Thoughts on the constitutionality of the new Supreme Court appointments process

In my last post, I argued that the process for appointing Supreme Court judges announced by the federal government last week is not a positive development. It will neither increase the transparency of the appointments nor de-politicize them, while creating an illusion of having done so. In this post post, I turn to the separate question of whether this process is constitutional. Two issues are relevant here. One is the government’s insistence that all future judges be bilingual. The other is the possibility that it will disregard the convention of regional representation on the Supreme Court, which requires the next appointment to come from Atlantic Canada.

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I have argued here that in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 433 legislation requiring judges to be bilingual would be unconstitutional. Kate Glover has reached the same conclusion, albeit on the basis of a rather different reasoning, in a guest-post here. (I should note however that others, notably Sébastien Grammond, disagree with this view.) At the same time, it is quite clear that the government is entitled to make a policy choice to privilege certain criteria for appointing judges. After all, even a stated commitment to only appoint meritorious or excellent judges is an addition to the bare-bones constitutional requirements that l’Affaire Nadon froze in place. It would be well within the Prime Minister’s discretion to only appoint bilingual judges, and even to say that he would only appoint bilingual judges. (It would, I have argued, be an unwise thing to do, but that’s another question.)

The constitutional issue, then, is whether the government’s announcements amount to an attempt to modify the law governing the appointment of Supreme Court judges, which in my view would be unconstitutional, or are merely a policy statement, which would not be. I am inclined to think  that so long as the bilingualism criterion remains essentially a policy directive, found in nothing more law-like than press releases and mandate letters, it does not stray into unconstitutionality, despite the contrary suggestions of some others, such as Matthew Hennigar and Dennis Baker in a very informative roundtable discussion published by Maclean’s. The difference between their conclusion that the Prime Minister is (in prof. Hennigar’s words) “courting a constitutional challenge” and mine may be due to the fact that they approach the issue by asking whether the bilingualism requirement is formal (and therefore constitutionally questionable) or informal (and therefore permissible). In my view, it is better to think in terms of the legal or extra-legal nature of the requirement, rather than in terms of its formality, because the underlying concern is with the integrity of constitutional rules, not their expression. Still, my views on this are tentative, and I am open to being shown that they are in error.

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The matter of the regional representation convention is more clear-cut. The government’s initial statements simply ignored the convention altogether. Then, the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Chairperson of the Advisory Board that will supply him with a shortlist of potential appointees asked her to “consider the custom of regional representation on the Court as being one of the factors to be taken into consideration.” But a constitutional convention is not a mere custom. It is a mandatory rule of the constitution, not just a factor to be taken into consideration among others. Violating it means acting unconstitutionally.

This point needs to be emphasized, because more than a few commentators seem to believe that an appointment in violation of the convention of regional representation would not be unconstitutional, because it would not be illegal or attract a judicial sanction. (Paul Daly’s dismissal of the convention as “fluid,” and a rule that can be tinkered with at will because it is not legal is sadly representative of this attitude.) I will return to the question of judicial sanction in a moment. But first, it is sadly necessary to remind those who think that ignoring conventions is a relatively trivial matter, that this has never been the position even those jurists who, following A.V. Dicey, insisted that courts could not enforce conventions. In the Patriation Reference, Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 753, the Supreme Court explained that

important parts of the constitution of Canada … are nowhere to be found in the law of the constitution. For instance it is a fundamental requirement of the constitution that if the opposition obtains the majority at the polls, the government must tender its resignation forthwith. But fundamental as it is, this requirement of the constitution does not form part of the law of the constitution. (877-78; emphasis mine)

These important, even fundamental, constitutional requirements, or ― as the Court also described them ― “essential rules of the constitution” (878) are conventions. The Diceyan view, which was also that of the Supreme Court in the Patriation Reference, is that constitutional conventions and constitutional law together make up the constitution. In the Patriation Reference, the Court observed that in some cases, a breach of convention “could be regarded as tantamount to a coup d’état.” (882) Of course, the breach of the convention of regional representation would not rise to that level of unconstitutionality, but it would still amount to unconstitutional action by the government, much like Pierre Trudeau’s attempt at unilateral patriation of the constitution would have been unconstitutional, although not illegal.

At Emmett Macfarlane’s urging, I will grant that the Advisory Board might take the convention more seriously than the government seems to want it to, or that the Prime Minister might yet see the folly of breaking it. The intervention of the CBA president Janet Fuhrer, who is “urg[ing]” the Prime Minister “to amend the mandate of the Advisory Board … to ensure that the Atlantic Canada vacancy is filled by a meritorious candidate from that region” is encouraging in this regard, although it is disappointing to see Ms. Fuhrer hedging her language and referring to “the longstanding custom or constitutional convention of regional representation.” The re-classification of convention into custom denigrates it and suggests that it is not binding on the Prime Minister. For the purpose of passing a political judgment on his actions, it really does not matter whether the constitutional rules he is prepared to breach are classified as being convention or law.

Now, this classification does matter for a court passing a legal judgment on the constitutionality of the government’s actions ― or at least it does so on the Diceyan view. I have argued in the past, and still believe, that this view is mistaken as a matter of legal philosophy. That is, of course, irrelevant. But there is now reason to question whether the Diceyan view is still valid in Canada as a matter of positive law. For one thing, as we know from the Patriation Reference itself, Canadian courts consider themselves free to express their views on conventions in the context of reference proceedings. It would be enough for a provincial government to refer the issue to its court of appeal for the convention of regional representation to be fair judicial game. Moreover, lower courts have already pronounced on constitutional conventions in the context of ordinary litigation (notably in Conacher v. Canada (Prime Minister), 2009 FC 920, [2010] 3 FCR 411, aff’d in Conacher v. Canada (Prime Minister), 2010 FCA 131, [2011] 4 FCR 22) though the Supreme Court has not yet had an opportunity to do so.

Then, there’s the possibility that that the Supreme Court has transformed at least some constitutional conventions into legal rules when it invoked the notion of a “constitutional architecture” in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. My view, at least, is that that’s exactly what the Court did, but this is a controversial claim, and I have no room to develop, much less to defend, it here. (I will try to do that in a paper I am due to write in the coming months, and I will try to blog about it as I do so.) Even if I am right, however, there remains the further question of which conventions are part of the constitutional architecture, and in particular whether that of regional representation is. In a very interesting post at the CBA National Magazine’s blog, Jennifer Taylor has argued that it is. She may well be right, but I need to think a bit more about this before I am sure.

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Important though it is, the legal issue should not distract us from the constitutional one. Constitutionally (and legally), the Prime Minister is in my tentative view free to adopt a (misguided) policy of only appointing bilingual judges to the Supreme Court, and to ask his advisers to counsel him accordingly. But, constitutionally (whether or not legally) the Prime Minister is not free to deprive Atlantic Canada (or any other region) of its representation on the Supreme Court. The appointment of a judge from outside Atlantic Canada would be unconstitutional, regardless of whether it would be illegal (though it might be), and of whether or not courts could say so (though they could).

That the Prime Minister should be open to engaging in such behaviour makes it clear that ― rather like his predecessor ― he does not consider himself bound by the constitution, or at least those parts of the constitution that he thinks he might get away with ignoring. For this reason, I find the many expressions of support for the Prime Minister’s plan quite dispiriting. They give the impression that the scrutiny which the legal community rightly applied to the previous government’s cavalier approach to the constitution was as much the result of opposition to that particular administration as of a sincere belief in constitutionalism. And it would be very sad indeed if that impression were justified.