Antigone in Hamilton

The confrontation between New Zealand legal system and a family trying to bury a dead husband/father is eerily like Sophocles’ tragedy

It’s the story of wanting to mourn and bury a family member, and being prevented from doing so by law, perhaps not an unreasonable law. It’s the story of breaking the law to do what one thinks is right, and of not only being punished for it but being scolded by a man self-righteously posing as the voice of his people. It’s an old story. It’s one of the oldest stories. It’s a story that’s 2500 years old.

No, wait. It’s a new story. It just happened in Hamilton. (The New Zealand Hamilton, that is.) Stuff reports that a mother and her children “had flown over from Brisbane after the children’s father suffered a stroke and died on July 20. … She said the children had watched their father take his last breaths on a video call”. On arrival in New Zealand, they were put in quarantine. They applied for a compassionate exemption to attend the funeral, but their application was denied on the basis that “their ‘circumstances were not exceptional'”. So they escaped. The mother and three children were quickly captured, but a 17-year-old boy made it from Hamilton to Auckland, and “was able to spend between three and four hours with his father’s body before he negotiated with police and was detained”. And hence the grandstanding in Hamilton Youth Court: 

All appeared in front of Judge Noel Cocurullo, who said that New Zealanders were “sick and tired” of quarantine breaches. “The New Zealand public would be gutted at your behaviour,” he told the family. “You know the rules required of you coming into the country. It’s most important you comply with the rules.”

The mother, though, is not impressed with this. She “told Stuff ‘[she] was doing what any other mother would have done for their children'”.

I’m not sure about “any”, but as Sophocles knew, she certainly has a point. He tells of Creon, the king of Thebes, prohibiting anyone on pain of death from giving the funeral rites to Polyneikes, who tried to bring an invading foreign army to the city. Polyneikes’ sister Antigone defied Creon’s edict and tried to bury her brother.

The resulting conversions, although fortunately not the ultimate outcome (spoiler alert: it’s a tragedy, so everybody dies) foreshadow the recent events quite uncannily. Creon, like Justice Cocurullo appeals to the public authority of the laws, and Antigone, like the mother here, trumps it with that of natural, pre-political obligation:

Creon: Knew’st thou the edicts which forbade these things?

Antigone: I knew them. Could I fail? Full clear were they.

Creon: And thou did’st dare to disobey these laws?

Antigone: Yes, for it was not Zeus who gave them forth,⁠
Nor Justice, dwelling with the Gods below,
Who traced these laws for all the sons of men;
Nor did I deem thy edicts strong enough,
That thou, a mortal man, should’st over-pass
The unwritten laws of God that know not change.
They are not of to-day nor yesterday,
But live for ever, nor can man assign
When first they sprang to being. Not through fear
Of any man’s resolve was I prepared
Before the Gods to bear the penalty
Of sinning against these.

And Creon, like Justice Cocurullo, insists that the people are with him, not with the one who defies him. She, though, begs to differ:

Creon: Of all the race of Cadmos thou alone
Look’st thus upon the deed.

Antigone: ⁠They see it too
As I do, but their tongue is tied for thee.

Creon: Art not ashamed against their thoughts to think?⁠

Antig: There is nought base in honouring our own blood.

And, is it turns out, it is probably Antigone who is right about the state of public opinion. Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, challenges his father:

Haemon: ‘Tis my lot to watch
What each man says or does, or blames in thee,
For dread thy face to one of low estate,⁠
Who speaks what thou wilt not rejoice to hear.
But I can hear the things in darkness said,
Ηοw the whole city wails this maiden’s fate,

I won’t pretend to know where the state of public opinion in New Zealand lies on this story. And, wherever it lies, this should not matter for Justice Cocurullo’s verdict. We have the advantage of separation of powers over the Thebans, and this means that our judges must apply the law as it is ― and it is, then, for the Crown and its responsible advisors to exercise the prerogative of mercy in the appropriate cases. I won’t even pretend to say whether this is such a case.

But what I think I can say is that Justice Cocurullo, and other judges ― not just in New Zealand ― should not be so quick to saddle their moral high horse. Another, more recent work of literature comes to mind ― Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island (one of the novels in the Master and Commander series), of all things, where Dr Maturin, I believe, has this to say:

judges … not only are … subjected to the evil influence of authority but also to that of righteous indignation, which is even more deleterious. Those who judge and sentence criminals address them with an unbridled, vindictive righteousness that would be excessive in an archangel and that is indecent to the highest degree in one sinner speaking to another, and he defenceless. Righteous indignation every day, and publicly applauded!

And if there is one thing worse still than righteous indignation on own’s behalf, it is that on behalf of others ― who, as often as not, will not actually share in it. That is as true now as it was 2500 years ago.

A Citizen’s Guide to the Rule of Law

Introducing a chapter on the nature and importance of the Rule of Law

Last year, Peter Biro of Section1 asked me to contribute a chapter on the Rule of Law for the book he was putting together. The book, Constitutional Democracy under Stress: A Time for Heroic Citizenship, is going to be available in the second week of August, but, with Mr. Biro’s kind permission, you can read my contribution, “A Citizen’s Guide to the Rule of Law“, now ― and for free. It’s meant to be a relatively concise and accessible introduction to the concept of the Rule of Law and to the main strands of scholarship about it, as well as an examination of whether Canadian law actually lives up to the Rule of Law’s requirements. Here is an abstract:

This chapter sets out, for both a generalist and a legally trained readership, the basic contours of the Rule of Law as a legal and political ideal, with a special focus on the ways in which ideal is understood and implemented in the Canadian legal system. It begins by explaining why law is necessary, and why it must bind both government and individuals. A review of three key themes around which the understanding of the Rule of Law is often organized in scholarship follows. The first of these themes is the form that the law, especially legislation, takes. The second is the process by which law is made and enforced by legislatures, the courts, and the administrative state. The third is the possibility that the Rule of Law may impose constraints on the substance of the laws, especially in order to protect fundamental individual rights. The chapter concludes by arguing that adherence to the Rule of Law is the only way in which the exercise of power can be contained and the arbitrariness inherent in it in the absence of law can be counteracted.

The reason for writing this chapter (other than that Mr. Biro asked me to do it) is that too many people ― up to and including at least a couple of Supreme Court judges ― don’t seem to understand what the Rule of Law is and why it matters. I write in the introduction, the Rule of Law is paired with “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and

there is indeed something theological about the reverence with which some lawyers speak of the Rule of Law, and … it too is an elusive and mysterious idea—and one, moreover, that induces as much impatience in those not converted to it as any religious dogma. (104)

The reason for this impatience is that, however dimly they understand it, the Rule of Law’s detractors ― from absolutist kings to populist politicians to the judges who would abet the ones or the others ― realize that it is a break on the exercise of political power. As I explain in the conclusion of the chapter,

It is precisely the constraint that law represents that so infuriated James I … and that infuriates his spiritual descendants, as impatient as he of limits on their ability to do what they are convinced is right and necessary or just. Be they administrators on a mission to rationalize and organize society, do-gooders on a quest for equality, or patriots in pursuit of national greatness, they resent their inability to act without prior authorization; they chafe at the need to give those unwilling to be organized or equalized opportunities to challenge their commands; they would disregard ancient rights in the pursuit of the greater good. They wish they could do what they believe is necessary, right, and just. (120)

Yet power, as I have explained here, here, here, here, and here, corrupts. It must be kept in check. The Rule of Law is necessary for us to be able to do so. It is, in a real sense, a victim of its own success: people in Western democracies have forgotten what life without the Rule of Law is like, so they speculate about its being dispensable. But no one among those engaged in such speculation would want to live without the Rule of Law. If it sometimes gets in the way of their, and our, good intentions, this is a price well worth paying. I hope you read my chapter to understand, or better yet to simply remind yourselves, why this is.

The Mirror and the Light

Thoughts on finally finishing the last part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy

More determined readers finished it long ago, but I only did so yesterday, and thought I would offer some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final book of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I suppose I should say “spoiler alert”, but of course there aren’t any spoilers there. We know exactly how the book ends. (And indeed I have blogged about a straight-up biography of Cromwell here.) For Dame Hilary’s readers, it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.

And what a journey it is! The book is well over 850 pages long. To be honest, it really should have been two books. I went into it a huge fan of Dame Hilary and, to anticipate, I come out of it a huge fan still; but my commitment has been sorely tested. There is, inevitably, a mind-boggling amount of detail about the events of Cromwell’s years of power and then his downfall ― indeed, only a sample of the events, as some strands of the historical Cromwell’s story are worn down to barely perceptible threads. But, in addition, the narrative gets lost in meditations ― Cromwell’s or Dame Hilary’s narrator’s, it is characteristically hard to tell; meditations on time and place, on fate and memory, on life and death. It may well be that this sense of being caught in a maze of events, perhaps inconsequential, and reveries, likely fateful ― in a sprawling house full of hidden recesses and secret passages and dark basements filled with secreted relics and not a few skeletons, like Cromwell’s Austin Friars ― is exactly what Dame Hilary wants her reader to feel. (She gives an account of her thoughts on these things in Reith Lectures, which I highly recommend.) But, for all the mastery with which it is delivered, and for all the depth of the thoughts ― to some of which I return below ―, it is sometimes too much.

But, as the story breaks out of the maze at last, in the last 150 or so pages, and speeds up to its inevitable conclusion on Tower Hill, its telling is at a level that few writers can even hope to ever achieve. The reader knows what is coming, of course: the fall, the Tower, the scaffold. Denied the possibility to surprise, Dame Hilary must entrance the reader; she sets herself a seemingly impossible task: how can you tell a man’s execution, especially when her writing, as always, is very much inside her character’s mind, this inimitable hybrid between a third- and a first-person narration that the readers of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will remember? Well, you and I couldn’t, but Dame Hilary can. In the real Cromwell’s life much remains unknown, caught in the record only as a reflection or a shadow. For Dame Hilary’s readers, it will be impossible to imagine that events unfolded in a way different than the one she conjectures, or indeed that Cromwell’s thoughts were not those she imputes to him.


