Through Which Glass, Darkly?

Introducing a new article on the Rule of Law in two decisions of the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom

I followed the challenge to the “hearing fees” that British Columbia imposed on litigants who wanted to have their day in court ― or at least their days, since an initial period was free of charge ― from its beginning as Vilardell v Dunham, 2012 BCSC 748 and to its resolution by the Supreme Court of Canada as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, writing almost a dozen posts in the process. And then the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided a case that was remarkably similar to Trial Lawyers, R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor, [2017] UKSC 51, [2017] 4 All ER 903, which involved a challenge to fees charged for access to employment law tribunals. I blogged about that decision too.

The two supreme courts came to similar conclusions: the fees were invalidated in both cases, out of a concern that they prevented ordinary litigants who could not afford them from accessing the forum where their rights would be ascertained. In Trial Lawyers this was said to be a violation of section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867; in Unison, of a common law right of access to court. Yet there was a striking contrast between the two decisions, and specifically between the ways in which they treated the Rule of Law. Trial Lawyers discusses this constitutional principle, but as something of an embarrassment, in the face of a scathing dissent by Justice Rothstein, who argues that it should not have discussed the Rule of Law at all. (He still does ― in his keynote address at this year’s Runnymede Conference, for example.) Unison‘s discussion of the Rule of Law, as a foundation of the right of access to court, is much more forthright, and sophisticated too.

This got me thinking. The result is an article that has been accepted for publication in the Common Law World Review, and which I have already posted on SSRN: “Through Which Glass Darkly? Constitutional Principle in Legality and Constitutionality Review“. The main idea is that what explains the difference in the depth and confidence with which the two courts treated the Rule of Law is that constitutional review, despite its power, is bound to be precarious in the absence of an on-point text, while legality review, although seemingly weak in that its outcome can be overturned by statute, actually makes compelling discussion of unwritten principle possible. Here is the abstract:

This article seeks to draw lessons from a comparison between the ways in which the Rule of Law is discussed in cases decided by the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom on the issue of allegedly excessive fees levied on litigants seeking to access adjudication. After reviewing the factually quite similar cases of Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General) and R (Unison) v Lord-Chancellor and it detailing these decisions’ respective constitutional settings, the article argues that, in contrast to the cursory treatment of the Rule of Law by the Supreme Court of Canada, the UK Supreme Court’s discussion is sophisticated and instructive. This suggests that legality review based on common law rights, which is not focused, and does not try to establish a connection, however tenuous, to an entrench constitutional text, may well allow for a more forthright and enlightening discussion of the principles at stake. Thus it follows that, in constitutional systems that feature strong-form judicial review based on entrenched texts, when regulations and administrative decisions are at issue, legality review should not be neglected. In those systems where strong-form judicial review is not available, legality review should not be regarded as an anomalous ersatz.

While I have argued here that Canadian courts can legitimately base their constitutional decisions on unwritten principles, rather than explicit textual provisions, in some circumstances, I do think that legality review (which, of course, Justice Cromwell favoured in Trial Lawyers) should be considered more often. Our law would be the richer for it.

Against Administrative Supremacy

A response to the “Guest Posts from the West Coast” Series

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Over at Administrative Law Matters, Cristie Ford, Mary Liston, and Alexandra Flynn have published a series of posts critiquing the Supreme Court’s decision in  Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 for what they regard as its departure from the principles of deference to the administrative state that long characterized Canadian administrative law. As we are going to show, this critique reflects a commitment to what Jeffrey Pojanowski describes as “administrative supremacy”, “an unapologetic embrace of the administrative state”. (861)

Yet in our view this critique rests on a distorted representation of the relevant constitutional principles, such as democracy, separation of powers, and the Rule of Law, and of the stakes involved in judicial review. More robust judicial review of administrative decisions ― if indeed that is what Vavilov will lead to, which is not yet clear ― would not cause a dismantling of the administrative state. It should, however, result in an application of the laws enacted by Parliament and the legislatures more in accordance with their terms, which is what the relevant principles, properly understood, require.


Professors Ford, Liston, and Flynn all see Vavilov as a break with a decades-long history of judicial recognition of and deference to the administrative state. Professor Ford writes that “[o]nce upon a time, in the days before the modern administrative state, there was one standard of review for errors of law: correctness”. These pre-historic days ended, however, with a “[g]rudging acknowledgment of administrative tribunals’ jurisdiction, at least in hard cases” in CUPE v NB Liquor Corporation, [1979] 2 SCR 227. Since then, and until Vavilov, the courts would defer to administrative interpretations of law, unless they were unreasonable, perhaps even patently so.

The embrace of deference reflected a certain view of the law, of the institutions of government, and of their relationship with one another. It rested, in Professor Ford’s words, on a “recognition that the rule of law could be a multifaceted, legitimately contestable thing”, part of “a captivating legal pluralist world”. Courts acted with “humility” in the face of “multiple kinds of expertise” embodied by administrative tribunals, accepting “that expertise could even mean knowing what it was like to be the recipient of social benefits”. They also recognized that “administrative tribunals were more diverse and more representative of the population at large than the judiciary was”. For her part, Professor Liston adds that the turn to deference aimed at

realizing the intertwined principles of democracy, parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law; affirming the administrative state as a legitimate fourth branch of government; [and] respecting the separation of powers by minimizing judicial review when the legislature indicates that the decisionmaker has primary jurisdiction to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law in relation to that mandate.

Professors Ford and Liston also both argue that the deferential approach was meant to foster access to justice, but acknowledge that it has ultimately failed to do so. There was too much play in the joints, too many opportunities for argument about the appropriate degree of deference. Judicial review lost its “focus remained on [the] merits” of the cases and became bogged down in “law office metaphysics”, as Professor Liston puts it (citing Justice Binnie).

Vavilov and its companion case Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, however, usher in a radical change. Professor Ford writes that “[t]he velvet glove is off. Vavilov signals a retrenchment by a more assertive, and conservative, Court” (a label that Professor Liston endorses), and that “[w]e are done with letting 1,000 rule of law flowers bloom”. Focusing on Bell (which she describes as “the tell in the shell game that is administrative law”), Professor Liston laments its disregard of administrative expertise, of “the broad grant of discretion” to the CRTC “to make decisions in the public interest that touch on fundamental policy objectives” (reference omitted) and “the democratic and fair process that led to the ultimate decision”, involving protracted consultations and responsive “to the views of ordinary Canadians” who complained to the CRTC about not being able to watch American Super Bowl ads. Instead, Professor Liston sees Bell as having “imported” “political currents from the south”, such as “the libertarian attack on the administrative state”.

As noted above, this view of the administrative state and its relationship with the courts is consistent with Professor Pojanowski’s description of “administrative supremacy”, which

sees the administrative state as a natural, salutary outgrowth of modern governance. In its strongest form, it sees the role of courts and lawyers as limited to checking patently unreasonable exercises of power by the administrative actors who are the core of modern governance. To the extent that durable, legal norms are relevant, the primary responsibility for implementing them in administrative governance falls to executive officials, who balance those norms’ worth against other policy goals. (861)


In our view, the administrative supremacist critique of Vavilov and Bell suffers from two fundamental flaws. On the one hand, the principles on which administrative law rests, and which it purports to apply, do not mean what administrative supremacists think or say they do. On the other, a rejection of administrative supremacy does not necessarily lead to the dismantling of the administrative state, supremacists scare-mongering to the contrary notwithstanding.

