THE SOVEREIGNTY OF PARLIAMENT
THE NATURE OF PARLIAMENTARY
The sovereignty of Parliament is (from a legal point of view) the dominant characteristic of our political institutions. My aim in this chapter is, in the first place, to explain the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty and to show that its existence is a legal fact, fully recognised by the law of England; in the next place, to prove that none of the alleged legal limitations on the sovereignty of Parliament have any existence; and, lastly, to state and meet certain speculative difficulties which hinder the ready admission of the doctrine that Parliament is, under the British constitution, an absolutely sovereign legislature.
NATURE OF PARLIAMENTARY SOVEREIGNTY
Parliament means, in the mouth of a lawyer (though the word has often a different sense in ordinary conversation), the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons; these three bodies acting together may be aptly described as the “King in Parliament,” and constitute Parliament.
The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament thus defined has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.
A law may, for our present purpose, be defined as “any rule which will be enforced by the Courts.” The principle then of Parliamentary sovereignty may, looked at from its positive side, be thus described: Any Act of Parliament, or any part of an Act of Parliament, which makes a new law, or repeals or modifies an existing law, will be obeyed by the Courts. The same principle, looked at from its negative side, may be thus stated: There is no person or body of persons who can, under the English constitution, make rules which override or derogate from an Act of Parliament, or which (to express the same thing in other words) will be enforced by the Courts in contravention of an Act of Parliament. Some apparent exceptions to this rule no doubt suggest themselves. But these apparent exceptions, as where, for example, the Judges of the High Court of Justice make rules of court repealing Parliamentary enactments, are resolvable into cases in which Parliament either directly or indirectly sanctions subordinate legislation. This is not the place for entering into any details as to the nature of judicial legislation; the matter is mentioned here only in order to remove an obvious difficulty which might present itself to some students. It will be necessary in the course of these lectures to say a good deal more about Parliamentary sovereignty, but for the present the above rough description of its nature may suffice. The important thing is to make dear that the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty is, both on its positive and on its negative side, fully recognised by the law of England.
Unlimited Legislative Authority of Parliament
Unlimited legislative authority of parliament. The classical passage on this subject is the following extract from Blackstone's Commentaries:—
Sir Edward Coke, says:
The power and jurisdiction of Parliament is so transcendent and absolute, that it cannot be confined, either for causes or persons, within any bounds. And of this high court, he adds, it may be truly said, “Si antiquitatem spectes, est vetustissima; si dignitatem, est honoratissima; si jurisdictionem, est capacissima.” It hath sovereign and uncontrollable authority in the making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal: this being the place where that absolute despotic power, which must in all governments reside somewhere, is entrusted by the constitution of these kingdoms. All mischiefs and grievances, operations and remedies, that transcend the ordinary course of the laws, are within the reach of this extraordinary tribunal. It can regulate or new-model the succession to the Crown; as was done in the reign of Henry VIII. and William III. It can alter the established religion of the land; as was done in a variety of instances, in the reigns of king Henry VIII. and his three children. It can change and create afresh even the constitution of the kingdom and of parliaments themselves; as was done by the act of union, and the several statutes for triennial and septennial elections. It can, in short, do everything that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call its power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of Parliament. True it is, that what the Parliament doth, no authority upon earth can undo. So that it is a matter most essential to the liberties of this kingdom, that such members be delegated to this important trust, as are most eminent for their probity, their fortitude, and their knowledge; for it was a known apophthegm of the great lord treasurer Burleigh, “that England could never be ruined but by a Parliament”: and, as Sir Matthew Hale observes, this being the highest and greatest court over which none other can have jurisdiction in the kingdom, if by any means a misgovernment should any way fall upon it, the subjects of this kingdom are left without all manner of remedy. To the same purpose the president Montesquieu, though I trust too hastily, presages; that as Rome, Sparta, and Carthage have lost their liberty and perished, so the constitution of England will in time lose its liberty, will perish: it will perish whenever the legislative power shall become more corrupt than the executive.
De Lolme has summed up the matter in a grotesque expression which has become almost proverbial. “It is a fundamental principle with English lawyers, that Parliament can do everything but make a woman a man, and a man a woman.”
illegible This supreme legislative authority of Parliament is shown historically in a large number of instances.
Act of sattlement. The descent of the Crown was varied and finally fixed under the Act of Settlement, 12 & 13 William III., c. 2; the King occupies the throne under a Parliamentary title; his claim to reign depends upon and is the result of a statute. This is a proposition which, at the present day, no one is inclined either to maintain or to dispute; but a glance at the statute-book shows that not much more than two hundred years ago Parliament had to insist strenuously upon the principle of its own lawful supremacy. The first section of 6 Anne, c. 7, enacts (inter alia),
That if any person or persons shall maliciously, advisedly, and directly by writing or printing maintain and affirm that our sovereign lady the Queen that now is, is not the lawful and rightful Queen of these realms, or that the pretended Prince of Wales, who now styles himself King of Great Britain, or King of England, by the name of James the Third, or King of Scotland, by the name of James the Eighth, hath any right or title to the Crown of these realms, or that any other person or persons hath or have any right or title to the same, otherwise than according to an Act of Parliament made in England in the first year of the reign of their late Majesties King William and Queen Mary, of ever blessed and glorious memory, intituled, An Act declaring the rights and liberties of the subject, and settling the succession of the Crown; and one other Act made in England in the twelfth year of the reign of his said late Majesty King William the Third, intituled, An Act for the further limitation of the Crown, and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject; and the Acts lately made in England and Scotland mutually for the union of the two kingdoms; or that the Kings or Queens of this realm, with and by the authority of Parliament, are not able to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to limit and bind the Crown, and the descent, limitation, inheritance, and government thereof; every such person or persons shall be guilty of high treason, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be adjudged traitors, and shall suffer pains of death, and all losses and forfeitures as in cases of high treason.
Acts of Union. The Acts of Union (to one of which Blackstone calls attention) afford a remarkable example of the exertion of Parliamentary authority. But there is no single statute which is more significant either as to the theory or as to the practical working of the constitution than the Septennial Act. The circumstances of its enactment and the nature of the Act itself merit therefore special attention.
illegible In 1716 the duration of Parliament was under an Act of 1694 limited to three years, and a general election could not be deferred beyond 1717. The King and the Ministry were convinced (and with reason) that an appeal to the electors, many of whom were Jacobites, might be perilous not only to the Ministry but to the tranquillity of the state. The Parliament then sitting, therefore, was induced by the Ministry to pass the Septennial Act by which the legal duration of parliament was extended from three to seven years, and the powers of the then existing House of Commons were in effect prolonged for four years beyond the time for which the House was elected. This was a much stronger proceeding than passing say an Act which enabled future Parliaments to continue in existence without the necessity for a general election during seven instead of during three years. The statute was justified by considerations of statesmanship and expediency. This justification of the Septennial Act must seem to every sensible man so ample that it is with some surprise that one reads in writers so fair and judicious as Hallam or Lord Stanhope attempts to minimise the importance of this supreme display of legislative authority. Hallam writes:
Nothing can be more extravagant than what is sometimes confidently pretended by the ignorant, that the legislature exceeded its rights by this enactment; or, if that cannot legally be advanced, that it at least violated the trust of the people, and broke in upon the ancient constitution.
This remark he bases on the ground that
the law for triennial Parliaments was of little more than twenty years' continuance. It was an experiment, which, as was argued, had proved unsuccessful; it was subject, like every other law, to be repealed entirely, or to be modified at discretion.
Lord Stanhope says:
We may.… cast aside the foolish idea that the Parliament overstepped its legitimate authority in prolonging its existence; an idea which was indeed urged by party-spirit at the time, and which may still sometimes pass current in harangues to heated multitudes, but which has been treated with utter contempt by the best constitutional writers.
Constitutional importance of Septennial Act. These remarks miss the real point of the attack on the Septennial portance of Act, and also conceal the constitutional importance of the statute. The Thirty‐one peers who protested against the Bill because (among other grounds)
it is agreed, that the House of Commons must be chosen by the people, and when so chosen, they are truly the representatives of the people, which they cannot be so properly said to be, when continued for a longer time than that for which they were chosen; for after that time they are chosen by the Parliament, and not the people, who are thereby deprived of the only remedy which they have against those, who either do not understand, or through corruption, do wilfully betray the trust reposed in them; which remedy is, to choose better men in their places,
hit exactly the theoretical objection to it. The peculiarity of the Act was not that it changed the legal duration of Parliament or repealed the Triennial Act; the mere passing of a Septennial Act in 1716 was not and would never have been thought to be anything more startling or open to graver censure than the passing of a Triennial Act in 1694. What was startling was that an existing Parliament of its own authority prolonged its own legal existence. Nor can the argument used by Priestley, and in effect by the protesting Peers
that Septennial Parliaments were at first a direct usurpation of the rights of the people; for by the same authority that one Parliament prolonged their own power to seven years, they might have continued it to twice seven, or like the Parliament of 1641 have made it perpetual
be treated as a blunder grounded simply on the “ignorant assumption” that the Septennial Act prolonged the original duration of Parliament. The contention of Priestley and others was in substance that members elected to serve for three years were constitutionally so far at least the delegates or agents of their constituents that they could not, without an inroad on the constitution, extend their own authority beyond the period for which it was conferred upon them by their principals, i.e. the electors. There are countries, and notably the United States, where an Act like the Septennial Act would be held legally invalid; no modem English Parliament would for the sake of keeping a government or party in office venture to pass say a Decennial Act and thus prolong its own duration; the contention therefore that Walpole and his followers in passing the Septennial Act violated the understandings of the constitution has on the face of it nothing absurd. Parliament made a legal though unprecedented use of its powers. To under-rate this exertion of authority is to deprive the Septennial Act of its true constitutional importance. That Act proves to demonstration that in a legal point of view Parliament is neither the agent of the electors nor in any sense a trustee for its constituents. It is legally the sovereign legislative power in the state, and the Septennial Act is at once the result and the standing proof of such Parliamentary sovereignty.
illegible Hitherto we have looked at Parliament as legally omnipotent in regard to public rights. Let us now consider the position of Parliament in regard to those private rights which are in civilised states justly held specially secure or sacred. Coke (it should be noted) particularly chooses interference with private rights as specimens of Parliamentary authority.
Yet some examples are desired. Daughters and heirs apparent of a man or woman, may by Act of Parliament inherit during the life of the ancestor.
It may adjudge an infant, or minor, of full age.
To attaint a man of treason after his death.
To naturalise a mere alien, and make him a subject born. It may bastard a child that by law is legitimate, viz. begotten by an adulterer, the husband being within the four seas.
To legitimate one that is illegitimate, and born before marriage absolutely. And to legitimate secundum quid, but not simpliciter.
Coke is judicious in his choice of instances. Interference with public rights is at bottom a less striking exhibition of absolute power than is the interference with the far more important rights of individuals; a ruler who might think nothing of overthrowing the constitution of his country, would in all probability hesitate a long time before he touched the property or interfered with the contracts of private persons. Parliament, however, habitually interferes, for the public advantage, with private rights. Indeed such interference has now (greatly to the benefit of the community) become so much a matter of course as hardly to excite remark, and few persons reflect what a sign this interference is of the supremacy of Parliament. The statute-book teems with Acts under which Parliament gives privileges or rights to particular persons or imposes particular duties or liabilities upon other persons. This is of course the case with every railway Act, but no one will realise the full action, generally the very beneficial action of Parliamentary sovereignty, who does not look through a volume or two of what are called Local and Private Acts. These Acts are just as much Acts of Parliament as any Statute of the Realm. They deal with every kind of topic, as with railways, harbours, docks, the settlement of private estates, and the like. To these you should add Acts such as those which declare valid marriages which, owing to some mistake of form or otherwise, have not been properly celebrated, and Acts, common enough at one time but now rarely passed, for the divorce of married persons.
One further class of statutes deserve in this connection more notice than they have received—these are Acts of Indemnity.
Acts of Indemnity. An Act of Indemnity is a statute, the object of which is to make legal transactions which when they took place were illegal, or to free individuals to whom the statute applies from liability for having broken the law; enactments of this kind were annually passed with almost unbroken regularity for more than a century (1727–1828) to free Dissenters from penalties, for having accepted municipal offices without duly qualifying themselves by taking the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. To the subject of Acts of Indemnity, however, we shall return in a later chapter. The point to be now noted is that such enactments being as it were the legalisation of illegality are the highest exertion and crowning proof of sovereign power.
So far of the sovereignty of Parliament from its positive side: let us now look at the same doctrine from its negative aspect.
The Absence of Any Competing Legislative Power
illegible The King, each House of Parliament, the Constituencies, and the Law Courts, either have at one time claimed, or might appear to claim, independent legislative power. It will be found, however, on examination that the claim can in none of these cases be made good.
illegible The King Legislative authority originally resided in the King in Council, and even after the commencement of Parliamentary legislation there existed side by side with it a system of royal legislation under the form of Ordinances, and (at a later period) of Proclamations.
illegible These had much the force of law, and in the year 1539 the Act 31 Henry VIII., c. 8, formally empowered the Crown to legislate by means of proclamations. This statute is so short and so noteworthy that it may well be quoted in extenso.
The King for the time being, with the advice of his Council, or the more part of them, may set forth proclamations under such penalities and pains as to him and them shall seem necessary, which shall be observed as though they were made by Act of Parliament; but this shall not be prejudicial to any person's inheritance, offices, liberties, goods, chattels, or life; and whosoever shall willingly offend any article contained in the said proclamations, shall pay such forfeitures, or be so long imprisoned, as shall be expressed in the said proclamaions; and if any offending will depart the realm, to the intent he will not answer his said offence, he shall be adjudged a traitor.
This enactment marks the highest point of legal authority ever reached by the Crown, and, probably because of its inconsistency with the whole tenor of English law, was repealed in the reign of Edward the Sixth. It is curious to notice how revolutionary would have been the results of the statute had it remained in force. It must have been followed by two consequences. An English king would have become nearly as despotic as a French monarch. The statute would further have established a distinction between “laws” properly so called as being made by the legislature and “ordinances” having the force of law, though not in strictness laws as being rather decrees of the executive power than Acts of the legislature. This distinction exists in one form or another in most continental states, and is not without great practical utility. In foreign countries the legislature generally confines itself to laying down general principles of legislation, and leaves them with great advantage to the public to be supplemented by decrees or regulations which are the work of the executive. The cumbersomeness and prolixity of English statute law is due in no small measure to futile endeavours of Parliament to work out the details of large legislative changes. This evil has become so apparent that in modern times Acts of Parliament constantly contain provisions empowering the Privy Council, the judges, or some other body, to make rules under the Act for the determination of details which cannot be settled by Parliament. But this is only an awkward mitigation of an acknowledged evil, and the substance no less than the form of the law would, it is probable, be a good deal improved if the executive government of England could, like that of France, by means of decrees, ordinances, or proclamations having the force of law, work out the detailed application of the general principles embodied in the Acts of the legislature. In this, as in some other instances, restrictions wisely placed by our forefathers on the growth of royal power, are at the present day the cause of unnecessary restraints on the action of the executive government. For the repeal of 31 Henry VIII., c. 8, rendered governmental legislation, with all its defects and merits, impossible, and left to prodamations only such weight as they might possess at common law. The exact extent of this authority was indeed for some time doubtful. In 1610, however, a solemn opinion or protest of the judges established the modem doctrine that royal proclamations have in no sense the force of law; they serve to call the attention of the public to the law, but they cannot of themselves impose upon any man any legal obligation or duty not imposed by common law or by Act of Parliament. In 1766 Lord Chatham attempted to prohibit by force of proclamation the exportation of wheat, and the Act of Indemnity (7 George II., c. 7), passed in consequence of this attempt, may be considered the final legislative disposal of any claim on the part of the Crown to make law by force of proclamation.
The main instances where, in modem times, proclamations or orders in council are of any effect are cases either where, at common law, a proclamation is the regular mode, not of legislation, but of announcing the executive will of the King, as when Parliament is summoned by proclamation, or else where orders in council have authority given to them by Act of Parliament.
House of ParliamentResolutions of Either House of Parliament The House of Commons, at any rate, has from time to time appeared to claim for resolutions of the House, something like legal authority. That this pretension cannot be supported is certain, but there exists some difficulty in defining with precision the exact effect which the Courts concede to a resolution of either House.
Two points are, however, well established.
Resolution of either HouseFirst, the resolution of neither House is a law.
This is the substantial result of the case of Stockdale v. Hansard. The gist of the decision in that case is that a libellous document did not cease to be a libel because it was published by the order of the House of Commons, or because the House subsequently resolved that the power of publishing the report which contained it, was an essential incident to the constitutional functions of Parliament.
Secondly, each House of Parliament has complete control over its own proceedings, and also has the right to protect itself by committing for contempt any person who commits any injury against, or offers any affront to the House, and no Court of law will inquire into the mode in which either House exercises the powers which it by law possesses.
The practical difficulty lies in the reconciliation of the first with the second of these propositions, and is best met by following out the analogy suggested by Mr. Justice Stephen, between a resolution of the House of Commons, and the decision of a Court from which there is no appeal.
