Enforcing principles, enforcing conventions

Did the UK Supreme Court enforce a constitutional convention in Miller (No 2)? Most writers say no. I say yes. 

Miller (No 2)

I won’t go through the case in detail. For my purposes three points matter. 

First, the UKSC says that there is a constitutional ‘principle of Parliamentary accountability’. It gives three examples of ministerial accountability in practice: (1) ministers’ duty to answer questions in Parliament; (2) ministers’ duty to appear before Parliamentary committees; and (3) Parliament’s opportunity to scrutinise delegated legislation.  

Second, the court says that this principle imposes a ‘legal limit’ on the power to prorogue. Specifically, a decision to prorogue or to advise the monarch to prorogue Parliament is unlawful if it frustrates or prevents Parliament’s ability to carry out its function as the the body responsible for supervising the executive, without reasonable justification. By ‘supervising’ it is clear the Court means to include holding the executive to account. 

Third, the Court makes almost no mention of constitutional conventions by name. In particular, it does not discuss the convention of ministerial accountability. 

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The Pardon Paradox

Almost every constitution in the world confers a power to pardon.  Pardon powers are found in the constitutions of old states and new states, Western states and non-Western states, states with a Christian tradition and states without one. Pardon powers are part of the constitutions of states as diverse as France, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Pardon powers share several features. First, the exercise of the power has the result of lifting or lessening criminal liability. Second, the power achieves this result not by changing the law, but by setting it aside in a particular case. Third, the power is held by a branch of government other than the judiciary – the executive, normally, or the legislature, less commonly. Finally, in its traditional mould, a pardon power is wholly arbitrary. Its use is unreviewable and unconstrained. (For recent departures from this traditional form of the pardon power, see my post here.) 

So understood, pardon powers seem to conflict with two of the most basic principles of constitutionalism. Contrary to the separation of powers, a pardon power gives to a branch of government other than the judiciary a role in determining criminal liability in particular cases. Contrary to the rule of law, a pardon power is traditionally neither controlled by nor ruled by law.  

Hence the pardon paradox: one of the most common constitutional power is at odds with some of the most fundamental constitutional principles. Pardon powers are everywhere but seem to properly belong nowhere. I argue that the paradox has a solution. Appearances notwithstanding, pardon powers threaten neither the separation of powers nor the rule of law. My argument has three steps.

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Why constitutional conventions aren’t laws (hint: it’s not why you think)

I’ve been lecturing lately on constitutional conventions, one of my favourite topics in the constitutional law course. A couple of weeks ago I sketched what I think is a new argument for why conventions aren’t laws. I’m reasonably confident of the argument, but far from certain, so I thought I’d share it more widely. If you spot any flaws, please let me know!

Continue reading “Why constitutional conventions aren’t laws (hint: it’s not why you think)”

New Draft Paper: Government Mercy

I’ve been working on a series of papers about mercy. My latest is a discussion of when the government acts mercifully, if indeed it ever does.

Here’s the abstract:

A pardon is an act of mercy according to the law, but is a pardon mercy in an ordinary or genuine sense? What distinguishes a pardon from a lenient judicial sentence, which is not mercy by the law’s lights? These are questions about what mercy as it is understood in law has to do with mercy as it is understood outside of law, and about who in government acts mercifully and when, if indeed anyone in government ever does. Here I propose a general analysis of mercy, then bring that analysis to bear on government action. Three features of my analysis are noteworthy. First, almost all existing analyses say that mercy is unconstrained in a normative sense, but I argue that mercy is unconstrained in the way that arbitrary power is unconstrained. Second, although it’s often assumed that mercy must be motivated by compassion, I show that mercy only requires acting with the intention to benefit the recipient. Third, my analysis says that mercy requires the giver of mercy to overcome a motivation to treat the recipient harshly. Given this analysis, few government acts are merciful, but pardon is an institutional approximation or analog of mercy.

Read the full paper here.

The paper is a draft, and comments and suggestions, no matter how small, are very welcome!

Entrenching and Undercutting

Nick Barber has an article titled ‘Why Entrench?’ coming out in the International Journal of Constitutional Law (available on SSRN). Among other things, the article is about the kinds of entrenchment there are, the reasons there are for entrenchment, and how the two match up. I really like the piece: it’s clear and persuasive, with some fresh examples and a useful typology. Here I want to explore a point that Barber hints at, but doesn’t get into. Continue reading “Entrenching and Undercutting”

Why Codify?

Britain is always tinkering with its constitution. Sometimes it talks about a more radical change: constitutional codification. Over the past few years, talk of constitutional codification has grown a little more serious. High-profile committees, centres, and scholars have spent a lot of time and energy discussing the issue. Sophisticated reports have been produced (see here and here). Articles have been written.

But I still wonder: what difference would codifying the constitution actually make? Continue reading “Why Codify?”

Constitutional and Quasi-Constitutional Statutes

Some statutes have ‘constitutional’ or ‘quasi-constitutional’ status. What is the legal significance of a statute’s constitutional or quasi-constitutional status? The answer is different in different jurisdictions. In Britain, Canada, and some other jurisdictions, the answers are different than they once were. Continue reading “Constitutional and Quasi-Constitutional Statutes”

Mercy and Judicial Review in the Commonwealth

Judges in Commonwealth jurisdictions are increasingly willing to review the executive’s decisions to grant or refuse mercy (ie, decisions to grant or refuse a request for a pardon or remission of a sentence for a criminal offence). Here I want to sketch the developments and mention a few interesting differences and commonalities. I’ll focus on the Caribbean States and India, where most of the action has been.

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