A Proclivity for Plunder

The left and the right are united in wanting to regulate the internet by taking from their enemies and giving to their friends

You might think that Steven Guilbeault, environmentalist activist turned Canadian Heritage minister, and Josh Hawley, a leader of the will-to-power faction of the American right, don’t have too much in common. But, as it happens, they do: both think that, when it comes to regulating social media, plunder is the right policy. Even by the standards of the times, their positions are unusually crude. But they have at least the merit of exposing a widespread misunderstanding of the permissible bounds of the activity of the state.

Mr. Guilbeault, as Michael Geist has noted on his blog, is promising to throw more money at the Canadian media and cultural sector and, in order to do so, to “go and get that money where that money is. Which is web giants.” The current idea, as Professor Geist explains in another post, appears to be to charge Google, Facebook, et al. for linking to news articles listed or shared on their platforms, but there may be other chicanery in the works, such as requirements that these companies, or some others, spend some amounts determined by government fiat on content deemed Canadian, or that they give such content a prominence they otherwise would not.

This brings me to Mr. Hawley who, as Christian Schneider explains at The Bulwark, is trying to induce regulatory retaliation against Twitter and Facebook for blocking or limiting the sharing of a dodgy New York Post article. This demand is only the latest in a series of claims by people who used to believe in free speech and free markets (Mr. Hawley’s Twitter biography describes him as “constitutional lawyer” first and husband, father, and senator after that) that social media companies must be made to carry their or their ideological allies’ communications, and punished in case they limit these communications’ reach or prominence.


As you can see, these plans agree in the essential principle that successful platforms must either be requisitioned directly or have their bank accounts raided for the benefit of favoured constituencies. Only the details ― namely, the identity of the beneficiaries ― differ. But then again, once the principle has been accepted, the details can and will change as the partisan make-up of governments shifts. It would be a mistake to focus on the latter rather than the former, though as Mr. Schneider notes, it is a mistake that is quite common on American right: “[t]his may come as a shock to Republican senators, but a freshly empowered Biden/Harris [administration] will not likely make content moderation determinations premised on what produces the largest font of liberal tears.”

The principle on which Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley operate is plunder. They are not alone, of course: so do countless other politicians, not to mention people who vote for them. As Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his great essay “The Law“:

Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.

Plunder by a single person or a small band is criminal. Plunder by a monarch and a dictator is illegitimate. But plunder under colour of law by a democratically elected government ― why, that is simply public policy:

Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few — whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians. 

By the way, lest you think that the belief that this sort of policy immoral is some peculiarly French radicalism, here’s Justice Chase, speaking in much the same terms in Calder v Bull, 3 Dall (3 US) 386 (1798):

An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority. … A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. (388)

And lest you think that this is just American radicalism, let me also quote to your Sir William Blackstone, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that “the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature”, (124) and which “may be reduced to three principal or primary articles; the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property”. (129) The protection of these rights is the proper object of the law, so that

the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow-citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind; but that every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practised by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. (125-26)

Yet wanton tyranny and plunder is precisely what Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley propose. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and the others have laboured to create platforms and services that hundreds of millions of people want to use. Their creators started from very little ― the beauty of the internet is that barriers to entry are pretty low. But now, instead of imitating them and creating platforms and services of their own, others ― be they journalists whom too few people want to pay for the privilege of reading, artists whose work is of little interest to anyone, or conspiracy theorists ― demand to be given access to these platforms or to the revenue that they generate. And politicians are only too happy to oblige.

Why wouldn’t they be? They think it costs them nothing. They are wrong. As Bastiat points out, one odious consequence of the perversion of the law into an instrument of plunder is that, because people naturally tend to associate what is just with what is lawful, they come to think of plunder and oppression as just: “Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.”

The other danger of turning the law from protection of liberty and property to their destruction is perhaps the more dangerous because it is even more widespread:

As long as it is admitted that the law … may violate property instead of protecting it … Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious.

This, and with increasing intensity, is what we are seeing. The stakes of politics are so high because it is admitted on all sides that the power of the winners is virtually untrammeled. The limits and restraints whose existence would in the past have been recognized, at least implicitly, such as the principle that a government shouldn’t simply raid the coffers of a particular company or handful of companies, let alone dictate what messages media ― social or otherwise ― should carry, are no longer recognized. On the one hand this is an escalation. On the other, nothing more than accepted principles being taken to their logical conclusion.

The prize of victory ― a permission to plunder ― is great. The threat of defeat is greater still. Because one expects to use power to engage in plunder oneself, one comes to expect one’s opponents to do likewise, at one’s expense. Losing an election means not simply that someone else gets to enjoy the honours of office, but that they get to despoil and silence you. Hence the desperation of the American right to hang on to power; but hence also the conviction of the Canadian left that it is entitled simply to take from those whom it does not like. These afflictions are not peculiar to countries or to parties. They proceed from the same source: the common conviction that there is no limit to political power, and in particular that plunder is part of the legitimate spoils of political office.

Now of course no one wants any of this to happen. Political schemers do not want moral decadence and civil war. But, they feel, they have no choice. If their preferred schemes do not get implemented, there will be no Canadian newspapers or no right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter! They are convinced that if something is not done by force and the behest of a politician (preferably themselves), it will not be done at all.

And hence the state becomes the answer to all problems. Much of the right now believes this as fervently as does the left. As in Bastiat’s and in Hayek‘s time, this socialist mindset is spread across political parties. Yet as Bastiat wrote,

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley have no faith in the ability of their fellow-citizens to take care of themselves. Cede to the siren songs of libertarianism, they think, and the sky will fall. Let the other party take power, and it will fall just as surely, if a little slower. They want to save humanity with their projects. Alas, but their preferred means of doing so is plunder. For all their undoubted differences, their commitments to civilization are no more different than those of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun.


Again, the projects of Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley are only an unusually start illustration of how much ― too much ― almost all ― of our politics is done. Very little of it is about establishing general rules that protect the rights of all equally. All that matters is ― as Lenin asked ― “who, whom?”. Who is going to plunder and silence whom? Who will be the winner and who the victim? For vae victis.

This is bad policy of course, but more importantly, dangerous and immoral. No person and no party, no matter the size of their majority, have the right to behave like this to their fellow human beings. As Bastiat said: “No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).”

Missing the Forest for the Living Tree

What Lord Sankey actually meant with his living tree metaphor

It is often said that the only interpretive method sanctioned in Canadian constitutional law is one that recognizes , in a well known articulation in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698, “that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life”. [22] The “living tree” metaphor comes from a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98, better known as the “Persons Case” because it resolved the question of whether women could be “qualified persons” for the purposes of section 24 of the then-British North America Act, 1867, which governs appointments to the Senate.

As Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown, the conventional view that living constitutionalism is our law is mistaken: the Supreme Court in fact frequently, if unsystematically, resorts to other interpretive methods, and indeed the Same-Sex Marriage Reference itself is consistent with an originalist approach. Moreover, as we discuss at some length, and as I long-ago suggested here, and now-Justice Bradley Miller has demonstrated, the view that Edwards employed and requires what has come to be known as “living tree” interpretation is simply wrong. It cannot be sustained on a fair reading of the case, which turns on the deployment of orthodox statutory interpretation techniques.

