by Kylie de Chastelain
On Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019 the Asper Centre hosted Professor Brandon Garrett for a Constitutional Roundtable titled “Wealth, Equal Protection and Due Process.”
Professor Garrett presented work from a recent paper exploring “equal process” – a term he coined to describe the intersection between the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses in the United States Constitution. “Equal process” claims have already arisen from Supreme Court and lower court cases where the main issue is wealth inequality, but courts have been wary of engaging with constitutional issues on a cumulative or intersectional basis. Garrett argues that the “equal process” approach should be more widely implemented to help address a series of pressing civil right issues, including the constitutionality of fines, loss of voter rights or driver’s licenses, and detention for inability to pay cash bail.
To illustrate the damaging effects of “punishing the poor,” and the need for an “equal process” approach, Garrett presented findings from a compelling empirical research study he conducted at Duke Law’s JustScience Lab. The study examined driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina from 1996-2018. In North Carolina, licenses can be suspended for a failure to pay traffic tickets or failure to appear in court. Many states have similar legislation. However, in North Carolina, as elsewhere, insufficient public transit options make driving a necessity. The loss of one’s license can have substantial material effects on livelihood and employment.
Garrett and his team found that approximately 1 out of 7 driving-age individuals in North Carolina currently have suspended licenses, for a total of 1,225,000 active suspensions. Of these, 827,000 are for a failure to appear in Court, 263,000 are for a failure to comply with orders to pay traffic fines or court fees, and 135,000 are for both. This data was further analyzed against race and class metrics to find that driver’s license suspensions occur disproportionately in low-income and non-white populations. In other words, license suspension and legal procedure of this kind punish people for poverty; something the Equal Protection Clause explicitly aims to prevent.
Historically, U.S. courts have been unwilling to examine constitutional issues such as these in creative ways, preferring to examine constitutional matters in isolation. This clause-by-clause tactic, Garrett argues, fails to adequately address the complex issues arising from poverty. An interdisciplinary approach yields better results.
For example, in Bearden v Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), a man who was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $750 in fines but could not afford to do so eventually had his probation revoked. The Bearden Court explicitly merged Equal Protection and Due Process analyses in this case, noting that a classic procedural approach – where fine amounts are automatic regardless of ability to pay – was inherently unjust. Instead, the Court examined why the man could not pay and explored whether alternative measures could equally serve the state’s interest. Implementing a delayed payment plan, reducing the fine, or ordering time in public service could all fulfill requirements for punishment and restitution without unduly compounding the effects of poverty in this man’s life. Like this, the “equal process” approach could empower courts and litigators to raise joint claims and establish more just modes of penalty.
In this way, Professor Garrett argues, Bearden provides courts and lawyers with a strong basis for raising and trying joint claims. Adopting an “equal process” approach could empower courts to re-examine their objectives and interests in handing down punishment to society’s most vulnerable.
Following Professor Garrett’s presentation, Professor Vincent Chiao offered his comments and insight into the Canadian context. R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58 is a recent notable case where the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the mandatory victim surcharge provision of the Criminal Code on the basis that it was unconstitutional. As Chiao noted, the Court’s analysis in Boudreault did not focus on due process or equality but on gross disproportionality and cruel and unusual punishment as per s. 12 of the Charter.
The decision in Boudreault marked a clear departure from R v Tinker 2017 ONCA 522, where the Court reinstated victim surcharges against appellants on the basis that they were “rationally connected” to aims regarding remedy for criminal activities and accountability to victims. In Tinker, s. 12 arguments addressing cruel and unusual punishment were dismissed. But in Boudreault, as in Bearden, the Court acknowledged that victim surcharges compound the effects of poverty, effectively creating ongoing debts that are impossible for offenders to repay. Chiao emphasized that although the result in Boudreault was encouraging, Professor Garrett’s “equal process” approach could help elucidate intersectional, equality-focused jurisprudence in Canada moving forward.
Kylie de Chastelain is a 1L JD student at the Faculty of Law and is the current Asper Centre work-study student.