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.

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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.”

First Impressions

I will have more structured and fuller thoughts in the next days, but here are some initial impressions, in no particular order, of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Senate Reference, almost all of which I watched.

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This case is, of course, largely about constitutional interpretation. (Much more so, in fact, than most constitutional cases in Canada, certainly much more than the many Charter cases where the constitutional text is barely alluded to.) Now, in Canada, we often think of constitutional interpretation as involving a choice between two options: the “living tree” approach on the one hand, and something like originalism on the other. But the arguments in the Senate reference suggest that there are, in fact, at least three different approaches: the living tree, which most provinces invoked; originalism, in the sense of giving an overriding importance to the bargains that made confederation possible, which was Québec’s preferred approach; and literalism or textualism, which is the federal government’s. In reality, things are even more complicated, because the provinces also rely on constitutional structure, and the amici curiae focus primarily on it. And provinces, despite their invocations of the living tree, don’t hesitate also to appeal to the original bargain. In the funniest exchange of the three days, Justice Rothstein summed it all up as “whatever works,” to which Heather Leonoff, Manitoba’s lawyer, replied: “Welcome to the law!”

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Speaking of the lawyers, it’s a tough job they had. None more so than Nancy Brown, for British Columbia, the first to argue yesterday. She was, perhaps, a bit slow to get into the substance of her argument ― as all of her colleagues who preceded her, none of whom could resist the temptation of reminding the court of the historic significance of the case, had been. As Ms Brown was speaking of the importance of confederation, the Chief Justice snapped that the Court had already heard about it many times, and demanded to be told something “new.” The Chief Justice achieved what I suppose was her aim ― the lawyers who went after Ms Brown focused and shortened their arguments, trying not to repeat too much of what others had said before. But I had the impression that Ms. Brown was somewhat thrown off course by the Chief Justice’s comments, and that it was not very fair to take the court’s (admittedly understandable) frustration out on her in this way.

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Not everybody had such a hard time, though. The academics involved ― Sébastien Grammond, the Dean of the Civil Law Section at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, was impressive in his argument for the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and McGill Law’s Dean Daniel Jutras, even more so. (I’m biased, of course, as an alumnus!) Dean Jutras’ fellow amicus, John Hunter was very good as well, though the Court gave him a hard time. But perhaps the most impressive performance was that of Senator Serge Joyal, who intervened and represented himself. It is often said that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but Mr. Joyal is no fool. He spoke with both emotion and intelligence, and brought insights to the Court which the judges had been looking for (about the pre-Patriation constitutional negotiations, in which he was very much involved). Indeed, Mr. Joyal, I think, is precisely the sort of person of whom the Senate was meant to consist. Too bad there are not more of them there.

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As for the best moment involving a judge, it came this morning when Justice Cromwell asked Mr. Hunter, who was arguing that the federal government’s plan to institute purportedly non-binding elections to choose persons whose appointment to the Senate the Prime Minister would have to “consider” did not entail a modification of the constitution, whether the government could, instead of elections, auction off Senate seats ― provided the auction was non-binding. (Mr. Hunter initially resisted, but eventually conceded this would be possible, subject of course to an eventual judgment of the voters. Not a great moment, I think, for the position he was supporting.)

***

This brings me to way this will go. The federal government is in trouble. It is, of course, dangerous to make predictions based on hearings, but I have a strong impression that the Court ― all eight judges ― was skeptical of its position. The questioning both of its lawyers and of those who supported its position (as Alberta and Saskatchewan largely did, and Mr. Hunter did in part) was tougher than that of its opponents. Especially issue of the abolition of the Senate, I would be very surprised indeed if the Court were to endorse the federal government’s view that it could be effected without the unanimous consent of the provinces.

***

If that is right, however, the Court may well ― though perhaps it will not ― more or less re-write the Constitution Act, 1982. The constitutional text does not, after all, mention the abolition of the Senate, which would at first glance suggest that the federal government’s position that the general amending formula, requiring the consent of 7 provinces with 50% of Canada’s population, should apply to it. What became quite clear in the course of the argument, however, is that the constitutional text does not contemplate a great many things which were not thought of in 1981, including some very fundamental changes, and that the Court seems reticent to hold that such changes (including, for example, turning Canada into a dictatorship), might happen with less than unanimous support. Judging by the tenor of the arguments, the Court may well follow the suggestion of some provinces and of the amici curiae, and hold that such fundamental changes require  unanimity, regardless of what the constitutional text says ― or, rather, doesn’t say. The federal government’s lawyers’ concluding exhortation not treat the Constitution Act, 1982, as a “suggestion box” may have come too late. Yet there would have been no need for it if the government itself had not done exactly that with its plan for getting to an elected Senate through the back door.

