The New Administrative Law II: Why Defer?

Part II of a two-part series on administrative law

In Part I of this series on administrative law, I set out the reasons why the Progressive mode of thinking about the subject has lost force in the 21st century. The basic point was that the Progressives—who thought agencies could be staffed by expert, well-intentioned people to achieve progressive goals—assumed too much. In today’s day and age, deferring to agencies on the basis of expertise or their particular substantive goals would mean drawing a consistent rule that applies to inexpert agencies and those who do not hold progressive goals.

In truth, though, this tells us nothing about what sort of judicial review doctrine should be adopted by courts—what the posture of courts should be on judicial review. The only reason I needed to write the first post in the series is because the Progressives, who are the architects behind today’s administrative state, made these weak reasons for deference the basic building blocks. The Progressives made it so political appreciations of agencies justified a deferential posture. The problem with these assumptions, though, is that they require a constant justification according to empirical facts, and a costly court-led investigation into the reasons for deference in every case. The assumptions must be true. And if they are not true, the reasons for deference melt away.

More importantly, these functional reasons for deference are not legal reasons for deference. As Justice Scalia said, they are not reasons for motivating a court to refuse to take an independent view of an agency decision.

So, the first post in this series was not a post I wanted to write, because expertise and the political goals of an agency should be wholly irrelevant to judicial review. But it was a post I had to write, because these reasons for deference need to first be put aside before embarking on a far more ambitious task: describing a defensible doctrine of judicial review.

In the spirit of the Court’s upcoming administrative law trilogy decisions, I invite readers to take a step with me into a world where there is no administrative law doctrine—but there are courts and administrative agencies. Let’s say that there is no court-made law governing the relationship between courts and agencies. All we have is our Constitution and the principles that animate it, and statutes

Luckily for us behind this veil of administrative ignorance, the Constitution itself gives some thought to how Parliament and courts should interact. When Parliament passes law, absent constitutional objection, its law binds because of the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Putting aside thorny issues of an unconstitutional delegation of power or other constitutional challenges to administrative discretion, most administrative issues are just ordinary, hum-drum stuff involving an exercise of discretion or the interpretation of a statute.

When an administrator is delegated power under Parliament’s law to make determinations, issue rules and regulations, or adjudicate disputes, its power is confined by the statute that creates it. The administrator cannot make a decision forbidden to it by statute. Traditionally, in the common law, it was the job of the courts to interpret the limits of statutory bounds and say when a decision-maker took a decision that was not prescribed by statute. In other words, courts interpret statutes to give effect to legislative meaning regarding agencies. Courts do not invent standards to govern those agencies.

In this way, the concept of jurisdiction at common law was an attempt to synthesize parliamentary sovereignty with the rule of law. Of course, jurisdiction became a problematic concept, for the same reason that the Progressive approach to administrative law is problematic. It read a judicial conservatism into the statutes adopted by Parliament, just like Progressives wanted judges to read labour-friendly standards of review into the law. But the concept that jurisdiction was getting at—the “statutory authority” of the decision-maker—was basically sound. The idea, expressed in Bibeault, that all of judicial review is fundamentally a matter of statutory interpretation is the simple reality of the matter.

This raises the question: when does a court defer under this arrangement? In my view, the only legal and constitutional basis for deference is when a legislature expressly or implicitly says so. I have already expressed why functional or policy reasons for deference are underwhelming reasons for a court to take a hands-off approach in the interpretive process. They are empirically doubtful, and do not legally bind, because it is Parliament, not the courts, that prescribe the level of deference.

When Parliament expressly provides in a statute for the standard of review, the issue is easy. Parliament’s law binds. The trickier question exists, in the vast number of cases, where Parliament or legislatures do not expressly provide for a standard of review, and courts must do the best they can with the statute in front of them.

This moves us from the world of abstract principles in the technical, doctrinal question of judicial review: which doctrinal tools should courts use to approximate legislative meaning on standard of review when there is no clear legislative meaning available? There are any number of options, but one can divide the world into two different types of legal doctrines: rules and standards. A standard might look something like the Dunsmuir factors, in which courts are asked to look to the various indicia like the expertise of the decision-maker, the nature of the question at issue, or the existence of a privative clause or a statutory right of appeal; the former a non-binding sign that courts must defer, the latter a sign that legislatures contemplated a more searching standard of review. The goal of the standard is to take into account “context” to approximate all of the conditions under which deference could exist.

One could also imagine a rule. This has been the approach adopted by the Supreme Court as of late. In both Edmonton East and CHRC, the Court went to pains to explain that its preferred approach was a presumption of deference, based on the expertise of the “tribunal” as an “institution.” To the Court, a strong-form presumption of deference is designed to simplify the standard of review analysis and “get the parties away from arguing about the tests and back to arguing about the substantive merits of their case” (Alberta Teachers, at para 36, citing Dunsmuir, at para 145).

There are costs and benefits to both rules and standards, the complexities of which I cannot explore here. But, in at least one respect, the costs of standards cut hard in the direction of rules when it comes to administrative law: that is, the costs of “compliance” with a standard are likely exponential in a world where administrative agencies take different forms, carry different legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and take on varying policy tasks in complex regulatory environments. It is difficult for litigants to approximate the standard of review under the current scheme, because they cannot be sure with any degree of regularity what the standard will be in their case. There is also a kernel of truth in the Court’s reasoning about deferential presumptions: at the very least, they focus the parties in on the merits at the expense of the rather abstract standard of review.

But the standard of review, nonetheless, is integrally important in a world where government action is confined by law. It prescribes the conditions under which unelected judges can interfere with the actions of delegated actors, acting under authority delegated to them from elected actors. It is important to get the question right, as a matter of the rule of law. But it is also important to stabilize the law, also as a matter of the rule of law.

How do we balance these considerations? I favour a rule of interpretation similar to the one advanced by Martin Olszynski: there should be a presumption of correctness review. That presumption would operate under the well-supported idea that the legislature must affirmatively—explicitly or implicitly—speak before a court will infer deference. In other words, deference does not accrue to administrative agencies from the heavenly font of judicial chambers. It does not exist in the ether because of some expertise-worship or the desires of progressives; after all, experts should be “on tap, not on top.” Deference is, in reality, only a legal matter—only prescribed by legislators—and must be fairly interpreted to exist by courts.

The rule can be slightly relaxed when we come to understand under what conditions deference should operate. A privative clause, within constitutional limits, should bind courts and be a sign of deference—it should operate as a statutory “clear statement rule” that deference was intended by the legislature. In less clear cases, such as when statutes delegate power in broad terms (the classic “public interest” delegation is an example), courts should also defer, on the grounds that legislatures would have spoken more specifically if it wished the agency to have a more limited range of factors to consider in making a decision. Where a legislature uses a “statutory recipe,” deference should be very narrow, perhaps non-existent: if an agency has a list of factors to consider, it must consider that list, nothing more or less.

