The Judges’ Law

Did you always want to know what my dissertation is about? Let me tell you!

I have occasionally mentioned the doctoral thesis I have been working on for the past four and a half years, and even posted a few tidbits (here, here, and here). But I don’t think I’ve ever even explained what the damned thing is about. Yet it is ― until I defend it, hopefully this spring ― after all, my “day job.” Anyway, I was recently asked to produce an abstract of the thing, and I figure that, having done so, I might as well share it. Here it is.

The Judges’ Law

As citizens of democratic polities we mostly share an ideal of self-government, according to which the laws under which we live ought to be made by legislatures which we elect and which act on our behalf. Yet rules articulated by courts in the course of adjudication―which I refer to as “adjudicative law”―form a non-negligible, and in common law jurisdictions a very significant, part of the law of the law of such polities. This is a study of these rules: of the context in which they are articulated, of their origins, and of their legitimacy in a democracy.

I begin by describing the environment in which adjudicative law emerges. First, I survey some constraints that judicial adjudicators face: a duty to attend to the arguments put forth by the parties, to decide the dispute, to do so in accordance with a general rule, to give reasons for their decision, and to uphold and preserve the law’s coherence. Second, I consider a number of characteristics of courts as institutions, including judicial independence, judicial training, and collective decision-making on appellate courts. Third, I review the rules of justiciability and evidence, insofar as they influence the articulation of adjudicative law.

I then examine the sources from which the rules of adjudicative law are drawn. After reviewing of the some academic writings on this point, I consider the reasons given by courts in a number of important, precedent-setting cases drawn from a variety of areas of the law. The main sources of adjudicative law I describe are underlying legal principles, social practice, and judicial fiat implementing a court’s policy judgment.
Having thus described some salient characteristics of adjudicative law, I turn to the question of its legitimacy in a democratic polity, focusing on four themes. The first is democracy, in connection with which I address the issue of the democratic deficit of adjudicative law and the argument that it can claim a democratic legitimacy that does not rest on the ballot box. Second, I consider the quality of adjudicative law, its fitness for purpose. Under this heading, I assess some issues with the courts’ institutional competence, on the one hand, and the claims that adjudicative law stands in a privileged relationship with reason, on the other. Third, I address the question of whether adjudicative can satisfy the requirements of the Rule of Law. Finally, I consider the relationship between adjudicative law and the past, focusing on the principle of stare decisis.

The outcome of this re-assessment is a nuanced one. Adjudicative law suffers from undeniable weaknesses, when compared with legislation―or at least with legislation as it might be, and not necessarily as it actually is. But the gravity of these weaknesses varies across areas of the law and depends on the specific institutional arrangements used in each legal system. It is best, I conclude, to refrain from across-the-board condemnations or endorsements of adjudicative law, and consider each case in its own context and on its own merits.

We are, I explain in conclusion, bound to live with adjudicative law, flawed though it may be. Yet its flaws can be addressed to some extent, even within the framework of our current institutional arrangements. These remedies, which I briefly outline, will not make the problems of adjudicative law disappear, but they may somewhat improve the situation. Since adjudicative law is with us to stay, even slight improvements would be worthwhile.

 

Ideas of the Marketplace II

What we can learn from thinking about the marketplace of ideas as a market

In a very interesting post over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan considers what he describes as the “dogmatic libertarian” claim that all markets work well, as it is applies ― or, rather, doesn’t apply ― to the marketplace of ideas. The marketplace seems to reject this claim, which suggests that it cannot be true. Prof. Caplan agrees that it is not, and makes two further observations. In reverse order, they are that “[t]ruth doesn’t largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment” (emphasis prof. Caplan’s), and that while “[m]ost markets work well … the market for ideas doesn’t … [b]ecause ideas have massive externalities. … The market for ideas … works poorly because strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality.” I think that’s largely right, but want to add a couple of additional points regarding prof. Caplan’s second observation.

