Constitutional Amendment and the Law

I have been a bit harsh on the Supreme Court in my first post on its opinion in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, saying that it had reduced the constitutional text to the status of a façade, which hid as much as it revealed of the real constitutional architecture, which only the Court itself could see. But one must recognize that the Court’s position was very difficult.  The amending formulae codified in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, are a nightmare, at once too precise and too vague to guide their interpretation. Although in our legal system text, especially constitutional text, is supposed to be the legal form par excellence, superior to any unwritten norm, Part V shows that this is not always so.

It is often said that, before Part V was added to the constitution in 1982, there was no general amending formula in the Canadian constitution. That is only true if “constitution” is understood as “constitutional text.” In reality, there was an amending formula ― the Canadian constitution could be amended by the Imperial (i.e. British) Parliament, which in accordance with a “constitutional position” (i.e. convention) recognized by the Preamble of the Statute of Westminster, 1931, would only act on address of the Canadian Parliament, which, in accordance with a further convention of which the Supreme Court recognized the existence in the Patriation Reference, could only make such an address with “substantial provincial consent.”

This last convention, requiring substantial provincial consent to constitutional changes, was obviously somewhat vague. And indeed it often said that vagueness is an inherent limitation of constitutional conventions, and perhaps one of the reasons which prevent conventions from attaining legal status. More generally, in his great work on The Concept of Law, H.L.A. Hart argued that the passage from somewhat uncertain traditional rules to formal ones was part of a movement from a pre-legal to a legal system. The replacement of the convention requiring “substantial provincial consent” with specific, written amending formulae forming part of the constitutional text ought to have clarified the constitutional rules, and made them more law-like.

Instead, what we got is a system which is in many ways no clearer than the old conventional rule. Indeed, Part V illustrates Lon Fuller’s insight that an ostensibly legal rule or system of rules can fail certain formal requirements (of what he called the “inner morality of law” and what we usually refer to as the Rule of Law) to the point where they fail to guide behaviour and, thus, to be law at all.

The system of a general rule (s. 38 of the Constitution Act, 1982), examples of the general rule (s. 42), and exceptions to the general rule (ss. 41, 43, 44, and 45, some of which (ss. 44 and 45) themselves sound like plausible general rules) does not make for consistency, which is one of the Rule of Law requirements outlined by Fuller. (I note, however, that this system is somehow very Canadian, in that it parallels that which we have adopted for dividing powers between Parliament and the provinces: there, the “peace, order and good government” clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 is the general rule, followed by examples of federal powers in s. 91, and exceptions in s. 92, at least one of which, subs. 92(13) was itself very broad. Not coincidentally, this complex scheme arguably contributed to the distribution of powers being interpreted in a way that is probably far from what its authors had intended.) The mention of the Supreme Court in the amending formula ― combined with the conspicuous absence of the Supreme Court Act from the list of enactments composing the “constitution of Canada” is another glaring example of the inconsistency of Part V.

What is more, its rules are not exemplars of clarity (does, for instance, the “selection of Senators” refer only to their formal selection by the Governor General, as the federal government argued, or to the whole process leading to it?) Some of these rules also seem to produce results so absurd as to border on the impossible (for instance, as one of the judges suggested at the hearing of the Senate Reference, the amending formula seems to indicate that Canada could be turned into a dictatorship more easily than into a democratic republic).

Add this all up, and we have a set of amending formulae that, as Fuller predicted, fail to guide behaviour ― not only that of the politicians to whom they are addressed in the first instance, but also of the courts to which the politicians turn for help understanding them. We have, in other words, a set of rules which, although purportedly legal, indeed purportedly part of the “higher law,” in some circumstances fail to be law at all. (One should not exaggerate the scope of the problem. In many cases ― say, transforming Canada into a republic ― the import of Part V will be perfectly clear. But the Senate Reference as well as l’Affaire Nadon show the importance of cases where this is not so.)