I do not say that the resolution of the House is the judgment of a Court not subject to our revision; but it has much in common with such a judgment. The House of Commons is not a Court of Justice; but the effect of its privilege to regulate its own internal concerns, practically invests it with a judicial character when it has to apply to particular cases the provisions of Acts of Parliament. We must presume that it discharges this function properly, and with due regard to the laws, in the making of which it has so great a share. If its determination is not in accordance with law, this resembles the case of an error by a judge whose decision is not subject to appeal. There is nothing startling in the recognition of the fact that such an error is possible. If, for instance, a jury in a criminal case give a perverse verdict, the law has provided no remedy. The maxim that there is no wrong without a remedy, does not mean, as it is sometimes supposed, that there is a legal remedy for every moral or political wrong. If this were its meaning, it would be manifestly untrue. There is no legal remedy for the breach of a solemn promise not under seal, and made without consideration; nor for many kinds of verbal slander, though each may involve utter ruin; nor for oppressive legislation, though it may reduce men practically to slavery; nor for the worst damage to person and property inflicted by the most unjust and cruel war. The maxim means only that legal wrong and legal remedy are correlative terms; and it would be more intelligibly and correctly stated, if it were reversed, so as to stand, “Where there is no legal remedy, there is no legal wrong.”
illegible The law therefore stands thus. Either House of Parliament has the fullest power over its own proceedings, and can, like a Court, commit for contempt any person who, in the judgment of the House, is guilty of insult or affront to the House. The Case of the Sheriff of Middlesex carries this right to the very farthest point. The Sheriff was imprisoned for contempt under a warrant issued by the Speaker. Every one knew that the alleged contempt was nothing else than obedience by the Sheriff to the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench in the case of Stockdale v. Hansard, and that the Sheriff was imprisoned by the House because under such judgment he took the goods of the defendant Hansard in execution. Yet when the Sheriff was brought by Habeas Corpus before the Queen's Bench the Judges held that they could not inquire what were the contempts for which the Sheriff was committed by the House. The Courts, in other words, do not claim any right to protect their own officials from being imprisoned by the House of Commons for alleged contempt of the House, even though the so-called contempt is nothing else than an act of obedience to the Courts. A declaration or resolution of either House, on the other hand, is not in any sense a law. Suppose that X were by order of the House of Commons to assault A out of the House, irrespective of any act done in the House, and not under a warrant committing A for contempt; or suppose that X were to commit some offence by which he incurred a fine under some Act of Parliament, and that such fine were recoverable by A as a common informer. No resolution of the House of Commons ordering or approving of X's act could be pleaded by X as a legal defence to proceedings, either civil or criminal, against him. If proof of this were wanted it would be afforded by the Act 3 & 4 Vict. c. 9. The object of this Act, passed in consequence of the controversy connected with the case of Stockdale v. Hansard, is to give summary protection to persons employed in the publication of Parliamentary papers, which are, it should be noted, papers published by the order of one or other of the Houses of Parliament. The necessity for such an Act is the clearest proof that an order of the House is not of itself a legal defence for the publication of matters which would otherwise be libellous. The House of Commons
by invoking the authority of the whole Legislature to give validity to the plea they had vainly set up in the action [of Stockdale v. Hansard], and by not appealing against the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench, had, in effect, admitted the correctness of that judgment and affirmed the great principle on which it was founded, viz. that no single branch of the Legislature can, by an assertion of its alleged privileges, alter, suspend, or supersede any known law of the land, or bar the resort of any Englishman to any remedy, or his exercise and enjoyment of any right, by that law established.
illegibleThe Vote of the Parliamentary Electors Expressions are constantly used in the course of political discussions which imply that the body of persons entitled to choose members of Parliament possess under the English constitution some kind of legislative authority. Such language is, as we shall see, not without a real meaning; it points to the important consideration that the wishes of the constituencies influence the action of Parliament. But any expressions which attribute to Parliamentary electors a legal part in the process of law-making are quite inconsistent with the view taken by the law of the position of an elector. The sole legal right of electors under the English constitution is to elect members of Parliament. Electors have no legal means of initiating, of sanctioning, or of repealing the legislation of Parliament. No Court will consider for a moment the argument that a law is invalid as being opposed to the opinion of the electorate; their opinion can be legally expressed through Parliament, and through Parliament alone. This is not a necessary incident of representative government. In Switzerland no change can be introduced in the constitution which has not been submitted for approval or disapproval to all male citizens who have attained their majority; and even an ordinary law which does not involve a change in the constitution may, after it has been passed by the Federal Assembly, be submitted on the demand of a certain number of citizens to a popular vote, and is annulled if a vote is not obtained in its favour,
The courtsThe Law Courts A large proportion of English law is in reality made by the judges, and whoever wishes to understand the nature and the extent of judicial legislation in England, should read Pollock's admirable essay on the Science of Case Law. The topic is too wide a one to be considered at any length in these lectures. All that we need note is that the adhesion by our judges to precedent, that is, their habit of deciding one case in accordance with the principle, or supposed principle, which governed a former case, leads inevitably to the gradual formation by the Courts of fixed rules for decision, which are in effect laws. This judicial legislation might appear, at first sight, inconsistent with the supremacy of Parliament. But this is not so. English judges do not claim or exercise any power to repeal a Statute, whilst Acts of Parliament may override and constantly do override the law of the judges. Judicial legislation is, in short, subordinate legislation, carried on with the assent and subject to the supervision of Parliament.
ALLEGED LEGAL LIMITATIONS ON THE LEGISLATIVE
SOVEREIGNTY OF PARLIAMENT
Alleged limitations. All that can be urged as to the speculative difficulties of placing any limits whatever on sovereignty has been admirably stated by Austin and by Professor Holland. With these difficulties we have, at this moment, no concern. Nor is it necessary to examine whether it be or be not true, that there must necessarily be found in every state some person, or combination of persons, which, according to the constitution, whatever be its form, can legally change every law, and therefore constitutes the legally supreme power in the state. Our whole business is now to carry a step further the proof that, under the English constitution, Parliament does constitute such a supreme legislative authority or sovereign power as, according to Austin and other jurists, must exist in every civilised state, and for that purpose to examine into the validity of the various suggestions, which have from time to time been made, as to the possible limitations on Parliamentary authority, and to show that none of them are countenanced by English law.
The suggested limitations are three in number.
Moral law.First, Acts of Parliament, it has been asserted, are invalid if they are opposed to the principles of morality or to the doctrines of international law. Parliament, it is in effect asserted, cannot make a law opposed to the dictates of private or public morality. Thus Blackstone lays down in so many words that the
law of nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity ff contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original;
and expressions are sometimes used by modern judges which imply that the Courts might refuse to enforce statutes going beyond the proper limits (internationally speaking) of Parliamentary authority. But to words such as those of Blackstone, and to the obiter dicta of the Bench, we must give a very qualified interpretation. There is no legal basis for the theory that judges, as exponents of morality, may overrule Acts of Parliament. Language which might seem to imply this amounts in reality to nothing more than the assertion that the judges, when attempting to ascertain what is the meaning to be affixed to an Act of Parliament, will presume that Parliament did not intend to violate the ordinary rules of morality, or the principles of international law, and will therefore, whenever possible, give such an interpretation to a statutory enactment as may be consistent with the doctrines both of private and of international morality. A modem judge would never listen to a barrister who argued that an Act of Parliament was invalid because it was immoral, or because it went beyond the limits of Parliamentary authority. The plain truth is that our tribunals uniformly act on the principle that a law alleged to be a bad law is ex hypothesi a law, and therefore entitled to obedience by the Courts.
PrerogativeSecondly, doctrines have at times been maintained which went very near to denying the right of Parliament to touch the Prerogative.
In the time of the Stuarts the doctrine was maintained, not only by the King, but by lawyers and statesmen who, like Bacon, favoured the increase of royal authority, that the Crown possessed under the name of the “prerogative” a reserve, so to speak, of wide and indefinite rights and powers, and that this prerogative or residue of sovereign power was superior to the ordinary law of the land. This doctrine combined with the deduction from it that the Crown could suspend the operation of statutes, or at any rate grant dispensation from obedience to them, certainly suggested the notion that the high powers of the prerogative were to a certain extent beyond the reach of Parliamentary enactment. We need not, however, now enter into the political controversies of another age. All that need be noticed is that though certain powers—as, for example, the right of making treaties—are now left by law in the hands of the Crown, and are exercised in fact by the executive government, no modem lawyer would maintain that these powers or any other branch of royal authority could not be regulated or abolished by Act of Parliament, or, what is the same thing, that the judges might legally treat as invalid a statute, say, regulating the mode in which treaties are to be made, or making the assent or the Houses of Parliament necessary to the validity of a treaty.
illegibleThirdly, language has occasionally been used in Acts of Parliament which implies that one Parliament can make laws which cannot be touched by any subsequent Parliament, and that therefore the legislative authority of an existing Parliament may be limited by the enactments of its predecessors.
The Act of Union. That Parliaments have more than once intended and endeavoured to pass Acts which should tie the hands of their successors is certain, but the endeavour has always ended in failure. Of statutes intended to arrest the possible course of future legislation, the most noteworthy are the Acts which embody the treaties of Union with Scotland and Ireland. The legislators who passed these Acts assuredly intended to give to certain portions of them more than the ordinary effect of statutes. Yet the history of legislation in respect of these very Acts affords the strongest proof of the futility inherent in every attempt of one sovereign legislature to restrain the action of another equally sovereign body. Thus the Act of Union with Scotland enacts in effect that every professor of a Scotch University shall acknowledge and profess and subscribe the Confession of Faith as his profession of faith, and in substance enacts that this provision shall be a fundamental and essential condition of the treaty of union in all time coming. But this very provision has been in its main part repealed by the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1853, which relieves most professors in the Scotch universities from the necessity of subscribing the Confession of Faith. Nor is this by any means the only inroad made upon the terms of the Act of Union; from one point of view at any rate the Act 10 Anne, c. 12, restoring the exercise of lay patronage, was a direct infringement upon the Treaty of Union. The intended unchangeableness, and the real liability of these Acts or treaties to be changed by Parliament, comes out even more strikingly in the history of the Act of Union with Ireland. The fifth Article of that Act runs as follows:
That it be the fifth article of Union, that the Churches of England and Ireland as now by law established, be united into one Protestant episcopal Church, to be called the United Church of England and Ireland; and that the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the said United Church shall be and shall remain in full force for ever, as the same are now by law established for the Church of England; and that the continuance and preservation of the said United Church, as the established Church of England and Ireland, shall be deemed and be taken to be an essential and fundamental part of the Union.
That the statesmen who drew and passed this Article meant to bind the action of future Parliaments is apparent from its language. That the attempt has failed of success is apparent to every one who knows the contents of the Irish Church Act, 1869.
Act limiting right of Parliament to tax colonies. One Act, indeed, of the British Parliament might, looked at in the light of history, claim a peculiar sanctity. It is certainly an enactment of which the terms, we may safely predict, will never be repealed and the spirit will never be violated. This Act is the Taxation of Colonies Act, 1778. It provides that Parliament
will not impose any duty, tax, or assessment whatever, payable in any of his Majesty's colonies, provinces, and plantations in North America or the West Indies; except only such duties as it may be expedient to impose for the regulation of commerce; the net produce of such duties to be always paid and applied to and for the use of the colony, province, or plantation, in which the same shall be respectively levied, in such manner as other duties collected by the authority of the respective general courts, or general assemblies, of such colonies, provinces, or plantations, are ordinarily paid and applied.
This language becomes the more impressive when contrasted with the American Colonies Act, 1776, which, being passed in that year to repeal the Acts imposing the Stamp Duties, carefully avoids any surrender of Parliament's right to tax the colonies. There is no need to dwell on the course of events of which these two Acts are a statutory record. The point calling for attention is that though policy and prudence condemn the repeal of the Taxation of Colonies Act, 1778, or the enactment of any law inconsistent with its spirit, there is under our constitution no legal difficulty in the way of repealing or overriding this Act. If Parliament were tomorrow to impose a tax, say on New Zealand or on the Canadian Dominion, the statute imposing it would be a legally valid enactment. As stated in short by a very judicious writer—
It is certain that a Parliament cannot so bind its successors by the terms of any statute, as to limit the discretion of a future Parliament, and thereby disable the Legislature from entire freedom of action at any future time when it might be needful to invoke the interposition of Parliament to legislate for the public welfare.
Parliamentary sovereignty is therefore an undoubted legal fact.
It is complete both on its positive and on its negative side. Parliament can legally legislate on any topic whatever which, in the judgment of Parliament, is a fit subject for legislation. There is no power which, under the English constitution, can come into rivalry with the legislative sovereignty of Parliament.
No one of the limitations alleged to be imposed by law on the absolute authority of Parliament has any real existence, or receives any countenance, either from the statute-book or from the practice of the Courts.
This doctrine of the legislative supremacy of Parliament is the very keystone of the law of the constitution. But it is, we must admit, a dogma which does not always find ready acceptance, and it is well worth while to note and examine the difficulties which impede the admission of its truth.
DIFFICULTIES AS TO THE DOCTRINE
OF PARLIAMENTARY SOVEREIGNTY
Difficulties as to Parliamentary sovereignty. The reasons why many persons find it hard to accept the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty are twofold.
The dogma sounds like a mere application to the British constitution of Austin's theory of sovereignty, and yet intelligent students of Austin must have noticed that Austin's own conclusion as to the persons invested with sovereign power under the British constitution does not agree with the view put forward, on the authority of English lawyers, in these lectures. For while lawyers maintain that sovereignty resides in “Parliament,” i.e. in the body constituted by the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, Austin holds that the sovereign power is vested in the King, the House of Lords, and the Commons or the electors.
Difficulty from actual limitation on power of parliament. Every one, again, knows as a matter of common sense that, whatever lawyers may say, the sovereign power of Parliament is not unlimited, and that King, Lords, and Commons united do not possess anything like that “restricted omnipotence”—if the term may be excused—which is the utmost authority ascribable to any human institution. There are many enactments, and these laws not in themselves obviously unwise or tyrannical, which Parliament never would and (to speak plainly) never could pass. If the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty involves the attribution of unrestricted power to Parliament, the dogma is no better than a legal fiction, and certainly is not worth the stress here laid upon it.
Both these difficulties are real and reasonable difficulties. They are, it will be found, to a certain extent connected together, and well repay careful consideration.
Criticism of Austin's theory As to Austin's theory of sovereignty in relation to the British constitution, sovereignty, like many of Austin's conceptions, is a generalisation drawn in the main from English law, just as the ideas of the economists of Austin's generation are (to a great extent) generalisations suggested by the circumstances of English commerce. In England we are accustomed to the existence of a supreme legislative body, i.e. a body which can make or unmake every law; and which, therefore, cannot be bound by any law. This is, from a legal point of view, the true conception of a sovereign, and the ease with which the theory of absolute sovereignty has been accepted by English jurists is due to the peculiar history of English constitutional law. So far, therefore, from its being true that the sovereignty of Parliament is a deduction from abstract theories of jurisprudence, a critic would come nearer the truth who asserted that Austin's theory of sovereignty is suggested by the position of the English Parliament, just as Austin's analysis of the term “law” is at Bottom an analysis of a typical law, namely, an English criminal statute.
It should, however, be carefully noted that the term “sovereignty,” as long as it is accurately employed in the sense in which Austin sometimes uses it, is a merely legal conception, and means simply the power of law-making unrestricted by any legal limit. If the term “sovereignty” be thus used, the sovereign power under the English constitution is dearly “Parliament.” But the word “sovereignty” is sometimes employed in a political rather than in a strictly legal sense. That body is “politically” sovereign or supreme in a state the will of which is ultimately obeyed by the citizens of the state. In this sense of the word the electors of Great Britain may be said to be, together with the Crown and the Lords, or perhaps, in strict accuracy, independently of the King and the Peers, the body in which sovereign power is vested. For, as things now stand, the will of the electorate, and certainly of the electorate in combination with the Lords and the Crown, is sure ultimately to prevail on all subjects to be determined by the British government. The matter indeed may be carried a little further, and we may assert that the arrangements of the constitution are now such as to ensure that the will of the electors shall by regular and constitutional means always in the end assert itself as the predominant influence in the country. But this is a political, not a legal fact. The electors can in the long run always enforce their will. But the Courts will take no notice of the will of the electors. The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament, and would never suffer the validity of a statute to be questioned on the ground of its having been passed or being kept alive in opposition to the wishes of the electors. The political sense of the word “sovereignty” is, it is true, fully as important as the legal sense or more so. But the two significations, though intimately connected together, are essentially different, and in some part of his work Austin has apparently confused the one sense with the other. He writes:
Adopting the language of some of the writers who have treated of the British constitution, I commonly suppose that the present parliament, or the parliament for the time being, is possessed of the sovereignty: or I commonly suppose that the King and the Lords, with the members of the Commons' house, form a tripartite body which is sovereign or supreme. But, speaking accurately, the members of the Commons' house are merely trustees for the body by which they are elected and appointed: and, consequently, the sovereignty always resides in the King and the Peers, with the electoral body of the Commons. That a trust is imposed by the party delegating, and that the party representing engages to discharge the trust, seems to be imported by the correlative expressions delegation and representation. It were absurd to suppose that the delegating empowers the representative party to defeat or abandon any of the purposes for which the latter is appointed: to suppose, for example, that the Commons empower their representatives in parliament to relinquish their share in the sovereignty to the King and the Lords.
Austin owns that the doctrine here laid down by him is inconsistent with the language used by writers who have treated of the British constitution. It is further absolutely inconsistent with the validity of the Septennial Act. Nothing is more certain than that no English judge ever conceded, or, under the present constitution, can concede, that Parliament is in any legal sense a “trustee” for the electors. Of such a feigned “trust” the Courts know nothing. The plain truth is that as a matter of law Parliament is the sovereign power in the state, and that the “supposition” treated by Austin as inaccurate is the correct statement of a legal fact which forms the basis of our whole legislative and judicial system. It is, however, equally true that in a political sense the electors are the most important part of, we may even say are actually, the sovereign power, since their will is under the present constitution sure to obtain ultimate obedience. The language therefore of Austin is as correct in regard to “political” sovereignty as it is erroneous in regard to what we may term “legal” sovereignty. The electors are a part of and the predominant part of the politically sovereign power. But the legally sovereign power is assuredly, as maintained by all the best writers on the constitution, nothing but Parliament.
It may be conjectured that the error of which (from a lawyer's point of view) Austin has been guilty arises from his feeling, as every person must feel who is not the slave to mere words, that Parliament is.
Existence of actual limitations to power not inconsistent with Sovereignty. As to the actual limitations on the sovereign power of Parliament, the actual exercise of authority by any sovereign whatever, and notably by Parliament, is bounded or controlled by two limitations. Of these the one is an external, the other is an internal limitation.
External limit The external limit to the real power of a sovereign consists in the possibility or certainty that his subjects, or a large number of them, will disobey or resist his laws.
This limitation exists even under the most despotic monarchies. A Roman Emperor, or a French King during the middle of the eighteenth century, was (as is the Russian Czar at the present day) in strictness a “sovereign” in the legal sense of that term. He had absolute legislative authority. Any law made by him was binding, and there was no power in the empire or kingdom which could annul such law. It may also be true,—though here we are passing from the legal to the political sense of sovereignty,—that the will of an absolute monarch is in general obeyed by the bulk of his subjects. But it would be an error to suppose that the most absolute ruler who ever existed could in reality make or change every law at his pleasure. That this must be so results from considerations which were long ago pointed out by Hume. Force, he teaches, is in one sense always on the side of the governed, and government therefore in a sense always depends upon opinion. He writes:
Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The Soldan of Egypt, or the Emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion,
illegible The authority, that is to say, even of a despot, depends upon the readiness of his subjects or of some portion of his subjects to obey his behests; and this readiness to obey must always be in reality limited. This is shown by the most notorious facts of history. None of the early Cæsars could at their pleasure have subverted the worship or fundamental institutions of the Roman world, and when Constantine carried through a religious revolution his success was due to the sympathy of a large part of his subjects. The Sultan could not abolish Mahommedanism. Louis the Fourteenth at the height of his power could revoke the Edict of Nantes, but he would have found it impossible to establish the supremacy of Protestantism, and for the same reason which prevented James the Second from establishing the supremacy of Roman Catholicism. The one king was in the strict sense despotic; the other was as powerful as any English monarch. But the might of each was limited by the certainty of popular disobedience or opposition. The unwillingness of subjects to obey may have reference not only to great changes, but even to small matters. The French National Assembly of 1871 was emphatically the sovereign power in France. The majority of its members were (it is said) prepared for a monarchical restoration, but they were not prepared to restore the white flag: the army which would have acquiesced in the return of the Bourbons, would not (it was anticipated) tolerate the sight of an anti-revolutionary symbol: “the chassepots would go off of themselves.” Here we see the precise limit to the exercise of legal sovereignty; and what is true of the power of a despot or of the authority of a constituent assembly is specially true of the sovereignty of Parliament; it is limited on every side by the possibility of popular resistance. Parliament might legally establish an Episcopal Church in Scotland; Parliament might legally tax the Colonies; Parliament might without any breach of law change the succession to the throne or abolish the monarchy; but every one knows that in the present state of the world the British Parliament will do none of these things. In each case widespread resistance would result from legislation which, though legally valid, is in fact beyond the stretch of Parliamentary power. Nay, more than this, there are things which Parliament has done in other times, and done successfully, which a modern Parliament would not venture to repeat. Parliament would not at the present day prolong by law the duration of an existing House of Commons. Parliament would not without great hesitation deprive of their votes large dasses of Parliamentary electors; and, speaking generally, Parliament would not embark on a course of reactionary legislation; persons who honestly blame Catholic Emancipation and lament the disestablishment of the Irish Church do not dream that Parliament could repeal the statutes of 1829 or of 1869. These examples from among a score are enough to show the extent to which the theoretically boundless sovereignty of Parliament is curtailed by the external limit to its exercise.
internal limit illustrations The internal limit to the exercise of sovereignty arises from the nature of the sovereign power itself. Even a despot exercises his powers in accordance with his character, which is itself moulded by the circumstances under which he lives, including under that head the moral feelings of the time and the society to which he belongs. The Sultan could not if he would change the religion of the Mahom-medan world, but if he could do so it is in the very highest degree improbable that the head of Mahommedanism should wish to overthrow the religion of Mahomet; the internal check on the exercise of the Sultan's power is at least as strong as the external limitation. People sometimes ask the idle question why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope, and that the man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist. Louis the Fourteenth could not in all probability have established Protestantism as the national religion of France; but to imagine Louis the Fourteenth as wishing to carry out a Protestant reformation is nothing short of imagining him to have been a being quite unlike the Grand Monarque. Here again the internal check works together with the external check, and the influence of the internal limitation is as great in the case of a Parliamentary sovereign as of any other; perhaps it is greater. Parliament could not prudently tax the Colonies; but it is hardly conceivable that a modern Parliament, with the history of the eighteenth century before its eyes, should wish to tax the Colonies. The combined influence both of the external and of the internal limitation on legislative sovereignty is admirably stated in Leslie Stephen's Science of Ethics, whose chapter on “Law and Custom” contains one of the best statements to be met with of the limits placed by the nature of things on the theoretical omnipotence of sovereign legislatures.
Lawyers are apt to speak as though the legislature were omnipotent, as they do not require to go beyond its decisions. It is, of course, omnipotent in the sense that it can make whatever laws it pleases, inasmuch as a law means any rule which has been made by the legislature. But from the scientific point of view, the power of the legislature is of course strictly limited. It is limited, so to speak, both from within and from without; from within, because the legislature is the product of a certain social condition, and determined by whatever determines the society; and from without, because the power of imposing laws is dependent upon the instinct of subordination, which is itself limited. If a legislature decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal; but legislators must go mad before they could pass such a law, and subjects be idiotic before they could submit to it.
illegible Though sovereign power is bounded by an external and an internal limit, neither boundary is very definitely marked, nor need the two precisely coincide. A sovereign may wish to do many things which he either cannot do at all or can do only at great risk of serious resistance, and it is on many accounts worth observation that the exact point at which the external limitation begins to operate, that is, the point at which subjects will offer serious or insuperable resistance to the commands of a ruler whom they generally obey, is never fixed with precision. It would be rash of the Imperial Parliament to abolish the Scotch law Courts, and assimilate the law of Scotland to that of England. But no one can feel sure at what point Scotch resistance to such a change would become serious. Before the War of Secession the sovereign power of the United States could not have abolished slavery without provoking a civil war; after the War of Secession the sovereign power abolished slavery and conferred the electoral franchise upon the Blacks without exciting actual resistance.
Representative government produces coincidence between external and internal limit In reference to the relation between the external and the internal limit to sovereignty, representative government presents a noteworthy peculiarity. It is this. The aim and effect of such government is to produce a coincidence, or at any rate diminish the divergence, between the external and the internal limitations on the exercise of sovereign power. Frederick the Great may have wished to introduce, and may in fact have introduced, changes or reforms opposed to the wishes of his subjects. Louis Napoleon certainly began a policy of free trade which would not be tolerated by an assembly which truly represented French opinion. In these instances neither monarch reached the external limit to his sovereign power, but it might very well have happened that he might have reached it, and have thereby provoked serious resistance on the part of his subjects. There might, in short, have arisen a divergence between the internal and the external check. The existence of such a divergence, or (in other words) of a difference between the permanent wishes of the sovereign, or rather of the King who then constituted a predominant part of the sovereign power, and the permanent wishes of the nation, is traceable in England throughout the whole period beginning with the accession of James the First and ending with the Revolution of 1688. The remedy for this divergence was found in a transference of power from the Crown to the Houses of Parliament; and in placing on the throne rulers who from their position were induced to make their wishes coincide with the will of the nation expressed through the House of Commons; the difference between the will of the sovereign and the will of the nation was terminated by the foundation of a system of real representative government. Where a Parliament truly represents the people, the divergence between the external and the internal limit to the exercise of sovereign power can hardly arise, or if it arises, must soon disappear. Speaking roughly, the permanent wishes of the representative portion of Parliament can hardly in the long run differ from the wishes of the English people, or at any rate of the electors; that which the majority of the House of Commons command, the majority of the English people usually desire. To prevent the divergence between the wishes of the sovereign and the wishes of subjects is in short the effect, and the only certain effect, of bonâ fide representative government. For our present purpose there is no need to determine whether this result be good or bad. An enlightened sovereign has more than once carried out reforms in advance of the wishes of his subjects. This is true both of sovereign kings and, though more rarely, of sovereign Parliaments. But the sovereign who has done this, whether King or Parliament, does not in reality represent his subjects. All that it is here necessary to insist upon is that the essential property of representative government is to produce coincidence between the wishes of the sovereign and the wishes of the subjects; to make, in short, the two limitations on the exercise of sovereignty absolutely coincident. This, which is true in its measure of all real representative government, applies with special truth to the English House of Commons.
The House of Commons was supposed originally to be no part of the standing government of this country. It was considered as a control, issuing immediately from the people, and speedily to be resolved into the mass from whence it arose. In this respect it was in the higher part of government what juries are in the lower. The capacity of a magistrate being transitory, and that of a citizen permanent, the latter capacity it was hoped would of course preponderate in all discussions, not only between the people and the standing authority of the Crown, but between the people and the fleeting authority of the House of Commons itself. It was hoped that, being of a middle nature between subject and government, they would feel with a more tender and a nearer interest everything that concerned the people, than the other remoter and more permanent parts of legislature.
Whatever alterations time and the necessary accommodation of business may have introduced, this character can never be sustained, unless the House of Commons shall be made to bear some stamp of the actual disposition of the people at large. It would (among public misfortunes) be an evil more natural and tolerable, that the House of Commons should be infected with every epidemical phrensy of the people, as this would indicate some consanguinity, some sympathy of nature with their constitutents, than that they should in all cases be wholly untouched by the opinions and feelings of the people out of doors. By this want of sympathy they would cease to be a House of Commons.
PARLIAMENT AND NON-SOVEREIGN
Aim of chapter.In my last chapter I dwelt upon the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty; my object in this chapter is to illustrate the characteristics of such sovereignty by comparing the essential features of a sovereign Parliament like that of England with the traits which mark non-sovereign law-making bodies.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SOVEREIGN PARLIAMENT
Parliamentary sovereignty The characteristics of Parliamentary sovereignty may be deduced, from the term itself. But these traits are apt to escape the attention of Englishmen, who have been so accustomed to live under the rule of a supreme legislature, that they almost, without knowing it, assume that all legislative bodies are supreme, and hardly therefore keep clear before their minds the properties of a supreme as contrasted with a non-sovereign law-making body. In this matter foreign observers are, as is natural, clearer-sighted than Englishmen. De Lolme, Gneist, and Tocqueville seize at once upon the sovereignty of Parliament as a salient feature of the English constitution, and recognise the far-reaching effects of this marked peculiarity in our institutions.
In England, the Parliament has an acknowledged right to modify the constitution; as, therefore, the constitution may undergo perpetual changes, it does not in reality exist; the Parliament is at once a legislative and a constituent assembly.
His expressions are wanting in accuracy, and might provoke some criticism, but the description of the English Parliament as at once “a legislative and a constituent assembly” supplies a convenient formula for summing up the fact that Parliament can change any law whatever. Being a “legislative” assembly it can make ordinary laws, being a “constituent” assembly it can make laws which shift the basis of the constitution. The results which ensue from this fact may be brought under three heads.
illegibleFirst, there is no law which Parliament cannot change, or (to put the same thing somewhat differently), fundamental or so-called constitutional laws are under our constitution changed by the same body and in the same manner as other laws, namely, by Parliament acting in its ordinary legislative character.
A Bill for reforming the House of Commons, a Bill for abolishing the House of Lords, a Bill to give London a municipality, a Bill to make valid marriages celebrated by a pretended clergyman, who is found after their celebration not to be in orders, are each equally within the competence of Parliament, they each may be passed in substantially the same manner, they none of them when passed will be, legally speaking, a whit more sacred or immutable than the others, for they each will be neither more nor less than an Act of Parliament, which can be repealed as it has been passed by Parliament, and cannot be annulled by any other power.
illegibleSecondly, there is under the English constitution no marked or clear distinction between laws which are not fundamental or constitutional and laws which are fundamental or constitutional. The very language therefore, expressing the difference between a “legislative” assembly which can change ordinary laws and a “constituent” assembly which can change not only ordinary but also constitutional and fundamental laws, has to be borrowed from the political phraseology of foreign countries.
This absence of any distinction between constitutional and ordinary laws has a close connection with the non-existence in England of any written or enacted constitutional statute or charter. Tocqueville indeed, in common with other writers, apparently holds the unwritten character of the British constitution to be of its essence: “L'Angleterre n'ayant point de constitutionécrite, qui peut dire qu'on change sa constitution?” But here Tocqueville falls into an error, characteristic both of his nation and of the weaker side of his own rare genius. He has treated the form of the constitution as the cause of its substantial qualities, and has inverted the relation of cause and effect. The constitution, he seems to have thought, was changeable because it was not reduced to a written or statutory form. It is far nearer the truth to assert that the constitution has never been reduced to a written or statutory form because each and every part of it is changeable at the will of Parliament. When a country is governed under a constitution which is intended either to be unchangeable or at any rate to be changeable only with special difficulty, the constitution, which is nothing else than the laws which are intended to have a character of permanence or immutability, is necessarily expressed in writing, or, to use English phraseology, is enacted as a statute. Where, on the other hand, every law can be legally changed with equal ease or with equal difficulty, there arises no absolute need for reducing the constitution to a written form, or even for looking upon a definite set of laws as specially making up the constitution. One main reason then why constitutional laws have not in England been recognised under that name, and in many cases have not been reduced to the form of a statutory enactment, is that one law, whatever its importance, can be passed and changed by exactly the same method as every other law. But it is a mistake to think that the whole law of the English constitution might not be reduced to writing and be enacted in the form of a constitutional code. The Belgian constitution indeed comes very near to a written reproduction of the English constitution, and the constitution of England might easily be turned into an Act of Parliament without suffering any material transformation of character, provided only that the English Parliament retained—what the Belgian Parliament, by the way, does not possess—the unrestricted power of repealing or amending the constitutional code.
illegibleThirdly, there does not exist in any part of the British Empire any, person or body of persons, executive, legislative or judicial, which can pronounce void any enactment passed by the British Parliament on the ground of such enactment being opposed to the constitution, or on any ground whatever, except, of course, its being repealed by Parliament.
These then are the three traits of Parliamentary sovereignty as it exists in England: first, the power of the legislature to alter any law, fundamental or otherwise, as freely and in the same manner as other laws; secondly, the absence of any legal distinction between constitutional and other laws; thirdly, the non-existence of any judicial or other authority having the right to nullify an Act of Parliament, or to treat it as void or unconstitutional.
illegible These traits are all exemplifications of the quality which my friend Mr. Bryce has happily denominated the “flexibility” of the British constitution. Every part of it can be expanded, curtailed, amended, or abolished, with equal ease. It is the most flexible polity in existence, and is therefore utterly different in character from the “rigid” constitutions (to use another expression of Mr. Bryce's) the whole or some part of which can be changed only by some extra-ordinary method of legislation.
NON-SOVEREIGN LAW-MAKING BODIES
From the attributes of a sovereign legislature it is possible to infer negatively what are the characteristics all (or some) of which are the marks of a non-sovereign law-making body, and which therefore may be called the marks or notes of legislative subordination.
These signs by which you may recognise the subordination of a law-making body are, first, the existence of laws affecting its constitution which such body must obey and cannot change; hence, secondly, the formation of a marked distinction between ordinary laws and fundamental laws; and lastly, the existence of some person or persons, judicial or otherwise, having authority to pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of laws passed by such law-making body.
Wherever any of these marks of subordination exist with regard to a given law-making body, they prove that it is not a sovereign legislature.
Meaning of term “law-making body”. Observe the use of the words “law-making body.”
This term is here employed as an expression which may include under one head both municipal bodies, such as railway companies, school-boards, town councils, and the like, which possess a limited power of making laws, but are not ordinarily called legislatures, and bodies such as the Parliaments of the British Colonies, of Belgium, or of France, which are ordinarily called “legislatures,” but are not in reality sovereign bodies.