First, while it is often true that we do not internalize the costs of our irrationality, this is less true in some contexts than in others. Most obviously ― this a point that Ilya Somin makes in his discussions of political ignorance ― we do internalize a much greater share of the costs of our bad decisions, and also of the rewards of the good ones, when deciding for ourselves, in our private lives, than when we vote or, more generally, act in the political sphere. Even in our private lives, we pass on some of the costs of our irrationality to family, friends, and sometimes the broader society as well, but we do absorb a much more substantial fraction of these costs. This is perhaps a trite point, and prof. Caplan might only have been referring to the marketplace for political ideas (political in a very broad sense), but I think it’s worth spelling it out.

More interestingly, I think, it is also the case that, even in politics, there is a way in which people can be a made to internalize at least a small fraction of the costs of their bad decisions in the marketplace of ideas: democracy. This, I think, is what H.L. Mencken’s famous quip that “[d]emocracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” means. The theory is only partly true, because as prof. Caplan says, in the political sphere “strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality,” but self-government ensures that you bear at least a little fraction of the cost of your opinions and decisions. When you vote for a lousy politician, or convince others to do so, you increase ― albeit usually by very little ― your odds having to reap the consequences of the lousy policies that that politician will implement. By contrast, in a dictatorship, the few who decide typically bear even less of the cost of their views than the voters in a democracy, because they are even better able to pass these costs on to others, while those who do not (which is to say, almost everyone) are even freer to know nothing and believe everything, since their ignorance, credulity, and irrationality have no impact whatever on anything. If you think that voters and politicians are bad in democratic countries, just compare them to the people and the rulers in authoritarian ones. Once again, Churchill was quite right to say that while democracy is a bad system of government, others are even worse.

The second point I wanted to make might be too obvious for an economist like prof. Caplan to discuss, but bears repetition by a lawyer writing for non-economists. That the marketplace of ideas may be malfunctioning as a result of massive externalities does not justify intervention by the state in order to make people internalize these externalities or prevent them from occurring. Market failure may be real, but so is government failure ― and there are situations in which government failure is more severe than the market failure government intervention purports to correct. Indeed, this point is, I think, more widely accepted (albeit not necessarily in these terms) with respect to the marketplace of ideas than for just about any other market. Distrust of, and opposition to, censorship, in the face of widespread evidence of malfunctions in the marketplace of ideas reflects, at least in part, an understanding that giving the state the power to rectify these malfunctions would be disastrous, both because the state is a bad judge of ideas and because this power would be abused in various self-interested ways be the people entrusted with wielding it. Unfortunately, people often fail to transpose this understanding to their analysis of other markets. Yet there is no reason why they should. The marketplace of ideas is just not that special.

Thinking of the marketplace of ideas in economic terms ― assuming, in other words, that it is a marketplace more or less like any other ― is, I think a useful exercise. (I attempted it here already.) It both allows both to sharpen our understanding of the marketplace of ideas itself (and of the related markets, such as the one for votes), and can serve as a reminder of some broader truths about markets and regulations that we intuitively sense when thinking about the marketplace of ideas, but forget in other contexts.

Pré-Censure

La restriction de dépenses pré-électorales est injustifiée et possiblement inconstitutionnelle

Comme le rapporte La Presse, le Directeur général des élections du Québec, Pierre Reid, a dit dans un témoignage devant la Commission des institutions de l’Assemblée nationale travailler sur une proposition d’amendement à la Loi électorale en vue de limiter des dépenses « pré-électorale » ― c’est-à-dire celles engagées en vue des élections, mais avant le commencement de la campagne électorale officielle. Pour l’instant, ces dépenses ne sont pas limitées par la Loi. Or, la date des élections étant maintenant connue à l’avance (sous réserve de la capacité du Premier ministre de violer les dispositions sur les élections à date fixe, comme Pauline Marois l’a fait en 2014), la tentation de faire de la publicité tout juste avant l’entrée en vigueur des limites de dépenses applicables en campagne électorale va être plus forte que jamais. Nous l’avons vu au niveau fédéral, et nous risquons de le voir au Québec avant les prochaines élections. M. Reid s’en dit « préoccup[é] ». Moi, c’est plutôt son désir de limiter ces dépenses qui me préoccupe.