Yet if one thing is unmistakable after the entrenchment of Part V, it is that the “procedure for amending the constitution of Canada” is a legal, and no longer a conventional matter. The courts are stuck with it, and cannot offload the problem of interpreting it to politicians. (In reality, the Supreme Court’s engagement with the conventions of constitutional amendment in the Patriation Reference and the subsequent Quebec Veto Reference illustrate the limits of its willingness, or ability, to do so even under the old, conventional regime.) And so the Supreme Court really had no choice but to try somehow to bring the less-than-fully-legal mess of Part V into the realm of legality. Inevitably, it had to do some violence to the text. It would not be fair to fault it for having done so. However, the difficulty of the Court’s position should not shield it from criticism of the way it went about its task, or absolve it from the responsibility for the problems which its endeavour will create. In particular, the concept of “constitutional architecture” which it used deserves critical attention. I hope to provide it shortly.

The Façade and the Edifice

This is my much-delayed post on the Supreme Court’s opinion, issued last Friday, in Reference re Senate Reform2014 SCC 32. Although the Court’s conclusions, all of which I had correctly predicted the day before, were not really a surprise, its reasoning was somewhat unexpected. It is also rather vague and difficult to understand. This may have been the price to pay for a unanimous decision, an attempt to paper over some underlying disagreements between the judges about the best approach to take. But the Court’s reasoning might also signal a new departure, a shift in Canadian constitutional law and theory. 

As everybody knows by now, the Supreme Court held that the introduction of term limits for Senators and of “consultative” elections to the Senate require the consent of seven provinces with more than half of Canada’s population, while the abolition of the Senate requires the unanimous consent of all the provinces. The requirement that Senators own a property worth at least 4000$ can be abolished by Parliament acting alone, except with respect to Québec, which has to consent to the modification of the special rule pursuant to which its Senators must own property within specific districts in the province.

After throat-clearing describing the Senate’s roles as a legislative chamber of “sober second thought,” and one in which both the regions of Canada and minorities, not well represented in the House of Commons, could have a voice, the substantive part of the Court’s opinion begins with a discussion of the nature of the Canadian constitution and constitutional amendment. And this is where it gets interesting.

The constitution, says the Supreme Court, includes not only texts (both those referred to in subs. 52(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 and others), but also an “architecture,” which has to do with the way in which its components interact and complement each other. This architecture might be similar or related to the underlying constitutional principles which the Court identified in Reference re Secession of Québec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, in that like the principles, it informs constitutional interpretation. But it is a more multi-faceted concept than that of underlying principles. The “architecture” consists of “the assumptions that underlie the text and the manner in which the constitutional provisions are inteded to interact with one another” (par. 26). And, crucially, since the constitution does not only consist of text but also of its “architecture,” “amendments to the Constitution are not confined to textual changes. They include changes to the Constitution’s architecture” (par. 27).

Another, seemingly separate, consideration in understanding and applying the rules regarding constitutional amendment codified in the Constitution Act, 1982, is “the principle that constitutional change that engages provincial interests requires both the consent of Parliament and a significant degree of provincial consent” (par. 29). The

amending formula [is] designed to foster dialogue between the federal government and the provinces on matters of constitutional change, and to protect Canada’s constitutional status quo until such time as reforms are agreed upon (par. 31).

Therefore, the “7/50” amending formula (requiring the consent of two thirds of the provinces with at least half of Canada’s population), which balances flexibility and the need for consensus, is the default option. Other amending formulae are exceptions. The Court provides a few remarks on those. It observes that s. 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982, requiring federal and provincial consent, is applicable to “special arrangements” for one or several provinces, which must assent to any change to such arrangements (par. 44). The Court also notes that the unilateral amendment procedures in ss. 44 and 45 are applicable only to those changes to, respectively, the federal and the provincial constitutions which “do not engage the interests of the other level of government” (par. 48). The Court adds that

[n]either level of government acting alone can alter the fundamental nature and role of the institutions provided for in the Constitution. This said, those institutions can be maintained and even changed to some extent under ss. 44 and 45, provided that their fundamental nature and role remain intact (par. 48).