The reason for grouping together under one name such very different kinds of “law-making” bodies is, that by far the best way of clearing up our ideas as to the nature of assemblies which, to use the foreign formula, are “legislative” without being “constituent,” and which therefore are not sovereign legislatures, is to analyse the characteristics of societies, such as English railway companies, which possess a certain legislative authority, though the authority is clearly delegated and subject to the obvious control of a superior legislature.
It will conduce to clearness of thought if we divide non-sovereign law-making bodies into the two great classes of obviously subordinate bodies. such as corporations, the Council of India, etc., and such legislatures of independent countries as are legislative without being constituent, i.e. are non-sovereign legislative bodies.
The consideration of the position of the non-sovereign legislatures which exist under the complicated form of constitution known as a federal government is best reserved for a separate chapter.
Subordinate Law-making Bodies
Subordinate BodiesCorporations An English railway company is as good an example as can be found of a subordinate law-making body. Corporations. Such a company is in the strictest sense a law-making society, for it can under the powers of its Act make laws (called bye-laws) for the regulation (inter alia) of travelling upon the railway, and can impose a penalty for the breach of such laws, which can be enforced by proceedings in the Courts. The rules therefore or bye-laws made by a company within the powers of its Act are “laws” in the strictest sense of the term, as any person will discover to his own cost who, when he travels by rail from Oxford to Paddington, deliberately violates a bye-law duly made by the Great Western Railway Company.
But though an English railway company is clearly a law-making body, it is clearly a non-sovereign law-making body. Its legislative power bears all the marks of subordination.
First, the company is bound to obey laws and (amongst others) the Act of Parliament creating the company, which it cannot change. This is obvious, and need not be insisted upon.
Secondly, there is the most marked distinction between the Act constituting the company, not a line of which can be changed by the company, and the bye-laws which, within the powers of its Act, the company can both make and change. Here we have on a very small scale the exact difference between constitutional laws which cannot, and ordinary laws which can, be changed by a subordinate legislature, i.e. by the company. The company, if we may apply to it the terms of constitutional law, is not a constituent, but is within certain limits a legislative assembly; and these limits are fixed by the constitution of the company.
Thirdly, the Courts have the right to pronounce, and indeed are bound to pronounce, on the validity of the company's bye-laws; that is, upon the validity, or to use political terms, on the constitutionality of the laws made by the company as a law-making body. Note particularly that it is not the function of any Court or judge to declare void or directly annul a bye-law made by a railway company. The function of the Court is simply, upon any particular case coming before it which depends upon a bye-law made by a railway company, to decide for the purposes of that particular case whether the bye-law is or is not within the powers conferred by Act of Parliament upon the company; that is to say, whether the bye-law is or is not valid, and to give judgment in the particular case according to the Court's view of the validity of the bye-law. It is worth while to examine with some care the mode in which English judges deal with the inquiry whether a particular bye-law is or is not within the powers given to the company by Act of Parliament, for to understand this point goes a good way towards understanding the exact way in which English or American Courts determine the constitutionality of Acts passed by a non-sovereign legislature.
The London and North-Western Railway Company made a bye-law by which
any person travelling without the special permission of some duly authorised servant of the company in a carriage or by a train of a superior class to that for which his ticket was issued is hereby subject to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings, and shall, in addition, be liable to pay his fare according to the class of carriage in which he is travelling from the station where the train originally started, unless he shows that he had no intention to defraud.
X, with the intention of defrauding the company, travelled in a first-class carriage instead of a second-class carriage for which his ticket was issued, and having been charged under the bye-law was convicted in the penalty of ten shillings, and costs. On appeal by X, the Court determined that the bye-law was illegal and void as being repugnant to 8 Vict. c. 20, s. 103, or in effect to the terms of the Act incorporating the company, and that therefore X could not be convicted of the offence charged against him.
A bye-law of the South-Eastern Railway Company required that a passenger should deliver up his ticket to a servant of the company when required to do so, and that any person travelling without a ticket or failing or refusing to deliver up his ticket should be required to pay the fare from the station whence the train originally started to the end of his journey. X had a railway ticket enabling him to travel on the South-Eastern Railway. Having to change trains and pass out of the company's station he was asked to show his ticket, and refused to do so, but without any fraudulent intention. He was summoned for a breach of the bye-law, and convicted in the amount of the fare from the station whence the train started. The Queen's Bench Division held the conviction wrong on the ground that the bye-law was for several reasons invalid, as not being authorised by the Act under which it purported to be made.
Now in these instances, and in other cases where the Courts pronounce upon the validity of a bye-law made by a body (e.g. a railway company or a school-board) having powers to make bye-laws enforceable by penalties, it is natural to say that the Courts pronounce the bye-laws valid or invalid. But this is not strictly the case. What the judges determine is not that a particular bye-law is invalid, for it is not the function of the Courts to repeal or annul the bye-laws made by railway companies, but that in a proceeding to recover a penalty from X for the breach of a bye-law judgment must be given on the basis of the particular bye-law being beyond the powers of the company, and therefore invalid. It may indeed be thought that the distinction between annulling a bye-law and determining a case upon the assumption of such bye-law being void is a distinction without a difference. But this is not so. The distinction is not without importance even when dealing with the question whether X, who is alleged to have broken a bye-law made by a railway company, is liable to pay a fine; it is of first-rate importance when the question before the Courts is one involving considerations of constitutional law, as for example when the Privy Council is called upon, as constantly happens, to determine cases which involve the validity or constitutionality of laws made by the Dominion Parliament or by one of the provincial Parliaments of Canada. The significance, however, of the distinction will become more apparent as we proceed with our subject; the matter of consequence now is to notice the nature of the distinction, and to realise that when a Court in deciding a given case considers whether a bye-law is, or is not, valid, the Court does a different thing from affirming or annulling the bye-law itself.
Legislative Council of British India Laws are made for British India by a Legislative Council having very wide powers of legislation. This Council, or, as it is technically expressed, the “Governor-General in Council,” can pass laws as important as any Acts passed by the British Parliament. But the authority of the Council in the way of law-making is as completely subordinate to, and as much dependent upon, Acts of Parliament as is the power of the London and North-Western Railway Company to make bye-laws.
The legislative powers of the Governor-General and his Council arise from definite Parliamentary enactments. These Acts constitute what may be termed as regards the Legislative Council the constitution of India. Now observe, that under these Acts the Indian Council is in the strictest sense a non-sovereign legislative body, and this independently of the fact that the laws or regulations made by the Governor-General in Council can be annulled or disallowed by the Crown; and note that the position of the Council exhibits all the marks or notes of legislative subordination.
First, the Council is bound by a large number of rules which cannot be changed by the Indian legislative body itself, and which can be changed by the superior power of the Imperial Parliament.
Secondly, the Acts themselves from which the Council derives its authority cannot be changed by the Council, and hence in regard to the Indian legislative body form a set of constitutional or fundamental laws, which, since they cannot be changed by the Council, stand in marked contrast with the laws or regulations which the Council is empowered to make. These fundamental rules contain, it must be added, a number of specific restrictions on the subjects with regard to which the Council may legislate. Thus the Governor-General in Council has no power of making laws which may affect the authority of Parliament, or any part of the unwritten laws or constitution of the United Kingdom, whereon may depend in any degree the allegiance of any person to the Crown of the United Kingdom, or the sovereignty or dominion of the Crown over any part of India.
Thirdly, the Courts in India (or in any other part of the British Empire) may, when the occasion arises, pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of laws made by the Indian Council.
The Courts treat Acts passed by the Indian Council precisely in the same way in which the King's Bench Division treats the bye-laws of a railway company. No judge in India or elsewhere ever issues a decree which declares invalid, annuls, or makes void a law or regulation made by the Governor-General in Council. But when any particular case comes before the Courts, whether civil or criminal, in which the rights or liabilities of any party are affected by the legislation of the Indian Council, the Court may have to consider and determine with a view to the particular case whether such legislation was or was not within the legal powers of the Council, which is of course the same thing as adjudicating as regards the particular case in hand upon the validity or constitutionality of the legislation in question. Thus suppose that X is prosecuted for the breach of a law or regulation passed by the Council, and suppose the fact to be established past a doubt that X has broken this law. The Court before which the proceedings take place, which must obviously in the ordinary course of things be an Indian Court, may be called upon to consider whether the regulation which X has broken is within the powers given to the Indian Council by the Acts of Parliament making up the Indian constitution. If the law is within such powers, or, in other words, is constitutional, the Court will by giving judgment against X give full effect to the law, just as effect is given to the bye-law of a railway company by the tribunal before whom an offender is sued pronouncing judgment against him for the penalty. If, on the other hand, the Indian Court deem that the regulation is ultra vires or unconstitutional, they will refuse to give effect to it, and treat it as void by giving judgment for the defendant on the basis of the regulation being invalid or having no legal existence. On this point the Empress v. Burah is most instructive. The details of the case are immaterial; the noticeable thing is that the High Court held a particular legislative enactment of the Governor-General in Council to be in excess of the authority given to him by the Imperial Parliament and therefore invalid, and on this ground entertained an appeal from two prisoners which, if the enactment had been valid, the Court would admittedly have been incompetent to entertain. The Privy Council, it is true, held on appeal that the particular enactment was within the legal powers of the Council and therefore valid, but the duty of the High Court of Calcutta to consider whether the legislation of the Governor-General was or was not constitutional, was not questioned by the Privy Council. To look at the same thing from another point of view, the Courts in India treat the legislation of the Governor-General in Council in a way utterly different from that in which any English Court can treat the Acts of the Imperial Parliament. An Indian tribunal may be called upon to say that an Act passed by the Governor-General need not be obeyed because it is unconstitutional or void. No British Court can give judgment, or ever does give judgment, that an Act of Parliament need not be obeyed because it is unconstitutional. Here, in short, we have the essential difference between subordinate and sovereign legislative power.
English ColoniesEnglish Colonies with Representative and Responsible Governments Many English colonies, and notably the Dominion of New Zealand (to which country our attention had best for the sake of clearness be specially directed), possess representative assemblies which occupy a somewhat peculiar position.
Powers exercised by colonial parliaments. The Parliament of the Dominion of New Zealand exercises throughout that country many of the ordinary powers of a sovereign assembly such as the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It makes and repeals laws, it puts Ministries in power and dismisses them from office, it controls the general policy of the New Zealand Government, and generally makes its will felt in the transaction of affairs after the manner of the Parliament at Westminster. An ordinary observer would, if he looked merely at the everyday proceedings of the New Zealand legislature, find no reason to pronounce it a whit less powerful within its sphere than the Parliament of the United Kingdom. No doubt the assent of the Governor is needed in order to turn colonial Bills into laws: and further investigation would show our inquirer that for the validity of any colonial Act there is required, in addition to the assent of the Governor, the sanction, either express or implied, of the Crown. But these assents are constantly given almost as a matter of course, and may be compared (though not with absolute correctness) to the Crown's so-called “veto” or right of refusing assent to Bills which have passed through the Houses of Parliament.
Limit to powers Yet for all this, when the matter is further looked into, the Dominion Parliament (together with other colonial legislatures) will be found to be a non-sovereign legislative body, and bears decisive marks of legislative subordination. The action of the Dominion Parliament is restrained by laws which it cannot change, and are changeable only by the Imperial Parliament; and further, New Zealand Acts, even when assented to by the Crown, are liable to be treated by the Courts in New Zealand and elsewhere throughout the British dominions as void or unconstitutional, on the ground of their coming into conflict with laws of the Imperial Parliament, which the colonial legislature has no authority to touch.
That this is so becomes apparent the moment we realise the exact relation between colonial and Imperial laws. The matter is worth some little examination, both for its own sake and for the sake of the light it throws on the sovereignty of Parliament.
The charter of colonial legislative independence is the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865.
illegible This statute seems (oddly enough) to have passed through Parliament without discussion; but it permanently defines and extends the authority of colonial legislatures, and its main provisions are of such importance as to deserve verbal citation:
Sec. 2. Any colonial law which is or shall be in any respect repugnant to the provisions of any Act of Parliament extending to the colony to which such law may relate, or repugnant to any order or regulation made under authority of such Act of Parliament, or having in the colony the force and effect of such Act, shall be read subject to such Act, order, or regulation, and shall, to the extent of such repugnancy, but not otherwise, be and remain absolutely void and inoperative.
3. No colonial law shall be or be deemed to have been void or inoperative on the ground of repugnancy to the law of England, unless the same shall be repugnant to the provisions of some such Act of Parliament, order, or regulation as aforesaid.
4. No colonial law, passed with the concurrence of or assented to by the Governor of any colony, or to be hereafter so passed or assented to, shall be or be deemed to have been void or inoperative, by reason only of any instructions with reference to such law or the subject thereof which may have been given to such Governor by or on behalf of Her Majesty, by any instrument other than the letters-patent or instrument authorising such Governor to concur in passing or to assent to laws for the peace, order, and good government of such colony, even though such instructions may be referred to in such letters-patent or last-mentioned instrument.
5. Every colonial legislature shall have, and be deemed at all times to have had, full power within its jurisdiction to establish courts of judicature, and to abolish and reconstitute the same, and to alter the constitution thereof, and to make provision for the administration of justice therein; and every representative legislature shall, in respect to the colony under its jurisdiction, have, and be deemed at all times to have had, full power to make laws respecting the constitution, powers, and procedure of such legislature; provided that such laws shall have been passed in such manner and form as may from time to time be required by any Act of Parliament, letters-patent, order in council, or colonial law for the time being in force in the said colony.
The importance, it is true, of the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865, may well be either exaggerated or quite possibly underrated. The statute is in one sense less important than it at first sight appears, because the principles laid down therein were, before its passing, more or less assumed, though with some hesitation, to be good law and to govern the validity of colonial legislation. From another point of view the Act is of the highest importance, because it determines, and gives legislative authority to, principles which had never before been accurately defined, and were liable to be treated as open to doubt. In any case the terms of the enactment make it now possible to state with precision the limits which bound the legislative authority of a colonial Parliament.
The Dominion Parliament may make laws opposed to the English common law, and such laws (on receiving the required assents) are perfectly valid.
Thus a New Zealand Act which changed the common law rules as to the descent of property, which gave the Governor authority to forbid public meetings, or which abolished trial by jury, might be inexpedient or unjust, but would be a perfectly valid law, and would be recognised as such by every tribunal throughout the British Empire.
The Dominion Parliament, on the other hand, cannot make any laws inconsistent with any Act of Parliament, or with any part of an Act of Parliament, intended by the Imperial Parliament to apply to New Zealand.
Suppose, for example, that the Imperial Parliament were to pass an Act providing a special mode of trial in New Zealand for particular classes of offences committed there, no enactment of the colonial Parliament, which provided that such offences should be tried otherwise than as directed by the imperial statute, would be of any legal effect. So again, no New Zealand Act would be valid that legalised the slave trade in the face of the Slave Trade Act, 1824, 5 George IV. c. 113, which prohibits slave trading throughout the British dominions; nor would Acts passed by the Dominion Parliament be valid which repealed, or invalidated, several provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 meant to apply to the colonies, or which deprived a discharge under the English Bankruptcy Act of the effect which, in virtue of the imperial statute, it has as a release from debts contracted in any part whatever of the British dominions. No colonial legislature, in short, can override imperial legislation which is intended to apply to the colonies. Whether the intention be expressed in so many words, or be apparent only from the general scope and nature of the enactment, is immaterial. Once establish that an imperial law is intended to apply to a given colony, and the consequence follows that any colonial enactment which contravenes that law is invalid and unconstitutional.
illegible Hence the Courts in the Dominion of New Zealand, as also in the rest of the British Empire, may be called upon to adjudicate upon the validity or constitutionality of any Act of the Dominion Parliament. For if a New Zealand law really contradicts the provisions of an Act of Parliament extending to New Zealand, no Court throughout the British dominions could legally, it is clear, give effect to the enactment of the Dominion Parliament. This is an inevitable result of the legislative sovereignty exercised by the Imperial Parliament. In the supposed case the Dominion Parliament commands the judges to act in a particular manner, and the Imperial Parliament commands them to act in another manner. Of these two commands the order of the Imperial Parliament is the one which must be obeyed. This is the very meaning of Parliamentary sovereignty. Whenever, therefore, it is alleged that any enactment of the Dominion Parliament is repugnant to the provisions of any Act of the Imperial Parliament extending to the colony, the tribunal before which the objection is raised must pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of the colonial law.
Colonial Parliament may be a “constituent” as well as legislative body. The constitution of New Zealand is created by and depends upon the New Zealand Constitution Act, 1852,15 & 16 Vict. c. 72, and the Acts amending the same. One might therefore expect that the Parliament of the Dominion of New Zealand, which may conveniently be called the New Zealand Parliament, would exhibit that “mark of subordination” which consists in the inability of a legislative body to change fundamental or constitutional laws, or (what is the same thing) in the clearly drawn distinction between ordinary laws which the legislature can change and laws of the constitution which it cannot change, at any rate when acting in its ordinary legislative character. But this anticipation is hardly borne out by an examination into the Acts creating the constitution of New Zealand. A comparison of the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865, s. 5, with the New Zealand Constitution Act, as subsequently amended, shows that the New Zealand Parliament can change the articles of the constitution. This power, derived from imperial statutes, is of course in no way inconsistent with the legal sovereignty of the Imperial Parliament. One may fairly therefore assert that the New Zealand Parliament, in common with many other colonial legislative assemblies, is, though a “subordinate,” at once a legislative and a constituent assembly. It is a “subordinate” assembly because its powers are limited by the legislation of the Imperial Parliament; it is a constituent assembly since it can change the articles of the constitution of New Zealand. The authority of the New Zealand Parliament to change the articles of the constitution of New Zealand is from several points of view worth notice.
