Political Failure, Judicial Opportunity: The Supreme Court of Canada and Aboriginal and Treaty Rights
American Review of Canadian Studies, Forthcoming
22 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2014 Last revised: 16 Sep 2014
Date Written: September 30, 2013
What role do courts play in public policymaking? Fifty years ago, Robert Dahl found that courts largely defer to the political process in public policymaking. Accepted by the majority of scholars today, Dahl’s view suggests skepticism that courts play a significant role in the policymaking process. The few scholars, who concede that courts play a role in policymaking, often see that role as less direct or as in response to public opinion. Using the development of Aboriginal and treaty rights policy in Canada as a case study, I find that the Supreme Court of Canada succeeded in revitalizing the making of Aboriginal and treaty rights policy in the 1990s even without the support of politicians or the public. In 1990, the Court irrevocably altered Aboriginal and treaty rights policy by establishing Aboriginal and treaty rights in section 35(1) of the Constitution and curtailing Parliament’s ability to extinguish these rights. Most notably, the Court reinvigorated the policymaking process by encouraging politicians to revisit Aboriginal and treaty rights policies. When they failed, the Court re-entered the policymaking arena by recognizing and protecting a wide range of Aboriginal and treaty rights from governmental incursion over the next six years. The Court’s emergence as a significant and influential policymaker was the product of historical and institutional forces. While legal mobilization, growing public support, and the judicialization of politics contributed to the development of the Court’s role, I use interviews with political and legal players as well as the Court’s own language to show how the failure of the political process influenced the Court to reinvigorate Aboriginal and treaty rights policymaking. My emphasis on political failure illuminates a more complex relationship between courts, the political process, and policymaking. It also highlights how courts can play an influential role in public policy making.
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