Throwing Away the Key

Thoughts on life imprisonment without parole, in New Zealand and in Canada

Last week, Justice Mander of New Zealand’s High Court sentenced the Christchurch mosque shooter to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the murder of 51 people, attempted murder of 40 others, and terrorism. This punishment is provided for by section 103(2A) of New Zealand’s Sentencing Act 2002.

Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks in R v Tarrant, [2020] NZHC 2192hold some lessons for Canadians, as the Québec Court of Appeal is considering the appeals of both the Crown and the accused from the sentence the Superior Court imposed on the Québec mosque shooter in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354. In that decision, about which Maxime St-Hilaire and I wrote here, Justice Huot found the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders in a way that amounted to sentencing those who commit them to life imprisonment without parole to a cruel and unusual punishment and a deprivation of liberty contrary to principles of fundamental justice, contrary to sections 7 and 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Although stating that “the needs of denunciation, of setting an example, and of incapacitation” are especially “pressing” [766; translation mine], Justice Huot went on to find that life imprisonment without a realistic prospect of parole was contrary to Canadian values. Canada, he wrote, “is not a land where the most undesirable elements of the community are shut in a gaol and their very existence forgotten, the key of their liberty having been thrown into the river of a vast collective indifference.” [845; tanslation Professor St-Hilaire’s and mine] For him, the possibility of rehabilitation, even for the worst offenders, means that it is “sophistry to assert that [multiple murderers] should reasonably expect, in a free, civilized, and democratic society, to spend the rest of their days behind bars”. [975] Justice Mander’s cogent remarks help show that this was wrong.

Justice Mander, it worth noting, is by no means insensitive to considerations of humanity and anti-populism that apparently influenced Justice Huot so much. He considers the prospects of rehabilitation, and notes that “[t]he sentence [he] impose[s] must represent a civilised reaction based not on emotion but justice and deliberation”. [177] But these concerns are not dispositive in a case such as this.

Addressing Mr. Tarrant, Justice Mander explains that his

prime objectives are threefold. First and foremost, to condemn your crimes and to denounce your actions. Second, to hold you accountable for the terrible harm you have caused — in plain terms, to attempt to impose some commensurate punishment … on behalf of the whole community, which in particular includes the victims of your crimes and their families, all of whom are a part of New Zealand’s multicultural society. Third … to protect the community from a person capable of committing cold-blooded murder on such a scale and who presents such a grave risk to public safety. [124]

Justice Mander notes that section 9 of New Zealand bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibits the imposition of “disproportionately severe … punishment” (judicially interpreted as calling for a test of gross disproportionality ― similar to the one applied to test the constitutionality of legislation under section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). He notes, also, that “[t]here is European jurisprudence that indicates the imposition of a whole-of-life sentence in the absence of any effective review mechanism is incompatible with
international human rights instruments”. [139] Nevertheless, he finds that nothing short of a life sentence without parole would be proportionate to the crimes here.

Let me quote just one paragraph about the facts (this one drawn from Justice Mander’s discussion of the aggravating circumstances). It is horrible, and there is, alas, so much more horror in this case ― as there was in the Bissonnette one:

It is self-evident that your offending constituted extreme violence. It was brutal and beyond callous — your actions were inhuman. You deliberately killed a threeyear-old infant by shooting him in the head as he clung to the leg of his father. The terror you inflicted in the last few minutes of that small child’s life is but one instance of the pitiless cruelty that you exhibited throughout. There are countless more examples. You showed no mercy. [151]

In Justice Mander’s view,

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold you to account for the harm you have done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce your crimes. [179]

Indeed, in a comment particularly relevant to the comparison the sentence he imposes with Justice Huot’s preoccupation with not letting people spend their lives behind bars, Justice Mander observes that, were he “to impose a minimum period of imprisonment in an endeavour to meet the purposes that I am required to achieve in sentencing you for murdering 51 people, it could not be less than [Mr. Tarrant’s] natural life”. [180] Ultimately, he does

not consider, however long the length of your incarceration during your lifetime, that it could, even in a modest way, atone for what you have done. Ordinarily such an approach would be a poor guarantee of just and proportionate punishment, but I consider yours is one of those exceedingly rare cases which is different. [184]

I think that Justice Mander is right about all of this. Justice Huot, who would no doubt hurl accusations of “sophistry”, populism, and other assorted sins, would not only be wrong but, at the risk of sounding pompous, morally obtuse. Collective indifference and forgetfulness are not just, or even primarily, concerns in relation to those who commit terrible crimes. It would be no less ― and indeed much more ― wrong to be indifferent to the crimes themselves. And it will still be wrong decades from now.

