Against Administrative Supremacy

A response to the “Guest Posts from the West Coast” Series

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Over at Administrative Law Matters, Cristie Ford, Mary Liston, and Alexandra Flynn have published a series of posts critiquing the Supreme Court’s decision in  Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 for what they regard as its departure from the principles of deference to the administrative state that long characterized Canadian administrative law. As we are going to show, this critique reflects a commitment to what Jeffrey Pojanowski describes as “administrative supremacy”, “an unapologetic embrace of the administrative state”. (861)

Yet in our view this critique rests on a distorted representation of the relevant constitutional principles, such as democracy, separation of powers, and the Rule of Law, and of the stakes involved in judicial review. More robust judicial review of administrative decisions ― if indeed that is what Vavilov will lead to, which is not yet clear ― would not cause a dismantling of the administrative state. It should, however, result in an application of the laws enacted by Parliament and the legislatures more in accordance with their terms, which is what the relevant principles, properly understood, require.


Professors Ford, Liston, and Flynn all see Vavilov as a break with a decades-long history of judicial recognition of and deference to the administrative state. Professor Ford writes that “[o]nce upon a time, in the days before the modern administrative state, there was one standard of review for errors of law: correctness”. These pre-historic days ended, however, with a “[g]rudging acknowledgment of administrative tribunals’ jurisdiction, at least in hard cases” in CUPE v NB Liquor Corporation, [1979] 2 SCR 227. Since then, and until Vavilov, the courts would defer to administrative interpretations of law, unless they were unreasonable, perhaps even patently so.

The embrace of deference reflected a certain view of the law, of the institutions of government, and of their relationship with one another. It rested, in Professor Ford’s words, on a “recognition that the rule of law could be a multifaceted, legitimately contestable thing”, part of “a captivating legal pluralist world”. Courts acted with “humility” in the face of “multiple kinds of expertise” embodied by administrative tribunals, accepting “that expertise could even mean knowing what it was like to be the recipient of social benefits”. They also recognized that “administrative tribunals were more diverse and more representative of the population at large than the judiciary was”. For her part, Professor Liston adds that the turn to deference aimed at

realizing the intertwined principles of democracy, parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law; affirming the administrative state as a legitimate fourth branch of government; [and] respecting the separation of powers by minimizing judicial review when the legislature indicates that the decisionmaker has primary jurisdiction to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law in relation to that mandate.

Professors Ford and Liston also both argue that the deferential approach was meant to foster access to justice, but acknowledge that it has ultimately failed to do so. There was too much play in the joints, too many opportunities for argument about the appropriate degree of deference. Judicial review lost its “focus remained on [the] merits” of the cases and became bogged down in “law office metaphysics”, as Professor Liston puts it (citing Justice Binnie).

Vavilov and its companion case Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, however, usher in a radical change. Professor Ford writes that “[t]he velvet glove is off. Vavilov signals a retrenchment by a more assertive, and conservative, Court” (a label that Professor Liston endorses), and that “[w]e are done with letting 1,000 rule of law flowers bloom”. Focusing on Bell (which she describes as “the tell in the shell game that is administrative law”), Professor Liston laments its disregard of administrative expertise, of “the broad grant of discretion” to the CRTC “to make decisions in the public interest that touch on fundamental policy objectives” (reference omitted) and “the democratic and fair process that led to the ultimate decision”, involving protracted consultations and responsive “to the views of ordinary Canadians” who complained to the CRTC about not being able to watch American Super Bowl ads. Instead, Professor Liston sees Bell as having “imported” “political currents from the south”, such as “the libertarian attack on the administrative state”.

As noted above, this view of the administrative state and its relationship with the courts is consistent with Professor Pojanowski’s description of “administrative supremacy”, which

sees the administrative state as a natural, salutary outgrowth of modern governance. In its strongest form, it sees the role of courts and lawyers as limited to checking patently unreasonable exercises of power by the administrative actors who are the core of modern governance. To the extent that durable, legal norms are relevant, the primary responsibility for implementing them in administrative governance falls to executive officials, who balance those norms’ worth against other policy goals. (861)


In our view, the administrative supremacist critique of Vavilov and Bell suffers from two fundamental flaws. On the one hand, the principles on which administrative law rests, and which it purports to apply, do not mean what administrative supremacists think or say they do. On the other, a rejection of administrative supremacy does not necessarily lead to the dismantling of the administrative state, supremacists scare-mongering to the contrary notwithstanding.

Start with the principles. The administrative supremacist view is that democracy is at least equally, if not better, embodied in the decisions of administrative tribunals as in legislation enacted by Parliament or legislatures. For one thing, tribunals are acting pursuant to a mandate from the legislatures. For another, the administrative process itself can be characterized as democratic, as the CRTC’s is in Professor Liston’s post.

Yet it simply isn’t the case that a decision actually made by an appointed official, or even a group of officials, is democratic in the same way as a statute debated and enacted by an elected assembly ― even if the assembly itself gave away its decision-making power to the officials in question. To give an extreme example, if Parliament contented itself with simply delegating its full law-making powers to the Prime Minister, we would not, I hope, regard this as a democratic arrangement, even if it may be legal. Somewhat less extreme but more real and just as undemocratic, the recent briefly-mooted plan to delegate plenary taxing power to the federal government was undemocratic too, and would have been undemocratic even if rubber-stamped by a Parliament content to abdicate its responsibility.

And the possibility of public input into an administrative decision offers no more than a partial correction to the problem. This input need not be in any sense representative of “the views of ordinary Canadians”; it is much more likely to be driven by a small group of motivated activists or rent-seeking economic actors, as the “capture” era of American administrative law demonstrates. Besides, even if the CRTC’s decision-making follows a process that could be described, however precariously, as “democratic”, not all administrative decision-makers operate this way. Consider “line decision-makers”, many of whom follow minimal process before reaching their decisions. Vavilov’s reasoning requirements will likely change what these officials do going forward, but the rank administrative discretion they exercise is not in any sense “democratic” on its own; it can only said to be so by virtue of the delegated power that the decision-makers exercise—nothing more or less.

Administrative supremacy similarly distorts the meaning of separation of powers. While Professor Ford, to her credit, associates this principle with the view that “[t]he courts’ role is to police the executive’s exercise of authority”, Professor Liston writes of “the administrative state as a legitimate fourth branch of government” and considers that separation of powers requires “minimizing judicial review when the legislature indicates that the decisionmaker has primary jurisdiction to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law in relation to that mandate”.

