Sunstein and Vermeule on Fuller: A View from Canada

What would Lon Fuller think about Canada’s standard of review framework?

In a fascinating article, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule explore the concept of a Fullerian administrative law. Their main argument:

Our largest suggestion is that a Fullerian approach, emphasizing the morality of administrative law, helps to unify a disparate array of judge-made doctrines and perhaps even the field as a whole. We also contend that a Fullerian approach puts contemporary criticisms of the administrative state in their best light and allows the sharpest critics to be their best selves[…]We suggest that most sympathetically understood, the critics are tracking Fuller’s fundamental principles. As we understand these critics, they are seeking to prevent a miscarriage of the legal system by ensuring that the administrative state respects the internal morality of law, at least as an aspirational matter.

The authors posit that doctrines of administrative law—the non-delegation doctrine, the presumption against retroactivity, and the rule that agency rules and decisions should be consistent with each other—can all be understood as expression of Fuller’s principles of morality of law, even if they lack connection to traditional legal sources.

This all seems very intuitive. Some of Fuller’s explanation of what counts as law—for example, a basic convergence between the law as applied and the law on the books—can be clearly applied to administrative agencies that render its own decisions in conflict with its enabling statute. Fuller’s assertion that anything counting as law must be general, promulgated in advance, and understandable evidences a clear preference for strong ex ante rules over ex post standards—and a system of predictable rules is certainly part of most conceptions of the Rule of Law. His admonition that laws should remain constant through time also implicitly disparages administrative adjudication without any external or internal guiding law or policy.

Overall, Fuller’s definition of law as a system of rules to guide action offer important insights about Canadian administrative law. There are parts of Canadian administrative law that can be seen as inconsistent with this fundamental precept. Take the entire standard of review debacle. No matter what one thinks the particular solution is to the Gordian knot, the current state of affairs fails on two of Fuller’s grounds. Most importantly, it provides no guidance to litigants or players in the system. Counsel have to predict by rumour and speculation what standard of review will be selected in a given case—and more importantly, how it will be selected.

Just as serious is the Supreme Court’s tendency to shift the parameters of the debate from case to case. Dunsmuir was decided in 2008. Since then, the following doctrinal changes were introduced by the Court: (1) a presumption of reasonableness review on questions of law was created with a tenuous connection to the original framework set out in Dunsmuir (Alberta Teachers); (2) legislative signals designed to rebut that presumption were accepted (Tervita) and then rejected (Edmonton East, CHRC) as a methodological matter; (3) the Court accepted that an agency can make implied determinations of law (Agraira), taking another case (Alberta Teachers) out of context and adopting a doctrine that stands in tension with Dunsmuir’s admonition that decisions must be “justified, transparent, and intelligible; (4) The Court accepted that “reasonableness takes the colour of the context” (Khosa), but then rejected the idea that reasonableness has many variations, holding that it consists of one standard of review (Wilson), but it is unclear whether that comment overrules Khosa and other cases (for example, Catalyst); (5) It adopted a framework for constitutional review of agency discretion (Doré), then silently rejected it in subsequent cases (Ktunaxa), and lower courts fail to adopt it with consistency; (6) the Court reasoned that courts can supplement the reasons for decisions using the “reasons that could be offered” in cases of deficient agency reasoning (Newfoundland Nurses), then backed off that assertion (Alberta Teachers), only qualifying that reasons cannot be replaced by a decision-maker on judicial review (Delta Airlines). I could go on, but need not.

Incremental development in common law doctrine is necessary and desirable. But what the Supreme Court has done with administrative law is far from incremental. The result is the lack of clear rules as to when particular standards of review are triggered. This creates distortions in the system, with courts intervening when they should not and deferring when they otherwise should not. If this weren’t enough, the Court has failed in a number of cases to adequately explain the shifts in methodology and doctrine. An example of this is the Doré question, where the Court failed to explain its shift in approach in subsequent cases, but another less common example is the tension on the reasons doctrine between Newfoundland Nurses and Alberta Teachers, released a day apart. What the Court has established is a largely ruleless wasteland that Fuller would likely regard with suspicion.

But perhaps the most objectionable part of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine is the Court’s tendency to say one thing and do another. Specifically, take the Court’s tendency to engage in disguised correctness review. Fuller would have abhorred this state of affairs, representing a divergence between the law as applied and the law on the books. The tendency to engage in disguised correctness review leaves open questions as to what the Court is actually doing. Is the Court selecting the standard of review it is forced to by law, but actually applying the standard it thinks should apply? On what basis is it making this selection? One hopes the decision is not made according to freestanding policy views or the Court’s own implicit opinions about particular decision-makers. The point is that we cannot be sure.

As the authors note, Fuller’s principles are not ironclad. Fuller himself recognized that his idea of law can be recognized as a sliding scale, with one end being the minimum morality necessary to constitute law, and on the other hand, an aspirational legal system. How we achieve the balance is fundamentally a matter of tradeoffs. As the authors argue, there is an optimal point in the design between ex ante rules and ex post standards—a point where agencies are sufficiently restricted by ex ante rules with the necessary flexibility and discretion to operate ex post. Fuller’s preference for binding rules imposes a whole host of costs at the outset. For example, for the Supreme Court to construct a standard of review rule entails great cost at the outset, because it will have to design a rule that is properly tailored to the circumstances. Costs may also incur because the rule will either be overbroad or underbroad (take my discussion of the presumption of reasonableness here). A more flexible standard entails costs of its own—but at some point along the line, Fuller’s preference for rules can be sacrificed for other goods, in order to avoid the relevant costs.

But, as I said above, there must be some baseline of rules in a legal system. Administrative prerogative and uncontrolled judicial discretion should be controlled in some way, even in light of the costs of doing so. This really just glosses the surface, but Sunstein and Vermeule are (in my humble view) onto something. From a perspective of strategy, those who are uncomfortable with the administrative state are unlikely to convince true believers that it is unconstitutional writ large, or even that deference is problematic. But individuals from different perspectives can agree that Fuller’s morality principles provide a minimum baseline for the construction of doctrine. We should ask the Court to construct clear rules that can be easily applied; or at least develop more flexible standards that are triggered in clear circumstances.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law, and a current LL.M. student at the University of Chicago Law School. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics, particularly remedies law viewed from an economic perspective. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and mine alone.

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