Notons, pour commencer, que M. Reid n’a pas pris la peine d’expliquer en quoi les dépenses pré-électorales sont préoccupantes. Or, une limite aux dépenses sur la communication politique est, comme la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême en la matière le reconnaît, une limite à la liberté d’expression. Il faudrait donc, avant d’imposer de telles limites, avoir une raison, une justification, un tant soit peu sérieuse. Pourtant, M. Reid n’en offre pas, et les députés présents ne lui ont posé aucune question à ce sujet. Pour ce qui est du devoir des élus et de l’administration de respecter les droits constitutionnels, on repassera.

M. Reid a également été flou sur la portée des restrictions qu’il souhaiterait faire adopter par l’Assemblée nationale. Il n’a pas été en mesure de préciser la durée de la période pré-électorale pendant laquelle les dépenses seraient limitées, par exemple. Cependant, il semble qu’il songe à une période de plusieurs mois, voire davantage. Il n’a pas, non plus, précisé si ces nouvelles restrictions s’appliqueraient aux seuls partis politiques ou également aux « tiers » ― c’est-à-dire aux individus et organismes, autres que les partis ou les candidats, souhaitant se prononcer sur les enjeux politiques. Là encore, notons que les députés n’ont pas demandé à M. Reid de préciser sa pensée.

Cependant, il est difficile de s’imaginer que les restrictions ne viseraient que les partis politiques. Si M. Reid ou les membres de l’Assemblée nationale sont préoccupés par ce qui s’est passé ou a failli se passer l’été dernier, juste avant les élections fédérales, ils ne sont pas sans savoir que les « tiers » ― notamment les syndicats (et non pas, contrairement à une certaine mythologie populaire, les multinationales) ont cherché à faire de la publicité « pré-électorale » autant, sinon davantage, que les partis politiques eux-mêmes. Et, généralement, le modèle canadien de réglementation des dépenses électorales suppose que l’on restreint davantage les dépenses des tiers que ceux des partis, afin de s’assurer que ceux-ci puissent dominer le débat public.

Or, si constitutionnalité des restrictions des dépenses pré-électorales des partis politiques n’a jamais encore été contestée devant les tribunaux, de telles restrictions n’ayant jamais encore été imposées au Canada, celles de restrictions similaires imposées aux tiers a, quant à elle, fait l’objet non pas d’une, mais de deux décisions de la Cour d’appel de la Colombie-Britannique. Dans  British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 et ensuite dans  Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394, ce tribunal a jugé inconstitutionnelle la limitation à 150 000$ des dépenses d’un tiers pour une période pré-électorale de 60 jours dans la première décisions, et d’au plus 48 jours dans la seconde. Ces décisions, contre lesquelles la province ne s’est pas pourvue devant la Cour suprême, ne lie évidemment pas les tribunaux québécois, mais aurait tout de même une autorité persuasive non-négligeable.

On peut, il est vrai se demander, comme je l’ai fait ici en commentant la plus récente de ces décisions, si la Cour d’appel n’y est pas allée un peu trop loin en soutenant que la logique de l’arrêt de principe de la Cour suprême au sujet des dépenses électorales des tiers Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, ne peut être étendue à la période pré-électorale. En principe, cette logique voulant qu’il faut limiter la capacité des tiers de communiquer leur message aux citoyens afin de s’assurer que les partis politiques puissent être entendus et afin d’égaliser les ressources des différentes forces en présence pourrait s’étendre au-delà de la campagne électorale, d’autant plus si les dépenses des partis sont limitées, elles aussi. Cependant, une telle extension du principe est loin d’être garantie. Comme je le soulignais dans un billet pour Policy Options où je discutais une idée similaire exprimée par Justin Trudeau, les juges majoritaires dans Harper ont insisté sur le « fait qu’aucune restriction ne s’applique à la publicité faite par les tiers avant le début de la période électorale. En dehors de cette période, les limites à l’intervention des tiers dans la vie politique n’existent pas » [112]. C’est notamment pour cette raison qu’ils ont conclu que la limitation très stricte des dépenses des tiers pendant la campagne électorale état une « atteinte minimale », et donc constitutionnellement permise, à la liberté d’expression. Si la liberté d’expression complète en période pré-électorale n’est pas respectée, l’évaluation que fera la Cour suprême des restrictions imposées aux tiers pourrait bien changer.