Separation of powers is, to be sure, a slippery and complicated idea, but there is, at its core, the Madisonian view that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”, and further “that each department should have a will of its own”. The administrative “fourth branch” exists precisely to subvert the distinctions between the other three, accumulating in its hands the ability to make policy, execute its decisions, and decide disputes about them. This subversion is compounded by arguments to the effect that the courts can have their core function of saying what the law is taken away from them by legislatures, and that they must defer to legal interpretations propounded by the “fourth branch”, so as to have no will of their own. While Canadian law probably permits the delegation of significant powers to the administrative state, there is a major risk in concentrating these powers. This is why the courts must ensure that administrative decision-makers only exercise those powers actually delegated to them, for the purposes for which they have been granted.

Moreover, the mere fact of delegation does not speak to the intensity of review a court should apply. While the Vavilov Court adopts a presumption of reasonableness based solely on the fact of delegation, this must be considered an organizing default rule that is a product of compromise ― it cannot be defended on the grounds that there is a principled link between delegation and deference. Indeed, the political science literature holds that legislatures may delegate for any number of reasons, none of which have to do with what a court should do on review. Better for a court, in our view, to review the legality of an exercise of administrative power de novo, at least absent some signal from a legislature that it intends deferential review (Vavilov, at [110], outlines some of these signals well).

Last but not least, administrative supremacy embraces a highly misleading view of the Rule of Law. Its proponents suggest that the Rule of Law is possible in ― indeed, that the better understanding of the Rule of Law requires ― a legal environment when legislation has no settled meanings dispassionately elucidated and consistently applied by independent courts. Recycling (and magnifying tenfold) a Maoist metaphor, they would have “1,000 rule of law flowers bloom”, as Professor Ford puts it.

Yet on any serious account of the Rule of Law stable, clear rules, consistently applied so as to create a predictable legal environment, are the heart of this concept. So is the idea that government power is limited by these rules. Judicial control over the meaning of legal rules and over government’s compliance with them is not an ideological caprice, but a necessary corollary of the principle. Only the courts ― not administrative decision-makers subject to control by the executive and invested with an explicit policy-making mission ― are sufficiently independent and can be committed to keeping the government within legal boundaries, as Dicey notes in his Law and Public Opinion. Abstract legal pluralism is, to us, no substitute for the legal certainty which the Rule of Law requires and to the maintenance of which the courts are essential.

And, as far as that point goes, there is another problem with the administrative supremacist argument as it pertains to the Rule of Law. In Professors Liston and Ford’s posts in particular, we see the classic supremacist argument from pluralism and expertise. Encompassed in this ideal is the idea of a “culture of justification” in which expertise could be brought to bear by administrative decision-makers in the reasons justifying administrative action. But there are limits to these principles that Professor Liston does not acknowledge. For one, expertise is not a legal reason for deference. It may be, as Professor Daly notes, an epistemic reason for deference, but what is the legal rationale for a court to abdicate its reviewing function under the Rule of Law in the name of alleged expertise?

Even as an epistemic reason for expertise, the presumption of expertise for all administrative decision-makers, which Professor Liston seems to tacitly endorse, was never justified as a matter of first principle. Indeed, as the Vavilov Court notes, it was impossible to distinguish matters over which administrators were expert from those where they were not. As we know in the prison context, in immigration law, and beyond, decision-makers’ claims to expertise, especially in legal or constitutional interpretation, can be exaggerated or outright unfounded. To give up on the role of the courts in enforcing legal boundaries in the name of unproven assertions of expertise is, in our view, contrary to the Rule of Law.

Our second objection to the administrative supremacist argument can be dealt with more briefly. An administrative law that rejects administrative supremacy and gives effect to the principle of the Rule of Law, properly understood, does not entail the demolition of the administrative state. (For one of us, this is a matter of considerable regret, but it is true all the same.) The administrative state exists in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand, where courts insist on their role of policing the boundaries of its authority, largely without deferring to its legal interpretations. The approach there is summarized in Lord Diplock’s words in the GCHQ case, Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service, [1985] AC 374:

the decision-maker must understand correctly the law that regulates his decision-making power and must give effect to it. Whether he has or not is par excellence a justiciable question to be decided, in the event of dispute, by those persons, the judges, by whom the judicial power of the state is exercisable.

This approach would not prevent the delegation by Parliament or the legislatures of discretionary or adjudicative authority to administrative agencies and tribunals. It would mean, however, that these agencies and tribunals must give effect to the laws that give them their powers and to the general law of the land, rather than to their preferred policies and predilections.

To take up Professor Liston’s example, the CRTC’s view that it would be a good idea to impose some requirement on those subject to its licensing authority does not exhaust the question of its authority to impose this requirement. The question is whether the CRTC actually has this authority, because Parliament has granted it. The administrative state can exist if Parliament or a legislature has willed it into existence. But democracy and separation of powers, no less than the Rule of Law, should lead to the conclusion that the administrative state, and its powers, exist only to the extent that they have been willed into existence, and that their bootstrapping claims deserve scrutiny by the judiciary.

In part, disagreement about deference comes down to how one ought to conceptualize the administrative state. For Professors Liston and Ford in particular, the administrative supremacist view leads to the conclusion that administrative power is to be encouraged; that administrators all have something valuable to say about the law; that a Dyzenhausian view of “deference as respect” best encapsulates the role of courts vis-à-vis administrative actors. We view this as a decidedly Panglossian view of the administrative state. A basic deceit at the core of Canadian administrative law is the tendency for observers to concentrate on the tribunals that best demonstrate, to these observers anyway, the virtue of the administrative state: labour boards and the CRTC, for example. The harder question is what to think of administrative actors that do not fit this mould.

In this respect, Professor Liston and Ford put forward an old view of administrative law that dates back at least to the 1930s and the New Deal ― which is not a good time from which to borrow ideas. A 21st century version of administrative law must contend with the growth of the administrative state into the licensing state, the exclusionary state, and the carceral state; incarnations of the state that, due to a lack of expertise or otherwise, may not be owed respect under the benevolent standards of review Professor Liston wants. Adopting general language of “pluralism” and “expertise” masks the real work: how to legitimize administrative power that is not characterized by the functional reasons for deference, as in Vavilov itself.