The opinion then moves on to the specific questions asked in the reference. The first set of questions concerned “consultative” elections to the Senate, the results of which the Prime Minister would be obliged to “consider”, while theoretically retaining the discretion not to recommend their winners for appointment to the Senate. The federal government argued that such elections were permissible, since their introduction did not alter the constitutional text. But that argument, says the Court, “privileges form over substance” (par. 52):

 While the provisions regarding the appointment of Senators would remain textually untouched, the Senate’s fundamental nature and role as a complementary legislative body of sober second thought would be significantly altered.

This would “amend the constitution … by fundamentally altering its architecture” (par. 54). That architecture includes the Senate’s relative independence from partisan politics, and also its role as “complementary” rather than a competitor to the elected House of Commons. Elections “would give it the democratic legitimacy to systematically block the House of Commons, contrary to its constitutional design” (par. 60). Although the Court does not explicitly mention the constitutional convention which obliges the Senate to yield to the Commons’ will, the reference is unmistakable.

Remarkably, it is only after this discussion of “architecture” that the Court turns to the constitutional text, which it says “support[s]” its conclusions, and whose “words … are guides to identifying the aspects of our system of government that form part of the protected content of the Constitution” (par. 64). The “plain meaning” (par. 67) of these words ― specifically, the term “method of selecting Senators” in par. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982 ― covers “consultative” elections, because they describe not only the formal mechanism whereby Senators are appointed by the Governor General, but also the “selection” of the persons thus appointed.

The second question the Court had to consider envisioned the introduction of term limits of varying length for Senators. Here, it begins with text, observing that s. 42 does not refer to term limits, but also asserting that “7/50”, not unilateral amendment, is the default procedure even for changes to the Senate not mentioned in s. 42:

Changes that engage the interests of the provinces in the Senate as an institution forming an integral part of the federal system can only be achieved under the general amending procedure (par. 75).

The Court takes the view that the imposition of term limits would fundamentally change the Senate, by limiting the Senators’ independence and thus undermining their capacity for “sober second thought.” Although a very long fixed term would conceivably be equivalent to the current system of appointment until the age of 75 in this respect, it is impossible for a court to decide what length would be sufficient; “this is at heart a matter of policy.” And thus

[t]he very process of subjectively identifying a term long enough to leave intact the Senate’s independence engages the interests of the provinces and requires their input” (par. 82).

Property qualifications, by contrast, do not engage provincial interests. Their removal would not interfere with the Senate’s role or the Senators’ independence, and can (except with respect to Québec, as explained above), be achieved unilaterally.

The final question of the reference concerned the outright abolition of the Senate. Here again, “architecture” becomes arguably the dominant factor in the analysis. Although the Court also finds that the abolition of the Senate would amend the amending formula itself, requiring unanimous provincial consent, this is not the first consideration it mentions. What comes first is the assertion that

abolition of the Senate would fundamentally alter our constitutional architecture — by removing the bicameral form of government that gives shape to the Constitution Act, 1867 (par. 97).

The Court also observes that the abolition of the Senate was not contemplated in 1982, so that it cannot be construed as a mere reduction ― to nothing ― of its “powers” and membership, as the federal government argued.