As I recently wrote in discussing an Alberta judgment on the application of section 12 of the Charter, I think that the gross disproportionality test is a sensible construction of its “cruel and unusual punishment” prong, so far as individuals (rather than legal persons) are concerned. Well, I don’t think there is anything grossly disproportional, or indeed disproportional in any way, in denying the possibility of parole to a man who presents himself to a place of worship with the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible, and proceeds to do just that. On the contrary, I think justice may well demand no less. Perhaps there are policy considerations that would explain why a legislature might not put that option on the table. But at the level of principle, I think the New Zealand approach of making the life without parole sentence available in cases where the objectives of punishment cannot be met by a lesser one is right. The Canadian approach of making the parole non-eligibility terms of multiple murderers run consecutively amounts to the same thing, but less transparently, so I think the New Zealand one is preferable.

Granted, the sentencing court should consider repentance and the prospect, even if unlikely on balance, of rehabilitation. There seems to be a difference on this point between the Québec and Christchurch cases, and if this were the reason for Justice Huot’s decision not to impose, in effect, a life sentence without parole, it might have been defensible. (I’m not sure it would have been. Luckily I’m not a judge in charge of sentencing mass murderers, so I get to punt on this question.) But that’s not the main consideration that motivated Justice Huot. On the contrary, he felt strongly enough the need to denounce and punish Mr. Bissonnette that he rewrote (which is a nice way of saying “broke”) the law to impose a 40-year parole ineligibility period, instead of a 25-year one. That suggests that, ultimately, he thought that, as in the Christchurch case, punishment and denunciation dominate. And, if so, a sentence without parole is warranted.

I fully agree with Justices Huot and Mander that the measure of just punishment is not its ability to grab the headlines, and that a civilized justice system must move away from the “an-eye-for-an-eye” instinct. Cases such as these remind us, in any event, the futility of such fantasies. Even if we were in the business of killing murders, we couldn’t kill them six, or fifty-one, times over.

But Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks are a reminder that one need not be vengeful, or to simple-mindedly parrot the tough-on-crime line, to find, in truly shocking and exceptional cases, that the most severe punishment is warranted. Protecting the lives of the citizens is the state’s first responsibility on any plausible view of its role. Providing justice, in the form punishment, in response to those who take their fellow human beings’ lives is the second. In the face of contempt for human life and indifference to, if not actual pleasure in, human suffering, retribution is called for. In extreme cases, locking such people up and throwing away the key is only fair. I do hope that the Québec Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court if comes to that, take note.

Unusual Indeed

The trouble with a caustic, pseudo-originalist opinion of Wakeling JA

In my last post, I described the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, which upheld a mandatory minimum sentence for the offence of firing a gun into a place “knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person” is there. Two of the judges, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling delivered concurring opinions in which they called on the Supreme Court to reconsider its jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences and indeed on the interpretation of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, more broadly, notably R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773. I summarized the arguments made by both of the concurring judges in the last post.

Here, I consider specifically Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It is very unusual indeed, in both substance and form. It deploys unorthodox and, in my view, untenable, interpretive techniques, and arrives at startling conclusions. It is long, seemingly scholarly (though there is less real scholarship to it than meets the eye), and caustic. I don’t recall reading anything quite like it in Canada, though admittedly I do not read as many judgments as I would like, especially below the Supreme Court level.