Again, this is not an ideological quirk. With respect, we find puzzling the claims that Vavilov is the work of a “conservative” court influenced by “libertarian” “political currents”. Six of the seven members of the Vavilov majority signed the “by the Court” judgment in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, [2018] 1 SCR 342; three were also in the five-judge majority in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 S.C.R. 293. However one might describe these judgments, conservative, let alone libertarian, they were not. People of all persuasions should be concerned about the scope of administrative power, no less than that of legislatures or, say, police forces. And if sometimes this rebounds to the benefit of those actuated by the profit motive, we do not think this is as sinister a possibility as Professor Liston seems to find it.


All in all, we differ from the defenders of administrative supremacy in one fundamental respect. The principles at play—democracy, separation of powers, and the Rule of Law—are not licenses to justify administrative power. Instead, they are properly viewed as constraints on that power. Vavilov was right to reject justifications other than legislative delegation for administrative power, and to insist on meaningful scrutiny of the compliance of the exercise of this power with its legislative warrant. For better or for worse, this will not undermine the administrative state, but the reminder that administrative power is something to be constrained using ordinary legal tools, not unleashed in service of the bureaucratically determined common good, is a salutary one.

Making a Monster

A report on the future regulation of the internet proposes giving the CRTC overwhelming and unaccountable powers

The final report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, grandly entitled Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act (the “BTLR Report”) has already attracted its share of commentary, much of it, but by no means all, sharply critical. As Michael Geist has explained, the report articulates

a vision of a highly regulated Internet in which an expanded CRTC … would aggressively assert its jurisdictional power over Internet sites and services worldwide with the power to levy massive penalties for failure to comply with its regulatory edicts. 

The discussion has mostly focused on the wisdom of the BTLR Report’s 97 recommendations for regulating the way in which Canadians engage with the online world, and also on their impact on freedom of expression. But one aspect of the report ― indeed, not merely an aspect but a fundamental element of the report’s underlying philosophy ― has, I think, received less attention, although Professor Geist alludes to it with his reference to “an expanded CRTC”: the report’s commitment to administrative power. This is, perhaps, a less obvious issue, but we should not underestimate its significance. If followed, the report’s recommendations would not merely expand the CRTC, but make into a bureaucratic behemoth. We must not let this happen.


The BTLR Report recommends multiple amendments to the legislation governing electronic communications in Canada that would tend to produce the “highly regulated internet” to which Professor Geist refers. Yet the striking thing is that most of the proposed changes do not describe the regulations that they call for with any precision. Instead, they say that the CRTC should be given vast powers to bring into being the report’s imagined brave new world.

The CRTC would be givens new powers to make rules of general application. Most ominously, it would be given the ability to regulate “media content undertakings” ― that is, all manner of entities creating their own content, whether written, sound-based, or visual, as well as those providing platforms for the content created by others, everything from a humble podcast to giants like Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube. These “undertakings” would be required to register with the CRTC, which would be

enable[d] … to establish classes of registrants, to amend registrations, and impose requirements — whether through conditions of registration or through regulations — on registrants (Recommendation 57)

These requirements could, in particular, include “codes of conduct, including provisions with respect to resolution mechanisms, transparency, privacy, and accessibility”. (Recommendation 74) At the same time, the CRTC would be given

the power to exempt any media content undertaking or classes of media content undertakings from registration in instances in which — by virtue of its specialized content or format, revenues, or otherwise — regulation is neither necessary nor appropriate to achieve media content policy objectives. (Recommendation 58)

In other words, the CRTC would decide ― with virtually no guidance from legislation ― both what the rules for “media content undertakings” would be an who would in fact have to comply with them at all. In particular it would be to

impose discoverability obligations on all audio or audiovisual entertainment media content undertakings, as it deems appropriate, including …  prominence obligations [and] the obligation to offer Canadian media content choices(Recommendation 62). 

The CRTC could impose similar requirements on “on media aggregation and media sharing undertakings” ― again “as appropriate” (Recommendation 73). The CRTC would also be directed to “intervene, if necessary … in order to respond quickly to changes in the communications services, improve transparency, and promote trust” in the face of technologies that “combine algorithms and artificial intelligence with Big Data” (Recommendation 93).

The CRTC would also be empowered, and indeed required, to regulate behaviour of individual market actors. It would be given the remit “to ensure that rates are just and reasonable” in “key electronic communications markets” (Recommendation 29). Indeed, in a rare instance of seeking to restrain rather than expand the CRTC’s discretion, the BTLR Report suggests that the ability of the CRTC to “forbear” from regulating the justness of rates should be eliminated (Recommendation 30). The CRTC would also be given the power to “regulate economic relationships between media content undertakings and content producers, including terms of trade” (Recommendation 61). In relation to CBC/Radio-Canada, the CRTC would be tasked with “overseeing all its content-related activities” (Recommendation 83).

But the report would not only have the CRTC make the law for the online world. It would also be given a substantial autonomous power of the purse. It would be given the power to designate “from an expanded range of market participants — all providers of electronic communications services — … required contributors to funds to ensure access to advanced telecommunications”. (Recommendation 25) Among the requirements the CRTC would be able to impose on those required to register … would be “the payment of registration fees” (Recommendation 57). It could, further, “impose spending requirements or levies on all media content undertakings, except those” mainly providing written news (Recommendation 61), “some or all” of which it could use to fund “to the production of news content” through “an independent, arm’s length CRTC-approved fund for the production of news, including local news on all platforms” (Recommendation 71).

The CRTC would acquire additional adjudicative powers too. For example, Recommendation 38 suggests that it should resolve disputes over the location of telecommunication infrastructure. More significantly, it would be both prosecutor and judge when “imposing penalties for any failure to comply with the terms and conditions of registration” imposed on “media content undertakings” (Recommendation 57), with “resolv[ing] disputes” among which it would also be tasked (Recommendation 61). Not that this adjudication would necessarily look like that done in the courts, since the BTLR Report would empower the CRTC “to issue ex parte decisions where the circumstances of the case justify it”. (Recommendation 75)

The prophet of the administrative state in Canada, John Willis, described administrative agencies as “governments in miniature”. One hesitates to describe the law-making, trade-regulating, money-grabbing CRTC envisioned by the BTLR Report as in any sense miniature, but it sure looks like a government unto itself, albeit a rather undemocratic one. In addition to the Commissioners who would exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers, it would have a sort of representative body, the Public Interest Committee, “composed of not more than 25 individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and experience representing the diversity of public, civic, consumer, and small business interests, and including Indigenous Peoples”. (Recommendation 15) It’s not quite clear who would be appointing these people, but it certainly does not seem that, despite their supposed mandate to represent the public, they would be elected. Not to worry though: there would also be funding, out of fees collected by the CRTC, for “public interest interventions” (Recommendations 12 and 13), in case, I suppose, the Public Interest Committee doesn’t sufficiently intervene to represent the public interest. And, in addition to the prosecutorial and judicial functions of the Commissioners, there would be

an independent, industry-funded, communications consumer complaints office with the authority to investigate and resolve complaints from individual and small business retail customers of services covered by the respective Acts,

whose “mandate and structure” the CRTC would “create and approve” (Recommendation 96).

Meanwhile, outside control over this machinery will be be reduced. The Commissioners, who are currently appointed to renewable five-year terms, would instead serve for seven years, with no possibility of renewal (Recommendation 4). A limited form of Parliamentary supervision, the laying of government “directions” to the CRTC before the Houses of Parliament would be abolished in the interests of swift regulation (Recommendation 6). And, of course, given the vagueness of the legislative guidance to the CRTC and the breadth of its mandate, it is unlikely that the courts would intervene much to police its regulatory activities.

To sum up, the CRTC would be put in control, with very few restraints, of Canadians’ interaction with the online world, and with one another. Who can speak online and on what conditions ― the CRTC would have control over that. How much they have to pay for the privilege, and where the money goes ― the CRTC would have control over that. How disputes among them, and between them and the CRTC itself, are to be resolved ― the CRTC would have control over that too. The only “checks” on it would come from handpicked representatives of the “public interest” as the CRTC itself conceives it ― not from Parliament or the courts.


The empowerment of the CRTC proposed by the BTLR Report is, of course, no accident. It proceeds from a specific philosophy of government, which the Report describes quite forthrightly. According to its authors,

The role of government is to establish broad policies. The role of regulators is to implement those policies through specific rules and in a transparent and predictable fashion. Legislation is the key instrument through which government establishes these policies. It should provide sufficient guidance to assist the CRTC in the discharge of its duties, but sufficient flexibility for it to operate independently in deciding how to implement sector policy. To achieve this, legislative statements of policy should set out broadly framed objectives and should not be overly prescriptive. (46-47)

In other words, government ― Parliament is left out of the equation entirely, as if it has nothing to do with legislation ― should mostly leave the CRTC alone. Indeed, it is important to preserve “proper balance between the government’s role in policymaking and the regulator’s role in implementing those policies independent of government influence”. (47) And, judging by the amount discretion ― to make law and dictate the behaviour of individual organizations, to levy fees and spend money, to identify, prosecute, and condemn alleged offenders and to adjudicate disputes ― the BTLR Report would vest in the CRTC, the “balance” is really all on the side of the regulator.

This is the philosophy the BTLR Report would impose on the 2020s and, perhaps, beyond. It ostensibly envisions “the CRTC’s shift toward a future-oriented, proactive, and data-driven style of regulation”. (44) But its ideology comes, not from the future, but from a distant and, as article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” by Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson about which I blogged here shows, detestable past. As Professors Calabresi and Lawson explain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s

administration and a compliant Congress created a vast array of new “expert” regulatory agencies, many of which followed the “independent” model by insulating the agency heads from at-will presidential removal, and many of which contained (and still contain) statutory authorizations to the agencies so vague as to be literally meaningless. … These agencies, controlled neither by the President nor by Congress, made life-altering decisions of both fact and law subject only to deferential judicial
review. (829)

This is the governance model proposed by the BTLR Report. Its original backers

fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and
should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions. They believed instead that there were “experts”—the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls—who should administer the administrative state as freely as possible from control by representative political institutions. (829)

(For more on the beliefs of 1930s pro-administrativists, see also this post by co-blogger Mark Mancini.) Judging by their proposals, the views of the authors of the BTLR Report are rooted in just this kind of thinking. They mistrust the free market as well as democratic institutions, and want fundamental decisions about what is, by their own account, an unbelievably important part of our lives to be made by officials deemed wiser than everyone else.

And if the philosophy behind the BTLR Report’s proposed future goes back a mere century, its institutional vision is considerably older still. In fact, at the risk of sounding a bit like Philip Hamburger (which, after all, isn’t a bad thing!) I would argue that it amounts to a counter-revolution against the 17th-century subjection of executive authority to law, and a reversal of the the post-1689 constitutional settlement. To be sure, everything the BTLR Report proposes to do would be covered by the fig leaf of ― deliberately vague and unconstraining ― legislative authority. But in substance, the proposals amount to executive law-making contrary to the Case of Proclamations, executive dispension from the law contrary to article 2 of the Bill of Rights 1688, executive adjudication contrary to the case of Prohibitions del Roy, and executive taxation contrary, this time, to article 4 of the Bill of Rights. James I and James II would be proud.


So when we hear that “this time it’s different” ― that the online world is like nothing we’ve seen before ― that its actors “pose a unique set of challenges for contemporary regulators”, as Paul Daly argues ― and that this justifies the sort of overwhelming regulatory response recommended by the BTLR Report, we need to be skeptical. For all that the issues raised by the modern world are ― now as a century ago! ― said to be quite unlike anything that came before, the solutions offered are the same old. More unfettered bureaucratic power is always said to do the trick. When all you have is a hammer…

More recently, a very different philosophy seemed, however briefly, to prevail in the online world. In the 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“, John Perry Barlow proclaimed:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The Declaration isn’t much more remembered than the term “cyberspace” itself, nowadays, and the weary giants whom Barlow was taunting have come after the cyber-libertarians like Pushkin’s Stone Guest. If the authors of the BTLR Report get their way, the we would indeed be governed, to keep with the 17th century English political thought, by Leviathan himself.


NOTE: A petition to “the Government of Canada to Reject the recommendations regarding the legislation and regulation of free speech, free expression and the free press made by the” BTLR Report is open for signature at the House of Commons website. Please sign it!

No Way to Make Law

The legislative process is being disgracefully abused in Ontario. Constitutional lawyers need to pay attention.

I wanted to write a post about those anti-carbon tax stickers the Ontario government wants to require gas stations to post. I will, eventually, get around to writing that post, I hope. Spoiler alert: I don’t like the idea of the Ontario government telling people what to say. Anyway, before I get around to a post detailing my objections to the substance of this policy, I need to write this one, which is about process by which the anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is being made into law. This process is disgusting, and I think we (by which I mean Canadian lawyers, especially Canadian lawyers interested in the constitution, and other members of the public interested in law and governance) need to be much more upset about it than I think we are.

The anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is set out in sub-clause 2(1) of the Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, Schedule 23 to Bill 100, Protecting What Matters Most Act (Budget Measures), 2019. Yes gentle reader, Schedule 23. Schedule 23 out of 61, that is. A great many things matter in the province of Ontario, one must surmise, and need protecting. The “Explanatory Note”, which provides anyone who can be bothered to read it an overview of the 61 statutes being amended or introduced by Bill 100, alone runs to more than 9000 words, or 13 dense pages of small print. And this is not because it is unduly detailed; on the contrary, in some cases, it contents itself with setting out “some highlights” of the amendments or new legislation being implemented. The actual legislation runs to about 81,000 words ― the length of a PhD dissertation. I think it is a safe bet that no one will ever bother reading that.

Among the threescore statutes concerned, a solid majority have little to do with the budget, as one would, I think, understand this word. There is the Bees Act, for instance, amended “to expand the method of delivering inspectors’ orders” made pursuant to some of its provisions; there is a new Combative Sports Act, 2019, which regulates ― so far as I can tell from its (perhaps inevitably, though I’m not sure) convoluted definitions provisions ― boxing, wrestling, and the like; there is the Courts of Justice Act, amended in relation to the publication of the Ontario Judicial Council’s reports and also to limit some civil jury trial rights; there is new legislation on Crown liability (which has received some harsh criticism); there are important changes to the Juries Act (which have actually come in for some praise); there is, of course, the gas station sticker legislation; and much, much, more, right up to some not doubt vitally important amendments to the Vital Statistics Act.

There is, so far as I can tell, no reason having anything to do with good government why these statutes need to be amended or enacted as a block, as part of a package of budget matters. Stephen Harper once had his “five priorities”, and though these were inevitably much derided, one could claim with a modicum of plausibility that a new government might focus on, say, those five things. Anyone who actually thinks that “combative sports”, carbon tax stickers, vital statistics, and 58 other things are all “what matters most” would be well advised to run, not walk, to the nearest psychiatrist’s office. (I say so without worrying for Ontario psychiatrists; they are unlikely to be burdened with many such visitors.) But of course, the reasons enact this legislative blob likely have nothing to do with good governance.

And this is where it’s time to drop the snark, and get serious ― and constitutional. In abstract separation of powers theory, the legislature is supposed to make law (except in those areas where it has delegated this power to the government, or left it to the courts; these are, of course, significant exceptions). In all the constitutional practice of all Westminster-type systems, so far as I know, the government dominates the legislative agenda. It mostly decides which statutes get in enacted and when. Still, the legislature has a distinctive role to play. For one thing, it is where legislation is debated, and debate might have some symbolic democratic value even if votes are ultimately whipped and their outcome is not in question. And for another, the process of committee study is what allows a detailed consideration of the proposed legislation, and also public submissions on it, and perhaps amendments to improve the proposal.

A government that cared about good governance would value this process. It might ultimately force its bills through, but it would at least be open to the idea that they might be improved, at the level of detail if not of principle, by input from backbenchers, members of the opposition, and members of the civil society. By contrast, a government that doesn’t care about good governance, and is only interested in getting its way as expeditiously as possible will see the legislative process, even one whose outcomes it is ultimately able to control, as a nuisance or, at best, as a needless formality. In either case, it will endeavour to deny the legislature the ability to play any other role than that of an extension of the government itself.

A government of the latter sort has a variety of means at its disposal. The amalgamation of multiple unrelated bills in a giant package, which drastically limits, perhaps to nothing, the extent to which each of them can be separately debated and studied is one of these means. Both Mr. Harper’s government and Justin Trudeau’s have been criticized for using and abusing this technique. Bill 100 is not exactly new in embodying it. But it should not be regarded as any less shocking despite this. By amalgamating 61 mostly disparate pieces of legislation, it prevents the legislature from properly considering them ― including those among them, like the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act, 2019 for example, that will become really substantial and very important statutes in their own right, as well as those, like the carbon tax sticker legislation, that have obvious, and ominous, implications for constitutional rights and freedoms. Bill 100 thus demonstrates nothing short of contempt for both good governance and the distinct constitutional role of the legislature. It is, as I have already said, disgusting and outrageous.

We have become inured to violations of what is sometimes described as legislative due process. As lawyers, we tend inevitably to focus our attention and energy where our expertise can make an obvious difference, in coming up with and then pursuing through the courts arguments about why the legislative end-product might be unconstitutional and therefore not law at all. I think this is understandable, inevitable to some extent, and perhaps even not always a bad thing. Still, by not thinking about the way laws are made, we let those who make them get away with the procedural equivalent of bloody murder.

This cannot go on. Those who take a benign view of legislatures and want to celebrate legislative engagement with constitutional issues need to get to grips with the reality of broken legislatures that act as rubber-stamps for executives that despise them. Those who, like me, are wary of legislatures and insist on the courts having a robust role in enforcing constitutional rights and other restrictions against them must nevertheless pay attention to what the legislatures are up to ― all the more so since we are more likely than our friends to take an appropriately skeptical view of the matter. But skepticism may not become indifference. We, along with the legislatures’ fans, with whom we can make peace for this purpose, need to get serious about making sure that our laws are made in a decent way ― and not in the way Ontario is making its laws right now.

Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Dealing with Delegation

Thoughts on a proposal for a judicial crackdown on the delegation of law-making powers to the executive

The explosive growth of legislation made by various government departments, boards, and other entities ― rather than enacted by Parliament, as legislation ought to be on the orthodox understanding of separation of powers ― is quite likely the most understudied aspect of contemporary constitutions, in Canada and elsewhere. In “Reassessing the Constitutional Foundation of Delegated Legislation in Canada“, an article that will be published in the Dalhousie Law Journal and is now available on SSRN, Lorne Neudorf sets out to shed light on and proposes means of reining in delegated legislation ― that is, rules made by the executive branch of government pursuant to a legislative authorization, often a very vague one. It is a worthwhile endeavour from which we have much to learn, even though Professor Neudorf’s arguments, and some of his recommendations, strike me as just as problematic, in their own way, as the phenomenon he criticizes.