Let me say something about these thoughts, and others that Dame Hilary explores. I don’t imagine that she meant to write about our current moment in particular. For one thing that would be diminishing what is really a timeless literary achievement. For another, as brilliant as she is at imagining the past, I don’t suppose that Dame Hilary can see the future, and after all she worked on The Mirror and the Light a long time, starting when the world was still a different, and in some ways a more innocent place. So, to repeat, the book is no allegory for the present. Yet so much of it seems to be about 2020, not 1540.

Of course there are meditations on the law. Dame Hilary studied law, and her Cromwell is very much a lawyer. (So are the protagonists of her excellent early novel about the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety ― Danton, Dumoulin, and Robespierre.) There is this, on retroactive law, and on due process more generally:

A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up. ‘Bear in mind his Majesty’s remarkable foresight, at the trial of the late queen. He knew the sentence before the verdict was in.’

And process is again all-important at the end, as Cromwell is arrested and charged with fanciful, made-up transgressions: “‘Valentines? Sorcerers? Any jury would laugh you out of court.’ But, he thinks, there will be no jury. There will be no trial. They will pass a bill to put an end to me. I cannot complain of the process. I have used it myself.”

In the end, Dame Hilary’s Cromwell becomes a sort of critical legal scholar:

Rats have eaten the laws of ancient times. They relish fish-glue and vellum; anything that was once alive, they will eat it, and then out of habit, they will eat what is dead; from the margins they chew their way in, to the secret history of England. It is the glory of the men who have worked with Cromwell that instead of merely cursing the vermin they have patched, they have mended, they have stretched a point to replace a gnawed vowel; they have been ready to substitute a digested phrase with a clause that will help the crown. But what has it availed? He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.

Perhaps what we have come to call the Rule of Law is better, then.

Beyond law, there are reflections on power ― princely power, of course, but I think we must ask how they apply to power exercised not only by monarchs but also by electorates or even by online mobs. In the very beginning, at the execution of Anne Boleyn, Cromwell turns on the Duke of Suffolk, who demands to know why he did not force Anne’s father to witness it. He insists that he must protect the King from being needlessly cruel: “[i]f you love the king … , pay some heed to his soul. One day he will stand before God and answer for every subject.” But can a man who uses and abuses the law as Dame Hilary’s Cromwell does truly say that he pays heed to the King’s soul? He does not seem to ask himself these questions, not until it is too late and he realizes that for “ten years I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper”. But we must.

The sovereign, perhaps, is not like the rest of us:

is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of the dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away. His blood is not his own, but ancient blood. His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake. His forefathers interrupt his sleep to castigate, to warn, to shake their heads in mute disappointment.

An electorate, a people, is not human either. It too is all these things, perhaps; it too is haunted.

Against power, there is also disobedience, and revolt. The Pilgrimage of Grace is at least a better-sounding name than populism, but is there much difference ― in reality, or in how those in power think about these things? The rebels think, or those who write about them say they think, that

[t]here was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.

Their leaders tell them that Henry has made himself God. Now if a child falls sick between Truro and Newcastle, they lay it at the king’s door; if a well dries, if the butter spoils, if a bucket leaks: everything that is out of joint with them, from a fall of hailstones to a cricked neck, they blame on the court and council. Their grievances run like streams underground, welling up from the Scots border to Dover, till the whole land is flooded with nonsense.

Finally, a constant theme in The Mirror and the Light, and an especially relevant one just now, is what can be said. After the run-in with Suffolk, Cromwell wonders if he has gone too far in rebuking the duke, but wonders: “if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” He also tells his son, shortly thereafter, that “[i]t is not wrong to speak your mind. On selected occasions. They make it painful for you. But you must do it.” Yet as the story unfolds, the selection of the occasions grows ever stricter. He tells the King’s unloved, suspected daughter Mary “to compromise her conscience” to get back in his good graces. He knows that “of course she will despise herself afterwards. But that is the price. … [T]ime will ease the sting of it.” Dogma is uncertain and unsteady, but also deadly.

Corpus Christi is a miracle. It is a mystery. Once consecrated, the host contains your God, alive: the wine is his blood. You cannot hope to understand it but you must believe it. And if you fail to believe it you must keep quiet, because your failure can kill you.

Even the archbishop of Canterbury is afraid:

“[O]nce the bill is passed, none of us will preach on the Blessed Sacrament, its nature. We dare not. We would not know what it is safe to say, without being tripped by the law and cited for heresy.” This is what the king calls concord: an enforced silence.

Henry VIII has disciples in our own time, and people are afraid of them as the Bishop Robert Barnes was afraid of the enforcers of Henry’s shape-shifting orthodoxy: “It’s not his faith, but his temperament that will fail. He is not Luther. Here he stands: till Gardiner knocks him across the room.” Others too feel they “are living on borrowed time, in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert; … sleep[ing] lightly and some nights hardly at all.” In the end, Cromwell decides that he cannot speak the truth, certainly nothing like the whole truth, at his own turn on the block. For the sake of his son, his nephew, his friends, he speaks little, and says less.

