“Bureaucratese”

Newly-minted Leader of His Majesty’s Official Opposition, Pierre Poilievre, recently announced that he plans to propose a “plain-language law” to tackle “bureaucratese.” According to Poilievre, bureaucratese “costs the economy a fortune.” His proposal will “require government publications to use the fewest and simplest words needed to state information.” Now, much of this proposal is probably noise rather than signal because a general rule for politicians (especially in leadership campaigns) is to heavily discount what they say. The scope of the proposed law is unclear, though it seems that it will apply to statutes as well as other public-facing documents, with the Auditor General testing departments for compliance and even a complaint line to report cases of bureaucreatese. Nonetheless, and abstracting away from the specifics of Poilievre’s proposal for a moment, the topic of bureaucratese is a puzzle. Everyone should want to limit it; but how? Is it worth it? The answer is complex, in part because I have no idea if bureaucratese is widespread. I’m also alive to the idea that this whole post might be bureaucratese of a sort. Nonetheless, I’d like to offer some general responses to these questions.

To the extent bureaucratese exists, it is not a small thing. There is something in the idea that inaccessible jargon makes the law, policy, and administrative decisions difficult for people to understand. In response, other jurisdictions have attempted to address the problem. In New Zealand, a Plain Language Bill is currently under study, which would require the appointment of “plain language officers” to ensure that agencies comply with provisions of the statute. In 2010, the United States Congress adopted a similar law, which requires the designation of a senior official for “plain writing,” the establishment of a procedure for implementation, and staff training.

These laws attack, apparently, the same problem. But it is difficult to establish a working definition of “bureaucratese”. The International Plain Language Association says that a communication is in plain language “if the wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” Seems fine.

But the term “bureaucratese,” to my mind, relates to the specific problem of a public servant communicating to the public in a way that makes the intended message unintelligble. It specifically concerns what the famous grammarian H.W. Fowler called “jargon”: (1) “words or expressions used by a particular group or profession” and (2) “incomprehensible talk, gibberish, with the second arising conceptually out of the first, although this is not how the meanings evolved historically.” The idea is that those accultured in a professional setting will develop language and shorthand to explain complex concepts, and that language may—by design—be impenetrable for those outside the setting

In a d society that relies on discretionary regulation to deal with problems, a professionalized bureaucracy is obviously expected. And “bureaucratese”—jargon—can even be desirable sometimes. Public Servant A talking to Public Servant B about some technical issue saves time by conversing in their field-specific jargon. Bureaucratese might create economies of scale within bureaucracies.

This is one thing. It is quite another when we talk about public-facing government documents, whether positive laws or front-line administrative decisions. But the problem isn’t necessarily equal in these domains. Legislative drafters often must use technical language to capture certain phenomena. A whole host of conventions assist modern legislative drafters in ensuring uniformity and consistency in capturing these phenomena. Complex, esoteric language must sometimes be used to ensure that the exact same phenomena are captured by different laws, over time. I am not an expert on legislative drafting, but it strikes me that plain language in this context must be balanced against the judicious use of technical language, and as I will point out, the costs of ensuring compliance (whether through the snitch line or the Auditor General).

The problem of bureaucratese becomes worse when we consider public-facing communications and administrative reasons for decision. In this context, bureaucratese can have a more sinister quality. Orwell targeted the problem by noting that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Bureaucratese can be a benign method of communication, but it can also be used deceptively, to minimize or avoid regular public scrutiny. People who cannot understand a message might misconstrue its meaning.

One great, recent example of bureaucratese in public-facing communications is found in a press release by Covenant Health. At the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton, Trista Champagne complained that “she and other patients waited for hours on the floor inside what she called a ‘dirty makeshift garage’ at the Misericordia Community Hospital. The floor had dry blood on it. Covenant responded that “[t]hroughout the pandemic, hospitals…have used non-traditional spaces for patients to wait after they’ve been triaged.” The relevant issue term here is “non-traditional spaces.” Like all or at least some bureaucratese, there is truth to the idea that a garage is a non-traditional space. But the phrase appears to be used by hospital administrators and others to describe everything other than proper emergency room care. Here, jargon is being used to diminish or minimize the reality of patients lying on blood-stained floors. We could all produce more examples of this.

Bureaucratese can also be an issue in judicial review of administrative action, because it can obscure the basis of a decision, making it difficult for courts and those affected to tell whether the decision tracks to the law. Some administrative decision-makers, like the Social Security Tribunal, have implemented measures to guide self-represented litigants through the process. Others are farther behind in terms of facilitating ease of access. And the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov implicitly attempts to address this problem by mandating responsive justification in cases where reasons must be provided. A concern about justification begins with the reality that most people meet the government not in courtrooms, but in the mundane boardrooms and offices of the administration. In many of these contexts, there is no comparable legislative process.  Where reasons are required, especially in individualized settings, they are the primary means through which a court assesses whether a decision is reasonable—whether it has been properly justified to the individual affected by the decision.

In this sense, the provision of understandable reasons facilitates contestation of government action by those affected by it. When a decision is wrapped in jargon–economic, medical, what have you– the person who is affected by the decision might not understand what the decision means, and be unable to contest it, or otherwise not understand its implications. Navigating complex bureaucratic schemes, even with the assistance of a lawyer, is not an easy or cheap task. This state of affairs gives rise to concerns about “bureaucratic domination”—the idea, popularized by civic republicans and liberals—that those with superior knowledge may use that knowledge to impose their arbitrary whim on an individual (see Henry Richardson’s excellent text) . In such cases, there is a fair concern that the power exercised may not track to the public interest; or more specifically, that it will evade scrutiny or understanding. It is for this reason that Vavilov seeks responsive justification: to facilitate judicial review, and to ensure accountability of government action. It is also for this reason that the Federal Court of Appeal continues to warn against immunization of government action from review through the withholding of documents or assertion of privileges (see one example of many, Lukacs v Canada (Transportation Agency), 2016 FCA 103 at para 7).

More can be said about this. For now, it is worth pointing out that no one bill is likely to solve the problem of bureaucratese absent potentially costly enforcement. For one, the plain-language bills that have been proposed in the New Zealand and adopted in the US arguably layer an additional level of bureaucracy in order to solve the problem of bureaucratese. This is because the bills usually mandate departments to appoint individuals to police bureaucratese; plain language “officers” and the like. The National Party in New Zealand had this to say about the New Zealand plain language bill:

The National Party strongly opposes this bill. It is the very legislative essence of a solution looking for a problem….National supports the aim of improving the effectiveness and accountability of the public service in using clear, concise, easily understood language in public documents. We do not believe it should be a legal requirement.

In its legislative scrutiny briefing memorandum, the Office of the Clerk considered the requirements in the bill to be uncertain and without consequence. It suggested the committee explore with officials whether non-legislative alternatives exist. We did. There are. National is disappointed that those alternatives were not pursued.
The requirement to appoint Plain Language Officers is particularly galling. Despite assertions that this could be carried out by existing staff, we are in no doubt that taxpayers will be required to fund new roles to give effect to the requirements in the bill. The Government has a track record of massively increasing bureaucracy and in our view this bill will continue that trend.

National’s concerns raise an important point about implementation . If it costs more to implement measures against bureaucratese, then one wonders about the point of the proposal. This is where cost-benefit analysis can be useful. I would expect that a plain language law as applied to statutes or other internal documentation would not change much or would otherwise not be worth it. However, bureaucratese should be limited and controlled in contexts like front-line administrative decisions, where the risk of arbitrariness might be elevated. In such cases, we should think that bureaucratese cannot count as responsive justification–it cannot speak to an individual’s specific interests. Any effort to stamp out bureaucratese should start where it would make the biggest difference.

The Post-Vavilov Supreme Court and Administrative Law

Reason for optimism?

After the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Abrametz and ESA (both of which are summarized and analyzed in my newsletter here and here, respectively), there is much to say.  But I just want to quickly identify one emerging trend: the centrifugal force of the principles in Vavilov in areas of administrative law not immediately in its contemplation. For reasons I hope to outline in future work, I think this trend is positive, because the sweeping and comprehensive approach in Vavilov provides a set of plausibly, administrable rules that reduces the amount of time spent on finding the standard of review, among other things. This is a good thing because the law of judicial review shouldn’t be overly complex. It is designed to be quick, on the record, and facilitative for individuals challenging government action. Labyrinthine doctrine stifles that purpose.