I will try to have some more specific comments on the Court’s opinion, but here are three quick ones. First, as I noted in earlier posts on this case, the Supreme Court has consistently resisted attempts at unilateral constitutional reform, whether by the federal government (starting 35 years ago in Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, then in the Patriation Reference, and now again), or by a province (in the Secession Reference). Whatever else it thinks of the constitution, the Court clearly believes it is one that requires consensus. Second, beyond that, it is still not really clear what the constitution is. In particular, it is not clear just what the “constitutional architecture” the Court relies on is. However, as I suggest above, it seems to include (at least some) constitutional conventions. Yet the Court simply did not address the serious (although in my view not insuperable) theoretical and practical difficulties with incorporating conventions into constitutional law. Third, and most broadly, the court seems to have given a remarkably bold answer to the question I asked in my analysis of the oral argument ― what to make of the constitution? ― or, more precisely, of the constitutional text. The text, its opinion suggests, is no more than a façade. We can look at it, of course, and it can give us useful hints of what lies behind it. But the real architecture of the constitutional edifice is hidden from our view. And if there is a door through which one can pass to observe it, it is only the Supreme Court that has the key.

It’s a Dangerous Thing…

… To make predictions, especially about the future; so Winston Churchill. But the attraction of doing so is irresistible, so here goes: my forecast for the outcome of the Senate Reference, which the Supreme Court will release tomorrow. (If you need a refresher on the Reference and the issues it raises, as well as another set of predictions, have a look at Emmett Macpharlane’s excellent “Guide to the Senate Reform Debate”; you can also read my collected posts on the topic here.)

On the question of term limits, my guess is that the Court will find that none of the limits suggested by the federal government are constitutional. Although, as prof. Macfarlane suggests, the “compromise” view defended by Ontario and Saskatchewan, according to which long term limits would not be problematic, I doubt that it can be worked into a rule that is at once clear enough and principled enough for the Court to endorse it. The federal government itself stubbornly refused to offer the Court much in the way of a principle limiting its power to impose term limits, and the provinces supporting the compromise solution have done little better. Although the constitutional text does not offer direct support for the proposition that the Senators’ term is, in fact, entrenched, the Court will hold that essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be unilaterally amended by Parliament.

I also expect the Court to reject “consultative” elections to the Senate, partly for the same reason, but also because, in one way or another (hopefully, in the way Fabien Gélinas and I suggest!), the discretionary appointment of Senators by the Prime Minister is part of the entrenched “method of selecting Senators.” The Supreme Court will not countenance the federal government’s attempt to achieve unilaterally and indirectly what the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982, quite clearly thought required a constitutional amendment with provincial participation.

However, the Court will hold that the property qualification for appointment to the Senate can be unilaterally abolished by Parliament, because such an amendment does not interest the provinces (by their own admission), and because, however important in 1867, the property qualification, eroded by inflation to a fairly nominal amount, is no longer an essential characteristic of the Upper House.

Finally, regarding the abolition of the Senate, the Supreme Court will find that unanimous provincial consent is required. Although, unlike prof. Macfarlane, I am not convinced that the contrary conclusion (that the Senate can be abolished under the general, “7/50”, amending formula), would require the Court “to divorce its reasoning completely from the constitutional text,” ― which, after all, does not list the abolition of the Senate among the matters requiring unanimity ― the judges seemed to find the prospect of such a fundamental amendment done with anything less than unanimous support quite unsettling. Although the Senate might, as prof. Macfarlane suggests, be protected from abolition by its role in the process of constitutional amendment itself, which cannot be changed without unanimous consent, the Court might even base its ruling on the broader ground that  any fundamental alterations to the nature of the Canadian constitution require the consent of all the provinces.

Well, we’ll see. I hope I don’t look like too much of an idiot tomorrow.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I will be at conference ― on Senate Reform ― at Université Laval’s Faculty of Law tomorrow. If you happen to be there, come say hi. In any case, I don’t think that I’ll have time for a blog post tomorrow. Except perhaps a public acknowledgement of idiocy, if necessary. I’ll do my best to have something more substantial on Saturday.

What Matters in the Province?

I mentioned, in my discussion of my doubts regarding the constitutionality of consultative elections for Senate nominees under the “Peace, Order and Good Government”  (POGG) power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, that I also had doubts about authority of the provinces to set up such elections. As in that post, my thoughts here are tentative and, perhaps, a little crazy. I would very much welcome corrections.