Of course, what I have said here is open to criticism (Professor Daly, for example, wrote a piece a few years back criticizing this line of thinking; I responded to Professor Daly’s piece, here). And nothing in here is necessarily new. Justice Stratas, for example, has written decision after decision at the Federal Court of Appeal level along these lines. Nonetheless, the contribution I seek to make here must be read in light of my previous post. My conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Legislatures are sovereign within constitutional limits.
  2. This means that when legislatures delegate power, within constitutional limits, courts (as unelected actors) should respect the will of elected actors. This is a simple corollary of the English Bill of Right
  3. On that logic, it is for the legislature to tell courts just how far courts can go. In the state of nature, courts must fairly interpret those boundaries.
  4. Courts should not read progressive (or conservative) justifications for deference into the law. Courts should not presume expertise where it does not exist. Courts should not presume that agencies are owed deference because they are part of the “social welfare” state. In the latter part of the 20th century, the courts swerved in the direction of leftist politics rather than law. That tendency should be guarded against, not only because it is wrong as a matter of law, but also because it is empirically untrue. But so should the tendency to shift in conservative directions.
  5. The best rule, with this in mind, is a presumption of correctness review, with the onus on the legislature to stipulate if it wishes more deference in the context of particular statutes, using either (a) privative clauses/statutory rights of appeal or (b) broad language, implying that the legislature did not wish to limit the considerations an agency can take into account in carrying out its tasks.

The methodology here is not perfect, the considerations are not complete, and there is more that can be said. But at the very least, in this series of posts, I hope to have inspired a re-evaluation of the existing reasons why we defer to agencies. I also hope to have encouraged readers to reflect on the real reasons why we should ever defer at all.

The New Administrative Law

Part I of a two-part series: why we need to reconceptualize the administrative state and our reasons for deference.

**This is the first in a two-blog series of blog posts about re-theorizing administrative law. This first post is about why the traditional justifications for the administrative state and deference to administrative law are wanting. The next post will be about my prescription for a new doctrine of judicial review, based on new theoretical commitments**

By now, it is rote for observers of Canadian administrative law to say that the mechanics of the law of judicial review are in dire need of repair. The Supreme Court at least tentatively agrees; currently under reserve is a series of cases that could lead to renovations in the law. I have written before why I think the Court is unlikely to do anything of substance with these cases. Upon reflection, I am even more convinced that, even if the Court does something, virtually any solution it will come up with will only tinker at the edges of the problems in Canadian administrative law. This is because the whole body of law is in need of re-conceptualization and theoretical re-justification. The Court is unlikely to accomplish that task.

Why do I say this? The fundamental assumptions undergirding Canada’s administrative law have not been calibrated to the political or social realities of the 21st century. Specifically, the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. This is baffling. The empirical realities of the administrative state, in the current day–connected to our traditional understandings of parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law (not in conflict, as is commonly supposed)–should inform whether or not courts defer to agencies.

For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean that school of thought, dominant in the New Deal era, that had at least two heads (as Richard Epstein notes here). First is the idea that power could be delegated to persons in the public service who would always act in good-faith, and be faithful agents for the pursuit of substantive goals associated with the New Deal and small-p progressive, leftist politics. Coupled in this first head was a skepticism surrounding courts, which were perceived as mired in the conservative common law. Second is the idea, championed by people like Woodrow Wilson, and going back even further to Max Weber, that administration was a science; and that the powers of the state could be wielded by experts in an efficient manner for the greater good. This was not only an American invention—in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives, including John Willis, W.P.M. Kennedy, J.A. Corry, and later on, Harry Arthurs (for a good account, see R. Blake Brown “The Canadian Legal Realists and Administrative Law Scholarship, 1930-1940” (2000) 9 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 36).

If the assumptions supporting this Progressive administrative law were ever true, they are no longer true some 80 years on. Consider first the substantive goals of the administrative state. For W.P.M. Kennedy, administrative agencies were means to achieve important progressive substantive goals. Kennedy said:

New standards must be developed in all fields of human endeavor which will be in harmony with the new social philosophy of the age. Care of the sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm, elimination of slums, control of industry in the interests of humanity, protection of children, universal education, development of natural resources for the benefit of all mankind, all demand attention.

(“Aspects of Administrative Law in Canada” (1934) 46 Juridicial Review 203 at 221)

John Willis, in his classic article “Administrative Law and the British North America Act,” also wrote that:

The years of depression since 1929 have induced legislatures to pass laws which are right out of line with traditional ways of thought and therefore distasteful both to the those guardians of the past, the lawyers, and to their wealthy clients who have, of course, been adversely affected by these laws.”

Harry Arthurs later wrote, in his attack on judges, that the “inexorable logic of the law” “produced results which seemed contrary to social justice, and sometimes, to common sense.”

But the substantive understanding of the administrative state as a purveyor of social justice is no longer true, and it is unclear if the assumptions ever were. Reading the Kennedy, Willis, and Arthurs quotes, one is surprised at their unbridled faith in government–particularly administrative agencies–to achieve herculean goals. The problems with this sort of thinking are endless. First, to the extent the administrative law Progressives attacked the common law, the criticisms were profoundly ahistorical. The common law was not, as Arthurs suggested “contrary…to common sense.” As Richard Epstein points out (and has over the course of his 50 year career), the common law rules were actually much more subtle and sophisticated than modern Progressives suppose. In areas of contract, tort, and property law, common law rules were used since the time of Roman law as simple rules of thumb for organizing contractual relations and demarcating property boundaries clearly (consider the first possession rule of property law—a simple rule that is actually derived from Roman law). They were used all this time for a reason. While tradition is the bête-noire of modern legal thought, there is at least a reason to think—however naively—that people organized different legal systems across time and geographic boundaries in common ways for a reason. Ignoring these features of the common law seems unfair, even if the common law must be adapted to new realities.

Now, in the 21st century, administrative agencies are armed with the most repressive powers of the state. We are no longer talking about expert labour boards, the darling of Canada’s Progressive administrative law theorists, and the body that dawned Canada’s modern administrative law doctrine. Now, prison wardens make decisions about the rights and interests of prisoners, some of the most vulnerable of us. The prison situation is especially concerning. So-called “administrative segregation” is a matter of judicial review, because it is an administrative decision—an exercise of discretion, which Kennedy supposed would be used to help the “sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm.” Yet solitary confinement is, by most accounts, one of the most repressive and arbitrary forms of punishment to which one can be subject. All a matter of administrative law and judicial review.

