Does the Constitution Mean Anything?

In defence of textualism in constitutional interpretation

The Stereo Decisis podcast recently devoted an episode to a discussion of a case that I have covered here, 9147-0732 Québec inc v Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373, in which the Québec Court of Appeal held that corporations could avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “cruel and unusual treatment and punishment”. While the hosts Robert Danay, Oliver Pulleyblank, and Hillary Young disagreed on the merits of the issue before the court, they were, I take it, agreed on one thing: the approach to interpreting section 12 on which my post relied is not compelling. And indeed my post was pointedly textualist, and intended as a bit of a provocation to the adherents to Canadian consensus approach to the constitution, which is anything but. I am glad that it worked, and that we are, as a result, having a bit of a debate on constitutional interpretation; and all the more so since, in the course of this discussion, my critics nicely expose the weakness of their position.

Briefly, I had argued that section 12 does not apply to corporations because the word “cruel” refers to the wilful infliction of or indifference to pain or suffering, and pain or suffering is something that corporations are not capable of. I added a discussion of the evolution of the provisions intended to limit punishments from the Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights, 1688 and the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, to section 12, during the course of which the prohibition on “excessive fines” (to use the language of the Bill of Rights) fell by the wayside and was left out of the Charter. Considerations about whether it would have been a good idea for the Charter’s framers to have made a different choice and included a protection against excessive fines, which in effect is what the Québec Court of Appeal decided, are in my opinion irrelevant.

The hosts of Stereo Decisis took issue with that. We just can’t interpret the Charter simply by looking at what it says. Mr. Pulleyblank insisted that “‘[c]ruel and unusual’ is a bad phrase. It doesn’t really mean cruel and it doesn’t really mean unusual.” And beyond this particular provision, Professor Young said that the Charter is written in “rather loose language”, so that answers to questions about its meaning “can’t be found in the words”. Rather, they can only be obtained by asking what the Charter ought to mean. “You have to look beyond the words”, to “normative” considerations, such “how you feel about the Charter versus legislative authority”. The Québec Court of Appeal, for instance, had to decide whether “this particular right should apply to corporations”. (Emphasis mine) And that decision can yield, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “a norm that is different than either of those words [cruel and unusual] or both of those words together”.

Normative considerations are what caused the hosts to disagree about the outcome of the case. Mr. Danay said that “[w]e ought not to try to limit Charter rights. … If the Charter seems like it could protect something, probably a better reading … would be to protect that thing.” Professor Young, by contrast, saw a greater role for deference “to legislation enacted by elected legislatures”, and added that “[i]f we were talking about human beings’ rights, I would be less inclined to interpret so narrowly but I’m not super sympathetic about arguments for corporations’ rights against cruel and unusual treatment”. It was, as Mr. Pulleyblank summed it up, “just a disagreement” about “the impact on the democratic process”.

In my view, the hosts’ criticism of my textualist interpretation are weak, and their own approach grounded in vague normative considerations, unattractive. Now, it’s important to understand what textualism is not, and what it is. No textualist, for example, would say that answers to all constitutional questions can be found in the words alone. Sometimes, it is indeed necessary to go beyond the words of a provision. Some words that the Charter‘s framers used are vague. Context can clarify what at first glance appears to vagueness; in other cases, it might tells us that the most straightforward reading of a word whose import at first seems clear is not the most accurate one. Thus, contrary to what Mr. Pulleyblank rather derisively implied, my “going beyond the text” to look at section 12’s historical antecedents does not make me a bad textualist. Textualism is, in short, the idea that constitutional text, read in its proper context, binds ― insofar as it has an ascertainable meaning; it is not the view that text alone will always answer all constitutional questions. (In any case though, my ultimate commitment is to public meaning originalism, which starts, but does not always end, with textualism.)

So textualism can acknowledge the vagueness of a constitutional provision, but it will insist on not merely stipulating that its language is “bad” or “loose”, or that, if it is somewhat vague, it is incapable of providing any real guidance to the interpreter. The word “cruel”, in section 12, is a nice illustration. Of course, it is vague to a considerable extent. No amount of looking at dictionaries will tell us whether, say, a parole ineligibility period longer than an offender’s life expectancy is cruel (the main question in R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354) and, as a public meaning originalist, I do not think that knowing how the Charter‘s framers would have answered that particular question tells us much about the meaning of section 12 either. But it doesn’t follow that the word cruel is poorly chosen or that it has no real import at all. In the case before the Québec Court of Appeal, looking at the word’s ordinary meaning was helpful, indeed sufficient to dispose of the dispute (which an examination of the context confirmed).

