Interpretation and the Value of Law

Why the interpretation of law must strive for objectivity, not pre-determined outcomes

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

We write in defence of a simple proposition: there is a value in ordering relations among individuals in large communities through law, rather than through other modes of exercising authority, and this value is not reducible to the goodness―by whatever metric―of the content of the law. Of course, good law is better than bad law, but law as a form, as the institution that allows individuals, groups, and organizations to interact with one another in predictable ways while constraining what those with power can do to those without, is precious quite apart from its substantive merits.

Law is the only mediator we have in a pluralistic society where there is limited agreement on foundational moral values, and still less on the best ways of giving them effect. Law records such agreement as exists for the time being, while also exposing this record to critique and providing a focus for efforts at reform. It is neither sacred nor permanent, but it is a common point of reference for the time being for people who disagree, sometimes radically, about the ways in which it should be changed. These are valuable functions regardless of whether one agrees with the substance of the law as it stands from time to time. Increasingly, however, certain schools of thought tend to deny that law has any value apart from its utility as a means to some political or another. We regard this as a dangerous development.

Now, to serve as the common point of reference in the face of widespread disagreement about values and policies, law must have some characteristics beyond its substantive political content; it must contain other features, often described in the literature on the Rule of Law. For example, it must be public, sufficiently certain, and stable. Of course, law actually enacted by constitution-makers, legislators, or officials exercising delegated authority, or articulated by common law courts, sometimes falls short of the ideals of clarity or certainty. Sometimes the words of this law will be broad, dynamic, and open-textured. But for law to fulfil its function, indeed to be law at all, it must have a fixed content independent of the views and preferences of those to whom the law applies. To the extent this understanding of law is now considered unorthodox, we hope to correct the record.


When law as enacted or articulated is not self-explanatory, it must be interpreted, ultimately by judges. The orthodox view, which we regard as correct, however old-fashioned it may seem, is that judges must do this by applying legal tools and techniques. Ideally, these must themselves be well-known, certain, and stable, although we acknowledge that the law of interpretation has often failed to live up to this ideal, even if the strongest critiques of legal interpretation as radically indeterminate have always been overstated. Judges will sometimes develop legal doctrine beyond what is apparent on the face of a constitutional or statutory text, engaging in the activity American scholars describe as construction. They may also distinguish or even overrule precedents. In doing so, however, judges must remain faithful to the principles and purposes of the law as they have found it enacted or articulated by the institutions―above all, the democratic institutions―our polities have authorized to resolve, for the time being, disagreements among their members.

Those who have come to reject the value of the law as law often regard legal interpretation as the weakest link which they can break to subvert the law’s function as the common guide and reference for people who disagree with one another. They want, instead, to use interpretation to impose values and policies that are not in the law as enacted or articulated, and which are, instead, those of the parasiti curiarum who seek to give the courts this inflated, and fatally distorted, sense of their role.

These parasiti belong to schools of thought―and political factions―that are, ostensibly, fiercely opposed to one another. On the one hand, there are those who favour “living tree” interpretation in constitutional law and freewheeling pragmatism in statutory interpretation, aiming to keep up with ever-changing notions of social justice by means of “progressive” and “modern” interpretations that update the law from time-to-time. On the other, there are those who demand that constitutions and statutes be read so as to promote a religiously-infused “common good”. The substantive political commitments of these schools are far apart.

Yet the two camps share one key belief: they both see law as merely an instrument with which to achieve their preferred political aims. Both are firmly convinced that it is legitimate to impose their respective hierarchy of values on society through judicial and administrative fiat, and urge judges and administrators to do just that, regardless of whether the constitutional and statutory texts being interpreted in fact embody these values. Indeed, they also share a certain legal and linguistic nihilism that causes them to deny that a legal text can have a meaning independent of its interpreter’s will. As a result, they are quite happy to use interpretation to reverse-engineer the meaning of laws in accordance with their preferences, regardless of these laws’ text or history and of the longstanding interpretive techniques.