Reason of this We have here a decisive proof that there is no necessary connection between the written character and the immutability of a constitution. The New Zealand constitution is to be found in a written document; it is a statutory enactment. Yet the articles of this constitutional statute can be changed by the Parliament which it creates, and changed in the same manner as any other law. This may seem an obvious matter enough, but writers of eminence so often use language which implies or suggests that the character of a law is changed by its being expressed in the form of a statute as to make it worth while noting that a statutory constitution need not be in any sense an immutable constitution. The readiness again with which the English Parliament has conceded constituent powers to colonial legislatures shows how little hold is exercised over Englishmen by that distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental laws which runs through almost all the constitutions not only of the Continent but also of America. The explanation appears to be that in England we have long been accustomed to consider Parliament as capable of changing one kind of law with as much ease as another. Hence when English statesmen gave Parliamentary government to the colonies, they almost as a matter of course bestowed upon colonial legislatures authority to deal with every law, whether constitutional or not, which affected the colony, subject of course to the proviso, rather implied than expressed, that this power should not be used in a way inconsistent with the supremacy of the British Parliament. The colonial legislatures, in short, are within their own sphere copies of the Imperial Parliament. They are within their own sphere sovereign bodies; but their freedom of action is controlled by their subordination to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
How conflict between imperial and colonial ligslation are avoided. The question may naturally be asked how the large amount of colonial liberty conceded to countries like New Zealand has been legally reconciled with Imperial sovereignty?
The inquiry lies a little outside our subject, but is not really foreign to it, and well deserves an answer. Nor is the reply hard to find if we keep in mind the true nature of the difficulty which needs explanation.
The problem is not to determine what are the means by which the English Government keeps the colonies in subjection, or maintains the political sovereignty of the United Kingdom. This is a matter of politics with which this book has no concern.
The question to be answered is how (assuming the law to be obeyed throughout the whole of the British Empire) colonial legislative freedom is made compatible with the legislative sovereignty of Parliament? How are the Imperial Parliament and the colonial legislatures prevented from encroaching on each other's spheres?
No one will think this inquiry needless who remarks that in confederations, such as the United States, or the Canadian Dominion, the Courts are constantly occupied in determining the boundaries which divide the legislative authority of the Central Government from that of the State Legislatures.
conflict converted by illegible supremacy of british parhament, The assertion may sound paradoxical, but is nevertheless strictly true, that the acknowledged legal supremacy of Parliament is one main cause of the wide power of legislation allowed to colonial assemblies.
The constitutions of the colonies depend directly or indirectly upon imperial statutes. No lawyer questions that Parliament could legally abolish any colonial constitution, or that Parliament can at any moment legislate for the colonies and repeal or override any colonial law whatever. Parliament moreover does from time to time pass Acts affecting the colonies, and the colonial, no less than the English, Courts completely admit the principle that a statute of the Imperial Parliament binds any part of the British dominions to which the statute is meant to apply. But when once this is admitted, it becomes obvious that there is little necessity for defining or limiting the sphere of colonial legislation. If an Act of the New Zealand Parliament contravenes an imperial statute, it is for legal purposes void; and if an Act of the New Zealand Parliament, though not infringing upon any statute, is so opposed to the interests of the Empire that it ought not to be passed, the British Parliament may render the Act of no effect by means of an imperial statute.
illegible of veto This course, however, is rarely, if ever, necessary; for Parliament exerts authority over colonial legislation by in effect regulating the use of the Crown's “veto” in regard to colonial Acts. This is a matter which itself needs a little explanation.
The Crown's right to refuse assent to bills which have passed through the Houses of Parliament is practically obsolete. The power of the Crown to negative or veto the bills of colonial legislatures stands on a different footing. It is virtually, though not in name, the right of the Imperial Parliament to limit colonial legislative independence, and is frequently exercised.
This check on colonial legislation is exerted in two different manners.
The Governor of a colony, say New Zealand, may directly refuse his assent to a bill passed by both Houses of the New Zealand Parliament. In this case the bill is finally lost, just as would be a bill which had been rejected by the colonial council, or as would be a bill passed by the English Houses of Parliament if the Crown were to exert the obsolete prerogative of refusing the royal assent. The Governor, again, may, without refusing his assent, reserve the bill for the consideration of the Crown. In such case the bill does not come into force until it has received the royal assent, which is in effect the assent of the English Ministry, and therefore indirectly of the Imperial Parliament.
The Governor, on the other hand, may, as representing the Crown, give his assent to a New Zealand bill. The bill thereupon comes into force throughout New Zealand. But such a bill, though for a time a valid Act, is not finally made law even in New Zealand, since the Crown may, after the Governor's assent has been given, disallow the colonial Act. The case is thus put by Mr. Todd:
Although a governor as representing the Crown is empowered to give the royal assent to bills, this act is not final and conclusive; the Crown itself having, in point of fact, a second veto. All statutes assented to by the governor of a colony go into force immediately, unless they contain a clause suspending their operation until the issue of a proclamation of approval by the queen in council, or some other specific provision to the contrary; but the governor is required to transmit a copy thereof to the secretary of state for the colonies; and the queen in council may, within two years after the receipt of the same, disallow any such Act.”
The result therefore of this state of things is, that colonial legislation is subject to a real veto on the part of the imperial government, and no bill which the English Ministry think ought for the sake of imperial interests to be negatived can, though passed by the New Zealand or other colonial legislature, come finally into force. The home government is certain to negative or disallow any colonial law which, either in letter or in spirit, is repugnant to Parliamentary legislation, and a large number of Acts can be given which on one ground or another have been either not assented to or disallowed by the Crown. In 2868 the Crown refused assent to a Canadian Act reducing the salary of the Governor-General. In 1872 the Crown refused assent to a Canadian Copyright Act because certain parts of it conflicted with imperial legislation. In 1873 a Canadian Act was disallowed as being contrary to the express terms of the British North America Act, 1868; and on similar grounds in 1878 a Canadian Shipping Act was disallowed. So again the Crown has at times in effect passed a veto upon Australian Acts for checking Chinese immigration. And Acts passed by a colonial legislature, allowing divorce on the ground solely of the husband's adultery or (before the passing of the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act, 1907, 7 Edward VII. c. 47) legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister or with a deceased husband's brother, have (though not consistently with the general tenor of our colonial policy) been sometimes disallowed by the Crown, that is, in effect by the home government.
The general answer therefore to the inquiry, how colonial liberty of legislation is made legally reconcilable with imperial sovereignty, is that the complete recognition of the supremacy of Parliament obviates the necessity for carefully limiting the authority of colonial legislatures, and that the home government, who in effect represent Parliament, retain by the use of the Crown's veto the power of preventing the occurrence of conflicts between colonial and imperial laws. To this it must be added that imperial treaties legally bind the colonies, and that the “treaty-making power,” to use an American expression, resides in the Crown, and is therefore exercised by the home government in accordance with the wishes of the Houses of Parliament, or more strictly of the House of Commons; whilst the authority to make treaties is, except where expressly allowed by Act of Parliament, not possessed by any colonial government.
It should, however, be observed that the legislature of a self-governing colony is free to determine whether or not to pass laws necessary for giving effect to a treaty entered into between the imperial government and a foreign power; and further, that there might in practice be great difficulty in enforcing within the limits of a colony the terms of a treaty, e.g. as to the extradition of criminals, to which colonial sentiment was opposed. But this does not affect the principle of law that a colony is bound by treaties made by the imperial government, and does not, unless under some special provision of an Act of Parliament, possess authority to make treaties with any foreign power.
Policy of imperial government not Knterfere with action of colonies Any one who wishes justly to appreciate the nature and the extent of the control exerted by Great Britain over colonial legislation should keep two points carefully in mind. The tendency, in the first place, of the imperial government is as a matter of policy to interfere less and less with the action of the colonies, whether in the way of law-making or otherwise. Colonial Acts, in the second place, even when finally assented to by the Crown, are, as already pointed out, invalid if repugnant to an Act of Parliament applying to the colony. The imperial policy therefore of non-intervention in the local affairs of British dependencies combines with the supreme legislative authority of the Imperial Parliament to render encroachments by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on the sphere of colonial legislation, or by colonial Parliaments on the domain of imperial legislation, of comparatively rare occurrence.
Foreign Non-sovereign Legislatures
non sovereign legislatures of independent nations We perceive without difficulty that the Parliaments of even those colonies, such as the Dominion of Canada, or the Australian Commonwealth, which are most nearly independent states, are not in reality sovereign legislatures. This is easily seen, because the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, which legislates for the whole British Empire, is visible in the background, and because the colonies, however large their practical freedom of action, do not act as independent powers in relation to foreign states; the Parliament of a dependency cannot itseff be a sovereign body. It is harder for Englishmen to realise that the legislative assembly of an independent nation may not be a sovereign assembly. Our political habits of thought indeed are so based upon the assumption of Parliamentary omnipotence, that the position of a Parliament which represents an independent nation and yet is not itself a sovereign power is apt to appear to us exceptional or anomalous. Yet whoever examines the constitutions of civilised countries will find that the legislative assemblies of great nations are, or have been, in many cases legislative without being constituent bodies. To determine in any given case whether a foreign legislature be a sovereign power or not we must examine the constitution of the state to which it belongs, and ascertain whether the legislature whose position is in question bears any of the marks of subordination. Such an investigation will in many or in most instances show that an apparently sovereign assembly is in reality a non-sovereign law-making body.
France. France has within the last hundred and thirty years made trial of at least twelve constitutions.
These various forms of government have, amidst all their differences, possessed in general one common feature. They have most of them been based upon the recognition of an essential distinction between constitutional or “fundamental” laws intended to be either immutable or changeable only with great difficulty, and “ordinary” laws which could be changed by the ordinary legislature in the common course of legislation. Hence under the constitutions which France has from time to time adopted the common Parliament or legislative body has not been a sovereign legislature.
Constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. The constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe, in outward appearance at least, was modelled on the constitutional monarchy of England. In the Charter not a word could be found which expressly limits the legislative authority possessed by the Crown and the two Chambers, and to an Englishman it would seem certainly arguable that under the Orleans dynasty the Parliament was possessed of sovereignty. This, however, was not the view accepted among French lawyers. Tocqueville writes:
The immutability of the Constitution of France is a necessary consequence of the laws of that country. … As the King, the Peers, and the Deputies all derive their authority from the Constitution, these three powers united cannot alter a law by virtue of which alone they govern. Out of the pale of the Constitution they are nothing; where, then, could they take their stand to effect a change in its provisions? The alternative is clear: either their efforts are powerless against the Charter, which continues to exist in spite of them, in which case they only reign in the name of the Charter; or they succeed in changing the Charter, and then the law by which they existed being annulled, they themselves cease to exist. By destroying the Charter, they destroy themselves. This is much more evident in the laws of 1830 than in those of 1814. In 1814 the royal prerogative took its stand above and beyond the Constitution; but in 1830 it was avowedly created by, and dependent on, the Constitution. A part, therefore, of the French Constitution is immutable, because it is united to the destiny of a family; and the body of the Constitution is equally immutable, because there appear to be no legal means of changing it. These remarks are not applicable to England. That country having no written Constitution, who can assert when its Constitution is changed?
Tocqueville's reasoning may not carry conviction to an Englishman, but the weakness of his argument is of itself strong evidence of the influence of the hold on French opinion of the doctrine which it is intended to support, namely, that Parliamentary sovereignty was not a recognised part of French constitutionalism. The dogma which is so naturally assented to by Englishmen contradicts that idea of the essential difference between constitutional and other laws which appears to have a firm hold on most foreign statesmen and legislators.
The Republic of 1848 The Republic of 1848 expressly recognised this distinction; no single article of the constitution proclaimed on 4th November 1848 could be changed in the same way as an ordinary law. The legislative assembly sat for three years. In the last year of its existence, and then only, it could by a majority of three-fourths, and not otherwise, convoke a constituent body with authority to modify the constitution. This constituent and sovereign assembly differed in numbers, and otherwise, from the ordinary non-sovereign legislature.
Present Republic The National Assembly of the French Republic exerts at least as much direct authority as the English Houses of Parliament. The French Chamber of Deputies exercises at least as much influence on the appointment of Ministers, and controls the action of the government, at least as strictly as does our House of Commons. The President, moreover, does not possess even a theoretical right of veto. For all this, however, the French Parliament is not a sovereign assembly, but is bound by the laws of the constitution in a way in which no law binds our Parliament. The articles of the constitution, or “fundamental laws,” stand in a totally different position from the ordinary law of the land. Under article 8 of the constitution, no one of these fundamental enactments can be legally changed otherwise than subject to the following provisions:
8. Les Chambres auront le droit, par deliberations séparées, prises dans chacune a la majorité absolue des voix, soit spontanement, soit sur la demanded du Président de la République, de déclarer qu'il y a lieu de réviser les lois constitutionnelles. Après que chacune des deux Chambres aura pris cette résolution, elles se réuniront en Assemblée nationale pour procéder à la révision. —Les délibérations portant révision des lois constitutionnelles, en toutouen partie, devront être prises à la majorité absolue des membres composant l‧Assemblée nationale.
Supreme legislative power is therefore under the Republic vested not in the ordinary Parliament of two Chambers, but in a “national assembly,” or congress, composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate sitting together.
Distinction between flexible and rigid constitution The various constitutions, in short, of France, which are in this respect fair types of continental polities, exhibit, as compared with the expansiveness or “flexibility” of English institutions, that characteristic which may be conveniently described as “rigidity.”
And here it is worth while, with a view to understanding the constitution of our own country, to make perfectly clear to ourselves the distinction already referred to between a “flexible” and a “rigid” constitution.
flexible constitution A “flexible” constitution is one under which every law of every description can legally be changed with the same case and in the same manner by one and the same body. The “flexibility” of our constitution consists in the right of the Crown and the two Houses to modify or repeal any law whatever; they can alter the succession to the Crown or repeal the Acts of Union in the same manner in which they can pass an Act enabling a company to make a new railway from Oxford to London. With us, laws therefore are called constitutional, because they refer to subjects supposed to affect the fundamental institutions of the state, and not because they are legally more sacred or difficult to change than other laws. And as a matter of fact, the meaning of the word “constitutional” is in England so vague that the term “a constitutional law or enactment” is rarely applied to any English statute as giving a definite description of its character.
rigid constitution A “rigid” constitution is one under which certain laws generally known as constitutional or fundamental laws cannot be changed in the same manner as ordinary laws. The “rigidity” of the constitution, say of Belgium or of France, consists in the absence of any right on the part of the Belgian or French Parliament, when acting in its ordinary capacity, to modify or repeal certain definite laws termed constitutional or fundamental. Under a rigid constitution the term “constitutional” as applied to a law has a perfectly definite sense. It means that a particular enactment belongs to the articles of the constitution, and cannot be legally changed with the same ease and in the same manner as ordinary laws. The articles of the constitution will no doubt generally, though by no means invariably, be found to include all the most important and fundamental laws of the state. But it certainly cannot be asserted that where a constitution is rigid all its articles refer to matters of supreme importance. The rule that the French Parliament must meet at Versailles was at one time one of the constitutional laws of the French Republic. Such an enactment, however practically important, would never in virtue of its own character have been termed constitutional; it was constitutional simply because it was included in the articles of the constitution.
The contrast between the flexibility of the English and the rigidity of almost every foreign constitution suggests two interesting inquiries.
Whether rigidity of constitution secures permanence?First, does the rigidity of a constitution secure its permanence and invest the fundamental institutions of the state with practical immutability?
To this inquiry historical experience gives an indecisive answer.
In some instances the fact that certain laws or institutions of a state have been marked off as placed beyond the sphere of political controversy, has, apparently, prevented that process of gradual innovation which in England has, within not much more than sixty years, transformed our polity. The constitution of Belgium stood for more than half a century without undergoing, in form at least, any material change whatever. The constitution of the United States has lasted for more than a hundred years, but has not undergone anything like the amount of change which has been experienced by the constitution of England since the death of George the Third. But if the inflexibility of constitutional laws has in certain instances checked the gradual and unconscious process of innovation by which the foundations of a commonwealth are undermined, the rigidity of constitutional forms has in other cases provoked revolution. The twelve unchangeable constitutions of France have each lasted on an average for less than ten years, and have frequently perished by violence. Louis Philippe's monarchy was destroyed within seven years of the time when Tocqueville pointed out that no power existed legally capable of altering the articles of the Charter. In one notorious instance at least—and other examples of the same phenomenon might be produced from the annals of revolutionary France—the immutability of the constitution was the ground or excuse for its violent subversion. The best plea for the Coup d'état of 1851 was, that while the French people wished for the re-election of the President, the article of the constitution requiring a majority of three-fourths of the legislative assembly in order to alter the law which made the President's reelection impossible, thwarted the will of the sovereign people. Had the Republican Assembly been a sovereign Parliament, Louis Napoleon would have lacked the plea, which seemed to justify, as well as some of the motives which tempted him to commit, the crime of the 2nd of December.