Let me begin with Justice Wakeling’s approach to constitutional interpretation. Justice Wakeling does not explain what he is doing, which is unfortunate, because an explanation might have clarified matters ― not least to Justice Wakeling himself. Be that as it may, what Justice Wakeling seemingly does is resort to a sort of expected applications originalism. This is a way of describing attempts to interpret constitutional provisions by asking how their framers would have expected a question about their application to be resolved. This is a fool’s errand. Serious originalists have long given up on what Benjamin Oliphant and I have described as “speculative transgenerational mind reading”. (126) As Randy Barnett has written, “ascertaining ‘what the framers would have done’ is a counterfactual, not a factual or historical inquiry”. (71)

But Justice Wakeling’s version of expected applications originalism is particularly bad, because he refers to a great extent to events and real or purported beliefs that long predate the enactment of the Charter. Indeed his discussion of the Charter and the views, if any, of its framers is remarkably brief. Justice Wakeling points out that the late

Professor Hogg predicted in 1982 that Canadian courts would give section 12 of the Charter “the same interpretation” courts gave section 2(b) of the Canadian Bill of Rights. In other words, section 12 was of minimal value. Modern political realities made a constitutional death-penalty watch dog unnecessary. And that was the only role section 12 was intended to serve. [217; references omitted]

Most of what Justice Wakeling has to say about the meaning of section 12 goes back much further. The Bill of Rights 1688 is of special significance to him, as he argues that its

prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment was undoubtedly a response, either entirely or, at least partially, to the blood-thirsty sanctions Chief Justice Jeffrey and the other judges imposed on supporters of the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion that challenged the rule of the Catholic King James II during the Bloody Assizes of 1685 and the brutal flogging imposed on Titus Oates for his perjured testimony that cost a large number of Catholics their lives. [148]

From this, Justice Wakeling draws a straight line to the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, the Canadian Bill of Rights, and the section 12. He describes the US Supreme Court’s departure from the focus on “horrific penalties” akin to torture and its embrace of disproportionality as a touchstone for assessing violations of the Eighth Amendment in Weems v United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910) as “judicial heresy”, and writes of the author of the majority opinion in that case that “Justice McKenna’s fingerprints are all over” Smith, [187] and thus subsequent section 12 jurisprudence.

This approach to the interpretation of section 12 makes no sense. Even on an originalist view, why should the meaning of the Charter be determined by what might have been the intentions or expectations not of its framers, but of those of the Bill of Rights 1688, the Eighth Amendment, or even the Canadian Bill of Rights? This isn’t expected applications originalism but expected applications pre-originalism. I know of no precedent or justification for it.

The better originalist approach is that which focuses on the public meaning of constitutional provisions. Historical antecedents are not irrelevant to establishing public meaning (and I have referred to the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688 myself in writing about section 12 here). However, they are useful in that they ― and their interpretation ― helps us ascertain how a contemporaneous reader would have understood the provision when it was enacted. That being so, the signicance of Weems and subsequent American jurisprudence is very different from that which Justice Wakeling attributes to them. Whether or not they were accurate interpretations of the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning is beside the point. What is noteworthy is that these interpretations would have been part of the context in which section 12 was enacted, and so colour the public meaning the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” had by the time the Charter was adopted.

A related problem with Justice Wakeling’s approach to interpretation is his use of texts that use wording different from that of section 12 to suggest that the meaning of section must be different. This can be a very useful interpretive tool, but it has to be wielded carefully and honestly. Justice Wakeling relies on three comparisons: with early the constitutions of some American States; with a rejected draft of the Canadian Bill of Rights; and with section 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. All of these texts explicitly refer to proportionality, whereas section 12 does not.

Of these, the American texts are somewhat expansive policy statements, of a kind that was mostly ― except, notoriously, in the case of the Second Amendment ― rejected in (what became known as) the US Bill of Rights. The absence of such a statement from the Eighth Amendment doesn’t prove that it disproportionality is not part of its permissible construction. (Somewhat similarly, the absence of an explicit reference to separation of powers, analogous to that found in some State constitutions, in the US Constitution doesn’t mean it does not in fact provide for separate powers.)