 For now, though, I only write to highlight a few examples of this trend I identify:

  • In Abrametz, the question of the standard of review for procedural fairness issues arising in a statutory right of appeal was at issue. For a majority of eight, Rowe J applied Vavilov’s holding on rights of appeal (the appellate, not judicial, standards apply) to the issue of delay (Abrametz, at para 27). This was despite the majority’s acknowledgement that this “proposition was stated in the context of substantive review.” This was also despite the fact that the orthodox view is that correctness applies to issues of procedural fairness (set out in cases like Khela). As I outlined in my newsletter, I think this move is justifiable, and it may raise questions about assimilating all issues of procedural fairness to Vavilov’s rules and standards. This is not an argument I can explore here, but it has been mooted in the courts (e.g. Maritime Broadcasting, at para 50). That said, one will likely find a resolute voice in favour of hard-line correctness review on all issues of procedural fairness: see Côté J’s dissent in Abrametz. And the move made in Abrametz regarding rights of appeal is a much easier hill to climb than a full-on application of Vavilov to issues of procedural fairness.

  • In ESA, the question was whether the laws like the Copyright Act that confer jurisdiction over the same questions to courts and the Copyright Board invite the correctness standard. In Rogers, a previous Supreme Court case, the Court recognized this as an appropriate circumstance to deviate from a reasonableness standard. For a seven judge majority, Rowe J again approached the problem by asking how Vavilov altered the Rogers standard (ESA, at paras 24-25). This was because—as I argue—Vavilov “simplified the law” (ESA, at para 24) and “overtook the prior jurisprudence” (Vavilov, at para 14). Analyzing the problem from the perspective of Vavilov’s principles of legislative/institutional design and the rule of law, Rowe J recognized the Rogers exception as an additional category that would attract correctness review. It is “analogous” to a statutory right of appeal (ESA, at para 32) and inconsistencies could arise between judicial and administrative interpretation, undermining the consistency and systemic clarity required by Vavilov’s idea of the rule of law (and, I argue, the Supreme Court’s other precedents). Karakatsanis J and Martin J said the majority’s conclusion “undermines Vavilov’s promise of certainty and predictability” (ESA, at para 117) because despite the fact that Vavilov “obviously considered” cases like Rogers, it did not choose to recognize it as an example of a case requiring correctness review (ESA, at paras 117, 124). In fact, if anything, it implicitly (but not “inadvertently”) overruled it (ESA, at para 125). While I do not agree with the concurrence’s worry about the majority’s decision, I note that the concurrence, too, sees Vavilov as a simplifying, cohering mechanism—it just reads Vavilov differently (in my view, much too narrowly—see Vavilov at para 70, which focuses on the application of its principles in future cases).

These Supreme Court examples only serve to buttress trends in the lower courts. In Portnov, for example, Stratas JA in the Federal Court of Appeal held that the bespoke standard of review analysis for regulations set out in Katz should be foreclosed and assimilated to Vavilov’s reasonableness standard (Portnov, at paras 24-28). And even beyond the grounds of substantive or procedural review,  Boivin JA in Ermineskin Cree Nation merged considerations of judicial discretion and cost-expediency in the question of whether a case was moot; in so doing, it tied an important consideration underlying Vavilov’s discussion of remedies on judicial review to the preliminary issue of mootness (see Ermineskin Cree Nation, at para 41; Air Canada, at para 14). What’s more, there is debate in the lower courts, and even at the Supreme Court, about the standard of review on arbitral appeals: whether the standard is reasonableness or the appellate standards, as prescribed by Vavilov (see here).

In all of these examples, we see Vavilov potentially doing a lot of conceptual work.  Not only are its principles affecting substantive review (ESA), but also preliminary objections to judicial review (mootness), and further, even in domains not necessarily within the Vavilov Court’s express contemplation (Abrametz). Nonetheless, it appears as if a number of judges on the Court are viewing Vavilov not only as a good encapsulation of accepted administrative law values (primarily, institutional design and the rule of law, but also discretion and cost-effectiveness), but a plausible set of operational rules deduced from those values.

For my own reasons, I think the overall effort in Vavilov was sound. In theory, there are some imperfections in Vavilov. I’d much prefer, for my part, a Chevron-like approach to judicial review of administrative action, which doesn’t start from a presumption of deference, but which asks courts to interpret whether the statutory language can support “more than one answer” in the first place. Nonetheless, I can live with Vavilov because it is a clear rule with clear exceptions, and we get something like Chevron  on questions of law when we apply the reasonableness standard (though this does not solve the fundamental issue: see Leonid Sirota here). The presumption of reasonableness is rooted in a plausible, though imperfect, conception of legislative delegation (again, I have my own fundamental objections to it—delegation does not necessarily equal deference). But the “wrongness” of the presumption, in my view, is mitigated by sound exceptions to its application in cases where there is a clear contrary signal “subtracting” from the specific delegation (rights of appeal, concurrent jurisdiction); where the question at issue transcends the legislative delegation (constitutional questions, for example); or perhaps even when it is unclear the delegation extends to the decision-maker at all (see here). And as I say, even on questions where reasonableness applies, we get an approach that takes into account administrative legal errors, statutory language, and which forces more extensive justification to facilitate judicial review on the reasonableness standard.

We live in an imperfect world, and in my view, this old trope extends with even more force to the law of judicial review. So at the end of the day, imperfections in the theory and doctrine do not undermine the workability that Vavilov has achieved. Because selecting the standard of review is categorical, theoretical imperfections aside, the process is much simpler. As I say above, certainty and predictability in the law of judicial review should be built-in, so that citizens can understand how to challenge government action. What I think Vavilov has done is settle the fundamentals, allowing development around the edges, while providing a sound starting point for that development. For this reason, I agree with the overall trend: courts should look to Vavilov’s principles to infuse, to a greater or lesser degree, the doctrine of judicial review where relevant.

Some Major Questions About Major Questions

In West Virginia v EPA, the Supreme Court of the United States, wielding the “major questions doctrine” found that the EPA did not have the statutory authority to adopt regulations implementing the Clean Power Plan, initially proposed by the Obama administration in 2015.  In this post, I describe why I think this decision was ultimately misguided, how the major questions doctrine might be recast, and why some of the dissent’s concerns are themselves misguided. In short, while I share concerns about agency opportunism, I do not think this judicial creation is the solution.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has broad authority to establish regulatory “standards of performance” in relation to certain categories of pollutants. These include the adoption of the “best system of emission reduction,” taking into account various factors, that the EPA administrator “determines has been adequately demonstrated.” Under this provision, the EPA adopted a “generation-shifting” system rather than a plant-by-plant regulation system; in other words, it decided that the “best system of emission reduction” included generation-shifting. A generation-shifting approach, as I understand it—such as cap-and-trade, or investment in alternative sources—is a different sort of regulation because it purports to operate on a system-wide basis, rather than on an individual source basis. The EPA’s regulatory choice thus cut rather broadly to attack emissions across different sectors. There is much more detail in the opinions that I am leaving out for the sake of brevity.

The majority opinion (Roberts CJ) concluded that this was a “major question,” meaning there was “every reason to hesitate” before concluding that Congress meant to confer this authority on the EPA (20, see also Brown & Williamson, at 159-160). In order to draw this conclusion, Congress would need to include special authorization, or a so-called “clear statement.” In “major questions” cases, the majority tells us that “both separation of powers principles and a practical understanding of legislative intent” make it reluctant to find that the EPA’s stated authority here was buried in “vague” provisions like s.111(d) (19); here we see some concern about agency opportunism and attempts to expand statutory authority. The Court tells us that it has, as a matter of course, deployed the major questions doctrine in extraordinary cases where the agency asserts broad authority of economic and political significance (17). Put simply, as the majority frames it, the major questions doctrine is like a substantive canon of construction: the Court proceeds on its own assumption that Congress would not have wanted the EPA to have this authority, absent an explicit statement otherwise.

In dissent, Kagan J attacked the majority’s use of the major questions doctrine. Chiding the doctrine as a “get-out-of-text-free card” (28), Kagan J reasoned that the statute here was broad, but not vague (8). The breadth of the statute was by design. While this was so, Kagan J noted that the grant was also constrained: in concluding what the best system of emission reduction is, the EPA must consider “costs and non-air impacts” while making sure that the best system has been “adequately demonstrated” [7].

For Kagan J, the invocation of the major questions doctrine elided this delegation of power. She reasoned that the “doctrine,” such as it is, had only been deployed as part and parcel of ordinary statutory interpretation, determining the scope of delegated power conferred on an agency: “the text of a broad delegation, like any other statute, should be read in context, and with a modicum of common sense” [13]. Kagan J was concerned that the use of this special rule short-circuited the Court’s duty to actually determine what the statutory provisions meant, and whether the EPA’s regulation fit within the provision. Kagan J goes on to wax poetic about the importance of expertise and the administrative state (I’ve registered my opposition to these particular, age-old arguments before, and renew them to some degree below).