* * *

This phenomenon’s importance is out of all proportion to the attention it receives. Professor Neudorf notes that “[b]y volume, delegated legislation is made at a rate of nearly 5-to-1 as compared to primary legislation”. (3) Yet the text of the constitution seems to say nothing at all about the executive being able to make law. On the contrary, the Constitution Act, 1867, endows Parliament and provincial legislatures with “exclusive” law-making powers. Still, the courts have recognized that the legislative bodies are able to mandate the executive to make rules having the force of law, and indeed even rules that override the provisions of laws enacted by legislatures. This, Professor Neudorf argues, is a mistake that needs to be reversed.

Professor Neudorf traces the mistake to a misguided introduction into Canadian constitutional law of orthodox, Diceyan, notions of Parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that “Parliament can make or unmake any law whatever” has always been out of place in a federation, where the Dominion Parliament and provincial legislatures were always subject to limits on their powers. In any event, the enactment of “[t]he Charter” in 1982 “cemented the location of Canadian sovereignty in the Constitution as opposed to a single lawmaking institution”. (9) Judicial decisions emphasizing the plenitude of legislative powers (subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution Act, 1867)

should be understood as less about transplanting a robust vision of parliamentary sovereignty into Canada and more about the courts prodding along and encouraging the development of new country with a distinct identity. (9)

Yet the leading precedents on the scope of Canadian legislatures’ ability to delegate its legislative powers to the executive, notably In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150, recognize no obvious limits on delegation. In Gray, Chief Justice Fitzpatrick held that, since no limitation on delegation was expressed in the Constitution Act, 1867, “within reasonable limits at any rate [Parliament] can delegate its powers to the executive government” (157) ― provided that it be able to terminate and resume the powers it temporarily cedes. Professor Neudorf argues that sweeping delegation of the kind at issue in Gray “might not be viewed as reasonable outside the context of an exceptional national security threat”, (16) but the subsequent cases did not elaborate on the constraints that this reasonableness requirement might impose.

Professor Neudorf insists that Gray rests on a “narrow and technical interpretation of the Constitution”, an “outmoded interpretive approach”, (18) long superseded by “living tree” constitutional interpretation. Applying this approach, the courts ought to

engage with how the Constitution sees Parliament: as a key part of the basic constitutional architecture: possessing democratic, representative and accountable qualities, and the key player in bringing together different constituencies to formulate national policy and resolve pressing questions facing the country as a whole. (23)

Delegation imperils Parliament’s position, envisioned by John A. Macdonald, as the constitutional cornerstone. It hands law-making over to persons and bodies that are not representative and often operate behind the thick veil of cabinet secrecy. Delegation also undermines the Rule of Law (which provides additional reasons to favour transparent lawmaking) and the separation of powers.

Therefore, Professor Neudorf proposes a number of ways of curtailing the use of delegation. To begin with,

courts should adopt a stricter interpretation of statutory provisions that delegate lawmaking power and strengthen the rigour of the vires review of regulations to overcome the current weaknesses that allow for the delegation of broad powers through generic words and exceptionally wide latitude for the exercise of delegated power. (30)

If Parliament wants to delegate broad legislative powers, courts ought to make it say so very clearly ― especially if these powers are meant to be exercised retroactively, punitively, or in a manner that is at odds with the Charter. Courts should also drop their deference to the executive’s interpretation of its authority to enact delegated legislation. Nothing less than constitutional principle compels this change of approach, which “will better safeguard Parliament’s constitutional role and give effect to the principle of legality and the rule of law”. (32) But sometimes, the courts should go further still:

when generic words are used in enabling legislation, which are incapable of intelligent qualification by the text, context or purpose of the statute, the court should hold the grant of authority invalid on the basis that it is impermissibly vague. (33)

Indeed, the grant of authority ought to be “narrower than the general purposes of the legislation, with some specificity for the kinds of regulations contemplated”. (33)

Professor Neudorf’s other set of proposals concerns the process by which regulations are reviewed in Parliament. He calls on Parliament to take its inspiration from the review systems that exist in the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf describes in some detail), and look into both the delegation provisions of bills as they are enacted, and the already existing regulations that may be flawed or ineffective. But here too, Professor Neudorf envisions a role for the judiciary:

If needed, a court may issue a declaration of the constitutional obligation as the impetus for Parliament to take the necessary action. In an extreme case where the scrutiny system is totally ineffective, the court may seek to enforce this constitutional obligation by holding inadequately scrutinized regulations as legally ineffective. (40)

Professor Neudorf concludes that, while the delegation of some legislative powers is desirable and necessary, and particular bodies (such as the legislatures of territories) can be quite different from the ordinary executive delegates, reform ― and judicial intervention to implement it ― is constitutionally justified and necessary.

* * *

I have mixed feelings about Professor Neudorf’s article. It addresses a real problem that deserves much more attention than it usually receives. I agree to a large extent both with the values underlying Professor Neudorf argument (notably, the empowerment of legislative institutions and the limitation of the power of the unaccountable executive) and with his specific proposals, as I shall explain. But, as noted at the outset, I think that the way in which Professor Neudorf makes his case, and indeed some aspects of his proposals, which follow from his approach to constitutional law, are deeply problematic.

Let me begin with the bad, to finish on a more positive note. Professor Neudorf’s general approach is an excellent illustration of what I recently described as “constitutionalism from the cave“:

On this view, the Canadian constitution … is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts; it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution.

Professor Neudorf refuses to attach any real consequence to the constitutional text’s apparent silence on the question of delegation; on the contrary, he chides the Gray court for having done so, declaring this an “outmoded” way of doing constitutional law. Professor Neudorf argues that, regardless of what the text says or doesn’t say, the courts should implement the ideal conception of Parliament and of its place in a democratically accountable system of government. As I explained, this amounts to a license for the courts to re-write the constitution, in defiance of its own provisions, which quite clearly do not contemplate its amendment by the judiciary.

The fact that I am sympathetic to the policy objectives that this re-writing would be designed to achieve is irrelevant; it’s illegitimate all the same. Professor Neudorf’s appeal to the so-called “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), to prove otherwise ― to show that good courts re-write constitutions to suit their policy preferences ― fails resoundingly. He faults the Supreme Court in that case for having been uninterested “in the question of the desirability of women Senators” (18) and believing that “giving meaning to the Constitution was a simple and neutral exercise in statutory interpretation”. (19) Yet Lord Sankey, whose opinion for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council Professor Neudorf extols, similarly insisted the case did not involve “any question as to the rights of women”. (DLR 107) Lord Sankey’s opinion, as, for example, I have argued here, is a master class in statutory interpretation techniques ― not a policy judgment about the desirability of women Senators. And Professor Neudorf’s invocation of the wishes of John A. Macdonald ― odd in an article otherwise extolling living constitutionalism, but of a piece with the strategic (mis)use of original intent originalism by Canadian legal academics that co-blogger Mark Mancini described here ― is no more convincing. Macdonald was interested in the federal division of powers, not the question of delegation.