With respect to the proposed wording of the Canadian Bill of Rights, Justice Wakeling says that “[a] number of commentators criticized its vagueness”. [201; reference omitted] The concerns of the only such commentator whom Justice Wakeling actually quotes are telling, for he worried, in part about whether a reference to “inhuman or degrading” punishment might be taken to outlaw flogging. Yet Justice Wakeling himself notes that the British “Parliament has repealed the brutal punishments that prompted the 1689 Parliamentary prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments” [153] ― including “flogging”! [154] That commentator’s concerns, in other words, do not deserve to be taken seriously, on Justice Wakeling’s own account. (The reference to flogging is interesting in another way, to which I will shorty turn.) And anyway the exclusion of words like “inhuman” because of their vagueness does not prove that the words retained did not have an element of vagueness calling for construction.

Lastly, the reference to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act strikes me as quite inappropriate, since that statute was enacted eight years after the Charter. Some of its provisions sought to remedy avoid the Charter‘s real or perceived ambiguities; they tend to be more specific than the Charter‘s. (Compare, for example, New Zealand’s distinct provisions on “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the “manifestation of religion and belief” with section 2(a) of the Charter.) In the case of section 9, one might suppose ― I have not looked into this ― that they New Zealand drafters thought that the outcome of Smith was justified and wrote it into the statute in so many words for the avoidance of doubt. But their choice to do so does not mean tell us anything about the meaning of the Charter, whose drafters were obviously not aware of the subsequent work of their Kiwi counterparts.

The last interpretive issue I will address here is Justice Wakeling’s reading of section 12 as a mere enumeration, and a remarkably brief one at that, of prohibited punishments. One striking consequence of this reading is that Justice Wakeling thinks that, because imprisonment was a commonly used punishment when the Charter was enacted and thus not unusual,

section 12 … does not allow a court to declare jail sentences cruel or unusual punishments. … [O]ffenders may not invoke section 12 to challenge either mandatory-minimum or mandatory-maximum jail sentences or any other jail sentence. [244]

(It is worth noting that Justice O’Ferrall “question[s]” [115] and indeed seems to reject this view.)

Justice Wakeling repeats a mistake committed by Justice Scalia, including in his comments on the Eighth Amendment in the famous lecture “Originalism: The Lesser Evil”. Justice Wakeling refers to some of Justice Scalia’s decisions seeking to limit the import of the Eighth Amendment to the 1791 catalogue of barbarity ― but not to that lecture where, tellingly, Justice Scalia professed being a “faint-hearted” originalist, because he wouldn’t bring himself to countenance the punishment of flogging even if was practised in 1791. The catalogue approach, it seems, doesn’t really work.

In a lecture of his own, “Scalia’s Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism“, Randy Barnett explains why. He points out that

original public meaning originalism attempts to identify the level of generality in which the Constitution is objectively expressed. Does the text ban particular punishments of which they were aware, or does it ban all cruel and unusual punishments? (23)

As Professor Barnett notes, “[t]his is not to say … the broader provisions of the text lack all historical meaning and are open to anything we may wish them to mean”. (23) But that meaning, if there is one, must be established with reference to the time of those provisions’ enactment ― not to a period that preceded it by two or three centuries. Justice Wakeling’s own reasons suggest that, whatever may have been the case in 1689 or even 1791, the phrase “cruel and unusual” may well have acquired a broad and morally loaded meaning by 1982. He does not even contemplate this possibility.

This leads me to concerns about the form and tone of Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It has an air of scholarliness: at over 12,000 words and 200 footnotes, it has the heft of an academic article. And yet this is only an appearance. It is inimical to good scholarship ― even, I would argue, in a judicial opinion, and not only in an academic setting ― to ignore counter-arguments and relevant sources that do not support one’s claims. Meanwhile, a great many of those footnotes turns out to cite to Justice Wakeling’s own opinions; a flaw of much academic writing, my own not excepted, but manifested here to an inordinate degree.