This is why it is surprising to see Progressives continue to be skeptical about the role of courts. Administrative law progressives had and continue to have a rather obsessive focus on A.V. Dicey without realizing that Dicey’s account of administrative law accepted the idea of delegation, but was aimed at attacking a particular sort of “administrative law”—the droit administratif of France. Dicey was simply concerned with how best to control administrative power; the question is not whether delegation should exist, but how best to control it. Yet, so strong was the Progressive faith in government, that Harry Arthurs said that he “took to wondering out loud whether courts had any role to play in any field involving social conflict or controversy.”

In my view, Dicey was not the unrealistic one here. The Progressives, with their unbridled faith in the power of the state, put all of their eggs in a basket with no bottom. They ignored the experience and thinking of many of those who came before. Consider the wise thoughts of James Madison and many of the US framers, who were so skeptical of government action that they took pains to divide and separate the functions of government; government was necessary, because men are not angels, but it had to be limited and controlled. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, expressed a similar moral skepticism about perfect, good-faith government agents:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it (456).

This is not to say that government is either a force for good or evil; such characterizations are far too simplistic. I only aim to say that there is a strong moral tradition of skepticism that the Progressives simply did away with, without an understanding of the nature of delegated power: it can be used in either political direction. It is profoundly disturbing to suggest that courts should not have a role to play in policing the boundaries of the arms of the state concerned with prisons, for example.

The substantive goals did not stand alone. For Progressives, the chosen means for accomplishing these ends were the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal. Indeed, John Willis famously wrote that administrative law must be viewed as a “functional” matter: “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, the Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 UTLJ 53). For Willis, this was true on two levels. Administrative law had to be studied as a functional matter. That is, we had to know what happened in the administrative state to actually understand administrative law. This is undoubtedly true. But Willis went further, arguing that “Expertise, avoidance of delay, reduction of expense—these are the basic reasons for the modern practice of giving the power of decision in many areas to deciding authorities other than courts.” Adding to that list was a desire for independence for these decision-makers (see Brown, at 50).

So, there are three functional reasons for deference at play here: (1) expertise (2) efficiency and (3) independence. I can only touch on these briefly, but they do not stand up to scrutiny as reasons for an across the board presumption of deference.

I have written before about expertise. The question is not whether expertise exists in the administrative state. Clearly, it does, whether intrinsically or through the development of “field expertise.” The question is whether expertise inheres in an agency as an “institution,” as the Supreme Court suggests in Edmonton East, such that we should defer as a matter of course. On questions of law, it is far from true that we should be confident to impose a rule (rather than a standard) assuming that agencies have this sort of expertise. Consider the case of Vavilov, currently under reserve at the Supreme Court. The analyst report, which formed the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship in that case, said the following (as excerpted in the Parkdale Legal Services brief):

[The analyst] confirmed that she was not a lawyer, had never gone to law school, and perhaps taken one course in administrative law as part of her degree in political science. She also confirmed that she was a junior analyst, had not relied on any internal policy guidelines or any other documentation…and had found nothing in her search of archives…

This statement does not inspire confidence in the expertise of a decision-maker. And this is not just reserved to the Vavilov case. Parkdale Legal Services outlines a number of other decisions, in the immigration context, where a decision-maker evinced a lack of expertise. It is completely unrealistic to transform this thin reed into a strong-form doctrinal presumption.

On the question of efficiency, this is perhaps one of the areas where the administrative state has failed most. At the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada’s largest tribunal, the wait time for a refugee hearing, for example, was two years long as of November 2018. At the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, delay appears to be the watchword, due to alleged partisan interference in the appointments process. I could go on. But delay, and lack of resources, hobbles the ability of administrative justice to be a system of justice at all—even relative to courts.

And, what’s more, access to the administrative state—like the administrative state itself—is sometimes a matter of government generosity. Consider the recent cuts to legal aid in Ontario. Former Justice John Evans of the Federal Court of Appeal recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail, focused on the fact that cuts to legal aid will hamper the ability of refugees to have a fair shot at justice. How can a system that causes such rash injustice be labelled an “efficient” system of administrative justice? If litigants do not have equal access to the system, is administrative justice at all a serious alternative to the courts?

And on independence, the story is no better. The Supreme Court of Canada itself has held, in Ocean Port, that administrative decision-makers are simply creatures of statute, controlled by the executive. Governments of all stripes have treated them as such. Consider the case in Saskatchewan, where an incoming government fired all the members of the labour board. Or, consider the recent delays in appointments to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which in turn impact the independence and functionality of the Tribunal.

Of course, a few examples does not a theory make, but it should be cause for one to at least reconsider the foundational assumptions of administrative deference. My point here is not to say that the administrative state must be abolished because its organizing premises are frayed. It is instead to point out that if courts are to defer to administrative decision-makers, there should be good and existent reasons for deference. And, I need not prove that all of the traditional justifications for administrative power are no longer true. Even if they are only untrue by half, there is a need to reconceptualize what substantive and pragmatic justifications undergird the system of administrative law.

The problem, as I will explore in my second post, is that these policy reasons for deference have been transformed by courts into legal reasons for deference, without a concern for whether Parliament has actually, itself, done so. These reasons do not even have the benefit of being empirically true in every case, and yet they are treated as such when the SCC uses them to justify a strong presumption of deference.

The Supreme Court, in the upcoming trilogy, is institutionally unable to deal with theoretical problems of this magnitude. In reality, lawyers, judges of courts the country over, academics, and politicians should be the ones rethinking how our administrative state operates. We need a new theory of judicial deference.

Abellian “Law”

It is with an utter lack of surprise that I yet again fill the virtual pages of Double Aspect with thoughts on another of Justice Abella’s comments on the nature of judging. Both Leonid and I have continuously written about how Justice Abella frequently displays a judicial arrogance  that is inconsistent with the role of a judge in a constitutional democracy, both descriptively and normatively. I hesitate to write yet again on the same subject.

But I am moved to do so by the utter lack of accuracy in Justice Abella’s recent speech at Fordham University, where she described a bastardized version of the Canadian approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. Here are the comments in a release from Fordham:

“Our judges don’t draw lines over whether to follow a linguistic word approach or an intentionalist approach,” she said. “We just look at how we think this provision should be interpreted in light of all the things you worry about: what did the legislature mean, what do the words say, what was the purpose of the statute, all of that.”

Justice Abella discussed the importance of the Edwards v Canada case, more commonly known as the Persons Case, which concluded that women were eligible to sit in the Senate of Canada. In the 1929 decision, Lord Sankey stated that the British North America Act is “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.” Justice Abella spoke about this idea, the living tree doctrine, as a basic guiding principle.