Start with the principles. The administrative supremacist view is that democracy is at least equally, if not better, embodied in the decisions of administrative tribunals as in legislation enacted by Parliament or legislatures. For one thing, tribunals are acting pursuant to a mandate from the legislatures. For another, the administrative process itself can be characterized as democratic, as the CRTC’s is in Professor Liston’s post.

Yet it simply isn’t the case that a decision actually made by an appointed official, or even a group of officials, is democratic in the same way as a statute debated and enacted by an elected assembly ― even if the assembly itself gave away its decision-making power to the officials in question. To give an extreme example, if Parliament contented itself with simply delegating its full law-making powers to the Prime Minister, we would not, I hope, regard this as a democratic arrangement, even if it may be legal. Somewhat less extreme but more real and just as undemocratic, the recent briefly-mooted plan to delegate plenary taxing power to the federal government was undemocratic too, and would have been undemocratic even if rubber-stamped by a Parliament content to abdicate its responsibility.

And the possibility of public input into an administrative decision offers no more than a partial correction to the problem. This input need not be in any sense representative of “the views of ordinary Canadians”; it is much more likely to be driven by a small group of motivated activists or rent-seeking economic actors, as the “capture” era of American administrative law demonstrates. Besides, even if the CRTC’s decision-making follows a process that could be described, however precariously, as “democratic”, not all administrative decision-makers operate this way. Consider “line decision-makers”, many of whom follow minimal process before reaching their decisions. Vavilov’s reasoning requirements will likely change what these officials do going forward, but the rank administrative discretion they exercise is not in any sense “democratic” on its own; it can only said to be so by virtue of the delegated power that the decision-makers exercise—nothing more or less.

Administrative supremacy similarly distorts the meaning of separation of powers. While Professor Ford, to her credit, associates this principle with the view that “[t]he courts’ role is to police the executive’s exercise of authority”, Professor Liston writes of “the administrative state as a legitimate fourth branch of government” and considers that separation of powers requires “minimizing judicial review when the legislature indicates that the decisionmaker has primary jurisdiction to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law in relation to that mandate”.

Separation of powers is, to be sure, a slippery and complicated idea, but there is, at its core, the Madisonian view that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”, and further “that each department should have a will of its own”. The administrative “fourth branch” exists precisely to subvert the distinctions between the other three, accumulating in its hands the ability to make policy, execute its decisions, and decide disputes about them. This subversion is compounded by arguments to the effect that the courts can have their core function of saying what the law is taken away from them by legislatures, and that they must defer to legal interpretations propounded by the “fourth branch”, so as to have no will of their own. While Canadian law probably permits the delegation of significant powers to the administrative state, there is a major risk in concentrating these powers. This is why the courts must ensure that administrative decision-makers only exercise those powers actually delegated to them, for the purposes for which they have been granted.

Moreover, the mere fact of delegation does not speak to the intensity of review a court should apply. While the Vavilov Court adopts a presumption of reasonableness based solely on the fact of delegation, this must be considered an organizing default rule that is a product of compromise ― it cannot be defended on the grounds that there is a principled link between delegation and deference. Indeed, the political science literature holds that legislatures may delegate for any number of reasons, none of which have to do with what a court should do on review. Better for a court, in our view, to review the legality of an exercise of administrative power de novo, at least absent some signal from a legislature that it intends deferential review (Vavilov, at [110], outlines some of these signals well).

Last but not least, administrative supremacy embraces a highly misleading view of the Rule of Law. Its proponents suggest that the Rule of Law is possible in ― indeed, that the better understanding of the Rule of Law requires ― a legal environment when legislation has no settled meanings dispassionately elucidated and consistently applied by independent courts. Recycling (and magnifying tenfold) a Maoist metaphor, they would have “1,000 rule of law flowers bloom”, as Professor Ford puts it.

Yet on any serious account of the Rule of Law stable, clear rules, consistently applied so as to create a predictable legal environment, are the heart of this concept. So is the idea that government power is limited by these rules. Judicial control over the meaning of legal rules and over government’s compliance with them is not an ideological caprice, but a necessary corollary of the principle. Only the courts ― not administrative decision-makers subject to control by the executive and invested with an explicit policy-making mission ― are sufficiently independent and can be committed to keeping the government within legal boundaries, as Dicey notes in his Law and Public Opinion. Abstract legal pluralism is, to us, no substitute for the legal certainty which the Rule of Law requires and to the maintenance of which the courts are essential.

And, as far as that point goes, there is another problem with the administrative supremacist argument as it pertains to the Rule of Law. In Professors Liston and Ford’s posts in particular, we see the classic supremacist argument from pluralism and expertise. Encompassed in this ideal is the idea of a “culture of justification” in which expertise could be brought to bear by administrative decision-makers in the reasons justifying administrative action. But there are limits to these principles that Professor Liston does not acknowledge. For one, expertise is not a legal reason for deference. It may be, as Professor Daly notes, an epistemic reason for deference, but what is the legal rationale for a court to abdicate its reviewing function under the Rule of Law in the name of alleged expertise?

Even as an epistemic reason for expertise, the presumption of expertise for all administrative decision-makers, which Professor Liston seems to tacitly endorse, was never justified as a matter of first principle. Indeed, as the Vavilov Court notes, it was impossible to distinguish matters over which administrators were expert from those where they were not. As we know in the prison context, in immigration law, and beyond, decision-makers’ claims to expertise, especially in legal or constitutional interpretation, can be exaggerated or outright unfounded. To give up on the role of the courts in enforcing legal boundaries in the name of unproven assertions of expertise is, in our view, contrary to the Rule of Law.

Our second objection to the administrative supremacist argument can be dealt with more briefly. An administrative law that rejects administrative supremacy and gives effect to the principle of the Rule of Law, properly understood, does not entail the demolition of the administrative state. (For one of us, this is a matter of considerable regret, but it is true all the same.) The administrative state exists in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand, where courts insist on their role of policing the boundaries of its authority, largely without deferring to its legal interpretations. The approach there is summarized in Lord Diplock’s words in the GCHQ case, Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service, [1985] AC 374:

the decision-maker must understand correctly the law that regulates his decision-making power and must give effect to it. Whether he has or not is par excellence a justiciable question to be decided, in the event of dispute, by those persons, the judges, by whom the judicial power of the state is exercisable.

This approach would not prevent the delegation by Parliament or the legislatures of discretionary or adjudicative authority to administrative agencies and tribunals. It would mean, however, that these agencies and tribunals must give effect to the laws that give them their powers and to the general law of the land, rather than to their preferred policies and predilections.

To take up Professor Liston’s example, the CRTC’s view that it would be a good idea to impose some requirement on those subject to its licensing authority does not exhaust the question of its authority to impose this requirement. The question is whether the CRTC actually has this authority, because Parliament has granted it. The administrative state can exist if Parliament or a legislature has willed it into existence. But democracy and separation of powers, no less than the Rule of Law, should lead to the conclusion that the administrative state, and its powers, exist only to the extent that they have been willed into existence, and that their bootstrapping claims deserve scrutiny by the judiciary.

In part, disagreement about deference comes down to how one ought to conceptualize the administrative state. For Professors Liston and Ford in particular, the administrative supremacist view leads to the conclusion that administrative power is to be encouraged; that administrators all have something valuable to say about the law; that a Dyzenhausian view of “deference as respect” best encapsulates the role of courts vis-à-vis administrative actors. We view this as a decidedly Panglossian view of the administrative state. A basic deceit at the core of Canadian administrative law is the tendency for observers to concentrate on the tribunals that best demonstrate, to these observers anyway, the virtue of the administrative state: labour boards and the CRTC, for example. The harder question is what to think of administrative actors that do not fit this mould.

