A View from South of the Border

Dunsmuir, Chevron, and what Canadians and Americans can learn from each other about judicial deference and interventionism

Jeffrey Pojanowski, University of Notre Dame

First, I would like to thank Leonid and Paul for inviting me to contribute to this symposium. Reading up on Dunsmuir and its legacy has expanded my horizons on administrative law and introduced me to great Canadian legal scholarship. My sense is that Canadian administrative law scholars are engaged in important conversations with their counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K., whereas U.S. scholars, per usual, are doing their own thing. For reasons I discuss below, that separation may make some sense. But I am also convinced that further conversation between these wings of Anglo-American public law is important, for we are all struggling with the tension between the supremacy of law and the need for sound, politically responsive policy in a complex world. To keep within the space allotted, I will focus on only one of the many comparative angles, namely the extent of correctness review in our two systems. (On the U.S. end, I will only be discussing federal administrative law, not the law governing review of agency action in state governments.)

Dunsmuir, especially as interpreted in Edmonton East, indicates a broad presumption against review for correctness. The exception for general legal questions of substantial importance is narrow, deference on Charter interpretations has taken a bite out of the exception for constitutional questions, and jurisdictional review is withering away. As indicated by the 5-4 vote in Edmonton East, however, this broad presumption of reasonableness is controversial, and there is some indication that a return to contextual factors will defeat a strong, rule-like presumption of reasonableness review.

In the United States, standards of review are (sometimes nominally) governed by a statute, the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), which separates questions of law, fact, and policy. As a result, unlike Dunsmuir’s transubstantive reach, we have three separate doctrinal hooks for review, though there is some overlap. For findings of fact, the “substantial evidence” standard is similar to the jury review standard, though with a mood that is a little more searching. On questions of policy, the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of reasonableness governs and, while it has its complexities, there is little doctrinal support for anything like correctness review. Thus, on questions of fact and policy, the U.S. tracks Canada in eschewing correctness review.

Judges and scholars in the U.S., however, are obsessed with judicial review of legal questions. Here, the landmark case is Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Chevron offers a deceptively simple test. First, courts ask, using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation, whether the legislation speaks clearly to the question at hand. If so, that interpretation governs. If the question is unclear, the court then asks whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. If it is, that interpretation stands, even if it were not the one the court would have adopted under de novo review. Looming large above this two-step doctrine is the “step zero” question: when does Chevron apply, as opposed to a less-deferential standard of review? Even the most zealous judicial advocates of Chevron deference agree that an eligible interpretation must represent the agency’s authoritative judgment over a statute it administers. Without further qualifications, this strong Chevron approach would look much like the presumption of reasonableness review in Edmonton East.

Yet it is not that simple. In United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218 (2001), the Supreme Court rejected a broad Chevron rule in favor of a standard. Even when an agency administers a statute, the Court will look for contextual factors to suggest an exercised delegation of interpretive authority from Congress to the agency. Most prominently, Mead links implied delegation to an agency’s power to make policy through reasonably formal measures, such as legislative rulemaking and procedure-heavy adjudication. Agencies that have those powers and use them have a much stronger chance of receiving Chevron deference on an interpretation than those that lack them or do not use them. In subsequent cases, most notably the healthcare case King v. Burwell, the Court has also indicated that on some legal questions of major importance, it would be implausible to infer that Congress intended deference, even if the agency administers the statute and uses formal procedures. Thus, unlike Dunsmuir, Mead carves out for non-deferential review some legal questions that reside under the aegis of agency’s statute.

Therefore, in the U.S. a rough contextualism reigns supreme, with defeasible rules of thumb about when one can imply a delegation of interpretive authority from Congress to the agency. As in Canada, there is substantial (though not unanimous) dissatisfaction with the doctrine from opposite ends of the spectrum. Those who complain about the unpredictability of the doctrine post-Mead would warn a Canadian pushing for contextualism to be careful about what you wish for. On the other side, a more legalist strain has attacked the legitimacy of any legal deference, claiming that it flouts the APA, abdicates judicial duty, or unfairly biases adjudication in favor of the government. Like Alberta is to Canada, this latter chorus is not the dominant voice in American jurisprudence, but it represents the most sustained attack on deference in a long while.

Arguments about deference touch on deep questions of jurisprudence that transcend national boundaries. But it is also possible to ask mid-level questions about whether, given a set of assumptions or features of a legal system, deference on questions of law makes sense. If a legal community has a uniform approach to statutory interpretation, correctness review might be easier to manage; similarly, deciding when an interpretation is beyond the realm of reason is more tractable if judges carry roughly the same measure. In the United States, there can be sharp disagreements among textualists and purposivists about what counts as a good argument, and thus what makes an interpretation “clear” or “unreasonable.” If the Interpretation Act and Elmer Driedger-style-purposivism lead to interpretive practice as uniform in action as it appears on the books, this suggests that, ceteris parabis, Canadian judges could feel more comfortable than their U.S. counterparts in patrolling agency interpretations of law.

But not all else is equal. If the ordinary science of statutory interpretation in Canada is broadly purposive, that could strengthen the case against correctness review on legal questions. As a legal realist would be quick to point out, picking a statute’s purpose, selecting the level of generality at which to describe the purpose, and making the consequentialist judgment about which interpretation promotes that purpose can be a deeply political and policy-laden endeavor, one that looks a lot more like making law than finding it. On those premises, the standard justifications for Chevron ring true; compared to courts, agencies have superior technical expertise and are more accountable to the political branches. Judicial review of law and policy blur in a way less amenable to the distinctly judicial craft.

In systems like the U.S. where interpretive formalism has much greater purchase, a root-and-branch defense of correctness review could have more stable ground. Where inputs like text, structure, and linguistic canons offer substantial guidance, a formalist judge could contend that resolving a disputed question of interpretation can be separated from the consequent policy implications. (She would be wrong if interpretive formalism is illusory, but she would be right on her own premises.) As I have argued, it is therefore telling that Chevron’s most prominent critics today are neoclassical formalists who resist strongly purposive and dynamic approaches to interpretation. This is not to say such formalists maintain that the law never “runs out” on judicial review. There will be questions, like whether an agency’s regulation is “in the public interest,” that are in fact not questions of interpretation amenable to the formalist toolkit, but rather placeholders for delegated policymaking and its accompanying reasonableness review. But for the formalist, the line between law and policy is sharper, or at least legal disagreement crosses into policy choice much further down the line than the standard interpretive legal realist story suggests. If so (a big if!), that would muddy the policy-based case for broad deference on questions of law.

This critique of reasonableness review on law is not the only one available, but it is the one underwriting deference skepticism in the U.S. today. A Canadian deference skeptic who also rejects interpretive formalism would have to pursue other avenues and explain why judicial policy balancing is superior to its agency counterpart. And, as American scholars like Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have both argued, that is a challenging task. On the other hand, American jurists and scholars who defend Mead’s contextualism and reject interpretive formalism might look northward to bolster their position by reading the burgeoning Canadian literature criticizing Edmonton East. And, thanks to the internet, such exchange does not require a passport, let alone a drive to the Peace Bridge crossing.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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