And What if the Nadon Reference Never Happened? A (Fanciful) Thought Experiment

As you probably know by now, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday that federal court judges are not eligible for appointment to its three ‘Quebec seats’: Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21. Although retrospective legislation was introduced after the appointment of Justice Marc Nadon to the Court, the legislation was ultra vires Parliament. It was a change to the “composition” of the Court, something that can now be effected only by a constitutional amendment pursuant to Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Regular readers will not have been as surprised as some. The Court’s analytical framework mapped my submissions to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. There, I hedged my bets on the constitutional question, but I identified strong textual, purposive and intentionalist grounds for the Court’s conclusion. Much more could have been said by the Court in support of its decision on the constitutional question but it was unquestionably on solid ground. On the interpretive issue, opinion has long been closely divided. Again, there was ample support for the Court’s preferred view.

On one of the Sunday talk shows, a spokesman for the federal government raised the possibility that Justice Nadon might be appointed by some other means. As I (and others) explained to the Globe and Mail, there is very little chance of that happening. I submitted an explanatory op-ed which is more expansive, but I have no idea when or where it will appear.

A more interesting question to ponder is what would have happened had the initial challenge to Justice Nadon’s appointment proceeded through Federal Court. For want of expertise I park the question of whether Rocco Galati would have been successful in his claim that solicitor-client privilege was waived by the selective publication of positive opinions on the legality of the appointment. It seems to me a solid tactical reason for the course taken, as does the need for a relatively swift resolution of a controversy that has left the Supreme Court a judge short during two terms.

I noted at the outset that Galati’s challenge had significant merit. Galati had standing, the issue was justiciable and he had a strong argument on the interpretation of section 6 of the Supreme Court Act.

What was less clear, as Finn Makela noted in a comment, was whether the reviewing court would have to defer to the federal government.

There would have been strong arguments for deference. Though hedged in by statute, the power to name Supreme Court judges is plainly a discretionary one and may be based in part on broad considerations of policy, factors which trigger deference in the Court’s current analytical framework.  Moreover, even though the government did not necessarily set out its interpretation of the Supreme Court Act, its preferred view was “implied” in its conclusion that Justice Nadon was eligible; and a court may have had to defer to the interpretation advanced in litigation in response to Galati’s challenge.

As against this, the case might have been one which fell in the narrow category of “constitutional” questions reserved to the courts. As we now know, the “composition” of the Supreme Court of Canada is protected from “substantive change” (para. 105). Galati would have argued that what is impermissible by legislation is also impermissible by executive action. I agree, but the ‘correctness’ categories are narrow enough that the courts might nonetheless have felt bound to defer to the federal government’s interpretation, especially since this sort of problem has never really been authoritatively resolved in Canada.

If deference were due, the federal government should in my view have won the case. On my view, recently set out in “Unreasonable Interpretations of Law“, Galati would have had to identify a fatal flaw in the reasoning advanced by the federal government. This would have been very difficult. The expert opinion published in support of the appointment was unreasonable because it ignored section 6 of the Supreme Court Act, which was the key provision, but the federal government’s ultimate litigating position advanced a plausible interpretation of the relevant statutory provisions. It is easy to disagree with the federal government’s position but difficult to say that it was unreasonable. (I digress to say that I completely disagree with deferring in this sort of situation, but that is an argument for another day!).

Granted, Canadian courts have not adopted the view I set out in “Unreasonable Interpretations of Law“. They have tended to defer less on questions of statutory interpretation. Nonetheless, even supporters of the Court’s decision on Friday acknowledge that the interpretive question was “close“, surely close enough that deference to the federal government would have tipped the scales decisively in favour of Justice Nadon.

Of course, this thought experiment is fanciful. The federal government really had no option but to refer the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada for authoritative resolution. I think it did the right thing in doing so. The thought experiment is nonetheless interesting. And in light of the result a deferential approach could well have given, it provides food for thought about the appropriateness of deference, especially on questions that touch fundamental constitutional values.

This content has been updated on June 11, 2014 at 09:45.