In this respect, Professor Liston and Ford put forward an old view of administrative law that dates back at least to the 1930s and the New Deal ― which is not a good time from which to borrow ideas. A 21st century version of administrative law must contend with the growth of the administrative state into the licensing state, the exclusionary state, and the carceral state; incarnations of the state that, due to a lack of expertise or otherwise, may not be owed respect under the benevolent standards of review Professor Liston wants. Adopting general language of “pluralism” and “expertise” masks the real work: how to legitimize administrative power that is not characterized by the functional reasons for deference, as in Vavilov itself.

Again, this is not an ideological quirk. With respect, we find puzzling the claims that Vavilov is the work of a “conservative” court influenced by “libertarian” “political currents”. Six of the seven members of the Vavilov majority signed the “by the Court” judgment in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, [2018] 1 SCR 342; three were also in the five-judge majority in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 S.C.R. 293. However one might describe these judgments, conservative, let alone libertarian, they were not. People of all persuasions should be concerned about the scope of administrative power, no less than that of legislatures or, say, police forces. And if sometimes this rebounds to the benefit of those actuated by the profit motive, we do not think this is as sinister a possibility as Professor Liston seems to find it.


All in all, we differ from the defenders of administrative supremacy in one fundamental respect. The principles at play—democracy, separation of powers, and the Rule of Law—are not licenses to justify administrative power. Instead, they are properly viewed as constraints on that power. Vavilov was right to reject justifications other than legislative delegation for administrative power, and to insist on meaningful scrutiny of the compliance of the exercise of this power with its legislative warrant. For better or for worse, this will not undermine the administrative state, but the reminder that administrative power is something to be constrained using ordinary legal tools, not unleashed in service of the bureaucratically determined common good, is a salutary one.

One Does Not Simply

Ensuring access to justice isn’t simply a matter of the legal profession’s being more open to “experiments”

Justice Abella has published an op-ed (paywalled) in The Globe and Mail ― yes, another one. It’s being widely shared, with apparent approval, on Canadian law Twitter ― which may or may not reflect the sentiment of the profession more broadly. Justice Abella argues, in a nutshell, that the justice system is hidebound and in dire need of root-and-branch reform to be able to actually provide justice to ordinary litigants. Wanting to improve access to justice is, to be sure, a fine sentiment. However, Justice Abella’s analysis of the system’s problems ― which are real enough ― is remarkably simplistic, and she proposes no solution at all.

Justice Abella writes that the “public [has] been mad for a long, long time” about access to justice and, apparently taking the mad public’s side, wonders “why we still resolve civil disputes the way we did more than a century ago”. Her evidence for the claim that we do so is that in 1906 “Roscoe Pound criticized the civil justice system’s trials for being overly fixated on procedure, overly adversarial, too expensive, too long and too out of date”, and a claim that a an early 20th-century barrister “could, with a few hours of coaching, feel perfectly at home in today’s courtrooms. Can we say that about any other profession?”

Justice Abella attributes this situation to the fact that “the legal system … resist[s] experimenting with justice in order to find better ways to deliver it?” and keeps doing things the way it does for no other reason than “Because we’ve always done it this way”. Comprehensive reform ― not “incremental change” but “a whole new way to deliver justice to ordinary people with ordinary disputes and ordinary bank accounts” ― is necessary.


I have no courtroom experience, let alone ability to judge the public’s mood with any accuracy, so I cannot speak to the accuracy, if any, of what Justice Abella’s description of the justice system’s current state and of the popular reaction to it. I will reiterate that I do not believe that Supreme Court judges can, or should try to, channel “social values” or otherwise make themselves the purported spokespersons of the people. That’s not their job, and a good thing too, because they are supremely unqualified for it. But be that as it may, even if we grant, for argument’s sake, that Justice Abella’s descriptive claims are accurate, it is still the case that her analysis is devoid of all perspective. It considers the issue neither across time, nor in comparison with the state of affairs elsewhere in society. The resulting take is insular and unsound.

A historically informed view of the problem that Justice Abella discusses would have to acknowledge that it is very, very old. I’m no great historian, sadly, but as best I can tell access to justice and the remoteness of the courts from the common people were an issue going at least as far back as the English revolution in the 17th century. The expense and the incomprehensibility of legal proceedigns exercised Jeremy Bentham at the turn of the 19th. And then, as Justice Abella herself observes, they frustrated Roscoe pount in the early 20th, and any number of people in the 21st. People put forward various solutions too ― the puritans tried to establish courts outside London; Bentham was convinced that writing down the common law “into one great book (it need not be a very great one)” that would be “read through in churches, and put into boys’ hands, and made into exercises when they are at school” would do the trick. None of that worked.

One might of course conclude from this that the legal profession and the judiciary are, if anything, even worse than Justice Abella imagines. But isn’t the more plausible explanation for the persistence of access to justice problems that they are genuinely very difficult to solve, rather than that they are caused by laziness and obduracy? I will return to this issue shortly.

Before I do so, though, let me note that it’s simply not true that the rest of society has evolved beyond all recognition while the law has allegedly stood still. The work of academics and (perhaps even more so school teachers) looks much as it did not only 100, but 800 years ago. So does that of people in any number of other trades, if we put to one side the accumulation of technical knowledge, in the same way as Justice Abella puts to one side the evolution of substantive law. Even in medicine, to which Justice Abella appeals as an example of a forward-looking profession unafraid to “experiment with lives”, things are more complicated than she allows. The work of many specialist doctors has no doubt by transformed by all manner of gadgets. But what about that of general practitioners? Is it really so unrecognizable from a century ago?

The thing is, this is not because GPs, or chefs, or professors, are ― like lawyers ― hidebound and smug. Justice Abella simply implies that new and radically different is better, it is not clear why that should be. New can be better, but it need not be. If things are the way they are for some important reason, then ― so long as the reason is still present ― it is wise to keep them as they are, unless some weightier reason impels change.

And this brings me back to the question of why access to justice problems are genuinely difficult to solve. There is, in fact, a good ― although perhaps not a decisive ― reason for having those procedures whose existence so annoys Justice Abella. They are widely thought to promote more accurate decision-making, and they support the human dignity of the people who find themselves in front of the courts by giving them a chance to be heard and, no less importantly, to test and challenge the case that is being made against them. It is for these reasons that some or all of these procedures are required when people’s rights and obligations are being determined not by conventional courts, but by administrative decision-makers. Go back to 1906, and these tribunals often operated very differently, with no procedural safeguards to speak of. Yet this aroused criticism, and the critics prevailed; change came, partly through legislation and partly through decisions of the courts, widely celebrated now although they would have been anathema to the champions of experimentation and efficiency of the Progressive era.

In my last post I wrote about the trade-offs involved in designing administrative procedures. If procedure is good, there can be too much of a good thing. Additional procedural safeguards eventually yield little improvement in terms of more accurate or even more dignity-respecting adjudication, yet their cost, both to the taxpayer and to the parties, can become intolerable. Gerard Kennedy (whom I thank for his kind words about my post) has suggested that Justice Abella made just this point about trade-offs. But, respectfully, that’s not how I read her op-ed. There is no acknowledgment of trade-offs in Justice Abella’s argument; she does not recognize that there are reasons, beyond simple resistance to change and unwillingness to “experiment”, for the system being as it is. She blames the legal profession’s conservatism, and has no time for other considerations.

