the Supreme Court’s deliberations, had it become known, might have been a cause for the Chief Justice’s resignation, it was not “a ploy that changed the course of history” (my translation). He points out that Justice Laskin found himself dissenting on the crucial question in the Court’s decision, usually referred to as the Patriation Reference, whether constitutional conventions prevented the federal government from acting unilaterally to amend the constitution. Indeed, Mr. Boisvert observes that whatever information Chief Justice Laskin might have given the government may well have been erroneous. Mr. Boisvert’s colleague, André Pratte, makes similar points in his editorial.

Messrs. Boisvert and Pratte are right. The coup d’État theory simply ignores the fact that by stating, in the Patriation Reference, that the federal government’s project was unconstitutional, albeit “only” in a conventional rather than a strictly legal sense, the Supreme Court thwarted unilateral Patriation. The Court’s majority, led by Justice Jean Beetz, held that constitutional conventions required “substantial” provincial support for constitutional amendments, which forced the federal government to negotiate with the provinces. Nine provinces eventually agreed on a (revised) Patriation plan, and the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed, in the “Québec Veto Reference,” that this was enough. The process of Patriation was constitutional in both the legal and the conventional sense.

Indeed, in my view Messrs. Boisvert and Pratte are wrong to concede, as both do, that Chief Justice Laskin’s actions amounted, or at least can be regarded as amounting, to a violation of the separation of powers. Separation of powers is an elusive concept, even by the low standards of constitutional theory, but if it has a core, it is something like the idea that political decisions of different sorts ought to be made by different institutions, whether because dividing political power in this way limits potential for abuse and tyranny, or because different institutions have peculiar strengths and good government requires decisions to be made by that institution which is most apt to handle each specific question. A pithy summary of the idea of separated decision-making is James Madison’s well-known phrase, in The Federalist No. 51, that each branch of government “should have a will of its own.” The actions of Chief Justice Laskin, even if they were as Dr. Bastien alleges, simply did not undermine the separation between the executive and the judiciary so understood. Even if he passed some information about the Supreme Court’s deliberations to the government, he did not involve the executive in the Court’s decision-making. He neither asked the Prime Minister how to rule nor took orders from him, even for himself, let alone his colleagues who disagreed with him. The ruling on the Patriation Reference was always in the Court’s hands, and the Chief Justice’s indiscretions did not change anything to that. Indiscretions, breaches of judicial ethics they were, if the allegations are confirmed. But not every breach of judicial ethics, however regrettable, is a violation of fundamental constitutional principle.

Patriation is bound to remain a murky and controversial episode of our history. As the men involved in it die, the first-hand memory of events fades. Perhaps we will never know the exact truth about what happened. On the other hand, the fading of the first-hand memories of the bitter divisions of those days should be an opportunity to leave behind the passions that reigned then. In order to do that, we would do well to leave the ghost of Patriation alone. He has haunted us enough, and earned his peace.