In short, I don’t think that Professor Neudorf succeeds in justifying the role he sees for the judiciary in implementing his more far-reaching proposals. A more robust judicial review of the vires of delegated legislation, including by the application of the principle of legality (which prevents the executive from trespassing on constitutional and common law rights without clear authorization by the legislature) only requires the courts to abandon their absurdly deferential, pro-regulatory posture. But it is much more difficult to make the case for the courts’ power to nullify vague delegations. (I don’t know whether this is impossible, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Professor Neudorf appeals to the doctrine developed under the Charter for determining whether a limitation of a constitutional right is “prescribed by law”. This is not satisfactory, because the courts have tended to treat even vague laws as sufficiently clear, and even more so because the Charter‘s requirements simply do not apply unless one of the rights it protects is at stake. And as for the idea that courts can order Parliament how to structure its review of regulations ― suffice it to say that it creates much greater separation of powers problems than it is likely to solve, and undermines the very autonomy and authority of Parliament as a democratic decision-making body that Professor Neudorf seeks to restore.

Behind the embrace of constitutionalism from the cave is a belief, which I think is not only misguided but also counterproductive, that supreme constitutional law must have an answer to any and all constitutional concerns. Professor Neudorf is quite right to characterize the rise of delegated legislation as a constitutional issue. But it simply does not follow that it is an issue that the courts must be able to fully address. As the experience of polities such as the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf cites as a model!) and New Zealand reminds us, it is possible to think intelligently about the constitution that is not supreme law at all. Indeed, these polities often pay much closer attention to the governance aspects of their constitutions than does Canada. Instead of calling on the courts to twist and stretch our supreme constitutional law, undermining their own commitment to the Rule of Law and indeed their credibility as impartial constitutional arbiters in the process, we should emulate these polities’ commitment to getting the constitution right as a matter of ordinary law and political process.

Professor Neudorf’s recommendations will, mostly, be very helpful in this regard. Greater judicial vigilance in reviewing the legality of the executive’s exercise of its delegated legislative powers is essential ― and it need not rest on dubious appeals to living tree interpretation. The principle of the Rule of Law, as developed by Canadian courts at least as far back as in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, means that the executive’s authority, even if delegated by the legislature in ostensibly, indeed ostentatiously, broad terms, cannot be unlimited, and that the courts are not only authorized, but required to ensure that the executive doesn’t overstep the bounds of this delegation. Professor Neudorf is right to be concerned that Canadian courts are in serious danger of abdicating this responsibility. Recent decisions which he does not mention, notably West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, provide further demonstration of this point, as I argued here and here. The Supreme Court appears to see no issue what it described in West Fraser as “broad and unrestricted delegation of power”. This needs to change.

Professor Neudorf is also right to call for the development of Parliamentary procedures for the review of regulations. I wonder if the smaller number of parliamentarians in Canada in comparison with the UK might be an obstacle to copying the British system of three Select Committees devoted to the study of subordinate legislation (and the problem would, of course, be even more pressing in much smaller and unicameral provincial legislatures), but even if the UK system cannot be perfectly emulated in Canada, it seems to offer a source of inspiration if not a model for imitation.

* * *

To repeat, it is a mistake to think that judicially enforceable supreme  law must have a solution to every constitutional problem. Yet the problem Professor Neudorf identifies is real. Precisely because supreme law may be unable to help us, it is important to get ordinary law and legislative process right. Judicial review and parliamentary procedure might be less glamorous than what Canadians usually think of as constitutional law. Yet Professor Neudorf’s article should be taken as a reminder that these are properly constitutional preoccupations, and that Canadian constitutional lawyers ought to devote more of their energies to them than to the development of exotic theories about what the ideal Canadian constitution would look like.

Judge Kopf on Mandatory Minimums

At his blog Hercules and the Umpire, Richard G. Kopf, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, has a fascinating post on mandatory minimum sentences, which I would urge anyone who has been following the Canadian debate about them to read. (Indeed, this is the rare occasion on which you should read the discussion in the comments.) Judge Kopf is generally critical of mandatory minimums as a policy matter, but his views are nuanced. In particular, they call into question the argument against mandatory minimum sentences being made by the Québec bar in its challenge to the 94 mandatory minimums created by the so-called Safe Streets and Communities Act, SC 2012 c 1, better known as Bill C-10, which the Québec Court of Appeal recently refused to dismiss for lack of standing.

Judge Kopf’s post consists of his answers to a series of questions asked by a journalism student, the very first of which is the same as that posed by the Bar’s challenge:

are these laws an encroachment upon the judicial branch and the prerogative of the individual judge by the executive and legislative branches?

Judge Kopf’s answer is that

there is nothing inherently wrong with Congress enacting mandatory minimums. After all, Congress has the power to pick specific and definite sentences for any crime on the books.

At the same time, Judge Kopf points to a serious problem with mandatory minimum sentences: “[i]n order to maintain proportionality between offenders mandatory minimums tend to drive up sentences” imposed on those whose crimes are more serious than the least blameworthy ones that could be punished under the same offence, for which the minimum sentence should in fairness be reserved. In the United States, this happens through the intermediary of the Sentencing Commission which must, as Judge Kopf explains, “implement those minimums and then peg the rest of the sentences [provided by the Sentencing Guidelines, which the Commission develops] around those benchmarks.”

There are no Sentencing Guidelines in Canada, but Canadian courts have recognized this effect of mandatory minimums as well. In the recent decision in R. v. Holt, 2014 BCSC 2170, Justice Warren of the Supreme Court of British Columbia explained that

[s]ome mandatory minimum sentences have been found to create an “inflationary floor” that affects the sentence of not only those who might have received sentences below the mandatory minimum, but also those who would have received higher sentences, on the theory that the overriding sentencing principle of proportionality requires the minimum sentence to be reserved for the so-called “best offender.” [26]

As Justice Warren further explained, if the mandatory minimum for a given offence is in line with the lowest sentences already being handed to those found guilty of it, there will be no inflationary effect. But if it forces courts to increase the sentences at the lower end of the range for the offence, then it will also affect those offenders whose sentence ought to harsher.