Nor ought the perils in which France was involved by the immutability with which the statesmen of 1848 invested the constitution to be looked upon as exceptional; they arose from a defect which is inherent in every rigid constitution. The endeavour to create laws which cannot be changed is an attempt to hamper the exercise of sovereign power; it therefore tends to bring the letter of the law into conflict with the will of the really supreme power in the state. The majority of French electors were under the constitution the true sovereign of France; but the rule which prevented the legal re-election of the President in effect brought the law of the land into conflict with the will of the majority of the electors, and produced, therefore, as a rigid constitution has a natural tendency to produce, an opposition between the letter of the law and the wishes of the sovereign. If the inflexibility of French constitutions has provoked revolution, the flexibility of English institutions has, once at least, saved them from violent overthrow. To a student, who at this distance of time calmly studies the history of the first Reform Bill, it is apparent, that in 1832 the supreme legislative authority of Parliament enabled the nation to carry through a political revolution under the guise of a legal reform.
The rigidity, in short, of a constitution tends to check gradual innovation; but, just because it impedes change, may, under unfavourable circumstances, occasion or provoke revolution.
What are the sateguards against unconstitutional legislation?Secondly, what are the safeguards which under a rigid constitution can be taken against unconstitutional legislation?
The general answer to our inquiry (which of course can have no application to a country like England, ruled by a sovereign Parliament) is that two methods may be, and have been, adopted by the makers of constitutions, with a view to rendering unconstitutional legislation, either impossible, or inoperative.
Reliance may be placed upon the force of public opinion and upon the ingenious balancing of political powers for restraining the legislature from passing unconstitutional enactments. This system opposes unconstitutional legislation by means of moral sanctions, which resolve themselves into the influence of public sentiment.
Authority, again, may be given to some person or body of persons, and preferably to the Courts, to adjudicate upon the constitutionality of legislative acts, and treat them as void if they are inconsistent with the letter or the spirit of the constitution. This system attempts not so much to prevent unconstitutional legislation as to render it harmless through the intervention of the tribunals, and rests at bottom on the authority of the judges.
This general account of the two methods by which it may be attempted to secure the rigidity of a constitution is hardly intelligible without further illustration. Its meaning may be best understood by a comparison between the different policies in regard to the legislature pursued by two different classes of constitutionalists.
Sateguards? provided by continental constitutionalists French constitution-makers and their continental followers have, as we have seen, always attached vital importance to the distinction between fundamental and other laws, and therefore have constantly created legislative assemblies which possessed “legislative” without possessing “constituent” powers. French statesmen have therefore been forced to devise means for keeping the ordinary legislature within its appropriate sphere. Their mode of procedure has been marked by a certain uniformity; they have declared on the face of the constitution the exact limits imposed upon the authority of the legislature; they have laid down as articles of the constitution whole bodies of maxims intended to guide and control the course of legislation; they have provided for the creation, by special methods and under special conditions, of a constituent body which alone should be entitled to revise the constitution. They have, in short, directed their attention to restraining the ordinary legislature from attempting any inroad upon the fundamental laws of the state; but they have in general trusted to public sentiment, or at any rate to political considerations, for inducing the legislature to respect the restraints imposed on its authority, and have usually omitted to provide machinery for annulling unconstitutional enactments, or for rendering them of no effect.
French Revolutionary constitutions These traits of French constitutionalism are specially noticeable in the three earliest of French political experiments. The Monarchical constitution of 1791, the Democratic constitution of 1793, the Directorial constitution of 1795 exhibit, under all their diversities, two features in common. They each, on the one hand, confine the power of the legislature within very narrow limits indeed; under the Directory, for instance, the legislative body could not itself change any one of the 377 articles of the constitution, and the provisions for creating a constituent assembly were so framed that not the very least alteration in any of these articles could have been carried out within a period of less than nine years. None of these constitutions, on the other hand, contain a hint as to the mode in which a law is to be treated which is alleged to violate the constitution. Their framers indeed hardly seem to have recognised the fact that enactments of the legislature might, without being in so many words opposed to the constitution, yet be of dubious constitutionality, and that some means would be needed for determining whether a given law was or was not in opposition to the principles of the constitution.
Existing Republican constitution. These characteristics of the revolutionary constitutions have been reported in the works of later French constitutionalists. Under the present French Republic there exist a certain number of laws (not it is true a very large number), which the Parliament cannot change; and what is perhaps of more consequence, the so-called Congress could at any time increase the number of fundamental laws, and thereby greatly decrease the authority of future Parliaments. The constitution, however, contains no article providing against the possibility of an ordinary Parliament carrying through legislation greatly in excess of its constitutional powers. Any one in fact who bears in mind the respect paid in France from the time of the Revolution onwards to the legislation of de facto governments and the traditions of the French judicature, will assume with confidence that an enactment passed through the Chambers, promulgated by the President, and published in the Bulletin des Lois, will be held valid by every tribunal throughout the Republic.
are the articles of continental constitutions“laws”? This curious result therefore ensues. The restrictions placed on the action of the legislature under the French constitution are not in reality laws, since they are not rules which in the last resort will be enforced by the Courts. Their true character is that of maxims of political morality, which derive whatever strength they possess from being formally inscribed in the constitution and from the resulting support of public opinion. What is true of the constitution of France applies with more or less force to other politics which have been formed under the influence of French ideas. The Belgian constitution, for example, restricts the action of the Parliament no less than does the Republican constitution of France. But it is at least doubtful whether Belgian constitutionalists have provided any means whatever for invalidating laws which diminish or do away with the rights (e.g. the right of freedom of speech) “guaranteed” to Belgian citizens. The jurists of Belgium maintain, in theory at least, that an Act of Parliament opposed to any article of the constitution ought to be treated by the Courts as void. But during the whole period of Belgian independence, no tribunal, it is said, has ever pronounced judgment upon the constitutionality of an Act of Parliament. This shows, it may be said, that the Parliament has respected the constitution, and certainly affords some evidence that, under favourable circumstances, formal declarations of rights may, from their influence on popular feeling, possess greater weight than is generally attributed to them in England; but it also suggests the notion that in Belgium, as in France, the restrictions on Parliamentary authority are supported mainly by moral or political sentiment, and are at bottom rather constitutional understandings than laws.
To an English critic, indeed, the attitude of continental and especially of revolutionary statesmen towards the ordinary legislature bears an air of paradox. They seem to be almost equally afraid of leaving the authority of the ordinary legislature unfettered, and of taking the steps by which the legislature may be prevented from breaking through the bonds imposed upon its power. The explanation of this apparent inconsistency is to be found in two sentiments which have influenced French constitution-makers from the very outbreak of the Revolution—an over-estimate of the effect to be produced by general declarations of rights, and a settled jealousy of any intervention by the judges in the sphere of politics. We shall see, in a later chapter, that the public law of France is still radically influenced by the belief, even now almost universal among Frenchmen, that the law Courts must not be allowed to interfere in any way whatever with matters of state, or indeed with anything affecting the machinery of government.
Safe guards provided by found United states The authors of the American constitution have, for reasons that will appear in my next chapter, been even more anxious than French statesmen to limit the authority of every legislative body throughout the Republic. They have further shared the faith of continental politicians in the value possessed by general declarations of rights. But they have, unlike French constitution-makers, directed their attention, not so much to preventing Congress and other legislatures from making laws in excess of their powers, as to the invention of means by which the effect of unconstitutional laws may be nullified; and this result they have achieved by making it the duty of every judge throughout the Union to treat as void any enactment which violates the constitution, and thus have given to the restrictions contained in the constitution on the legislative authority either of Congress or the State legislatures the character of real laws, that is, of rules enforced by the Courts. This system, which makes the judges the guardians of the constitution, provides the only adequate safeguard which has hitherto been invented against unconstitutional legislation.
subjectMy present aim is to illustrate the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty as it exists in England, by a comparison with the system of government known as Federalism as it exists in several parts of the civilised world, and especially in the United States of America.
Federalism best understood by studying constitution united States There are indeed to be found at the present time three other noteworthy examples of federal government—the Swiss Confederation, the Dominion of Canada, and the German Empire. But while from a study of the institutions of each of these states one may draw illustrations which throw light on our subject, it will be best to keep our attention throughout this chapter fixed mainly on the institutions of the great American Republic. And this for two reasons. The Union, in the first place, presents the most completely developed type of federalism. All the features which mark that scheme of government, and above all the control of the legislature by the Courts, are there exhibited in their most salient and perfect form; the Swiss Confédération , moreover, and the Dominion of Canada, are more or less copied from the American model, whilst the constitution of the German Empire is too full of anomalies, springing both from historical and from temporary causes, to be taken as a fair representative of any known form of government. The Constitution of the United States, in the second place, holds a very peculiar relation towards the institutions of England. In the principle of the distribution of powers which determines its form, the Constitution of the United States is the exact opposite of the English constitution, the very essence of which is, as I hope I have now made clear, the unlimited authority of Parliament. But while the formal differences between the constitution of the American Republic and the constitution of the English monarchy are, looked at from one point of view, immense, the institutions of America are in their spirit little else than a gigantic development of the ideas which lie at the basis of the political and legal institutions of England. The principle, in short, which gives its form to our system of government is (to use a foreign but convenient expression) “unitarianism,” or the habitual exercise of supreme legislative authority by one central power, which in the particular case is the British Parliament. The principle which, on the other hand, shapes every part of the American polity, is that distribution of limited, executive, legislative, and judical authority among bodies each co-ordinate with and independent of the other which, we shall in a moment see, is essential to the federal form of government. The contrast therefore between the two polities is seen in its most salient form, and the results of this difference are made all the more visible because in every other respect the institutions of the English people on each side the Atlantic rest upon the same notions of law, of justice, and of the relation between the rights of individuals and the rights of the government, or the state.
We shall best understand the nature of federalism and the points in which a federal constitution stands in contrast with the Parliamentary constitution of England if we note, first, the conditions essential to the existence of a federal state and the aim with which such a state is formed; secondly, the essential features of a federal union; and lastly, certain characteristics of federalism which result from its very nature, and form points of comparison, or contrast, between a federal polity and a system of Parliamentary sovereignty.
conditions and aim of federalism A federal state requires for its formation two conditions.
countries capable of union There must exist, in the first place, a body of countries such as the Cantons of Switzerland, the Colonies of America, or the Provinces of Canada, so closely connected by locality, by history, by race, or the like, as to be capable of bearing, in the eyes of their inhabitants, an impress of common nationality. It will also be generally found (if we appeal to experience) that lands which now form part of a federal state were at some stage of their existence bound together by close alliance or by subjection to a common sovereign. It were going further than facts warrant to assert that this earlier connection is essential to the formation of a federal state. But it is certain that where federalism flourishes it is in general the slowly-matured fruit of some earlier and looser connection.
Existence of federal sentiment A second condition absolutely essential to the founding of a federal system is the existence of a very peculiar state of sentiment among the inhabitants of the countries which it is proposed to unite. They must desire union, and must not desire unity. If there be no desire to unite, there is clearly no basis for federalism; the wild scheme entertained (it is said) under the Commonwealth of forming a union between the English Republic and the United Provinces was one of those dreams which may haunt the imagination of politicians but can never be transformed into fact. If, on the other hand, there be a desire for unity, the wish will naturally find its satisfaction, not under a federal, but under a unitarian constitution; the experience of England and Scotland in the eighteenth and of the states of Italy in the nineteenth century shows that the sense of common interests, or common national feeling, may be too strong to allow of that combination of union and separation which is the foundation of federalism. The phase of sentiment, in short, which forms a necessary condition for the formation of a federal state is that the people of the proposed state should wish to form for many purposes a single nation, yet should not wish to surrender the individual existence of each man's State or Canton. We may perhaps go a little farther, and say, that a federal government will hardly be formed unless many of the inhabitants of the separate States feel stronger allegiance to their own State than to the federal state represented by the common government. This was certainly the case in America towards the end of the eighteenth century, and in Switzerland at the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1787 a Virginian or a citizen of Massachusetts felt a far stronger attachment to Virginia or to Massachusetts than to the body of the confederated States. In 1848 the citizens of Lucerne felt far keener loyalty to their Canton than to the confederacy, and the same thing, no doubt, held true in a less degree of the men of Berne or of Zurich. The sentiment therefore which creates a federal state is the prevalence throughout the citizens of more or less allied countries of two feelings which are to a certain extent inconsistent—the desire for national unity and the determination to maintain the independence of each man's separate State. The aim of federalism is to give effect as far as possible to both these sentiments.
The aim of federalism. A federal state is a political contrivance intended to reconcile national unity and power with the maintenance of “state rights.” “The end aimed at fixes the essential character of federalism. For the method by which Federalism attempts to reconcile the apparently inconsistent claims of national sovereignty and of state sovereignty consists of the formation of a constitution under which the ordinary powers of sovereignty are elaborately divided between the common or national government and the separate states. The details of this division vary under every different federal constitution, but the general principle on which it should rest is obvious. Whatever concerns the nation as a whole should be placed under the control of the national government. All matters which are not primarily of common interest should remain in the hands of the several States. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States recites that
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The tenth amendment enacts that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.” These two statements, which are reproduced with slight alteration in the constitution of the Swiss Confederation, point out the aim and lay down the fundamental idea of federalism.
illegibleessential char sentiment of federalism united states From the notion that national unity can be reconciled with state independence by a division of powers under a common constitution between the nation on the one hand and the individual States on the other, flow the three leading characteristics of completely developed federalism, —the supremacy of the constitution— the distribution among bodies with limited and co-ordinate authority of the different powers of government— the authority of the Courts to act as interpreters of the constitution.
supremacy of the constitution A federal state derives its existence from the constitution, just as a corporation derives its existence from the grant by which it is created. Hence, every power, executive, legislative, or judicial, whether it belong to the nation or to the individual States, is subordinate to and controlled by the constitution. Neither the President of the United States nor the Houses of Congress, nor the Governor of Massachusetts, nor the Legislature or General Court of Massachusetts, can legally exercise a single power which is inconsistent with the articles of the Constitution. This doctrine of the supremacy of the constitution is familiar to every American, but in England even trained lawyers find a difficulty in following it out of its legitimate consequences. The difficulty arises from the fact that under the English constitution no principle is recognised which bears any real resemblance to the doctrine (essential to federalism) that the Constitution constitutes the “supreme law of the land.” In England we have laws which may be called fundamental or constitutional because they deal with important principles (as, for example, the descent of the Crown or the terms of union with Scotland) lying at the basis of our institutions, but with us there is no such thing as a supreme law, or law which tests the validity of other laws. There are indeed important statutes, such as the Act embodying the Treaty of Union with Scotland, with which it would be political madness to tamper gratuitously; there are utterly unimportant statutes, such, for example, as the Dentists Act, 1878, which may be repealed or modified at the pleasure or caprice of Parliament; but neither the Act of Union with Scotland nor the Dentists Act, 1878, has more claim than the other to be considered a supreme law. Each embodies the will of the sovereign legislative power; each can be legally altered or repealed by Parliament; neither tests the validity of the other. Should the Dentists Act, 1878, unfortunately contravene the terms of the Act of Union, the Act of Union would be pro tanto repealed, but no judge would dream of maintaining that the Dentists Act, 1878, was thereby rendered invalid or unconstitutional. The one fundamental dogma of English constitutional law is the absolute legislative sovereignty or despotism of the King in Parliament. But this dogma is incompatible with the existence of a fundamental compact, the provisions of which control every authority existing under the constitution.
The foundations of a federal state are a complicated contract. This compact contains a variety of terms which have been agreed to, and generally after mature deliberation, by the States which make up the confederacy. To base an arrangement of this kind upon understandings or conventions would be certain to generate misunderstandings and disagreements. The articles of the treaty, or in other words of the consitution, must therefore be reduced to writing. The constitution must be a written document, and, if possible, a written document of which the terms are open to no misapprehension. The founders of the American Union left at least one great question unsettled. This gap in the Constitution gave an opening to the dispute which was the plea, if not the justification, for the war of secession.
Rigid constitution The constitution must be what I have termed a “rigid” or “inexpansive” constitution.
The law of the constitution must be either legally immutable, or else capable of being changed only by some authority above and beyond the ordinary legislative bodies, whether federal or state legislatures, existing under the constitution.
