First Impressions

I will have more structured and fuller thoughts in the next days, but here are some initial impressions, in no particular order, of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Senate Reference, almost all of which I watched.

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This case is, of course, largely about constitutional interpretation. (Much more so, in fact, than most constitutional cases in Canada, certainly much more than the many Charter cases where the constitutional text is barely alluded to.) Now, in Canada, we often think of constitutional interpretation as involving a choice between two options: the “living tree” approach on the one hand, and something like originalism on the other. But the arguments in the Senate reference suggest that there are, in fact, at least three different approaches: the living tree, which most provinces invoked; originalism, in the sense of giving an overriding importance to the bargains that made confederation possible, which was Québec’s preferred approach; and literalism or textualism, which is the federal government’s. In reality, things are even more complicated, because the provinces also rely on constitutional structure, and the amici curiae focus primarily on it. And provinces, despite their invocations of the living tree, don’t hesitate also to appeal to the original bargain. In the funniest exchange of the three days, Justice Rothstein summed it all up as “whatever works,” to which Heather Leonoff, Manitoba’s lawyer, replied: “Welcome to the law!”

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Speaking of the lawyers, it’s a tough job they had. None more so than Nancy Brown, for British Columbia, the first to argue yesterday. She was, perhaps, a bit slow to get into the substance of her argument ― as all of her colleagues who preceded her, none of whom could resist the temptation of reminding the court of the historic significance of the case, had been. As Ms Brown was speaking of the importance of confederation, the Chief Justice snapped that the Court had already heard about it many times, and demanded to be told something “new.” The Chief Justice achieved what I suppose was her aim ― the lawyers who went after Ms Brown focused and shortened their arguments, trying not to repeat too much of what others had said before. But I had the impression that Ms. Brown was somewhat thrown off course by the Chief Justice’s comments, and that it was not very fair to take the court’s (admittedly understandable) frustration out on her in this way.

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Not everybody had such a hard time, though. The academics involved ― Sébastien Grammond, the Dean of the Civil Law Section at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, was impressive in his argument for the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and McGill Law’s Dean Daniel Jutras, even more so. (I’m biased, of course, as an alumnus!) Dean Jutras’ fellow amicus, John Hunter was very good as well, though the Court gave him a hard time. But perhaps the most impressive performance was that of Senator Serge Joyal, who intervened and represented himself. It is often said that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but Mr. Joyal is no fool. He spoke with both emotion and intelligence, and brought insights to the Court which the judges had been looking for (about the pre-Patriation constitutional negotiations, in which he was very much involved). Indeed, Mr. Joyal, I think, is precisely the sort of person of whom the Senate was meant to consist. Too bad there are not more of them there.

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As for the best moment involving a judge, it came this morning when Justice Cromwell asked Mr. Hunter, who was arguing that the federal government’s plan to institute purportedly non-binding elections to choose persons whose appointment to the Senate the Prime Minister would have to “consider” did not entail a modification of the constitution, whether the government could, instead of elections, auction off Senate seats ― provided the auction was non-binding. (Mr. Hunter initially resisted, but eventually conceded this would be possible, subject of course to an eventual judgment of the voters. Not a great moment, I think, for the position he was supporting.)

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This brings me to way this will go. The federal government is in trouble. It is, of course, dangerous to make predictions based on hearings, but I have a strong impression that the Court ― all eight judges ― was skeptical of its position. The questioning both of its lawyers and of those who supported its position (as Alberta and Saskatchewan largely did, and Mr. Hunter did in part) was tougher than that of its opponents. Especially issue of the abolition of the Senate, I would be very surprised indeed if the Court were to endorse the federal government’s view that it could be effected without the unanimous consent of the provinces.

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If that is right, however, the Court may well ― though perhaps it will not ― more or less re-write the Constitution Act, 1982. The constitutional text does not, after all, mention the abolition of the Senate, which would at first glance suggest that the federal government’s position that the general amending formula, requiring the consent of 7 provinces with 50% of Canada’s population, should apply to it. What became quite clear in the course of the argument, however, is that the constitutional text does not contemplate a great many things which were not thought of in 1981, including some very fundamental changes, and that the Court seems reticent to hold that such changes (including, for example, turning Canada into a dictatorship), might happen with less than unanimous support. Judging by the tenor of the arguments, the Court may well follow the suggestion of some provinces and of the amici curiae, and hold that such fundamental changes require  unanimity, regardless of what the constitutional text says ― or, rather, doesn’t say. The federal government’s lawyers’ concluding exhortation not treat the Constitution Act, 1982, as a “suggestion box” may have come too late. Yet there would have been no need for it if the government itself had not done exactly that with its plan for getting to an elected Senate through the back door.

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Whichever way the Court’s decision goes ― whether it ends up endorsing the federal government’s plan for getting around constitutional text or re-writing that text ― it would be pretty revolutionary. The Chief Justice might have been tired of hearing it, but this is, indeed, a historic case.

3 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. Pingback: What to Make of the Constitution | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Senate Reference Notes | Double Aspect

  3. Pingback: The Mainville Hearing: Interpretive Issues | Double Aspect

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