That said, I see a few problems with the majority’s recast of the major questions doctrine:

  • Despite the majority’s protestations otherwise, there has been a shift in the way the major questions doctrine works. Scholars, as I read them, tend to disagree about which cases mark the turning point, but I think it is fair to say that WV v EPA is the capstone. As I understood it, the doctrine was previously attached to Chevron deference. If a question was a “major question,” it was a reason to deny deference to the agency’s asserted interpretation; not a presumptive rule against ordinary agency action in certain, ill-defined “major” areas. But now the doctrine has taken on a life of its own; gone is Chevron. The lineage of this change does not suggest that it is justified.

 In Brown & Williamson, for example, the Court conducted a normal statutory analysis as prescribed under Chevron Step 1, and concluded that “Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products” (Brown & Williamson, 126, 132). It was only after this exhaustive analysis that the Court additionally concluded that, given Congress’ structured and deliberate scheme for tobacco regulation, the FDA could not likely have been given the authority to regulate tobacco products (Brown & Williamson, 159-160). This was not a standalone, substantive canon of construction; it was a tool of judicial common sense, an insight drawn from the application of the tools of interpretation, to determine that a statute precluded the agency’s view. Second, in Utility Air, the majority (Scalia J) questioned whether the agency’s construction could be reasonable under Chevron Step 2, given its “claim to extravagant statutory power” (Utility Air, at 20). Here, the “major questions” concern operates as a sort of defeasible outer limit that limits the range of reasonable options at Chevron Step 2. Even in King v Burwell, the Court used the major questions exceptions as a means to an end: to conclude that it should conduct an independent assessment of the statute in that case. In all of these cases, the major questions doctrine was operating more as an “add-in,” or “tie-breaker”: see, relatedly, fn 3 of the concurring opinion of Gorsuch J.

So, quite aside from the sotto voce overturning of these, weaker versions of the major questions doctrine, the consequences of moving from a deference rule (a rule changing the intensity of review, but not changing the legislature’s delegation process) to a delegation rule (a rule denying a power to delegate straightforwardly on an ill-defined set of questions at all)  is not small, and there are two. First, because the Court only offers a set of mushy guidelines for what constitutes a “major question” on which Congress will require an explicit statement, Congress may be left wondering how and when it must make itself “clear.” Second, on principle, Congress regrettably must—according to the Court’s standards—make itself clear. This was not required under Chevron. As Kagan J notes, the major questions doctrine—as deployed by the Court in WVA v EPA—basically shortcircuited this statutory analysis. Instead, rather than determining whether the statute supported the EPA’s reading, the Court was rather results-oriented: because the issue is big, even normal statutory authorization should not count, even though the EPA’s view was plausible (and certainly not vague—as Kagan J says, the issue here is breadth). It is plausible, as the majority suggests, that Congress did authorize this power in the text of its law. But this authorization was not explored, or otherwise, was inexplicably not enough.

  • Gorsuch J, in a concurring opinion, attempted to avoid this conclusion by stating that substantive canons of construction are accepted tools of interpretation. Indeed they are. But one should evaluate the lineage and triggers for these substantive presumptions, and at any rate, all should agree they should be used with caution and rooted in consistent doctrine and principle. Otherwise, they can be manipulable “get out of text free” cards. For this reason, many of the substantive canons are rooted in clear constitutional concerns: for example, some of the presumptions concerning federalism.

What is the constitutional basis of this form of the major questions doctrine?  One candidate might be the same pool of principles that grounds the non-delegation doctrine. But I think it is hard to justify this doctrine as some extension or analogue to the non-delegation doctrine (cf Cass Sunstein) in the mould of the Benzene Case. Undoubtedly, one can conceive of some important similarities—the Court has sometimes gestured to an asserted power as being too broad to justify Chevron deference. But, again, in all the cases, the problem was simply that Congress had foreclosed such extravagant regulation. Instead, the non-delegation doctrine, as a constitutional doctrine, is primarily concerned with the scope of delegated power. Courts seek an intelligible principle to determine whether the power is adequately guided. The idea is that, absent a guiding, legislative principle, an agency is exercising legislative power unconstitutionally, in a manner contrary to Article I.

While there are powerful historical arguments against the non-delegation doctrine that I am not equipped to evaluate, I take it as a given that it is alive and well, and that it—at least in some part—aims at preserving legislative power and control over administrative decision-making. Nonetheless, the new major questions doctrine deployed by the Court in WV v EPA is not, at least primarily, concerned with the breadth of delegated power per se. As Kagan J recounts, the delegation of power to the EPA in this case is, indeed, broad, but it is not beyond the pale. The EPA does have some meaningful constraints built-in to the statute, and such constraints likely save the delegation from any challenge on non-delegation grounds. The major questions doctrine, then, isn’t so concerned with the breadth of delegated power as much as the significance of the issue at hand. But issue significance does not necessarily equal broad delegated power; in other words, we can have broad delegated power in unimportant areas, which could plausibly raise non-delegation concerns, or we can have narrow delegations in important areas, which would raise major questions concerns. These doctrines are aiming at different things. As John Manning so eloquently said: “If the point of the nondelegation doctrine is to ensure that Congress makes important statutory policy, a strategy that requires the judiciary, in effect, to rewrite the terms of a duly enacted statute cannot be said to serve the interests of that doctrine.”

In whole, the result of this doctrinal shift is a complication of the basic task of the law of judicial review, and an arguable corruption of the legislation delegating the power at issue. The law of judicial review is designed to be an adjunct branch of statutory interpretation, to determine the scope of powers granted to an administrator. Whether Chevron has one or two steps, this is the core of the thing. With this new major questions doctrine, the law of judicial review is somewhat different. Less important is the text of the laws delegating power. More important is whether the court thinks the issue over which the power is delegated is “important” or “big” enough. This abstracts away from the core question on judicial review: does the agency have this asserted power to conduct this action, no matter how big the problem  may be?

II.

With these concerns in mind, I think it might be useful to consider how Canada deals with questions of this sort, because I think the doctrine aims at some of the same concerns as the major questions doctrine while avoiding some of the potential pitfalls, as I see them.

 In Canada, our going-in presumption is reasonableness review (for an apt description of why Canada gets this backwards in relation to the United States, see Leonid Sirota). This presumption can be rebutted, in which case the court reserves to itself the right to pronounce on the legal issue without any deference. One of the circumstances in which the presumption can be rebutted is in cases involving “general questions of central importance to the legal system as a whole” (see Vavilov, at para 58 et seq). This category has much in common with the gist behind the “major questions” category, but there are important differences. First, the justification for the central questions category in Canada is not concern about delegated power; rather, it is designed to protect the role of the judiciary as the most important external check on administrative power. Issues that are considered centrally important must be answered consistently by courts, because they engage the rule of law, over which the judiciary is the primary guardian. Notably, however, in defining a central question, the courts are careful not to unduly eat away at the legislature’s right to delegate power. As the Supreme Court says, “the mere fact that a dispute is ‘of wider public concern’ is not sufficient for a question to fall into this category—nor is the fact that the question, when framed in a general or abstract sense, touches on an important issue” (Vavilov, at para 61).

And so the questions recognized by the court concern the stability of the legal system, issues that transcend an administrator’s particular statutory grant of authority. These issues have typically concerned constitutional or quasi-constitutional issues. For example, in University of Calgary, the question was whether a decision of an administrator that a statute permits solicitor-client privilege to be set aside. The Court refused to defer in this case, because solicitor client privilege has a constitutional dimension, and the “question of what statutory language is sufficient to authorize administrative tribunals to infringe solicitor-client privilege is a question that has potentially wide implications on other statutes” (University of Calgary, at para 20).

Why is this doctrine preferable, at least on these points, to the major questions doctrine, as deployed in WV v EPA? For one, the Canadian version expressly forecloses the possibility that an issue’s importance factors into the analysis. Many issues can be characterized as important; this is the challenge of the law of judicial review, to channel and sometimes restrict administrative power over these important areas of public life. Second, the benefit of a rule restricting deference is that it can be justified with reference to fundamental tenets of the law of judicial review. There are good rule of law reasons, pertaining to the judicial duty to pronounce the law, to carve away deference in cases where an agency attempts to exert power in a way that may transcend its own statute, or engage quasi-constitutional norms. Legislatures should not be impliedly granted the power to, by delegation, carve away the core powers of judicial review. And so,  uniformity of the administrative justice system requires not percolation, but correct answers. This approach also answers for the problem of agency opportunism: an agency that seeks to manipulate its own powers in order to affect these broader areas of legal importance should be met with a resolute judiciary. Nonetheless, the category is pared down not to every conceivable important issue, but to core concerns of the judiciary that implicate the rule of law. With these more narrow justifications, I would venture that the Canadian law of judicial review—only on this score—may be more stable than the American.

III.

