Monday, April 23, 2007


I want to recycle a couple of comments from this thread. Some, but probably not all, typos have been edited.

First, this one:

Would Dicey and Blackstone have agreed that there are “unwritten postulates that form the very foundation of the [British] Constitution”? Yes. Would they say these principles were binding on both Parliament and the courts? Yes. Would that imply that the courts could invalidate a statute passed by Parliament if the courts thought the statute contrary to those principles? No.

A rule can be binding on an agent either internally or externally. The Supreme Court is “bound” to apply a hierarchy of relevant legal sources when it decides a case. But if a litigant thinks they have failed to do so, she is out of luck — there is no other body that she can appeal to. They are not final because they are infallible — they are infallible because they are final.

If we are to have a closed system of positive law, at least one body must be final in this sense. In the British constitution, when it comes to the enactment of laws, that body is the Queen-in-Parliament. Blackstone and Dicey would both have insisted that the Queen-in-Parliament is obliged to follow the unwritten postulates of the constitution, but that obligation is internally binding. By enacting a statute, the Queen-in-Parliament is coming to a judgment that the statute is consistent with the unwritten constitution, and that judgment is not reviewable.

There is no point complaining about the existence of a body whose judgment is not reviewable. That’s just life. Either Parliament’s judgment is unreviewable or the final court of appeal’s judgment is unreviewable. For Dicey and Blackstone, it was preferable that the unreviewable body be Parliament.

Before Confederation, the same system applied to the colonies, except that imperial statutes were paramount over colonial ones. So the courts had the power to consider a colonial statute of no force and effect to the extent it conflicted with the imperial statute. That was the basis of judicial review under the BNA Act. It was, in principle, a corollary of the sovereignty of (the imperial) Parliament. Subject to the BNA Act, though, the federal and provincial legislatures are sovereign within their sphere. Again, they inherit unwritten postulates from Britain — but they are the final interpreter of how those postulates apply to new legislation. On the other hand (and especially once reservation and disallowance fall into disuse), the courts are the final interpreters of the imperial statutes which make up the written constitution.

The English courts have always referred to the unwritten constitution in interpreting legislation or disciplining executive action, and the Canadian courts followed them. It’s just that they accepted that their judgment of what the unwritten constitution might require was bound by the clear intent of Parliament, just as lower courts are bound by the precedents of higher courts.

Eventually we get to 1981-1982. In the Patriation Reference, 7 out of 9 judges made it perfectly clear that only the written constitution could legally restrict legislative sovereignty. The 1982 deal sets out exactly what texts count as the written constitution, and how they may be amended. As a critical part of the final deal, judicial review under much of the written constitution is subject to the notwithstanding clause. Unwritten principles continue to exist, but they play the role they have under the British and then Canadian constitution — used by the courts in statutory interpretation and administrative law, binding internally on the legislatures in making enactments.

Is the Manitoba Language Rights case inconsistent with this (I would argue universal) understanding? I don’t think so, because while it involved reference to the “rule of law” as a value, it did not purport to make it an independent basis for the courts to strike down any statutes.

On the other hand, the Provincial Court Judges case is revolutionary because it places the Court, rather than Parliament and the legislatures, as the final interpreter of the unwritten constitution. And it does so by confusing the issue of being internally bound by a rule and being externally bound by it. The Secession Reference compounds things by using “unwritten principles” to overturn the very amending formula set out in Part V.

And this one:

A practical lawyer might wonder whether there is any point criticizing decade-old precedents. I’d respond with T.S. Eliot’s observation that there are no lost causes because there are no gained ones. If we are in for a period of extended Conservative rule (and I suspect we are), we are going to have a different kind of judicial politics, more like that in the US. Partisan affiliation will become less important for patronage reasons, and more important for ideological reasons. Anyone who observes Canadian constitutional law will see waves of advance and retreat for the cause of judicial supremacy. The Motor Vehicle Act Reference is ultimately followed by Rodriguez (but then by Chaoulli). Oakes leads to Edward Books, Andrews to Law, and Provincial Court Judges’ Reference to Imperial Tobacco. Who knows what will happen with Christie? Whatever happens, the issue of the underlying legitimacy of Lamer’s coup is unlikely to die.

Anyway, in this country, we inherit the tradition of the United Empire Loyalists, and should not be afraid of being identified with lost causes.

I don’t think “incrementalism” and “originalism” are necessarily in conflict, since I think of both –at least in their defensible forms — as counsels of caution, rather than decision rules that will render determinate answers. I wouldn’t start with either, but with the question of the legitimacy of the judicial role. The need for judges arises out of the social need for a definite answer to legal conflicts. That’s the source of the obiter/ratio distinction, as well as of the virtue of incrementalism. Judges act with authority to the extent they say what is necessary to resolve a specific legal dispute. (References complicate things, but this is already too long for a comment, so I’m not going to pursue that point.) They should pick the narrowest (least controversial, least disruptive of settled expectations) grounds to fulfill this function. To the extent possible, they shouldn’t comment on anything else, but if they do, they are no longer acting within their authority.

Originalism, in a defensible sense, is just respect for the deal reached by the principals. Part of that deal, no doubt, was to give the courts a large amount of discretion and power. But a court misues its finality to seize more power than it was granted.

I suppose if time makes a revolutionary act a sufficiently settled part of the social order, it becomes pointless to oppose it. Most days, I have given up on trying to restore the Jacobite line, for example. I don’t think we are there yet with “unwritten principles.”

No comments: