Reticence and Power

The Supreme Court of Canada is in the habit of “suspending” its declarations of unconstitutionality of legislation, especially controversial or important legislation, ostensibly in order to give the legislature which enacted the statute at issue time to re-write it so as to remove the constitutional defect while preserving as much of the substance of the law as possible. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But in a very interesting post on the UK Constitutional Law Association’s blog, Robert Leckey argues that this trend is worrying. Suspended declarations of invalidity, prof. Leckey claims, are problematic from a Rule of Law perspective, and amount to a tacit abandonment of some of the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. I am not sure that either of these claims is quite right, but they deserve careful thought.

Professor Leckey’s main exhibit is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, which invalidated the Criminal Code‘s provisions “regulating” prostitution on the basis that they were contrary to the guarantee of “security of the person” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but suspended the declaration of unconstitutionality for a year, to give Parliament the chance to enact a new regulatory framework for addressing the problems created by prostitution. Prof. Leckey points out, as I did in my review of the Court’s decision, that the Court offers little, if anything, by of justification for the decision to suspend the declaration unconstitutionality. Yet, he says, the suspended remedy is quite problematic, both in this specific case and from a theoretical perspective.

Practically speaking, for one thing, it perpetuates for one more year a legal regime which the Court has found to compromise the security of the women involved in sex work. For another, the suspended declaration of unconstitutionality helps foster a state of uncertainty about the applicable law, which “local authorities are enforcing the provisions to varying extents,” thus “arguably undermin[ing] the rule of law.”

At a more theoretical level, prof. Leckey suggests that ” the suspended remedy in Bedford represents the culmination of judges’ reshaping of their role under the Charter.” In the Charter’s early years, they would simply strike down the laws they found to contravene it. The suspended declaration of unconstitutionality was originally developed as a remedy in order to avoid the dangers of a legal vacuum, and was meant to be exceptional. Now, however, it is justified as a means, not of preventing lawlessness, but “of making space for a legislative response.” In prof. Leckey’s view, the Supreme Court has moved “from using orders under the Charter to cease the effect of laws violating rights to using them to identify legislative priorities,” resulting in an “apparent underuse of [the Canadian judiciary’s] constitutional powers,” contrary to the letter of the constitution.

It seems to me that prof. Leckey makes very important points, but perhaps neglects the counter-points that could be made in defence of the Supreme Court’s practice. For instance, when thinking about the Rule of Law implications of suspending a declaration of unconstitutionality, it is worth noting that, when a legislative response to the Court’s judgment is expected, the suspended remedy helps to maintain the stability of the law, by making for a single change of regulatory framework (when the new law is enacted) rather than two in quick succession (when the old law is struck down and again when a new one is enacted). I’m not sure that this outweighs prof. Leckey’s point about uncertainty, but it is at least a possibility to consider.

As for the theoretical point, I think it is necessary to think about the differences between the laws of which the courts are asked to review the constitutionality. As I have suggested elsewhere (here, for instance), we might want to treat laws that simply expand the coercive power of the state, or entrench incumbents in political office, differently from those which are meant to balance competing social interests. Whether or not these different sorts of laws ought to be reviewed with varying degrees of deference, there is, I think, a much better case to be made for suspending a declaration of unconstitutionality for a law of the “balancing” sort than from a coercive or power-entrenching one. And it may well be that laws belonging to the “balancing” category form a larger part of the Supreme Court’s constitutional docket now than they did in the Charter’s early days, when it was busy weeding out legislation like the Lord’s Day Act, which would account for the proliferation of suspended declarations of unconstitutionality.

Now, even if this general point is right, I think that prof. Leckey is quite right about Bedford. The prostitution provisions of the Criminal Code do not, in my view, balance competing social interests. They are naked repression. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s treatment of the remedy issue, particularly its reference to the “great concern” which “many Canadians” supposedly feel about “unregulated” prostitution (par. 167), suggests that it may well regard it as a balancing, rather than a repressive, regulatory scheme.

Still, the misuse of the suspended declaration of unconstitutionality in one case does not prove that this remedy is fundamentally flawed. We need to think more about this issue ― and so does the Supreme Court. Its unwillingness to explain itself does not become an institution that pretends to be circumspect in its use of power. Power deployed without explanation is the opposite of reticence.

2 thoughts on “Reticence and Power

  1. Pingback: Extra Time | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Why’d You Do This? | Double Aspect

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