“[The living tree doctrine] is constitutional but it’s also philosophically foundational,” she said. “It’s how we approach not only the constitution but also our statutes. What is the fair, appropriate, and just meaning of the phrase? We read it in the most reasonable way possible.”

I need not repeat yet again, from the constitutional perspective, why Justice Abella’s comments are wrong as a normative matter respecting the living tree.  I want to concentrate on the seemingly more mundane matter of statutory interpretation, and Justice Abella’s statements that we apply a “living tree” methodology in that context. She is flat-out, embarrassingly wrong as a positive law matter; but as a normative matter, the view is dangerous.

On positive law grounds, it is completely untrue that courts in Canada apply a “living tree” approach to the interpretation of statutes as a matter of course. The Supreme Court has held, time and time again, that statutes should given the meaning they had at the time they were adopted. This was the definitive statement of Dickson J in Perka, at 264-265, citing authorities noting that “The words of a statute must be construed as they would have been the day after the statute was passed…” and “Since a statute must be considered in the light of all circumstances existing at the time of its enactment it follows logically that words must be given the meanings they had at the time of enactment, and the courts have so held.”  Most recently, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota stated on Twitter, this was the approach adopted by the Supreme Court in R v DLW  where the Court cited Perka, noting that while broad terms might be afforded a more flexible interpretation, the original meaning governed in that case. Justice Abella dissented. So, contrary to her belief,  the general rule is that the original meaning of a statute applies.

This makes sense. No matter what one thinks the strengths of living constitutionalism are in the constitutional context, the argument loses force in the statutory world.  At a formal level, constitutions are restrictions on the legislature, and one could argue that they are developed by the judicial branch through strong-form judicial review, in Canada. But statutes are clearly the product of the legislative branch (or their delegates). Judges have no warrant–at least since 1688–to legislate. At a functional level, it could be true that Constitutions are not easily amended, and so judges should develop their meaning to new facts. But that same argument is so clearly wrong in the statutory context, where statutes are passed and amended by legislatures all the time.

One might try to steel-man Justice Abella’s comments by relying on the comments in R v DLW and other general interpretive principles. It is true that “dynamic interpretation” is indeed a distinct method of interpretation, recognized in Canada: see Ruth Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes at 175 (2014). While it is true that the Court in R v DLW and other cases have noted that statutory terms can take on a “dynamic meaning,” this is far from the ordinary rule, generally only applicable in defined circumstances given defined statutory language: see Sullivan, at 177. And even if it was, the dynamic approach is not inconsistent with original meaning, and it does not support Justice Abella’s broad misunderstanding of textualism. One can speak of two types of original meaning:

  1. Situations in which statutory terms should be statically applied to the same situations that were in their contemplation at the time of enactment.
  2. Situations in which statutory terms are broad and must be applied to new facts as they arise.


Both of these situations are consistent with original meaning. In the first case, both meaning and application are largely frozen at the time of enactment. Sullivan says an interpretation of this sort is justified when “…new facts are functionally equivalent or analogous to facts that were within the ambit of the legislation when it first came into force” (Sullivan, at 179), for example. In the latter case, though, the legislature has spoken more broadly, and this is where a “dynamic” approach enters the fray. But this does not mean that the statute receives a new meaning according to some Abellian idea of an unbridled living tree: it just means that its contours are applied to new facts. We constrain the meaning–the scope of application– using text, context, and purpose. I always use the example of the Kyllo decision in the US, in which the Court endorsed the proposition that the 4th Amendment (protecting against searches and seizures) applied to infrared searches of the home. The scope of the 4th Amendment always protected the home, and it applied to the new facts of infrared searches.

The situation, then, is much more subtle and sophisticated than Justice Abella suggests, and the subtletly does not work in her favour.

Undeterred, she goes on to suggest that courts in Canada take an “anything goes” approach to statutory interpretation, seemingly rejecting textualism. This mistake is even more bizarre, considering the very recent decision in Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. Justice Abella, in her Fordham talk, suggests that courts do not draw lines between “textualism” and “intentionalism” in Canada. But she herself attempts to do so (wrongly) in her dissent, at para 107 of the decision:

The debate between those who are “textualists” and those who are “intentionalists” was resolved in Canada in 1998 when this Court decided that “there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament. We do not just look at the words.

Not only that, but the majority in decision in Wellman comes down on the side of text over abstract, judicially defined purposes. Justice Abella was in dissent–she did not win the argument, for very good reasons. So, again, Justice Abella finds herself claiming that the law is something when it is not.

Two normative conclusions can be drawn about Justice Abella’s odd talk at Fordham, one about the merits of what she says the law is and one about the role of a judge in Canada. Take the latter first. It would be one thing if what Justice Abella said was an honest, innocent mistake. But I find it that hard to believe in these circumstances. Wellman just happened, and Justice Abella lost the argument she now claims she won. Why a judge in our democracy would say this—especially to an international audience—is unclear. We should expect better

The merits of the suggestion that courts in Canada apply a living tree approach to statutes are also lacking. First, as Craig Forcese said on Twitter, the suggestion would amount to a complete reversal of the ordinary structure of our Constitution. The judicial function is, to state what I thought was the obvious, completely separate from the legislative. Justice Abella seems to have much in common with the old English judge who told an unfortunate lawyer trying to give his best interpretation of the statute: “Do not gloss the statute, for we know better than you, we made it.” We’ve moved far beyond these days, and it is odd for a “progressive” judge like Justice Abella to suggest we go back in that direction. Parliamentary sovereignty should stand for something.

The suggestion that judges should make up statutory meaning as they go along would have positively corrosive effects in many areas of law. Criminal law is an obvious example, but administrative law is another. Judges, rather than Parliament, would be the master of agencies if they could expand or narrow the scope of delegated power exercised by these agencies depending on the judges’ particular worldview. Not only does this stand inconsistently with the Court’s own professed idea of deference, it is dangerous to subvert Parliament’s laws in service of a judge’s ideology.

And this, I suppose, is the point. While I believe that Justice Abella means well, she reveals an unfortunate arrogance that crops up in speech after speech. For one, she claims the law is her opinion when it is not. Then, she takes on the mantle of judging what a statute should mean, given her own impressions of what it requires. It takes someone with much self-confidence to do this. Whether or not we should have confidence in her is quite another matter altogether. A Supreme Court judgeship is not enough, in a democracy, to give its holder the mantle of deciding what laws should mean or which laws should apply. Someone who believes so is better suited to be a politician than a judge.


The “Return” of “Textualism” at the SCC[?]