In the meantime, I do not expect nor suggest that American courts should look to Canada for guidance. Even still, I do not think that the US situation is as dire as the dissent and some commentators suggest. As Kristin Hickman notes, Congress can rectify the ruling in WV v EPA tomorrow (even if it should not have to): it can simply legislate a clear statement. To be clear, this is an additional, probably unjustified hurdle. But the ball is in Congress’ court.  And, as I have argued before, non-delegation limits on administration will not hobble administration, and may actually incentivize better deliberation and guidance.  Further, administrative government is vast, and few regulations are challenged such that this case will make a difference on a wider scale. These are the practical realities that limit this new major questions doctrine, but I admit there may be more I am simply missing or misunderstanding

Nonetheless, as far as it goes, the new major questions doctrine that matured in WV v EPA is unwelcome from my perspective. Unlike the non-delegation doctrine, it cannot easily be traced to the same constitutional concerns, and it is isn’t immediately clear to me that “clear statements” will really provoke much deliberation. The doctrine appears to be a wholly judicial creation; it complicates the law of judicial review, puts a hurdle up for Congress, and finds no real animating purpose, beyond nods to concerns already covered by the existing non-delegation doctrine. I stress, as I did above, that I too worry about “bureaucratic domination,” drift, etc. But these are concerns that are best kept in check by a legislature and by consistent and principled application of the law of judicial review. Creating an amorphous thumb on the scale, in this manner, is an ill-fit.

Immigration and Refugee Decision-Making: The Vavilov Effect?

It has been a while since I’ve blogged. The last few months have been—in a word—chaotic. I’m hoping to blog more regularly going forward now that some of these things have settled

One of the areas where administrative law really comes to life is in immigration decision-making, particularly front-line decision-making like visa decisions or humanitarian and compassionate decisions [H&C]. This is where the pressures, incentives, and moral worldview of “street-level bureaucrats” in particular contexts can tell us about how decisions affecting all-too-real rights and interests are made. The area, though, presents all sorts of challenges for those studying the law of judicial review.

First, immigration visa decision-making is also just one particular iteration of a broader reality: the inexplicable diversity of administrative decision-making. That diversity leaves monist accounts of the administrative state wanting. Expertise—advanced by the Progressive school as a core reason for delegation and deference—presents a different empirical reality in these contexts. In other words, this is not the labour board or the human rights tribunal where we might have more confidence in the “expert” nature of the decision-maker. In this context, not only is “expertise” not to be assumed, but what it means on the frontlines escapes easy definition.

Second, emerging democratic theories view the administrative state either as a place to facilitate and channel democratic deliberation or a place to encourage contestation (agonism). These theories are deeply insightful and may have resonance in other areas. But in some of these immigration and refugee cases, it is hard to say that there is anything substantively democratic happening. The only democratic argument is entirely formal: the delegation of power to officials to make decisions. This delegation of power must be respected, but the chances for contestation or facilitation seem far off.

Other features of front-line immigration visa decision-making present problems from the perspective of the law of judicial review. Notwithstanding what I say below, it was typically the case that visa decisions did not—and still, do not—require extensive reasons: Persaud v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1252 at para 8. And in theory, this remains true post-Vavilov. What’s more, there was, and remains, a presumption that decision-makers considered all the evidence before her: Cepeda-Gutierrez v Canada, 1998 CanLII 8667. 

The combination of these rules, to my mind, creates an important tradeoff. On one hand, given the backlogs in this area of administrative decision-making, we may think that officers should not spend time writing extensive reasons. On the other hand, a paucity of reasons or an adequate record that “immunizes” decisions from effective review presents problems from the perspective of legality, but more directly, to the individuals who wish to seek judicial relief: see Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72 at para 102.

There should be some balance struck here. Post-Vavilov, courts in some cases are beginning to strike this balance. They have done so in favour of more substantive reasoning that addresses the legal and factual stakes to the party affected by a decision. In other words, in these cases, the courts are not abiding boilerplate and rote recitation of the facts. Nonetheless, they are not expecting long, involved reasons in every case, and they need not be perfect: the reasons can be short, but should be directed to the actual stakes facing the individual. In my view, this decisively moves the balance towards the ideal of legality, understood in this case as enhancing the role of the courts to ensure compliance with administrative law.

Here are some examples of what I am describing:

  1.  Singh v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 692

Here, Justice Diner describes well the post-Vavilov position on reasons:

[22] Visa officers are certainly entitled to deference, but only where their findings have at least a modicum of justification. That was entirely absent here. In the age of Vavilov, the Court cannot defer to reasoning missing from the Decision, or fill in that reasoning for administrative decision-maker. Lacking justification, the matter will be returned for redetermination

2. Rijhwani v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 549

This was a denial of a permanent residence application where the applicant plead H&C grounds. The applicant specifically pointed to establishment and hardship as supporting her application. The Officer did not address these factors in detail. The Court says, at para 17: “It is particularly important that when there are few factors raised—in this case only hardship and establishment—that the Officer addresses the rationale clearly for each.”

This did not occur here. Noting, at para 10,  that “brevity cannot excuse inadequacy” the Court takes issue with the “two significant errors…in under a page of reasons” that characterized this decision.

3. Gill v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1441

Gill was found inadmissible to Canada for five years by a visa officer because of misrepresentation; he failed to disclose an unsuccessful tourist visa application to the United States. Gill advanced the argument that his “misrepresentation” was actually an innocent mistake. He argued that the officer did not reasonably explain why he rejected the “innocent mistake” argument.

Specifically, the officer in this case apparently took—word-for-word—reasons that were given by a separate officer in another case that was reviewed in the Federal Court. Speaking of the Cepeda-Gutierrez presumption, the Court said, at para 34:

I note, however, that the use of identical template language to express not just the relevant legal test or framework, but the reasoning applicable to an applicant’s particular case undermines to at least some degree the presumption that the officer has considered and decided each individual case on its merits.

The Court did note, however, that templates can be useful tools in high volume-decision-making [33].

I do not present these cases to make an empirical claim about what any number of courts are doing post-Vavilov. This is impossible to do without closer study. But I can say that there are many more of these cases, and I recommend you consult my weekly newsletter if you are interested in reading more. In the meantime, I think we can draw some conclusions from these cases:

  1. There is something to be said for a signal sent by a judicial review court to administrators about what they should expect. Prior to Vavilov, decision-makers may have expected strong presumptions of deference and courts claiming that inadequate reasons did not provide a standalone basis for review. Now, decision-makers may expect a closer look if their decisions are reviewed, particularly in this front-line context. One hopes that this incentivizes structural solutions within administrative bodies. This should not be hard to expect from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, which houses Canada’s largest administrative decision-maker.
  2. No one should take this to mean that reasons need to be extensive in every case. But it should be taken to mean that boilerplate is presumptively problematic. This is because boilerplate, by its nature, does not respond to the individual stakes raised by many of the decisions in the immigration realm. This is, in part, the thinking behind the Vavilovian constraints. If the constraints bind differently in different cases—if Vavilov is truly contextual—then boilerplate is a non-starter because it will generally fail to account for the context of various decisions.
  3. Nor is this emerging line of cases overly onerous for administrative decision-makers or front-line officers. Again, the reasons need not be perfect, need not look like a judicial decision, and need not be extensive. But they must address the actual legal and factual issues at play. If a decision-maker cannot do this, then one should wonder why they were delegated power in the first place.

At any rate, this is an area that I hope receives more attention going forward.

Same Pig, Different Lipstick: Bill C-11

Last year, I wrote about Bill C-10, which was concerned with “compelling companies like Netflix Inc and TikTok Inc to finance and promote Canadian content.” The Bill was controversial, not least because the law could be read to target content produced on user-driven sites (TikTok, say) targeting individual content creators rather than the tech giants and subjecting them to discoverability requirements and penalties. One of the biggest concerns was free expression. This law could be read to grant Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) power to regulate the content of individual expressions, something that—to many of us—presented constitutional and regulatory concerns. As Professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa stated upon the tabling of the bill, it “hands massive new powers to Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) to regulate online streaming services, opening the door to mandated Cancon payments, discoverability requirements, and confidential information disclosures, all backed by new fining powers.” 

Bill C-10 died because of the election, and some of us thought that would be the end of this. Not so. Yesterday the Trudeau Government re-introduced the same pig with different lipstick: Bill C-11. Professor Geist has led the charge on this and I would direct you to his site for deep analysis of the Bill, but for now, it’s enough to say that this Bill is generally not an improvement on its predecessor, at least from the perspective of the power it vests in the CRTC. Its central problem is hinging the entire controversy of the Bill on a clause which allows the CRTC to decide when and to whom the Act applies, subject to some exceptions. This should be, if not constitutionally problematic, politically so: this is the power to expand the scope of the law to a large class of individual users, allowing the Government to evade responsibility for this controversial choice in Parliament. In other words, the Government still has power to regulate user generated content and subject that content to discoverability regulations and users to potential penalties. It has this power despite the Bill representing that it does not.