But of course the people who invoke Edwards and the “living tree” metaphor aren’t making it up: the words really are there. But what exactly do they signify, if not that the meaning of the constitution changes over time? Here is my best reading: it is shorthand for the Canadian constitution as a whole ― the constitution considered, in J.A.G. Griffith’s phrase, as “just what happens” ― as opposed to the text of what we now call the Constitution Acts.


Recall that Lord Sankey’s judgment proceeds in two main sections: first he deals with what he refers to as “[t]he external evidence derived from extraneous circumstances”, (DLR 99) namely the suggestion that the reference to “persons” in section 24 was specifically a reference to male persons because it implicitly incorporated the common law rule excluding women from public office. This, Lord Sankey says, “is a relic of days more barbarous than ours”, (99) and he is generally unimpressed with the strength of this “external” evidence, which had swayed the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Towards the end of that section of his judgment, Lord Sankey starts pivoting to the interpretation of section 24 itself. He notes that

No doubt in any code where women were expressly excluded from public office the problem would present no difficulty, but where instead of such exclusion those entitled to be summoned to or placed in public office are described under the word “person” different considerations arise.

The word is ambiguous and in its original meaning would undoubtedly embrace members of either sex. On the other hand, supposing in an Act of Parliament several centuries ago it had been enacted that any person should be entitled to be elected to a particular office it would have been understood that the word only referred to males, but the cause of this was not because the word “person” could not include females but because at Common Law a woman was incapable of serving a public office. (104-105)

The question is whether such implicit understandings are binding. Lord Sankey warns that “[c]ustoms are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared”. (105) He says, accordingly, that history ― in this case, the history of the exclusion of women from public office ― is not determinative. With this he turns to the examination of “the internal evidence derived from the [B.N.A.] Act itself”, (106) beginning not far from where he left off: with a warning that the Judicial Commitee “must take great care … not to interpret legislation meant to apply to one community by a rigid adherence to the customs and traditions of another”. (106)

And then, after a quick glance at the history of Confederation, Lord Sankey comes to the famous metaphor:

The B.N.A. Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits. The object of the Act was to grant a Constitution to Canada.

“Like all written constitutions it has been subject to development through usage and convention:” (Canadian Constitutional Studies, Sir Robert Borden, 1922, p. 55) .

Their Lordships do not conceive it ta be the duty of this Board—it is certainly not their desire—to cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation so that the Dominion to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, may be mistress in her own house, as the provinces to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, are mistresses in theirs. (DLR 106-107)

A couple of further general considerations follow. For one thing, Lord Sankey notes that, while it is true that a “large and liberal” interpretation is appropriate for a constitutional statute, “the question is not what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said”. (107) (This blog’s readers need go no further than yesterday’s post by co-blogger Mark Mancini for a re-articulation of this principle.) For another:

[T]heir Lordships [are not] deciding any question as to the rights of women but only a question as to their eligibility for a particular position. No one either male or female has a right to be summoned to the Senate. The real point at issue is whether the Governor-General has a right to summon women to the Senate.

And then Lord Sankey gets on with really deciding the case by deploying the whole arsenal of usual statutory interpretation techniques. In my earlier post on Edwards, I compared this to “Ravel’s Boléro, an almost-endless repetition of the same simple theme with different instruments”.

Putting all that together, it is clear that Lord Sankey’s judgment is, above all, textualist. He attaches little attention to early history or to intentions and expectations. (Justice Wakeling of the Alberta Court of Appeal, among others, should take note.) By the same token, he is not trying to re-write the text, or to give words new meanings they didn’t have at the time of their enactment. As he says, if the statute referred to men alone instead of using language that in its “original meaning” could encompass women, the case would be open and shut. To repeat, the “living tree” is absolutely not an invitation to update the constitution. But what is it?

To the extent the metaphor does work, it is to help warn against the temptation to “cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction”. Rather, Lord Sankey says, they must receive “a large and liberal interpretation” ― consistent, however, “not [with] what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said” ― to ensure freedom of action “within certain fixed limits” ― fixed, mind you! ― for governments, federal and provincial alike. In this sense, Edwards really is about the right of the Governor General, which is to say of the federal government of the day, to appoint women to the Senate. It is this freedom that must not be unnecessarily curtailed, or “cut down” as Lord Sankey says.

The actions of the government in the constitutional sphere ― “just what happens” ― are the living tree. This tree can grow as society changes, because the government will take actions, which will then develop into practices, and these in turn into “usage and conventions”, in response to social change. But this growth is constrained by constitutional text, whose meaning, while free of presuppositions long pre-dating its enactment, may not change.


It is unfortunate that people appeal to the authority of Lord Sankey’s judgment in Edwards without actually thinking about what that judgment says and does. Justice Rothstein admitted, in a lecture, that he’d never read it until retiring from the Supreme Court. I suspect he is not alone. Of course people who extol Lord Sankey also pay not heed to his overtly originalist opinion in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

But the Aeronautics Reference is a niche interest, a hidden gem. Edwards, by contrast, is supposed to be the most iconic case in all of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence, a font of wisdom and a national symbol, a literal monument. And it truly is a great case, with a great judgment given by a great jurist. If only people would pay it the well-deserved compliment of reading understanding what makes its greatness by reading it closely from beginning to end instead of just taking a line out of the decision, they wouldn’t miss the forest for the living tree.

“Purposive” Does Not Equal “Generous”: The Interpretation Act

It is often said in Canada that statutes must be interpreted “purposively” and “generously.” Many cite the federal Interpretation Act’s s.12, which apparently mandates this marriage between purposive and generous interpretation:

12 Every enactment is deemed remedial, and shall be given such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as best ensures the attainment of its objects.

The Supreme Court has also accepted this general principle in the context of the judge-made rule that benefits-conferring legislation should be interpreted liberally (see Rizzo, and more recently, Michel v Graydon).

Putting aside the judge-made rule itself, which raises similar but somewhat separate questions, I write today to make a simple point: this injunction in the Interpretation Act cannot be read so as to render purposive interpretation the same as a “generous” interpretation. Doing so could violate the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence, which promotes an authentic determination of purpose according to the legislative language under consideration (see my post on Rafilovich). Indeed, as is clear in the constitutional context, purposive interpretation will often lead to the narrowing of a right, rather than a generous interpretation of that right (see, for a recent example, R v Poulin). Similarly, a purposive interpretation in statute law will lead to a narrowing of the meaning of a particular statutory provision to its purposes. Those purposes will best be reflected in text (see Sullivan, at 193; see also here). For that reason, the Interpretation Act can only mandate a simple canon of interpretation: “The words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). Words should be interpreted fairly but only insofar as purpose reflected in text dictates.

One cannot read the Interpretation Act to mandate a generous interpretation over a purposive one. The text of the provision in question says that “fair, large and liberal construction” must be rendered in a way that “best ensures the attainment of the [enactment’s] objects.” This means that purpose is the anchor for a “generous” interpretation within those purposes. Put differently, we should read words to mean all that they can fairly mean, but we cannot use some injunction of “generosity” to supplant the words or the purposes they reflect.