Under the so-called “modern approach” to statutory interpretation, courts are instructed to take into account the text, context, and purpose of a statute. But perhaps because the “text, context, and purpose” recital is so commonplace, other difficult interpretive questions are masked under its patina. For example, which takes priority—text or purpose? The Supreme Court has said that clear text is dominant in the interpretive process (see Placer Dome, at para 21; Canada Trustco, at para 10), but at the same time, the Court has often adverted to the role of purpose in interpretation, to the extent that purpose or policy considerations could override clear text (see the opinion of then-Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills, at paras 40, 43). And, even if one could work out what the proper relationship is between text and purpose ,there is no guidance from the Court about what purpose, at what level of abstraction, should be relevant in the analysis. I have written about these issues before.

Luckily, the Supreme Court has provided some guidance to answering these questions in Telus Communications v Wellman, 2019 SCC 19. While the approach advanced in the case is not strictly textualist, it does represent the important idea that text dominates in the interpretive process, and that overall policy goals should not be permitted to override that text. While the Supreme Court is a laggard to these important conclusions (see the opinions of Stratas JA in Williams, Cheema, and Hillier), they come better late than never.


The case involved an important question of statutory interpretation under Ontario’s Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act. Wellman filed a class action against Telus, consisting of both “consumers and non-consumers” [2]. The action alleged that Telus “engaged in an undisclosed practice of ‘rounding up’ calls to the next minute such that customers were overcharged…” [2]. All of the contracts binding the class provided that any claims “arising out of or in relation to the contract, apart from the collection of accounts by Telus, shall be determined through mediation, and failing that, arbitration” [3].

The problem for Wellman et al, though, was that not all of the members of the class were “consumers.” Under the Consumer Protection Act, the arbitration clauses in the contracts are invalid, because “it would otherwise prevent class members who qualify as ‘consumers’ from commencing or joining a class action of the kind commenced by Mr. Wellman” [4]. The Consumer Protection Act “shields consumers from a stay of proceedings under the Arbitration Act” [4]. Telus conceded this point as regards the consumers. But there were non-consumer, business customers included in the class. The core question was whether they could escape the effect of a stay sought by Telus.

Wellman said that, under the Arbitration Act, s.7(5), the court had discretion to refuse Telus’ request for a stay against the business customers, so that the business customers could continue in the class. Section 7(5) says the following:

7 (5) The court may stay the proceeding with respect to the matters dealt with in the arbitration agreement and allow it to continue with respect to other matters if it finds that,

(a) the agreement deals with only some of the matters in respect of which the proceeding was commenced; and

(b) it is reasonable to separate the matters dealt with in the agreement from the other matters.

Telus, though, fundamentally disputed this claim, arguing that under other provisions of the Arbitration Act, exceptions are set out that are exhaustive of all the legislative exceptions in the Arbitration Act scheme. Accordingly, to Telus, the Consumer Protection Act does not apply to the business consumers, and instead, the business claims should be stayed under the Arbitration Act [7].

Analysis in the Case

Moldaver J wrote for the majority, accepting Telus’ argument. After citing the general modern approach to statutory interpretation of text, context, and purpose, he first grounded his view of the statute in its purpose. One of the principles of the Arbitration Act, appearing in the legislative history, was the need to ensure that parties “abide by their agreements,” and that the law was designed to enshrine this idea [50]. Subsequent cases in courts across the country, to Moldaver J, accepted this idea [54].

Turning to the text, specifically s.7(1) of the Arbitration Act, Moldaver J wrote that it established a general rule: “where a party to an arbitration agreement commences a proceeding in respect of a matter dealt with in the agreement….the court “shall,” on the motion of another party to the agreement, stay the court proceeding in favour of arbitration” [63]. This is, obviously, a mandatory statutory rule. Wellman, though, argued that s.7(5) excerpted above is an “independent, standalone” exception to s.7(1) [74]. This provision, which permits a “partial stay”—meaning that the court has a discretion to stay some of the claims for arbitration—is available if certain statutory preconditions are met and if the court exercises its discretion in favour of the stay. Wellman argued that s.7(5) could be read so that the court “may refuse to stay” the business customers’ claims. But Moldaver J rejected this proposition, focusing on the text of s.7(5) in its statutory context. The text of s.7(5) says nothing about a court “refusing to grant a stay,” and to him: “…where the legislature intended to authorize the court to refuse a stay, it did so through the words ‘may refuse to stay’” [73]. Those words did not appear in s.7(5). And, with this text and context in mind, Moldaver J turned to purpose: allowing Wellman’s argument would “reduce the degree of certainty and predictability associated with arbitration agreements,” permitting the business customers to escape the effect of a stay [76].

Wellman also relied on certain policy considerations to support his preferred interpretation of the text [77]. One of these was a general principle of “access to justice,” which “[removes] barriers to seeking relief in court” [77]. But there were two problems with importing this idea as a decisive principle for the case: (1) a rarefied idea of access to justice should not “be permitted to distort the actual words of the statute, read harmoniously with the scheme of the statute, its object, and the intention of the legislature, so as to make the provision say something it does not…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts…[i]t is not the role of this Court to re-write legislation [79]; and (2) the Ontario regime pursues access to justice by “shielding consumers from potentially harsh results of enforcing arbitration agreements…” by exempting consumers “and only consumers” from “otherwise freely negotiated agreements” [80]. This is in conjunction with the Arbitration Act’s pursuit of the overall principle that parties should abide by their agreements. Access to justice, as a general idea, should not “be permitted to overwhelm the other important objectives pursued by the Arbitration Act…” [83].

While I do not have space to recount the minority opinion of Abella and Karakatsanis JJ, I want to note a particularly fiery charge that they chose to level at Moldaver J: “The majority’s approach, with respect, in effect represents the return of textualism. The words have been permitted to dominate and extinguish the contextual policy objectives of both the Arbitration Act and the Class Proceedings Act [citations omitted]…” [109]. To the minority, the “overall purpose” of the Arbitration Act “was to promote access to justice” [137].


I want to say three things about this case. First, the minority’s charge of “textualism” against Moldaver J is inaccurate and sloppy; (2) Moldaver J’s approach, while not textualism, represents a defensible “textually constrained purposivism,” that guards against a court aggrandizing to itself the power to “read-in” language to a statute; (3) both of the opinions show why relying on legislative history is such a fraught enterprise.

Consider first the minority’s textualism charge. I can only imagine that Abella and Karakatsanis JJ were trying to make a rhetorical point, because I cannot believe that they—learned judges of our Supreme Court—could so misunderstand an entire school of interpretive thought. Textualism is directly opposite to “purposivism,” which is primarily concerned with the ends a statute pursues. To the textualist, purpose is encompassed in the means the statute pursues. It is not concerned with an overall statement of purpose, per se: consider Scalia J’s opinion in MCI and WVUH v Casey, and also Judge Easterbrook’s article, “Statutes’ Domains.”

