Over at the historical blog Borealia, Bradley Miller ― no, not that Bradley Miller ― has a post defending the treatment of history in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15. Professor Miller argues that, contrary to what I said in my own comment on Comeau, to which he refers a number of times,
the courts took history and historical evidence and inquiry seriously in Comeau. In fact, historical analysis was central to the case against Comeau’s right to bring beer over the provincial boundary.
Professor Miller also suggests that Comeau illustrates the difficulties that would arise out of attempts to apply originalist methodologies to the interpretation of Canada’s constitution. With respect, I think Professor Miller misunderstands my criticisms of Comeau, which have to do not with the substantive outcome but with the way in which the Supreme Court treated historical evidence. As for Professor Miller’s critique of originalism, it reprises arguments that were made 35 years ago in the United States ― and addressed by the development of originalist theory since then.
Regarding substance, I am obviously not well positioned to debate Professor Miller’s assessment of what he describes as the “two very different versions of history [that] emerged from two historians involved in the litigation”, one presenting Confederation as a triumph of economic liberalism, the other emphasizing more cautious views among the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867. I am tempted to say that, even if the Fathers of Confederation endorsed international protectionism and government intervention in the economy, that doesn’t really dispose of the question of their intentions as to non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade. Practical politicians rarely hold fully consistent views, and at least today many would distinguish ― however little basis there may be for this distinction in economic theory ― barriers to trade across and within international borders. But perhaps things were different in 1867.
Be that as it may, though Professor Miller says that “[a]t the Supreme Court, the justices preferred the latter [i.e. more nuanced] view” of the Fathers’ attitudes to free trade, there is little basis for this claim in Comeau. The Court (or, likely, Chief Justice McLachlin) says that “the historical evidence, at best, provides only limited support for the view that” section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the provision at issue, “was meant as an absolute guarantee of trade free of all barriers”.  But the Court never actually refers to the evidence on the other side of this debate, even though, as Professor Miller points out, this evidence was submitted to the Court’s attention by the Attorney-General of Alberta’s factum. - (I don’t agree with Professor Miller that these five paragraphs are “central” to the factum, but they are certainly there.)
If anything, this choice to ignore historical evidence that arguably supported the Supreme Court’s conclusion reinforces my view that Comeau was dismissive of history’s value to constitutional adjudication. In other cases, the Supreme Court is eager to seize on such evidence, for example by directly quoting the framers of the constitutional provisions at issue and the documents that reveal their plans and intentions. In Comeau, by contrast, the Court does no such thing. The other ways in which the Court is disparaging towards historical evidence is its insistence that such evidence, unlike that drawn from the social or health sciences, cannot justify reconsideration of precedent, and its aversion to the use of historical expert evidence.
Ultimately, as I argue in my Comeau comment and also in a response to some of my fellow-critics, the Supreme Court’s decision is driven by a conviction that a federalism where internal barriers to trade arising out of provincial regulation are pervasive is the right sort of federalism. The Court does not defend this conviction on historical grounds; it just says that that’s what federalism means. Thus I do not think that “historical analysis was central” to Comeau. Perhaps an opinion focusing on the evidence to which Professor Miller refers and reaching the same outcome the Court reached could have been written. But the point is that it wasn’t. History, in Comeau, is neither the main character nor even a supporting one; it is an adversary to be neutralized and dispatched before moving on to the more important business of constitutional policy-making.
As for Professor Miller’s comments on originalism, they are even less convincing than his defence of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Comeau. Professor Miller describes originalism as “a technique which is often a tool of social conservatives seeking to squash rights for women, LGBT people, and others, and very uncommon in Canadian constitutional cases”. His evidence for this condemnation? Why, a link to one of Sean Fine’s “Tory judges” screeds ― this one, ironically, decrying the appointment of Justice Bradley Miller to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Professor Miller also informs us of “the challenges that originalists face in trying to document a singular and enforceable original intention or original meaning in a document that was as much-Fathered as the [Constitution Act, 1867]”, of his belief that the Fathers of Confederation might not have wanted originalism to be the methodology used to interpret the constitution they created, and of the danger “that this methodology might leave judges needing a resident historian to co-preside on the bench in constitutional cases”. The living constitutionalist “methodological status quo” serves Canadians just fine, Professor Miller concludes ― and those who disagree should just think about the goings-on south of the border “over the last year and a half”.
The suggestion that originalism is somehow responsible for the misery of the Trump presidency ― the prospect of which was denounced by many prominent originalists ― is, to put it as politely as I can, puzzling. But Professor Miller’s other critiques of originalism are not much better. He ignores the existence of originalist arguments in favour of marriage equality and against sex discrimination, among other progressive causes, in the United States, and of Kerri Froc’s feminist originalism in Canada. He also ignores the fact that so-called “new originalism”, focused on the public meaning of constitutional texts rather than the intentions of their authors, developed (starting in the late 1980s!) precisely in response to criticism about the impossibility to ascertain the joint intention of multiple authors who may or may not themselves have been originalists. (Professor Miller might be suggesting that a “much-Fathered” text cannot even have a “singular original meaning” ― but the fact that he also seems to think that he understands the Comeau judgment, ostensibly the joint product of nine fathers and mothers, rather detracts from whatever strength that criticism might otherwise have had.) As for courts needing resident historians ― the Supreme Court in Comeau says that it can do the job without professional assistance, and of course it is managing to dabble in social and health sciences without resident experts. Last but not least, Professor Miller should know, having linked to Benjamin Oliphant’s and my article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, that the claim that originalism is “uncommon” in Canada, and living constitutionalism is the secure status quo, is simply false. The use of originalist reasoning is pervasive, albeit also erratic, in the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision in Comeau is consistent with the best evidence of the original public meaning of section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, any such consistency is accidental, rather than the result of serious engagement with the evidence. Unlike many of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, Comeau is a living constitutionalist, policy-driven decision that accords little importance to history, and as such, it is a poor foundation for any conclusions about the feasibility or soundness of originalist constitutional interpretation. Unpersuasive arguments against originalism, which ignore the developments in originalist theory over the last decades, are sadly not uncommon. Yet if we are to develop something better that what Mr. Oliphant and I described as “a buffet-line approach to interpretation, unfettered by standards for the principled application of the interpretive methods available”, we must begin by understanding the different options on the menu. Perhaps, having done so, we will conclude that originalism is not the right choice. But we cannot come to this conclusion on the basis of outdated clichés and persistent misunderstandings.