All that to say, as the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, as well yours truly, have already pointed out, that the big problem with mandatory minimums is not their effect on judicial discretion or separation of powers, but their effect on people being sentenced. And that effect, as Judge Kopf observes, can be very unfair. Judge Kopf acknowledges that mandatory minimums can be legislative response to disparities in sentencing for substantially similar crimes between judges and courts. They are, he says, “a way of imposing a minimum level of equality, albeit it at a great cost,” both that of the distortion of the sentences imposed across the board, and that of the injustice of punishments “that may have little or nothing to do with the proper sentence.”

Judge Kopf is no bleeding heart, and no libertarian, in case you’re wondering. Even if you think that Canadian judges and academics who have been denouncing mandatory minimums ― and, in the case of judges, striking them down on a regular basis ― are incorrigibly soft on crime, you should take what he has to say very seriously.

A Standing Invitation

Today the Québec Court of Appeal dismissed the federal government’s appeal from the Superior Court’s decision in Barreau du Québec c. Canada (Procureur général), 2014 QCCS 1863, which granted the Québec Bar public interest standing to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentences ― all 94 of them ― introduced by the so-called Safe Streets and Communities Act, SC 2012 c 1, better known as Bill C-10. The decision came from the bench at the end of this morning’s hearing, with reasons to follow. I was there, however, so I think I’m in a position to explain the (likely) grounds for the Court’s decision right away.

The federal government’s first, and less important, argument was that Justice Roy, who granted the Bar public interest standing, was to wrong to accept that it had a genuine interest in the issue. The government pointed out that the Bar failed to intervene in any of the multiple ongoing challenges to mandatory minimum sentences. It also asserted that ― unlike the NGO that was granted public interest standing in the Supreme Court’s most important recent case on the subject, Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, [2012] 2 S.C.R. 524, it wasn’t an “umbrella,” a representative for the people actually affected by the impugned legislation.

The Bar countered that it had a long-standing interest in matters related to the legal and judicial system, and that this challenge was in furtherance of that interest. The Court of Appeal, presumably, agreed.

The government’s main focus was on Justice Roy’s conclusion that the Bar’s challenge was a reasonable and effective way to get the issues it raised before the courts. Having a credible and well-resourced litigant willing to take on a case is not enough. Downtown Eastside, in the government’s view, stood for the proposition that if a litigant with personal standing could reasonably be expected to mount an equally or more effective challenge, public interest standing should (normally) not be granted. Unlike on the facts of Downtown Eastside, such was the case here. The accused who were potentially subject to the mandatory minimum sentences at issue had every incentive in the world to challenge them. Accused persons had challenged other mandatory minimums all the way up to the Supreme Court in the past, and were already challenging those introduced by C-10. Unlike with the prostitution-related provisions at issue in Downtown Eastside, no person was harmed by the the mandatory minimum sentences before they were imposed on them by courts, so there was no urgency to consider their constitutionality at once.

The government argued that the Bar’s challenge was seriously flawed. For one thing, it would have to be argued in a factual vacuum. The Bar proposed to use available judicial decisions as “reasonable hypothetical” examples of concrete situations to which the mandatory minimums might be applied to fill it up, to  but the Supreme Court has cautioned against such practices. And for another, the case was going to turn into an aggregate of 94 individual challenges to the various mandatory minimums created by C-10, and would be unmanageable, and thus not a good use of judicial resources.

The Court, however, was of the view that there was something more to the Bar’s case than an assemblage of challenges to individual mandatory minimums. These were “the trees,” but there was also “the forest” ― the Bar’s claim that Parliament interfered with judicial discretion and even judicial independence. The Bar, the judges suggested, was better placed than any individual litigant to argue this claim. If Parliament were to enact American-style sentencing guidelines, who could challenge them? Surely not an individual accused?

The federal government tried countering that this issue would be just the tip of the iceberg, because “99%” of the time of the court that would consider the case on the merits would be devoted to the challenges to the individual provisions. Switching metaphors, it said that the issue of judicial powers would be “Trojan horse” concealing the “soldiers” of these separate challenges under s. 12 of the Charter. Besides, accused persons could well raise the judicial independence issue, since it is another way, in addition to s. 12, in which the law under which they could be sentenced might be declared unconstitutional. Sure an individual could not fell every “tree,” by attacking provisions under which he is not accused, but he can still burn down the “forest.” If the Bar wants to make this argument, it can always intervene in an existing case. It just hasn’t done so. Increasingly desperate in the face of the bench’s skepticism, the government added that we should not be impressed by the “aura” surrounding the Bar, that we didn’t even know how much the Bar was spending on this challenge, and that many of its members were opposed.

To no avail. The judges obviously thought that the Bar’s argument that the introduction of multiple mandatory minimums amounted to unconstitutional interference with judicial independence or separation of powers was a serious one, and were concerned that it would not be made if the Bar were not allowed to bring it. And the existence of one serious question on which the Bar could have standing was enough to let the whole challenge go ahead. Any issues arising from its scope, the judges suggested, can be addressed through case-management.

The government tried to retreat to a subsidiary position, arguing that even if the Court upheld the decision to grant the Bar standing, it could and should limit standing to the “forest” issue, that of judicial independence. The Bar demurred, saying that this possibility had not been raised at first instance, and the Court, always skeptical, did not take up the suggestion.

Those of you who recall my earlier posts on this case will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a very bad decision. As I wrote here, the Bar’s challenge is a distortion of the nature of judicial review of legislation in the Canadian legal system. During its argument (very brief, at the Court’s request), the Bar insisted that its challenge aimed at the way the mandatory minimums were enacted by C-10 ― all at once and without studies. As a matter of political morality, I fully agree that this way of doing things is a shocking violation of what Jeremy Waldron has called “legislative due process.” But that’s not a legal argument. Legally, I remain persuaded that the argument based on judicial independence is feeble. (I wish the federal government had made that point more forcefully, however.) As I recently noted here, other courts seem committed to the view that Parliament is free to set the ranges within which judges may sentence offenders, subject to s. 12 constraints. In law, as I wrote in discussing the decision at first instance, the Bar’s inclusion of a doomed separation of powers argument allows it to jump through the standing hurdle, and the argument can then be more or less discarded.

A bad precedent, unfortunately, is not so easy to get rid of. I don’t know if the government intends to appeal, but unless it does and the Supreme Court intervenes, the Court of Appeal’s decision will be a standing invitation to any interest group with an ideological agenda to challenge any law it doesn’t like, the courts’ usual admonitions against fact-free constitutional challenges be damned.