Let’s take a look at the Backgrounder for the Bill. The Government says that this Bill solves two problems with Bill C-10. First, “it captures commercial programs regardless of how they are distributed, including on social media services.” Second, “the proposed bill is also clear that the regulator does not have the power to regulate Canadians’ everyday use of social media, including when they post amateur content to these services.” It seems, then, that the proposed bill does not apply to Canadian users or individual creators. And the opening part of the actual text of the Bill sounds promising. It says that it must be construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with “(a) the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings.” Section 4.1 (1) of the Bill sounds even better: “This Act does not apply in respect of a program that is uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service by a user of the service for transmission over the Internet and reception by other users of the service.” This seems to deal with the problem so many of us had with Bill C-10 when it purported to extend its scope to the average TikTok user.

This sounds like a real improvement. But the promise fades when we consider the CRTC’s new regulation-making power. A regulation is a form of law—the power to make regulations is given to an agency by the elected legislature. This isn’t itself inherently problematic, and of course regulation-making is widespread today. But this goes further. Section 4.1(2) of the Bill basically “takes back” s.4.1(1), when it gives the CRTC power to make regulations governing “programs” despite the seeming exclusion of user content. This is something approaching–if it isn’t already–a Henry VIII clause, which allows an agency to amend a primary law (h/t Leonid Sirota for raising this point). If not constitutionally problematic, it is politically so. It allows the Government to evade responsibility for the potentially vast scope of this law.

This is the controversial clause. It is cabined by a few factors, namely s.4.2 (2) (a) which directs the CRTC to consider “the extent to which a program, uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service, directly or indirectly generates revenues” as it makes regulations. As Professor Geist notes, the target here appears to be YouTube music. But there are many other types of user-generated content that could conceivably fall under the scope of the law, including user generated TikTok videos or podcasts that indirectly generate revenue and have other features that fall within the scope of the regulation-making power.

The end result, as Professor Geist says, is that this technical change “would likely capture millions of TikTok and YouTube videos.” In his post on the Bill, he summarizes the wide berth of power granted to the CRTC in Bill C-11:

Views on the scope of this regulatory approach may vary, but it is undeniable that: (1) regulating content uploaded to social media services through the discoverability requirement is still very much alive for some user generated content; (2) the regulations extend far beyond just music on Youtube; (3) some of the safeguards in Bill C-10 have been removed; and (4) the CRTC is left more powerful than ever with respect to Internet regulation.

Taking into account alternative views on the scope of the Bill, I agree. The Bill basically downloads the real decision-making a level down. Rather than the Government taking responsibility for regulation user content in this fashion, it will grant it to the “independent” CRTC. If there is controversy about a future regulation, the Government can shift responsibility to the CRTC. The regulation-making just reinforces this, granting a power to the CRTC to expand the scope of the law and to make the decisions Parliament should be making in plain view.

Others will differ. They could say that I am discounting the CRTC’s own democratic process. Or, one might say that the statute cabins the regulation-making power, and that the income-generation factor is one, non-exhaustive factor. Maybe they’d be right. But I think I could grant all of this and still maintain that the Bill purports to grant significant power to the CRTC to apply the law to users, something the Backgrounder suggests it does not. This disparity concerns me.

It is important here to address another possible response. Much is made in administrative law about the need to empower regulatory experts to make decisions in the public interest. So far as this goes, the device of delegation could be useful. But it is not always and everywhere so, and there are differences in kind. A delegation to the CRTC here may be justifiable, but the Government should take responsibility for the choice to regulate user content. Presumably, this should be something that—if it needs to be addressed—should be addressed in the primary law, rather than by the CRTC in its own wide, relatively unconstrained discretion. In other words, if Youtube music is the problem, the law should be appropriately tailored.  And the use of something like a Henry VIII clause is ill-advised, to say the least.

The basic problem here might be more fundamental. I am candidly not sure what the need for this Bill is, particularly the targeting of user content. It seems the regulatory goal here may be to subject the Act’s requirements to users who generate a certain income, for example, and among other things. If that is the regulatory goal, why is the CRTC regulatory mechanism desirable here? If the Government wants to make this policy choice, why can’t it do so in the plain view?  Perhaps I simply do not understand the CanCon-motivated reason why this particular power is justified.  I’m open to someone explaining to me what I might be misunderstanding here—perhaps something specific to this regulatory context.

Nonetheless, I think there are real democratic tradeoffs to the use of this sort of regulation-making power, and more specifically the deflection of responsibility to the CRTC. This is a controversial application of a regulatory law—with penalties—to a potential huge class of users. Not only does the Government purport not to do this, but it does it here with a delegation to the CRTC. If later challenged, the Government can simply defer to the CRTC.  I do not see this legal device—and this Bill—as any better than Bill C-10.

Boilerplate in Decision-Making

Administrative boilerplate is probably legion in government, but of course, this is an empirical question. Nonetheless, I have read enough cases to know that individuals at the foot of administrative power—many times in front-line decision-making— are at least sometimes faced with deciphering reasons that purport to have “considered all the factors.”  Confronted, as well, with a strong presumption that decision-makers considered all of the evidence in the first place (Cepeda-Gutierrez), it is theoretically hard for applicants to move beyond boilerplate.

Besides internal administrative mechanisms that could—but may not—discourage this sort of behaviour, judicial review doctrine in Canada is starting to take notice of it. Here are a few recent cases:

Gill v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1441

In this case, a visa officer in New Delhi used almost identical language to reject Gill’s application as another visa officer used in another denial out of New Delhi. The Court said [34]: “I note, however, that the use of identical template language to express not just the relevant legal test or framework, but the reasoning applicable to an applicant’s particular case undermines to at least some degree the presumption that the officer has considered and decided each individual case on its merits.”

Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157

In this case, the Federal Court of Appeal chastised the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board for, among other things, “conclusory” analysis that purported to consider all the evidence [43]. This was important for the Court: “At best, on this point the Board obfuscated, making it impossible for a reviewing court to know whether the Board has helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have. By obfuscating, the Board has effectively put itself beyond review on this point, asking the Court to sign a blank cheque in its favour. But this Court does not sign blank cheques. Administrators cannot put themselves in a position where they are not accountable.”

Publicover v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FC 1460

In this case, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans denied a request for a  lobster licence transfer. In her reasons, the Minister stated that she had considered “all the relevant circumstances” [16]. The Court was troubled by this boilerplate, because it did not show that the Minister connected her analysis to the actual law and policy governing the decision [62, 66].

These cases represent a decisive shift from pre-Vavilov caselaw. Gone is Newfoundland Nurses, which permitted courts to take these boilerplate statements and “supplement” them: Nfld Nurses, at para 12. Underlying this doctrinal innovation was an unqualified presumption about administrative decision-making: “To me, it represents a respectful appreciation that a wide range of specialized decision-makers routinely render decisions in their respective spheres of expertise, using concepts and language often unique to their areas and rendering decisions that are often counter-intuitive to a generalist” [13].

In the context of boilerplate, Nfld Nurses makes little sense. This is because boilerplate reasons do not do anything to show expertise or the use of specialized concepts or language. It is merely a “say-so” of the decision-maker. Even on the Dunsmuir standard, it was always hard to say–with a straight face– that this sort of reasoning is “justified, transparent, and intelligible.”

Second, Vavilov’s renewed focus on justification and a “reasons-first” approach will be, I think, a boon for those challenging front-line decision-making. There are necessary caveats: reasons are not always required, and in many administrative contexts (such as high-volume study permit decision-making), “extensive reasons are not required” (see Niyongabo v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1238 at para 12). But even in these areas, courts could be more willing to subject front-line decision-making to a slightly higher bar in terms of reasoning.

Third, I think this turn of events marks a tension between the Cepeda-Gutierrez presumption of consideration and the culture of justification endorsed in Vavilov. This tension was pointed out, as I noted above, in Gill. The presumption of consideration makes sense from an efficiency standpoint: after all, legislatures delegate to decision-makers for a reason, and when they do, courts should generally not go on a line-by-line treasure hunt for error. But at the same time, these efficiency concerns should take a decidedly second place: as noted in Alexion, judicial review becomes difficult when there is only boilerplate shedding light on an ultimate decision; this is to say nothing, of course, of the dignitarian reasons why reasoned decision-making is desirable (see, for a recent analysis of these issues, Janina Boughey).

This is all for the best. Boilerplate may work well in a “top-down” culture of decision-making in which those subject to administrative power and courts are in the thrall of purported administrative expertise. No need, on this account, for a decision-maker to show their work; the “just trust us” ethic is what governs. But Vavilov has arguably changed things: gone is the presumption of expertise, and gone should also be the presumptions about reasoning. If expertise exists, it can and should be demonstrated through persuasive and responsive reasons that allow a court to determine the legal basis of a decision.

Jurisdiction and the Post-Vavilov Supreme Court: Part I

What does “jurisdiction” mean, anyways?

