A Bad Case

As promised, here are some thoughts on the Memorandum of Fact and Law that the federal government’s lawyers have filed in response to Aniz Alani’s challenge of the Prime Minister’s policy of not appointing Senators. (I had previously canvassed what I thought ― mostly, but not entirely, correctly ― would be the main issues in this case here, and commented on the Federal Court’s decision rejecting the government’s motion to strike here.) Full disclosure, before going any further: I have spoken to Mr. Alani about this case, and made some comments on the draft of his own Memorandum of Fact and Law. Whether this makes me biased, you be the judge.

The government makes four arguments for dismissing Mr. Alani’s challenge. First, it says that he does not deserve to be granted public interest standing to pursue it. Second, the claim is, in its view, non-justiciable, because it requires the court to enforce a constitutional convention. Third, even if justiciable, the issue is not within the jurisdiction of the federal court. And fourth, when it comes to the actual merits, the Prime Minister has “broad discretion” as to the timing as well as the contents of his advice.

Note what’s missing here: an actual claim that s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867 doesn’t require the appointment of Senators. It’s blindingly clear that it does, and much of the government’s argument is devoted to directing the Court’s attention away from this simple truth. That said, all truths are not to be told by courts generally, and by the Federal Court of Canada specifically, and the government’s arguments on justiciability and, perhaps especially, jurisdiction are serious, albeit presented in a rather misleading way.

The standing argument is more difficult to take seriously. The test for granting a person public interest standing (i.e. the ability to pursue a claim that has no impact on his or her own legal rights) is explained in the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, [2012] 2 S.C.R. 524. There must be a serious justiciable issue ― a point that is treated separately in the government’s submissions (and presumably always will be if it is a live issue in a case, which makes me wonder whether it even should be treated as part of the standing inquiry). The claim must be a reasonable and effective means of getting the issue before the courts. This is normally the most contentious part of the test, but here, the government’s submissions have little to do with the usual inquiry into the existence of alternative ways of getting the issue litigated. They focus, rather, on the other element of the standing test, which asks whether the claimant has a genuine interest in the issue. The government makes much of the the fact that Mr. Alani hadn’t taken an interest in the question of Senate vacancies for any length of time before launching his application. In its submission, this makes him “a ‘busybody’ as the term is defined in the jurisprudence,” [39] a person who doesn’t really care about the issue, and thus undeserving of representing the public interest.

This argument is really beside the point, however. The policy of not appointing Senators is new and unprecedented. Nobody can have demonstrated a long-standing interest in it, because it did not exist, or at least hadn’t been publicly announced, until last winter. Mr. Alani became interested in it as soon as it was possible for anyone to do so. The government’s argument amounts to a suggestion that nobody can bring a public interest court challenge to an unconstitutional government policy for some undefined time after it is put in place, because doing so makes the claimant a “busybody.” This is absurd. As for Mr. Alani himself, right or wrong, he has made a difficult argument very seriously; he has invested a considerable amount of time and effort into it; he doesn’t just come to court with a vague sense of grievance; he has also, I have argued, taken his role as a (self-appointed) representative of the public with more seriousness than most public-interest litigants, or for that matter the government itself, tend to do. In the absence of any other, more effective, vehicle for getting the issue adjudicated, his challenge deserved to be addressed substantively, and not dismissed for lack of standing.

The government’s argument on justiciability is that Mr. Alani “seeks … judicial enforcement of the Prime Minister’s role in Senate appointments.” [45] Courts, according to orthodox constitutional theory, are not in the business of enforcing constitutional conventions, and thus they should not adjudicate Mr. Alani’s claim. Nor is the Supreme Court’s recognition in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 704, of the existence of a “constitutional architecture” enough to make conventions justiciable.

As I have indicated above, I think that the justiciability issue is a serious one, but not exactly for the reasons the government suggests. Indeed, I think that it is somewhat misleading to describe Mr. Alani’s claim as seeking the enforcement of a convention. Convention says that the Governor General appoints Senators on the Prime Minister’s advice, and not on his own initiative. It eliminates the discretion that the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 seems to give to the Governor General. If the Governor General decides to appoint Senators on his own, without waiting for the Prime Minister’s advice, and the Prime Minister tries to block those appointments, that would indeed be an attempt to enforce a convention. What Mr. Alani is asking for is something else. He wants the Prime Minister to be told that he must advise the Governor General ― not the Governor General to be told that he must follow the Prime Minister’s advice. The duty Mr. Alani is asking the court to enforce is not the Governor General’s, but the Prime Minister’s.

