The Man Who Would Be King

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During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the drafting and adoption of the constitution, there were lots of ideas of how the new country should govern itself. Some even suggested a monarchy and, while that idea didn’t gain much traction, it must have made the drafters a little nervous because they made sure that no President could ever assume the powers imbued in a King.

The constitution was deliberately designed to limit the power of the president by checking and balancing his powers and responsibilities with those of Congress and the Supreme Court. The President of the USA is not called the most powerful person in the world because of his unlimited authority but rather for the size of the American economy and the power of its armed forces and nuclear arsenal. In terms of getting his own way, a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can exercise more raw authority.

The drafters must have gotten it right since the American Republic (a better description than democracy) has survived presidents who were drunks, thieves, liars, and buffoons. Although the union (more perfect but not actually perfect) teetered at times – especially during the years leading up to and following the Civil War, it never collapsed.

There are those who worry that things have changed in America and that the current President might – by intent or by accident – break the system once and for all. There are reasons to fear. Congress has become increasingly partisan and, due to gerrymandering, the advantage of incumbency and the role of big money, less sensitive to bad polls or even bad election results. The Republicans have gained a tremendous edge in winning more seats that their popular votes warrant and seem unlikely to turn against the president, even as his approval ratings fall.

The recent sacking of the head of the FBI, while certainly neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented, is a worrying sign. The absolute insouciance of the Republican leadership regarding the matter is even more worrying. Worst of all are the rumours that Trump is demanding oaths of loyalty – not to the Constitution but to him personally. That begins to sound more kinglike all the time – or at least, more like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic, since kings are largely passé.

But there is hope on the horizon. Some Republicans have rediscovered their principals while others have begun to grow worried about their jobs. The courts have been consistently rolling back the efforts of state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in favour of their own party, which, if it continues, will severely limit the ability of the Republicans – who have natural advantages in the Senate and Oval Office – to dominate the House of Representatives, which was always meant to be a close reflection of the popular vote.

The renewed activism of American citizens is also a good sign but whether it can be maintained for two or four years is always open to doubt. Democracy is hard and fighting for your rights is a tiring business. The Democratic Party needs to change, too – finding ways to make allies in the Republican Party rather than vilifying them at every turn. I remain, as ever, optimistic.

And that’s ten minutes.

Right to Die

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Yesterday, an 81 year old man suffering from terminal cancer and in terrible pain that could not be relieved or mitigated was assisted in dying by his physician. This came one day after a judge ruled that the procedure could go ahead. This was the first individual, outside of Quebec, to use the Supreme Court ruling of last year to end his life.

Quebec and the Supreme Court have long been critical to changing the law to reflect the changing social mores of Canada. It was Quebec courts – or more specifically Quebec juries – that initially struck down the provisions of the Criminal Code prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court ratified those decisions and when the Canadian Senate refused to pass new laws proposed by the Mulroney Conservative government, Canada became the first country in the world to have abortion a matter of public policy rather than of the law.

Once again it was case law from Quebec that led to the Supreme Court to strike down the criminal code provisions against physician assisted death and establishing the court-approval process in advance of a new law being passed by Parliament to regulate the process. This law is expected to pass (as required by the Court) by the end of June.

What is most striking about this decision is that it is a reversal of the decision the Court made twenty years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case. Then, in a split ruling, the Court ruled that assisted suicide would remain a crime and that those suffering an inevitable and painful demise had no recourse.

There are those who argue that this is a slippery slope and that it is immoral. There is no evidence for the former and the latter is a matter of debate – a debate that will undoubtedly occur in the House of Commons and the Senate. The government is likely to create a system of approval rife with safeguards and oversights. It is critical that the right to die remain an individual right – with decisions made solely by competent individuals free from family or institutional coercion.

The right to die decision – like the abortion one before it – was based in a legal argument that the law, including constitutional law, must evolve and may change as society changes. The Courts in Canada have not always been so liberal in their interpretation – we had to send a case to the Law Lords in London to recognize that women were persons back in the 1930s – but have grown more flexible when Canada adopted its new Constitution along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This is quite different from the debates that rage in the United States where some believe the Constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers intended (though the same jurists made an exception for Second Amendment rights in the greatest example of judicial activism ever). They accept – barely – those amendments that outlawed slavery and gave women the vote, but otherwise want to lock America into a past that has long ceased to be relevant to most modern Americans.

Yet another reason I’m thankful for being born Canadian.

And that’s ten minutes, eh?