The Supreme Court and Constitutional Change: Veto Player or Forcing Function?

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Comeau was disappointing. When offered the chance to bring some balance between section 121 and provincial powers, the Court swung hard toward the latter. In a typically Canadian fashion, the interests of governments took precedence, and will continue to take precedence, over the interests of consumers. We shouldn’t be too surprised by this. The people are absent from the Canadian constitution. We are a country of Crowns and legislatures, regions and minorities, not a state with a sovereign, unified people. Ultimately, Comeau reflects this reality.

The interpretive problems with the Comeau ruling have been addressed by legal scholars (here and here) and a political scientist who specializes in the Court and the Constitution. I’m not qualified to comment on their analyses, but they’re fairly convincing to this lay reader.

What I can comment on is the Court’s approach to institutional change. As Craig Forcese noted yesterday, it’s hard not to notice that the SCC is encasing Canadian institutions in amber. The Court is becoming a significant status quo player when it comes to institutional change. (Dennis Baker and Mark Jarvis have a great book chapter on this issue in Macfarlane’s book.) While we might hope that the Constitution could be a living tree when it comes to how we govern ourselves, the Court is basically telling us that we have to accept that it’s a dead stump.

What’s the Court trying to accomplish here?

One answer is that the SCC has an inherent status quo inclination. I could accept this if the Court demonstrated a similar inclination when applying the Charter.

Another possibility is that the Court thinks that institutional change should come from politicians, not the judiciary. If that were the case, one would expect the Court to be more accepting of incremental changes forwarded by governments and legislatures. I don’t think we’ve seen much of that.

A third possibility is that the Court is subtly telling us that we can’t avoid constitutional negotiations forever –that these rulings are meant to serve as a forcing function. Seen in this way, the SCC is saying that it won’t make the changes that should be properly negotiated between governments. Paradoxically, the Court may be using its power as a status quo player to force Ottawa and the provinces to accept that they will need to reopen the constitution if they want to address Canada’s constitutional deficiencies.

If this is what the SCC is doing, then there’s something valuable about their approach. Allowing our institutions to drift along isn’t setting Canada up for success over the long-term. Indeed, one of the biggest threats to Canadian prosperity may be the inability/unwillingness to update our institutions to meet contemporary problems. Otherwise, as Fukuyama warns us, we face the prospect of political decay and its rather serious consequences.

I’m probably wrong about what the SCC is doing. Maybe the Court is simply being craven or pragmatic. But I hold out some hope that the justices aren’t simply being veto players for the sake of being veto players.

 

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