But Moldaver J’s opinion does not just focus on means. It considers the ends of the Arbitration Act, including the overall “purpose” of respecting the agreement reached by parties in their contracts. Moldaver J’s approach is much more realistic than the minority’s approach, which chooses the “access to justice” purpose as the “overall purpose”—with no justification other than, apparently, judicial fiat. Moldaver J’s approach recognizes that there are other purposes of the statute at play. This is not textualism.

That said, Moldaver J’s approach does recognize that purposes do not exist in the abstract. They must be tied to statutory means. What is relevant is not the court’s appreciation of what access to justice means, but what the legislature thinks it means, and the words the legislature used to represent that idea. And that legislative instantiation is existent in the Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act, working in pari materia. As Moldaver J noted, the Ontario regime is focused on permitting access to justice for “consumers,” by allowing them to pursue claims in court. When we are talking about business customers, though, the legislation does not speak in abstract terms about access to justice writ large–the Arbitration Act has defined means to grant a partial stay, not means to refuse to grant a stay. It pursues the goal with limited means, in conjunction with other fairly discernible statutory purposes. Abella and Karakatsanis JJ—poets, apparently—say that “a provision must be assessed in all its textures — language, purpose, effect — to prevent the suffocation of its meaning by a technical literal reading of the words” [130]. But here, poetry suffocated prose, because the language of the statute works in symbiosis with purpose. Purpose does not override text. And in this respect, to my knowledge, it is not hornbook law that the Canadian approach is “intentionalist,” as Abella and Karakatsanis JJ say [107], understood in the sense that intentions should override text. Intentionalism would mean taking a psychologist’s armchair and determining what a legislator meant to say; not what was said.

This makes sense from a democratic perspective. Legislators, in their heads, may think of purposes when they enact laws. These purposes may range from “the public good,” on one hand, to minute, technical considerations on the other. Because a court cannot discern which purpose ended up becoming law, we have to think about what the best evidence of the law could be in the circumstances. Usually, text is that best evidence. While it is not always definitive and clear—because language is not always definitive and clear—it is better than unexpressed intentions or abstract, tangential purposes.

I want to raise a final note about the use of legislative history. Both sides of the case relied on different aspects of the legislative history to support their particular interpretation. Because various statements existing in the legislative history are not ranked by importance, it is difficult for any court or observer to put more or less weight on various statements. So, like Judge Leventhal once said, legislative history is like looking over a crowd and picking out your friends. A judge predisposed to one interpretation will use legislative history to support his own view of the matter. If we are going to allow legislative history to be a valid part of statutory interpretation, it should only be relied on with severe caution, as an afterthought, and with the idea that its probative value is exceedingly low.

Notwithstanding the quibble about legislative history, Moldaver J’s opinion is worthy of note because it finally recognizes that judges, under the guise of judicially divined “purposes,” cannot override a contextual interpretation of the text. The text is what the legislature enacted. It should govern.

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

Last week, the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] announced that it is refusing to to implement Bill 21, introduced by the Quebec government. The law would ban workers in the public sphere in positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols” while at work. The government, apparently cognizant of the challenges this could raise under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signalled its intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause to immunize its law from constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary.

In pre-emptively declining to implement the law, the EMSB invoked constitutional objections under the Charter against the ban:

Vice-Chair Joe Ortona, who drafted the resolution, said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to paragraph 2 (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and contrary to paragraph 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Furthermore Mr. Ortona said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to subsection 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees that everyone is equal before and under the law and guarantees the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on religion and contrary to section 3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression.

Quite aside from the merits of the issue, there is a legitimate question of administrative law, here: can an administrative agency like a school board, empowered by statute, simply decline to enforce a law that it believes is unconstitutional? More specifically, can the agency decline to enforce the law if the law invokes the notwithstanding clause? Whatever the answer is, should agencies be able to come to their own determinations of constitutional law?

The place to start is probably the Martin and Conway line of cases. The core issues in those cases were the conditions under which an administrative agency can choose not to apply statutory provisions in its enabling statute that it considers to be unconstitutional—and if so, whether there is a power to issue personal remedies under the Charter. So these cases go, if an agency has the express or implied power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision (see Martin, at para 37), then it presumptively has the power to determine questions of constitutional law. The implied inquiry looks to a number of considerations (see Martin at para 41):

Relevant factors will include the statutory mandate of the tribunal in issue and whether deciding questions of law is necessary to fulfilling this mandate effectively; the interaction of the tribunal in question with other elements of the administrative system; whether the tribunal is adjudicative in nature; and practical considerations, including the tribunal’s capacity to consider questions of law. Practical considerations, however, cannot override a clear implication from the statute itself, particularly when depriving the tribunal of the power to decide questions of law would impair its capacity to fulfill its intended mandate. As is the case for explicit jurisdiction, if the tribunal is found to have implied jurisdiction to decide questions of law arising under a legislative provision, this power will be presumed to include jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of that provision.

The presumption can be rebutted by the party seeking to dislodge the Charter jurisdictional presumption, by pointing to an express or implied withdrawal of authority to decide constitutional questions: the concern is discerning whether there is an intention to “exclude the Charter, or more broadly, a category of questions of law encompassing the Charter, from the scope of the questions of law to be addressed by the tribunal (Martin, at para 42).

So the question at the outset for the EMSB is whether it has been conferred the ability to decide questions of law, either explicitly or impliedly. The enabling statute for the EMSB is the Education Act. Under s.111 of that statute, the province of Quebec is divided into “two groups of territories,” with one group constituting English school boards, like the EMSB. The EMSB, under the statute, is “a legal person established in the public interest” (s.113). There is at least some reason (even if weak) to believe under the Education Act the EMSB has the power to decide questions of law, but only a limited one pertaining to its particular mission under the Education Act. For example, under the statute, the EMSB has the power to “ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented” (s.222) and can exempt students from that basic regulation “[f]or humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student” (s.222). Assume for now that these rather vague and limited provisions confer a general power to decide questions of law: that general power, interpreted in light of the text, context, and purpose of the Education Act as it relates to school boards, would probably only relate to the organization of quality educational services (s.207.1), although one could argue that the same concern could apply to the context of Bill 21.

Even if this could be seen as an implicit signal of constitutional jurisdiction under the Education Act, it is a bit orthogonal to the core interpretive question. Martin, the key case on point, says that the real question is whether the EMSB has power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision in its enabling statute (see paras 27-28, 35). But here, there is not only no challenged provision yet, but it is not the EMSB’s enabling statute. This presents two further problems: can agencies issue prophylactic constitutional rulings? And even if they can, can they do so by choosing not to apply a statute that is not their enabling statute?