In spite of the doctrine enunciated by some jurists that in every country there must be found some person or body legally capable of changing every institution thereof, it is hard to see why it should be held inconceivable that the founders of a polity should have deliberately omitted to provide any means for lawfully changing its bases. Such an omission would not be unnatural on the part of the authors of a federal union, since one main object of the States entering into the compact is to prevent further encroachments upon their several state rights; and in the fifth article of the United States Constitution may still be read the record of an attempt to give to some of its provisions temporary immutability. The question, however, whether a federal constitution necessarily involves the existence of some ultimate sovereign power authorised to amend or alter its terms is of merely speculative interest, for under existing federal governments the constitution will be found to provide the means for its own improvement. It is, at any rate, certain that whenever the founders of a federal government hold the maintenance of a federal system to be of primary importance, supreme legislative power cannot be safely vested in any ordinary legislature acting under the constitution. For so to vest legislative sovereignty would be inconsistent with the aim of federalism, namely, the permanent division between the spheres of the national government and of the several States. If Congress could legally change the Constitution, New York and Massachusetts would have no legal guarantee for the amount of independence reserved to them under the Constitution, and would be as subject to the sovereign power of Congress as is Scotland to the sovereignty of Parliament; the Union would cease to be a federal state, and would become a unitarian republic. If, on the other hand, the legislature of South Carolina could of its own will amend the Constitution, the authority of the central government would (from a legal point of view) be illusory; the United States would sink from a nation into a collection of independent countries united by the bond of a more or less permanent alliance. Hence the power of amending the Constitution has been placed, so to speak, outside the Constitution, and one may say, with sufficient accuracy for our present purpose, that the legal sovereignty of the United States resides in the States' governments as forming one aggregate body represented by three-fourths of the several States at any time belonging to the Union. Now from the necessity for placing ultimate legislative authority in some body outside the Constitution a remarkable consequence ensues. Under a federal as under a unitarian system there exists a sovereign power, but the sovereign is in a federal state a despot hard to rouse. He is not, like the English Parliament, an ever-wakeful legislator, but a monarch who slumbers and sleeps. The sovereign of the United States has been roused to serious action but once during the course of more than a century. It needed the thunder of the Civil War to break his repose, and it may be doubted whether anything short of impending revolution will ever again arouse him to activity. But a monarch who slumbers for years is like a monarch who does not exist. A federal constitution is capable of change, but for all that a federal constitution is apt to be unchangeable.
Every legislature under federal constitution is a subordinate law-making body Every legislative assembly existing under a federal constitution is merely a subordinate law-making body, whose laws are of the nature of bye-laws, valid whilst within the authority conferred upon it by constitution, but invalid or unconstitutional if they go beyond the limits of such authority.
There is an apparent absurdity in comparing the legislature of the United States to an English railway company or a municipal corporation, but the comparison is just. Congress can, within the limits of its legal powers, pass laws which bind every man throughout the United States. The Great Eastern Railway Company can, in like manner, pass laws which bind every man throughout the British dominions. A law passed by Congress which in in excess of its legal powers, as contravening the Constitution, is invalid; a law passed by the Great Eastern Railway Company in excess of the powers given by Act of Parliament, or, in other words, by the legal constitution of the company, is also invalid; a law passed by Congress is called an “Act” of Congress, and if ultra vires is described as “unconstitutional”; a law passed by the Great Eastern Railway Company is called a “bye-law,” and if ultra vires is called, not “unconstitutional,” but “invalid.” Differences, however, of words must not conceal from us essential similarity in things. Acts of Congress, or of the Legislative Assembly of New York or of Massachusetts, are at bottom simply “bye-laws,” depending for their validity upon their being within the powers given to Congress or to the state legislatures by the Constitution. The bye-laws of the Great Eastern Railway Company, imposing fines upon passengers who travel over their line without a ticket, are laws, but they are laws depending for their validity upon their being within the powers conferred upon the Company by Act of Parliament, i.e. by the Company's constitution. Congress and the Great Eastern Railway Company are in truth each of them nothing more than subordinate law-making bodies. Their power differs not in degree, but in kind, from the authority of the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Distribution of owers The distribution of powers is an essential feature of federalism. The object for which a federal state is formed involves a division of authority between the national government and the separate States. The powers given to the nation form in effect so many limitations upon the authority of the separate States, and as it is not intended that the central government should have the opportunity of encroaching upon the rights retained by the States, its sphere of action necessarily becomes the object of rigorous definition. The Constitution, for instance, of the United States delegates special and closely defined powers to the executive, to the legislature, and to the judiciary of the Union, or in effect to the Union itself, whilst it provides that the powers “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.”
Division of illegible beyond necessary limit This is all the amount of division which is essential to a federal constitution. But the principle of definition and limitation of powers harmonises so well with the federal spirit that it is generally carried much farther than is dictated by the mere logic of the constitution. Thus the authority assigned to the United States under the Constitution is not concentrated in any single official or body of officials. The President has definite rights, upon which neither Congress nor the judicial department can encroach. Congress has but a limited, indeed a very limited, power of legislation, for it can make laws upon eighteen topics only; yet within its own sphere it is independent both of the President and of the Federal Courts. So, lastly, the judiciary have their own powers. They stand on a level both with the President and with Congress, and their authority (being directly derived from the constitution) cannot, without a distinct violation of law, be trenched upon either by the executive or by the legislature. Where, further, States are federally united, certain principles of policy or of justice must be enforced upon the whole confederated body as well as upon the separate parts thereof, and the very inflexibility of the constitution tempts legislators to place among constitutional articles maxims which (though not in their nature constitutional) have special claims upon respect and observance. Hence spring additional restrictions on the power both of the federation and of the separate states. The United States Constitution prohibits both to Congress and to the separate States the passing of a bill of attainder or an ex post facto law, the granting of any title of nobility, or in effect the laying of any tax on articles exported from any State, enjoins that full faith shall be given to the public acts and judicial proceedings of every other State, hinders any State from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts, and prevents every State from entering into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; thus it provides that the elementary principles of justice, freedom of trade, and the rights of individual property shall be absolutely respected throughout the length and breadth of the Union. It further ensures that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, while it also provides that no member can be expelled from either House of Congress without the concurrence of two-thirds of the House. Other federal constitutions go far beyond that of the United States in ascribing among constitutional articles either principles or petty rules which are supposed to have a claim of legal sanctity; the Swiss Constitution is full of “guaranteed” rights.
Nothing, however, would appear to an English critic to afford so striking an example of the connection between federalism and the “limitation of powers” as the way in which the principles of the federal Constitution pervade in America the constitutions of the separate States. In no case does the legislature of any one State possess all the powers of “state sovereignty” left to the States by the Constitution of the Republic, and every state legislature is subordinated to the constitution of the State. The ordinary legislature of New York or Massachusetts can no more change the state constitution than it can alter the Constitution of the United States itself; and, though the topic cannot be worked out here in detail, it may safely be asserted that state government throughout the Union is formed upon the federal model, and (what is noteworthy) that state constitutions have carried much further than the Constitution of the Republic the tendency to clothe with constitutional immutability any rules which strike the people as important. Illinois has embodied, among fundamental laws, regulations as to elevators.
But here, as in other cases, there is great difficulty in distinguishing cause and effect. If a federal form of government has affected, as it probably has, the constitutions of the separate States, it is certain that features originally existing in the State constitutions have been reproduced in the Constitution of the Union; and, as we shall see in a moment, the most characteristic institution of the United States, the Federal Court, appears to have been suggested at least to the founders of the Republic, by the relation which before 1789 already existed between the state tribunals and the state legislatures.
Division of powers distinguishes federal from unitarian system of government. The tendency of federalism to limit on every side the action of government and to split up the strength of the state among coordinate and independent authorities is specially noticeable, because it forms the essential distinction between a federal system such as that of America or Switzerland, and a Unitarian system of government such as that which exists in England or Russia. We talk indeed of the English constitution as resting on a balance of powers, and as maintaining a division between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial bodies. These expressions have a real meaning. But they have quite a different significance as applied to England from the sense which they bear as applied to the United States. All the power of the English state is concentrated in the Imperial Parliament, and all departments of government are legally subject to Parliamentary despotism. Our judges are independent, in the sense of holding their office by a permanent tenure, and of being raised above the direct influence of the Crown or the Ministry; but the judicial department does not pretend to stand on a level with Parliament; its functions might be modified at any time by an Act of Parliament; and such a statute would be no violation of the law. The Federal Judiciary, on the other hand, are co-ordinate with the President and with Congress, and cannot without a revolution be deprived of a single right by President or Congress. So, again, the executive and the legislature are with us distinct bodies, but they are not distinct in the sense in which the President is distinct from and independent of the Houses of Congress. The House of Commons interferes with administrative matters, and the Ministry are in truth placed and kept in office by the House. A modern Cabinet would not hold power for a week if censured by a newly elected House of Commons. An American President may retain his post and exercise his very important functions even though his bitterest opponents command majorities both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. Unitarianism, in short, means the concentration of the strength of the state in the hands of one visible sovereign power, be that power Parliament or Czar. Federalism means the distribution of the force of the state among a number of co-ordinate bodies each originating in and controlled by the constitution.
Authority Courts Whenever there exists, as in Belgium or in France, a more or less rigid constitution, the articles of which cannot be amended by the ordinary legislature, the difficulty has to be met of guarding against legislation inconsistent with the constitution. As Belgian and French statesmen have created no machinery for the attainment of this object, we may condude that they considered respect for the constitution to be sufficiently secured by moral or political sanctions, and treated the limitations placed on the power of Parliament rather as maxims of policy than as true laws. During a period, at any rate of more than sixty years, no Belgian judge has (it is said) ever pronounced a Parliamentary enactment unconstitutional. No French tribunal, as has been already pointed out, would hold itself at liberty to disregard an enactment, however unconstitutional, passed by the National Assembly, inserted in the Bulletin des Lois, and supported by the force of the government; and French statesmen may well have thought, as Tocqueville certainly did think, that in France possible Parliamentary invasions of the constitution were a less evil than the participation of the judges in political conflicts. France, in short, and Belgium being governed under unitarian constitutions, the non-sovereign character of the legislature is in each case an accident, not an essential property of their polity. Under a federal system it is otherwise. The legal supremacy of the constitution is essential to the existence of the state; the glory of the founders of the United States is to have devised or adopted arrangements under which the Constitution became in reality as well as name the supreme law of the land.
This end they attained by adherence to a very obvious principle, and by the invention of appropriate machinery for carrying this principle into effect.
How authority of the Courts of exerted. The principle is clearly expressed in the Constitution of the United States (article 6):
The Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.
The import of these expressions is unmistakable. Chancellor Kent writes:
Every Act of Congress and every Act of the legislatures of the States, and every part of the constitution of any State, which are repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, are necessarily void. This is a dear and settled principle of [our] constitutional jurisprudence.
The legal duty therefore of every judge, whether he act as a judge of the State of New York or as a judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, is clear. He is bound to treat as void every legislative act, whether proceeding from Congress or from the state legislatures, which is inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States. His duty is as clear as that of an English judge called upon to determine the validity of a bye-law made by the Great Eastern or any other Railway Company. The American judge must in giving judgment obey the terms of the Constitution, just as his English brother must in giving judgment obey every Act of Parliament bearing on the case.
Supremacy of constitution secured by creation of Supreme Court. To have laid down the principle with distinctness is much, but the great problem was how to ensure that the principle should be obeyed; for there existed a danger that judges depending on the federal government should wrest the Constitution in favour of the central power, and that judges created by the States should wrest it in favour of State rights or interests. This problem has been solved by the creation of the Supreme Court and of the Federal Judiciary.
illegible and illegible of supereme Cour Of the nature and position of the Supreme Court itself thus much alone need for our present purpose be noted. The Court derives its existence from the Constitution, and stands therefore on an equality with the President and with Congress; the members thereof (in common with every judge of the Federal Judiciary) hold their places during good behaviour, at salaries which cannot be diminished during a judge's tenure of office. The Supreme Court stands at the head of the whole federal judicial department, which, extending by its subordinate Courts throughout the Union, can execute its judgments through its own officers without requiring the aid of state officials. The Supreme Court, though it has a certain amount of original jurisdiction, derives its importance from its appellate character; it is on every matter which concerns the interpretation of the Constitution a supreme and final Court of Appeal from the decision of every Court (whether a Federal Court or a State Court) throughout the Union. It is in fact the final interpreter of the Constitution, and therefore has authority to pronounce finally as a Court of Appeal whether a law passed either by Congress or by the legislature of a State, e.g. New York, is or is not constitutional. To understand the position of the Supreme Court we must bear in mind that there exist throughout the Union two classes of Courts in which proceedings can be commenced, namely, the subordinate federal Courts deriving their authority from the Constitution, and the state Courts, e.g. of New York or Massachusetts, created by and existing under the state constitutions; and that the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary and the state judiciary is in many cases concurrent, for though the jurisdiction of the federal Courts is mainly confined to cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States, it is also frequently dependent upon the character of the parties, and though there are cases with which no state Court can deal, such a Court may often entertain cases which might be brought in a federal Court, and constantly has to consider the effect of the Constitution on the validity either of a law passed by Congress or of state legislation. That the Supreme Court should be a Court of Appeal from the decision of the subordinate federal tribunals is a matter which excites no surprise. The point to be noted is that it is also a Court of Appeal from decisions of the Supreme Court of any State, e.g. New York, which turn upon or interpret the articles of the Constitution or Acts of Congress. The particular cases in which a party aggrieved by the decision of a state Court has a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States are regulated by an Act of Congress of 24th September 1789, the twenty-fifth section of which provides that
a final judgment or decree, in any suit in the highest court of law or equity of a State, may be brought up on error in point of law, to the Supreme Court of the United States, provided the validity of a treaty, or statute of, or authority exercised under the United States, was drawn in question in the state court, and the decision was against the validity; or provided the validity of any state authority was drawn in question, on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision was in favour of its validity; or provided the construction of any clause of the Constitution or of a treaty, or statute of, or commission held under the United States, was drawn in question, and the decision was against the title, right, privilege, or exemption, specially claimed under the authority of the Union.
Strip this enactment of its technicalities and it comes to this. A party to a case in the highest Court, say of New York, who bases his claim or defence upon an article in the Constitution or law made under it, stands in this position: If judgment be in his favour there is no further appeal; if judgment goes against him, he has a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. Any lawyer can see at a glance how well devised is the arrangement to encourage state Courts in the performance of their duty as guardians of the Constitution, and further that the Supreme Court thereby becomes the ultimate arbiter of all matters affecting the Constitution.
Let no one for a moment fancy that the right of every Court, and ultimately of the Supreme Court, to pronounce on the constitutionality of legislation and on the rights possessed by different authorities under the Constitution is one rarely exercised, for it is in fact a right which is constantly exerted without exciting any more surprise on the part of the citizens of the Union than does in England a judgment of the King's Bench Division treating as invalid the bye-law of a railway company. The American tribunals have dealt with matters of supreme consequence; they have determined that Congress has the right to give priority to debts due to the United States, can lawfully incorporate a bank, has a general power to levy or collect taxes without any restraint, but subject to definite principles of uniformity prescribed by the Constitution; the tribunals have settled what is the power of Congress over the militia, who is the person who has a right to command it, and that the power exercised by Congress during the War of Secession of issuing paper money was valid. The Courts again have controlled the power of the separate States fully as vigorously as they have defined the authority of the United States. The judiciary have pronounced unconstitutional every ex post facto law, every law taxing even in the slightest degree articles exported from any State, and have again deprived of effect state laws impairing the obligation of contracts. To the judiciary in short are due the maintenance of justice, the existence of internal free trade, and the general respect for the rights of property; whilst a recent decision shows that the Courts are prepared to uphold as consistent with the Constitution any laws which prohibit modes of using private property, which seem to the judges inconsistent with public interest. The power moreover of the Courts which maintains the articles of the Constitution as the law of the land, and thereby keeps each authority within its proper sphere, is exerted with an ease and regularity which has astounded and perplexed continental critics. The explanation is that while the judges of the United States control the action of the Constitution, they nevertheless perform purely judicial functions, since they never decide anything but the cases before them. It is natural to say that the Supreme Court pronounces Acts of Congress invalid, but in fact this is not so. The Court never directly pronounces any opinion whatever upon an Act of Congress. What the Court does do is simply to determine that in a given case A is or is not entitled to recover judgment against X; but in determining that case the Court may decide that an Act of Congress is not to be taken into account, since it is an Act beyond the constitutional powers of Congress.
The true merit of the founders of the United States If any one thinks this is a distinction without a difference he shows some ignorance of politics, and does not understand how much the authority of a Court is increased by confining its action to purely judicial business. But persons who, like Tocqueville, have fully appreciated the wisdom of the statesmen who created the Union, have formed perhaps an exaggerated estimate of their originality. Their true merit was that they applied with extraordinary skill the notions which they had inherited from English law to the novel circumstances of the new republic. To any one imbued with the traditions of English procedure it must have seemed impossible to let a Court decide upon anything but the case before it. To any one who had inhabited a colony governed under a charter the effect of which on the validity of a colonial law was certainly liable to be considered by the Privy Council, there was nothing startling in empowering the judiciary to pronounce in given cases upon the constitutionality of Acts passed by assemblies whose powers were limited by the Constitution, just as the authority of the colonial legislatures was limited by charter or by Act of Parliament. To a French jurist, indeed, filled with the traditions of the French Parliaments, all this might well be incomprehensible, but an English lawyer can easily see that the fathers of the republic treated Acts of Congress as English Courts treat bye-laws, and in forming the Supreme Court may probably have had in mind the functions of the Privy Council. It is still more certain that they had before their eyes cases in which the tribunals of particular States had treated as unconstitutional, and therefore pronounced void, Acts of the state legislature which contravened the state constitution. The earliest case of declaring a law unconstitutional dates (it is said) from 1786, and took place in Rhode Island, which was then, and continued 1842, to be governed under the charter of Charles II. An Act of the legislature was declared unconstitutional by the Courts of North Carolina in 1787 and by the Courts of Virginia in 1788, whilst the Constitution of the United States was not adopted fill 1789, and Marbury v. Madison, the first case in which the Supreme Court dealt with the question of constitutionality, was decided in 1803.