A little earlier, as he awaits his execution, Cromwell imagines Heaven and Hell. “When he pictures Hell he can only think of a cold place, a wasteland, a wharf, a marsh, a landing stage; Walter” ― his abusive father ―

distantly bawling, then the bawling coming nearer. That is how it will be – not pain itself, but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn’t help and didn’t even know was wrong; and the discord in Hell will be constant, repeating for ever and ever, a violent argument being carried on in the next room.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


Anyway, read the book. Skip the middle 500 pages if you must, but do read it. You won’t be sorry.

Keeping Faith

A master class in public meaning originalism, delivered by the US Supreme Court’s Justice Elena Kagan

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered its decision in Chiafalo v Washington, upholding the constitutionality of a state statute imposing fines on “faithless” presidential electors ― those who do not vote for the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. The majority judgment, given by Justice Kagan for a seven-judge majority (and indeed unanimous on some key points), should be of some interest to Canadian readers for what it says about constitutional interpretation and, in particular, about the role of conventions and practice. As others, notably Josh Blackman over at the Volokh Conspiracy, have noted, Justice Kagan’s opinion is a thoroughly, and intelligently, originalist ― which should remind skeptics of originalism inclined to dismiss it as a partisan affectation that it is not.


As Justice Kagan explains,

Every four years, millions of Americans cast a ballot for a presidential candidate. Their votes, though, actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each State appoints based on the popular returns. Those few “electors” then choose the President. (1)

But what is it that ensures that the vote of the Electors is aligned with that of the electorate? The text of the Constitution of the United States says little on this. Article II, §1, cl 2 provides that

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Nothing here suggests that the Electors are bound to follow the popular vote; indeed, nothing here suggests that a popular vote need be held at all. At least some of the framers of the Constitution expected the Electors to exercise their personal discernment in choosing the President. Alexander Hamilton’s vision, in Federalist No. 68, is the best known. He hoped that the President would be chosen

by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

But this is not how things worked out. As Justice Kagan puts it, “[a]lmost immediately, presidential electors became trusty transmitters of other people’s decisions”. (13) This was the result of the development of political parties, not anticipated ― indeed feared ― when the Constitution was being drafted. George Washington was elected without meaningful opposition. But, once he retired, presidential elections were contested by parties. As Justice Kagan explains, initially

state legislatures mostly picked the electors, with the majority party sending a delegation of its choice to the Electoral College. By 1832, though, all States but one had introduced popular presidential elections. … At first, citizens voted for a slate of electors put forward by a political party, expecting that the winning slate would vote for its party’s presidential (and vice presidential) nominee in the Electoral College. By the early 20th century, citizens in most States voted for the presidential candidate himself; ballots increasingly did not even list the electors.

The alignment between the popular and the electoral votes (within each State, of course, there being, as we know, no necessary alignment at the national level) was thus secured by a combination of State law and partisanship ― but also by what looks, to an observer based in a Westminster-type constitutional system, an awful lot like constitutional convention. Law allowed partisans to be appointed as electors, and partisanship motivated them to vote for their party’s candidate. But so too did a sense of propriety, of moral obligation. This moral obligation, explains why those electors who, from time to time, broke with their party were called “faithless”. There is normally nothing “faithless”, except to a rabid partisan, about putting country ahead of party. But something greater than partisanship is at stake in the presidential election ― nothing less, indeed, than democratic principle itself. And “convention” is what Westminster systems call the settled practice of constitutional actors rooted in constitutional principle.

Some States, though, felt that relying on convention was not enough, and legislated to back up the electors’ moral duty with a threat of punishment. According to Mr Chiafalo, they could not do so constitutionally. After all, the Constitution’s framers meant for them to exercise their own judgment, guided but not fettered by that of the voters. And the very vote “elector” connotes the exercise of a personal choice.


Not so, says Justice Kagan. For her, “the power to appoint an elector (in any manner) includes power to condition his appointment—that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect”. (9) A “demand that the elector actually live up to his pledge, on pain of penalty” (10) is nothing more than a condition of appointment, which nothing in the Constitution’s text prohibits. Justice Thomas, concurring (with the agreement of Justice Gorsuch), disagrees with this approach. For him, imposing such conditions is not part of the original meaning of the power of choosing the “manner” of the electors’ appointment. Instead, the States’ ability to do so comes from the structure of the Constitution, which preserves their powers unless expressly limited, and from the Tenth Amendment, which codifies the same principle. Justice Thomas makes some compelling points, but this disagreement is not so important for Canadian readers ― or, for that matter, for practical purposes.