Prioritizing “generosity” over the natural reading of text in its context would lead to all sorts of practical problems. For one, it is difficult to determine what a “generous” interpretation of a statute would mean in practical terms (see Scalia & Garner, at 365). Does this simply mean that “[a]ny doubt arising from difficulties of language should be resolved in favour of the claimant”? (see Rizzo, at para 36). This could be defensible. But the risk is that using the language of “generosity” could invite judges to expand the scope of language and purpose to suit policy outcomes/parties they prefer.

We should be careful of this language for this reason. More importantly, if “generosity” means that the legitimately-sourced purpose of legislation can be abrogated, the language is quite inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s actual approach to interpretation in recent cases (see Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich).

Rather, the reading of the relevant section of the Interpretation Act must be taken to conform with the Supreme Court’s governing approach to statutory interpretation.  In this sense, the “fair, large, and liberal” interpretive approach mandated by the Interpretation Act might be explained by contrasting it to an old form of interpretation that virtually no one adopts now: strict constructionism. Strict constructionism, most commonly adopted in the adage that “statutes in derogation of the common law were to be strictly construed” (Scalia & Garner, at 365) was unjustified because it violated the “fair meaning rule”; the text, in its context, must be interpreted fairly. No one today—not even textualists—are strict constructionists, because everyone accepts the idea that text must be interpreted fairly. If the Interpretation Act is a response to strict constructionism, its language could perhaps be forgiven. But it should be taken no further than the fair-meaning rule, which rests on identifying relevant purposes in text and using those purposes to guide textual interpretation.

An example of a party attempting to use the Interpretation Act is a manner I consider impermissible occurred in Hillier. There, Ms. Hillier relied on the Interpretation Act and the general canon of interpretation that benefits-conferring legislation is to be liberally interpreted. Putting aside this canon (dealt with in Hillier, at para 38), the Interpretation Act was marshalled by Ms. Hillier to suggest that the court should rule in her favour. Stratas JA rejected this erroneous reliance on the Interpretation Act, concluding (at para 39):

[39]  To similar effect is the interpretive rule in section 12 of the Interpretation Act. It provides that “[e]very enactment is deemed remedial, and shall be given such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as best ensures the attainment of its objects.” Section 12 is not a licence for courts and administrative decision-makers to substitute a broad legislative purpose for one that is genuinely narrow or to construe legislative words strictly for strictness’ sake—in either case, to bend the legislation away from its authentic meaning. Section 12 instructs courts and administrative decision-makers to interpret provisions to fulfil the purposes they serve, broad or narrow, no more, no less.

This is an accurate description of the function of the Interpretation Act, which finds agreement with the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence, such as I can discern it. Purpose—usually sourced in text—guides textual interpretation. Purpose and text should be read synthetically together to render a fair meaning of the language at hand. But broad notions of “generosity” or “fairness” should be not be used to supplant the authentic purpose(s) of legislation, derived in text. And “generosity” is not an end-round around the language the legislature actually uses.

Just Asking

Should the power over criminal law be transferred to the provinces?

Let me ask you what might be a provocative question: is there a good reason why criminal law and criminal procedure should be a matter of federal jurisdiction in Canada? The initial choice of the Fathers of Confederation to make them matters for Parliament under section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867 was justified and turned out well, I think. But the reasons that were relevant at Confederation, and for a century thereafter, no longer hold true. Should we amend the constitution to make criminal law a provincial power ― and, if so, on what conditions?

I should note that this post is just me thinking on the screen. I do not mean it as a definitive word on anything. I am not an expert on criminal law, and might be missing something important. By all means, tell me if, and why, you think I’m wrong (or more wrong than usual). Still, I thought these questions are worth thinking about.


So far as I can tell ― and I haven’t done any actual research on this, so I may just be spewing out preconceptions and received wisdom here ― criminal law and procedure being a federal power continues the basic divide established as early as the Quebec Act 1774. Private disputes would be “determined agreeably to the said Laws and Customs of Canada“. To preserve the ability of the French Canadian majority in Québec to control (most of) its private law, “property and civil rights” became subject to provincial jurisdiction at Confederation. By contrast, the Quebec Act maintained English criminal law in force:

whereas the Certainty and Lenity of the Criminal Law of England, and the Benefits and Advantages resulting from the Use of it, have been sensibly felt by the Inhabitants, from an Experience of more than nine Years, during which it has been uniformly administered; be it therefore further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the same shall continue to be administered, and shall be observed as Law in the Province of Quebec, as well in the Description and Quality of the Offence as in the Method of Prosecution and Trial.

The lenity of the Criminal Law of England was such that dozens if not hundreds of offences could lead to hanging, but that was still better than judicial torture, which had existed under ancien régime French law. Here again, Confederation ensured that the status quo would continue, by putting criminal law within Parliament’s jurisdiction ― in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the United States and that would prevail in Australia.

This was as well. I doubt there was any chance of French criminal law being brought back to Canada in the 19th century ― even maintaining the old civil law proved a frightful challenge, which was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Civil code of Lower Canada (as I explained here). But given the relative moderation of federal politics in comparison with what went on in some of the provinces, notably with the authoritarian regimes of the Social Credit in Alberta and the Union Nationale in Québec, federal control over criminal law has been a blessing. It was the reason, notably, for the invalidation of Québec’s ban on “communistic propaganda” in the notorious “Padlock Act” in Switzman v Elbling, [1957] SCR 285.

But something very important happened since then: the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2 of the Charter protects Canadians across the country from dictatorial legislation such as the Padlock Act. Sections 7 to 14 of the Charter entrench substantive, formal, and procedural provisions historically associated with the “certainty and lenity of the criminal law of England”. Section 24 of the Charter and section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provide remedies against governments and legislatures that disregard these rights. These judicial protections (subject to an obvious caveat, to which I will get shortly) are likely to be more effective than the structural devices employed at Confederation. After all, we know that Parliament keeps enacting, and the courts ― to the chagrin of “tough-on-crime” politicians and even some misguided judges ― keep invalidating absuvie criminal laws. As a result, it’s not obvious to me that the centuries-old reasons for making criminal law a federal matter are still valid.


Meanwhile, there are other considerations, some also longstanding but others less so, that support transferring this power to the provinces. The former category includes the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that power should be decentralized and exercised as closely to the citizen as it can be effectively exercised. It’s not clear to me why the provinces couldn’t competently and effectively legislate over criminal law and criminal procedure. As it is, they already legislate over provincial offences under section 92(15) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Since criminal law reflects moral considerations, it would make sense for Canadian provinces, with differing moral outlooks of their electorates, to be in charge of defining this law for themselves. Other usual benefits of decentralization, such as the possibility of provinces experimenting with different policies, within constitutional constraints, would also apply.

The more novel benefit of transferring the power over criminal law to the provinces would be to nip in the bud the tendency for Parliament to rely on the criminal law power to enact regulatory schemes that invade areas of provincial jurisdiction ― or, rather, since this tendency is already well-developed, to pluck off its increasingly putrid flower. Examples of this tendency, all upheld at least in part, include laws dealing with tobacco advertising, the registration of firearms, assisted human reproduction, and most recently genetic non-discrimination. (Shannon Hale blogged here on her and Dwight Newman’s critique of the Supreme Court’s lax approach to Parliament’s criminal law power in Reference re Genetic Non‑Discrimination Act, 2020 SCC 17.) Denying Parliament the power to make criminal law would not only allow us to reap the benefits of federalism in this area, but also to preserve them in others.