Au-delà du pronostic incertain sur une éventuelle décision judiciaire, il faut cependant se rendre bien compte de ce qu’une réglementation des dépenses des tiers en période pré-électorale signifierait. La réglementation, ne limiterait pas seulement la capacité des acteurs de la société civile ― des syndicats, des ONG, des mouvements sociaux, des « médias citoyens » ou de simples individus ― à s’exprimer sur les enjeux politiques. Elle imposerait aussi à tous ceux qui voudraient le faire, même à l’intérieur des limites de dépenses permises par la loi, d’onéreuses obligations de s’enregistrer auprès du Directeur général des élections et de lui faire rapport sur toutes les dépenses encourues pour faire passer leur message. Comme je l’ai dit dans Policy Options, l’extension de la limitation des dépenses des tiers au delà de la campagnes électorale serait un pas vers l’imposition d’un régime de censure politique à grande échelle.

Et même en ce qui concerne la limitation des dépenses des partis politiques, comme l’a écrit le grand spécialiste du « droit de la démocratie » américain, Richard Pildes, sur l’Election Law Blog, une fois qu’on cherche à étendre la limitation des dépenses au-delà d’une période bien circonscrite de campagne électorale, la situation devient trouble. Pourquoi limiterait-on la période pré-électorale à quelques mois, voir à une année? Or, les limites à la liberté d’expression qui semblent acceptables lorsqu’elles sont exceptionnelles, ne le sont plus forcément si elles deviennent permanentes. Et c’est vers ce scénario, qui me paraît inacceptable, que M. Reid et nos députés risquent de nous entraîner. Lorsque nos dirigeants ne se préoccupent guère de la liberté d’expression, nous sommes déjà en situation de pré-censure.

How to Get It Right on Wrongs

Ontario’s Superior Court has created a new tort. But should it have, in the circumstances?

In Doe 464533, 2016 ONSC 541, a delivered a couple of weeks ago, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice awarded substantial damages to a person whose ex-boyfriend posted an intimate video of her online, in addition to showing it to some mutual acquaintances. He had previously coaxed her into making the video, promising that he would be the only one to see it. The promise was a lie, since he shared the video as soon as she had sent it to him. Justice Stinson finds the defendant liable for breach of confidence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and public disclosure of private facts. The latter ground of liability had never before been recognized in Canadian common law, prompting David Fraser, at the Canadian Privacy Law Blog, to write that “[t]his is a huge deal.” It may indeed, as Mr. Fraser implies, be a hugely positive development. Certainly in Doe the Court was able to give the plaintiff redress for a blatant and vicious injustice that the defendant had done to her. Nevertheless, I want to ask whether, in the circumstances, recognizing or creating this new cause of action was the right thing to do. I hasten to add that, in asking the question, I do not mean to suggest that it must be answered in the negative ― only that it is worth thinking about.

One reason why I wonder whether Justice Stinson was right to develop the common law of privacy in this case is that, as David Canton has pointed out over at Slaw,

[t]he defendant did not file a statement of defence, and this decision was based on a motion for default judgment. So while the decision is well reasoned, there was no contrary position presented. 

Courts are normally dependent on hearing arguments from both sides of a case. Indeed, Jeremy Waldron has argued compellingly that the clash of competing arguments is an essential component of what law is, at a conceptual level. Needless to say, if one the parties chooses to forego his or her right to make an argument, as the defendant did here, this should not stop a court from ruling and, where appropriate, making an order against that party. But I wonder whether the absence of one of the parties from the litigation is not a reason, a very good reason even, for a court to be reluctant to make its ruling a precedent-setting one.

Now, this concern should probably be heavily discounted if not ignored if the question on which a precedent may be set is unavoidable on the path to a decision on the facts of the case. However, this is not the case in Doe. As I note above, Justice Stinson found the defendant liable for three different torts arising out of the same set of facts. The first two are familiar, although I take it that they had not previously been applied to similar circumstances. Had Justice Stinson “only” concluded that the defendant had committed a breach of confidence and deliberately inflicted emotional distress on the defendant, he could and surely would have awarded the same damages against him. So there was no pressing need for the judge to address the question of whether public disclosure of private facts should be a distinct ground of liability. Of course, we can imagine circumstances where the other causes of action would not be made out, and the new tort would be the only conceivable ground of liability. It is arguable that Justice Stinson’s thoughtful analysis is a service to future litigants. But again, the value of that analysis is lessened by the fact that it does not rest on a full, contradictory argument by the parties.