What matters most is Justice Kagan’s firm rejection of an appeal to the purported authority of the Framers’ supposed expectation that “the Electors’ votes [would] reflect their own judgments”. (12) This rejection is firmly rooted in original public meaning originalism:

even assuming other Framers shared that outlook, it would not be enough. Whether by choice or accident, the Framers did not reduce their thoughts about electors’ discretion to the printed page. All that they put down about the electors was what we have said: that the States would appoint them, and that they would meet and cast ballots to send to the Capitol. Those sparse instructions took no position on how independent from—or how faithful to—party and popular preferences the electors’ votes should be. (12-13)

This is a great passage. For one thing, it refers to an important reason for being suspicious about the intentions and expectations of constitutional framers: they might not all have agreed with those whose views are on the record. For another, there is an allusion, which I personally find delightful, to Hamilton’s rather hubristic suggestion, in the first paragraph of the Federalist No. 1 that the U.S. Constitution would

decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Justice Kagan understands, as Hamilton did not (or at least affected not to) that choice and accident are not so easily disentangled, even in constitutional reflection. Most importantly, though, Justice Kagan drives home the point that “thoughts” “not reduce[d] … to the printed page”― or, more precisely, the enacted page ― do not bind. Justice Thomas specifically concurs with the majority on this point, explaining that “the Framers’ expectations aid our interpretive inquiry only to the extent that they provide evidence of the original public meaning of the Constitution. They cannot be used to change that meaning.” For all its reputation of being incorrigibly politically divided the Supreme Court of the United States is unanimous on this.

Justice Kagan goes on to make another argument, which is less straightforwardly originalist. She appeals to what she regards as the settled practice ― and what I have suggested we may regard as the convention ― of electors casting their ballots only to ratify the voters’ choice, rather than to make their own. “From the first”, Justice Kagan points, “States sent them to the Electoral College … to vote for preselected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. And electors (or at any rate, almost all of them) rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role.” (14)

It is not quite clear how much weight this should carry on a proper originalist interpretation. In a post at Volokh, Keith Whittington suggests (based on an article which Justice Kagan actually cited ― for another point) that

we should think of this tradition of pledged electors as a “constitutional construction” that is consistent with the constitutional text but not required by the constitutional text. …  But that by itself does not tell us whether such constructions can be leveraged to empower state legislatures to punish or replace faithless electors or whether this longstanding norm has fixed the meaning of the text in a way that cannot be altered by future changes in our shared practices. How constitutional text and tradition interact is a difficult conceptual problem, and the Court’s opinion highlights that problem without doing very much to explain how it ought to be resolved.

Indeed, I’m not sure that the argument from practice or convention has a great deal of weight for Justice Kagan: she might only be making it to turn the tables on Mr. Chiafalo, who invoked the (quite exceptional, as Justice Kagan shows) example of past “faithless electors” to argue that it proves that the Constitution protected their autonomy.

But Justice Kagan does suggest what I think is a good reason why the argument should have weight in the particular circumstances of this case: the practice, and arguably even the convention, forms part of the context to a constitutional text ― namely, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, “grew out of a pair of fiascos” (14) at the elections of 1796 and 1800. Prior to it, electors cast two votes; the candidate who received the most became president, and the next one, vice-president. In 1796 the top two candidates were “bitter rivals” (14) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, Jefferson, his party’s intended presidential candidate, was tied by its intended vice-president, Aaron Burr, as the electors who supported the one all supported the other. To prevent this reoccurring, the presidential and vice-presidential ballots were split. Justice Kagan points out that, in this way, “[t]he Twelfth Amendment embraced” party politics, “both acknowledging and facilitating the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting”. (14)

The issue isn’t quite the same as the one that, as I argue in a recent article about which I blogged here, the Supreme Court of Canada faced in the Senate Reform Reference, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. There, the original public meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 had to be established by referring to conventions. In Chiafolo, conventions are not necessary to establish the original meaning of the Twelfth Amendment. But it is arguably fair to say that the Twelfth Amendment implicitly ratifies them, or takes them into account; while it might have been written as it was in the absence of conventions, the fact that is that it was written as it was because the conventions existed. As a result, Justice Kagan’s appeal to practice, or to convention, is, at least, less troubling here than it might have been in the absence of something like the Twelfth Amendment.


All in all, then, her opinion is an interesting demonstration of what good originalism looks like ― and also of the fact that it can be practiced by a judge who is nobody’s idea of a conservative or a libertarian, and with the agreement of her colleagues, including those whose ideological leanings are quite different from hers. Justice Kagan may or may not be correct: at the Originalism Blog, Michael Ramsay argues that she is not. But that does not matter so much to me. As Asher Honickman recently argued in response to another American decision, textualist ― and originalist ― interpretive methods do not promise complete legal certainty, but they are still valuable because (among other things) they narrow the scope of possible disagreements, and do provide more certainty than alternatives. Justice Kagan and her colleagues show us how to keep faith with a constitutional text. We should pay attention.

Happy Canada Day!

The anniversary of an imperfect constitution drafted by imperfect men is well worth celebrating

Canada Day, like most other days it seems, comes at a bad time this year. A time when symbols of the history ― be they flags, monuments, names of buildings ― are objects of suspicion at best, and not infrequently unqualified vitriol, seems ill-suited to a celebration of what is now more than a sesquicentennial constitution. A constitution that is stubbornly monarchical in form, politically incorrect in wording, and dependent for its existence, livelihood, and amendment on old-fashioned procedures of parliamentary democracy rather than on heady revolutionary movements.