Now, I do think that some safeguards must be in place for this change to the distribution of powers to work well. One is already part of the Canadian constitution’s design. Others will need to be implemented as part of a package of amendments together with the transfer of jurisdiction over criminal law to the provinces.

The (mostly) existing safeguard the appointment of the judges of the superior courts, who preside at the most significant criminal trials, by the federal rather than the provincial governments. This has been an important barrier against the power of populist provincial governments. It will become an even better one if the federal government exercises its appointment power without being distracted by populist tough-on-crime considerations that caused it, for example, to introduce police officers into the selection committees that vet prospective judges. However, for this system to continue to work well, it will need to be coupled with an assurance that at least the more serious criminal cases will continue to come to the superior courts, either for trial or, at least, on appeal. Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 may do this already, but I would prefer an explicit addition to section 11 of the Charter.

The other additional safeguards I would want to see include, first and foremost, the repeal of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause“, which allows Parliament and, more to the point, provincial legislatures, to suspend the effective protection of the rights entrenched in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. At a minimum, the protections of the rights of the accused in sections 7-14 should be free from the threat of override; but it is highly desirable that the substantive protections of fundamental freedoms in section 2 should be so too. Section 15 is perhaps less relevant here, but there is no reason to maintain the “notwithstanding clause” for its sake. The reason for contemplating transferring the criminal law power to the provinces, despite the greater risk of populist takeovers, is that the Charter protects against its being abused. This protection must be effective at all times, and not at the provincial legislatures’ sufferance.

Lastly, some additional adjustments to the division of powers scheme will be necessary. For one thing, a federal equivalent of the current section 92(15) will be necessary to replace Parliament’s plenary criminal law power. Just like the provinces now, Parliament should be able to provide for penal enforcement of its legislation. Moreover, some measure of extra-territorial criminal power will need to remain with Parliament as well. There is of course some danger that even this limit grant of power will be abused. This is what has happened in the United States, despite Congress not having any explicit criminal law powers. The crimes created under the power to enacted laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” Congress’s other powers have become literally innumerable: when the American government tried to count all of the offences on its books, it failed. (Some are documented by a darkly humorous Twitter account.) However, the Canadian jurisprudence on the division of powers generally, and on ancillary powers in particular, is much more robust than its American counterparts, so one can reasonably hope that this American disaster can be avoided in Canada. For another, while the federal power over penitentiaries in section 91(28) will no longer make much sense, a more limited power to maintain a carceral system for those convicted of the remaining federal offences will be necessary.


Needless to say, there is very little chance of my proposals ― even assuming that they make sense which, to repeat, they may well not ― ever being taken up. Even apart from Canada’s general, and I’m inclined to think generally sound, aversion to constitutional tinkering, I just don’t see Parliament giving up such a high-profile legislative power that has, for politicians, the virtue that its exercise allows for relatively low-cost grandstanding and virtue-signalling. But who knows. And, if nothing else, I think we should from time to time ask ourselves whether the existing division of powers makes sense, if only to remind ourselves of the reasons why we have it and why, on the whole, it is a good and useful thing.

What Needs to Be Said

Sometimes people say things that need to be said. These things may make us uncomfortable. They may force us to look in the mirror. They may ask us to really sit and think about our conduct. We might not like to hear these things, but they might start a discussion. Or maybe they will force us to change our ways.

Enter Stratas JA in Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164. Here, Stratas JA says what needs to be said. In the decision, Stratas JA shines a light on two increasing tendencies in Canadian law: (1) the tendency of some intervenors, contrary to governing jurisprudence, to insert international law or policy preferences in the interpretation of legislation, particularly in the discernment of legislative purpose and (2) the tendency for some judges, in extra-judicial speeches or otherwise, to weigh in on matters of public policy, typically left to the political branches. Stratas JA has launched an important conversation that we should embrace, tough as it is.

International Law and Statutory Interpretation

Let me start with the basic facts of the case. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

Here’s where it gets hairy. Sometimes, international law can enter the act of legal interpretation. If you want to know more about how this is the case, see my post on Stratas JA’s decision in Entertainment Software. The point is that international law can only be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity. Parliament remains sovereign because it controls the international law it adopts; indeed, “[s]ometimes it is clear…that the purpose of a legislative provision is to implement some or all of  an international law instrument” (Kattenburg, at para 25) (see Gib Van Ert, here, for some nuance on this). Other times, there is ambiguity that permits the consideration of international law (Kattenburg, at para 25). But other times, probably most times, international law plays no role in the interpretation of legislation, where there is no indication that the governing law explicitly or by implication incorporates international law. That was the case here.

Yet many of the intervenors in this case were motivated to bootstrap international law into the authentic interpretation of legislation. For many, the argument was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law principles. This was despite the fact that nothing in the governing law was designed “to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 20). To make this point, some of the interveners attempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32).

There are many problems with what’s going on here, and Justice Stratas rightly rejected the efforts to make the case about the West Bank issue rather than the reasonableness of a regulatory decision. First, at the level of fundamental principle, judicial review of administrative action is about policing the boundaries of the administrative state, at the level of a particular regulatory decision. Some times these decisions can have major consequences, for the party subject to the decision or for the legal system on the whole. But the focus is not the at-large determination of major issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus is on the decision under review. And so the attempts by the moving parties to buttress the record, to force the Court’s hand into saying something, anything, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inappropriate, to say the least. Justice Stratas rightly, and humbly, rejected the call to enter this fraught political territory.

Another problem is the attempt to use international law to guide, where it is inappropriate to do so, the ascertainment of legislative purpose. When courts interpret statutes, they do not do so with the aims of achieving a result that the judge thinks is “just,” “right,” or even “fair.” The goal is to interpret statutes authentically, so that we can plausibly determine what the legislature meant when it used certain words in enacting a law. Contrary to fashionable legal realism, courts and decision-makers must do their best not to reverse engineer a desired outcome through interpretation (see Vavilov, at para 121, but also see the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Here, the intervenors clearly tried to use international law to reach a desired policy outcome. But all of the intervenors, piled up together, shouldn’t be able to encourage courts to engage in this pure policy reasoning. Indeed, as Justice Stratas notes, “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). And to the extent that doing so is contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, Justice Stratas was right to call out this pernicious behaviour.

None of this is to suggest that intervenors do not play an important role in Canadian law. None of this is to suggest that international law cannot, in appropriate circumstances, play a role in the interpretation of legislation. But a new Canadian textualism is emerging that rebuffs policy reasoning and at-large international law arguments. All for the better.

The Role of the Courts

In Kattenburg, Justice Stratas also made a number of comments that, I think, needed to be said about the activities of some Canadian judges. Here is the gist of his comments:

[45]  As for judges, some give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies, whether they be liberal, conservative or whatever. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go. They write op-eds, deliver speeches and give interviews, extolling constitutional rights as absolutes that can never be outweighed by pressing public interest concerns and embracing people, groups and causes that line up with their personal view of what is “just”, “right” and “fair”. They do these things even though cases are under reserve and other cases are coming to them.

This comment raises the important question of the difference between the legal world and the political world. It has become increasingly common to hear that law=politics. In some sense, this is true. Law is the product of political deliberation. And because judges are only humans, there is always a risk that a judge’s experiences and personal views may guide the interpretation of legislation. No legal system can reduce this risk to zero, and perhaps it is unwise to do so.