The problem is similar in the case of federally- and provincially-organized consultative elections: it is by no means obvious what constitutional provision authorizes the relevant legislature to take such action. Indeed the problem is worse for provincial legislatures, because there is not even a remotely plausible candidate provision, like the POGG power for Parliament. The trouble with this claim is also similar, however. It seems to go very far, and to call into question the constitutionality of practices long assumed by political actors and probably by the Supreme Court to be perfectly permissible.

The authority of provincial legislatures to enact laws, including the laws that set up consultative elections, such as Alberta’s Senatorial Selection Act, RSA 2000, c S-5, comes mostly from s. 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. (Other constitutional provisions grant further legislative authority to the provinces, but they are mostly not relevant here. The only significant one ― for my present purposes ― is s. 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which authorizes a province to amend its own constitution, except the office of the lieutenant-governor.) But consultative elections do not seem to me to come anywhere close to any “class of subjects” listed in s. 92. “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices” (subs. 92(4))? But Senators are federal, not provincial officers. “Property and Civil Rights” (subs. 92(13))? But that refers to private law. “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province” (subs. 92(16))? But the Senate is not a local or private matter, nor a strictly provincial one. For the same reason the  power to amend the constitution of the province cannot be the answer ― the Senate is, to some extent, part of the federal constitution, and to some extent of the constitution of Canada as a whole, but not of the provinces.

So provincial legislatures seem to me to lack the competence to set up consultative elections. And, by the way, even if I am wrong and Parliament has the power to do so under s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, it cannot delegate this power to provincial legislatures, such inter-delegation being unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Attorney General of Nova Scotia v. Attorney General of Canada, [1951] S.C.R. 31. As Chief Justice Rinfret pointed out,

The constitution of Canada does not belong either to Parliament, or to the Legislatures; it belongs to the country and it is there that the citizens of the country will find the protection of the rights to which they are entitled. It is part of that protection that Parliament can legislate only on the subject matters referred to it by section 91 and that each Province can legislate exclusively on the subject matters referred to it by section 92.

But, as with my argument about the limit of the POGG power in this area, the problem is how far my claims go. If I am right that legislation whereby a legislature “consults” the people is subject to the federal/provincial division of powers so that it is only constitutional if and insofar as the subject of consultation is within the competence of the legislature in question, then certain practices which have so far been unquestioningly accepted and historically significant appear unconstitutional. In the case of the provinces, I am thinking in particular about Québec’s two referenda on separation from Canada. Separation, as the Supreme Court confirmed in the Secession Reference, is not a purely provincial matter. It requires the amendment of the constitution of Canada as a whole. The conclusion of the Secession Reference is that a province cannot unilaterally secede. What, then, in the constitution, gives its legislature the power to consult the voters on the matter? By my logic, the answer is “nothing.” Yet of course the Supreme Court’s decision not only assumes the permissibility of a referendum ― its holding that “a decision of a clear majority of the population of Quebec on a clear question to pursue secession” (par. 93, emphasis mine) triggers a duty on the part of the rest of Canada to negotiate secession seems to require one. Is my logic faulty, then? That would be a sensible guess, of course, though it does not tell me (or anyone) where the fault lies, and I would be very curious to hear that.

Alternatively though, there might be some distinctions between the case of a referendum on secession and that of consultative elections, or maybe even referenda on other constitution issues. Perhaps the principle of democracy, which is the main source of the duty to negotiate, is in itself sufficient to ground a province’s right to hold a referendum on secession, without any additional and specific grant of legislative power. However, one can at least argue that the principles of constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, which suggest that legislative power cannot be exercised except as provided by the constitution, weigh more heavily with respect to other, less momentous questions, on which consultation with the electorate regardless of constitutional fetters is less crucial.

As I said above, these are tentative thoughts, and I would welcome contradiction and correction.