But if their notions were conceptions derived from English law, the great statesmen of America gave to old ideas a perfectly new expansion, and for the first time in the history of the world formed a constitution which should in strictness be “the law of the land,” and in so doing created modern federalism. For the essential characteristics of federalism—the supremacy of the constitution—the distribution of powers—the authority of the judiciary—reappear, though no doubt with modifications, in every true federal state.
illegible Turn for a moment to the Canadian Dominion. The preamble to the British North America Act, 1867, asserts with diplomatic inaccuracy that the Provinces of the present Dominion have expressed their desire to be united into one Dominion “with a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom.” If preambles were intended to express anything like the whole truth, for the word “Kingdom” ought to have been substituted “States”: since it is clear that the Constitution of the Dominion is in its essential features modelled on that of the Union. This is indeed denied, but in my judgment without adequate grounds, by competent Canadian critics. The differences between the institutions of the United States and of the Dominion are of course both considerable and noteworthy. But no one can study the provisions of the British North America Act, 1867, without seeing that its authors had the American Constitution constantly before their eyes, and that if Canada were an independent country it would be a Confederacy governed under a Constitution very similar to that of the United States. The Constitution is the law of the land; it cannot be changed (except within narrow limits allowed by the British North America Act, 1867) either by the Dominion Parliament or by the Provincial Parliaments; it can be altered only by the sovereign power of the British Parliament. Nor does this arise from the Canadian Dominion being a dependency. New Zealand is, like Canada, a colony, but the New Zealand Parliament can with the assent of the Crown do what the Canadian Parliament cannot do—change the colonial constitution. Throughout the Dominion, therefore, the Constitution is in the strictest sense the immutable law of the land. Under this law again, you have, as you would expect, the distribution of powers among bodies of co-ordinate authority; though undoubtedly the powers bestowed on the Dominion Government and Parliament are greater when compared with the powers reserved to the Provinces than are the powers which the Constitution of the United States gives to the federal government. In nothing is this more noticeable than in the authority given to the Dominion Government to disallow Provincial Acts.
This right was possibly given with a view to obviate altogether the necessity for invoking the law Courts as interpreters of the Constitution; the founders of the Confederation appear in fact to have believed that
the care taken to define the respective powers of the several legislative bodies in the Dominion would prevent any troublesome or dangerous conflict of authority arising between the central and local governments.
The futility, however, of a hope grounded on a misconception of the nature of federalism is proved by the existence of two thick volumes of reports filled with cases on the constitutionality of legislative enactments, and by a long list of decisions as to the respective powers possessed by the Dominion and by the Provincial Parliaments— judgments given by the true Supreme Court of the Dominion, namely, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In Canada, as in the United States, the Courts inevitably become the interpreters of the Constitution.
illegible Swiss federalism repeats, though with noteworthy variations, the essential traits of the federal polity as it exists across the Atlantic. The Constitution is the law of the land, and cannot be changed either by the federal or by the cantonal legislative bodies; the Constitution enforces a distribution of powers between the national government and the Cantons, and directly or indirectly defines and limits the power of every authority existing under it. The Common Government has in Switzerland, as in America, three organs—a Federal Legislature, a Federal Executive (Bundesrath), and a Federal Court (Bundesgericht).
Of the many interesting and instructive peculiarities which give to Swiss federalism an individual character, this is not the occasion to write in detail. It lies, however, within the scope of this chapter to note that the Constitution of the Confederation differs in two most important respects from that of the United States. It does not, in the first place, establish anything like the accurate division between the executive and the judicial departments of government which exists both in America and in Canada; the Executive exercises, under the head of “administrative law,” many functions of a judicial character, and thus, for example, till 1893 dealt in effect with questions having reference to the rights of religious bodies. The Federal Assembly is the final arbiter on all questions as to the respective jurisdiction of the Executive and of the Federal Court. The judges of that Court are elected by the Federal Assembly, they are occupied greatly with questions of public law (Staatsrecht), and so experienced a statesman as Dr. Dubs laments that the Federal Court should possess jurisdiction in matters of private law. When to this it is added that the judgments of the Federal Court are executed by the government, it at once becomes clear that, according to any English standard, Swiss statesmanship has failed as distinctly as American statesmanship has succeeded in keeping the judicial apart from the executive department of government, and that this failure constitutes a serious flaw in the Swiss Constitution. That Constitution, in the second place, does not in reality place the Federal Court on an absolute level with the Federal Assembly. That tribunal cannot question the constitutionality of laws or decrees passed by the Federal Parliament. From this fact one might suppose that the Federal Assembly is (unlike Congress) a sovereign body, but this is not so. The reason why all Acts of the Assembly must be treated as constitutional by the Federal Tribunal is that the Constitution itself almost precludes the possibility of encroachment upon its articles by the federal legislative body. No legal revision can take place without the assent both of a majority of Swiss citizens and of a majority of the Cantons, and an ordinary law duly passed by the Federal Assembly may be legally annulled by a popular veto. The authority of the Swiss Assembly nominally exceeds the authority of Congress, because in reality the Swiss legislative body is weaker than Congress. For while in each case there lies in the background a legislative sovereign capable of controlling the action of the ordinary legislature, the sovereign power is far more easily brought into play in Switzerland than in America. When the sovereign power can easily enforce its will, it may trust to its own action for maintaining its rights; when, as in America, the same power acts but rarely and with difficulty, the Courts naturally become the guardians of the sovereign's will expressed in the articles of the Constitution.
illegible Our survey from a legal point of view of the characteristics common to all federal governments forcibly suggests conclusions of more than merely legal interest, as to the comparative merits of federal government, and the system of Parliamentary sovereignty.
illegible Federal government means weak government.
The distribution of all the powers of the state among co-ordinate authorities necessarily leads to the result that no one authority can wield the same amount of power as under a unitarian constitution as possessed by the sovereign. A scheme again of checks and balances in which the strength of the common government is so to speak pitted against that of the state governments leads, on the face of it, to a certain waste of energy. A federation therefore will always be at a disadvantage in a contest with unitarian states of equal resources. Nor does the experience either of the United States or of the Swiss confederation invalidate this conclusion. The Union is threatened by no powerful neighbours and needs no foreign policy. Circumstances unconnected with constitutional arrangements enable Switzerland to preserve her separate existence, though surrounded by powerful and at times hostile nations. The mutual jealousies moreover incident to federalism do visibly weaken the Swiss Republic. Thus, to take one example only, each member of the Executive must belong to a different canton. But this rule may exclude from the government statesmen of high merit, and therefore diminish the resources of the state. A rule that each member of the Cabinet should be the native of a different county would appear to Englishmen palpably absurd. Yet this absurdity is forced upon Swiss politicians, and affords one among numerous instances in which the efficiency of the public service is sacrificed to the requirements of federal sentiment. Switzerland, moreover, is governed under a form of democratic federalism which tends towards unitarianism. Each revision increases the authority of the nation at the expense of cantonal independence. This is no doubt in part due to the desire to strengthen the nation against foreign attack. It is perhaps also due to another circumstance. Federalism, as it defines, and therefore limits, the powers of each department of the administration, is unfavourable to the interference or to the activity of government. Hence a federal government can hardly render services to the nation by undertaking for the national benefit functions which may be performed by individuals. This may be a merit of the federal system; it is, however, a merit which does not commend itself to modern democrats, and no more curious instance can be found of the inconsistent currents of popular opinion which may at the same time pervade a nation or a generation than the coincidence in England of a vague admiration for federalism alongside with a far more decided feeling against the doctrines of so-called laissez faire. A system meant to maintain the status quo in politics is incompatible with schemes for wide social innovation.
illegible Federalism tends to produce conservatism.
This tendency is due to several causes. The constitution of a Federal state must, as we have seen, generally be not only a written but a rigid constitution, that is, a constitution which cannot be changed by any ordinary process of legislation. Now this essential rigidity of federal institutions is almost certain to impress on the minds of citizens the idea that any provision included in the constitution is immutable and, so to speak, sacred. The least observation of American politics shows how deeply the notion that the Constitution is something placed beyond the reach of amendment has impressed popular imagination. The difficulty of altering the Constitution produces conservative sentiment, and national conservatism doubles the difficulty of altering the Constitution. The House of Lords has lasted for centuries; the American Senate has now existed for more than one hundred years, yet to abolish or alter the House of Lords might turn out to be an easier matter than to modify the constitution of the Senate. To this one must add that a federal constitution always lays down general principles which, from being placed in the constitution, gradually come to command a superstitious reverence, and thus are in fact, though not in theory, protected from change or criticism. The principle that legislation ought not to impair obligation of contracts has governed the whole course of American opinion. Of the conservative effect of such a maxim when forming an article of the constitution we may form some measure by the following reflection. If any principle of the like kind had been recognised in England as legally binding on the Courts, the Irish Land Act would have been unconstitutional and void; the Irish Church Act, 1869, would, in great part at least, have been from a legal point of view so much waste paper, and there would have been great difficulty in legislating in the way in which the English Parliament has legislated for the reform of the Universities. One maxim only among those embodied in the Constitution of the United States would, that is to say, have been sufficient if adopted in England to have arrested the most vigorous efforts of recent Parliamentary legislation.
Legal Spirit Of federalism Federalism, lastly, means legalism— the predominance of the judiciary in the constitution—the prevalence of a spirit of legality among the people.
That in a confederation like the United States the Courts become the pivot on which the constitutional arrangements of the country turn is obvious. Sovereignty is lodged in a body which rarely exerts its authority and has (so to speak) only a potential existence; no legislature throughout the land is more than a subordinate law-making body capable in strictness of enacting nothing but bye-laws; the powers of the executive are again limited by the constitution; the interpreters of the constitution are the judges. The Bench therefore can and must determine the limits to the authority both of the government and of the legislature; its decision is without appeal; the consequence follows that the Bench of judges is not only the guardian but also at a given moment the master of the constitution. Nothing puts in a stronger light the inevitable connection between federalism and the prominent position of the judicial body than the history of modern Switzerland. The statesmen of 1848 desired to give the Bun-desgericht a far less authoritative position than is possessed by the American Supreme Court. They in effect made the Federal Assembly for most, what it still is for some purposes, a final Court of Appeal. But the necessities of the case were too strong for Swiss statesmanship; the revision of 1874 greatly increased the power of the Federal Tribunal.
illegible From the fact that the judicial Bench supports under federal institutions the whole stress of the constitution, a special danger arises lest the judiciary should be unequal to the burden laid upon them. In no country has greater skill been expended on constituting an august and impressive national tribunal than in the United States. Moreover, as already pointed out, the guardianship of the Constitution is in America confided not only to the Supreme Court but to every judge throughout the land. Still it is manifest that even the Supreme Court can hardly support the duties imposed upon it. No one can doubt that the varying decisions given in the legal-tender cases, or in the line of recent judgments of which Munn v. Illinois is a specimen, show that the most honest judges are after all only honest men, and when set to determine matters of policy and statesmanship will necessarily be swayed by political feeling and by reasons of state. But the moment that this bias becomes obvious a Court loses its moral authority, and decisions which might be justified on grounds of policy excite natural indignation and suspicion when they are seen not to be fully justified on grounds of law. American critics indeed are to be found who allege that the Supreme Court not only is proving but always has proved too weak for the burden it is called upon to bear, and that it has from the first been powerless whenever it came into conflict with a State, or could not count upon the support of the Federal Executive. These allegations undoubtedly hit a weak spot in the constitution of the great tribunal. Its judgments are without force, at any rate as against a State if the President refuses the means of putting them into execution. “John Marshall,” said President Jackson, according to a current story, “has delivered his judgment; let him now enforce it, if he can”; and the judgment was never put into force. But the weight of criticisms repeated from the earliest days of the Union may easily be exaggerated. Laymen are apt to mistake the growth of judicial caution for a sign of judicial weakness. Foreign observers, moreover, should notice that in a federation the causes which bring a body such as the Supreme Court into existence, also supply it with a source of ultimate power. The Supreme Court and institutions like it are the protectors of the federal compact, and the validity of that compact is, in the long run, the guarantee for the rights of the separate States. It is the interest of every man who wishes the federal constitution to be observed, that the judgments of the federal tribunals should be respected. It is therefore no bold assumption that, as long as the people of the United States wish to keep up the balanced system of federalism, they will ultimately compel the central government to support the authority of the federal Court. Critics of the Court are almost driven to assert that the American people are indifferent to State Rights. The assertion may or may not be true; it is a matter on which no English critic should speak with confidence. But censures on the working of a federal Court tell very little against such an institution if they establish nothing more than the almost self-evident proposition that a federal tribunal will be ineffective and superfluous when the United States shall have ceased to be in reality a federation. A federal Court has no proper place in a unitarian Republic.
Judges, further, must be appointed by some authority which is not judidal, and where decisions of a Court control the action of government there exists an irresistible temptation to appoint magistrates who agree (honestly it may be) with the views of the executive. A strong argument pressed against Mr. Blaine's election was, that he would have the opportunity as President of nominating four judges, and that a politician allied with railway companies was likely to pack the Supreme Court with men certain to wrest the law in favour of mercantile corporations. The accusation may have been baseless; the fact that it should have been made, and that even “Republicans” should declare that the time had come when “Democrats” should no longer be excluded from the Bench of the United States, tells plainly enough of the special evils which must be weighed against the undoubted benefits of making the Courts rather than the legislature the arbiters of the constitution.
That a federal system again can flourish only among communities imbued with a legal spirit and trained to reverence the law is as certain as can be any conclusion of political speculation. Federalism substitutes litigation for legislation, and none but a law-fearing people will be inclined to regard the decision of a suit as equivalent to the enactment of a law. The main reason why the United States has carried out the federal system with unequalled success is that the people of the Union are more thoroughly imbued with legal ideas than any other existing nation. Constitutional questions arising out of either the constitutions of the separate States or the articles of the federal Constitution are of daily occurrence and constantly occupy the Courts. Hence the citizens become a people of constitutionalists, and matters which excite the strongest popular feeling, as, for instance, the right of Chinese to settle in the country, are determined by the judicial Bench, and the decision of the Bench is acquiesced in by the people. This acquiescence or submission is due to the Americans inheriting the legal notions of the common law, i.e. of the “most legal system of law” (if the expression may be allowed) in the world. Tocqueville long ago remarked that the Swiss fell far short of the Americans in reverence for law and justice. The events of the last sixty years suggest that he perhaps underrated Swiss submission to law. But the law to which Switzerland is accustomed recognises wide discretionary power on the part of the executive, and has never fully severed the functions of the judge from those of the government. Hence Swiss federalism fails, just where one would expect it to fail, in maintaining that complete authority of the Courts which is necessary to the perfect federal system. But the Swiss, though they may not equal the Americans in reverence for judicial decisions, are a law-respecting nation. One may well doubt whether there are many states to be found where the mass of the people would leave so much political influence to the Courts. Yet any nation who cannot acquiesce in the finality of possibly mistaken judgments is hardly fit to form part of a federal state.
Either House of Parliament may commit for contempt, and the Courts will not go behind the committal and inquire into the facts constituting the alleged contempt. Hence either House may commit to prison for contempt any person whom the House think guilty of contempt.
The House of Lords have power to commit an offender to prison for a specified term, even beyond the duration of the session (May, Parliamentary Practice (11th ed.), pp. 91, 92). But the House of Commons do not commit for a definite period, and prisoners committed by the House are, if not sooner discharged, released from their confinement on a prorogation. If they were held longer in custody they would be discharged by the Courts upon a writ of Habeas Corpus (May, Parliamentary Practice, chap. iii.).
libel upon either House of Parliament or upon a member thereof, in his character of a member, has been often treated as a contempt. (ibid.)
The Houses and all the members thereof have all the privileges as to freedom of speech, etc., necessary for the performance of their duties. (See generally May's Parliamentary Practice, chap. iii.) Compare as to Parliamentary privilege Shaftesbury's Case, 6 St. Tr. 1269; Flower's Case, 8 T. R. 314; Ashby v. White, 1 Sm. L. Cas. (9th ed.), 268; Wilkes's Case, 19 St. Tr. 1153; Burdett v. Colman, 14 East, 163; Rex v. Creevy, 1M. & S. 273; Clarke v. Bradlaugh, 7 Q. B, D. 38, 8. App. Cas. 354; The Attorney-General v. Bradlaugh, 14 Q. B. D. 667.
The refusal of the Governor's assent to a bill.
Reservation of a bill for the consideration of the Crown, and the subsequent lapse of the bill owing to the royal assent being refused, or not being given within the statutory time.
The insertion in a bill of a clause preventing it from coming into operation until the signification of the royal assent thereto, and the want of such royal assent.
The disallowance by the Crown of a law passed by the Colonial Parliament with the assent of the Governor.