Much Ado About a Living Tree

In preparation for a guest-lecture on constitutional interpretation that I am going to give in a few weeks at McGill, I just re-read the famous “Persons Case”―Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), [1930] A.C. 124. It is remembered for its invocation of the “living tree” metaphor and for consecrating a “large and liberal” and evolving approach to constitutional interpretation as the law of the land in Canada. But the remarkable thing about it―on re-reading with this little summary in mind―is that the Privy Council’s reasoning is not really an application of these principles. It is, mostly, just an exercise in plain, old, but meticulous statutory interpretation.

The issue in dispute was whether the word “persons” in s. 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which enables the Governor-General to “summon qualified Persons to the Senate,” includes women as well as men―and thus, whether women are persons (for the purposes of the Canadian constitution).

Lord Sankey’s judgment begins by responding to that of the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada, which held that the word “persons” did not include women, mostly on the basis of the common law rule that women could not hold public office. Lord Sankey retorts that this rule “is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary.” After a lengthy review of the ways the common law and statutes excluded women from public office, he concludes that this hasn’t much to do with the meaning of the word “person”―the word is ambiguous, and reading it as referring to men only is the product of a “custom” and “tradition” “the reason for [which] has disappeared.”

Lord Sankey then turns to the task of interpreting this ambiguous word. It is by way of introduction to this part of his reasons that he sets out the sentences for which the case is remembered today:

The British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits. …

Their Lordships do not conceive it to be the duty of this Board – it is certainly not their desire – to cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation so that the Dominion to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, may be mistress in her own house, as the Provinces to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, are mistresses in theirs.

But what comes next is not an exercise in living constitutionalism, which would have consisted simply in saying that now that we’ve left barbarism behind, of course women are persons and can serve in the Senate. Indeed, remarkably enough, Lord Sankey denies that

their Lordships [are] deciding any question as to the rights of women but only a question as to their eligibility for a particular position. No one, either male or female, has a right to be summoned to the Senate. The real point at issue is whether the Governor General has a right to summon women to the Senate.

His Lordship, one is rather tempted to think, protests too much.

Be that as it may, it is true that the remainder of his reasons is an exercise in dry statutory interpretation. It is something like Ravel’s Bolero, an almost-endless repetition of the same simple theme with different instruments. Just about every technique of statutory interpretation is put to work to show that the word “person” can include women as well as men. Lord Stakey invokes the plain meaning of the words “member” (of the Senate) in s. 21 of the Constitution Act and “person,” both of which can in the ordinary language refer to women. He points to the structure of the Constitution Act, noting that the qualifications which the “qualified persons” described in s. 24 must possess are described in s. 23. He refers to other statutes (having to do with naturalization and property) to show that the coherence of the law is not undermined by the interpretation which he proposes for the provision at issue. He also refers to other sections of the same Act (ss. 41 and 84), which use the term “male subject” rather than “person,” suggesting that the drafters were aware of the difference and chose their wording carefully. He appeals (implicitly) to the maxim inclusio unius est exclusio alterius in saying that the list of qualifications for being a Senator in s. 23―which does not include being male―”must be presumed” to be exhaustive. Finally, he observes that the Canadian Parliament itself has interpreted the word “person” to be gender-neutral, when it felt necessary first expressly to prohibit women from voting and then to repeal this prohibition.

It is this lengthy demonstration that does the real work in the case, not the flowery, forgive the pun, metaphor for which it is now known. This is not to reject that metaphor. I don’t think we have much of an alternative to a “living constitutionalism” approach in some cases at least. Still, I thought it ironic and worth pointing out that in the Persons Case itself is not really about living trees at all, but simply a careful reading of constitutional text and its legal context.

2 thoughts on “Much Ado About a Living Tree

  1. Pingback: Questionable Limits | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Courts, Government, and Originalism | Double Aspect

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