As I wrote in my newsletter last week, the Supreme Court has an awkward relationship with the concept of “jurisdiction.” There is no more tortuous concept in Canadian administrative law. Vavilov, apparently, was the end to the concept of jurisdiction in Canadian administrative law. Vavilov basically said two things about jurisdiction: (1) it is difficult to identify a jurisdictional question, which sheds doubt on the entire enterprise (Vavilov, at para 66); and (2) as a result, “[w]e would cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 65). Taken together, it was a fair assumption that jurisdictional questions, if they existed at all, would not be recognized in the law of judicial review.

Easier said than done. The Supreme Court in two recent cases have gone back to the well and drawn from the waters of jurisdiction. In both Ward and Horrocks, the various opinions continue to draw on jurisdiction as a concept without interrogating it. Underneath this technical issue of administrative law is a broader, conceptual difference on the Court that remains post-Vavilov.

In this post I’ll address what I think “jurisdiction” means post-Vavilov. In a future post I’ll address Horrocks and what it might mean for post-Vavilov administrative law splits on the Court.

***

In Ward, under a heading titled, “Jurisdiction Over Defamation and Discrimination,” the majority discusses the “jurisdiction” of the tribunal in that case [28]. In the same paragraph, the Court chastises the Tribunal for indirectly extending its “limited direct jurisdiction.” In Horrocks, on the other hand, the whole dispute concerned the jurisdictional boundary between a labour arbitrator and a human rights tribunal.

The entire setup of these cases is based around the idea of jurisdiction. In Ward, the term was thrown around rather willy-nilly to describe the statutory authority—the grant of power—given to the Tribunal. In Horrocks, the term was used as contemplated by Vavilov, as a category attracting correctness review. But in both cases, jurisdiction looms large.

Before continuing, it’s important to note the various ways that “jurisdiction” has been used in Canadian administrative law. There are at least 3 different uses of the term:

  1. Jurisdiction as a preliminary question: this category concerns “neat and discrete points of law” that arise, for example, in a decision of a human rights commission to refer a case to a human rights tribunal (Halifax, at para 27). In Halifax, the Court overturned previous precedents and held that such questions are reviewable on a reasonableness standard (Halifax, at para 38).
  2. So-called “true questions of jurisdiction”: these questions were said to arise “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). An example of such a question was provided in Dunsmuir: “whether the City of Calgary was authorized under the relevant municipal acts to enact bylaws limiting the number of taxi plate licences” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). Note, here, that this question trades on the same idea of “jurisdiction” as the preliminary questions doctrine, but there is a difference: ostensibly, this brand of jurisidictional questions concerns an issue that goes to the merits. Vavilov did away with this concept of jurisdictional question, to the extent that such questions attract correctness review.
  3. “Jurisdictional boundaries between two or more tribunals”: this is the category of review at issue in Horrocks. Vavilov retained this category as attracting correctness review.

What is immediately clear is that “jurisdiction” is a morass.

What sense should we make of this? In my view, Vavilov left the door of “jurisdiction” open a crack. The result, as Paul Daly presciently observed the day after Vavilov was rendered, is that jurisdiction is still around—a “stake through the heart” will be the only thing to kill it. In the meantime, we must make sense of what is left of jurisdiction.  As I noted above, one option is to read Vavilov rather broadly: jurisdiction is dead, and we killed it. But this does not explain (in a satisfying way) what the Court is doing in both Ward and Horrocks. Why mention a concept that is dead?

Instead, I think “jurisdiction” (or, as I shall say, hopefully a better label) remains an important concept in Canadian administrative law. This version of jurisdiction—as used in Ward and Horrocks—is not akin to the concept of jurisdiction known to administrative law history (ie) Anisminic. It is not the “preliminary questions” doctrine put to rest in Halifax. This conception of jurisdiction is basically co-extensive with any number of formulations that describes the authority delegated to an administrative decision-maker. The Supreme Court of the United States describes this as “statutory authority,” which is a good a term as any. This is because, fundamentally, any time an administrative decision-maker acts, it is explicitly or implicitly dealing with the boundaries governing it by statute. Whether this is “jurisdiction,” or “statutory authority” does not matter much. It’s all the same thing.

Now, what is true about jurisdiction is that there are different types of legal questions. Some legal questions could be said to be “preliminary.” An example might be a legal condition precedent to the exercise of another legal power under the same statute.  But the difference that Vavilov introduces is simply about the standard of review, not about the existence or not of jurisdictional questions understood in this sense. In other words, to the extent that Halifax and Vavilov dispatched with various types of jurisdictional questions, they only did so to the extent that it matters for the standard of review. Vavilov tells us that questions of jurisdiction, as they were previously known, are hard to identify: and in that sense, they shouldn’t be treated differently than any other legal questions. So whether the question is “preliminary” or on the merits, it’s a legal question that is assimilated to the Vavilov framework.

Why does any of this matter? There is a clarity reason and a substantive reason. For clarity’s sake, the Court should probably not refer to “jurisdiction” anymore. The concept itself, as it is now used, is simply referring to a type of legal question, not a category of review. The Court should adopt some concept of “statutory authority” to describe all the types of legal questions that arise in a typical judicial review proceeding, including anything that might be considered “jurisdictional.” This has nothing to do with the standard of review: all of the questions will be presumed to be reviewed on reasonableness review. On the substantive side, and as we shall see from Horrocks, there are good reasons to take statutes—and the boundaries they set up—seriously. As Vavilov says, the discarding of jurisdiction as a category of review should not lead to  the arrogation of administrative power.

Rethinking Peace, Order, and Good Government in the Canadian Constitution

This post is written by Brian Bird.

The United States has life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. France has liberté, égalité, fraternité. What is the calling card of the Canadian Constitution? It is peace, order and good government.

Apart from being a concise expression of the political philosophy that animates Canadian society, or at least the philosophy that is supposed to animate it, conventional – and I would say faulty – wisdom has developed around the quintessentially Canadian brand of constitutionalism. The prevailing understanding and analytic approach to peace, order and good government (POGG) has led us to astray with respect to this key element of our constitutional architecture.

Before identifying that prevailing (mis)understanding, let us take a look at the constitutional text. Section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 delineates matters over which Parliament has exclusive legislative jurisdiction – matters which, by virtue of that delineation, are off limits for the provinces.

Section 91 begins with the following words:

It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say …

What follows this paragraph is the enumerated list of classes of subjects over which the federal government has exclusive legislative jurisdiction: criminal law, national defence, banking and so forth.

The opening words of section 91 are revealing in at least three ways.

First, the concept of POGG precedes the list of subjects that fall exclusively within federal legislative jurisdiction. I suspect many if not most jurists in Canada envision POGG as residing at the end of the list, as a residual catch-all category. On the contrary, section 91 arguably contemplates legislation for the purposes of POGG as the first and foremost responsibility of Parliament.

Second, the list of subjects that follow the opening paragraph of section 91 are expressly said to be included for “greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms”. In other words, the enumerated list of subjects under exclusive federal jurisdiction do not diminish the ability of Parliament enact laws for POGG. The conventional wisdom among most Canadian jurists is the opposite, that the list in section 91 curtails Parliament’s power to legislate for POGG.

Third, the power of the federal government to enact laws for POGG is only available where the topic of the law does not come within the areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. On a strictly textual basis, then, federal laws that are enacted in the name of POGG are invalid if the substance of the legislation reflects a head of provincial power as found in section 92.

This third consideration provides additional texture to the doctrine of paramountcy, which holds that a valid federal law will prevail over a valid provincial law to the extent the two laws clash. It would seem, based on the opening words of section 91, that there is no scenario in which there will be a division of power issue raised by the coexistence of a federal law enacted for POGG and a provincial law enacted for a matter listed in section 92. Parliament cannot enact legislation for peace, order and good government if the substance of that legislation falls within exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

Having taken a closer look at the wording and structure of sections 91 and 92, it seems inescapable that the proper starting point for determining whether Parliament can legislate for POGG is whether the legislation at issue falls exclusively within provincial jurisdiction pursuant to section 92. If the legislation can only be enacted by the province, it is constitutionally impossible for the same legislation to be enacted by Parliament for the purposes of POGG. This result, however, does not exclude the possibility of the legislation being valid under a specified subject of federal jurisdiction in section 91 and that, pursuant to paramountcy, such federal legislation would prevail over conflicting provincial legislation.

To a certain extent, then, the legal principles developed by courts that govern the ability of Parliament to legislate for POGG get off on the wrong foot. As these legal principles currently stand, Parliament can enact laws for the purposes of POGG in three scenarios: to address matters of national concern, respond to emergencies, and fill gaps in the division of legislative powers.

Given the text and logic of sections 91 and 92, the analysis of the validity of a federal law purportedly enacted to promote peace, order and good government should be reworked to feature two steps. The first step is to determine whether the federal legislation engages a matter coming within the classes of subjects assigned exclusively to the provinces. If the federal legislation encroaches on provincial jurisdiction, the federal legislation is invalid unless it can otherwise be saved – for example, by recourse to the enumerated list of federal subjects in section 91.