All that is not to say that there need be no reforms. My own preference, expressed since the earliest days of this blog, is for deregulating the legal profession. Justice Abella, I rather suspect, might not be on board with this particular experiment, but I would love to see it. Lack of competition is bound to make the legal system less innovative than it might be, so bringing about more of it is likely to ameliorate the problems Justice Abella is concerned about. But we should not delude ourselves about how much this, or any other, reform might accomplish. For one thing, so long as the state exists, the court system, if not the legal profession, is bound to remain a monopoly. Sure, alternative dispute resolution exists, but it is not suitable for resolving certain kinds of disputes. And, beyond that, those trade-offs, and the need for a system that provides substantive justice and procedural fairness, and not only expediency, is not going away.


Put to one side the question of whether a person who is sitting at the apex of the legal system, and has been for 16 years, who has been a judge for almost 45, who has accepted innumerable plaudits from the legal profession and academy, should really be criticizing the system as if she is not part of it. Leave it to moral philosophers. But we need not wait for their judgment to say that Justice Abella’s argument is driven by the conceit that solving the problems she identifies would be easy if only the system were less stuck in the past and more willing to try new approaches. The fact that she does not even begin to tell us what these approaches might be ― that she proposes no new idea, even one as daft as Bentham’s public readings of the not-very-great law book ― should be a hint: things aren’t as simple as she would like us to think.

There is a word for this tactic of setting up an alleged conflict of “the public” or “the people” against some obstructionist, and probably self-interested, elites standing in the way of change; of denying the difficult trade-offs that change would require; of claiming that a transformation of society, such that trade-offs can be dispensed with altogether, is around the corner if only the resolute leaders in communion with the enlightened people were in change. It’s a word that one would not have associated with Justice Abella, but one has to, given that this rhetoric is precisely what she deploys in this op-ed. The word is, of course, “populism”. In the previous op-ed, linked to at the beginning of my post, Justice Abella, denounced populism, arguing that “[m]any countries around the world … have made Faustian bargains, selling their democratic souls in exchange for populist approval.” This was, she wrote, “unconscionable.” But that was then, I suppose, and this is now.

Just as she does with the Rule of Law, alternatively disparaging and extolling it as suits the circumstances or the taste of her audience, Justice Abella can castigate populism or engage in it. One might think this is, indeed, unconscionable. But, perhaps, things are not so bad. As I wrote in commenting on that previous op-ed,

Justice Abella thinks that she is some sort of great and wise philosopher, and as such is qualified to dispense advice, both judicially and extra-judicially, on how people should organize their affairs and even what they should believe in. Her ladyship is labouring under a sad misapprehension in this regard. She is no great thinker. She has no answer to obvious questions that her arguments raise, and no justification for her extravagant assertions of authority.

She might simply not understand what she is doing. I’m not sure about this, but she really might. Either way, July 1, 2021, when she must at last retire from the Supreme Court, cannot come soon enough.

How Much Justice Can You Afford?

The trade-offs involved in designing fair administrative procedures

In the last administrative law class before the extended break into which the present plague forced us (and which is about to come to an end, as we resume teaching ― online), I taught procedural fairness. One of the points I tried to impress on my students is that procedural fairness is (like so much else) a matter of trade-offs. More elaborate procedures meant to ensure that administrative decisions are fair to those whom they affect have benefits ― but they have costs too. The question for those who design the procedures to be followed by a given decision-maker ― legislatures, administrative entities (and their legal advisors!), and eventually courts ― is how to optimize these trade-offs.

This point may bear repeating here. I teach New Zealand law, of course, but the principles and indeed the language of Canadian law of procedural fairness is not very different from those to be found in New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Early Canadian cases on the duty of fairness, notably Nicholson v Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Police Commissioners, [1979] 1 SCR 311, referred to a New Zealand appeal decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Furnell v Whangarei High Schools Board, [1973] AC 660. The leading Canadian case, Baker v  Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817, also draws on UK cases to some extent, rather than treating them as utter heresy, in the way Canadian cases on substantive review, notably Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, treat cases like Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission, [1969] 2 AC 147.

In these (and other) cases, trade-offs tend not to be discussed explicitly, which is why I think this post is warranted, even though its claims should be, I think, fairly obvious. The language used is, rather, that of justice, fairness, doing the right thing, and general warmth and fuzziness. In Furnell, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, for the majority , explained that “natural justice is but fairness writ large and juridically. It has been described as ‘fair play in action’”. (679) The majority in Nicholson adopts this passage, as do a number of other Canadian cases. In Baker, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé writes that

the purpose of the participatory rights contained within the duty of procedural fairness is to ensure that administrative decisions are made using a fair and open procedure, appropriate to the decision being made and its statutory, institutional, and social context, with an opportunity for those affected by the decision to put forward their views and evidence fully and have them considered by the decision-maker. [20]

At the same time, however, there is much talk of flexibility. This should be a hint. If the issue were one sided, we would always want to have more fair play, more open procedures, more opportunities for those affected to put forward their views. There would be no need to modulate the duty of fairness; it would be better to maximize it in every case.

And to be, well, fair, to the courts, their recognition of this issue is sometimes explicit. Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s reference to the “context” of administrative decisions and may well push to expand, as well as to contract, the duty of fairness in a given case. But other judicial statements are less ambiguous. For example, in Cardinal v Director of Kent Institution, [1985] 2 SCR 643, Justice Le Dain insisted that the requirements of fairness he found applicable

are fully compatible with the concern that the process of prison administration, because of its special nature and exigencies, should not be unduly burdened or obstructed by the imposition of unreasonable or inappropriate procedural requirements. (660)

And, more broadly, in a passage from Pearlberg v Varty, quoted in Nicholson, Lord Pearson pointed out that “if there were too much elaboration of procedural safeguards, nothing could be done simply and quickly and cheaply. Administrative or executive efficiency and economy should not be too readily sacrificed”. Such frankness is not always to be found, however. Besides, frank though it is, Lord Pearson’s statement strikes me as still incomplete.


It is true, of course the elaboration of procedural safeguards comes at the cost of efficiency (not necessarily in its technical sense, but simply as speediness) and economy. But not only to the administration. For one thing, the administration here is only a stand-in for government and, in turn, for the voters who mandate it, however indirectly, and for the taxpayers who fund it. So it is worth pondering the fact that the government staffs, and the taxpayers pick up the bill for, the tribunals or other decision-making agencies, and the courts that engage in judicial review. The government, and again the taxpayers, also pay for lawyers who defend administrative decisions. Government officials who provide process for people are also being paid ― and they are taking time out of their schedules that could presumably be used for something else.

But the government and the taxpayers are not the only ones bearing the costs of “the elaboration of procedural safeguards”. So do the affected parties, who are also expending time and resources on process. If you are told that you have a right to be heard and to represented by a lawyer, you’ll want to prepare and to hire a lawyer. That ain’t cheap, in terms of time and money. Each additional opportunity to make submissions, each additional hearing, each additional cross-examination is an invitation to spend more time and money, to say nothing of emotional investment. Administrative decision-making is often said, as for example by the majority in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, to be “speedier and less expensive” than adjudication in the courts. But there is no law of nature that says that this must be so, and even if administrative tribunals have a relative advantage, this does not mean that they achieve speed and affordability in some absolute sense.