But we do not get to choose anniversaries, and perhaps this is a useful reminder that we do not get to choose everything, that there can be no such thing as a tabula rasa, and that demands for one can only be the products of ignorance or bad faith. This is not an apology for conservatism. As I have said before, I am no no conservative. Much in the world, and in Canada, should change. But the idea that everything can change, and that everything can be just as we ― whoever “we” are ― wish it to be, is unserious; indeed it is perhaps the nec plus ultra of solipsism.

The framers of our constitution understood this, and the constitution’s existence is proof of this, as of their wisdom and humility more generally. They were no doubt flawed in various ways, as men always were, still are, and ever will be. And in some ways we can, legitimately I hope, say that we are better than they. But we are certainly no better, on the whole, if we do not practice the virtues that were theirs: humility, as I have already said, and openness to compromise; magnanimity and willingness to live and let live; above all, perhaps, determination to hope for the future more than to dwell on the past.

Let George Brown’s words, spoken on February 8, 1865, during the Confederation debates, be our inspiration in this time of acute awareness of the imperfections of our institutions and the world around us:

No constitution ever framed was without defect; no act of human wisdom was ever free from imperfection; no amount of talent and wisdom and integrity combined in preparing such a scheme could have placed it beyond the reach of criticism. And the framers of this scheme had immense special difficulties to overcome. We had the prejudices of race and language and religion to deal with; and we had to encounter all the rivalries of trade and commerce, and all the jealousies of diversified local interests. To assert, then, that our scheme is without fault, would be folly.

It was necessarily the work of concession; not one of the thirty-three framers but had, on some points, to yield his opinions; and, for myself, I freely admit that I struggled earnestly, for days together, to have portions of the scheme amended. But, Mr. Speaker, admitting all this—admitting all the difficulties that beset us—admitting frankly that defects in the measure exist …  I believe it will accomplish all, and more than all, that we, … ever hoped to see accomplished. 

Canada itself stands as the greatest monument to these framers, and they could wish for no better. We are lucky to have it as their bequest. We can and must improve it, but today, of all days, we can and must simply be grateful for it. Happy Canada Day!

The Ivory Tower Prisoner’s Dilemma

Why law journals are useless, and why we can’t do without them

“Are [scholarly law] journals even useful nowadays?” Francis Lévesque asked this question in response to a Twitter discussion about the ideological problems that plague the system of peer review, which screens articles published in such journals pretty much everywhere except in the United States. Since I already complained about these problems in a recent post, I might as well reproduce a slightly expanded version of my answer. In short, I think that journals are useless, but they remain, and probably will remain, indispensable due to academia’s collective action problem.

Why are journals fundamentally useless? Because nobody actually reads them. I don’t mean that people don’t read what is in the journals. Well, often, they don’t. But sometimes they do. And not just academics, though admittedly that’s often the audience for which scholars write. At least some articles attract the attention of practising lawyers and of judges. But here’s the thing. People read articles, not journals. Journals as physical or electronic objects, i.e. assemblages of several articles that share a masthead and a typography and not much besides, appearing several time a year, are obsolete and unnecessary.

The reason for this is, of course, that you don’t need a journal, whether in physical or electronic form, to find articles, which, to repeat, is what people (sometimes) want to read. Articles are mostly either discovered by word of mouth ― again, literal or electronic (say posts, for example on this blog, that mention new articles) or found through databases such as HeinOnline, CanLII, or SSRN. Perhaps a few journals ― think, the Harvard Law Review ― are prestigious enough to command attention in their own right. Perhaps some specialized journals are of interest to people in particular areas of research or practice. Thematic issues of particular journals might also be interesting as collections of articles. But the ordinary, generalist journals? Nope. If I read an interesting piece that was published by, say, the McGill Law Journal, I’m not going to even bother looking what else was in the same issue.

But while journals as platforms for scholarship are largely useless, journals as institutions are not. They provide bundles of services some of which may be useful, and one of which makes them indispensable. The maybe-useful services are the ones you are probably thinking of. In particular, journals review and select manuscripts (what a quaint word for things that haven’t been written by hand this past century!), and edit the ones they choose, and journals ensure that published articles are transmitted to databases where they can, hopefully, be found. The indispensable service is one you might also be thinking of but wouldn’t want to admit to be: signalling.

The maybe-useful stuff should be really useful, but it isn’t always, as it turns out. The review and selection process is sometimes ― and perhaps more commonly than I would have thought ― tainted by ideological gate-keeping or simple turf wars or even cronyism and rank snobbery. In the United States, the problems are a bit different, since it is student editors who are fully in control or editorial decisions, without input from peer reviewers, but things are not necessarily better overall. The editing can be hit-or-miss ― sometimes useful, but sometimes the editors try to impose arbitrary ideas of what good writing should look like on authors who actually have more sense and experience. Even the transmission-to-databases function, which is genuinely important ― it’s one massive advantage journals have over blogs, for which no equivalent of the journal databases exists ― works better with some journals than with others. North American student-run journals are widely available; the ones owned by publishing companies such as the University of Toronto Press, the Oxford University Press, SAGE, etc, are sometimes only available through their proprietary databases, which makes the difficult to find.