If the legislation survives the first step, the second step – tracking the opening words of section 91 – is to determine whether Parliament has made the law “for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada”. This language suggests a significant amount of latitude, so long as the legislation bears some rational basis to the three concepts. If that basis exists, the law is valid federal legislation.

If the federal law does not bear a rational basis to the promotion of POGG, Parliament might still be able to validate the legislation at this step by establishing that it falls within one of the classes of subjects listed in section 91. Assuming the federal legislation somehow satisfies section 91, it should be upheld by a court unless other constitutional constraints, such as the guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are at issue.

It is worth noting an important and, as far as I can tell, often overlooked aspect of the relationship between the list of federal classes of subjects in section 91 and the corresponding provincial list in section 92. The drafters of the Constitution Act, 1867 give us a hint of the rationale for even including a list in section 91 at all. Indeed, the collective structure of sections 91 and 92 lends itself to section 91 featuring nothing more than the general terms of the opening paragraph cited at the beginning of this post. Why did the drafters opt to go further and include specificity in the form of a federal list?

Besides a likely desire to give Parliament and the provinces a flavour of which matters fall within federal jurisdiction, the words that follow the federal list are revealing. Section 91 concludes by saying that “any Matter coming within any of the Classes of Subjects enumerated in this Section shall not be deemed to come within the Class of Matters of a local or private Nature comprised in the Enumeration of the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces.”

In other words, the list of federal subjects in section 91 fall outside of the subject that appears at the end of the provincial list. Section 92(16) affords the provinces exclusive jurisdiction to legislate “Generally all Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”. The closing words of section 91 preclude the possibility of a province enacting a law that pertains to a federal class of subject on the basis that the substance of the provincial law happens to concern a matter of a “merely local or private Nature in the Province”. Owing to the constitutional text, the provinces cannot attempt to legislate on a factually provincial matter that concerns interest, copyrights, the postal service or any other federal subject unless the provincial law can be sustained through recourse to another subject specified in section 92.

The novel two-step analysis for POGG described above challenges the current approach to this constitutional grant of legislative jurisdiction to Parliament. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the current approach is the absence of a robust inquiry into whether the federal law under scrutiny promotes the three ends of peace, order and good government. The current approach focuses on three other concepts: national concern, emergencies, and gaps. In my view, this approach must be refined to ensure fidelity to the constitutional text and to the brand of federalism it enshrines.

Admittedly, this revamp of the POGG analysis may not yield different results in certain cases that have already ruled on legislation through the lens of this this constitutional provision. In the most recent Supreme Court ruling where POGG took centre stage, the majority’s opinion in References re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act – an opinion that affirmed the federally enacted price on greenhouse gas pollution via the national concern branch – may also hold water under the novel approach. There are good reasons to say that the power to enact this law does not belong exclusively to the provinces (step one). And laws that seek to protect the environment – and by extension basic human welfare – serve the peace, order and good government of Canada (step two).

That said, there is also good reason to believe that recalibrating the POGG analysis may lead to different results in future cases. The concepts of peace, order and good government qualitatively differ from the concepts of national concern, emergencies and gaps. It seems intuitive to say that the former concepts are, in a variety of ways, broader than the latter. In short, it may be that the current approach to POGG shortchanges this grant of federal legislative jurisdiction.

Indeed, several existing federal statutes are arguably POGG laws. For example, the Firearms Act, Food and Drugs Act, Privacy Act and Canadian Human Rights Act do not fit neatly within the federal list in section 91. On the current test for POGG, these statutes would not satisfy the emergency branch. They may not satisfy the national concern branch, which remains a difficult needle to thread.

While these statutes likely satisfy the “gap” branch, this outcome also reveals a problem. Saying that POGG can fill gaps in the division of powers, without more, neglects to ask if the gap being filled is a law made for the peace, order and good government of Canada. The gap branch, as it now stands, does not ask whether the federal law is concerned with peace, order and good government.

This flaw in the current POGG test seems to echo the conventional wisdom that the division of powers in Canada is “exhaustive”. Yet, based on the text of sections 91 and 92, the division of powers is not exhaustive in the way that is often thought. If the subject of a law cannot be hung on a hook within the provincial or federal lists and cannot be said to further peace, order and good government, this is a law that no legislature in Canada can enact. The division of powers presents the field of subjects that can be treated by legislation in Canada, but it is not exhaustive in the sense that legislatures can enact laws about anything and everything. The field of legislative jurisdiction in Canada has boundaries. Parliament cannot enact a statute that defines water as H3O instead of H2O. While there is no provincial head of power that impedes this law, there is also no federal head of power or POGG basis that permits such a statute. This law is, subject-wise, out of bounds.

If the current branch-based approach to POGG shortchanges this head of federal power, does Parliament in fact enjoy far more legislative latitude? The answer is likely something less than “far more latitude”. In addition to the field and boundaries just described, the provinces enjoy exclusive jurisdiction to legislate generally on all matters “of a local or private Nature”. In other words, only the provinces can enact laws for local POGG. Besides this check on federal legislative power, there is also – as noted above – constraints imposed by other constitutional instruments such as the Charter.

I finish by noting an interesting interpretive question: must federal legislation for POGG serve all three concepts contained in this clause (peace, order and good government)? Or, alternatively, does the federal legislation only need to serve at least one of these concepts? I leave this intriguing issue, and others that inevitably spring from a consideration of the POGG clause, for another day.

Peace, order and good government may be the most famous phrase in the Canadian Constitution. Many people say the phrase encapsulates Canada’s political culture. It is therefore surprising to discover that, in terms of how this concept lives and breathes within our constitutional atmosphere, we have fallen far short of understanding it.

What Does City of Toronto Mean For Administrative Law?

The Supreme Court released its much-anticipated decision today in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34. While others will address the nuances of the case, the majority generally puts unwritten constitutional principles into a tiny, little box. It says that because “[u]nwritten principles are…part of the law of our Constitution…” [50], unwritten principles only have two practical functions: (1) they can be used in the interpretation of constitutional provisions [55]; (2) they can be used to “develop structural doctrines unstated in the written Constitution per se, but necessary to the coherence of, and flowing by implication from, its architecure” [56]. In this category, the Court uses the example of the doctrine of paramountcy, the doctrine of full faith and credit, and the remedy of suspended declarations of invalidity.

I applaud the majority opinion for clarifying the role of unwritten constitutional principles. For my part, I think the functions they have outlined for unwritten principles give those principles a meaningful role in the constitutional structure while giving priority to the text. The majority aptly underscores the worry with unwritten principles–they are so abstract and potentially endless–and negates that worry by ensuring the text as a control on the use of these principles. Even better, the majority closes the door on the rather pernicious attempt to read municipalities into s.3 of the Charter [5].

But that is not my concern for today. What does any of this have to do with administrative law?

Post-Vavilov, there was a good argument that unwritten principles–the Rule of Law specifically–could have independent force in limiting state action in some way on the standard of review–put more bluntly, that the Rule of Law could invalidate certain legislative rules governing standard of review. The Court says, for example, that “where the legislature has indicated the applicable standard of review, courts are bound to respect that designation, within the limits imposed by the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 35). It goes on to outline categories of questions–like constitutional questions–that demand a correctness standard because of “respect for the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 53). This raised the argument that if a legislature were to prescribe a standard of review of reasonableness on a constitutional question, such a standard would not be given effect to by a court because it transgresseses the “limits imposed by the rule of law.”

On first blush, City of Toronto tends to throw cold water on the argument. Its insistence that unwritten principles cannot invalidate legislation could mean that a court should give effect to a legislated standard of review on constitutional questions. And because there is no express constitutional provision insisting on a correctness standard on certain questions, on a strict reading of the City of Toronto majority opinion, there would be no power to invalidate that law.

This very well may be true, and yet I think there are a few ways to reconcile City of Toronto with Vavilov that leads to the same result that Vavilov seems to suggest–a court not applying (which is strictly, though perhaps not functionally, different from invalidation) a legislated standard of review of reasonableness on constitutional questions. Much of this argument hinges on s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

First, it might be said that the Rule of Law as outlined in Vavilov is a necessary interpretive principle that should be used to understand s.96. That is, we cannot understand s.96–which contemplates federally-appointed superior courts–without understanding the traditional role of these courts to conduct judicial review of administrative action on a certain stringency on certain questions. In City of Toronto, the Court cites s.96-100 as an example of unwritten principles bolstering a constitutional principle, suggesting that “unwritten constitutional principles of judicial independence and the rule have law have aided in the interpretation of [ss.96-100], which have come to safeguard the core jurisdiction of the courts that fall within the scope of those provisions” [55].