And then there is the bitter vehemence of Justice Wakeling’s writing. From the outset, he heaps scorn on the Supreme Court’s precedents, calling the “reasonable hypothetical” approach to section 12 they command “remarkable, to say the least”, [124] and claim that “[t]here is no constitutional doctrine that justifies this unusual method”. The decision in Smith is “surprising[]” [219] and “unexpected”. [220] “The contribution” that an argument made by Justice Lamer ― to whom Justice Wakeling denies the courtesy of a “as he then was” ― “makes to the debate is difficult to comprehend”. [226]

But Canadian courts and judges are not the only targets of Justice Wakeling’s contempt. I have already referred to his desription of Weems as “heresy”. If this were said about a fellow judge on Justice Wakeling’s court, this would be as mean as any of Justice Scalia’s cantankerous dissents. Still, such disagreements can appropriately be aired. But judges do not normally take it upon themselves to critique their colleagues in other jurisdictions. Not only is Justice Wakeling not qualified to pronounce on what it orthodox and what is heretical under American law ― it’s just not his job. Not content with commentary on the past, however, Justice Wakeling dabbles in political prognostication too, declaring that he

suspect[s] that the likelihood that additional states will abolish the death penalty is probably about the same as the likelihood that the Supreme Court – with a majority of conservative-minded justices – will sanction additional limits on the availability of the death penalty. [181; reference omitted]

To be clear, I have no objection to a judge expressing disagreement with the jurisprudence of a higher court. On the contrary, judicial criticism of binding authority ― so long as that authority is followed ― can be valuable; no less, and arguably more, than that of scholars and other commentators. If the lower courts are saying that a legal doctrine is not working well, the higher courts would do well to listen ― though they need not agree, and they should not agree in this case, as I argued in my last post. Justice O’Ferrall’s opinion strikes me as perfectly fine. But not so Justice Wakeling’s.

I have been tone-policed enough to be wary of engaging in such critiques myself. But Justice Wakeling is, after all, a judge ― and I think that judges can rightly be held to a standard of equanimity that should not be applied to academics, whose role it is to critique, and sometimes criticize, the exercise of the judicial power. I have also defended the use of strong language in judicial opinions. Still, there are lines not to be crossed. A judge ought not to be dismissive or petulant; nor should he engage in political commentary or, I think, make any sort of pronouncement on the merits of the laws (enacted or judicially articulated) of other countries. Justice Wakeling is and does all of these things. If he wants to act like a politically preoccupied professor, he should resign his judicial office.

I do not know how widespread the views expressed by Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are. Perhaps the Supreme Court will take heed and reconsider its jurisprudence in relation to section 12. In any case it will face other difficult questions about the interpretation of the Charter. Justice Wakeling’s opinion illustrates a number of things not to do in such cases. Courts should not look to the ways the authors of constitutional provisions, let alone the authors of their predecessors, expected these provisions to be applied. They should not be careless, let alone deliberately unfair, when they compare different texts. They should not convert moral language into laundry lists. And, of course, they should not be mean-spirited. Justice Wakeling’s opinion is unusual indeed, and I hope it stays that way.


Judges of the Alberta Court of Appeal question the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences

Last month the Alberta Court of Appeal issued an interesting decision that concerned the constitutionality of yet another mandatory minimum sentence, this one in section 244.2 of the Criminal Code, for “intentionally discharg[ing] a firearm into or at a place, knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person is present in the place”. The mandatory minimum is four years’ imprisonment (or more if organized crime is involved). For fairly straightforward rasons given by Justice Antonio, R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, upholds the four-year mandatory minimum, rejecting the claim that it is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But in separate concurring reasons Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling go on to criticize the Supreme Court’s approach for dealing with such cases. Both concurring opinions raise important questions, not only about the correct approach to mandatory minimum sentences under section 12 of the Charter, but also about constitutional interpretation and construction more broadly.

In this post, I summarize Justice Antonio’s lead opinion, as well as the common aspects of the two concurring ones, and explain why I think the Supreme Court is right and Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are wrong about section 12. In a follow up post, I shall write in some detail about Justice Wakeling’s opinion, which is startling, and startlingly wrong, in its method and tone, and deserves special attention and criticism.

In R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and, more recently, R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773, the Supreme Court held that a mandatory minimum sentence that is “grossly disproportionate” to the gravity and blameworthiness of an offence is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12. Gross disproportionality can be shown either in the particular case or, alternatively ― and controversially ―, in a reasonable hypothetical, a set of circumstances that can be expected to occur and that would be captured by the impugned provision. This is the approach that the accused in Hills took.