Lack of National Concern

Here’s a question that bothers me. In the arguments about its proposed Senate reform, the federal government has asserted that it could set “consultative” elections of Senate “nominees” pursuant to the general “peace, order and good government” (a.k.a. POGG) power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The counter-argument is that such elections are a modification of the Constitution of Canada “in relation to … the method of selecting Senators” and, as such, can only be implemented under the amending formula of s. 42 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The debate on this point has focused entirely on the interpretation of s. 42. But what about s. 91? The POGG power, after all, is a narrow one (as I have explained here). Would consultative elections fall within its scope?

As the Supreme Court explained in R. v. Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd., [1988] 1 S.C.R. 401, the POGG power has two main branches. One is a broad but temporary power of dealing with emergencies. It obviously has no relevance here. The other branch, often referred to as “national concern,” “applies,” as Justice Le Dain found after a careful review of the relevant precedents, “to both new matters which did not exist at Confederation and to matters which, although originally matters of a local or private nature in a province, have since, in the absence of national emergency, become matters of national concern.”

It seems to me that “consultative elections” to the Senate do not fit either of these criteria. They are obviously not something which, like aviation or telecommunications, did not exist at confederation ― or rather, could not even be thought of. Elections of Senators admittedly did not exist ― but only because the Fathers of Confederation, after much debate and consideration, opted for an appointed rather than an elected Senate. Nor are they “originally matters of a local or private nature” that came until provincial jurisdiction until concerted national action became necessary.

In its factum, the federal government cites a single case in support of its claim that consultative elections fall within the scope of the POGG power: Jones v. A.G. of New Brunswick, [1975] 2 S.C.R. 1982. But I don’t think that it is much on point. Jones was a challenge (among other things) to the constitutionality of the provisions of the Official Languages Act which entitled people to give evidence in the official language of their choice in judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings before courts and tribunals established by Parliament, and in criminal proceedings in provincial courts. Although the Supreme Court referred to the “peace, order and good government” language, it did not actually rely on the POGG power to uphold these provisions, finding instead that they were justified by Parliament’s powers to establish courts “for the better administration of the laws of Canada” (s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867) and over criminal law (s. 91(27)). It is instructive, I think, that Justice Le Dain’s comprehensive review of the POGG jurisprudence in Crown Zellerbach does not even mention Jones.

Still, one constant theme in the POGG case law is that it a power that allows the federal government to act when provinces cannot. Should it apply to consultative elections on that basis alone, since provinces ― although perhaps they could organize such elections on their own (a point on which I also have doubts, which I will explain in a separate post) ― could not bind the Prime Minister to “consider” recommending the appointment of their winners? After all, between them, Parliament and the provincial legislatures must be able, to quote A.V. Dicey’s well-known statement of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, “to make and unmake any law whatever,” right? Well, not exactly. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty must be modified in Canada, not only because of a distribution of legislative powers between two levels of legislatures, but also because some rules, those that belong to the constitution of Canada as a whole, are outside the reach of either of these legislative powers acting alone, though it can of course be modified by constitutional amendment with the requisite level of federal and provincial support. The whole question here is whether current (implicit) rule pursuant to which there are no consultative elections of Senate nominees is among these rules. The fact that its modification does not fit within the recognized categories of the POGG power is, arguably, an indication that it is.