I think to call any of the doctrinal innovations that have come to s.96 a result of “interpretation” stretches the term a bit far. On its face, s.96 is just an appointing provision. It may be one thing to interpret what the terms of that appointing provision are, but to construct doctrine on top of the provision–or to make it work in a constitutional structure–seems to be a different judicial function.

Secondly, and I think more persuasively, the Court notes that unwritten principles can develop structural doctrines that flow from constitutional architecture [56]. Again, the Court notes examples of this sort of doctrinal construction: full faith and credit, paramountcy, and even the legal result in the Quebec Secession Reference. As we see, some of these doctrines are quite particular to specific contexts–the Quebec Seccession Reference, for example. Others are more general. The doctrine of full faith and credit in the context of conflict of laws is a major doctrinal innovation that is not found anywhere in a specific constitutional provision. These doctrinal innovations can, in effect, change or invalidate legislation that conflict with them, though they are rooted in the text itself.

Vavilov‘s comments on standard of review best fall into this category. The standard of review framework flows from two unwritten principles themselves: legislative intent (perhaps partially reflected in the principle of “democracy”) and the Rule of Law. The Court conceives of the Rule of Law as generally the rule of courts, in that courts must retain a strong supervisory role over certain questions. It would upset the supervisory role of these courts to outlaw their ability to hold state actors to the strictest constitutional standard. This is but a logical extension of Crevier, which set the stage for an argument about the constitutionally-protected role of the superior courts.

An example and a caveat. First, the majority and dissent clash over MacMillan Bloedel. In that case, the Court arguably invalidated a legislative scheme that granted exclusion jurisdiction to a youth court. The City of Toronto majority says the holding in that case was based on the text of ss.96-101 and 129 of the Constitution Act, 1867 [50]. The dissent, on the other hand, cites para 41 of MacMillan Bloedel to suggest that the basis of the holding was the Rule of Law itself [176]. In my view, MacMillan Bloedel is a bit of both. The Court clearly bases its decision in s.96 (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 47). But it also says that the case is best understood “in a broader constitutional context, considering this jurisprudence along with the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, the principle of the rule of law, and the central place of superior courts in our system of governance” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 2). To the extent these principles and s.96 were abridged, the impugned legislative provision was “read down” as “inoperative to deprive the superior court of its jurisdiction to convict the appellant of contempt in this case” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 43). In MacMillan Bloedel, we have a constitutional text (s.96)–>supported by the Rule of Law (unwritten principle)–>a result that the core of superior court powers were protected in this case. Vavilov falls into this same category. We can see, then, that in some cases a legislative standard of review may be “read down” as a result of the standard of review doctrine spun out from the unwritten principles of legislative intent and the Rule of Law.

The caveat I wish to raise has to do with the Federal Courts. Section 96 does not speak to statutory courts, and in theory, the Federal Courts’ judicial review jurisdiction could be abolished tomorrow unlike the superior courts. All of this, then, would stop at the Federal Courts. But I do not think this is inevitable. Once a statutory court has been made under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867, one might make the argument that so long as such a court exists, its powers should be construed as broadly as the powers of a superior court under s.96. But I do not commit to this argument in full, except to say that it makes practical sense to me and would uphold a consistent judicial standard for administrative action across jurisdictions.

At any rate, I think City of Toronto–despite its strong language on unwritten principles–can be reconciled with Vavilov. And at the end of the day, the result may be the same: legislation that undermines an unwritten principle may not be “given effect” according to a doctrinal innovation, even if the legislation is not “invalidated” in a strict sense. This is the best way to undertstand Vavilov‘s standard of review framework.

On Law and Music

What is the relationship, if any, between law and music?

As a musician myself, I notice many commonalities between law and music. As a jazz musician, improvisation is what I spend a lot of time thinking about. To improvise over a tune, it helps to know the notes in the tune, the chords underneath it, and the structure of the song. Artists can break these rules, and perhaps the best music comes when the rules are broken. But to break the rules, the cardinal idea of music—it has to sound good—cannot be lost. In other words, an artist has to implicitly justify her departure from the structure of the tune with the most convincing reasoning of all—the fact that the music, nonetheless, still sounds good.

It is only a small jump to move to the world of interpretation. Many have written about the aesthetics of law. In a similar vein, in a delightful article, Jerome Frank analyzes the relationship between legal interpretation and music. I preface this by saying that Frank was a noted legal realist, and I am no legal realist. Nonetheless, the intersection he explores between music and interpretation is, at the very least, interesting. For Frank, the relationship between a composer and a performer is quite similar to the relationship between a legislature and a judicial interpreter. The composer is the legislature, and it “cannot help itself” [1264]: interpretation of whatever is intended (or written, depending on one’s view of the idea of “intent”) must fall to the court—much like a piece of music, composed by someone perhaps generations ago, must fall to a performer.

Once the performer  receives the item to be interpreted, three considerations become important. First, the entire point of a performance is to perform: the performer must give due respect to the composer, because he was the one who made the song that the audience will enjoy. Sometimes in music—particularly jazz—you hear a performer that is ostensibly playing a tune but it is something completely different: he says he is playing “Autumn Leaves,” but he is improvising—almost too much—on the original tune. Sometimes this is good, but many times it isn’t, if only because the composer was the one who made the song (in this case, there is a time for soloing, but it’s important to “play the head,” as it were: “Autumn Leaves” is just fine as it is). As a general rule, I think this tracks to legislation, where the interpreter should do his best to remain true, within reason, to the law.  But, as a second consideration, there will always be an inevitable slippage between what the composer wanted (or even what the composer wrote) and what the performer does. The performer may make an inadvertent error, doing violence to the intention of the author. The composer may herself make a musical error, in which case the performer is left in the position of correcting it or leaving it as is. Finally, the interpreter may make a deliberate choice to change the composer’s creation. A jazz musician can do everything from “bending” the notes, to changing the rhythm, to even “going outside” the chord structure, creating dissonance where none was intended. The “free jazz” school, for example,  “developed in the 1960s as a rejection of conventional musical structures: things like melody, harmony, and chord progressions.”  While the free jazz school in many senses merges the role of composer and performer, creator and interpreter, it demonstrates the extreme end of the spectrum—musicians (and interpreters) can make choices given the structure of the music they are asked to perform.

As a musician, I focus much of the time on bebop, hard bop, and other “straight-ahead” styles—perhaps this explains my preference for textualism as a general interpretive method. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the choices interpreters and performers make can sometimes make the composer’s or legislature’s creation make more sense—or sound better. And if that is the goal, then  sometimes the interpreter and performer will need to make on-the-spot decisions about how a cacophony of words (or notes) should be put together into a convincing performance. As Frank notes, interpretation is a human activity, and human creativity can make sense of what, on its own, may not make sense. Law is not always coherent, because humans are not always coherent. Yet interpreters, taking a step back, can sometimes (within the context of the interpretive rules) make sense of the law.

Frank’s piece underscores the balance that must be struck in interpretation between fidelity to legislative wishes and the “human” element of interpretation that must make sense of what is in front of a court. On one hand, slavish devotion to the law can lead to absurdity; and for that reason, we have an “escape valve” available for those cases, among others (like scrivener’s error). But in most cases, there is something important about remaining relatively true to the composer’s wishes. The composer created the music for a reason. The performer is being asked to perform it. For the performer to turn the tune upside down is a drastic choice that, at least in some sense, undermines the relationship between composer and musician.

Cannonball Adderley - IMDb
Cannonball Adderley

What does this musical story tell us about interpretive methodology? Methodology cannot perfectly guarantee correspondence between law creation and law interpretation. What is important, though, is that courts make a choice to commit themselves to rules in advance: just like performers (minus the free jazz folks) commit themselves to chords, notes, rules of rhythm, etc. The choice to commit oneself to a “structured and deliberate methodology” as Justice Malcolm Rowe and Michael Collins said in a recent paper, is immensely important. It prevents rank instrumentalism by an interpreter, where a result is chosen and then justified after the fact. A structured and deliberate methodology, as Rowe and Collins note, does not tie an interpreter’s hands, just like chords and notes do not tie a performer’s; but it does structure the choices an interpreter or musician can make, for the benefit of the listeners who  generally do not want to hear dissonance all night. As above, an interpreter who breaks these rules—say, to solve an absurdity—does so because the methodology permits it. He can justify his departure under the rules, much like a musician can justify a departure from notes and chords as justified according to the reality of what sounds good to an audience. The point, as Rowe and Collins say, is that the methodology forces an implicit justification.

The analogy between music and law is imperfect, in part because different musical styles ask different things of performers. A classical musician is likely to be closer to a composer’s wishes than a jazz musician is, and this is in part defined by the rules of the particular style. Nonetheless, the relationship between composers and performers does track to legislative activity. And it shows us how, in many aspects of life outside of law, rules are important even if imperfect.