***

Whichever way the Court’s decision goes ― whether it ends up endorsing the federal government’s plan for getting around constitutional text or re-writing that text ― it would be pretty revolutionary. The Chief Justice might have been tired of hearing it, but this is, indeed, a historic case.

What We Said

Apologies for the recent silence. There was no particularly good reason for it, either. Anyway, I’m back.

And there is a very good reason for that: the Québec Court of Appeal has released its opinion in response to a reference by the Québec government on the constitutionality of the Federal Government’s Senate reform plans, which involve the limitation of Senators’ terms to 9 years and, more importantly, the setting up of provincial elections the appointment of the winners of which a Prime Minister would be obliged to “consider” recommending to the Governor General. In Reference re Bill C-7 Concerning the Reform of the Senate, 2013 QCCA 1807 (the French opinion is here; English translation here), the Québec Court of Appeal holds that this project is unconstitutional if undertaken unilaterally by Parliament; it can only be implemented as a constitutional appointment pursuant to par. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The Court starts off by explaining the importance of the Senate to the Fathers of Confederation. The constitution of Canada was meant to be, as the Preamble put it, “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom,” and that meant, among other things, having an unelected Upper House of the legislature. The province of Canada had, in fact, experimented with an elected Upper House ― and Sir John A. Macdonald had not liked the experience. The appointed, undemocratic Senate was an essential part of the bargain struck in 1867. To this day, “it seems that the Senate and its members play a significant role in federal political life, and that the institution is not simply a mirror of the House of Commons” (par. 12). The Supreme Court has confirmed the Senate’s position as an entrenched, central part of the compromise that made Confederation possible, in Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 SCR 54.

So much for the context. The relevant constitutional text consists of, on the one hand, par. 42(1)(b) and, on the other, s. 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The former provides that an amendment according to what is usually referred to as the 7/50 procedure, requiring the consent of 7 provinces representing between them at least half of the Canada’s population, is necessary to effect “[a]n amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to” any of a number of “matters,” among which are “the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators.” As for s. 44, it provides that “[s]ubject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.” Also relevant are s. 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that Senators are “summon[ed]” by the Governor General, and par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which requires the unanimous consent of the provinces to amendments “in relation to … the office of the … Governor General.” Québec argued that the proposed Senate reform came within the terms of par. 42(1)(b) as affecting “the method of selecting Senators” and/or par. 41(a) as affecting the office of the Governor General. The Court accepted the former claim, and rejected the latter.

S. 42, it said, should not be interpreted restrictively, as an exception to a more general principle contained in s. 44. These provisions are of equal importance. Amendments relating with the “internal management” of the Senate fall under s. 44; those that have to do with the Senate’s “role[s] within the federal legislative structure, in particular those of ensuring provincial and regional representation and examining bills with sober second thought,” under s. 42 (par. 34).

Crucially, Parliament cannot get around the entrenchment of s. 42 by legislating so as to leave in place the formal provisions of the Constitution while changing the way it operates in practice. For one thing, this would contradict “the principle of supremacy of the Constitution” (par. 43). For another, it would subvert the compromise that made possible the Patriation of the 1981/82, which, so far as the Senate was concerned, had consisted in kicking the can down the road, and postponing any amendments ― to be effected at some later date pursuant to the new amending formula. Finally, s. 42 must be interpreted in light not only of the legal formalities, but also of the political realities of the constitution:

section 42 cannot be read as reflecting a consensus between the federal and provincial governments in 1982 to preserve the formalism but not the reality with respect to the matters set out therein, including the method of selecting senators. … [W]hat interest would the provinces have had when the Constitution Act, 1982 was adopted to protect a juridical reality that, even then, was inconsistent with political reality?

The political reality is that “the method of selecting Senators,” as it existed in 1982, included no electoral process. “The method of selecting Senators” refers not only to their final appointment by the Governor General, but to the entire process leading to that appointment. That process would be modified by the federal government’s reform project. Therefore that project requires a constitutional amendment.

That amendment need not be unanimously supported by the provinces, however, because it does not affect “the office of the Governor General”. While the Governor General is responsible for the final appointment of the Senators as a matter of law, “[i]n reality, the appointment of senators became the exclusive prerogative of the Prime Minister who was then in office whenever a vacancy occurred” (par. 55). The federal government’s reform project would have affected not the Governor General’s (purely formal) role in the process, but the Prime Minister’s. And “to assimilate an amendment of the powers of the Prime Minister with those of the Governor General for the purposes of paragraph 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would limit Parliament’s powers because of a constitutional convention. Such a limitation does not exist, or at a minimum, does not concern the courts” (par. 58). Conventions exist in a separate, non-justiciable realm. They can be modified by the behaviour of political actors; therefore, a fortiori, they can be modified by statute, without the need for a constitutional amendment.