The Stereo Decisis hosts never actually disputed this ― they did not refer to definitions of the word “cruel” that contradicted the claims that Justice Chamberland (who dissented at the Court of Appeal) and I made about it. (At least that’s how I understood them; as I was writing this post, Benjamin Oliphant suggested that “the hosts raise a worthwhile challenge to [my] interpretation of section 12. What if the words ‘cruel and unusual’ are properly understood to mean “grossly disproportionate’ … ?” I don’t think the hosts said that section 12 actually means this ― only that it has been read in this way by the Supreme Court. And I don’t think that “cruel” actually means “grossly disproportionate”. Again, dictionary definitions tend to emphasize wilful infliction of pain. Moreover, section 12 applies not only to “punishment” but to other “treatment” of the individual by the state. While it makes sense to speak of cruel treatment, I don’t think that “grossly disproportional” works here; disproportional to what?)

As I understood the Stereo Decisis hosts, they took what I can only describe as a dogmatic position that a word like “cruel” must be so vague as to provide no guidance. I don’t think that going into an interpretive exercise with a pre-determined view of this sort is right. Vagueness is not an all-or-nothing thing; a word, or a provision, can be vague as to some questions but not others. The interpreter needs to make a reasonable effort to glean what guidance can be had from the text and context before concluding that they “run out” and that the question facing him or her must be answered by looking at other considerations.

And then, the interpreter needs to face the question of what considerations should be looked at when, and to the extent that, a constitutional provision does run out. (In originalist terms, this is the question of what theory of construction one must adopt for those cases that interpretation does not settle.) The Stereo Decisis hosts suggest that we must go straight to very general normative views about the Charter and legislative power. As their discussion shows, however, this approach is not especially fruitful, in that it promptly leads to stark normative disagreement between those who would maximize the scope of the Charter‘s limits on government power and those who would reduce it in the name of preserving legislative authority. The two sides of this dispute have little to say to one another; both argue that the case should simply be decided by following their normative priors; they can only count heads to see who wins on any particular panel. Adjudication along these lines is not readily distinguishable from a legislative power struggle.

I do not mean to deny that cases where a court can do no better may arise from time to time. Still, I think that we should be uneasy about this prospect. Telling judges that it’s normal, rather than exceptional and worrying, for them to decide constitutional cases by reference to their own normative commitments produces nefarious consequences, as judges come to think that their personal understanding of right and wrong is more important than the law. From constitutional cases, this belief bleeds into other areas of the law ― into cases of ordinary statutory interpretation and even common law ones. This destroys the Rule of Law and removes the most important constraint on judicial power, which is the requirement to (normally) follow the law, be it constitution, statute, and precedent, that someone else has first set out.

Moreover, if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. (This is, of course, especially true of cases that involve individual rights; federalism disputes arguably require a neutral arbiter, but even there, it is not quite clear why the arbiter should be judicial in character.) And, as a descriptive matter, those who hold to the view that constitutional texts are more or less meaningless don’t even have access to the positive law argument I have made here that, as a textual matter, our constitution actually requires judicial supremacy. They must attempt to answer the question of whether it does so with normative arguments alone, and are unlikely to convince anyone not predisposed to agree with them.

It is much better, as well as more consistent with our Rule of Law tradition and with the positive law of our constitution, to insist that judges ascertain the meaning of the law given them, and if the meaning does not resolve the dispute they have to settle, that they endeavour to implement this law, not on the basis of their predilections, but of the law’s purposes. A judge who happens to share my distaste for most economic regulation can and should nevertheless conclude that, while an additional obstacle to such regulation’s excesses in the shape of an extension of the scope of section 12 to corporations would be normatively desirable, the constitution that we actually have does not raise this obstacle in the grasping legislatures’ way. But for him or her to be able so to conclude, that judge must be committed to elucidating and applying the law, instead of believing that judicial office gives one carte blanche to implement one’s own preferences.

Constitutional interpretation isn’t discussed enough in Canada. A general lack of interest, caused by overconfidence in a living constitutionalist orthodoxy, has meant that when Canadian lawyers confront questions of constitutional interpretation they are liable to reason in ways that are not compelling. Sadly, the Stereo Decisis discussion of the question whether section 12 of the Charter extends to corporation was illustrative. It relied on a mistaken assumption that constitutional language is infinitely malleable, with the result that, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “[i]f you want to go one way you can probably get there. If you want to go the other way you can probably get there.” Descriptively, this mischaracterizes our constitutional documents, which are rather less vague than is sometimes said. Normatively, a state of affairs in which constitutional law dissolves in competing assertions about the appropriate relationship between courts and legislatures, has little to recommend itself.

These two defects feed into each other. The less faith one has in the capacity of constitutional texts to guide their interpreters, the more power one is inclined to grant judges (even if only to seek to claw it back through free-floating doctrines of deference). The less one accepts limits on judicial power, the more one is tempted to see vagueness in every text, without seriously examining it. Still, I hope that, by discussing constitutional interpretation and calling into question beliefs about it whose truth has too long simply been assumed we will make much needed progress.

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.

One thought on “Does the Constitution Mean Anything?”

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