And then, quite apart from the unusual circumstances of this case, there is the perennial question of the relative roles of courts and legislatures in developing the law and creating new causes of action. Justice Stinson notes, early on in his reasons, that Parliament has criminalized the “publication of an intimate image without consent,” and that one province, Manitoba, has passed legislation to make it tortious. Should the law of other provinces move in the same direction by way of common law development, or should the courts wait for the legislatures ― which presumably are well aware of the problem ― to act? There are certainly good reasons for the courts not to wait. At least so long as any new causes of action are carefully circumscribed, there is probably something approaching a social consensus in favour of granting the victims of cruelty such as that suffered by the plaintiff in Doe a civil remedy. The issues involved are not ideologically controversial, and do not concern complex policy questions on which courts might lack expertise. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that, seeing how clumsy and pernicious legislative attempts to deal with online miscreants can be, courts would do well to act first, so as to remove the temptation to act that legislators would otherwise feel. All the same, it might have been useful for the court to address the question. Justice Stinson’s reasons do not.

To repeat, all that is not to say that Justice Stinson was wrong to develop the law in the way he did, or that his reasoning on the substantive issue of whether to create a tort of public disclosure of private facts could or should not be endorsed by a court considering the matter in a subsequent case. My point is only that we should take his decision as an occasion for a reflection on the courts’ when faced with novel legal issues.

Let Them Vote

I have a new post up at the CBA National Magazine’s blog, arguing that, with one significant qualification, a private member’s bill that would lower the voting age at federal elections to 16 is a good idea and should be enacted. I have already made the case for lowering the voting age, to 16 if not lower still, here and here. So I am happy to see that an MP, Don Davies, has taken up this cause ― and I hope that the government endorses it too, which would make the passage of the bill much more likely.

The one reservation I have about Mr. Davies’ bill as it now stands is that it makes no separate provision for, and indeed no mention of, a minimum age for running for Parliament. As I explain in the National Magazine post, under the Canada Elections Act, almost all eligible voters are allowed to be candidates. But it is not obvious that the minimum age for being an MP and for voting should be the same. At the very least, I think the issue deserves to be debated.

Subject to that, I wish Mr. Davies’ good luck with his bill. Its enactment would make our democracy more inclusive, and thus better.

Mémoire fragmentée/Fragmented Remembrance

A meditation on the conflict between identity politics and remembrance

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Germany, it is the Day of remembrance for the victims of National Socialism. And, as it happens, I’ve been reminded of something I wrote almost ten years ago, I think, after visiting the site of the Dachau concentration camp. It seems sadly topical in the face of identity politics flourishing around the world, to which it would we in Canada might have a greater resistance than in many other places, but no immunity.

Here it is, first an English translation and, below, the French original. As for the title of this post, I am lifting it from one written, some years ago, by my friend Adrien Beauduin, saying much the same thing but with about a different place ― proof that the issue I am concerned with is not peculiar to a the place or a culture.

* * *

I am not quite sure why I found myself at the Dachau memorial, on the site of the very first Nazi concentration camp. Whether it was a duty of remembrance, a sort of macabre historical voyeurism, or a quest for redemption (for mankind, since, however difficult this might be for us to acknowledge, concentration camps and terrorist attacks are the work of our fellows), the visit has been as painful as it was instructive. It made me ask myself this disturbing question, among others: when they tried to saw discord between their opponents and victims, to divide and rule them, did the Nazis succeed beyond even their military defeat?

Divide and rule; the principle is old as the world, which takes nothing away from the efficacy of its application from Ceasar to Hitler to Ahmadinejad. In Dachau itself, the guards did everything to set the Social-Democrats against the Communists, the better to control both groups ― apparently, without too much success. The different groups of prisoners were also identified by signs on their uniforms, not only so as to make watching over them ― and humiliating them ― easier, but also to help make co-operation between them more difficult by sustaining the prejudice that each group held against the others. Now, more than sixty years after Dachau’s liberation, I have the impression that these divisions still hold.

