Sed Lex?

Thoughts on Ilya Somin’s defence of non-enforcement of the law

In a recent Volokh Conspiracy post, Ilya Somin argues against the common view that laws ought to be enforced and obeyed regardless of their moral flaws. On this view, the existence of a law is warrant enough to inflict punishment on anyone who breaks it. Professor Somin cites the case of Tammie Hedges, a woman from North Carolina who looked after two dozen pets whose owners could not take them with them when fleeing the recent hurricane and, for her troubles, has been arrested and charged with 12 counts of practising veterinary medicine without a license.

Professor Somin argues

that the mere fact that there is a law on the books does not mean that it should be enforced, and certainly does not mean we should pursue all violators. This is easy to see in a case like that of Tammie Hedges … . But the same principles apply far more broadly.

Professor Somin refers to the historical example of the legislation that required fugitive slaves to be returned to their “owners”, pointing out that “[t]oday, we praise … antislavery activists who” broke them, “and condemn government officials who tried to prosecute” these activists. And, in our own time, Professor Somin cites immigration and anti-drug laws as examples of legislation whose enforcement deserves condemnation, not praise.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the position Professor Somin advances, but I think that things are a bit more complicated than he lets on. Professor Somin recognizes that “there is room for reasonable disagreement about which laws are justifiable to enforce”, but does not consider the implications of such disagreement beyond saying that “[i]n a world with numerous unjust laws and ethically suspect politicians, we cannot accept a categorical ‘enforce the law’ approach to political morality”. Accepting that this is so does not really make the question of when it is possible to excuse or justify non-enforcement ― and of who is supposed to be making such judgments ― go away.

Consider the subject of my last post: the prospect of enforcement by Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer of legislation that effectively bans interventions in election campaigns by civil society actors, except if a “periodical” or a “radio or television station” agrees to carry it free of charge, as part of its news or editorial content, against an environmentalist NGO, Équiterre. Équiterre’s offence is that it has had the temerity of posting, on its own website, a questionnaire detailing the policies of the main provincial parties on various environmental issues, and expressing approval or disapproval of these positions. I argue, in my post, that Québec’s legislation outlawing such perfectly justifiable attempts to influence public opinion is draconian, and that it should be repealed and/or challenged in court and declared unconstitutional. Yet I also say that the Chief Electoral Officer is justified in enforcing the law until, in one way or another, it is law no longer. I made the same argument in a very similar situation four years ago, during the last provincial election campaign, and criticized the Chief Electoral Officer for backtracking on the basis of what I thought was a tortured interpretation of the applicable legislation.

On Professor Somin’s view, I am probably wrong. I think that the law at issue is morally unjustified. Why should I want the authorities to enforce it and put the people who quite rightly object to it to the trouble, expense, and uncertainty of litigating against it or lobbying for its repeal? If the Chief Electoral Officer declines enforcing an unjust law, shouldn’t I be happy? The reason I’m not has to do with the interaction between law and reasonable disagreement.

I have strong views about the injustice (and unconstitutionality) of Québec’s legislation, but others do not share them. The leader of Québec’s Green Party, for instance, has denounced what he sees as “meddling” by Équiterre and other environmentalist groups in elections, claiming “these groups have chosen to exclude the Green Party of Québec from their analysis”, and that this “exclusion … is a political act that undermines our credibility among the voters in the midst of an election campaign”. This nicely captures the policy of Québec’s legislation (and its federal analogue too, albeit that the latter is less draconian): achieving fair competition among political parties, at the expense of everyone else’s liberty. Plenty of people support this policy, at least in the abstract (though many get queasy when they discover that it can actually be applied to people and groups with whom they sympathize).

As I said in my recent talk on the Trinity Western cases at the Centre for Constitutional Studies, in a pluralistic society we constantly disagree about values and justice, and the law for the time being is the one thing we have in common. I take Professor Somin’s point that law is not like the rules of a club that we have knowingly joined and are free to leave; its claims to our assent are incomparably weaker. Still, we do benefit from the existence of this common reference point, which allows us to maintain a well functioning community despite our sometimes radical disagreements.

Consider, for example, one of Professor Somin’s example: immigration laws. I happen to agree with him that they are unjust in preventing persons “fleeing violence and oppression” ― includig economic oppression that typically doesn’t give rise to an entitlement to refugee protection ― from obtaining safety. Sadly, plenty of people think that the problem with existing immigration laws is the opposite: they still allow some people to come to Canada or the United States. If these people take it upon themselves to remedy what they see as injustice ― say by preventing prospective refugee claimants from reaching a border, or by hacking into a government computer system to destroy would-be immigrants’ applications ― how would we feel about that? We want, I think, to be able to say more than “your sense of justice is wrong”, and get into a shouting match about whether we or they are right. Pointing to the law is the best we can do ― but we can only do it if we too are law-abiding. The point, of course, is not that the existing immigration law is, substantively, a sort of half-way house between the wishes of open borders types and wall-builders; it’s that, to repeat, it is a common reference point that exists independently of our subjective views about justice.

Now, it is essential that opportunities to revise the law exist, and highly desirable that some of involve counter-majoritarian procedures, such as judicial review of legislation. The rules that provide these opportunities are valuable ― indeed, probably more so than any substantive laws by themselves ― and worth supporting. When people disobey the law instead of using these procedures, they undermine not only the law that they are actually disobeying, but the whole system of law as the means of provisional resolution of our disagreements with our fellow citizens, as well as the normal procedures for revising this settlement from time to time.

This is especially so when the people at issue are not ordinary citizens, but the very persons charged with implementing the law. Professor Somin does not really address this distinction, but I think it is important. Civil disobedience by a citizen (or a business) can be admirable, but I am very skeptical indeed of civil disobedience by officials. Unlike citizens, officials who decline to enforce the law, if they do it consistently, can effectively change the law ― even though in most cases they are not authorized to do so. This subversion of the normal procedures for changing the law, whether democratic or judicial, risks doing more harm in the long run than it does immediate good.

But of course it is just as, and perhaps more, likely, that the disregard of a law by official charged with enforcing it will not consistent and even-handed. Sympathetic law-breakers ― sympathetic, that is, either in the eyes of the officials themselves, or in those of the public, like Équiterre ― will get a pass, while others will not. How many of Équiterre’s defenders would take the same position of the Chief Electoral Officer went after a right-wing think-tank? Non-enforcement of the law is likely to be arbitrary, and that too is a long-term evil that has to be weighed against any short-term benefits it may have in particular cases.

Now, of course there are extreme cases. Slavery is one. In a very different way, of course, the story of Tammie Hedges is another ― extreme in its senselessness if not in its savagery. As I said at the outset, I am sympathetic to Professor Somin’s view that law does not have an automatic claim to obedience ― certainly not from citizens, and perhaps not even from officials, though I think that it is often the case that an official ought to resign from his or her position rather than subvert the law by selective non-enforcement. The trouble is that any line one draws between extreme cases is likely to be subjective and blurry. I don’t have a good way of dealing with this problem, which probably takes away from whatever force my objections to Professor Somin’s position might otherwise have had. Still, I wanted to explain my disquiet in the face of what strikes as a far-reaching argument against the authority of law. “The law is harsh, but it’s the law” can indeed be a callous and highly objectionable position. And yet, the law has a value of its own that appeals to justice are liable to disregard, and it’s a value that I would like to hold on to, even though I too think that many of our laws, considered individually, are seriously unjust.

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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