So administrative procedures imposed in the name of fairness have costs, some of them falling on the administration itself, and some on those being administered. Of course they do have benefits too, and these benefits are also distributed in ways that the language of judicial decisions does not always make obvious. Of course, an opportunity to be heard to be given a decision that one can accept as consistent with fair play even if unsatisfactory are very important benefits ― benefits that have to do with the value of human dignity, as Jeremy Waldron points out (primarily in relation to courts, but the point generalizes) in “The Rule of Law and the Importance of Procedure“. These benefits that accrue primarily to the parties affected by administrative decisions.

But other benefits that are expected to be provided by more elaborate administrative procedures will accrue more widely. There are good governance benefits, for example, resulting from insofar as administrative procedures leading to more, or better, information being taken into account by decision-makers, and this, in turn, translating into more rounded and sensible decisions being made, into local knowledge displacing or at least supplementing the preconceptions of bureaucratic planners. There are Rule of Law benefits from the laws are enforced in a non-arbitrary way, by non-biased officials ― at least provided that the laws are minimally decent. There are even democratic benefits, insofar as voters want those laws enacted by legislatures to exist and be enforced in accordance with their terms (a big, and often unwarranted assumption, to be sure).

And so, to repeat, the question for those who are in charge of desigining administrative procedures is how to balance the costs and the benefits. One general point is that, as with much else, the marginal cost of “the elaboration of procedure safeguards” goes up, while the marginal benefit that it produces goes down. Some elementary duty to appraise a person subject to an administrative procedure of what is going on and an opportunity to make written submissions is likely not to be especially onerous on the either the administration or the affected party, while providing a substantial gain (in terms of making the affected party feel better, of leading to more accurate decisions, etc) over a bureaucrat deciding on a whim in his or her office. The gain from moving from a written procedure to an oral hearing with lawyers and cross-examination may well be less, though it might still be significant ― in some cases (for example, when credibility is in issue), while the cost may well be greater. The gain from having an appeal procedure is likely to be less still: if the decision-maker at first instance was competent, most of his or her decisions will be acceptable, even if the appellate process can improve on them somewhat. For any given decision, there is a point where the costs of additional process will outweigh the benefits. The trick is to find this point, or something near enough to it.

One cannot, I suspect, meaningfully generalize much beyond that, and the courts are right to emphasize the case-by-case nature of the inquiry into the duty of fairness. Different kinds of decisions will have different costs and benefits. Some parties are better able to bear their share of the costs than others. Some decisions are so routine that additional procedural safeguards will yield little advantage. Some decisions are preliminary and defects can be rectified at a later stage.

The trouble is, to repeat, that costs and benefits are both spread among different people and groups of people. It may be that adding or withholding process will provide benefits to some while imposing costs on others. How to balance that is not obvious, to put it mildly. No one group involved in designing administrative procedures ― legislatures, the administration itself, and the courts ― may have a very good understanding of the impacts of their decisions, although the courts typically consider themselves experts in the matter.

What is more, all come to the design process with their own biases that make them overestimate certain costs or benefits. Legislatures are probably concerned to save money (at least all things being equal; sometimes, they have other interests in mind, as becomes apparent from considering the extraordinarily elaborate procedural scheme for teach discipline that was at issue in Furnell). Administrators probably want to save their time and effort. Both may underappreciate the benefits of procedural safeguards, both to affected parties and to society at large. Meanwhile, courts, insofar as they act at the behest of parties dissatisfied with individual decisions and bound to argue that the procedures followed were insufficiently elaborate may lose sight of the costs ― not only to the administration but also to other affected parties, who are not before them ― of additional procedure. Last but not least, it’s worth keeping in mind that lawyers, collectively, tend to benefit from more process. We are also trained to explain to people why more process is a good thing. And it often is! But we are not entirely disinterested when we say so.


The language of fair play and participation ― important though these things are ― should not lull us into losing sight of the unpleasant realities of administrative procedures. More is not always better. There are costs, and trade-offs. We must ― and can do no more than ― try to find the best balance, case by case, statutory scheme by statutory scheme, and labouring under all the severe limitations to which institutional design generally is subject. We cannot have have it all ― affordability and impartiality, expeditiousness and participation. The New Yorker’s cartoonist J.B. Handelsman, though he probably had a somewhat different issue in mind, put it well.

Inter vira enim loquuntur leges

The pandemic and delegation of power to the executive

Writing in La Presse earlier this week, Martine Valois raises some pointed questions about the extent of the powers the Québec government is exercising by various forms of delegated legislation, without control or even clear authorization by the National Assembly. Professor Valois’s op-ed is worth reading in full, but I would like to focus on one specific point she makes, about a decree that

allows [the government] to suspend orders given by the Superior Court in relation to supervised visits between a child and a parent. In our legal system, which is based on the Rule of Law and separation of powers, a minister cannot suspend a judicial decision. (Translation mine)

Maxime St-Hilaire has a response to Professor Valois over at À qui de droit, which is also worth reading. He is sympathetic on the whole, but on the specific point I am highlighting here, he disagrees. Professor St-Hilaire points out that “incompatible legislation can modify, suspend, or annul the effects of a judgment”, (translation mine here and below) and it is far from certain that this power cannot be delegated to the executive. Professor St-Hilaire points to cases such as In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150 and the Chemicals Reference, [1943] SCR 1, which accept “imprecise delegation of extremely broad powers ‘of a legislative nature’ to the executive, provided that such legislation can be revoked, and all the more so in an emergency situation”. This power is subject to constitutional limits, arising notably out of the federal division of powers, the protected jurisdiction of superior courts, and the constitutional amendment formula, but none are relevant here.

My own, tentative, view is somewhere in between those of Professors Valois and St-Hilaire. I’m not convinced that the principles of the Rule of Law, let alone separation of powers, can be applied to as to generate a legal prohibition on the delegation of a power to suspend or override court orders. At the same time, however, I think there is a strong case to be made for the proposition that such delegations should not easily be read into general legislative provisions, and that the specific provision invoked by the Québec government does not in fact authorize it to suspend court orders.

I think it is reasonably clear that, in application of the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, legal rights determined by the judgment of a court can be modified by statute. And it is also clear that, subject to exceptional limitations (notably those in relation to taxation which I recently discussed here), legislatures can delegate their power to change the law to the executive. Is the power to modify rights fixed by court order an exception to this general rule? As readers will recall, I am more open to the possibility of constitutional principles producing specific legal effects, including invalidating some legislative provisions, than many other scholars. But I am not convinced that such an exception can be derived from the principles Professor Valois invokes. No doubt the Rule of Law counsels against upending court orders, but like the more general requirement of legal stability, this is probably not an absolute rule. And no doubt separation of powers says that the executive should not adjudicate disputes, but this is not what is going on here: court orders are suspended, in blanket fashion rather than case-by-case, and will, presumably, then be reinstate, in blanket fashion too.

But while this disposes of the suggestion that there is an absolute, constitutional prohibition on delegating a power to interfere with court orders, the question of whether a given delegation actually accomplishes this is a separate one. The Québec government’s authority to suspend the effect of court judgments is aid to rest on the residual clause in section 123 of the Public Health Act. Section 123 provides that “while the public health emergency is in effect, the Government … may, without delay and without further formality” take a certain number of measures “to protect the health of the population”. Seven types of measures are enumerated, from compulsory vaccination, to closures, quarantines, and evacuations, to building works and expenditures. The residual clause, section 123(8), follows this enumeration, empowering the government to “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population”. The question, then, is whether this broadly-worded, but residual, provision, authorizes the government to suspend court orders.