It would seem odd, in light of the Supreme Court’s cases, to suggest that an administrative agency can prophylactically choose not to apply a law that otherwise applies to it. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute, and so are subject to the statutory conditions that the legislature imposes on them. Under Bill 21, the terms of the statute clearly apply to school boards (see Schedule I, (7)). Short of some dispute arising within the confines of the statutory regime created by the Education Act, there does not seem warrant for the EMSB to go out on a limb and refuse to apply a statute that has yet to have created any particular problems within its statutory jurisdiction. This seems to be what Abella J suggested in Conway, where she concluded that tribunals could “have the authority to resolve constitutional questions that are linked to matters properly before them” (Conway, at para 78).

More important than this issue, though, is the idea that the EMSB can choose not to apply a statute that is not its enabling statute. The main Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue, even the ones that predate Martin, involve the enabling statute of the decision-maker under consideration (Conway, at para 49: “These cases dealt with whether administrative tribunals could decide the constitutionality of the provisions of their own statutory schemes.” Consider the cases on this point: in Cuddy Chicks, the issue was whether the Ontario Labour Relations Board could determine the constitutionality of a provision in the Labour Relations Act. In Martin, the question was whether the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal could decide a s.15 Charter claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and associated regulations. All of these cases involved claims tied to the regime under which the decision-maker was established, with cases “properly before them.” And this makes sense: it would be odd for Parliament to delegate power to an administrative agency, confined by a statutory scheme, to pass on the constitutionality of other statutory provisions that may only tangentially be related to the part of the Education Act (for example) that the EMSB must apply.

Even if none of this were true, the notwithstanding clause effectively limits any independent choice an agency could have about the constitutionality of the statute under which it is invoked. For one, even if one could impute an intention to the legislature that presumptively allows the EMSB to make constitutional determinations, the notwithstanding clause is a good reason to say that the legislature has rebutted that presumption with respect to the particular category of question at issue here: this is the upshot of Martin and Conway. More fundamentally, a use of the notwithstanding clause cannot be legally questioned by any actor in the system, including the judiciary. The EMSB cannot legally second-guess the choice of the provincial government (its master) to insulate legislation from constitutional scrutiny. The invocation of the notwithstanding clause flows down the entire machinery of the state, and whether we like it or not, its use is legally justifiable by the fiat of the legislature.

To my mind, the use of the notwithstanding clause also renders null any arguments that one could make that the EMSB is justified in its prophylactic ruling because of an abstract notion of “Charter values.” Despite the fact that the spectre of Charter values is increasingly being called into question, and the precedential force of cases like Trinity Western should be questioned because of the lack of reasoning on the point (see, embarrassingly for the TWU majority, para 59), the notwithstanding clause is a legislative command that compels executive actors to ignore the Charter when implementing the law in question. There would be no point in invoking the notwithstanding clause if administrative actors could choose to “independently” opine on the constitutionality of laws in the face of it. The lightning rod for a consideration of Charter values is discretion, and the notwithstanding clause neutralizes any discretion at all on the constitutional question.

To my mind, there is little warrant for the EMSB to prophylactically say it will not enforce Bill 21, given its limited statutory domain and the use of the notwithstanding clause. And this is likely how it should be. It is one thing for an administrative agency, when implementing a statute in the context of a concrete dispute, to have to pass on the constitutionality of a statutory provision—in its own statute—in order to resolve the dispute. In that case, there are at least colourable reasons why the agency should have the power to do this: if one believes in the idea that agencies have expertise on matters arising within the confines of their statute, one could say that they could also have expertise on Charter matters arising in relation to that same statute. One could also say that the legislature delegated to the agency the power to make Charter determinations, even through the imperfect proxy of a general power to decide questions of law. These same justifications lose their force when considering statutory provisions outside the enabling statute. While Bill 21 certainly does affect the realm of the EMSB, the EMSB is not conferred a general power to make constitutional determinations arising under other statutes.

Lessening Us: The Supreme Court and SNC-Lavalin

The SNC-Lavalin episode gets worse, if that is possible.

In an apparent effort to distract from the SNC-Lavalin affair, a leak on Monday claimed that the rift between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould began far before the term “deferred prosecution agreement” entered the public lexicon. Apparently, it all started when Wilson-Raybould recommended Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court of Canada. For those unaware, Chief Justice Joyal has, over the years, advanced a welcome antidote for the Charterphile Canadian legal community. His views are not extreme or inappropriate; rather, they are intelligent appreciations of the cultural and institutional changes that the Charter introduced. The fact that he was rejected out of hand for a Supreme Court appointment—and the fact the circumstances of his appointment have been leaked—are indictments of both Canada’s legal and political system.

The most important part of all of this is the morally repugnant way in which Chief Justice Joyal’s application for the bench was released by some unknown party. Originally, it was reported that Trudeau scuttled Wilson-Raybould’s recommendation because of his disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal’s views. Then, it was reported that Chief Justice Joyal actually withdrew his application, because his wife was suffering from metastatic breast cancer. The fact that this was leaked, and that Chief Justice Joyal’s personal life was implicated in the process, is a low for Canadian politics. No one should have to endure public scrutiny on a matter as personal–and tragic–as a cancer diagnosis.

What makes it even more tragic is that, as Chief Justice Joyal noted, his personal situation seems to be used as an agenda for the broader SNC-Lavalin controversy. The implication of all of this is that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the information to the press in order to show just how misguided Wilson-Raybould was as Attorney General. If there was any doubt, the episode shows just how far some politicos will go to undermine not only norms surrounding judicial appointments but also the personal lives of those in the way.

And, all of this for views that are not at all controversial and are important counterpoints to the ongoing debates about the Charter and its institutional features. A good example of Chief Justice Joyal’s welcome assessment of the major counter-majoritarian difficulty introduced by the Charter is his 2017 speech to the Law and Freedom Conference. The main theme of the speech outlined the consequences of the “judicial potency” that the Charter introduced, a feature that “was not anticipated back in 1982.” These consequences are ones that are not often discussed, are certainly true. For example, consider a few of the consequences Chief Justice Joyal noted:

  • The constitutional requirements imposed by the Charter do not “mesh” well with the legislative process, making it more difficult to make laws.
  • The Charter has moved important debates outside of the realm of the legislature and into the realm of courts.
  • This movement outside of the legislative realm creates “a public discourse dominated by the concept of ‘rights’,” one that is defined by “judicial formulations and tests.”
  • The political culture introduced by the Charter conflates constitutionality with policy wisdom, when there is no need to necessarily merge the two concepts.

