By Kylie de Chastelain
The Asper Centre recently hosted Professor Carissima Mathen, author of Courts Without Cases: The Law and Politics of Advisory Opinions (2019), for a dynamic Constitutional Roundtable about her new book, with Professor Lorraine Weinrib as discussant.
Professor Mathen’s book, described by Professor Weinrib as a “milestone” in Canadian Constitutional writing, explores the under-studied but vitally important institution of Supreme Court references. References are opinions given in the absence of a live case. They are put forward to the Court by the executive branch and the opinions that result are called “advisory opinions.” Those who have studied constitutional law will be familiar with references, but what many don’t realize is that some of Canada’s most important judicial decisions did not emerge from cases, but from references. Same-sex marriage, assisted human reproduction, Senate Reform, Quebec secession and patriation are only some of the landmark opinions that have emerged from references. In Professor Mathen’s words, each constitutes an important “constitutional moment,” and yet, references have remained chronically unexplored by legal scholars. Mathen has sought to change that through her book, which is the first focused examination of references in Canadian legal scholarship.
References are not uniquely Canadian but the way they are handled by our judicial system sets Canada apart from other Anglo-American countries. In South Africa, Israel, India, and numerous European countries, specialist “constitutional courts” address a variety of issues through references. As Professor Mathen emphasized, what is notable about the Canadian context is that the Supreme Court performs “both an adjudicative and an advisory function.” This function was enumerated in the Supreme and Exchequer Court Act, which created the Supreme Court of Canada, in 1875.
Professor Weinrib suggested that the reference phenomenon was institutionalized “by accident,” but that it was much needed, in part because Canada’s formal written constitution was initially fragmented and incomplete. In particular, the lack of a domestic amending formula made it very difficult for the federal government to govern. The reference function allowed federal and provincial governments to raise questions and discern the legal elements of political issues before bringing them back to the legislature; effectively using the court to establish a guiding framework for the nation’s development. This dynamic also allowed the executive to pre-emptively explore important legal issues before a case emerged and a decision was handed down in a conventional trial.
However, in the present day, Professor Mathen has argued that references and advisory opinions pose two potential problems with regard to Canada’s federal system. The separation of powers is essential to how the Canadian state operates, but by vesting courts with the ability to do more than adjudicate cases, references might be viewed as extending the judicial function beyond its optimal boundaries. In addition, because references can only be put forward by the executive branch, they arguably align the judiciary and the executive and exclude the legislature, even though the issues addressed in references are often very salient to the legislative context. Further, this arrangement could give the impression that the court is subservient to the executive; threatening the idea that the judiciary is independent. Courts are expected to address the references put forward to them, but as Professor Mathen explained, the Supreme Court is not always so accommodating.
On several occasions, the Supreme Court has refused to engage with the references put to them by the executive. Sometimes, the Court has rejected the requests outright, and in other cases it has re-interpreted the questions asked. By way of illustration, Professor Mathen pointed to the Patriation Reference, where the executive asked whether there was a constitutional problem with amending the constitution without provincial consent. In its opinion, the Court divided on its interpretation of the question, exploring whether all provinces – or only some provinces – had to agree with a constitutional amendment in order for it to pass.
Most interesting in Professor Mathen’s view is the fact that the Supreme Court has never explained why it sometimes chooses to refuse reference requests. Section 53(4) of the Supreme Court Act stipulates that the court has a duty to hear and consider all references, but despite this, the Court reserves the right to ignore references outright or to ignore sub-questions in a given reference, as it did in the Same-sex Marriage Reference. Here, the Court refused to answer Question 4 of the reference, which asked if the opposite-sex requirement for marriage for civil purposes was consistent with the Charter. ostensibly because it was concerned about any “confusion” that could emerge if it answered in the negative. More specifically, the Court stated that it would “exercise its discretion” not to answer the question, in part because the federal government had “stated its intention to address the issue of same-sex marriage legislatively regardless of the Court’s opinion” and that answering Question 4 could potentially undermine the government’s “stated goal of achieving uniformity in respect of civil marriage across Canada” if it answered the question affirmatively. Mathen suggested that the Court’s refusal to answer demonstrates the intention of the Court to retain first and foremost a legal role, as the chief constitutional arbiter, and the primary interpreter of its norms.
Here lies a final and fascinating point about Supreme Court references: they are not legally binding. References are only advisory and technically co-exist with treatises, textbooks, and other scholarly legal works that have no authoritative control over judges and their decisions. But practically speaking, we do not treat references in this way. As Professor Weinrib pointed out, references serve an incredibly important function in establishing norms. Indeed, we treat references as legally binding decisions; they are taught in law schools alongside other case law, and are treated by legislatures and governments with the same gravity as a binding Supreme Court decision. This could be, as Professor Weinrib suggested, because references sometimes feel more methodologically sophisticated; more conceptual and holistic. References help to develop a rule of law that reflects fundamental constitutional principles from the outset. This is undeniably a strength of the dynamic that exists in Canada.
Ultimately, Professor Mathen has produced an accessible and engaging account of the reference power in Canada, which, for all its curiosities, is undoubtedly an integral aspect of Canadian judicial practice and legal development.
Kylie de Chastelain is a 1L student of law at the University of Toronto and the current Asper Centre work-study student.