Rights and Votes

Is it ever ok to put people’s rights to a democratic vote? Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West are adamant that it is not, as they make clear in an article in Slate on the subject of same-sex marriage. But their argument is wrong, and indeed dangerous.

Ms Lithwick and Ms West argue that “marriage equality … is a constitutional and not a democratic issue.” So is equality generally – as they put it, “[e]quality is not a popularity contest,” – and so are other “essential liberties.” They conclude their article with a reference to slavery – the biggest rhetorical sledgehammer except for Hitler – claiming that “[j]ust as [the U.S.] couldn’t go on with a mix of free states and slave states, we cannot continue with this jumble of equal marriage states and discriminatory states. Recognizing a federal constitutional right is the only, and the best, method to put this issue to rest.”

Ms Lithwick and Ms West might mean that when democratically enacted laws have the effect of defining the scope of citizens’ constitutionally protected rights and liberties, it is legitimate for courts, exercising the power of judicial review of legislation, to overrule these definitions and to impose their own. That would be an argument about what Jeremy Waldron, in his article on “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” calls “process-related reasons” for choosing a procedure for settling disputes about rights. Prof. Waldron believes  that the democratic, legislative procedure is much the better one, because it respects the views of every citizen on these matters. Ms Lithwick and Ms West think otherwise because of their contemptuous view of democracy as a popularity contest.

But it is not what the argument they actually make. What Ms Lithwick and Ms West say is that issues are either democratic or constitutional – and this implies that rights and liberties are simply outside the purview of the democratic process. This suggests not just that courts are better than legislatures at dealing with disputes about rights, or that they should be called in as a last result to correct legislative failures or oversights, but that legislatures and voters have no business pronouncing on issues defined as constitutional at all.

Contrary to Ms Lithwick and Ms West’s assertion, this is a radical argument. It is also an absurd one. Legislatures and voters engage with arguments about rights all the time – and they don’t always do it badly. Legislatures made same-sex marriage legal in Canada and in some of the states where it is legal in the U.S., including New York. Legislatures decriminalized homosexuality in Canada, the U.K., and much of the U.S. (though courts did end up sweeping the remaining prohibitions there). They abolished the death penalty in Canada, all of Europe, and those U.S. states where it no longer exists. Yet if one accepts that voting is not a legitimate procedure for settling disputes about right, as Ms Lithwick and Ms West contend, then one is committed to saying that all these votes were illegitimate – legislatures had no business addressing these issues at all. And one cannot say that legislation that advances rights is legitimate whereas that which restricts them is not; process-based arguments against a decision-making procedure remain whether or not the outcome is good. If flipping a coin to decide whether same-sex marriage ought to be legal is a bad idea, it remains a bad idea even if the result is one we agree with. Winning a popularity contest has the same moral significance as losing one – that is, none.

And as for the slavery argument, it is deeply ironic and ought to be embarrassing to Ms Lithwick and Ms West. When it confronted the issue of slavery, the Supreme Court of the United States not only upheld this evil, but extended it, holding that a law – enacted by a legislature, the U.S. Congress – prohibiting slavery in the U.S. territories was unconstitutional. This decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, ought to be a reminder to those who defend judicial review that courts are not immune from doing evil and letting wrong prevail over right.

Unlike prof. Waldron, I think that judicial review has a legitimate place in resolving questions about rights in democratic polities. But so do legislatures – and their engagement with these questions is something to be celebrated, not denigrated. I do hope that same-sex marriage becomes legal everywhere (unless, that is, governments at last get out of the marriage business altogether, which would be even better). And if courts need to step in to make this happen, so be it. But the more involved legislatures are in this progress, the better it will be.

Quasi-Constitutional Rights?

What are “quasi-constitutional rights”? Is this a meaningful, a useful concept? Justice Lebel’s comments in a decision released last week by the Supreme Court raise the question.

The decision, Éditions Écosociété Inc. v. Banro Corp., 2012 SCC 18 is one of three released last Wednesday, all dealing with questions of when Canadian courts can, and when they should, assume jurisdiction over a tort action with multi-jurisdictional elements. In this case, the action was in defamation. The appellants were the publishers of a book savaging Canadian mining companies for their activities (allegedly involving massive human rights violations) in Africa. The respondents were one of these companies. The book was published in Québec, but over 90 copies were sold in Ontario, some to public libraries, and the book was promoted there. The respondents are based in Ontario, and sued for defamation there. The publishers tried to have the proceedings stayed either for lack of jurisdiction or because the Ontario court was a forum non conveniens; they argued that the respondents were engaging in libel tourism, suing for defamation in jurisdiction more favourable to plaintiffs than that in which the suit should logically have been brought (in this case, Québec). Their motion was dismissed, and their appeals rejected both by the Ontario Court of Appeal and now by the Supreme Court.

In discussing the issue of the choice of law in defamation actions, Justice Lebel wrote (for the unanimous court)

that the harm occasioned by the publication of a defamatory statement is not the publication itself, but rather injury to the plaintiff’s reputation. While the constitutional right to the protection of freedom of expression must be upheld in the crafting of the law of defamation, this Court has recognized that one of the primary purposes of the law of defamation is to protect the reputation of the individual, which was elevated to quasi-constitutional status in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130. [par. 57]

As those of you who read my lament about the Charter’s unfortunate effects will recall, I am not a fan of Justice Cory’s reasoning in Hill, linking reputation to innate dignity and privacy, which I called “grasping at constitutional straws.” At least, Justice Cory did not actually speak of a “quasi-constitutional status” for the right to reputation. Justice Lebel now does. What does that mean? Continue reading “Quasi-Constitutional Rights?”