But this is a completely different proposition from the normative question: should the political views of judges affect the interpretation of laws or judicial review of administration action? Obviously the answer is no. So, in legislative interpretation, we create a series of rules to guide legal interpretation. We ask courts and decision-makers to focus on text, context, and purpose—authentically. In other words, while law is the product of politics, that fact does not give judges the right to interpret laws as they wish.

There are a number of examples of prominent judges who have, extrajudicially, blurred the lines between law and politics. At least two judges of the Supreme Court have suggested that their job is to decide what is best for Canadians, for example (see Justice Moldaver here and then-Chief Justice McLachlin here). This is a real misapprehension of the judicial role. Judges aren’t tasked with making the best normative decisions for Canadians. That is Parliament’s job. Of course, the problem is that politics can be slow and frustrating. But that is no reason to bypass the legislature for a quick judicial resolution.

Another example, but by far not the only one, is Justice Abella. Justice Abella frequently enters the public fray to provide her views on certain legal issues. Quite separate from the content of these interjections, it is typically not the role of a Supreme Court judge to write popular columns, putting their thumbs on the scale of pressing public issues that might make their way to the Court. It is one thing to set out one’s view of the law in reasons for decision. We can agree or disagree on that reasoning, in the legal academy. It is another to take to the streets, as a judge, and participate in the political process by setting out one’s view of the law—whatever it is–in the context of popular publications. On a related note, in fact, this is not just an affliction of judges that might be considered “progressive.” As I wrote here, in the United States, conservatives are increasingly looking at the courts as an instrument of power, rather than as neutral and objective arbiters of the law.

I could go on and on. The point is that Justice Stratas is on to something in Kattenburg. The comments come as we see, increasingly, the veneration of judges as heros, who are celebrated when they enter the political fray by many in the bar. RBG on the left, with the action figures and paraphenalia. Scalia on the right, to a somewhat lesser extent. In Canada, the “stanning” of judges like Justice Abella as if they were celebrities. Judges are just “lawyers who happen to hold a judicial commission” (Kattenburg, at para 41). When put that way, it seems remarkably odd that we celebrate certain judges the way we do. We should celebrate judges for applying the law and following precedent to the best of their ability. We should refrain from celebrating the results of cases over the reasoning. And judges, themselves, should generally stay out of political debates. Indeed, lawyers are just lawyers, and law school confers no special insight on issues of moral or political weight, compared to the rest of the population.

Sad for some lawyers to hear, I am sure. But it needed to be said.

The Sex Appeal of Power

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently, in both politics and law. The idea is what I call the “one-way ratchet fallacy” of power. It goes like this: when an institution or entity obtains power of some kind, that power will only ever be used to fulfill certain goals rather than others. That is, people might assume that power will always run in favour of the policy outcomes they like. This is, in a word, naïve—but at worst, it is a gross misunderstanding of the problems with power. The increasing tendency to think this way only reinforces the need for law and custom to limit, rather than unleash, power.

Two examples come to mind that illustrate this phenomenon. The first is an issue near and dear to my heart, and that issue is constitutional interpretation. In Canada, a major misunderstanding of the Persons Case holds that Canada’s Constitution is a “living tree”—in other words, the Constitution must “grow” to fit the emerging realities of today’s society. Under this theory, judges in a system of strong judicial review decide when and in what direction the Constitution should evolve.

Putting aside the fact that only some work has been done to actually provide rules to govern the “living tree” theory, and also putting aside the fact that the Supreme Court has never provided such guidance (and in fact does not consistently endorse this theory), there is a certain “ideological sex appeal” to living constitutionalism, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once said. That appeal is that the law and the Constitution can be used to achieve policy outcomes that one likes, ensuring that the Constitution protects certain outcomes that are consistent with “evolving standards of decency” (to borrow an American phrase). Unsurprisingly, progressives see the potential in living constitutionalism. It is a good way to ensure the Constitution keeps up with modern times and, potentially, modern progressive causes.

But, there is a major risk that should cause those who endorse living constitutionalism to pause. Living constitutionalism contains within it a dangerous assumption: that judges will always be on the side of angels. The risk was put eloquently by Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal in a talk a few years ago. The general gist of it is this: imagine, some years from now (or maybe we do not even need to imagine) that there is some existential crisis affecting our society. Courts are asked to deal with a legal issue arising out of that crisis. Would we rather the court decide the matter according to settled doctrine, painstakingly developed over generations? Or on the personal say-so of judges? There is a risk that the personal say-so of a judge might run in a direction that progressives would not like. Basically, without rules governing the exercise of legal power by judges, it’s a coin flip in terms of result.

Lest anyone think that this is an inherent flaw of progressives, those on the right can also fall victim to the alluring sex appeal of power. A good example is the recent Trump administration move to “ban” government contracting and other relations with businesses and others that offer some critical race theory training. Now, it is more than fair to say there are major debates raging right now about critical race theory. That’s a somewhat separate issue. What is important here is that the power of the government is being used to root out certain ideas rather than others.

This is a different issue from living constitutionalism, since here it could be argued that governments have the power to implement their view of the “public good;” law, by its nature, is supposed to be governed by rules that are as close to “neutral” as possible. So those on the right might feel emboldened by Trump’s move because it implements their view of the good. But once the precedent is set that governments can police ideology by picking winners and losers in business, and ferret out views it doesn’t like from the inside, it is just as possible that a future administration could fall victim to the sex appeal of power in the opposite direction. Power can be used, in the future, to limit the spread of ideas that those on the right might find appealing: free market economics, personal liberty, whatever it is.

While the situation is admittedly slightly different than the living constitutionalism example, this situation calls for a political custom surrounding the exercise of power. As Dicey said, laws are not enough; there must be a “spirit of legality” that governs the exercise of power. This is understood as a reference to customary norms governing the exercise of power. Surely, one custom might be that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers based on ideology (within reason).

The living constitution example and the critical race theory example illustrate the sex appeal of power. It can be exercised in a certain political direction, to be sure. And it might feel good for power to be exercised to the benefit of certain political factions. But the more power is granted to certain actors, and the more that laws and customs liberate that power, the more we might expect the one-way ratchet to keep ratcheting up. In politics, this might be one thing. But in law—especially when it comes to constitutional interpretation—the sex appeal of power is positively dangerous.

When the Surgeons Miss

Federalism and the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act Reference

Guest Post by Shannon Hale*

It is ironic that sometimes health-related cases pose the greatest risks to the health of the constitution when federalism goes under the knife.

Just over two months ago, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Reference re Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (GNDA Reference). At issue was whether the federal government validly enacted parts of the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (GNDA) that prohibit the forced testing and disclosure or unauthorized use of health-related genetic tests as a condition of providing goods and services or contracting (ss. 1 to 7).

The Court split three ways on this issue, with the majority, led by Karakatsanis J., ultimately deciding that the federal government had the legal authority to pass the law. The GNDA Reference provides much food for thought on division of powers analysis and federalism, especially since some of the conclusions drawn in that decision may undermine the ability of legislators and policymakers to make various policy choices with legal certainty.