It is true, as Professor St-Hilaire says, that “imprecise delegation of extremely broad powers” is possible under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gray and Chemicals. But these cases do not stand for the proposition that imprecise delegation must always be taken to enable the government to do whatever it wants. In both, the Court was at least prepared to entertain the possibility that the powers claimed by the executive had not been validly delegated. Both cases concerned the interpretation of a provision of the War Measures Act which granted vast powers to the executive to:

do and authorize such acts and things, and make from time to time such orders and regulations, as [the Governor in Council] may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada; and for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms, it is hereby declared that the powers of the Governor in Council shall extend to all matters coming within the classes of subjects hereinafter enumerated… 

In Gray, the issues were, first, whether this was a “Henry VIII clause”, empowering the executive to make regulations that override statutes and, second, whether the subjects of the regulations made under this provision had to be of a similar nature to those enumerated. The majority of the Supreme Court held that the opening part of this provision was broad enough to serve a Henry VIII clause, while the proviso in the second part ousted the application of the ejusdem generis presumption. In Chemicals, the main issue was whether the power delegated by Parliament to the Governor in Council could further be delegated to officials. The Court held that it could, because the power was so sweeping that it was a necessary implication that it would, in part, by exercised by others.

Section 123 of Québec’s Public Health Act is not an exact equivalent to the provision of the War Measures Act interpreted in Gray and Chemicals. Indeed, its structure is almost the opposite. The War Measures Act provided a broad initial delegation to do anything the executive “may … deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada”, followed by a set of examples said, in Gray, to be not so much illustrative as “marginal” cases for which Parliament thought it expedient to dispel possible doubt. Section 123, by contrast, starts by enumerating a series of specific measures the government is authorized to take, followed by the residual clause in section 123(8). The enumerated measures are the obvious, central examples of a government might need to do in a public health emergency, and there is no language ousting the application of the ejusdem generis presumption. If anything, given this difference in statutory language, Gray arguably provides support for an argument a contrario for the proposition that the residual clause is not to be read as broadly as the War Measures Act delegation. If the Québec legislature really wanted to delegate “extremely broad powers” to the executive, it would have done so differently.

But there is more. Gray and Chemicals are good law so far as they explain the general ability of Parliament to delegate broad powers (including Henry VIII powers and the ability to subdelegate) to the executive. But in another respect, there is a strong argument to be made for the proposition that the law has moved on. In Gray, only Chief Justice Fitzpatrick referred to the argument that “the powers conferred by” the War Measures Act “were not intended to authorize the Governor-in-council to legislate … so as to take away a right … acquired under a statute”, but he easily rejected it. The issue did not arise in Chemicals. But the idea that authority to interfere with existing legal rights must be granted clearly if not expressly, that it will not be readily inferred from open-ended provisions delegating power to the executive, known as the principle of legality, has been much developed in the last few decades. The development has gone further in the United Kingdom than in Canada, but Justice Cromwell’s concurring reasons in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, unchallenged by any of his colleagues, provide at least some support for the proposition that it is in fact part of Canadian law.

There is, therefore, a serious argument to be made for the proposition that while interference with court orders may be authorized, it needs to be authorized clearly. An “imprecise and broad” delegation, let alone a residual clause following an enumeration of subjects that have nothing to do with court orders, is not enough. There is, of course, no precedent directly on point, and the argument I am advancing here is just that. However, as for example Lord Sumption explained in his Reith Lectures (which I summarized here), it is quite proper for courts, even on a limited view of their power that disclaims substantive review of public policy, to ensure that the legislature has squarely confronted the implications of exorbitant powers it grants the executive (or indeed other unusual consequences that may result from its enactments).

As both Professors Valois and St-Hilaire note, the Rule of Law tends not to fare well in real and perceived emergencies. The Rule of Law is, above all, an ideal, and in such times ideals to be disregarded. Its protection as a matter of positive constitutional law is limited. As a result, contrary to what Professor Valois suggests, I do not think the principle can serve as a categorical bar to legislatively authorized interference with court orders.

At the same time, however, the Rule of Law should not be sold short. At a minimum, it requires courts to read legislation ― even emergency legislation ― carefully, and not to find in it powers beyond those actually given by legislatures. But, more than that, the principle of legality suggests that when a legislature wants to interfere with the ideal of the Rule of Law, it must at least understand what it is doing and even, perhaps, be prepared to pay the political price for it.

Ministers of Truth

A proposal to criminalize epidemic-related “misinformation” is dangerous

The CBC’s Elizabeth Thompson reports on a rather startling development: the federal government is, apparently, giving serious thought to introducing censorship to discussions of the present plague. More specifically, there is talk of “legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people”, based on a member of the UK House of Commons proposal “for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic”. At least some of the opposition seem keen, Ms. Thompson quoting an NDP Member of Parliament as claiming that “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public”, and reassuring us, I suppose, that “[t]his is not a question of freedom of speech”.

Actually, it is very much a question of freedom of speech. The Supreme Court invalidated an earlier prohibition on the speading of “false” news in R v Zundel, [1992] 2 SCR 731, and for good reason. Such prohibitions mean that government telling us what we are and what we are not allowed to say. Say something the government deems, in the words of the same honourable gentleman, to “interfere with the efforts of our frontline medical workers”, and suffer punishment. This is a limitation of the freedom of speech on any plausible definition of that concept, and for a Member of Parliament to pretend otherwise is not only an illustration of the politicians’ habitual mendacity but, more specifically, a rather ironic way of getting the public used to the idea of meting out punishment for statements that fail to live up to a standard of truth.

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. As concerning as recent stories of overzealous enforcement of “social distancing” regulations are, the problem is much more longstanding one. Readers may remember me blogging about a makeup artist prosecuted for gory videos involving no actual gore or violence whatsoever and Québec blogger who ― stupidly, to be sure ― mused about a mass shooting in the legislature, about the man who had to go all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal to quash a municipality’s attempt to prosecute him for a solitary, non-violent protest in the town square, and about the author and publisher of a novel prosecuted for a brief and not remotely titillating description of the rape of a child. And the provisions invoked in these cases are all well-known, and not directed at dealing with a crisis. There is every chance that an emergency anti-disinformation law will result in harsh and arbitrary prosecutions. Even if the accused are ultimately acquitted, they will have undergone considerable stress and expense in the meantime. And, again ― for what?

Even in the short term, the harm of a law against plague-related “disinformation” is likely to outweigh what little good it might do. But the real damage it will do will occur in the medium and long term, as it becomes a template for widespread criminalization of statements deemed to be contrary to this or that state policy. The British MP whose ideas are inspiring the Canadian proposals is apparently drawing his own inspiration from “Germany’s laws governing online hate speech or France’s legislation countering disinformation during election campaigns”. And the report itself notes that the federal

government set up an elaborate system to watch out for attempts to disrupt last year’s federal election through disinformation, including a committee that brought together several departments and a special group chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council to sound the alarm.

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

Common Good and Evil

Removing constitutional obstacles to power in the name of the common good is a dangerous, delusional idea

Last month, I wrote about what I termed “right-wing collectivism“, an emerging political doctrine that blends support for using the power of the state to advance traditional moral values, a hostility to free markets, and nationalism. Two texts published last week have prompted me to return to this subject: Adrian Vermeule’s instantly-notorious essay in The Atlantic urging a “robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation”, and Thomas Falcone’s guest post on this blog defending right-wing collectivism against my criticisms. Between them, they show this ideology’s incipient authoritarianism and incompatibility with any genuine belief in human dignity, freedom, and the Rule of Law.