Agree or disagree, these are all important consequences of the system of judicial review introduced by the Charter, and the way in which Canadian lawyers have reacted to that power of review. There is no doubt that the Canadian legal community largely suffers from “Charteritis,” (not my term–check out David Mossop’s 1985 article entited “Charteritis and Other Legal Diseases”). And for that reason, Chief Justice Joyal’s remarks in 2017 were a welcome appreciation of the symptoms of that disease.

But in the leak published on Monday, the nuance and force of Chief Justice Joyal’s conclusions were completely lost. Apparently, when Wilson-Raybould recommended Chief Justice Joyal to the bench, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned about the 2017 speech. Trudeau was apparently concerned that Joyal would be less willing to protect rights that have come from judicial interpretation of the Charter, including rights to abortion access and LGBTQ2 rights.

If this is true, this base understanding of Chief Justice Joyal’s legal views is completely wrong. There is nothing in his 2017 speech that would indicate a preference—one way or another—for any particular issue that would come before the Supreme Court, should he have been a judge. All of Chief Justice Joyal’s broader views are perfectly consistent with a respect for stare decisis and the cases that have entrenched rights, whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided.

Chief Justice Joyal’s views have nothing to do with these issues, simply put. They merely stand for the idea that, in the age of the Charter, the legislatures have assumed a different role. This is simply an empirical fact. There are consequences to this. One is that, rather than dealing with issues through the cut-and-thrust of political debate, we have moved those debates into the courts, which are often ill-suited to deal with these sorts of problems. The issue of Aboriginal rights and title is a perfect example. Because of the recalcitrance of governments over generations, Aboriginal groups have, strategically, moved to the courts to vindicate their rights. But that does not mean that the judicial forum is a better place to do so. The Tsilqho’tin case is a good example of this—a case which took decades of time and untold resources to reach the Supreme Court. Even people who believe in the Charter, and in the judicial role that it introduced, should recognize that legislatures should still be important areas of public debate that should be equal constitutional actors in their own right, owed respect by the Supreme Court’s judges.

While it is perfectly appropriate for the Prime Minister to want to appoint people to the bench who reflect his view of the Constitution, those views should at least be informed and educated. Based on the media reporting so far, it appears that the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to understand that one can have different approaches to Charter interpretation—or a less positive view of the broader implications of the Charter—and still have a respect for the document as a matter of constitutional law. Even if one thinks those views are wrong, this is no reason to misunderstand what Chief Justice Joyal’s views actually represent.

Taken together, this whole SNC-Lavalin episode continues to lessen us–our law and our politics.

The Empty Canard of the Living Tree “Doctrine”

In 1989, Justice Scalia gave a speech entitled “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis.” These “canards,” are “certain oft-repeated statements…” that, while having “little actual impact upon the decision of the case” are “part of its atmospherics, or of its overarching philosophy…” Justice Scalia gave the example of the old adage that “remedial statutes should be liberally construed,” a canard because it is difficult to determine what a “remedial statute” is, and then because it is not a judge’s role to pick and choose statutes to be interpreted liberally and strictly.

In the last few days, both the Stereo Decisis podcast and my co-blogger Leonid have focused on a case out of Quebec in which our own Canadian canard was put to work: the idea that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be interpreted as a “living tree.” In the context of the case at issue, Leonid received flack from the Stereo Decisis podcast hosts for suggesting a textualist approach to the interpretation of s.12 of the Charter, while the hosts were focused on determining the normative commitments that should influence constitutional interpretation, having concluded that the language of the Charter is written in open-ended and ambiguous language. Lurking in the background of this debate between textualism (properly understood) and the openness of language is the idea that the Constitution should evolve to encompass certain normative commitments, whether or not they are discernible in the text. This is the core of the living tree approach.

But no one has ever described—with real precision—how a living-tree “doctrine” would work in practice, and so it is simply unconvincing to state, without more, that the Charter should or could encompass evolving normative commitments not fairly implicated by the text. Until the proponents of the living tree suggest some way—any way—that the doctrine should actually operate, it should be resigned to the dustbin of history. My point here is not to point out the flaws of the living tree methodology; others have done that. Instead, I want to suggest that for the living tree doctrine to become an actual doctrine, it should answer a number of fundamental questions. None of these questions are new, but they come into stark relief, requiring urgent answers, if the living tree is going to remain even a part of the Canadian constitutional atmosphere.

Why, for example, has the Supreme Court rarely applied the doctrine in any substantial way, despite it being a favourite among legal academics? One would be hard pressed to think of a case where the living tree was a decisive factor in favour of one party or another, or where it was applied to some distinct substantive end. In fact, in Comeau, the interprovincial beer case, while the Court mentioned the living tree doctrine, it was quick to point out that the metaphor is not an open invitation to constitutionalize modern policy outcomes [83]. So much for a leading interpretive theory of constitutional interpretation, especially when it appears that, on least some occasions, the Court has endorsed the opposite of a living tree approach.

Even if the living tree stood tall in the pantheon of constitutional interpretation, no one can answer how the doctrine should actually operate. In the United States, some attempts have been made by leading scholars to cloak living constitutionalism in the credentials of an actual interpretive theory. David Strauss, for example, links living constitutionalism to a sort of common law constitutionalism. To my knowledge, few if any in Canada have attempted to “steel-man” the living tree doctrine to turn it into something resembling an interpretive doctrine. The lack of effort is telling in the unanswered questions: should the living tree apply to expand the actual scope of rights, or should it just apply to new applications unknown to the framers? If the latter, how is this distinguishable from originalism, properly applied? After all, the dominant school of originalism is public meaning originalism, not original expected applications originalism. If this is all the living tree approach denotes, then it is a duplicative piece of atmospherics that is better left to the pages of poets rather than the law books.

Most strikingly—and this was laid bare in the Stereo Decisis podcast episode—how should a living tree “doctrine” mediate between different normative considerations? If the text gives us no answers, how we are to determine which values should be granted the imprimatur of constitutional protection? How do we determine whether society has evolved, such that a certain value is now constitutionally cognizable? How do we define “society?” These questions have never been answered in Canada.

Even if they could be answered, as Leonid points out in his post on the matter, there is nothing to suggest that courts are institutionally or normatively capable of getting to even defensible answers on these questions. These are not questions that are based on evidence, facts, or even legal norms. They are philosophical, involving inquiries into the mind of the cultural zeitgeist. Are we certain—or even confident—that judges can answer these questions?

If the proponents of the living tree want it to be a serious doctrine of constitutional law, these are all questions that should be answered. Until then, the status quo position should be that the living tree is a turn of phrase, taken out of context, that has no real substantive quality.

N.B. A reader has commented that Wil Waluchow has written about a sort of common law constitutionalism in Canada. I cannot speak with confidence as to whether Waluchow’s work is similar to the Straussian view, but at first blush it appears relevant. Whether it answers the legal questions posed in this post is another question.