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A dispute over the legality of a politically questionable judicial appointment has resulted in what pundits call a stinging defeat for Canada’s prime minister and a bold assertion by the Supreme Court of Canada of its independence and constitutional status.
Recently, in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, the Court advised that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment of the Honourable Mr. Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada was void. He had been sworn in five months earlier. On a six-judge majority’s reading of the Supreme Court Act, Justice Nadon was unqualified to fill one of three spots reserved for jurists trained in the law of Quebec. Quebec is the federation’s sole civil-law jurisdiction and the only province with a French-speaking majority.
In addition, the Court opined that the Parliament of Canada’s ex post amendments to the Supreme Court Act purporting to clarify that Justice Nadon was eligible were unconstitutional. They amounted to a constitutional amendment requiring the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provinces.
While many had criticized the political wisdom of the prime minister’s selection of a semi-retired judge on nobody’s shortlist, the constitutional issues turn on the interpretation of the Supreme Court Act and of the country’s constitutional amending formula.
General qualifications for appointment appear in section 5 of the Supreme Court Act. It refers to current and former judges and to a person who “is or has been” a lawyer of at least ten years standing at the bar of a province. The controversy bore on section 6’s specification that three justices be drawn “from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province.” Justice Nadon came instead from the Federal Court of Appeal. Although formerly a member of the Quebec Bar for more than ten years, he was no longer a member. Using a process set out in the Supreme Court Act, the federal executive referred questions to the Court for its opinion.
The validity of the initial selection of Justice Nadon turned on the relationship between the Act’s general and specific provisions and the significance, if any, of the different wording in sections 5 and 6 (“is or has been,” “among”). The majority of the Court concluded that Quebec appointments needed to be current judges of the named Quebec courts or current members of the Quebec Bar. Those judges stated the primary basis for their decision to be the Act’s plain meaning and the differences in wording. A single judge dissented.
It is striking for an apex court—even when the government asks it to weigh in—to reject an appointment to its ranks on the basis that the government had misinterpreted the relevant statute. But the Court went further. It grounded a formalistic exercise of statutory interpretation turning on the niceties of “is or has been” versus “among” in the historic compromise guaranteeing one-third of the Court’s judges to Quebec. For the majority justices, their interpretation of section 6 advanced the “dual purpose of ensuring that the Court has civil law expertise and that Quebec’s legal traditions and social values are represented on the Court,” maintaining that province’s “confidence” in the Court (para. 18).
Exaggerating the opinion’s political salience would be difficult. At a moment when Quebec is governed by a separatist party, and less than three weeks before Quebecers vote in a provincial general election, the Supreme Court of Canada explicitly declared itself to be an institution that guarantees a voice for Quebec’s “social values” in federal institutions. Commentators read the entire judgment as a declaration of the Court’s independence from a prime minister and executive perceived as disdainful towards democratic institutions and tone-deaf regarding Quebec. By implication, the majority’s reasoning made the choice of Justice Nadon not only formally invalid, but also substantively disrespectful of Quebec. One can speculate on the depth of the majority’s commitment to this substantive point by asking whether it would have upheld the appointment had the federal government named Justice Nadon to an eligible Quebec court the day before appointing him to the Supreme Court.
The opinion’s most enduring contribution, though, arises from its answer to the question concerning Parliament’s attempt to amend the Supreme Court Act. Parliament had created the Court by statute in 1875. The Court did not replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the federation’s tribunal of last resort for nearly three-quarters of a century. In its final legislative exercise for Canada, the Parliament of the United Kingdom brought into life the Constitution Act, 1982. The latter lists instruments that the Constitution of Canada includes, but does not mention the Supreme Court Act. Nevertheless, the new constitutional amending formula refers twice to the Supreme Court. The Court appears among the “matters” amendable by Parliament with the consent of a majority of provinces. Its “composition” figures among the “matters” amendable only on unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces.
In opining that Parliament’s attempt to modify the Supreme Court Act to clear the way for Justice Nadon was unconstitutional, the majority stated that reference to the Court’s “composition” in the amending formula constitutionalized sections 5 and 6 of the Act. By implication, it also constitutionalized the Court’s continuing existence, “since abolition would altogether remove the Court’s composition” (para. 91). The majority added that the more general reference to the Court constitutionalized its “essential features … understood in light of the role that it had come to play in the Canadian constitutional structure by the time of patriation” (para. 94). In effect, the amending formula drastically reduced the scope for change to the Supreme Court by ordinary federal statute.
Moreover, the Court confirmed that the sources of the Constitution of Canada now include not only the previously known hodge-podge of royal proclamations, imperial statutes and orders in council, federal statutes, and unwritten principles. Those sources also include parts of another federal statute, the Supreme Court Act—some provisions identified by number as well as whatever might in future be determined to embody the Court’s “essential features.” Indeed, by referring to the “role” that the Court has come to play, the majority judges hint that the Court’s constitutionalized features may not track directly to specifiable legislative provisions, instead arising from practice. Presumably the same applies to other institutions that the amending formula constitutionalized, such as the Senate of Canada, on which the Court will pronounce in due course.
Whatever the political fallout for the prime minister, the Court’s advisory opinion merits careful attention by those who study sources of constitutional law, amending formulae, and how institutions’ constitutional status may change over time.
Robert Leckey is an Associate Professor of Law and William Dawson Scholar at the Faculty of Law, McGill University. He is scheduled to speak in the United Kingdom and South Africa about his forthcoming book Bills of Rights in the Common Law on the following dates in 2014: King’s College London – 12 May; Oxford University – 13 May; Unisa, Pretoria – 15 May; Cape Town – 19 May; University College London – 17 June; London School of Economics – 29 October. Further details for these talks may be obtained from the venues hosting the talks.
(Suggested Citation: Robert Leckey, Constitutionalizing Canada’s Supreme Court, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 25, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/03/constitutionalizing-canadas-supreme-court or R. Leckey, ‘Constitutionalizing Canada’s Supreme Court’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (1 April 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).