Before proceeding further, I should note that one reaction people have had to Professor Vermeule’s argument has been to wonder whether he is simply trolling everyone. Sarah Isgur made this case quite forcefully on the Advisory Opinions podcast, for instance. And certainly his “response” to criticism of his article, over at Mirror of Justice, is trollish. But, as David French argued on Advisory Opinions, Professor Vermeule’s argument reflects a real, if eccentric, current of thought on the political right. Randy Barnett, in his reply to Professor Vermeule, also worries about “a disturbance in the originalist force by a few, mostly younger, socially conservative scholars and activists … disappointed in the results they are getting from a ‘conservative’ judiciary” in the United States. I too will treat the arguments of Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone seriously; all the more so since the rhetoric of combating epidemics of various ills, which they both employ, is, as Anne Appelbaum points out, already being used by the Hungarian dictatorship ― much admired, as Damon Linker has observed, on among American right-wing collectivists.


Professor Vermeule’s argument is, on its face, about constitutional interpretation. But he makes it clear from the outset that constitutional doctrine is, for him, only a tool in the service of politics. Addressing conservatives, he argues that they should give up on originalism, which many have supported in recent decades, because it has become “an obstacle” to the promotion of “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good”. Mr. Falcone too defends, if less articulately, an activist government acting, supposedly, in the service of “the highest good”.

What, then, is the “common good”, the banner under which Professor Vermeule wants to make a stand against and defeat what he says as “the relentless expansion of individualistic autonomy”? Generally speaking, it consists in

respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority.

In terms of substantive policies, the common good involves “cop[ing] with large-scale crises of public health and well-being—reading ‘health’ in many senses, not only literal and physical but also metaphorical and social”. It means “protect[ing] the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events”, “from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment”. It also means and “enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources”, and empowering “[u]nions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, … as will the traditional family”. 

Mr. Falcone too suggests that “when we evaluate public policy proposals we adjudicate their desirability against whether or not they help or harm our shared social goods, like the family”. Like Professor Vermeule, he abhors the idea that the state ought to be impartial as between competing conceptions of the good life, illustrating it with the example of a “state … ‘neutral’ as to whether people choose have [sic] jobs or sit around smoking cannabis”, which he claims “would be nonsensical to the average person on the street”.

Professor Vermeule outlines a fairly detailed agenda for constitutional law, put in the service of the common good, so understood. Its “main aim” would be “certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power” (an idea that Professor Vermeule declares “incoherent”). Mr. Falcone does not provide detailed prescriptions for the law, but he similarly rails against the idea, which he attributes to me (only half-correctly) “that power itself is an evil and thus there should be no power”. Professor Vermeule argues that, rather than limiting power, constitutional law must “ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well”. So too Mr. Falcone is adamant that “power is real and always will be”. The question is who wields it, and against whom.

Indeed, the ruler needs to be able to exercise this power

for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

To achieve this, constitutional language can be repurposed and read so as to suit the new agenda. More importantly, constitutional doctrine should be built not on textual provisions, but on insights into “the general structure of the constitutional order and in the nature and purposes of government”. And so, much of the existing constitutional jurisprudence ― in areas such as “free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters”, as well as “property rights and economic rights” ― will be “vulnerable”, “have to go”, “fall under the ax”, or indeed “be not only rejected but stamped as abominable, beyond the realm of the acceptable forever after”. (This latter sentence is reserved for “[t]he claim, from the notorious joint opinion in Planned Parenthood v Casey, that each individual may ‘define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life'”.)

This will enable government “to protect the public’s health and well-being … even when doing so requires overriding the selfish claims of individuals to private ‘rights'”.  Mr. Falcone echoes Professor Vermeule, denouncing what he describes as libertarians’ ” religious devotion of individual preference maximization and” desire to “ruthlessly supress [sic] any suggestion that time, tradition, community, or common sense may occasionally contain more wisdom than the proclivities of any one person”.


As noted at the outset, Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone are defending authoritarianism against the claims of freedom and the Rule of Law. They think that the government can identify moral objectives that deserve to be pursued, and the citizens ― or rather the subjects ― have no moral claim against conscription into this pursuit. At best, those who disagree with the objectives or with being made to serve them will come to see the error of their ways, as Professor Vermeule hopes. But if not they will simply be silenced. After all, politics is nothing more than a power struggle; to limit power is a fool’s hope ― the wise man knows that he must put himself into a position to exercise it. These disciples of Saruman are wrong at every step in their reasoning.

How are the governments to decide on their definitions of the common good, on the morality they will legislate? Professor Vermeule is coy about this ― in his essay in The Atlantic. But, as Professor Barnett notes, from his other writings, we know that he makes “an argument for the temporal power of the state to be subordinated to the spiritual power of the [Catholic] Church” (emphasis Professor Barnett’s). Mr. Falcone’s position, as best I can tell, is that moral the appropriate moral values are already widely shared. Now, these two are obviously at odds with one another: it is quite clear that, to the extent that Americans or Canadians share values, these values are certainly not those of the Vatican. This makes Professor Vermeule’s position all the more remarkable ― his understanding of the common good is rejected by an overwhelming majority of the people whose common good it purports to be. It can only be forced on them by a ruthless dictatorship. But Mr. Falcone’s position is no more attractive. If Canadians already agree on the importance of particular values, what’s stopping them from living accordingly? Why do they need to be coerced by the government into acting in accordance with what are supposedly their beliefs? If people already prefer working to “sit[ting] around smoking cannabis” ― as I agree with Mr. Falcone most probably do ―, then why does the state need to subsidize or force them to do so?

Of course, as Jonah Goldberg points out in a recent episode of his The Remnant podcast, even when people largely agree on values stated in the abstract, as they do on the proverbial motherhood and apple pie, it does not follow that they agree on any particular policies that purport to implement them. To value work may entail the sort of wage-support policies to which Mr. Falcone refers or it may, on the contrary, suggest repealing the minimum wage to avoid pricing people out of the labour market. Similarly, valuing families may well push us towards policies of which right-wing collectivists would disapprove, be they marriage equality that helps people form families in the first place, free trade that leaves more money in families’ pockets, or school choice ― even when it is exercised in favour of schools that transmit decidedly non-conservative values.

But, beyond such policy disagreements, important though they are, understandings of both the common good and of personal morality and the nature of the good life are subject to endless debate. Again, the only way to avoid this is to simply prevent the expression of all but the officially approved views, as Professor Vermeule recognizes on at least some points. If the debate is allowed to continue but the majority is empowered to impose its views on the minority, then, as Professor Barnett explains “[i]n the legislature, might will make right”. And as the price of political defeat is nothing short of one’s annihilation as a morally autonomous individual, prospective losers are unlikely to accept this outcome. As Professor Barnett further writes: “what happens to social peace as the government starts incarcerating the dissenting minority for failing to adhere to their moral duties? Religious war, anyone?”