Signaling is another matter though. Journals provide it reliably because they don’t actually need to do anything to provide it. Their reputation just exists ― in the case of journals associated with particular law schools, primarily as a result of the school’s reputation. But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Publishing in a particular journal, or category of journals, marks you as a successful scholar, so people who want to be known as successful publish in these journals, which helps preserve their reputation, and so on and on.

Yet despite being the result of little more than bootstrapping, this signalling function is very important to academics. Your disciplinary peers ― those who write in the same area as you ― don’t need it. They can assess the value of your scholarship directly, by reading it. But others can’t do that well, because they lack time and interest, and because they just don’t know enough about your particular area. The latter problem is getting ever worse, as legal scholarship becomes more and more specialized. And these others matter in a scholar’s career: they are the members of hiring and promotion committees, and perhaps those who assess proposals for funding agencies (though I lack experience to speak to that). Not being able to assess a scholar’s output directly, they look for informational shortcuts and proxies. Journal prestige is the most obvious one.

As a result, unless you’ve achieved everything you wanted in your career and have no aspirations for further promotions or going to another school, or unless you can signal your productivity and quality through books alone (and I don’t think many legal academics can do that), you can’t afford not to chase the signaling that journals provide. Even if you believe that the signal is actual mostly noise, even if you think it means little, you can’t ignore it. You are competing against people who might not share these views and get all the signal they can, and the judges of that competition might actually believe that the signal is meaningful.

The result is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. It’s in your best interest to act in a way you know is sub-optimal for the scholarly community. You know that if you don’t, you’ll be, to use a technical term, screwed. One might devise alternative systems for publication. They could well provide the useful services that journals may or may not be providing now. They might even try to provide their own signaling. But unless almost everyone buys into the same alternative system more or less at once, you’ll have to be mad to go for one in particular. What if it doesn’t take off? Then your efforts to establish your reputation have been wasted, and your career is compromised.

So we are stuck. Perhaps some senior scholars can take the lead and establish a new system. Perhaps then those of us who still have careers to make can follow them. But I’m not optimistic. That said, if you think I’m wrong, and especially if you have concrete ideas, I’d love to hear from you. It would be nice to be wrong about this. Mr. Lévesque thinks I am, but I’m afraid that his technological optimism is no match for my collective-action pessimism.

Immuring Dicey’s Ghost

Introducing a new article on the Senate Reform Reference, constitutional conventions, and originalism ― and some thoughts on publishing heterodox scholarship

The Ottawa Law Review has just published a new paper of mine, “Immuring Dicey’s Ghost: The Senate Reform Reference and Constitutional Conventions“. It’s been many years in the making ― apparently, I started working on this paper in August 2016, a prehistoric time in my own life, to say nothing of the outside world ― and I don’t think I have ever said much about this project here. So let me introduce it ― and let me also say something about its “making of”, in the hope that its complicated, but ultimately successful fate will inspire readers who may be struggling with wayward papers of their own.

Here is the article’s abstract:

Although the metaphor of “constitutional architecture” appeared in some of the Supreme Court of Canada’s previous opinions, it took on a new importance in Reference re Senate Reform, where the Court held that amendments to constitutional architecture had to comply with the requirements of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. However, the Court provided very little guidance as to the scope of this entrenched “architecture.” As a result, the metaphor’s meaning and implications have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. This article contributes to this debate by arguing that “constitutional architecture” incorporates (some) constitutional conventions. It further takes the position that, instead of relying on this confusing metaphor, the Court should have candidly admitted that conventions were central to its decision by acknowledging that the text of the Canadian Constitution cannot be fully understood without reference to conventions.

Part I reviews, first, the Supreme Court’s opinions in which the notion of constitutional “architecture” has been mentioned, focusing first on this concept’s place in the Senate Reform Reference, and second, some of the scholarly commentary that has endeavoured to make sense of it. Part II sets out my own view that constitutional “architecture,” as this concept is used by the Supreme Court, is concerned primarily if not exclusively with constitutional conventions. Part III considers whether it is possible to determine just which conventions the notion of constitutional architecture encompasses, examining the conventions’ importance and their relationship to the constitutional text as possible criteria, and concluding that neither allows precise determinations. Part IV sets out what would have been a less confusing way of addressing the significance of conventions to the questions the Court was facing in the Senate Reform Reference: frankly recognizing that conventions were relevant to the interpretation of the applicable constitutional texts. Part V examines two objections to the incorporation of conventions (via “architecture” or through interpretation) into the realm of constitutional law, arguing that this incorporation is not illegitimate and that it will not stultify the Constitution’s development. Part VI concludes with an appeal for greater transparency on the part of the Supreme Court.