The biggest problem I see with this argument, and it is a very serious one, is just how far it goes. Arguably, if Parliament cannot set up consultative elections under its POGG power, nor can it set up a consultative referendum process for situations that are not within the scope of its ordinary legislative powers. So, for example, while Parliament’s power over “Militia, Military and Naval Service, and Defence,” under s. 91(7) of the Constitution Act, 1867), authorized it hold the two referenda on conscription, it had no authorization to hold a referendum on constitutional amendment, such as the one on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. For what is the source of Parliament’s power to hold such a referendum? It cannot be anything other than POGG, yet unless we can show that referenda on constitutional subjects are a new “matter” uncontemplated in 1867, or an emergency, that does not work either. Neither of these arguments seems obvious… though really I don’t know enough to tell. In any case, to the best of my knowledge ― though again, it may be very deficient ― no one has questioned Parliament’s power to enact the Referendum Act, S.C. 1992 c. 30, which authorizes the federal government “to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada.” Of course, the fact that the constitutionality of a statute has not been questioned in the past is not proof  that the statute is indeed constitutional. But it does suggest that any claims to the contrary are likely ― and perhaps deserve ― to be met with serious skepticism.

Still, however unlikely its acceptance, I wonder if my reasoning above is correct. It is entirely possible that I have missed something. Perhaps I am simply reading Crown Zellerbach too literally, and the “unforeseen in 1867″/”expected-to-be-local-but-become-national” dichotomy does not exhaust the POGG power. I would like to hear your views. As it is, I find the lack of concern with the question I try to raise here a bit surprising.

Senate Reference Notes

I took notes while watching the Senate Reference hearings last week ― it’s not a verbatim transcript of course, but as close to one as I could manage. In case you are interested in what went on ― beyond my very partial summaries here and here ― but cannot or do not want to watch the whole thing, I have posted the notes here. They are somewhat incomplete in places, and in all likelihood full of typos, but I have neither the time nor the courage to go over them and kick them into shape.

By the way, it would be nice of the Supreme Court to actually post the transcripts of its hearings, along with the recording of the webcast. It’s great to have the latter of course, but one doesn’t always have the time or the means to watch. The transcripts exist anyway, so why not make them available?

What to Make of the Constitution

I have written a post on the Senate Reference hearings for I-CONnect, the blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law. In large part, it follows up on and develops some of the ideas I had in my first impressions post last week, with a bit more context. I am cross-posting it below.

***

Over the course of three days last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions from the federal government, the ten provinces, two territories, two ami curiae, and several interveners on the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposals for reforming the unelected upper house of the Parliament of Canada, the Senate. Beyond the obvious importance of possible Senate reform, which has been discussed almost as long as Canada has existed, this case is potentially of great significance because it is the first time the Court considers the meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes Canada’s plethora of procedures for constitutional amendment.

The questions the Court is called upon to answer concern four possible reforms. First, the limitation of the terms of a senator’s office, currently held until a retirement age of 75, to a fixed number of years (possibly 9 or 10) or to the life of two Parliaments (about 8 years under normal circumstances, but shorter in the case of minority governments). Second, the creation of a system of consultative elections to be held in the provinces that desire it, the winners of which the Prime Minister would be required to “consider” recommending to the Governor General for appointment to the Senate. Third, the removal of the “property qualification” of $4000 to hold senatorial office, a considerable sum in 1867, meant to ensure the Senate’s position as the House of privilege, but by now a somewhat comical relic of an age long gone and little lamented. And fourth, the outright abolition of the Senate.

The first three of these reforms, the federal government argued, could be implemented by Parliament acting unilaterally, either under s. 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (for term limits and the property qualification) or under the residual “peace, order and good government” power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (for consultative elections). As for abolition of the Senate, the federal government took the position that it could be done under the “general” amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, requiring the consent of 7 provinces representing at least 50% of Canada’s population (the “7/50 formula”). Most provinces, as well as the interveners, however, are of the view that the instauration both of term limits and of consultative elections can only be done under the 7/50 formula, and that abolishing the Senate requires the provinces’ unanimous consent.

Legally, the reasons for these disagreements come down to differences over the proper way of interpreting Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. Part V applies to changes to “the Constitution of Canada,” and provides several different amending formulae, ranging from unilateral action to agreement between the federal Parliament and all the provinces, depending on the subject of the proposed amendment. The trouble is that the subjects singled out for special amending formulae are described in confusing terms, making it unclear under which provision of Part V a proposed amendment falls. But the confusion goes even deeper, because the very definition of “the Constitution of Canada,” to the amendments to which Part V applies, is unclear and incomplete.