This is, admittedly, a novel claim, and it raises two issues: does the duty in question exist at all, and if so, what is its nature? Contrary to the government’s submissions, I think that the notion of constitutional architecture is pertinent here. The architecture of our system of responsible government involves an advice-giving Prime Minister (in some situations, including Senate appointments) and cabinet (in others). When the relevant actors are refusing to give advice to the Governor General, they are undermining this architecture. This is particularly so when the advice in question is necessary for the Governor General to legitimately perform a clear constitutional duty, such as the appointment of Senators. For this reason, I think that it is quite clear that the Prime Minister does indeed have a duty to advise the Governor General to make Senate appointments. And, while this is less clear, I think that taking the notion of constitutional architecture seriously requires us to conclude that this duty is indeed a legal one.

The federal government’s strongest argument, in my view, is the one about the jurisdiction of the Federal Court, which is only empowered to review decisions of bodies acting pursuant to an Act of Parliament or a Crown prerogative. The government contends that the Prime Minister, in his advice-giving capacity, is not such a body. The heart of Mr. Alani’s argument on this point is his submission that

[i]In the case of Senate appointments, the Governor General enjoys the Crown prerogative power to summon and receive advice from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, in turn, has jurisdiction to advise “by a prerogative of the Crown.”

The government’s response is that “[t]he advice is simply provided pursuant to a constitutional convention” [75] ― otherwise, it says, the advice would be binding on the Governor General.

I think this is a difficult question. On the one hand, it’s not obvious to me that if the Governor General has the prerogative to summon advisers and receive and advice (as he does), the advice he receives is given “by” that prerogative. On the other, I think the government is wrong to claim that the non-binding nature of the advice shows that it is strictly conventional in nature. Convention that makes the advice binding, but it does not follow from that that the advice itself is given pursuant to a conventional, rather than a legal obligation. Indeed, as I suggest above, I believe that the Prime Minister does have a legal obligation to provide advice on Senate Appointments ― but again, I’m not sure that this is enough to make this advice into one given “by a prerogative of the Crown,” rather than a duty directly imposed by the constitution, over which, as the government argues, the Federal Court would lack jurisdiction (so that Mr. Alani would have to bring a new case in a provincial superior court if he wants the matter adjudicated).

Finally, on the substantive issue in Mr. Alani’s challenge, the government argues that the remedy he seeks, namely a declaration that Senate vacancies must be filled “within a reasonable time” is too vague to be granted, and that there is no constitutional convention limiting the time a Prime Minister can take to recommend an appointment. The matter is one in which the Governor General (and, presumably, the Prime Minister) has a “wide discretion.” [89]

One thing that comes to mind in response is Justice Rand’s famous statement in Roncarelli v. Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, that “In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled ‘discretion’, that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator.” (140) The context is not quite the same ― we’re not talking about economic regulation or even administrative law, but the warning is apposite. The Governor General does, undoubtedly, have some discretion, perhaps wide discretion, in complying with s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, because a Senate appointment is, or should be, a serious political decision which may reasonably take some time. But this discretion cannot be abused in every which way a Prime Minister thinks expedient.

And, once again, the government’s emphasis on (non-existent) conventions is rather beside the point. The issue here is not that some one vacancy has gone unfilled for too long. It is that the Prime Minister has announced a policy of not filling them at all. If the existence of a constitutional convention cannot overturn clear constitutional text, then surely the non-existence of a convention cannot do so either. Yet that is exactly the government’s contention: no convention specifies how quickly s. 32 must be complied with, therefore s. 32 need not be complied with at all. This too is absurd.

When a court finally reaches the merits of Mr. Alani’s claim, it ought to rule in his favour. The government’s substantive submissions are feeble ― not because its lawyers are bad, but because its case is. But whether the Federal Court is the court that can address the merits of this case is a difficult question, to which I am unable to suggest a definitive answer.

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