Dwight Newman and I discuss the implications of the GNDA Reference in a forthcoming paper in Constitutional Forum. Our paper focuses on how the majority outcome achieves an arguably pragmatic and desirable policy result at the expense of established federalism jurisprudence, legal predictability, and effective intergovernmental cooperation.

I wanted to write about the GNDA Reference because of its far-reaching effects on federalism, in particular its impact on provincial autonomy to make policy choices that are responsive to regional diversity. As a former policy wonk, I admit that there are several situations in which it could be easier and more efficient for the federal government to legislate. Yet, the Canadian constitutional structure emerged from a political compromise and it is intentionally designed to mitigate against such centralization of power (Reference re Secession of Quebec at paras 55-60). An important policy goal or concerns about efficiency should not factor, or appear to factor, into the Court’s reasoning on whether the government in question validly passed a law. As we point out in our paper, the Court must be—and appear to be—above policy debates to maintain its institutional legitimacy.

The GNDA Reference also interests me because of the GNDA’s surprising origins and the even more surprising three-way split on the Court over the law’s characterization.

The GNDA was introduced as a private member’s bill in the Senate and it was voted into law despite opposition from Cabinet, including from the then federal Justice Minister who had thought the law was unconstitutional. Although the Court was aware of the GNDA’s unusual legislative history, that did not factor heavily into its analysis (see, for example, GNDA Reference at paras 18, 161). Nor should it. As Karakatsanis J. clarifies, the “sole issue before [the Court] is whether [the federal government] had the power to [enact the GNDA]” (at para 18).

Unfortunately, what seems to end up happening is that the merits of a particular policy—preventing genetic discrimination—distract Karakatsanis J. from the demands of the established legal tests in division of powers cases. As we explain in greater detail, Karakatsanis J. adopts a purpose-driven approach that more closely resembles the “pressing and substantial objective” step of the Oakes analysis in Charter jurisprudence than the focus on the law’s “true subject matter” in pith and substance analysis (see, for example, Reference re Firearms Act (Canada) at para 18).

Of equal concern is the three-way split on pith and substance. It is not uncommon for the Court to disagree on the law’s pith and substance. But if these disagreements become the norm rather than the exception there is a danger that the Court could create the perception that judicial preferences, not established legal principles, dictate the outcome in division of powers cases.

This perception grows when the Court strays from established legal tests to shoehorn the analysis to reach a result that also favours a particular policy outcome. The task before the Court is not to weigh the merits of particular policies; it is to determine whether the government in question has the legal authority to make laws about those policies.

Despite its good intentions, the majority outcome may actually make the situation on the ground worse for Canadians. Our paper examines how the majority outcome will create considerable confusion for provincial insurance schemes and could result in higher insurance premiums across the board. It is also interesting how the majority outcome prevents genetic discrimination in some insurance contexts but not in others, which seems to be at odds with Karakatsanis J.’s view that the pith and substance of the GNDA is to prevent genetic discrimination “in the areas of contracting and the provision of goods and services” (GNDA Reference at paras 63-65).

Another problem with the majority outcome is that it fails to rein in the federal criminal law power. That power can swallow up a lot of provincial jurisdiction, leaving provincial governments with little room to make policy choices about issues that matter most to its people.

Karakatsanis J.’s approach to “gaps” in the law is also troubling. There are many reasons why provincial governments may or may not legislate an issue. Sometimes the lack of a provincial law is the product of an intentional choice. If the federal government can pass a law because the provinces haven’t, in the future, provincial governments may rush to pass a law to secure its control over an issue.

While some may say a bad law is better than no law, a “use it or lose it” approach to lawmaking may not necessarily reflect good policy. Provincial governments should be free to pass laws on issues within their jurisdiction without fearing that the federal government will pass a law if they fail to act. As the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law”. And in this case the main casualty is federalism.


*Shannon Hale is a Research Associate at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law for the September-December 2020 term

The Self-Own of Court-Packing

2020 dealt us another major blow last week, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Justice Ginsburg, agree or disagree with her jurisprudentially, was an inspiration to many. Rightly so. She was a trailblazer. Incidentally, for anyone interested, there is a great movie about her life in the law: “On the Basis of Sex.” Available on Crave, I think.

Predictably, though, the good feelings towards Justice Ginsburg have quickly morphed into a sickening volcano of politics. The story starts back in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia upon his death. The Senate, which has the advice and consent function on new judges under the US Constitution, and led by Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to even hold a vote on Garland. The rationale at the time was that, with a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled Senate, “[t]he American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” The gamble worked out for the Republicans, who won the Presidency in 2016 and were able to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Scalia’s old seat.

The Republicans put a mark in the sand in 2016, and if we lived in a world of consistency and honour, the Republicans would forestall their choice for the Supreme Court until after the 2020 election. But unfortunately, the Republicans see an opportunity. Mitch McConnell has announced that the Senate will consider the President’s nominee before the election. His justification for doing so, compared to 2016, is that now the same party holds the White House and the Senate. This is, to put it in a word, ridiculous. But in this imperfect world, I do not see any way for the Democrats themselves to stop the nomination from moving forward–save for some courageous Republicans.

The Democrats, angry by this, have lost their patience. Prominent Democrats have opened the door to court-packing, a play that would expand the court and allow Democrats (should they win the presidency) to “pack” the court with sympathetic judges. The underlying theory behind this move is simple: the Republicans have gamed the Supreme Court for too long, and the system itself is illegitimate. The Democrats have to react accordingly by bringing a gun to a gun fight. Or, perhaps more generously, the Democrats need to “expand democracy” (loads of problems with this that I cannot deal with here).

I think this is a flawed way of thinking that will simply lead to a race to the bottom. More promising are calls for a comprehensive deal between the parties. But if the choice is to pack the court or retain the status quo, I say retain the status quo, much as it pains me to say it. Life—and law—is not about utopia, but about choosing the least of bad options. And this is one of those situations.

There are reasons of principle and pragmatism for my conclusion. The entire point of the Supreme Court—in both Canada and the United States—is to act as an apex court in a system of judicial review. Despite the fashionable trend towards eroding the distinction between law and politics, judicial review is a quintessentially legal task, asking whether government laws or action remain consistent with some external norm, such as the Constitution. To do so, over time, courts (in theory) develop settled doctrine and precedent to govern the application of the law. To be fair, we have never reached this Nirvana in law. But in the application of law, we do our best to depoliticize the process as much as we can, so that the work judges do has some legitimacy attached to it.

Whether one accepts this or not, as time has gone on, especially in the United States, the Supreme Court appointment process itself has become politicized, undermining the perception of the review role of the court. Ideological litmus tests abound, and as noted above, at least in recent memory, the Republicans have played games with the nomination process. This raises a question. Even if the application of law is, ideally, removed from the spectre of “politics” (a vexing terminological question I am conveniently sidestepping here), there is still a question of perception. In other words, the system must also be supported by a “spirit of legality,” as Dicey put it. In service of that spirit, it is my view that political actors sometimes need decline to exercise power they strictly have in legal form in order to create an institutional culture of respect for the law. This goes both ways.  While it is true that the Republicans have the “raw power” to move a nomination through the Senate, they may want to keep their powder dry in the name of the rule they created in 2016, and as a means to protect the legitimacy of the Court in the public eye. And the Democrats will want to abstain from moving on court-packing, because it too transforms the trappings of the court into an ideological fever-pitch. Even if one believes the system is illegitimate, making it more illegitimate is a self-own.