This is why state neutrality as between the competing conceptions of the good life is both morally right and good policy. It allows people of divergent views to remain in a political community with one another, combining their efforts for those limited common purposes on which they agree, such as self-defence and the enforcement of a limited subset of universal rights, notably life, liberty, and property through of framework of stable and general laws. This framework allows individuals and freely-formed associations ― although it should certainly not allow coercive “[u]nions [and] guilds” ― to pursue their moral aims, including charitable and benevolent ones, with minimal interference on the part of the state. A liberal society is not one of “atomized” individuals with no ties to one another; but the ties that exist in it are a web spun by individuals themselves, rather than a chain forged by the state.

But is neutrality simply a delusion, as Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone both contend? In a sense, of course, they have a point. Not all law is based in morality ― as Lon Fuller explained, there is a very real element of fiat in law (he spoke of the common law, but the same goes for statute), in addition to reason or morality. But, to be sure, the basic norms of criminal law, and arguably contract, tort, and property law too, have moral foundations ― notably those universal and widely agreed-upon rights. Yet there is a fundamental difference between this sort of background law and legislation enacted for “the promotion of morality”, as Professor Vermeule puts it. The former, even if it has moral underpinnings, leaves individuals almost entirely free to choose the purposes to which they want to devote their lives and largely, although not fully, free to choose the means by which they pursue their purposes. The latter doesn’t ― its whole point is to shape and limit both the ends and the means available to individuals.

A related point is that neutrality as between conceptions of the good life is not a cover for the enforcement of a progressive moral orthodoxy as Mr. Falcone, in particular, claims, with his bizarre insistence that libertarians “will ruthlessly suppress” conservative ideas. (I would have thought that, if not my outspoken advocacy for freedom of expression and conscience ― including for the benefit of conservatives whom I personally find bigoted, like the Trinity Western University ― then at least the fact that Mr. Falcone is able to publish such a claim on the blog that I founded should be proof enough that this just isn’t so.) A neutral state knows and accepts that not all individuals, families, and communities will orient their lives towards self-actualization, let alone self-indulgence. Some will devote themselves to religion or to community; some may reject the value of autonomy and extol obedience. The neutral state faces some difficult questions at the margins ― notably about the limits, if any, to the capacity of such individuals, families, and communities to shape and control the lives of their children. But there is nothing paradoxical about, at least, a very strong presumption that adults get to shape their lives in ways they choose, regardless of official approval. Libertarianism is a philosophy of politics and government, not an ethical programme ― and it’s a philosophy of politics whose point is to reject the imposition of ethical programmes by the government.

Perhaps the belief that a libertarian or classically liberal neutral state will in fact impose its own values and ideology on dissenters is due to a confusion between liberalism and a progressivism that has sometimes borrowed its name but consistently rejected its ideals. This progressivism, which would impose its beliefs ― originally technocratic with an egalitarian or at least populist flavouring, more recently egalitarian with a technocratic or at least pseudoscientific streak ― is just another version of collectivism. Indeed, the right-wing collectivism promoted by Professor Vermeule and Mr. Falcone, with its deep distrust of free markets (whether in goods, services, labour, or capital) and, apparently, a rather Marxist belief in “the primacy of production over consumption”, to use Mr. Falcone’s words, is not so different from its left-wing cousin.

But the other apparent explanation is that ― once again similarly to left-wing collectivists, at least those of the Leninist persuasion ― right-wing collectivists have come to believe that “who, whom?” is the central question of politics. That is to say, they believe that politics is a race to seize power and use it to silence or eliminate opponents. If you don’t do it, then someone else will do it to you. (This strikes me, if I may say so despite not being Christian, as a rather odd view for people who supposedly believe in turning the other cheek to embrace, but what do I know?) Hence their insistence that limiting power is an absurd or pernicious idea, an insistence whose vehemence reminds me Bulgakov’s Pilate, hysterically yelling, in response to Yeshua’s statement that all power is violence and will one day vanish, that “[t]here never has been, is not, and never will be any power in this world greater or better for people than the power of the emperor Tiberius!” Hence also their rejection of or at least desire to severely curtail constitutional rights; hence their attacks even on civility in argument.

To my mind, this is a wrong and pernicious ― indeed, as Mr. Goldberg suggested, a borderline evil ― way of looking at politics. This is partly because no one is entitled to be the “who” in Lenin’s question, and partly on the prudential grounds summarized by Professor Barnett. But this is also because, as longtime readers will recall me insisting in a series of posts, power corrupts. Power is addictive, and character can only slow down, but not prevent the poisoning of a person’s heart by its exercise; power breeds fear and, as Yeshua said, violence; it also begets lies; it encourages people to cut moral corners, not asking themselves difficult questions; and it apparently damages the very brains of those unfortunate enough to exercise it. It may be that Yeshua was wrong and Pilate right, and that “the kingdom of truth and justice” where power is not needed “will never come”. But that should not stop us from acknowledging that power is an evil, if perhaps an unavoidable and even necessary one, and from recognizing that power is to be distrusted, not celebrated.

From this recognition there should proceed, as I repeatedly insisted in my posts on the corrupting effects of power, a further acknowledgement of the importance not just of moral but also of institutional and legal constraints on power. We must continue to work on what Jeremy Waldron describes as “Enlightenment constitutionalism” ― the project of structuring government so as to separate out and limit the power of those whom Professor Vermeule calls “the rulers” and empower citizens. This project recognizes the need for power but also its temptations and evils, and the fallibility of human beings in the face of these temptations and evils. As James Madison, in particular, reminds us, we should strive to so design our institutions as to make these human weaknesses work for us ― but we can only do so if we are acutely aware of them.

This project of Enlightenment constiutionalism includes, as I have argued in my comment on Professor Waldron’s article, entrenched and judicially enforceable constitutions, with their rules on federal division of powers and on individual rights. More specifically, I would argue that it must include originalism, because originalism gives such constitutions real bite ― it creates at least the possibility, although not the certainty, that they will be enforced consistently, rather than according to the subjective and mutable views of the judges who happen to be entrusted with enforcement from time to time. The alternative, “living constitutionalist” approach, which authorizes judges to re-write the constitution does not so much limit power as transfer it to the judiciary. While this may produce results that align with a liberal theory of good outcomes, this is a failure of the power-limiting Enlightenment constitutionalism project. Thus, contrary to Professor Vermeule’s claim, originalism isn’t just a rhetorical device or a rallying banner for legal conservatives, but a legal technique which, as part of the broader toolkit of the Rule of Law, all those who rightly want power to be constrained, be they conservatives, liberals, or social-democrats, should embrace.


Right-wing collectivism ― even when it tries to make itself palatable by adopting the rhetoric of the “common good” ― is an ideology of almost unfathomable hubris. Its proponents imagine themselves to be possessed of great truths and entitled to impose these truths, at gunpoint, on those who do not agree with them. They imagine that the lessons of history ― about the bitter strife that any such attempts engender, about the misery that their quasi-socialist policies always produce ― are not applicable to them. They imagine, above all, that they are immune to the corrupting effects of power. They wrong, indeed delusional. In its embrace of unfettered power, above all, their view of the common good is a recipe for untold evil.

None of that tells us much about how we, individually and within our families and freely chosen associations and networks, should live our lives. To repeat, libertarianism or liberalism are political philosophies, not personal ethics. In a very real sense, political philosophy is of secondary importance; getting it right can do no more than leave us free to get on with the stuff that really matters. But, as Mr. Goldberg argues, it is very important not to confuse these two realms. The government cannot love us (unless, of course, it is the government of Oceania). It cannot provide us with Dworkinian “concern and respect”. Right-wing collectivists are dangerously wrong to pretend otherwise.