Mr. Hills pleaded guilty to having repeatedly fired a rifle “suitable for big game hunting” [4] into the walls and windows of a family residence ― among with less frightening misdeeds, all part of a rampage undertaken in a state that a former Toronto mayor would have described as drunken stupor. The sentencing judge considered that the mandatory minimum would not be grossly disproportionate to his offence, but it could be in a reasonable hypothetical, mainly because the applicable definition of “firearm” captures weapons shown by an expert to be incapable of penetrating a typical building wall. One could therefore reasonably imagine the four-year sentence being imposed on a person who fired a weapon “at a place” whose occupants were not thereby endangered. The judge sentenced Mr. Hills to three and a half years’ imprisonment.

Justice Antonio (with whose reasons Justice O’Ferrall agrees, so far as they go) considers this to be an error. This is because the shots fired even from low-power weapons might “penetrate a door or window”. [80] Moreover, the weapons or the shots might alarm bystanders or the people inside the place at which they are fired, and generally undermine “the feeling the safety in communities”. [82] Justice Antonio also refers to Nur, where

 a 40-month sentence was imposed on a 19-year-old first offender who merely possessed a loaded firearm in a public place for a short period of time and did not discharge it or use it in a threatening manner. If 40 months was an appropriate sentence in the Nur case, then an additional eight months as a mandatory minimum penalty where a firearm was actually used does not amount to a grossly disproportionate sentence.

Justice Antonio concludes that a fit sentence for Mr. Hills would be four and a half years’ imprisonment.

As mentioned above, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling both call for the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith and Nur to be revisited insofar as they require the courts to undertake gross disproportionality analysis based on reasonable hypotheticals, and not only the facts before the sentencing court. Some of the arguments they make are similar. I address them here. Justice Wakeling’s opinion also makes additional points not raised by Justice O’Ferrall. I turn to them below.

The main argument on which Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling rely is that the use of reasonable hypotheticals to test the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is inconsistent with the import of section 12. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

[a]n interpretation [of the Charter] which relies on the presumed detriment to a non-existent offender if a certain term of imprisonment is imposed is not an interpretation which a citizen would contemplate. It is an interpretation which might legitimately surprise the citizen. It does not flow logically from the text of s.12 of the Charter. [108; see aslo Justice Wakeling’s comment at [126]]

For Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling, since section 12 protects an individual “right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, only the situation of the offender before the court can be taken into consideration, and the courts should avoid invalidating provisions that might only hypothetically result in unconstitutional applications. Just as laws are not invalidated because they might be invoked to effect unconstitutional arrests, they should not be disturbed because they might, in some cases, lead to unconstitutional sentences. As Justice O’Ferrall puts it, “[b]ut for the approved reasonable hypothetical analysis, the accused could [sic] care less about the constitutionality of the law. His complaint is with respect to his treatment or punishment”. [109]

Indeed, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling reject the test of “gross disproportionality” itself, which the Supreme Court has long used as a proxy for deciding whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

A sentence may be disproportionate from the perspective of both the offender and the offence and yet … prescribed to achieve the fundamental purpose of sentencing, namely protecting society. Even a grossly disproportionate sentence may not be found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment if, for example, in order to stem the tide of a deadly pandemic, Parliament found it necessary to prescribe extremely harsh punishments for what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors. [117; see also Justice Wakeling’s comment at [132]]

I do not think that any of this is right.

Start with the meaning of section 12. The concurring opinions go wrong because they fail to distinguish between the interpretation and the construction of constitutional provisions. Interpretation is the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text. Construction is the elaboration of doctrines that allow the text to be given legal effect. Some cases can be resolved at the interpretation stage. As I have argued here, the interpretation of section 12, and specifically of the word “cruel”, can tell us that this provision does not protect corporations. But in other cases courts need to engage in (good faith) construction to apply vague language ― and that of section 12 is vague, if not quite as vague as some commentators would have believe.