Over the course of arguments before the Supreme Court, there emerged three interpretive approaches that the Court might adopt. The federal government’s preferred approach is―its denials notwithstanding―literalist. On this reading, the “powers of the Senate” entrenched by s. 44 do not include any senatorial independence that might be compromised by shortened term limits. The expression “method of selecting senators,” in the same provision, refers only to the formal appointment by the Governor General, and not to the fact that Senators are understood to be appointees lacking electoral legitimacy. And, since the list of constitutional changes requiring unanimous agreement of the provinces in s. 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982, does not specifically mention the abolition of the Senate, it does not cover it.

A second approach, championed by Québec, might be called originalist, in that it focuses on preserving the bargain struck at confederation in 1867. The Senate was, all agree, a central element of that bargain, so it is not to be touched without the consent of the parties to that bargain―that is to say, the provinces as well as the federal government. And even if some of the expectations of these parties, such as those regarding senatorial independence, have not been fulfilled, they must be upheld “regardless of reality.”

Most provinces, however, as well as the interveners and the amici curiae, urged the Court to take what was often described as the “living tree” approach, focusing not so much on the words of the constitutional text or the historical compromises that gave birth to it as on what matters most for its present and future operation. So the “method of selecting senators” is not only the part of the selection process described in the constitutional text (i.e. the appointment by the Governor General); “the powers of the Senate” include its independence, whatever exactly that might be (since it is clear that the Senate is, in fact, a political, partisan body); and the requirement of unanimous consent applies not only to the changes listed in s. 41, but also to other fundamental changes to the constitution.

In reality, however, interpretive approaches are not so neatly distinct. In what an intervener described as a dangerous application of the living tree approach, the federal government urged the Court to allow Parliament to bring the Senate into the 21st century, and not to require unrealistic levels of political agreement, condemning the country to another “135 years of talks.” Conversely, those opposed to the federal government’s proposal made much of the fact that the abolition of the Senate was simply not contemplated when the amending formula was being drafted in 1981, arguing that this, rather than the relative unimportance of such a change, explained its conspicuous absence from s. 41. As a bemused Justice Rothstein put it to Manitoba’s lawyer, “whatever works?” “Welcome to the law,” she replied.

What works, and what doesn’t, are questions that will weigh heavily on the Court’s collective mind. What works with an amending formula which, although drafted merely a generation ago, seems to reflect a very different country than the one in which we now live? A country where constitutional negotiations were not being described as the opening of a “can of worms,” and where agreement on substantive constitutional change seemed within reach; a country much preoccupied by the then-Prime Minister’s suspected republicanism, but not all by the prospect of the abolition of the Senate; a country that thought nothing of ruling its northern territories like colonies, and its First Nations like subject peoples, whose views on constitutional change could safely be ignored. What sort of authority can a constitutional text drafted under such circumstances have? Yet saying that this text is insufficient to meet the needs of today―never mind those of the years and decades to come―only forces one to confront the question of what sort of authority the Supreme Court has effectively to re-write it.

Yet the Supreme Court of Canada has not been shy about intervening in constitutional reform in the past. It stopped possible Senate reform in its tracks with the in 1979, prevented unilateral Patriation of the constitution in 1981, and ruled that a unilateral secession of Québec would be illegal in 1998. In none of these cases was it relying on explicit constitutional provisions. In all of them, it ruled that constitutional change required a broad agreement between the federal government and the provinces, and could not result from unilateral action. Although it is, of course, dangerous to make such predictions on the basis of questions asked at oral argument, insofar as it concludes that Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not clearly reflect this preference for consensus, the Court did not seem very likely to heed the federal government’s call for it not to treat the constitutional text as a mere “suggestion box.”