For our part, we maintain that the judges’ interpretive role is not to impose some pre-determined set of values onto the law but to seek out the moral and policy choices that are embedded in the law as they find it. Judges do so by—to the extent possible—making the law’s text the object of interpretation. Even in the “construction zone”, where they apply legal texts to new situations or develop doctrine to apply vague textual commands, judges must seek, in good faith, to implement the choices made by those who made the law. At all times, they must strive to put aside their own moral and policy views about what the law should be, because they are not the ones charged with resolving moral and policy disagreements in our constitutional systems.

This is a pragmatic as well as a dogmatic position. Judges lack not only the legitimacy but also the ability to make moral and policy choices. Living constitutionalism, for example, asks judges to interpret the Constitution to take account of the moral views or practical needs of a particular political community at a particular point in time. This is impossible, even putting to one side the difficulties in defining the relevant community (especially in a federation such as Canada!), and even if members of political communities did not, in fact, sharply disagree with one another. Even politicians, with their access to pollsters, constant communication with their constituents, and the incentives provided by regular elections are not especially good at assessing the voters’ values and needs. Judges could not succeed at this, and should not try.

More importantly, though, living constitutionalism asks judges to change or override the meaning of the law as written in the name of extraneous moral principles or policy preferences, which it purports to locate in the political community. Pragmatism in statutory interpretation does much the same thing. This approach is problematic enough when it comes to ordinary legislation, because it arrogates the process of amendment to judges. It is doubly troubling in the constitutional realm: not only does it arrogate the process of amendment to judges, but it undermines the purpose of Constitutions—to place certain structural choices about institutions, as well as certain individual rights and freedoms, beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of divided public opinion, leaving their amendment to more consensual procedures.

Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. A new illiberal strain of legal thought has risen on the right. Driven by Adrian Vermeule’s theory of “common good constitutionalism”, the idea is that conservatives should adopt a style of constitutional interpretation that would “involve officials reading vague clauses in an openly morally infused way … to reach determinations consistent with the common good.” The moral principles that would guide this endeavour are those drawn, above all, from the Catholic natural law tradition; the definition of the common good to which judges would advert is thus one which is, to put it mildly, not universally shared in pluralistic societies.   

This attempt by those on the right to reverse-engineer such an interpretive theory should be rejected just as firmly as living constitutionalism, which it mimics. For Professor Vermeule, for example, the very fact that progressives have used constitutional law itself to achieve their aims justifies a conservative attempt, not to put an end to such tactics, but to resort to them, albeit in the service of a different set of values. Like the progressives, he and his disciples look to extraneous moral and policy commitments as guides for legal interpretation, disregarding the law’s role as the authoritative record of the settlement of disagreement and point of reference for citizens whose views of what is good and just differ, seeking to impose pre-ordained results regardless of whether they are consistent with what the law actually is. It too regards separation of powers as passé, a relic of the Enlightenment’s mistakes and an obstacle in the path of those who know better than voters, constitutional framers, and legislators.

Indeed, not only the substance but the language and specific proposals of the two anti-liberal camps resemble one another. In a striking parallel with Justice Abella’s embrace of the courts as the “final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”, the reactionaries want judges to exhibit “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’ because one of if its core premises is that ‘promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority’ given its link to securing the common good.” And, just as  Justice Abella  wants to upturn settled jurisprudence (except, of course, when she doesn’t) and “give benediction” to new constitutional doctrines, common good constitutionalism is skeptical about aspects of constitutional law that have been taken as a given for generations, including fundamental freedoms and structural limits on the accumulation of power within a single institution. Perhaps especially salient is the embrace by both the progressives and the reactionaries of the administrative state, and the corresponding rejection of the separation of powers. In other words, for both camps, established limits on actors in the system are of no moment if they stand in the way of certain political goals.

Now, to be charitable, it is possible that the illiberal thinkers are simply seeking to discover whether certain values are embedded in particular texts. Maybe it is true, for example, that the “peace, order, and good government” power reflects certain values that coincide with the political preferences of those on the right, or for that matter on the left. But this cannot be stipulated: those making such claims must demonstrate that general constitutional language―cabined and explained as it is by enumerated and limited grants of power―really carries the meaning they ascribe to it. Such demonstrations tend to be lacking, and the claims are often implausible. The “peace, order, and good government” language, for example, is only relevant when it comes to the federal heads of power; is it possible that the federal, but not the provincial, powers in the Canadian constitution reflect a “common good” view of government? Such questions abound, and in truth we suspect that the project pursued by the majority of those for whom concepts such as the “common good” or the “living tree” must guide legal interpretation has little to do with objective analysis and discovery.