The word “cruel” is not infinitely malleable, but it is not self-explanatory either. Unless they are going to rely on seat-of-the-pants impressionistic decision-making in every case, courts need to work out a consistent way to determine whether a given sentence is cruel and unusual. This is an exercise in construction, which is a form of legal reasoning. Unlike in the realm of interpretation, the presumed (actually, purely conjectured) reactions of reactions of citizens are not a useful guide to what the courts should do here. The courts’ task is not to avoid surprises ― the framers of the constitution make a certain degree of judicial creativity unavoidable when they use vague language ― but rather, as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have argued, to give effect to the purpose of the provision.

Is the test of gross disproportionality a misguided construction of section 12? In my previous post on that provision’s meaning (linked to above) I have suggested that it is not, so far as the punishment of natural persons is concerned. I wrote that “disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty”, provided that “also causes or reflects indifference to suffering”, which may “always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings”. Justice O’Ferrall’s example is ambiguous and does not persuade me. It may be taken to suggest that in the circumstances of “a deadly pandemic” “what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors” become extremely blameworthy crimes. If so, there is no gross disproportionality in punishing them harshly, so long as the relevant circumstances exist. But if Justice O’Ferrall suggests that a public emergency justifies harsh punishment of unrelated offences, I don’t see how that follows.

If not the gross disproportionality test, is the reasonable hypothetical approach an impermissible construction of section 12? Actually, I think there are very good reasons for the courts to adopt it. Contrary to what Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling say, a mandatory minimum sentence impacts an offender as to whom it would not be cruel and unusual, albeit indirectly. As Justice Arbour explained in her concurrence in R v Morrisey, [2000] 2 SCR 90,

mandatory minimum sentences … must act as an inflationary floor, setting a new minimum punishment applicable to the so-called ‘best’ offender whose conduct is caught by these provisions.  The mandatory minimum must not become the standard sentence imposed on all but the very worst offender who has  committed the offence in the very worst circumstances.  The latter approach would not only defeat the intention of Parliament in enacting this particular legislation, but also offend against the general principles of sentencing designed to promote a just and fair sentencing regime and thereby advance the purposes of imposing criminal sanctions. [75] 

Justice Wakeling’s own reasons illustrate this dynamic. He breaks down the range of sentences permitted by Parliament into bands for the least and most serious cases, and those in the middle. On this approach, if Parliament enacts or raises the mandatory minimum, the sentences of most offenders, except perhaps the very worst ones, go up. Of course, Parliament is entitled to intervene in sentencing. But the fact that its intervention impacts all offenders means that it is appropriate to consider its constitutionality even in cases where the minimum sentence would not have been cruel and unusual. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it’s not an implausible construction of section 12 to say that it does not permit the inflationary floor to be sullied by the cruelty of sentences required to be imposed even on some, albeit not all, offenders.

The other reason for the courts to continue to police reasonable hypotheticals might sound more in policy, but it too is relevant to section 12. It is plea bargaining. A prosecutor can threaten an accused person with a high mandatory minimum sentence so as to secure a guilty plea to some other, less serious offence. By the very nature of such situations, there is no scope for the mandatory minimum to be challenged; indeed the offence to which it is attached never even features before a court. But to the extent that the mandatory minimum has served to secure a guilty plea from a person who might be innocent (or at least might be able to raise a reasonable doubt about his or her guilt), its deployment by the prosecutor is, arguably, a form of cruel and unusual treatment that offends the Charter.

It has been set that the judicial response to the last Conservative government’s “tough on crime” agenda has been nothing less than a rebellion. Justice Wakeling professes himself “extremely troubled by the fact that Canadian courts have been busy striking down Criminal Code provisions that impose mandatory-minimum sentences”. [123] The concurring opinions in Hills are a counter-rebellion of sorts, directed not against Parliament but against the Supreme Court.

But the rebels are wrong. Their approach to constitutional text, which collapses interpretation and construction and oversimplifies constitutional meaning is not compelling. They fail to see the repercussions of mandatory minimum laws that deserve the suspicion with which the courts have treated them. The Supreme Court has often read constitutional provisions ― both power-conferring and rights-protecting ones ― more expansively than it should have. But I am not convinced that this is the case with section 12 of the Charter.

PS: I have neglected blogging on judicial decisions in the last couple of months, and will try to make up at least some of this backlog. If you have a case I should get onto in mind, please do get in touch.