On Friday a Provincial Court judge in New Brunswick struck down a duly enacted law and I couldn’t be happier. It was a section of the provincial liquor act limiting the right to buy beer next door in Quebec and it was clearly unconstitutional.
Now it might seem that I like judicial activism when it goes my way. But it’s not that at all. It’s that properly designed constitutions are set up to keep government limited even when the ambitions of politicians or a temporary lapse in the good sense of the public push them to expand, and to guarantee that rights are respected even when expedience seems to argue for violating them. When courts strike down laws that infringe basic constitutional guarantees of liberty, it’s not activism. It’s proper checks and balances against legislative or executive activism.
There is in the end no paper defence against people genuinely heedless or contemptuous of their own liberties and those of others. But the American Constitution is famously an appeal “from the people drunk to the people sober” and so is ours even when the issue is the right to buy beer. As a Macdonald-Laurier Institute press release praising the judgement rightly notes, our Constitution deliberately forbade the provinces from engaging in petty internal protectionism.
The release links to a paper I had the privilege of coauthoring with Institute Executive Director Brian Lee Crowley and the late Robert Knox back in 2010 explaining what our Founders did and why and how, and how the federal government could and should act to make their vision a reality. It’s excellent that a court has taken the right view of this matter and I hope the ruling is not appealed or, if it is, that it is upheld.
I also hope the federal parliament will be emboldened to legislate and end to all such protectionism. It clearly has the power and not just the right but the duty.
Meanwhile our own draft constitution, part of our “True, Strong and Free” project, will not only reiterate but strengthen the constitutional provision against internal protectionism just to be safe. But here’s one case where a court has acted in the genuine spirit of the constitution and of upholding legitimate rights not inventing unworkable ones. And it deserves our applause.
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