Before concluding, a few words are in order about what we do not argue here. First, we do not claim that law and politics, or law and morality, are entirely separate realms. Obviously, law is shaped by politics: the making of constitutions and of legislation is a political process. It involves heated debate about moral and policy considerations, with which―one hopes―constitutional framers and legislatures wrestle. The outcome of these political processes is then subject to political critique, which again will feature arguments sourced in morality and policy. In a democracy, the legal settlements are only ever provisional, although some require greater degrees of consensus than others to displace.

And even at the stage of interpretation, it would be impossible to say that judges are merely robots mechanically following prescribed algorithms. Judges are influenced by their own experiences, which is perhaps to some extent for the better; they aren’t always able to shed their pre-dispositions, though this is surely generally to the worse. Indeed, it is important to recall that constitution-makers and legislators often invite judges to engage in moral and practical reasoning by appealing to concepts such as reasonableness in the provisions they enact. This is not always an appropriate legislative choice, but it is not the judges who are to blame for it.

That said, when it comes to interpretation, there should be a separation between law and politics. That is, interpretation must be guided by rules and doctrines that help judges to avoid, as much as humanly possible, making decisions on their own say-so, arrogating to themselves the roles of legislators to decide what laws should be under the pretense of declaring what they mean. This is admittedly a matter of degree. No one should insist that judges unduly fetter the natural import of words they are asked to interpret by insisting on so-called “strict constructions,” or read appeals to their own moral and practical reasoning as having been fully determined by the law-maker. Nonetheless, the judicial task should not be unbounded, with no restriction on the sorts of moral considerations judges are equipped to take into account.


In sum, we propose not to purge the law of moral and policy considerations, but to re-commit to the view that considerations embedded in legal texts adopted by democratic institutions after proper debate and subject to revision by the same institutions are the ones that ought to matter in legal interpretation. They, that is, rather than the real or hypothetical values and needs of contemporary society, let alone the conjectures of 16th century scholars from the University of Salamanca.

This upholds the authority of democratic institutions while calling on the courts to do what they ought to be able to do well: apply legal skills to reading and understanding legal texts. No less importantly, this allows the law itself to perform its unique and precious function, that of providing a touchstone for the diverse members of pluralistic communities, who disagree with one another’s moral and political views, yet still need a framework within which disagreements can be managed and, more importantly, they can simply get on with their lives. The illiberal attempts to subvert the law’s ability to do so, in the pursuit of victories which would come at the expense of citizens’ personal and political freedom, are a cause for concern, and for resistance.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

5 thoughts on “Interpretation and the Value of Law”

  1. Is the logical consequence of this view of interpretation is that an antislavery judge in the antebellum US ought to have interpreted American slavery statutes in a manner favourable to the institution of slavery, whatever his personal qualms (see Cover, Justice Accused), or an anti-Apartheid judge in South Africa ought to have paid obeisance to the legislature’s racist intentions, regardless of her personal antipathy to such invidious intentions (see Dyzenhaus, Hard Cases in Wicked Legal Systems)?

    To put the point differently, is it your view that a judge, faced with clear injustice, should nevertheless remain faithful to this formalist approach to interpretation, no matter how iniquitous the consequences of this fidelity may be?

    1. I don’t find Dyzenhaus’ argument against legal positivism very compelling. I don’t think Leonid and Mark have committed themselves to the idea that following the law is the sole, overriding good in all places and societies. If a legal order is sufficiently unjust, then morally one ought to undermine it. From a legal positivist perspective, you would still be undermining it – something you shouldn’t do in a system where upholding the law, all things considered, is an overall good.

      This is just the point that revolution, while presumptively bad, is sometimes justified. Obviously, you shouldn’t normally blow up people or even property, but that doesn’t mean the ANC was wrong to do so, or the Northern Army.

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