Recapping Brandon Garrett’s Constitutional Roundtable on Wealth, Equal Protection, and Due Process

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.

Unpacking the Issues in the Upcoming TWU Appeals at the Supreme Court of Canada

by Tal Schreier

On November 30th and December 1st 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear two appeals involving Trinity Western University (TWU), a private Christian university in British Columbia wishing to open a new law school. The appeals involve legal challenges to decisions by the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario and the impact of a policy that requires TWU students to sign a code of conduct forbidding sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage. Ontario decided to deny the accreditation of TWU law graduates in the future, while BC approved accreditation. The cases are expected to “break new constitutional ground” around how administrative decision-makers are to balance the competing Charter rights of equality and freedom of religion.

The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights is involved in three upcoming events at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law aimed at assisting students and the public in better understanding the key issues that are involved in the TWU cases. The Asper Centre  is jointly convening these events with Out in Law and the Journal of Law and Equality.

First, on November 23rd, ahead of the actual court dates, a Dean’s Emerging Issues Workshop Series panel discussion has been convened to consider and analyse some of the main issues that will be covered in the TWU appeals. The discussion will cover the administrative law issues involved, the balancing of competing rights and the unique circumstances regarding the involvement of public interest interveners in these cases. The panelists will include Professors Denise Reaume and Richard Stacey of the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, Professor Richard Moon of the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor and Cheryl Milne, the Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights. Maryam Shahid, JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and co-Editor of the Journal of Law and Equality will moderate the panel.

Second, on the actual hearing dates (Nov 30 and Dec 1) we have organized for the live-stream viewing of the arguments taking place at the Supreme Court of Canada. While the arguments are being live-streamed directly from the court, faculty members from the law school will provide commentary explaining the key issues as they arise. A schedule of “live-commentators” will be made available in due course.

Lastly, following the hearing, we will convene a post-TWU debriefing panel discussion. This presentation will provide an opportunity for some of the intervening parties’ counsel to discuss what transpired in the cases and what they may have liked to say to the court to better enrich the parties’ arguments, if not for the constraints involved. The date for this presentation will take place sometime in late January or early February of 2018.