Thus the part of the monument to the camp victims’ memory that commemorates the various groups whose members were imprisoned in Dachau by representing the signs that the Nazis used (stars of David and triangles of various colours, depending on the category to which the prisoner belonged) does not menton homosexual prisoners, or criminals. When the monument was built, the men imprisoned for their origins were deemed worthy of remembrance by the former prisoners’ association, but not those who found themselves at Dachau for their “lifestyle choices.” (Actually, I suppose that criminality is, in many cases at least, a choice. But not a choice that justifies putting those who make it in a concentration camp.) And whatever the acceptability of “forgetting” them thirty [now, forty] years ago, I fail to see what prevents it, to this day, from being rectified ― if not the persistence of the old divisions on which the Nazis relied.

The memorial’s other monuments only made my sombre questions more pressing. A monument to the memory of Polish priests. An Orthodox chapel in memory of the Russians. A monument to the memory of Jews. Each not very far from the others, but each its own. The memory of a nation, a religion, etc., by that nation or religion, for that nation or religion. Each one might be remembered, but when that memory is individual, one group is always forgotten: humanity itself.

* * *

Je ne suis pas vraiment sûr pourquoi je me suis retrouvé au mémorial de Dachau, situé sur le site du tout premier camp de concentration nazi. Mais que j’y aie été amené par un devoir de mémoire, une sorte de macabre voyeurisme historique ou un désir de rédemption (pour le genre humain, puisque, et peu importe combien il nous soit difficile de l’admettre, les camps de concentration et les attentats terroristes sont l’œuvre de nos semblables), la visite aura été aussi pénible qu’instructive. Elle m’a amené à me poser, entre autres, une question perturbante. En essayant de semer la discorde entre leurs adversaires et victimes, de les diviser pour régner, les nazis auraient-ils réussi, par-delà même leur défaite militaire?

Diviser pour régner, le principe est vieux comme le monde, ce qui ne diminue pas l’efficacité de son application, depuis César jusqu’à Hitler et à Ahmadinejad. À Dachau même, les gardes faisaient tout pour opposer les sociaux démocrates aux communistes – pour mieux maîtriser les deux groupes – apparemment sans trop de succès. Les différents groupes de prisonniers étaient aussi identifiés par des signes sur leur uniforme, ce qui devait non seulement aider les gardes à les surveiller – et à les humilier, ― mais aussi contribuer à rendre plus difficile leur coopération en faisant perdurer les préjugés d’un groupe à l’égard d’un autre. Eh bien, plus de soixante ans après la libération de Dachau, j’ai eu l’impression que ces divisions sont toujours tenaces.

Ainsi, la partie du monument à la mémoire des victimes du camp qui rappelle les différents groupes dont les membres ont été emprisonnés à Dachau, en représentant les signes utilisés par les nazis (étoiles de David et triangles de différentes couleurs, selon la « catégorie » à laquelle le prisonnier appartenait) ne fait pas mention des prisonniers homosexuels, pas plus que des criminels. Quant le monument a été érigé, les hommes emprisonnés à cause de leur origines ont été jugés dignes du souvenir par l’association des anciens prisonniers, mais pas ceux qui se sont retrouvés à Dachau pour leurs « choix de vie ». (En fait, je suppose que la criminalité est, dans bien des cas du moins, un choix. Mais pas le genre de choix qui justifie qu’on mette ceux qui l’ont fait dans un camp de concentration). Et quelle que fût l’acceptabilité d’un tel « oubli » il y a trente ans, je vois mal ce qui l’empêche, à ce jour, d’être rectifié… sauf la persistance de ces vielles divisions dont les nazis se servaient.

D’autres monuments du mémorial n’ont fait que renforcer mes sombres interrogations. Un monument à la mémoire des prêtres polonais… Une chapelle orthodoxe à la mémoire des Russes… Un monument à la mémoire des Juifs… Les uns pas très loin des autres, mais chacun pour soi. La mémoire d’une nation, d’une religion etc., par cette nation ou religion, pour cette nation ou religion. On se rappelle peut-être chacune, mais lorsque cette mémoire est individuelle, il y a toujours une grande oubliée : l’humanité.

Follow Instructions

School prayer is unconstitutional ― even in Alberta and Saskatchewan

A couple of months ago, Benjamin Oliphant wrote, on the Policy Options blog, about a controversy over school prayer in Alberta: some schools still start their days with the Lord’s Prayer, which some parents oppose. Constitutionally, Mr. Oliphant pointed out, the matter is somewhat complicated. A Twitter discussion ensued, but I don’t think that anyone ever took the time to write a follow-up blog post. Now, according to a report in the National Post, the same issue arises in Saskatchewan, giving me an excuse for doing so, however belatedly. (I should note that the parent who is contesting the school prayer seems not to be making a constitutional case, but rather “believes the recital of the prayer may be harmful and has started a petition asking for amendments to” relevant legislation. I express no views on the prayer’s harm, and only consider its constitutionality.)

As Mr. Oliphant explained, on the one hand, courts have held, starting in Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education, 65 OR (2d) 641 (On CA), that school prayer ― even if individual students are not obliged to attend it ― is contrary to the religious freedom guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On the other, the constitutionally entrenched legislation that created the province of Alberta ― and Saskatchewan as well ― protected “any right or privilege with respect to separate schools which any class of persons have at the date of the passing of [that legislation] … or with respect to religious instruction in any public or separate school.” That provision (section 17 in both the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act) referred to The School Ordinance of the North-West Territories, which specifically provided that, despite a general ban on religious instruction in public schools except in the last half hour of a school day, it would “be permissible for the board of any district to direct that the school be opened by the recitation of the Lord’s prayer.” (Subs. 137(2)) Hence Mr. Oliphant’s question: does the long-standing principle that one part of the constitution (such as the Charter) cannot abrogate another (such as the Alberta Act or the Saskatchewan Act) immunize the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in those provinces’ schools? )

The answer, in my view, turns on the meaning of the phrase “religious instruction” in section 17 of the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act. If “religious instruction” includes the recitation of the Lord’s prayer, then section 17 presumably protects the right of the local school authorities “to direct” the recitation of the prayer, as part of the general protection of rights “with respect to religious instruction at any public school.” If, however, the prayer is not a form of “religious instruction,” then its recitation falls outside the scope of the protection granted by section 17.

Is, then, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer “religious instruction”? A prayer is, as the Supreme Court recently had occasion to confirm ― against Québec Court of Appeal’s opinion to the contrary ― undoubtedly a religious exercise. But is it “instruction”? Note that, if a court called upon to decide the constitutional question adopted the originalist approach to constitutional interpretation which, I have argued, the Supreme Court’s majority recently took when discussing legislative bilingualism in Alberta in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, it would need to consider the meaning of “instruction” in 1905, when the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act were enacted. Perhaps the meaning of the phrase has changed in the last century. But I rather doubt it in this case.

As a matter of ordinary meaning of the word in this context, it seems to me that a prayer is not instruction because it does not teach the students who hear it anything about religion. It is telling, I think, though not dispositive, that section 182(3) of the Saskatchewan’s Education Act, which authorizes the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of school day, specifies that it is to be recited “without comment or explanation.” That’s not how one would normally go about “instructing” the students in religion generally, or in the meaning or significance of the Lord’s Prayer specifically.

The legislative context in which the phrase “religious instruction” is used in The School Ordinance also suggests that it does not encompass the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The general provision on religious instruction is section 137 (or what would now be numbered as subsection 137(1)), which has the heading “religious instruction.” The exception for prayer is provided for separately, in subsection 137(2), under the heading “Time for the Lord’s Prayer.” For its part, the following section, under the (admittedly ambiguous) heading “Attendance not compulsory during religious exercise,” provides that “[a]ny child shall have the privilege of leaving the school room at the time at which religious instruction is commenced as provided for in the next preceding section … if the parents or guardians do desire.” I think it is reasonably clear that that the idea is that the student is free to go home once the half-hour reserved for religious teaching at the end of a school day begins ― rather than leave the school as it is being “opened” by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and then return.

As a result, I don’t think that the constitutional protection for “religious instruction” in the schools of Alberta and Saskatchewan extends to the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike the actual teaching of religion, it is thus not immunized against review under the Charter. And it is quite clear what the outcome of such a review would be. The educational authorities in the Prairies ought to follow the same constitutional instructions that apply to their counterparts in Ontario and elsewhere, and get rid of the Lord’s Prayer.