Don’t ask, don’t tell?

No, it’s not a post about gays in the U.S. armed forces. That’s so passé anyway. Actually, what I want to talk about is co-operative federalism again, the fascinating topic of the least-read post on this blog. (To the one brave soul who did read it: I love you, whoever you are!)

More specifically, it is about the question whether one level of government in a federation has to accede to the demand of the other for information in its possession. (My title is not totally gratuitous.) This question was raised in the recent judgment of the Superior Court of Québec on the validity of a subpoena issued by a provincial commission of inquiry demanding that the RCMP hand over large amounts of information it collected while investigating organized crime in Québec’s construction industry. Coincidentally, it is also the topic of an interesting forthcoming article by Robert Mikos, of Vanderbilt University Law School.

As prof. Mikos points out, for one government (that of a U.S. state in his paper) to hand over information it has collected to the other government has certain costs. The most obvious, albeit often not a large one, is the direct cost of the time government employees spend working, in effect, for someone other than the people paying them. More subtly, citizens might be discouraged from handing over information to one government if they know that it can end up in the hands of the other. Most importantly, the government which complies with the request for information thereby participates in the enforcement of the policies of the other government, which might be at odds with its own. For example, if a state which allows the medical use of marijuana hands over information about its users  to the federal government, which does not, it possibly helps the federal government arrest and imprison the people who in the state’s opinion are entitled to use the drug. Finally, “such commandeering of the states’ information-gathering apparatus blurs the lines of accountability for unpopular enforcement actions.”

Yet so far, American courts have not accepted these arguments, explains prof. Mikos. He argues that they are wrong, and that federal requests for information held by the states should be considered equivalent to the “commandeering” of their executives by federal authorities, which the U.S. Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. This would allow states to resist federal policies with which they disagree and better to give effect to their own.

Compared to these high-minded concerns, the questions at issue in the Québec case, Canada (Procureur général) c. Charbonneau, 2012 QCCS 1701, might be rather pedestrian. At least it does not appear from the judgment that the federal government or the RCMP are opposed, as a matter of principle or policy, to Québec’s inquiry into the shady dealings in its construction industry and that industry’s unsavoury links with the provincial government. (Might this change if the inquiry uncovers links between that industry and the federal government, as a report by the Globe & Mail suggests it well may ?) But given the sheer volume of the information it is asked for, the RCMP is probably concerned about the costs of complying with the request, as it is with preserving the secrecy of its inquiry methods and sources. The court, however, suggests that these concerns are overstated and/or capable of being addressed by the RCMP’s co-operation with the commission of inquiry and with provincial police. As for the constitutional position, the court holds that a commission of inquiry set up pursuant to provincial law can validly subpoena the RCMP and request information in its possession, so long as it does not inquire about the RCMP’s administration. The RCMP, as the Supreme Court has held, is not part of the civil service, and does not enjoy the same immunities from provincial inquiries as the federal Crown or its servants.

Unlike, it would seem, in the U.S., such immunities do exist in Canadian law, and there seems to be no reason for their not applying to provincial, as well as federal government, since provinces and the dominion are constitutionally equal. As the Supreme Court held in A.G. of Québec and Keable v. A.G. of Canada et al., [1979] 1 R.C.S. 218, provincial law cannot authorize a provincial commission of inquiry to force the federal Crown, its ministers or servants, to answer questions or to hand over information. I would assume that the limits that apply to commissions of inquiry also apply, a fortiori, to the federal or provincial civil administration. But this is an area of the law with which I am not familiar, so I have many questions that I do not the answer to, and cannot, at the moment, investigate. For example, if the RCMP is not a part of the civil service, what other federal and provincial agencies could be forced to hand over information? How frequently does this happen? Are issues of policy disagreement between provincial and federal authorities as serious in Canada as in the U.S.?

Two observations in conclusion. First, the gun-registry data litigation, about which I have blogged profusely, is in a sense an example of a government trying to get information from another, albeit with a (big) twist, in that its claim is largely (but not entirely!) based on its own contribution to the collection of this information. And second, whatever limits there might be on what one government can force another to do, there are probably none on what they can agree to.

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