If this all sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read Fabien Gélinas’s and my paper on “Constitutional Conventions and Senate Reform,” in which we argued that the amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, must be understood in light of the constitutional conventions which determine the practical operation of the constitution. This means, on the one hand, that the “method of selecting Senators” means discretionary decision-making by the Prime Minister and no electoral process, and on the other, that “the office of the Governor General” does not in fact include the power to choose Senators. As a result, the federal government’s reform project comes within the scope of par. 42(1)(b), but not 41(a).

I am very happy with this opinion. I hope that the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the arguments on the federal government’s own Senate reform reference in a few weeks, comes to similar conclusions (and perhaps even spares a few words for us)!

Constitutional Conventions and Senate Reform

Fabien Gélinas and I have written a paper on the (under-appreciated yet crucial) role of constitutional conventions for assessing the constitutionality of the federal government’s plans for reforming the Senate, which are the subject of references now being considered both by the Supreme Court and by the Québec Court of Appeal. (The factums for the Supreme Court reference are available here.) Our paper is now on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Constitutional conventions are of central importance to the operation of the Canadian constitution; the constitution cannot be understood without reference to them. Yet their effect on the constitutionality of the federal government’s successive proposals for reforming the Senate, which aim at making most or all senators elected rather than appointed at the Prime Minister’s discretion as they are now, has not received much attention.

Constitutional conventions are essential to an assessment of the constitutionality of the proposed Senate reform. Although the government’s proposal does not affect formal constitutional provisions, it would change the actual operation of the constitution by subverting the conventions which make the prime minister responsible for senatorial appointments and requires the unelected Senate to yield to the House of Commons.

We argue that he amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, must be interpreted to take these conventions into account. Conventions are underpinned by constitutional principles and are an essential part of the context in which constitutional text must be understood. For the constitution to be a “living tree,” its interpretation must, so far as possible, be consistent with the way it is actually lived. The “method of selecting Senators” and the “powers of the Senate,” which par. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, protects from unilateral amendment by Parliament are not those that exist only on paper, but those of the living constitution. Because the government’s Senate reform proposal would change them, it can only be enacted under par. 42(1)(b). In its present form, it is unconstitutional.

And from our conclusion:

The [Supreme] Court … held that the new amending formula set out in the Constitution Act, 1982 replaced the rules on constitutional amendment that applied before its enactment. But that formula requires interpretation—and in order to be meaningful, its interpretation must also take the conventions of the constitution into account. These conventions, through which the constitution develops, are part of what makes it “a living tree”. No less than the society’s views on, say, equality, they are part of the evolving context that courts must appreciate when interpreting the constitution.

 The amending formula’s provisions relative to the Senate must, therefore, be understood in the context of the conventions that apply to that institution and give life to the relevant constitutional principles. These conventions limit the Senate’s powers and define the way in which its members are chosen, which are protected from unilateral amendment by Parliament. The federal government’s plan for unilateral Senate reform would alter both of these characteristics and is, for this reason, unconstitutional.

The paper is fairly short, and, I hope, fairly readable. We hope that it reaches people involved with the Supreme Court case, so if you are one of them, please take a look at it, and if you know such people, feel free to pass it on to them.

Keeping Judges Busy

The Globe and Mail reports that the federal government will go to the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of its Senate Reform project. Opponents of the reform have dared it to do so for years. They’ll get their wish now. The Supreme Court’s was already asked to rule on Senate reform project once, by Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. The result was Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54―a somewhat vague and inconclusive decision, because the government then did not have a specific reform project, and referred only vague questions to the Court. This time will be different. I won’t comment on the substance of the case just yet, but for those interested in the subject, the text of the bill, as it now stands, is here. And here are the comments of Peter Hogg, the most prominent Canadian constitutionalist, and of Fabien Gélinas, who taught me constitutional law at McGill, on a previous Senate reform bill.

The government also announced today that it will appeal the decision of Québec’s Superior Court in Québec (Procureur général) c. Canada (Procureur général), 2012 QCCS 4202, the gun registry case, which I summarized and commented on last week. As I wrote then, I think that the decision should stand, albeit that Justice Blanchard’s opinion was far from the best that could have been written.

So the government is keeping judges―and lawyers of course, not to mention us humble bloggers―well occupied. Which reminds me: it will be four months tomorrow since Justice Deschamps announced her resignation from the Supreme Court. Since the government likes to keep the courts busy, it should also make sure they are fully staffed.