I am alive to the criticism that I live in a world that either never existed or is long gone. That is, at least since Bork (and likely before), the Supreme Court selection process has been a breeding ground for partisan considerations. This is true. But that is not a reason to go further down the rabbit hole. If anything, it is a moment to reflect how far we have come, and what we need to do to ensure our institutions retain legitimacy. As Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg note, court-packing is anathema to the Rule of Law.

Arguments from principle nowadays are not very convincing to many, left and right, who view themselves as engaged in a culture war where institutions are just organs of power, rather than bodies with designed and limited powers. So let me speak their language on my second point. Court-packing will be like a drug for the Democrats. It will feel really good to dunk on the Republicans for a few years. But as Joe Biden aptly noted in 2019:

In other words, on and on the merry-go-round goes. And it will never end. The Democrats have to ask themselves an important question if they go down the road of court-packing: are you so sure that you will end up on the winning end of the deal, over the years? How much would you be willing to bet? The Republicans have gamed the Court far more effectively than the Democrats over the years. There is no reason to believe that would stop in a post-court-packing world. In other words, as a matter of strategy, unless the Democrats are sure they would end up winning, the smart play is to simply hold fire.

Holding fire is not desirable for many in today’s world, as I alluded to above. Today, the name of the game is power. Those who consider themselves engaged in a culture war view the matter as a tactical one, in which power that is held must be used to extinguish the other side. But there are more important things than winning a political battle. Institutions that are designed to apply law, for all of us, is one of those important things.

On the other hand, holding fire is not the ideal solution here, by far.  While there are many permutations on offer, I am quite convinced that Ilya Somin’s suggested solution is one worth exploring. Here it is:

  1. The Republicans promise not to confirm any Supreme Court nominee until after January 20 of next year, at which time whoever wins the election will get to name Justice Ginsburg’s replacement.

2. In exchange, the Democrats promise not to support any expansion of the size of the   Supreme Court for at least the next ten years.

This solution puts protecting the institution at the forefront before political victories. And it buys time for the sides to cool down the temperature and do the right thing. There are  other options on the table: term limits, mandatory retirement, the list goes on. In a healthy constitutional democracy, all of these things should be on the table. Of course, I have no hope that this these solutions will come to pass. That in itself is an indictment of the American constitutional democracy as it stands.

All in all, court-packing poses the question to the Democrats: are you confident in your side winning the war over the long term? If you aren’t, court-packing is a gamble that could hurt the Democrats over the long haul. And nowadays, maybe that is the most important consideration for culture warriors to keep in mind. Self-owning is never fun.

Of Malice and Men

Double Aspect responds to attacks on another scholar

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Suppose you say something on Twitter that you wish you hadn’t said. No, actually―if you’re on Twitter―remember that time you said something you wish you hadn’t said? How would you hope that the rest of us would react? For our part, a sad bemused shrug and, perhaps, a friendly private word of reproof sound about right. Well, this is a post about doing unto others, etc.

When Emmett Macfarlane tweeted about “burning down” the US Congress to prevent a successor to the late Justice Ginsburg being confirmed before the presidential election, we cringed a bit. There is too much hyperbole out there, too much violent imagery, too much speaking as if the next election, or the next judicial appointment, is―literally―the end of the world. Twitter makes this phenomenon worse. As Justice Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal noted in a recent talk, the Twitter world is like the Holodeck from Star Trek―a convincing pastiche of reality. Twitter, in many cases, magnifies our worst impulses.

There is too much of this nonsense on all sides. President Obama, who often modelled grace and calm when his political opponents and supporters alike lacked both, now suggests that questions such as “whether or not our economy is fair, our society is just, women are treated equally, our planet survives, and our democracy endures” turn on who replaces the late Justice Ginsburg. On US political right, the 2016 election was notoriously compared to Flight 93―the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 after the passengers stormed the cabin to prevent hijackers from turning it on their intended target. Similar arguments are being made again. The message is that even death―or at any rate a vote for an avowedly appalling man who would uphold none of the principles one claims to believe―is preferable to the other side taking power until the next election.

So, to repeat, we cringed at Professor Macfarlane’s “burn it down” tweet. And yet we knew full well―as does anyone with a brain and even a modicum of good faith―that it is only a hyperbolic, spur-of-the-moment outburst, not an actual call to arson and violence. Professor Macfarlane’s Twitter persona may be cantankerous, but he is a genuine scholar and a decent man. (Disclosure: one of us (Sirota) has contributed a chapter to a book project Professor Macfarlane edits. You can discount our arguments accordingly, but the diversity of views represented in that project speaks to Professor Macfarlane’s scholarly seriousness and open-mindedness.)

Sadly, there are people who do not operate in good faith at all. They affect to think, or at any rate they say, that Professor Macfarlane was actually threatening violence, and profess worry for the safety of his Trump-supporting students. This is arrant nonsense, a smear with no factual basis whatsoever. Professor Macfarlane’s opinions are neither new nor secret, and those who now betake themselves to the fainting couch haven’t paused for a second to inquire whether he has ever been so much as unfair, let alone threatening, to his students.

These people are as uninterested in truth as they are lacking in charity. They see a political opponent say something that can be―at least to those equally uncharitable―made to look like a threat or a sign of depravity, and pounce to virtue-signal on Twitter, to whip up their allies’ outrage, and thereby to increase their own standing with their in-group. They are hypocrites too, with their feigned outrage about hyperbolic rhetoric which is no worse than that in which they themselves engage. They deserve nothing but unreserved rejection.

A couple of weeks ago, another scholar, Dwight Newman, was disparaged by people who engaged in an uncharitable if not outright twisted reading of his work to impugn his integrity. That was an attack from the left on someone perceived to be on the right. We were proud to give Professor Newman an opportunity to refute their smears (and one of us (Sirota) added a further response of his own). Now Professor Macfarlane is being vilified by people who are trying to make him into an avatar of the unhinged left. Although both the targets of these attacks (an article in one case; a tweet in the other) and their perpetrators (fellow scholars, alas, in the former case; anti-intellectual populists in the latter) are different, they have much in common.

Both need to be defeated. As Justin Amash pointed out just yesterday, limited government―that is, a government that respects democracy and human rights―cannot exist without trust among citizens. To be sure, we need not pretend that our fellow-citizens, let alone our governments, are better and more trustworthy than they really are. But, if we want to continue living together in peace and freedom, we must not pretend that they are worse people than we know them to be for the sake of scoring some political points. To quote another American politician, we must go forward with malice toward none, and charity for all. 

Just Hook It to My Veins

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s excellent lecture on statutory and constitutional interpretation

Justice Scalia’s 1989 Lecture on “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis” is well known; indeed it has featured in a post by co-blogger Mark Mancini. Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit revisited that lecture last year, and her remarks have been published recently, as “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis: Redux“. They are a short and profitable read, including for Canadian lawyers, to whom almost everything Judge Barrett says is relevant. Judge Barrett’s comments have mostly to do with statutory and constitutional interpretation, but they also touch on the issue of “judicial activism”. And I agree with just about every word.