Actually, the article’s core idea ― that the architecture to which the Senate Reform Reference refers incorporates constitutional conventions ― was part of my initial reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion. And of course it only develops the suggestions made by Fabien Gélinas and me in a paper we wrote before the Senate Reform Reference was argued. It is also of a piece with my other work on conventions, which argues against the theoretical validity of a sharp distinction between the conventions and the law of the constitution.

The other thing the article does, though, is a new departure. When Professor Gélinas and I wrote about the role of conventions in the then-upcoming Senate Reform Reference, we accepted that the constitution is a “living tree”, and indeed made it the basis of our argument that constitutional interpretation must incorporate conventions. But of course I no longer think that living constitutionalism is the correct approach. So the article begins the project of making sense of the reality that a very significant part of the Canadian constitution is “unwritten”, or rather extra-textual, uncodified, from an originalist perspective.

The argument, as it happens, does not change: as I explain, an originalist must also read the constitutional text in light of conventions which were ― in originalist terms ― part of the publicly available context at the time of the text’s framing. Still, it was important for me to set out this argument from an originalist, as well as a written constitutionalist perspective. It was also important to give the reader a glimpse of how this originalist argument works. To this end, the article wades into historical evidence, looking at the Confederation debates to argue that the conventions relative to the functioning of the Senate were anticipated by the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 (in addition to being well known to those of the Constitution Act, 1982). Future work ― mine and perhaps that of others ― can build on this foundation, and on Ryan Alford’s recent book Seven Absolute Rights: Recovering the Historical Foundations of Canada’s Rule of Law, to fully integrate not only conventions (and therefore “architecture”) but also underlying principles and structural arguments into a comprehensive originalist conception of the Canadian constitution.

This brings me to the “making of” part of the post. As you might imagine, getting the originalist arguments through peer review was not an entirely straightforward proposition. I deliberately diluted them, presenting them only as alternative to the living constitutionalist approach, to which I gave equal attention and which I refrained from criticizing.

Still, at first, this was not enough. The reviewers selected by the first journal to which I submitted the paper were quite skeptical of the whole project, and the attention it devoted to history and to originalism contributed to that skepticism. I was asked to revise and resubmit in light of the reviewers’ comments, and did so, although I could not make the sorts of changes that would have assuaged their concerns without changing the nature of the whole piece. The editor referred the revised article to the same reviewers, who understandably were unimpressed with my revisions, and the article was rejected. Frankly, the revision and resubmission was a waste of my time, as well as of the reviewers’. Their initial objections were too fundamental that there was no real chance of their accepting any revisions I might plausibly have made.

So, after sulking a bit, I submitted the paper elsewhere ― namely, to the Ottawa Law Review. The reviewers there were more open-minded, though one remarked on the oddity, as he or she thought, of granting so much airtime to originalism, and suggested cutting that part of the paper. But the article was accepted, and so revisions were more at my discretion than they would have been in a revise-and-resubmit process. To me, of course, the discussion of originalism was very much part of the point of the paper, so I insisted on keeping it. (I have to say that, while many scholars will of course disagree with originalism as a normative matter, I find it hard to understand how one still can argue that it simply isn’t relevant to Canadian constitutional law; and least of all, how one can make such an argument in a discussion of the Senate Reform Reference, which very much relies on arguments about the intentions of the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982.)

To my mind, there are a few lessons here. One is that if you have an unorthodox agenda, it might be useful to go slowly, and plan to make several steps before getting to your ultimate destination. If you present your idea, not as certain truth right away, but as a possibility to be entertained, you make the pill easier to swallow while still moving the argument from being, as American scholars put it, “off the wall” to “on the wall”. I’m not sure, of course, but I think that this cautious approach helped me here.

The second lesson is that the peer review process is a bit of a crapshoot. Even if you are cautious, some reviewers will bristle and see their role as that of gatekeepers preserving scholarship from heresy. But others may see their role differently, and say that, while they disagree with the paper, it is still well argued and deserves a hearing. (Of course, you have to make their life easier and make sure that the paper is indeed well argued; the more heterodox you are, the more you need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.) To be sure, there are limits to such tolerance: at some point, heterodoxy veers into kookiness, and even an open-minded reviewer should say so. And, of course, where heterodoxy ends, and kookiness begins is not a question that admits of easy answers. Perhaps to the original reviewers who rejected my piece I was a kook.

But this brings me to the third lesson. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Try with a different journal, hope you get different reviewers, perhaps a more sympathetic editor. That’s easier to do when your paper is one that doesn’t need to be out right away ― I’ve given up on a comment on R v Comeau, in part because a case comment loses its relevance after a while ― whereas this article, making a less topical and more fundamental claim, could wait. And perhaps there is a further lesson here, which is that it is better to reserve heterodox ideas for articles of this sort, knowing that it might be a while before they can run the peer review gamut. But, be that as it may, the point is that, precisely because it is a crapshoot, precisely because it empowers people who enjoy being more Catholic than the Pope, the peer review process can be dispiriting ― but knowing why it is this way should remind us that it isn’t always this way.

Good luck with your heterodox articles ― and please read mine, and let me know what you think!

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.