The main topic Judge Barrett addresses is textualism. She defines it as the approach to interpretation that

insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

Judge Barrett contrasts textualism, so understood, with the view that “statutory language isn’t necessarily a hard constraint. … Sometimes, statutory language appears to be in tension with a statute’s overarching goal, and … a judge should go with the goal rather than the text”. (856) Judge Barrett labels this latter approach “purposivism”, but that is perhaps not ideal, since many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive.

With this in mind, the first three of Judge Barrett’s canards are “textualism is literalism” (856); “[a] dictionary is a textualist’s most important tool” (858); and “[t]extualists always agree”. (859) She notes that

[l]anguage is a social construct made possible by shared linguistic conventions among those who speak the language. It cannot be understood out of context, and literalism strips language of its context. … There is a lot more to understanding language than mechanistically consulting dictionary definitions. (857)

The relevance of context to interpretation is an important reason why textualists (and originalists) don’t always agree. If it were simply a matter of consulting the dictionary and the grammar book,

one could expect every textualist judge to interpret text in exactly the same way. Popping words into a mental machine, after all, does not require judgment. Construing language in context, however, does require judgment. Skilled users of language won’t always agree on what language means in context. Textualist judges agree that the words of a statute constrain—but they may not always agree on what the words mean. (859)

The example of such disagreement that Judge Barrett provides concerns the interpretation of the provisions of the US anti-discrimination statute ostensibly directed at discrimination “because of sex” as applying, or not, to sexual orientation and gender identity. Judge Barrett describes what happened at the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, but a similar disagreement arose when the matter was decided by the Supreme Court in Bostock v Clayton County, 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020). Mark wrote about it here.

Judge Barrett then turns to another issue, this one concerned specifically with constitutional interpretation: should the constitution be interpreted differently from other legal texts? The idea that it should ― for which Chief Justice Marshall’s well-known admonition in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819) that “we must never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding” (407) is often taken to stand ― is Judge Barrett’s fourth canard. For her, “the Constitution is, at its base, democratically enacted written law. Our approach to interpreting it should be the same as it is with all written law.” (862) To be sure, the Constitution contains “expansive phrasing and broad delegations of congressional and executive authority to address unforeseen circumstances”. (862; footnote omitted) (One might do an interesting comparison of the US and Canadian constitutions on this point: as a very superficial impression, I am tempted to say that the delegations of legislative power are more precise in the Constitution Act, 1867, but those of executive power are even more vague.) But while constitutional language differs from that of an ordinary statute, the ways in which it should be interpreted do not: “[t]he text itself remains a legal document, subject to the ordinary tools of interpretation”. (862) Indeed, as Justice Scalia already argued, this the only reason for having installing courts as authoritative interpreters of the Constitution: were it not an ordinary law, why would we allow ordinary lawyers to have anything to do with it?

In particular, the principle that “the meaning of the law is fixed when it is written”, which is “a largely, though not entirely, uncontroversial proposition when it comes to statutory interpretation”, (863) applies to the Constitution too. This principle is indeed recognized, in statutory interpretation, even by the Supreme Court of Canada: R v DLW, 2016 SCC 22, [2016] 1 SCR 402 is a recent example. In the constitutional realm, however, our Supreme Court buys into the canard denounced by Judge Barrett ― or at least says it does. (Reality is often different.) As Judge Barrett explains, “as with statutes, the law [of the Constitution] can mean no more or less than that communicated by the language in which it is written” (864) ― and what that language communicates must of course be understood with reference to what it meant when it was communicated, not what it would come to means at some future date.

Judge Barrett makes an additional point which requires some clarification in the Canadian context, so far as statutes are concerned. It concerns the importance of compromise to the drafting of legal texts. For Judge Barrett, since laws reflect arrangements reached by representatives of competing or even conflicting interests, their interpreters should seek to give effect to these agreements and compromises, notably through “reading the text of the statute at the level of specificity and generality at which it was written, even if the result is awkward”, (863) and even when it might seem in tension with the statute’s purpose. The Canadian caveat is that our statutes are, at least to some extent, less the product of compromise than those of the US Congress. Especially, but not only, when they are enacted by Parliaments and legislatures where the executive has a majority, they reflect the executive’s policy, and are primarily drafted by officials executing this policy. But one should not make too much of this. As I pointed out here, statutes ― including in Canada ― often reflect compromises between a variety of purposes and values, even if these compromises are the product of a cabinet’s disucssions or even of a single politician’s sense of what is right and/or feasible. It follows that statutes should indeed be read carefully, with text rather than any one among these purposes being the interpretive touchstone. And as for constitutional interpretation, Judge Barrett’s point applies with full force. It was nowhere better expressed than by Lord Sankey in the  Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

After briefly passing on the idea that “judicial activism is a meaningful term” (865) ― she notes that, actually, “there is no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be an activist” (865) ― Judge Barrett turns to the view that a legislature’s failure to overrule a judicial decision interpreting an enactment can be taken as assent to the interpretation. For one thing, since the meaning of a statute is fixed at the time of its enactment, “what a later Congress” ― or Parliament or legislature ― “thinks is irrelevant”. (867; footnote omitted) But further, “even if we did care, there is no way to reliably count on congressional silence as a source of information”. (868) Silence might just mean that the legislature is unaware of the decision, or it might mean that the legislature finds intervention inexpedient, or not enough of a priority, though desirable in the abstract. Judge Barrett does not quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, but she reminds us that we ought not to mistake lethargy for strategy. Judge Barrett also refers to the bicameralism-and-presentment legislative procedures of the US Constitution, but that discussion is probably less relevant to Canadian readers.

Indeed I am not sure how salient this issue of acquiescence-by-silence is in Canada, as a practical matter. I don’t seem to recall decisions invoking this argument, but I may well be missing some. Judge Barrett’s attention to it is still interesting to me, however, because it is one of the possible justifications for the persistence of adjudicative (or as Bentham would have us say “judge-made”) law (not only in statutory interpretation but also in common law fields) in democratic polities.

In that context, I think that Judge Barrett is right that we cannot draw any concrete inferences from legislative silence. My favourite example of this is the issue of the admissibility of evidence obtained in “Mr. Big” operations, where suspects are made to believe that confessing to a crime is the way to join a powerful and profitable criminal entreprise. Such evidence was largely admissible until the Supreme Court’s decision in  R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52, [2014] 2 SCR 544, which made it presumptively inadmissible, except when tight safeguards are complied with. This was a major change, framed in almost explicitly legislative language. Yet Parliament ― with, at the time, a majority ostensibly focused on law-and-order issues ― did not intervene in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, just as it had not intervened before it. Does this mean Parliament agreed with the law as it stood before Hart, and changed its mind as a result of Justice Moldaver’s reasons? Probably not. What does its silence mean, then? Who knows. As Judge Barrett suggests, this does not really matter.


I wouldn’t have much to write about, I suppose, if I always agreed with the courts. I should be more grateful than I tend to be to judge who make wrongheaded decisions ― they may be messing up the law and people’s lives, but they are helping my career. Still, at the risk of depriving myself of future material, I call upon Judge Barrett’s Canadian colleagues to read her remarks and to take them on board. They are smart and show a real commitment to the Rule of Law. And, on a more selfish note, it really is nice to agree with a judge for a change.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY