Interpretation and the Value of Law II

This post is written by Leonid Sirota and Mark Mancini.

We read with interest Stéphane Sérafin, Kerry Sun, and Xavier Foccroulle Ménard’s reply to our earlier post on legal interpretation. In a nutshell, we argued that those who interpret legal texts such as constitutions or statutes should apply established legal techniques without regard for the political valence of outcomes. Only in this way can law function as a common reference and guide in a pluralistic, democratic society in which, as Madison eloquently argued in Federalist No. 10, disagreement about fundamental values and the policies required to implement them is pervasive and bound to remain so “[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it”.

Our interlocutors claim that our argument leads legal interpretation into “insipid literalism” and, ultimately, sees law as nothing more than a form given to the outcome of power struggles, rather than as the product of reason striving to advance the common good. We remain unconvinced. Our interlocutors seem to wish to escape the more controversial uses to which the “common good” term has been put, but rely on ambiguous claims in doing so. We write today to address some of these claims.

The bottom line is this: if our interlocutors wish to fundamentally change the way we understand texts by sotto voce urging interpreters to adopt a “substantively conservative” position at the outset of the interpretive task, we must dissent. If they wish to simply “tune-up” the way we use purpose and context to enrich our understanding of bare texts, then that is a worthy contribution to the ongoing effort in which many of us are engaged: trying to make Canadian interpretation more workable, less results-oriented, and more focused on the text itself, understood in light of its legislative context in real, practical cases.

Our response is divided into two parts. First, we describe how our interlocutors misunderstand the relationship between, as Jeremy Waldron put it, “The Concept and the Rule of Law”. Second, we catalogue the ways in which our interlocutors’ position is muddled.

  1. The Rule of Law and the Concept of Law, Again

For our interlocutors, “it is clear” that when we say that interpretation must strive for neutrality in order to enable law to guide the members of a pluralistic society, we are “operating within a positivist legal framework”. At the same time, they suspect us of wanting to smuggle a substantive agenda of expanding pluralism into our interpretive views. Respectfully, they are simply mistaken about this. To be sure, as they suggest, the idea of law as a guide for citizens, and hence of the importance of the law’s compliance with the requirements of Rule of Law that make its guidance effective, is an important feature in the work of some positivists, such as Joseph Raz. But its not the positivists’ exclusive preserve.

Consider Professor Waldron’s argument that we need “to overcome casual positivism―to keep faith with a richer and more discriminating notion of law” (19) ― and further, that “[i]t is a mistake to think that a system of rule could be a legal system if there is no publicly accessible way of identifying the general norms that are supposed to govern people’s behavior” (26). Guiding behaviour, including by enabling and encouraging self-application of publicly available rules by those subject to them, and so upholding human dignity, is a key feature of the Rule of Law discourse, but also, Professor Waldron urges, of the very concept of law. This argument was as much on our minds as Professor Raz’s.

And if Professor Waldron might still be regarded as a positivist, trying to merely formulate a better version of that school’s doctrine, Lon Fuller is, alongside John Finnis and Ronald Dworkin, the epitome of Anglo-American non-positivism. And the idea of law as a guide is perhaps best represented in his famous parable of King Rex, the hapless legislator who repeatedly failed to make laws that his subjects could follow. For Fuller too, the requirement that law be framed so as to outline the state’s expectations of its citizens is a matter of respecting human dignity. It is also a matter of what he describes as reciprocity between those in power and those subject to their decisions. The former can expect compliance if, and only if, they frame their demands in such a way that the latter can make sense of them.

The real issue between our interlocutors and us, we suspect, is not a conflict between positivism and natural law, to which one of us (Sirota) is rather sympathetic. Nor is it our commitment to some nihilistic form of neutrality or, conversely, pluralism. As to the former, substantive legislation is of course not neutral―it embodies the commitments of its makers. The task of an interpreter is to ascertain and give effect to these commitments. To do so well, the interpreter must try to bring both established semantic, contextual, and substantive interpretive tools, and (most importantly) an equanimous disposition to his work―precisely to give effect to the commitments made by those with the authority to enact legislation and avoid imposing his own. A judge interpreting the law will never be perfectly neutral in fact, but an interpreter has no business abusing his position to advance pluralism in law, anymore than he is free to make the law more conservative, more progressive, or anything in between (this point was put eloquently by Justice Stratas in Kattenburg, at para 45). 

Lastly, the issue between our interlocutors and us is not a disagreement about whether law should be infused with reason rather than being a matter of raw power. What we disagree about is how reason matters. For us, as for Fuller, what matters is “the inner morality of law”, or its “artificial reason” as Coke put it ― the morality or reason of legal craft and technique, which ensures that law is intelligible to all those subject to it, simply because they are thinking, reasoning human beings, and which is inherent in the enterprise of governing through law, properly understood, rather than emanating from some benevolent ruler whom the  “[s]ubjects will come to thank”. Our interlocutors’ focus is less on form and more on the content of the law; the reason they appeal to is more substantive than the one on which we focus. We turn now to the substance of their argument.

2. The Motte and Bailey of the Common Good Approach

As we note above, the second broad point we wish to make relates to the ambiguities, whether studied or inadvertent, in our interlocutors’ arguments. We outline three areas where our interlocutors’ positions are confusing. In each, our interlocutors could, on one hand, be advancing controversial propositions about the way texts are interpreted—propositions which could run against the need to avoid outcome-based reasoning. On the other hand, our interlocutors’ position could be wholly uncontroversial, simply relating to the relative place of various interpretive tools (like purpose). If it is the former, our interlocutors should say so clearly. If it’s the latter, our interlocutors should disclaim some of the more controversial purposes for which their arguments could be used.

(A) The Natural Law Motte-and-Bailey

Our interlocutors spend a lot of time talking about natural law. They see it as reflected in the legislative process itself—to them, the natural law tradition asks us to “construe the law itself as permeated by reason.” In a passage bound to feel rather opaque to non-aficionados of the tradition, our interlocutors argue that “[n]atural law reflects an idea of reason immanent in the positive law and lends it intelligibility; while in making its general precepts more specific, the positive law realizes and makes concrete the otherwise abstract elements of the natural law.” More specifically, our interlocutors suggest (putatively relying on Justice Miller in Walsh) that all legislation is designed for the “common good.” So, for our interlocutors, it appears that a reflection on the natural law and the “common good” is inherent in the activity of legislating itself. Even the Constitution, they claim, is influenced by the idea of the “common good.”

We question whether the “common good” can mean the same thing in all these contexts. Hand-waving towards Aquinas or a “model opinion” does not adequately answer this question. Our interlocutors seem to assume that the “common good” as a theoretical matter has been stable across time—from the Angelic Doctor to Justice Miller in 2021. This seems intuitively wrong. Even according to those who subscribe to the natural law tradition, there are debates about what the natural law prescribes.

But ultimately, what we are interested in is how this all bears on legal interpretation; how jurists have applied this idea of the “common good” in relation to real cases and current circumstances. Here, we notice that our interlocutors’ suggestion that appeals to natural law and to the common good are nothing more than reminders of the law’s rationality and pursuit of ascertainable purposes is by no means the only view. Adrian Vermeule, for his part, argues for a “substantively conservative” approach to interpretation designed to support the rulers in endeavours—as Vermeule describes it—to “legislate morality” and to support “the traditional family.” This seems to be a fundamentally different use of the term “common good” than our interlocutors propose.

These two radically different approaches are deployed in typical motte-and-bailey fashion. When outlining their own agenda, the latter-day promoters of the “common good” and natural law support Vermeule’s project to use interpretation to stop the “urban-gentry liberals” from prioritizing their own “financial and sexual” satisfactions, on the basis of external values that exist outside of constitutional and statutory texts. When pressed, however, they retreat to the seemingly innocuous claims about law’s rationality, made to appear rooted in legislation and the Constitution.

These two positions are incompatible. If our interlocutors wish to claim that the pursuit of the “common good” is inherent in the act of legislating, that is a proposition we would be prepared to entertain within the context of deciding what a particular text means, although at least some (and perhaps a good deal of) legislation is demonstrably directed at the private benefit of the law-makers or their constituents, or at entrenching outright bigotry, with appeals to the common good nothing more than a smokescreen. But if our interlocutors wish, instead, to impose an “illiberal legalism,” as Vermeule does, that does not “play defensively within the procedural rules of the liberal order,” than that is a different matter entirely. The former deals with matters of interpretation. The latter concerns itself with the culture wars of the day. Our interlocutors should either disclaim Vermeule’s use of their “common good” or accept it.

(b) The Purposivism Confusion

Our interlocutors’ position on interpretation itself is also equivocal. The language of the “common good”, as used by our interlocutors, seems to invoke one rather uncontroversial argument with which we completely agree: text cannot be understood without understanding its abstract and particular purposes. That is a proposition that textualists and non-textualists alike accept (see A. Scalia and B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, at 20), and which is hornbook law in Canada. But at the same time, that basic argument raises more questions than it does answers.

Our interlocutors claim that there is “one truth” in the idea of “purposive interpretation”—the premise that law is designed to fulfill an “end” that is “intelligible to reason.” Our interlocutors embrace a “teleological outlook on the essential nature of legislation.” This seems right so far as it goes. As Max Radin notes in his famous article “A Short Way with Statutes,” “the legislature that put the statute on the books had the constitutional right and power to set [the statute’s] purpose as a desirable one for the community” (398). We agree that texts must be read in light of their purposes if we wish to understand why a legislature used certain words in creating a particular rule ― though again we caution that the legislature’s motives may not have been at all noble or reasoned.

If this is all our interlocutors are suggesting, their use of the “common good” phraseology is benign and probably a distraction. Like Asher Honickman in his response to our interlocutors, we do not see these invocations as adding anything to current debates about understanding legal texts. But we take our interlocutors to be saying something, and so simply saying that law is a teleological enterprise is incomplete without specifying how text drives the interpretive process. What needs to be decided is how we choose what purposes are relevant to interpretation. Here, we could speak of “ulterior” purposes—à la “mischief”—or “implementational purposes”—the legal rules (such as rules, standards, or delegations) that legislatures use, in text, to enact particular ulterior purposes (see, for a discussion of these different purposes, Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” at 863, 876). At the highest level of abstraction, one could say that laws are designed to achieve “justice and security” or the “common good” or the “public interest.” This does not tell us much about how a legal instrument should be interpreted, because legislatures do not implement ulterior purposes at all costs or in totality, and courts err when they interpret statutes with this assumption, as one of us has argued here based on the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser. Interpreters must work between purposes, keeping a clear eye on the text and the way it enacts particular legal rules (see Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, at 187).   

At times our interlocutors seem to agree with this position. They say that courts cannot “override the terms or the finitude of a statute” and that “no human law-giver can conceivably grant benediction to the common good across the whole of human affairs.” We agree. And yet, we note that an assumption that the legislature’s “reasoned choice is rendered intelligible by the idea of the common good” ignores that language may only imperfectly capture that aim.  Our interlocutors’ position is similar to the old “strong purposivist” view represented in the Hart & Sacks Legal Process materials: legislatures consist of reasonable people pursuing reasonably purposes reasonably. If one takes this view, then it is possible to claim that the idea of the “common good” contains within it substantive aims that could and should override the terms of a statute. If this is what our interlocutors argue, we must disagree, simply because the implementational means employed by legislatures will always be over- and underinclusive in relation to purposes stated at a high level of abstraction. Overriding the text of a statute in favour of a court’s appreciation of purpose risks ignoring the means the legislature chose.

Lest this discussion seem abstract, let us conclude with a reminder of what this “strong purposivist” view means in practice: the early-20th century Holy Trinity case of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibited the immigration to the US of “foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States”. It was intended to ban the immigration of Chinese workers―but did not specifically say so. The language of the statute also covered an Anglican priest engaged to work in the United States. Yet the Court held that it did not apply to him, because the United States was a “Christian nation,” and hence the law could not have been meant to exclude Christians as well as minorities. Here, we see that the court took a highly abstract background principle and used it to supplement the terms of a statute. This appears to be fine under at least one reading of the “common good” interpretive idea. And yet, this is an outrageous violation of the Rule of Law’s requirement that law be publicly stated and applied in accordance with its enacted terms. It is also, and not coincidentally, an example of intolerable partiality and bigotry.

We conclude this section by restating the point: our interlocutors’ embrace of teleology in law is interesting and welcome, but not helpful by itself. This is because it does not answer fundamental questions about the relationship between text and purpose; and, at best, a perspective focused on “the common good” adds no conceptual heft to relevant and current interpretive debates. We are left wondering whether our interlocutors simply believe in purposive interpretation, or whether they are advancing some other case.  

(C) The Political Confusion

Last but not least, it is important to emphasize that the idea of the “common good”, which our interlocutors present as having a consistent, definite meaning over time, has been put to very different uses by very different people. Our interlocutors claim, for example, that Josh Hammer’s idea of “common good originalism” is perfectly within the tradition of textualism and positivism.Our interlocutors want to reassure us that interpretation drawing on the “common good” does not pursue external policy goals, but rather seeks to determine the meaning of the law from within.

This is a valiant effort, but it flies in the face of the expressly political valence of Hammer’s essay. Hammer makes the following points about his proposed method:

I call my jurisprudential framework “common good originalism,” and I would humbly submit that it be adopted as conservatives’ new legal standard-bearer—a worthy complement to other simultaneously unfolding New Right/“new consensus” intellectual efforts.

[…]

Put more simply: The concerns of nation, community, and family alike must be prioritized over the one-way push toward ever-greater economic, sexual, and cultural liberationism. And this must be true not merely as a matter of public policy, but as a matter of legal interpretation.

Indeed, the entire first part of Hammer’s essay (and another more recent one) trades in politics. The point for Hammer seems to be the development of a certain type of conservative interpretive method that is an adjunct to a political project. One wonders why Hammer needed or wanted to include expressly political statements in a piece that is—our interlocutors tell us—wholly about interpretation. Do our interlocutors disclaim this part of Hammer’s essay, and more generally, how do they distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the concept of the “common good”?

That the “common good conservative” movement is a political project is clear from the reaction to the US Supreme Court’s Bostock case. As one of us wrote here, in that case, Gorsuch J decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, despite their not being expressly listed in the statute, because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. In all likelihood, the framers of Title VII did not foresee that the statute would protect sexual orientation and gender identity. Indeed, as Alito J pointed out in dissent, Congress had declined to add sexual orientation and identity to Title VII in the past.

Now, what divided the majority and the dissent in Bostock was a question of pure textual interpretation. As Tara-Leigh Grove argues, Bostock is representative of “two textualisms.” And as Asher Honickman points out, there are reasons to debate the respective roles of social context, expectations, and semantic context in Bostock. This debate has nothing to do with the political valence of one or the other interpretation.

And yet the conservative meltdown over Bostock focused squarely on the results of the case. Here we see the worry about “economic, social, and cultural liberationism.” For Hammer, Bostock was not a mistaken application of textualism, but a showcase of its fundamental faults, laying “bare the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the conservative legal movement.” Hence Hammer’s proposal of common good originalism, designed to solve this very “failure.”

Bostock raises many questions about the aims of the “common good” movement more generally, and its relationship to interpretive method. One is hard-pressed to find how the concept of “the common good” solves any legal problems in Bostock that cannot be solved by robust debate among textualists about the role of expectations, intentions, and purpose. While one of our interlocutors seems to suggest that the result in Bostock was wrong because judges should take account of the underlying “metaphysics” of words, we view this perspective as a distraction for judges working through real cases—and this is clearly not what Hammer et al seem to be getting at. They have identified a “failure” in interpretive method—a result that they, for one reason or another, do not like. They have designed an interpretive method to solve that problem. Without Gorsuch J’s political “mistake” in Bostock, “common good originalism” was unlikely to ever enter the conversation as it has (which is all the odder since Bostock is a statutory case). As a result, we cannot endorse this fundamentally political project.

Conclusion

Those who subscribe to the “common good” in interpretation are on the horns of a dilemma. There are those who seek to use the concept for expressly political ends, through the task of interpretation as a sort of “living tree” for conservatives. And then there are our interlocutors, who appear to defend the concept as limited, well-understood, and innocuous. We hope our interlocutors can determine which of these options is theirs—and if they simply wish to change emphasis in textual interpretation, then they can join the ongoing debate on that question.

Putting Stare Decisis Together Again

Originalists and living constitutionalists alike have good Rule of Law reasons for being wary of appeals to reinvigorate stare decisis

It is hardly news for those who follow Canadian public law that the Supreme Court tends to have little regard for precedent. Indeed, to the surprise of most people and the chagrin of many, it even freed lower courts to disregard its own precedents, in some circumstances, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. For many people, this lack of regard for stare decisis is part of a broader pattern of erosion of the Rule of Law. Dwight Newman and, separately, Brian Bird and Michael Bookman, made this argument in their respective contributions to the collection of essays/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review on threats to the Rule of Law in Canada edited by Maxime St-Hilaire and Joana Baron in 2019.

The relationship between stare decisis, the Rule of Law, and the desire to do justice in particular cases and to improve the law going forward is not only a source of difficulties in Canada, however. So tomorrow (December 15) at 2PM Eastern, a panel of the Global Summit, an online conference organized by Richard Albert, will try to shed some light on it with participants from the United States (Jeffrey Pojanowski and Marc DeGirolami), and Australia (Lisa Burton Crawford), as well as yours truly. Our chair will be an Italian colleague, Andrea Pin. This should be a lot of fun, and the other participants are all first-magnitude stars. (In case you’re wondering how they let me in ― well, I helped Prof. Pin put it together, so they couldn’t conveniently boot me out!)

The proceedings will, naturally for these plague times, be on Zoom. You can register here ― it’s free! My understanding is that they will be recorded and will, eventually be made available to all. These things tend to take some time though, and are bound to with an event as big as the Global Summit, so I encourage you to watch tomorrow if you can. And, to convince you to give it a go, here is a flavour of own presentation.


Critics of the lack of respect for precedent in Canadian public law tend to argue that enough is enough, and the Supreme Court should go back to a much more robust ― and consistent ― application of stare decisis. My argument is that this is too simple, too idealistic a response. In a perfect world where judges had generally been committed to the Rule of Law, unwavering respect for precedent may well be what an ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law requires. But the world of Canadian public law is far from being perfect in this way. Much of this law suffers from deep Rule of Law problems, some of which I described in my own contribution to the St-Hilaire & Baron volume. As a result, while I share the desire to put stare decisis together again, I argue that this operation will be a delicate one, and must be careful and somewhat selective.

One issue which I’ll address here ― there will be more in my talk (assuming I don’t run out of time, that is!) ― is the concern that respect for precedent may force courts to apply something other than the correct legal rule, be it constitutional, statutory or, arguably, even a common law principle. Lord Sankey, perhaps the chief ― if also most misunderstood ― authority on constitutional interpretation in Canada describes the issue eloquently in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58. Pointing out that “[u]nder our system, decided cases effectively construe the words” of enactments, including constitutional enactments, Lord Sankey highlights

a danger that in the course of this process the terms of the statute may come to be unduly extended and attention may be diverted from what has been enacted to what has been judicially said about the enactment. To borrow an analogy; there may be a range of sixty colours, each of which is so little different from its neighbour that it is difficult to make any distinction between the two, and yet at the one end of the range the colour may be white, and at the other end of the range black. (DLR 64)

Lord Sankey’s concerns in the Aeronautics Reference are those of an originalist avant la lettre: “[t]he process of interpretation as the years go on”, he warned,

ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction … should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies.

Some prominent academic originalist voices have echoed this belief, notably Gary Lawson, Randy Barnett, and Amy Coney Barrett (back when she was still in academia). However, they are not alone in worrying about precedent standing in the way of an accurate application of the law. Debra Parkes raises the same concern from a Canadian living constitutionalist perspective: “[t]he entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has arguably strengthened the case for overruling earlier decisions that are inconsistent with the evolving interpretation of various Charter rights”. (137) Similarly, the late Joseph Arvay and his co-authors have argued that “it is the role and duty of the [Supreme] Court to provide what it believes to be a correct interpretation of the Charter, even if that involves admitting long-standing and oft-repeated past judicial error”. (69)

Of course, originalists or those who are chiefly concerned with the stability of the law may view the living constitutionalist position as simply empowering judges to legislate their particular preferences from the bench. And, admittedly, some living constitutionalists seem to seek a sort of permanent revolution in constitutional law. Mr Avray and his co-authors wrote that “an examination of the role of stare decisis in Charter litigation reveals some transformative Charter moments lost”, (62; emphasis in the original) suggesting that they might be expecting the courts to change society rather than be its reflection, as living constitutionalism seems to suggest. I personally think that this tension between applying the law, even an ever-evolving law, and transforming it is fatal to living constitutionalism’s claim to be a sustainable approach to constitutional interpretation. But let me put that aside for the purposes of this post (and of my talk tomorrow).

Here, I will take living constitutionalism at its word, as an approach to constitutional interpretation that holds that the law is shaped by the needs and values of society as they stand from time to time. On this view, updating legal doctrine to align it with these needs and values as they happen to stand now is not exercise of will, but simply what the Rule of Law requires. Living constitutionalists saying “this precedent no longer reflects the values of Canadian society and must therefore be discarded” are no different, in their relationship to the Rule of Law, from originalists saying “this precedent is inconsistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text, and must therefore be discarded”.

Call this, if you will, the horseshoe theory of constitutional stare decisis. Radical originalists and radical living constitutionalists agree, at least at the level of broad principle. In practice, there may still be substantial disagreement between those originalists who, like Prof. Barnett, distinguish constitutional interpretation and construction, and see a role for stare decisis in the latter, and living constitutionalists (and those originalists) for whom all constitutional questions are essentially similar in being determined by the constitution itself. But, that important detail aside, both sides of the horseshoe agree that the constitution’s meaning cannot be superseded by judicial interpretation, and remains directly binding on courts, regardless of what their predecessors may have said about it.

From my own originalist perch, I agree with this view. The Rule of Law concerns about the stability of legal doctrine are serious, of course. But the concern on the other side of the scale is no less based on the Rule of Law. The issue is with what Lon Fuller called “congruence” between the law on the books and the law as it is actually applied. (I wrote about this here.) Law cannot guide behaviour ― and thus play its moral role in providing a secure environment for citizens and establishing a mutually respectful relationship between the citizens and the state ― if it is not applied in accordance with its terms. Officials, including judges, who do not apply the law as it stands are engaged in nothing less than “lawless application of the law”. In my view, lawlessness cannot become the foundation of a Rule-of-Law compliant law; it must be expunged for our legal system to have a claim to the kind of authority that Fuller envisions.


As mentioned, this is only a preview. In my talk ― and, hopefully, in a paper that will come out of it ― I will try to address a couple of other reasons why I think it is a mistake to simply insist that the Supreme Court go back to upholding precedents. The problems with the Rule of Law in Canadian public law run much deeper than a lack of regard for stare decisis, and addressing this issue in isolation will not really resolve them. I hope that you can “come” to the talk, and that we can continue this discussion there!

Still Wrong, Just a Little Less So

The Québec Court of Appeal errs in thinking the Charter prevents the imposition of, in effect, life imprisonment without parole

This post is co-written with Maxime St-Hiliaire

What punishment is just for someone who takes the lives of many other human beings? And what punishment for such a person is constitutional? In Bissonnette v R, 2020 QCCA 1585 answers the latter question, and its answer is at odds with the answer to the former. In an unattributed unanimous opinion, the Court holds that a provision of the Criminal Code that allowed―but did not require―sentencing judges to stack minimum parole ineligibility periods imposed for multiple counts of first-degree murder is unconstitutional. The Court finds that the very possibility of such stacking is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a deprivation of liberty and security of the person contrary to the principles of fundamental justice prohibited by section 7 of the Charter.

The sentencing judge in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 thought that the ordinary sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 25 years would not have been adequate. However, he also found the stacking of multiple 25-year periods constitutionally objectionable, and took it upon himself to rewrite the Criminal Code so as to give himself the discretion to fashion what he took to be the appropriate sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a 40-year period. The Crown appealed the finding of unconstitutionality, while Mr. Bissonnette appealed the sentencing judge’s remedy (which the Crown defended as an alternative).


The Court of Appeal first considers whether the stacking of parole ineligibility periods amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In its view, the fact that such stacking is not required and can be ordered at a judge’s discretion does not remedy its constitutional defects: “notwithstanding the existence of a discretionary power by which the judge can refrain from imposing a cruel and unusual sentence, the provision is invalid simply because it authorizes a judge to impose such a sentence”. [79] It clarifies, however, that a discretionary sentence that will be cruel and unusual in some cases ought to be upheld if it will nevertheless be proportionate in others. Thus “the question to be resolved is this: are there situations in which it would not be cruel and unusual to impose minimum parole ineligibility periods of 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, indeed 1,000, years?” [89]

The Court takes the position that there are no such situations. Indeed, in its view, the idea is simply irrational. For one thing, “the number of victims to be used as a basis for a judge to stack periods of ineligibility is a legislative choice that is difficult to reconcile with the sentencing criteria in place in Canada”. [91] The possibility of a court “imposing a parole ineligibility period that highly exceeds the life expectancy of any human being” [92] is particularly disturbing. For the Court of Appeal, “[a] court must not make an order that can never be carried out”, because this “brings the administration of justice into disrepute” and amounts to “senselessness” that “is, in and of itself, cruel and unusual punishment … degrading because of its absurdity”. [93] Indeed, even a sentence of life imprisonment without parole “is at least tied to the lifetime of a human being, while ineligibility periods totalling 100 years and more have nothing in common with the duration of a human life”. [95]

But the problem the Court sees with stacked parole ineligibility periods, even just two, is more than just irrationality. It also has to do with the possibility that a rehabilitated offender would be denied the opportunity to apply for parole:

An inmate rehabilitated after 25 years and not eligible to apply for parole before a second 25-year period would, in all cases, be subject to cruel and unusual treatment. The excessive length of the unnecessarily prolonged incarceration would be grossly disproportionate. … [107]

For the Court of Appeal, “preventing a reformed accused from having genuine access to the parole application process” [111] is in itself a fatal constitutional flaw, compounded by the fact that the sentencing “judge is not in a position, barring speculation, to genuinely know the likelihood that the accused will be rehabilitated in 25 years. He is in an even worse position, if that is possible, when dealing with a period of 50 years.” [110] This flaw cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

The Court then turns to section 7 of the Charter. It notes that sentencing judge’s findings that not only are stacked parole ineligibility periods a deprivation of liberty, but also that “an actual irreducible sentence of imprisonment for life” [117] produce psychological impacts that amount to a deprivation of the prisoners’ security of the person are not challenged. The issue is whether these deprivations accord with principles of fundamental justice.

The Court of Appeal does not follow the judge below in accepting the protection of human dignity as a principle of fundamental justice and finding that it too has been breached. For it, two such principles are at play: the prohibitions on overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Both are assessed relative to the objective of the impugned legislation. The purpose of allowing sentencing judges to stack parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders is to “(1) protect society from the most incorrigible killers, and (2) restore the balance between the rights of victims and those of multiple murderers and acknowledge the value of ‘every life lost’”. [135]

The Court finds that the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods is overbroad “because it applies to all multiple murderers, regardless of the specific circumstances of each case”, [139] and not “only to psychopaths, organized crime hitmen or incorrigible murderers”. [140] Some might be sentenced to extended parole ineligibility without being unusually dangerous. The rule thus produces effects not rationally connected to its ostensible objectives, and so is overbroad. Nor is the stacking of parole ineligibility periods rationally connected to acknowledging every victim, since in any case a person so sentenced is likely or bound to die before all of the consecutive periods have elapsed. Such sentencing is also grossly disproportionate to its stated objectives. The overbreadth and gross disproportionality cannot be justified in a free and democratic society.

The last question for the Court is that of the remedy. Unlike the judge below, it holds that it must simply declare the possibility of stacking ineligibility periods invalid, “without being rewritten by the courts”. [186] It is clear that Parliament considered and rejected the solution adopted by the sentencing judge ― granting judges discretion as to the duration of parole ineligibility beyond the usual 25 years for a first-degree murder. It would not be appropriate for courts to impose it anyway.


In our view, the Court of Appeal’s judgment is less troubling than that of the Superior Court, which we criticized here. In particular, it is important to note that the Court takes the correct approach to the question of the remedy ― assuming, of course, that its conclusion of unconstitutionality is also correct. But it is not. The Court of Appeal’s reasoning on the issue of constitutionality misapprehends the inquiry and consequently falls into doctrinal error, as well as moral myopia.

Indeed, its most fundamental flaw is one that it ascribes to the legislation it pronounces unconstitutional: a refusal to engage with the circumstances and deserts of the individual accused. The very first sentence of the Court’s reasons proclaims that

[t]his judgment is not about the horror of Alexandre Bissonnette’s actions on January 29, 2017, nor even about the impact of his crimes on an entire community and on society in general; it is, rather, first and foremost, about the constitutionality of a provision of the Criminal Code. [1]

The Court subsequently adds that “[t]he analysis of the provision’s constitutionality must be carried out independently of the appellant’s case, notwithstanding the horror of his actions”. [54] The Court no doubt means this as a reminder that even the worst wrongdoers have rights under the Charter, which must be not be overlooked by focusing on their wrongdoing alone. That is true, so far as it goes. But there is a reason why Canadian courts normally assess the constitutionality of legislation on the facts of particular cases rather than in the abstract. This case, which is, pace the Court of Appeal, about the sentencing of man who murdered six worshippers at a mosque in Québec City and injured 19 others, ought to have been a reminder of that fact. 

In the Supreme Court’s first explication of section 12 of the Charter in R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045, Justice Lamer (as he then was) wrote that

[i]n assessing whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate, the court must first consider the gravity of the offence, the personal characteristics of the offender and the particular circumstances of the case in order to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender or to protect the public from this particular offender. … Section 12 ensures that individual offenders receive punishments that are appropriate, or at least not grossly disproportionate, to their particular circumstances. (1073)

In other words, contrary to the Court of Appeal’s approach, the offence and the offender ― including “the horror of his actions” are the primary consideration in assessing an alleged infringement of section 12. The Supreme Court has followed this approach more recently too, including in R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58, [2018] 3 SCR 599. The Court of Appeal neglects “to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender”, and this failure warps its subsequent analysis.

In particular, the Court of Appeal is single-mindedly focused on the issue of rehabilitation as the overriding consideration in deciding whether stacked parole ineligibility periods can ever be a constitutionally acceptable punishment. But, focusing on the facts before it, the Court ought to have remembered that ― as Justice Lamer suggested in Smith ― rehabilitation is not necessarily the primary factor in deciding on a fit sentence. Sometimes, the need to punish will dominate. This is not a crass desire for vengeance, but a recognition that different circumstances ― different offenses and different offenders ― call for different responses on the part of society.

A comparison with the sentencing judgment of the New Zealand High Court in the case of the Christchurch mosque shooter, R v Tarrant [2020] NZHC 2192, is relevant. As one of us (Sirota) has explained here, in that case Justice Mander found that

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold [the shooter] to account for the harm [he] ha[d] done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce [his] crimes. [179]

Ironically, the Court of Appeal refers to the Christchurch shooting, noting in a footnote that “the Christchurch massacre (51 victims) could have resulted in a period of 1,275 years” of parole ineligibility. For the Court this is self-evidently absurd. But for the judge who actually sentenced its perpetrator only a sentence of life imprisonment without parole would have sufficed.

This illustrates the fact the Court of Appeal has no regard to deserts of the man before it ― in violation of another cardinal principle of sentencing, that of the indivudalization of the sentence. It is also confused about the significance of the fact that a sentencing judge retains the discretion as to whether to sentence a given offender to a stacked period of parole ineligibility, at one point suggesting that this discretion is of no significance. Like it or not, Parliament enacted a law that allows individualized, if rough, justice. The Court of Appeal, by contrast, reasons entirely in the abstract.

Now, Parliament’s response to the prospect of vicious mass murder is, in our view, rather clunky. It would have been more straightforward, indeed more honest, to make sentences of life imprisonment without parole available, just as the New Zealand Parliament has done, instead of simply stacking non-eligibility periods until they quickly reach the same point. But the Court of Appeal does not really argue ― it merely asserts ― that the absurdity of extended ineligibility periods is inherently cruel. The person sentenced to such a punishment will understand what it means. And as for the claim that stacked parole ineligibility periods, because they cannot be served in full, discredit the administration of justice, it is simply beside the point. Section 12 of the Charter is concerned with justice to the offender, not the courts’ opinion of themselves.

As for the Court of Appeal’s reasoning on section 7 of the Charter, it also suffers from the Court’s failure to account for the discretionary nature of the stacking of parole ineligibility periods permitted ― not required! ― by the Criminal Code. The Court says that in some cases a stacked sentence can be imposed on multiple murderers who are not among the worst of the worst, and so not the sort of offender to deal with whom the stacking was permitted. But if indeed such a sentence is inappropriate ― and it is worth noting yet again that, as this very case highlights, the categories of the incorrigible are not closed, and are not limited to “psychopaths” and “organized crime hitmen” ― the sentencing in the particular case can be overturned on appeal. It seems that the Court of Appeal, like the judge below, simply does not trust to the discernment of other judges.      


Like the Court of Appeal and the Superior Court, and like the New Zealand High Court, we believe that sentencing ― even for terrorist mass murderers ― must not be an exercise in raw vengeance. It is a good thing that Parliament’s authority to direct sentencing is constitutionally constrained. It is all too true that Parliament can sometimes demand punishment incommensurate to crime, especially when it seeks to curtail the sentencing judges’ ability to assess the actions and culpability of the offender in a pursuit of a law that will be equally harsh to all.

But nor can sentencing lose sight of the actions for which the sentence is being imposed. It would be a perverse constitution that required this, and fortunately the Charter is not so perverse. The principles consistently set out by the Supreme Court make clear both that the primary responsibility for sentencing policy is Parliament’s, and that applying constitutional constraints on Parliament must only serve to prevent abuses ― not to become an exercise in abstract, and ultimately soulless, humanitarianism. We hope that the Supreme Court will step in and reassert these principles once more in this case.

An Oddity in Strom

In October, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal released its much-anticipated decision in Strom. Strom raised a number of important issues: “ “at the intersection between professional regulation, Ms. Strom’s private life, and the s.2(b) Charter guarantee of freedom of expression in the age of social media.”  

Strom was a registered nurse. Her grandfather tragically passed at a long-term care facility. Strom took to Facebook to criticize the care her grandfather received at the facility. The facility’s employees reported the comments to the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association (SRNA). The SRNA charged Strom with professional misconduct, and the SRNA Discipline Committee found her guilty.

The Court ultimately overturned the Discipline Committee’s decision. For many reasons that I cannot explore here, I think this is the right decision, in law and in principle. But one aspect of the decision is of particular interest to me: the Court’s standard of review discussion as it related to the freedom of expression arguments raised by Strom.

Of course, in such a case, the framework that governs the standard of review analysis is Doré. Doré holds that the standard of review when a court reviews an administrative decision is reasonableness (Doré, at para 7). Doré also introduces a proportionality framework for assessing whether a decision-maker has struck a reasonable balance between the Charter right at hand and the statutory objective. Post-Vavilov, it is at least an open question about whether Doré is still good law. This is because Vavilov reaffirms that, when litigants challenge a law under the Constitution, the standard of review is correctness (Vavilov, at para 56). I, for one, have questioned why it is that different standards of review should apply, especially since the Court in Vavilov recognized that  legislatures cannot “…alter the constitutional limits of executive power by delegating authority to an administrative body” (Vavilov, at para 56).

Enter Strom.  In that case, both parties agreed that the standard of review is correctness on the Charter issue (Strom, at para 133). The Court also agreed, but only because the case came to court via a statutory right of appeal, and under Vavilov, statutory rights of appeal invite the appellate standards of review (correctness on questions of law, palpable and overriding error on questions of fact/mixed fact and law) (see Strom, at para 133). The Court noted, though, the following, at para 133:

It is not necessary to consider the question left unanswered by Vavilov, at paragraph 57; that is, what is the standard of review when the issue of whether an administrative decision has unjustifiably limited Charter rights is raised on judicial review, rather than on appeal?

This, in itself, is not really problematic. Given the fact that, for now, Doré lives another day, it would not be appropriate for an appellate court to apply the correctness standard to Doré-type situations. It is defensible—and proper—to simply classify a constitutional issue as a question of law that falls under the scope of an appeal right. And at the end of the day, it does not matter much for a results perspective, because the standard will be correctness either way.

However, in choosing the correctness standard, the Court then did something that is difficult to understand. It said the following, at para 140:

What, then, is an appellate court’s task when reviewing whether the decision of an administrative body unjustifiably infringed a Charter right? In substance, that task is summarily described in Doré at paragraph 6, despite the fact that the standard of review is correctness. The Court’s task is to determine whether the decision-maker disproportionately limited the Charter right or struck an appropriate balance between the Charter right and statutory objectives.

The Court went on to describe the question raised by the case, at para 166:

The question as to whether it has imposed excessive limits is the proportionality question. Here, it is whether the Discipline Committee advanced its statutory objective in a manner that is proportionate to the impact on Ms. Strom’s right to freedom of expression. One aspect of that question is whether the impact on her freedom of speech in her private life was minimal or serious.

The Court then went on to apply the Doré framework, though made reference to some parts of the Oakes test (see para 153).

This strikes me as an oddity. Let’s take what the Court describes its task to be. When courts apply the correctness standard, courts focus on “the conclusion the court itself would have reached in the administrative decision maker’s place” (Vavilov, at para 15). The proportionality analysis advanced in Doré, however, seems to have deference built-in to it. While Doré notes that the Oakes test and the Doré framework “exercise the same justificatory muscles,” (Doré, at para 5), Doré deference asks courts to give some weight to the statutory objective being advanced by the decision-maker. This was, indeed, a bone of contention for the dissent of Brown and Côté JJ in Trinity Western. But when a court conducts correctness review, at least in theory, the court should not give any weight to what the decision-maker’s reasons are for making

That said, there are no perfect Platonic forms in law. It is true that Oakes itself has developed to contemplate deference in its application. And it is also true that courts, post-Vavilov, have applied what I call “light correctness review” (see Planet Energy, at para 31), where a certain amount of weight is given to the decision-maker’s “…interpretation respecting the words of the Act, the general scheme of the Act and the policy objectives behind the provision.” This could be seen as a sort of Skidmore-like deference, under which courts give non-binding weight to an administrative interpretation.

That said, the inherently deferential idea of Doré review seems inconsistent with a stringent application of the correctness standard. This, to me, is a theoretical oddity, even if its effect is blunted on the edges.

Constitutional Law Ruins Everything. A (sort of) response to Mancini’s “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation.”

This post is by Andrew Bernstein.

No! I am not an academic nor was meant to be.
Am a mere practitioner, one that will do
To settle a dispute, argue an appeal or two
When advising clients, the law’s my tool.
Deferential, if it helps me sway the court
Argumentative, and (aspirationally) meticulous.
Case-building is my professional sport
Trying my hand at theory’s ridiculous!
But I’ll dip a toe into this pool.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot and anyone who appreciates poetry)

Also, this is a blog post, so no footnotes or citations. Sorry!

As a lawyer whose most enduring interest for the last 30 years has been Canada’s constitutional arrangements, it gives me great pains to confess to you that I have concluded that constitutional law ruins everything. Or, perhaps put more judiciously, the kinds of debates that we have about constitutional interpretation are not especially instructive in dealing with other types of legal questions, such as statutory or common-law interpretation. There are many reasons for this, but the central one, in my view, has to do with the fact that while reasonable people may disagree on the outcome of a statutory interpretation, or a question of common law, those people will largely agree on the method of conducting those analyses. In constitutional interpretation, we don’t have consensus on “how” so it’s no wonder that the outcomes can be so radically different.

What are we really asking courts to do when we ask them to resolve a dispute? There are no doubt some high-minded theoretical answers to this (“do justice between the parties,” “ensure that capitalism is never threatened,” “enforce institutional sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia”) but from a practitioner’s perspective, the answer is actually straightforward: sort out the facts and apply a set of legal rules to those facts. Overwhelmingly those rules come from a variety of legal instruments, such as statutes, regulations, by-laws, and other “outputs” of political institutions such as Parliament, legislatures or municipal councils. If these institutions they don’t like the judicial interpretation of what they have passed, they can change the instrument accordingly. Moreover, these institutions are democratically elected, so if citizens do not agree with the laws that get made, they can replace them at the next election. Although this “feedback loop” suffers from many inefficiencies and obstacles in practice, it is essential to maintaining the concept of self-government by majority rule. What this means is that courts know what they are supposed to be doing when they interpret statutes: they look for legislative intention, as expressed by the words of the document. While courts are entitled to employ whatever clues they might be able to find in things like the legislative history, they appreciate that those clues must be used judiciously, as one speech by one MP does not a legislative intention make. And courts appreciate that the words of the document ultimately govern – although compliance is less than perfect, courts generally understand that they are not to circumvent the meaning of legislation with some kind of analysis based on the instrument’s supposed “purpose.”

While it is frequently accepted that the objective of statutory interpretation is to discern legislative intent, the question of why we would want to do so is not frequently interrogated. After all, while it may make eminent sense to give effect to a law that was passed a week ago, why would a self-governing people want to be governed by legislation that was passed by a legislature that is no longer in session? Perhaps by a different political party? The answer is partially pragmatic (it would be awfully cumbersome to have to re-enact every law each time a legislature was dissolved) but the real reason is the existence of the democratic feedback loop. Statutory interpretation operates on the presumption that, if no legislature has repealed or amended the statute, the people (as represented by the legislature) are content with it as it stands. In fact, this is the reason why no legislature can bind a future one to things like supermajority requirements. Because it is the people’s current intention – and not their past intention – that governs.

Constitutional law is designed to be immune to the democratic feedback loop. At least some aspects of the constitution are specifically intended to limit democratic institutions. The essence of that aspect of constitutionalism is the protection of vulnerable and/or minority groups from the potential for ill-treatment by the majority. Sometimes these protections take the role of institutional structures (such as federalism, regional representation in central institutions, and, according to some, a separation of powers) and other times they are specific guarantees of rights that specifically limit government action: freedom of expression, equality, or even “life, liberty and security of the person.” Cumulatively, this constitutional architecture is supposed to create a balance between self-government and limited government, ensuring that Canadians can govern ourselves, while not permitting the majority to oppress minorities.

This sounds great in theory, but immediately creates a dilemma: who gets to decide on the limits of “limited government?” Someone has to, and (if the constitution is going to be effective at curbing democratic excess) it has to be a different “someone” than the majoritarian institutions that actually do the governing. And although there are different models around the world, in Canada (like our American neighbours), we entrust that job to the Courts. This is not an uncontroversial decision, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that courts are institutionally well-suited to the job, with their adversarial model of fact-finding and decision-making. Second, courts are presided over by judges, who are just (as Justice Stratas recently said) lawyers who have received a judicial commission. There is no reason to think they are especially well suited to weighing the interests that a complex society needs to achieve an ideal balance between, for example, liberty and security, or equality and religious freedom. Third, judges are famously unrepresentative: they are whiter, richer, more male, more Christian, older and more conservative than the population. Nowhere is this more apparent than the apex of judicial decision-making, the Supreme Court of Canada, which got its first female judge in the 1980s and has never had an indigenous or any type of non-white judge or a judge from the LGBTQ community. Eighty five of Canada’s ninety Supreme Court judges have been Christian, the other 5 have been Jewish. No Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or even (admitted) atheists . Nevertheless, these 9 judges get to make significant decisions that have a major impact on social policy. Since the Charter was enacted, the Supreme Court has had a major role in liberalizing access to abortion, permitting medical assistance in dying, liberalizing prostitution laws, freeing access to cannabis, prohibiting the death penalty, enhancing public employees’ right to strike, and many other social policy decisions that were different from the democratic choices made by legislatures. In Canada, most decisions to strike down legislation have tilted towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there have also been decisions (most infamously, relating to private health care in Quebec) that tilt more towards the conservative side. This is not inherent to the process of adjudicating rights: the United States Supreme Court has grown increasingly conservative in the last 20 years, striking down liberal legislation relating to campaign finance, voting rights, and only yesterday striking down pandemic limitations on gatherings in houses of worship.

The combination of anti-democratic process and anti-democratic outcomes that constitutional adjudication creates has been subject of concern and criticism since judicial review was created in Marbury v. Madison. This, in turn, has led to the development of theories that are designed to constrain judicial decision-making. While some of this may be results-oriented, at its core, the goal of all “court-constraining theories” of constitutional interpretation is to give constitutional decision-making a touchstone by which decisions can be evaluated. Readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with these theories, such as textualism, or public-meaning originalism, which stand in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as “living tree constitutionalism” or (in Leonid’s catchy turn of phrase “constitutionalism from the cave”). While I will undoubtedly not do them justice, the “touchstone theories” posit that the meaning of constitutional rights are more-or-less fixed (although may need to be applied in novel situations) and it’s the job of the courts to find and apply those fixed meanings, while “living tree constitutionalism” allows the meaning of these rights to evolve over time, and it’s the job of the courts to decide when and how to permit that evolution to take place.

To use an over-simplified example, imagine a constitutional guarantee of “equality,” which (it is agreed) was understood to mean “equality of opportunity” at the time it was enacted. And imagine that 40 years later, it is established that the historical and systemic disadvantages suffered by certain groups means that merely providing equal opportunity proves insufficient to providing those groups with a fair outcome. Touchstone constitutionalists could suggest that although what constitutes “equality of opportunity” may have to change to meet changing social circumstances, but does not permit courts to go further and use the constitutional guarantee of “equality” to impose equality of outcomes. Living tree constitutionalists could posit that the guarantee of equality was intended to ensure that people do not suffer disadvantage because of their immutable characteristics, and if we now recognize that this can only be done by providing equality of outcome, then this is what courts should do.

What’s important to appreciate is that our protagonists on both sides are not disagreeing just on the outcome. They are disagreeing on the fundamental nature of the exercise. Touchstone constitutionalists believes that the courts’ job is essentially to be the “seeker” in a game of hide and seek, while the living tree constitutionalists believe that the courts are playing Jenga, carefully removing blocks from the bottom and building the tower ever higher, with its ultimate height limited only by how far they can reach.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? No one and everyone. In fact, as I read Mark’s post to which I am (ostensibly) responding, I understand his plea to be not that touchstones – regardless of how old they may be – are normatively a fantastic way to adjudicate modern problems but rather that the alternative to touchstones is anarchy (or Kritarchy), and that has to be worse. Similarly, critics of touchstone constitutionalism are concerned about being forever bound by the past, without providing a particularly good explanation of what could or should reasonably replace it without ultimately resorting to the idea that we have to trust our judges to make good decision. This of course, begs the question “if we are relying on someone’s judgment, why is it the judges and not the people’s through their democratically elected representatives?”

What am I saying? I’m saying that the “touchstone vs. tree” debate is actually a normative question, that people like to dress up as one that has an objectively ascertainable answer. But in truth, where you stand on this will really depend on your own personal value system, as informed by your own experiences. If you value predictability and stability, and/or the idea of judges making decisions about what is right, fair or socially appropriate is offensive to you, you may be inclined towards touchstone constitutionalism. If you value substantive outcomes, and see the judicial role as guaranteeing and enforcing rights as they evolve, you will be inclined towards the living tree. Of course, this is to some degree all a false dichotomy. There are many places available between either end of this spectrum and everyone ultimately ends up tends towards one of the more central positions. For example, it is difficult to find anyone who seriously doubts the correctness of Brown v. Board of Education, even though there’s at least an argument that certain touchstones informing the meaning of equal protection in the United States’ 14th amendment contemplated segregation. On the other hand, no matter how alive one’s tree might be, respect for a system of precedent is necessary if you are going to continue to call what you are doing “law” as opposed to policymaking by an unaccountable institution that has only faint markings of democratic accountability.

So why does constitutional law ruin everything? As I see it, is that this unresolvable dilemma in constitutional law has a tendency to bring its enormous baggage to other areas, and leave it there. But it’s not clear that these oversized duffles filled with decades of counter-majoritarian sentiment are really going to assist what I would consider to be the very different exercise of statutory interpretation (I’m well aware of the argument that the constitution is just an uber-statute and should be interpreted accordingly, but that’s really just an argument for touchstone constitutionalism so I will conveniently ignore it). Why? Because unlike in constitutional interpretation, we have broad consensus on how to go about the exercise of statutory interpretation entails: it entails trying to determine what the legislature intended by the text that it enacted. And although this exercise can be difficult at times, and reasonable (and unreasonable) people can often disagree, they are disagreeing on the outcome and not the process. No one truly suggests that the courts should play Jenga when interpreting statutes; they are always the seeker in a game of hide-and-seek, using well-understood tools and rules. Of late, we have been describing those as “text, context and purpose” but long before that catch phrase existed, we had the lawyer’s toolbox of logic, common sense, experience, and approximately 400 years of common-law jurisprudence on canons of statutory construction (well-defended by Leonid in his recent post). It’s true that these rules are convoluted and it’s not always straightforward to apply them. Some judges and courts give more weight to (for example) the purpose of statute and the presumption against absurdity, while others might be more interested in the intricacies of grammatical structure. But these are matters of emphasis, and the degree of variation relatively modest. In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus, at least among Canadian courts, about how the exercise of statutory interpretation ought to be conducted, and, in the main, it is done with amazing regularity.

OK so we have covered the constitution (where there is no agreement on the game, much less the rules) and statutes (where everyone is singing from the same hymnbook). What remains is common law, and it is probably the strangest of all these creatures because it is, by necessity, hide-and-seek but what you are looking for is Jenga blocks. There is, of course, an important touchstone courts and judges look to: precedent. But if you stretch far back enough, the touchstone itself has no touchstone other than “what judges think is best.” In many ways, it’s “law from the cave” but the cave is extremely old, dark, and you probably can’t see the exit, so you are stuck inside unless or until the legislature “rescues” you and replaces the common law rules. This leads to a fascinating problem: because it’s based on precedent, common law derives its authority from consistency. But because it’s judge-made, judges feel relatively free to remake it in appropriate circumstances. In many ways, it’s the worst of both theoretical worlds: it is bound by (some may say stuck in) the past and also readily changeable by judges. But somehow it works anyway, and with much fewer lamentations from the theorists who worry about either of these things (excluding, of course, administrative law, which by unwritten constitutional principle must be comprehensively re-written every ten years to keep a group of frustrated practitioners on their toes).

So in short, I endorse Mark’s sentiment that we need neutral principles in adjudication. But I disagree that they are in short supply. We have neutral principles in statutory interpretation, and they work as well as any system that is administered by a few hundred people across the country possibly could. We have essentially one neutral governing principle in common law analysis, which is “mostly follow precedent.” So what we are really talking about is constitutional law, where the debate between the touchstone cops and the living tree arborists is essentially unresolvable because when you scrape to the bottom it asks “what do you value in a legal system” and it’s no surprise that there isn’t universal agreement on this. But there is a strong consensus on how to engage in interpretation outside the constitutional context, and we should not let the constitutional disagreements obscure that.

In other words, constitutional law ruins everything. But I told you that at the beginning.

Declarations of Unconstitutionality as Judgments In Rem: A Response to Professor Daly

This post is written by Marc-Antoine Gervais, and a larger paper on the subject will appear in the McGill Law Journal (vol. 66).

Canada’s model of judicial review of legislation is unusual. On the one hand, it is “diffuse” in that all courts of law (and many administrative tribunals) may decide constitutional questions. On the other hand, declaratory judgments of unconstitutionality issued by superior courts under s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 “establish the general invalidity of a legislative provision for all future cases.”[1] As Professor Daly’s comment on R v. Sullivan reveals, there is still much uncertainty regarding the true nature and scope of s. 52 declarations rendered by provincial superior courts.

Professor Daly contends that “[t]he effect of a declaration of unconstitutionality, just as with a declaration of invalidity of a regulation, is that it no longer exists.” He further suggests that “res judicata has no application here […]: the matter has been decided but not because the requirements of res judicata are met, rather because a declaration with erga omnes force has been issued by a superior court.” With respect, it is submitted that the judiciary cannot literally invalidate or nullify laws, and that the general or erga omnes effect of s. 52 declarations may instead be explained by the doctrine of res judicata.

Courts cannot literally invalidate laws

Judges and commentators commonly assert that superior courts “strike down”, “nullify”, or “invalidate” unconstitutional laws.[2] These statements, however, should not be interpreted literally. Nothing in the Constitution of Canada empowers courts to exercise such a “negative act of legislation”, as Kelsen described it.[3] In fact, the power to annul laws has only been vested in the Queen in Council, although it has fallen into desuetude.[4]

Unconstitutional laws are “of no force or effect” by virtue of s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Courts merely declare, but cannot render laws invalid, as Justice Gonthier stressed in Martin: “the invalidity of a legislative provision inconsistent with the Charter does not arise from the fact of its being declared unconstitutional by a court, but from the operation of s. 52(1).”[5] Authoring a powerful dissent espoused in subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence,[6] Justice McLachlin, as she was then, left no doubt as to the judicial nature of declarations of unconstitutionality in Cooper:

It is common to speak of courts or tribunals “striking down” or invalidating laws […].  This view of the Charter is, with respect, inaccurate.  The Charter confers no power on judges or tribunals to strike down laws. The Constitution Act, 1982, however, provides that all laws are invalid to the extent that they are inconsistent with the Charter.  Laws are struck down not by judicial fiat, but by operation of the Charter and s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.[7]

Justice La Forest’s opinion in Kourtessis further confirms that declaratory judgments are no different in constitutional matters: “the declaration [of unconstitutionality] by its nature merely states the law without changing anything” — that is, it does not literally extinguish the provision deemed unconstitutional.[8] Proponents of the judicial nullification theory will have a hard time justifying the application by the Supreme Court of Canada of provisions that had been declared unconstitutional in prior cases.[9]

Res judicata and the general effect of s. 52 declarations of unconstitutionality

How, then, can a declaration of unconstitutionality generate erga omnes effects? The Supreme Court of Canada gave a hint in Ravndahl by describing s. 52 declarations as “in rem remed[ies]”.[10] A judgment in rem determines the legal status of a person or a thing independently from the context; it has erga omnes effects because it is “binding not only upon the parties but as against the whole world.”[11] The in rem determination is protected by the doctrine of res judicata, which estops anyone from challenging that legal status in other procedures.

Usually, judgments have inter partes effects because they only bind the parties to the litigation. However, in public law, it has been accepted for a long time that some types of determinations — such as declarations of nullity of regulations — are binding in rem.[12] In fact, the first constitutional law judgment in rem dates back to the famous 1637 Ship Money case, in which the court held that the tax levied by King Charles I was legal despite Parliament’s opposition.[13] Shortly thereafter, another litigant was estopped from challenging the same tax on the basis that the determination on the legality of the tax was no longer up for debate, even by non-parties to the Ship Money case.[14]

In modern Canadian constitutional law, the doctrine of judgment in rem may explain the general effect of s. 52 declarations issued by superior courts, as the apex court suggested in Ravndahl. Nonetheless, some difficulties remain. What is the territorial scope of declarations of unconstitutionality concerning federal legislation? In principle, judgments in rem bind the whole world, but this position is inapposite in the constitutional law context. Mark Mancini convincingly argues that it cannot be reconciled with the principle of federalism:

It would be an affront to the principled federalism balance established by the Constitution Act, 1867 to argue that section 52 declarations should extend throughout the country when issued by one judge in a province. The fact that there may be different findings between one province and another is a feature, not a bug, of the federalist system.

Moreover, a nationwide declaration of unconstitutionality issued by a single provincial superior court would have the very unfortunate effect of circumventing constitutional notice requirements to the attorneys general of other provinces.[15] It is thus submitted that judgments in rem should not run across provincial lines in constitutional matters until the Supreme Court — the only national court in Canada[16] — decides the issue.

In practice, superior courts have refused to automatically give effect to s. 52 declarations pronounced in other provinces.[17] In most cases, constitutional decisions are consistent throughout the country, but not always.[18] For example, the mandatory minimum sentence under s. 153 of the Criminal Code was declared unconstitutional by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal,[19] but subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal of Alberta.[20] The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the application for leave to appeal the Alberta decision.

Not the final word on the constitutional matter

The doctrine of res judicata is flexible in common law, and it should not bar the reopening of a constitutional debate under certain exceptional circumstances.[21] Indeed, when the preconditions to the operation of the estoppel are established, the court possesses a discretionary power to refuse to apply it.[22]

Inconsistent superior court pronouncements on the constitutionality of a law in different provinces engender untenable jurisprudential uncertainty. In such circumstances, the controversy should be allowed to make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, thereby allowing the “percolation” of diverse lower-court perspectives.[23] It must be stressed that this discretion to refuse the application of the estoppelshould only be exercised in order to foster the integrity and coherence of constitutional law, one of the central goals of the doctrine.[24]

Res judicata is thus distinct from, but operates in tandem with, stare decisis. Within a province, a mere disagreement with the underlying reasoning is not a sufficient ground for a court of appeal to neuter the estoppel barring the parties to challenge a judgment of unconstitutionality in rem issued by a superior in a prior case. Nonetheless, if the court elects to allow relitigation of the constitutional question, stare decisis applies as usual — either in its horizontal or vertical form, depending on the context.

Since courts cannot annul or invalidate legislation, it follows that the law once declared unconstitutional remains capable of “reviving” in the future, unless it is repealed. For example, the minimum sentence under s. 153 of the Criminal Code would “revive” in Nova Scotia if the Supreme Court of Canada holds that the provision passes constitutional muster in a subsequent case. The apex court has repudiated multiple declarations of unconstitutionality issued in earlier decisions,[25] and it would be inappropriate to blindly follow such controverted s. 52 declarations. Canadian[26] and American[27] courts have rightly “revived” laws once declared unconstitutional. Res judicata should not prevent the judiciary from revisiting declarations of unconstitutionality that rest on precarious legal grounds.

In the final analysis, courts cannot literally “strike down” laws or “remove [them] from [their] proper place among statutes.”[28] Rather, declarations of unconstitutionality are in rem determinations that generally establish the judicial ineffectiveness of provisions within the court’s territorial jurisdiction, subject to rare exceptions. The main qualification to the general binding effect of s. 52 declarations is that res judicata should not be applied where the estoppel entrenches inconsistencies in the judicial interpretation and application of the Constitution. The rule of law depends on it.


[1]        Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Martin, 2003 SCC 54 at para 31 [Martin].

[2]        See Schachter v Canada, [1992] 2 SCR 679 at 715; Ontario (Attorney General) v G, 2020 SCC 38 at paras 114, 237; Vancouver (City) v Ward, 2010 SCC 27 at 1.

[3]        Hans Kelsen, “Judicial Review of Legislation: A Comparative Study of the Austrian and the American Constitution” (1942) 4:2 J Politics 183 at 187.

[4]        The Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Victoria, c 3, s 56.

[5]        Martin, supra note 1 at para 28. See also R v Ferguson, 2008 SCC 6 at 35.

[6]        See ibid at para 29; Paul v British Columbia (Forest Appeals Commission), 2003 SCC 55 at para 36; R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22 at paras 20, 64–82.

[7]        Cooper v Canada (Human Rights Commission), [1996] 3 SCR 854 at para 83.

[8]        Kourtessis v MNR, [1993] 2 SCR 53 at 86.

[9]        See R v Malmo‑Levine, 2003 SCC 74 and R v Loewen, 2011 SCC 21. The marijuana prohibition under s 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act had been declared unconstitutional by the Ontario Court of Appeal in R v Parker (2000), 49 OR (3d) 481), and the government adopted a new regulation to solve the constitutional lacuna. However, no legislative amendment was made. See also R v J-LJ, 2000 SCC 51 and R v Lamy, 2002 SCC 25. The Quebec Court of Appeal had declared s 159 of the Criminal Code unconstitutional in R c Roy, supra note 17, but its constitutionality was not challenged in both Supreme Court cases.

[10]      Ravndahl v Saskatchewan, 2009 SCC 7at para 27.

[11]      See Barry L Strayer, The Canadian Constitution and the Courts, 3rd ed (Toronto: Butterworths, 1988) at 193.

[12]      See Dilworth et al v Bala (Town) et al, [1955] SCR 284 at 289 [Dilworth]; Corporation du Village de Deschênes v Loveys, [1936] SCR 351; Emms v The Queen et al, [1979] 2 SCR 1148 at 1158–62 [Emms];

[13]      Rex v Hampden (1637), 3 How St Tr 826.

[14]      Lord Say’s Case (1638), Cro Car 524.

[15]      See Strayer, supra note 11 at 193–95.

[16]      See TA Cromwell, “Aspects of Constitutional Judicial Review in Canada” (1995) 46:5 SCL Rev 1027 at 1042.

[17]      See R v Pete (1998), 119 BCAC 161 (BC CA); Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79 at 70; R v EJB, 2018 ABCA 239 at paras 72–75; Parent c Guimond, 2016 QCCA 159 at paras 11–18; R c Roy, [1998] RJQ 1043 (Qc CA); R v Scofield, 2019 BCCA 3 at paras 75–89; R v Boutilier, 2016 BCCA 24 at para 45 (Nielsen J); R v Graham and Parks, 2003 BCPC 369 at paras 12–16; R v Nicholls, 2003 BCPC 132 at 74–76.

[18]      See infra notes 19–20; s 151(a) of the Criminal Code was deemed constitutional in British Columbia twice in 2015 and 2017, but declared unconstitutional in multiple other provinces. In 2019, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia eliminated this inconsistency by overruling prior cases in the province and declaring the provision unconstitutional. See R v Scofield, 2019 BCCA 3 at paras 11–12, 75–88.

[19]      See R v Hood, 2018 NSCA 18.

[20]      See R v EJB, supra note 17 (leave to appeal dismissed).

[21]      See Emms, supra note 12; Dilworth, supra note 12 at 289–90.

[22]      See Danyluk v Ainsworth Technologies Inc, 2001 SCC 44 at para 33.

[23]      See Han-Ru Zhou, “Erga Omnes or Inter Partes? The Legal Effects of Federal Courts’ Constitutional Judments” (2019) 97 R du B Can 276 at 296–98.

[24]      See R v Mahalingan, 2008 SCC 63 at 38.

[25]      See eg R v Turpin, [1989] 1 SCR 1296 at 1333–34; Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 at paras 55, 79.

[26]      See Saltspring Island Water Preservation Society v Rockliffe, [1993] 4 WWR 601 (BCCA).

[27]      See Legal Tender Cases (1870), 79 US (12 Wall) 457, in which the US Supreme Court upheld a law that it had declared unconstitutional two years earlier in Hepburn v Griswold (1868), 75 US (8 Wall) 603. See also West Coast Hotel Co v Parrish (1937), 300 US 379, rejecting Adkins v Children’s Hosp (1923). The law’s validity was later confirmed in Jawish v Morlet (1952), 86 A2d 96 at p 97 (DC Mun Ct App). See also Pait v Ford Motor Co (1987), 500 So 2d 743 (Fla Dist Ct App); Pullum v Cincinnati, Inc (1985), 476 So 2d 657 (Fla Sup Ct) at pp 659–60; State ex rel Gillespie v County of Bay (1933), 112 Fla 687 at p 722 (Fla Sup Ct); Pierce v Pierce (1874), 46 Ind 86 at p 95.

[28]      Allison v Corker (1902), 67 NJL 596 at p 601.

Textualism for Hedgehogs

Why substantive canons belong in textualist interpretation, and what this tells us about neutral interpretive principles

I hope that you have read co-blogger Mark Mancini’s post on “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation“. In a nutshell, Mark argues for the application of politically neutral principles to the interpretation of legal texts, and against the fashionable view that it is inevitable, or indeed desirable, that interpreters will seek to fashion texts into instruments for the advancement of their preferred policy outcomes. It is a superb essay, and I agree with almost everything Mark says there.

Almost. In this post, I would like to explore one point of disagreement I have with Mark. Although it concerns a minor issue and does not detract from Mark’s overall argument at all, I think it helps us clarify our thinking both about legal interpretation and also about the meaning and purpose of legal neutrality. This point of disagreement concerns, of all things, “substantive canons of construction”.


Mark argues that textualism is a set of morally-neutral interpretive techniques that allow an interpreter to (my words, but Mark’s meaing, I think) serve as a faithful agent of the body enacting the legal text. (Mark focuses on statutes, but the same considerations apply to constitutional texts.) Other approaches allow or even require the interpreter to impose a certain set of substantive commitments, which may or may not be shared by the authors of the legal texts, on them. Textualism seeks to avoid doing so by asking the interpreter to focus on the text itself, relying on its letter and its spirit alone, rather than on any external commitments. In this context, Mark notes a possible (and indeed common) objection:

[O]ne might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. 

Mark appears to grant this objection to the use of substantive canons in statutory interpretation, while denying that it undermines his broader argument:

I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. 

But then Mark walks back the concession to some extent, writing that “these canons could be justified on other grounds” , for example “as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of ‘stabilizing’ the law.”

By my lights, Mark’s initial concession is a mistake, and the walk-back too half-hearted. Substantive interpretive canons ― interpretive presumptions such as those requiring clear statements for statutes to derogate from common law or statutory rights, to change the law retroactively or to create exorbitant powers (for example Henry VIII clauses), or calling for narrow constructions of penal or taxing statutes ― deserve a more robust defence, which I will offer here. Most of them are not only “justified on other grounds” but are actually closely connected to the reasons for endorsing textualism and neutral interpretation more broadly.

These reasons include the separation of powers and democracy, which, taken together, mean that law should be changed in consequence of the choices of democratically elected legislatures and of such other actors to whom legislatures have properly delegated their law-making powers (assuming that such delegation can ever be proper). But they also include the Rule of Law, notably the idea that the law ought to be sufficiently public and certain to guide the subject. Textualism gives effect to the separation of powers and democracy by asking judges to give effect to legislatures’ choices and warning them not to override these choices by applying their own subjective preferences or substantive values not endorsed by the legislature. It also gives effect to the Rule of Law by ensuring that subjects, or at least their legal advisors, have access to the same information that will be used by those who interpret and apply the law. They can thus anticipate the law’s application better than if it can be given a meaning based on unenacted values available only to judges or administrators at the point of application.

Consider now how substantive canons serve the same ends. Their contribution to upholding the Rule of Law values of notice and guidance is perhaps most obvious. When courts refuse to read unclear or ambiguous statutes as imposing criminal or tax liability, they are ensuring that people are warned before their liberty and property are put in jeopardy, and can guide themselves accordingly. Similarly, when courts apply the principle of legality, which requires clear statutory language to over-ride or oust established common law rights, be they the right to access court (as in Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 or property rights in Wells v Newfoundland, [1999] 3 SCR 199, they ensure that people are given warning before these rights are abrogated. Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court in Wells, explained this:

In a nation governed by the rule of law, we assume that the government will honour its obligations unless it explicitly exercises its power not to.  In the absence of a clear express intent to abrogate rights and obligations – rights of the highest importance to the individual – those rights remain in force.  To argue the opposite is to say that the government is bound only by its whim, not its word.   In Canada this is unacceptable, and does not accord with the nation’s understanding of the relationship between the state and its citizens. [46]

The argument about the relationship between textualism and separation of powers and democracy is perhaps somewhat less straightforward. But I think it’s not unfair to say that the obverse of insisting that it is the prerogative of legislatures, as the bodies representing the electorate, to have the law reflect their choices is that the law should reflect their choices. Textualism does this by emphasizing the primacy of text, which the legislature actually enacted, as the object of interpretation. Substantive canons are nothing more than an insistence that certain choices clearly appear to have been made in the text. Mark writes that “legislative sovereignty” means that “the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement”, but I’m not sure that legislative supremacy requires deference to sotto voce or accidental legal change.

On the contrary, I think that for an interpreter to insist that the legislature spell out the consequences of its enactments rather than let them be inferred promotes legislative authority by requiring the democratic sovereign to squarely address the issues instead of leaving them to be worked out by unelected officials and judges. At the same time, however, it also promotes the more “negative” aspect of the separation of powers by freeing judges from becoming the legislatures’ accomplices is abuse of power. Subject to constitutional constraints, it is wrong for the courts not to give effect to legislation, but they are not, I think, under a duty to add to legislated iniquity of the legislature itself has not dared require it.

To be sure, it is possible for judges to misapply substantive interpretive canons so as to make them into instruments for refashioning legislation in accordance with their own preferences and values. Judges can be skillful practitioners of Nelsonian blindness and refuse to see in a statute that which is clearly there ― just as, on other occasions, they can see there that which is not. But I do not think that this necessarily makes substantive canons anathema to textualism. As then-Judge Amy Barrett has explained in a lecture devoted largely to a defence of textualism (which I summarized here), textualist adjudication is not mechanical. It requires judgment. A sparing ― judicious ― application of substantive canons calls for good judgment, but in this it is no different from other aspects of textualist interpretation or judicial decision-making more generally.

All that having been said, the impulse to disclaim and renounce the use of interpretive techniques that seem to bias adjudication in favour of particular outcomes is understandable as part of a broader appeal for neutrality. But here, I think, an appeal to precedent is relevant. Judges applying established substantive canons (or any other established interpretative techniques) is not introducing their own values into the law. They are not ― again, assuming they are not abusing their power ― wielding discretionary authority to bring the law into alignment with their policy preferences. They are not springing a surprise on the legislature (or the litigants). They are following established conventions for reading legal texts, which legislatures (or least the people drafting bills for them) can and ought to know.

Now, perhaps there is a further point of subtle disagreement between Mark and me here. Mark writes that “while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be”. I think this a little imprecise. Like other legal rules, the established conventions of interpretation are not, themselves, value-free; I don’t think they could be. The conventions of textualism promote democratic authority, the separation of powers, and the Rule of Law. These are political values, in a broad sense, and I think that a defence of textualism should proceed on the basis that these are good values, not that that textualism has nothing to do with them. What should indeed be apolitical, to the extent possible for human beings, is the application of interpretive rules, not their content. However, an interpretive rule whose content is such as to make apolitical application impossible, is of course flawed from this standpoint.


What we should be looking for, then, are interpretive rules that can be applied impartially ― not mechanically, to be sure, but without the interpreter drawing on his or her subjective values, preferences, and beliefs about good policy. At least some forms of purposivism, as well as living constitutionalism and its analogues in statutory interpretation fail this test. Textualism, as Mark argues, is a more promising approach. But at the same time ― and not coincidentally ― textualism promotes important constitutional values: the Rule of Law, democracy, and separation powers.

Substantive interpretive canons, I have argued, promote the same values, and thus have a place in textualist interpretation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that substantive canons are pre-eminently textualist interpretive tools, rather than those of some other interpretive approach. Like other kinds of interpretive canons, to which Mark refers, they are rules about reading texts ― albeit more than the other kinds, perhaps, they are rules for reading legal and, even more specifically, legislative texts. Their use has little to with legislative purpose, for example, and they may sit uneasily with a pragmatist or evolutionist approach to interpretation. They are not attempts to devine a legislature’s intentions hidden between textual lines, but rather rules about the legal meaning of enacted texts. Textualists should embrace substantive canons, not just as a grudging concession to precedent, but as a set of tools to wield with discernment, but also with confidence.

Neutrality in Legal Interpretation

Nowadays, it is unfashionable to say that legal rules, particularly rules of interpretation, should be “neutral.” Quite the opposite: now it is more fashionable to say that results in cases depend on the “politics” of a court on a particular day. Against this modern trend, not so long ago, it was Herbert Wechsler in his famous article “Towards Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law” who first advanced the idea of neutral principles. He wrote that, because courts must not act as a “naked power organ,” they must be “entirely principled” (Wechsler, at 19). They are principled when they rest their decisions “on reasons with respect to all the issues in the cases, reasons that in their generality and their neutrality transcend any immediate result that is involved” (Wechsler, at 19). The goal of these so-called “neutral principles” was to avoid “ad hoc evaluation” which Wechsler called “the deepest problem of our constitutionalism” (Wechsler, at 12). While Wechsler did not put it this way, I think textualism—particularly in statute law—is the closest thing to neutrality we have, and should be defended as such.

Wechsler’s idea of neutral principles, and textualism itself, are subject to much controversy. But, in my view, it is without a doubt that a deep problem in Canadian law remains “ad hoc evaluation,” otherwise known as “results-oriented reasoning.” Some judges are starting to recognize this. In constitutional law, Justices Brown and Rowe in the recent s.15 Fraser case noted that “substantive equality”—while a laudable doctrinal goal—has been ill-defined in the cases, and “has become an open-ended and undisciplined rhetorical device by which courts may privilege, without making explicit, their own policy preferences” (Fraser, at para 146). The same potential problem attends statutory interpretation, where results-oriented reasoning is possible (Entertainment Software Association, at para 76), and administrative law, where Vavilov was concerned with provides a rules-based framework for the application of deference. All of this is positive, because it provides a guide for judges in applying rules, ensuring that the reasoning process is transparent, bound, and fair to the parties.

But, in many ways, neutrality as a principle in our law is under attack. A common adage has become “law=politics,” and this broad, simple statement has elided the nuances that must apply when we speak of interpretation. This is true on both sides of the “political aisle” (a reference I make not out of any desire to do so, but out of necessity). Some who believe in notions of living constitutionalism or unbounded purposivism would tie the meaning of law to whatever a particular political community thinks in the current day, ostensibly because the current day is more enlightened than days past. In some ways this might be true as a factual matter (putting aside questions of legitimacy). But, as we are learning in real time, we have no guarantee that the present will be any more enlightened than the past.  Still others now advance a novel idea of “common good constitutionalism,” under which the meaning of constitutional text—whatever it is—must align with a “robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation.” The goal is a “substantive moral constitutionalism…not enslaved to the original meaning of the Constitution.” These views have something in common: they purport to view the interpretation of law as a means to an end, reading in to legal texts contentious, political values that may or may not be actually reflected in the laws themselves.

The attack on neutrality from these camps—that span the spectrum—follow a familiar path, at least implicitly. They reason from an end. In other words, the argument assumes that some end is coextensive with moral justice, whatever that is. It assumes that the end is a good thing. It then says that the law should encompass that end because it is good.

Legal interpretation should not work this way. Laws, whether statutes or Constitutions, embody certain value choices and purposes. They have an internal meaning, quite apart from what other people want a particular law to mean. In this way, it is true that law is a purposive activity, in that law does pursue some end. But, as is well known, law is not co-extensive with justice, nor is it helpful to the interpretation of laws to say they pursue the “common good” or some other bromide. Even if one could come to some stable definition of such terms (a tall task indeed) that could guide the task of legal interpretation, it isn’t clear that all of the goals associated with some external philosophy are co-extensive with the law as adopted.   Laws do pursue purposes, but they do not do so at all costs—they often pursue limited or specific goals that are evident only when one reads the text (see the debate in West Fraser between the opinions of McLachlin CJC and Côté J on this point). This is why purpose is usually best sourced in text, not in some external philosophy.

If we accept that law is indeed a purposive endeavour, and that the words used by legislatures and drafters are the means by which purposes are enacted, then textualism is a defensible way of discovering those purposes. Textualism is simply the idea that we must read text to discover all that it fairly encompasses. Textualism is really a family of tools that we can use to discover that text. There are the linguistic canons—ejusdem generis, and the like—that are generally based on the way humans tend to speak in ordinary terms. There are contextual canons, such as the rule that statutes must be interpreted holistically. There are substantive canons of construction (which I will get to later). And there are other tools, like purpose, which can guide textualist interpretation so long as it is sourced properly. Unlike other theories of “interpretation,” these tools are designed to find the meaning of the law from within, rather than imposing some meaning on it without.

I can think of at least three (and probably more) objections to the point I am making here. First, one might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. Of course, these canons could be justified on other grounds that I do not have space to explore here. For example, they could be justified as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of “stabilizing” the law.

Second, one might trot out the familiar canard that textualism as a general matter leads to “conservative” outcomes. To put this argument in its most favourable light, one might say that textualism leads to cramped interpretations of statutes, robbing them of their majestic generalities that could serve to achieve certain political aims. It’s worth noting three responses to this position. First, the “cramped interpretation” argument tends to conflate strict constructionism and textualism. Indeed, textualism may sometimes lead to “broad” interpretation of statutes if text and purpose, working synthetically, lead to that conclusion. A great recent example is the Bostock decision from the United States Supreme Court, which I wrote about here. There, textualism led to a result that was actually more protective of certain rights.  Second, the use of political labels to describe legal doctrines is a pernicious trend that must come to an end. Even if these labels were actually stable in meaning, and not themselves tools of cultural warfare, it is unfair to assume that any one legal theory is always something. I understand the need to box everything, these days, into neat categories. But sometimes, law can mean many different things. And tools used to interpret those laws, as much as possible, should remain apart from the political aims those laws wish to pursue.

Third, it might be said that true neutrality is not of this world. That is, it could be argued that a Solomonic law is impossible, and no matter what, the act of interpretation is a fundamentally human activity that will be imbued with traditionally human biases. I accept this point. Because judges are humans, no system of rules will always remove the human aspect of judging, nor should it. The best we can do is design a system of rules, in mind of the tradeoffs, that limits the pernicious forms of biases and political reasoning that could infect the law. We won’t always get it right, but we should not take the nihilistic view that the entire enterprise of law as something separate from politics is not worth pursuing.

Finally, one might argue that law is inextricably political. It is cooked up in legislatures made up of thoroughly political individuals, with agendas. It is enforced by people who have biases of their own. I also accept this point. But this argument, to me, runs up against two major problems that limit its force. First, while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be. Not at all. In fact, one might say that the rules of interpretation should be used to discover the meaning of the law, whatever political result it encompasses. Second, there is a major is/ought problem here. Just because the making of law is political does not mean we should not be concerned with a system of rules designed to limit biases that might infect the judging process. All people, regardless of ideology, should find this goal laudable.

I close with this. I understand that we live in sclerotic times in which there are passionate political views on many sides. There is a natural tendency to impose those views into law. We lose something when this happens. While perhaps not a sufficient condition for legitimacy, it is central to the Rule of Law that laws be promulgated and interpreted in a fair way. Generality, as Wechsler notes, is one guarantee of fairness. If we give up on generality and neutrality in interpretation, then we must admit that judges are simply political actors, agents of politicians, without any need for independence. It is self-evident that this is undesirable.

Still Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court tries to bring more rigour to constitutional interpretation and takes a step towards textualism, but won’t admit it

In my last post, I summarized the opinions delivered in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32. While the Supreme Court unanimously holds that corporations are not protected from cruel and unusual punishment by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority (Justices Brown and Rowe, with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) and the principal concurrence (Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) strongly disagree about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation and to the role in this process of international and foreign legal materials.

As promised, in this post I present my thoughts on these opinions, primarily on their general approach to interpretation, though I’ll say something on the role of international and foreign materials too. I will, once again, begin with Justice Abella’s opinion, which in my view is representative of what I have described as “constitutionalism from Plato’s cave” ― the judicial creation of constitutional law out of abstract ideals favoured by the judges themselves rather than genuine interpretation of a constitutional text. I will then turn to the majority opinion, which repudiates constitutionalism from the cave, but also seemingly rejects what I regard as the best interpretive method, public meaning originalism. I will argue that there is less to this rejection than meets the eye.

One question on which I will say nothing, although the majority and the principal concurrence trade sharp accusations on it, is which of these opinions is more consistent with precedent. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have pointed out in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence”, the Supreme Court has never been consistent in how it interpreted the constitution, mixing and matching originalist and living constitutionalist approaches in any number of unpredictable ways. (Mr. Oliphant has developed this theme elsewhere too.) Justices Brown and Rowe are right to call for more rigour and consistency on this front; but they are wrong, as is Justice Abella, to suggest that has been any rigour and consistency in the past. Whatever their flaws, neither the majority nor the concurring opinion break with established law, because there is no real law to break with.


As mentioned in my last post, Justice Abella insists that her approach to interpretation is “contextual” and, above all, “purposive”. In truth, it might be better described as authorizing constitution-making by the Supreme Court. It is “the Court” ― following an American usage, Justice Abella does not bother specifying which one ― that “has, over time, decided who and what came within the Charter’s protective scope”. [49] The Supreme Court does not simply decide cases in which the question arose. No, it apparently ruled, as a matter of discretion, on whom the Charter will protect going forward.

Judicial rulings in constitutional cases are not, for Justice Abella, mere workings out of the constitution’s meaning. Indeed, the constitutional text plays no special role in interpretation for her. This is unsurprising, because Justice Abella embraces the view that co-blogger Mark Mancini recently described as “linguistic nihilism” ― the idea “that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous”, so that “the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game”. (Of course this is of a piece with Justice Abella’s commitments in administrative law.) It is also unsurprising, then, that her discussion of international materials suggests that text does not really matter at all, and a variety of differently-worded provisions all stand for the exact same principles, without any meaningful inquiry into the relevance, if any, of their language. In fact, Justice Abella is openly disdainful of the possibility that textual nuance ― such as “the presence of a comma” [75] ― might make a difference in interpretation.

Another reason for Justice Abella’s refusal to be bound by constitutional text is that this ” could unduly constrain the scope of [constitutional] rights”. [75] This reflects the conviction, common among living constitutionalists, that judicial re-writing of constitutions is a one-way ratchet unfailing causing rights to expand. This view is belied by experience. But, quite apart from that: “unduly” by what standard? If not by reference to text, how do we know what is the due scope of constitutional rights? This ambiguity is of a piece with Justice Abella’s insistence that section 12 “is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. Its intended beneficiaries are people, not corporations.” [51] Is meant… by whom? Intended… by whom? And how do we know?

As Mr. Oliphant and I noted in the paper linked to above, “[m]arks on paper have no will or agency and thus can have no ‘purposes’ or ‘intentions’ that are independent of willful actors”. (537) One possibility, as we suggested, is that this language becomes an opening for an inquiry into the intentions of the Charter‘s framers. But Justice Abella isn’t very interested in that. Unlike the Supreme Court in some cases, she doesn’t consider the Charter‘s drafting history or the views of its framers, beyond a passing reference to Pierre Trudeau’s general comments about the Charter‘s raison d’être.

Justice Abella’s use of ambiguous language and the passive voice, like her refusal to be bound by text or to commit to any hierarchy of interpretive sources, suggest that she believes herself to have has complete discretion in deciding what the Charter is to mean. Her own sense of justice is the only standard of who is “due” protection under the constitution, and what protection they are “due”. This is unsurprising, of course, from someone who professes impatience with the Rule of Law and prefers a “rule of justice”. Constitutional purposes, as she conceives of them, are Platonic abstractions, which the wise ― she the wisest ― must interpret for the rest of us.

As I have said a number of times in the past, “constitutionalism from the cave” is not real constitutionalism. It is antithetical to the Rule of Law. Ultimately, it undermines the foundations of judicial review: if the constitution means whatever unelected judges preoccupied with international approval more than with the law or the commands of the constitution’s framers say it means, there is no particular reason why the political branches would comply with these judges’ musings. It is good that this view is dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court’s majority.


In contrast to Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe emphasize the importance of constitutional text. It is not, I think, merely a matter of the text being chronologically the first consideration for a court engaged in constitutional interpretation: “constitutional interpretation” is “the interpretation of the text of the Constitution”. [9] The text is its focus and overriding constraint; it has “primacy” over other considerations. [10, citing Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511 at [36]]

One way in which the text matters is, of course, through the ordinary meaning of its words and the inferences that can be drawn from it. Here, since the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of human suffering, it stands to reason that section 12 does not protect corporations. But the significance of the text goes further. The history of the text and the changes it underwent are relevant too, as Justices Brown and Rowe show by pointing ― in language that, as I noted in my last post, closely mirrors that of my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case ― to the contrast between the language of section 12 and that of its predecessors in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688. Other provisions on the text are relevant too.

To my mind, this ― so far as it goes ― is a sound approach to constitutional interpretation, and I am happy to see it forcefully stated by a majority of the Supreme Court. If I were to put a label on it, it would be “textualism”. Consider the definition of textualism given by then-Judge, now Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a lecture I reviewed here:

Textualism … insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

This is what Justices Brown and Rowe are doing: insisting that the object of interpretation is words, text, and focusing on their ordinary meaning, which is a hard constraint on interpretation.

Yet Justices Brown and Rowe reject the label of textualism. To their mind, what they are doing is purposive interpretation. Judge Barrett, as she then was, saw purposivism as the opposite of textualism, though in my post I cautioned that “many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive”. Perhaps this is what Justices Brown and Rowe are advocating ― a sort of “purposivism”, if that’s what they prefer to call it, but one that has a great deal more in common with textualism as defined by Judge Barrett than with “purposivism” as defined by Justice Abella.

So maybe the moral of the story here is that we all should be less hung up on labels. But in my view there is a real cost to the lack of clarity that the labels used by the Supreme Court generate. I wrote about this here when I commented on R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40. In that case, similarly to here, the majority and the dissent both claimed to be engaged in purposive interpretation. But the majority, I argued, was in effect following a public meaning originalist (and hence textualist) approach, while the dissent was doing constitutionalism from the cave. As I said then, to pretend that textualist interpretation is really purposive generates unnecessary detours. Here, the majority’s references to human dignity as the purpose of section 12 do no real work, and unnecessarily burden the reasoning with what is, by the Supreme Court’s own well-known admission in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 SCR 483, “an abstract and subjective notion”. [22] And, as I also said in my comment on Stillman, mislabeling an originalist or textualist interpretation as purposivist makes it possible for the partisans of an entirely different version of purposivism to invoke cases that go directly against their views as support for them. Justice Abella does precisely that here (at [73]).

Worse still, from my perspective, than the mere confusion about labels is the seeming rejection by Justices Brown and Rowe of the substance of public meaning originalism, under the label of “new textualism” which they borrow from Aharon Barak’s Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, where it stands as a shorthand for Justice’s Scalia’s interpretive approach. This is the idea, as President Barak put it, “that that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”. (82; reference omitted) Justices Brown and Rowe claim that this approach is “not remotely consistent” [12] with theirs. If they are right, this would be the first rejection of public meaning originalism by the Supreme Court. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, until now, the only versions of originalism that had been clearly rejected were those, disfavoured by originalists themselves, that focus on original expected applications and outcomes.

Yet it will take more than this opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe to make me give up on originalism. Let me note, first, that Justice Brown himself was a co-author of the Stillman majority opinion (and that its other co-author was Justice Moldaver, who agrees with Justices Brown and Rowe here). I described that opinion as “perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron“. And yes, Caron ― which Justices Brown and Rowe repeatedly cite ― was a public-meaning originalist judgment, as I explained here. Both Stillman and Caron focused on ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional provisions at issue there by reference to how they would have been understood by “a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”, over dissents that favoured, respectively a more policy-infused approach and one based on the alleged intent of the framers. If Justices Brown and Rowe really meant to reject public meaning originalism, would they be relying on these cases? That seems implausible.

No less importantly, consider what Justices Brown and Rowe say elsewhere in their opinion. When they discuss the use of international and foreign materials, they draw an “important distinction … between instruments that pre‑ and post‑date the Charter“. [41] The former “clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed”, whether or not they were binding on Canada. The latter, only matter if they bind Canada, and even then subject to only a presumption that Canadian constitutional law conforms to them, and to the principle that international law does not automatically become part of Canadian law. This isn’t quite originalism: an originalist would be warier still of materials that post-date the Charter, although, as I am about to explain, without necessarily rejecting their relevance in all cases. But it’s pretty close. Originalists believe that constitutional text must be interpreted in context as of the date of its enactment, and reference to international materials available to Canadian framers is certainly a legitimate part of ascertaining the context in which the Charter‘s original meaning should be established. The fact that Justices Brown and Rowe draw a dividing line at the moment of the Charter’s enactment suggests that they are, in fact, open to something like originalist thinking.

All in all, my point is not that Justices Brown and Rowe are originalists. However, they are textualists, which is a big part of originalism, and their approach has at least some significant affinities with public meaning originalism. It is unfortunate that their self-misunderstanding muddies the waters. But if we focus on what they do rather than on what they say about what they do we can see that their opinion, despite its flaws, is an important step in the right direction, and by far preferable to Justice Abella’s.


I turn, finally, to the issue of international and comparative materials. I agree with the majority’s calls for care and discernment in the way such materials are used. Partly this is a matter of legal and intellectual rigour. Partly, as Justices Brown and Rowe say, of “preserving the integrity of the Canadian constitutional structure, and Canadian sovereignty”. [23] Justice Abella’s concerns about whether foreign scholars and courts will pay attention to Canadian constitutional law are beside the point. Ultimately, the Canadian constitution means what it means, and not what some international treaty, let alone foreign constitutional text, might mean ― a matter on which Canadian courts often could not pronounce. I would, however, add two further observations, which I already made here in discussing similar issues that arose in the Supreme Court’s decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, [2019] 1 SCR 3.

First, international and foreign materials may be more relevant and persuasive to courts engaged in constitutional construction, and in particular (but not only) in the demarcation of reasonable limits on rights under section 1 of the Charter, than in cases such as this one, which concern the interpretation of the Charter‘s text. When courts develop legal doctrine, they have more reason to look to international experience ― including international experience post-dating the Charter‘s enactment ― than when they seek to discern the meaning of the Charter‘s words ― an exercise to which, as Justices Brown and Rowe recognize, international and foreign materials post-dating the Charter are unlikely to be relevant. The majority’s unwillingness to seriously engage with public meaning originalism causes it to seemingly lump all constitutional questions together and so to lose sight of this nuance.

Second, when and to the extent that international and foreign law is relevant, judicial consideration of it should, as I wrote in my comment on Frank, “not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete”. I’m not quite sure what Justices Brown and Rowe mean by saying that such materials should be kept to “providing support and confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation”. [22; emphasis in the original] But it would not be intellectually honest for a court to only consider materials that agree with its conclusions and deliberately discard others. If the court considers foreign and international sources, it should address those that it does not find persuasive.

The court should also be careful not to misunderstand or mischaracterize these sources. Justice Abella’s invocation of the “judges in the majority” in Furman v Georgia, 402 US 238 (1972), as having “definitively discussed” the purpose of the Eighth Amendment is an example of such dangers. There was no unified majority in Furman; the two judges whom Justice Abella quotes, Justices Marshall and Brennan, were in fact the only ones who took the position they took, which was that the death penalty was necessarily cruel and unusual punishment. Three others took a more limited view that opened the door to the re-imposition of the death penalty, which was given the green light in Gregg v Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976), in effect reversing Furman. If judges are to refer to foreign law, they need to understand and be honest about it.


Overall, the Supreme Court, and specifically the majority opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe, brings a welcome dose of rigour to the task of constitutional interpretation in Canada. The primacy of constitutional text as the object of interpretation is affirmed, while freewheeling discretion to make the constitution the best it can be in a judge’s opinion is rejected. There is also a more rigorous approach to the use of international and foreign materials in constitutional interpretation. Compared to the alternative vividly illustrated by Justice Abella, this is all very welcome (and all the more so if, as I hypothesized in my last post, Justice Abella’s opinion was originally intended to be the majority one).

But the majority opinion is very far from perfect, and it will perpetuate much of the confusion that afflicts constitutional interpretation in Canada. Even as it adopts the methods of textualism and is largely compatible with public meaning originalism it disclaims the former and purports to reject the latter. This messiness is the sad consequence of a lack of serious thought about constitutional interpretation in Canada. One can only hope that this gap will be filled in the years to come.

You Read It Here First

The Supreme Court holds that the Charter does not protect corporations against cruel and unusual punishment

Can corporations avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”? In Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 the Supreme Court unanimously holds that it cannot. The question excited some debate, both for its own sake and also for its implications for constitutional interpretation more broadly, in the wake of the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in this case, 9147-0732 Québec inc c Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373. I argued against the position of the Court of Appeal’s majority and in favour of the one now adopted by the Supreme Court (here and then here); others, however, disagreed.

The narrow issue of the scope of section 12 is now decided, at least as a matter of positive law. But the splits among the Supreme Court’s judges and the ambiguities of the majority opinion delivered by Justices Brown and Rowe (with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) mean that the broader question of how Canadian courts should interpret the constitution remains unsettled. Although both the majority and Justice Abella, who concurs (with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) claim for themselves the mantle of purposivism, the majority moves in a textualist direction, even as it denies doing so, while the concurrence defends an approach under which the constitution means whatever the Supreme Court thinks it should mean, though it does not quite admit it. Justice Kasirer, meanwhile, concurs in the result and pointedly refuses to step into his colleagues’ interpretive debate.

In this post, I summarize the opinions. I will follow up with comments, mostly on constitutional interpretation, in a separate post tomorrow. Benjamin Oliphant will also have comments in the coming days, dealing with both constitutional interpretation generally and the use of international law in particular.


The respondent (we’re not actually going to refer to it ― or to the case as a whole ― by the number, are we? what are supposed to call this case though?) was charged with having undertaken some construction work without the requisite license. It argued that the fine it would have to pay would be excessive, and thus in violation of section 12 of the Charter. All three judgments made short work of this view. All commended the dissenting reasons of Justice Chamberland at the Court of Appeal and, like him, all pointed to the fact that cruelty referred to the infliction of suffering in body or mind, of which human beings were capable, and legal persons were not. Justice Kasirer’s concurrence, which limits itself to making these points, is all of five paragraphs long.

But, for whatever reason, the other eight judges do not think this is enough. They debate the general principles of constitutional interpretation, focusing on two main issues: first, the primacy, or lack thereof, of the constitutional text; and second, the role of international materials. The subject of this debate is unusual for a Supreme Court of Canada decision: constitutional interpretation is seldom addressed at such length even in cases that actually turn on it, which this one doesn’t really. So is the debate’s vehemence. The perennial talk of the differences between the mean, originalism-debating US Supreme Court and its kinder, gentler Canadian counterpart was always overwrought, but it feels especially out of place now.

Another oddity of the debate between the majority opinion and that of Justice Abella is that the former seems to have been written entirely in response to the latter. It is a rare majority opinion that is introduced by a disclaimer that “[d]espite our agreement in the result, we find it necessary to write separately”. [3] I wonder whether the decision was originally assigned to Justice Abella, but some judges (starting presumably with Justices Brown and Rowe), being dissatisfied with her treatment of the interpretive issues, wrote separately, and ended up peeling off others, forming a new majority. Be that as it may, it is perhaps useful to start with Justice Abella’s reasons, since the majority responds to them more than the other way around.

Justice Abella describes her interpretive approach as “contextual” and “purposive”. The text has no special role to play in determining the Charter’s import: “examining the text of the Charter is only the beginning of the interpretive exercise, an exercise which is fundamentally different from interpreting a statute”, [71] and “elevating the plain text” of the Charter’s provisions “to a factor of special significance” is a mistake. [72] Due to its often “vague, open-ended language … [t]he text of those provisions may … be of comparatively limited assistance in interpreting their scope”. [74] Indeed, attaching too much importance to constitutional text

could unduly constrain the scope of those rights, or even yield two irreconcilable conclusions leading, for example, to the interpretive triumph of the presence of a comma in expanding gun-owners’ rights under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution in District of Columbia v Heller, 554 US 570 (2008) [75]

Insisting on the primacy of the plain text of Charter rights” also undermines the constitution’s ability of to develop and “creates a risk that, over time, those rights will cease to represent the fundamental values of Canadian society and the purposes they were meant to uphold”. [76] Finally, “[a] textualist approach would also make Canadian constitutional law more insular”, [78] by which Justice Abella means both less inclined to consider foreign authority and less attractive as a reference point to foreign jurists.

Rather, purpose has to be inferred from a variety of contextual indicia, there being no “rigid hierarchy among these interpretative guides”, [80] although elsewhere Justice Abella suggests that “the principles and values underlying the enactment of the Charter provision are the primary interpretive tools”. [70] Justice Abella refers to dictionary definitions of the word “cruel”, the textual context of section 12 (notably the fact that almost no other “legal rights” protected by the Charter have been held to extend to corporations), and the historical context of its enactment (with respect to which Justice Abella briefly refers to the Bill of Rights 1688, the comments of some judges in  Furman v Georgia, 408 US 238 (1972), and the Canadian Bill of Rights).

Justice Abella also refers, copiously, to contemporary interpretations of section 12’s equivalents in foreign and international instruments. This is justified, she argues, by the fact that “Canada’s rights protections emerged from the same chrysalis of outrage” about Nazi crimes “as other countries around the world”. [98] It also ensures that Canada maintains a “leading voice internationally in constitutional adjudication”. [106] Unlike the majority, she wants to avoid creating a “hierarchical sliding scale of persuasiveness” [104] among these sources and “thereby transform[] the Court’s usual panoramic search for global wisdom into a series of compartmentalized barriers”. [61] Textual differences among these sources do not matter, because “a common meaning can be ascribed to their various formulations”. [108] These sources include international treaties, both those to which Canada is a and those to which it is not (like the American Convention on Human Rights), as well as the interpretations of these treaties by the relevant adjudicative bodies, as well as the jurisprudence of foreign domestic courts.

All these sources tend to the same conclusion:

In line with the global consensus, [section 12’s] purpose is to prevent the state from inflicting physical or mental pain and suffering through degrading and dehumanizing treatment or punishment. It is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. … Since it cannot be said that corporations have an interest that falls within the purpose of the guarantee, they do not fall within s. 12’s scope. [135-36]

The majority, as already noted, strongly disagrees with Justice Abella’s approach. Like Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe purport to interpret the Charter in a purposive manner. However, they accuse Justice Abella of “minimizing the primordial significance assigned by this Court’s jurisprudence to constitutional text in undertaking purposive interpretation”. [4] They insist that

within the purposive approach, the analysis must begin by considering the text of the provision … because constitutional interpretation, being the interpretation of the text of the Constitution, must first and foremost have reference to, and be constrained by, that text”. [8-9; emphasis in the original]

They add that “[g]iving primacy to the text” [10] is also the way to avoid framing the purpose of a provision too narrowly or too broadly.

Justices Brown and Rowe reject the charge that they are favouring a narrowly textualist approach. What Aharon Barak’s described, in his Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, as “new textualism”, a “‘system [which] holds that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment’ and in which ‘[r]eference to the history of the text’s creation . . . is not allowed’” [12], is “not remotely consistent with [the approach] which we apply and which our law demands”. [12]

Analyzing section 12, Justices Brown and Rowe first note that “the words ‘cruel and unusual treatment or punishment’ refer to human pain and suffering, both physical and mental”. [14; emphasis in the original] They mostly endorse Justice Abella’s historical analysis, although they “add that an examination of s. 12’s historical origins shows that the Charter took a different path from its predecessors”, [16] going back to Magna Carta, because “the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause was carved off from the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and placed in s. 11(e) of the Charter”, while “[e]ven more significantly, the protection against ‘excessive fines’ was not retained at all”. [16] All “this is highly significant, if not determinative: excessive fines (which a corporation can sustain), without more, are not unconstitutional”. [17]

Readers may have seen these arguments before: in part, of course, in Justice Chamberland’s dissent at the Court of Appeal, but the reference to both Magna Carta and to section 11(e) of the Charter first appeared right here, in my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision. Here’s what I wrote:

The Charter does things somewhat differently from its forbears. The right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause” is placed in a separate provision (section 11(e)) from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12). The proscription of “excessive fines”, meanwhile, has not been retained. These drafting choices ought to matter. In particular, the Charter’s text means that excessive fines are not, without more, unconstitutional. (Paragraph break removed, emphasis added)

I’ll let the reader judge how likely the similarity ― not only of ideas, of course, but of the way in which they are presented and even of the words used, especially the passage quoted above from paragraph 17 and the italicized sentence from my post ― is to be coincidental.

Justices Brown and Rowe then move on to discussing the use of international materials. This discussion, though, is still relevant to a more general consideration of constitutional interpretation. It begin with an assertion that “[a]s a constitutional document that was ‘made in Canada’ … the Charter and its provisions are primarily interpreted with regards to Canadian law and history”. [20] International and foreign materials can “support or confirm an interpretation arrived at through the Big M Drug Mart approach”, but not “to define the scope of Charter rights”. [28] Different types of instruments should also be treated differently: those that are binding on Canada are entitled to a presumption that the Charter is consistent with them; others are not. The date on which the international instruments came into being matters too:

International instruments that pre‑date the Charter can clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed. Here, whether Canada is or is not a party to such instruments is less important … As for instruments that post‑date the Charter, … [i]t can readily be seen that an instrument that post‑dates the Charter and that does not bind Canada carries much less interpretive weight than one that binds Canada and/or contributed to the development of the Charter. [41-42]

Foreign judicial decisions, meanwhile, must be invoked with “[p]articular caution” [43] and subject to an explanation as to the “way they are instructive, how they are being used, or why the particular sources are being relied on”. [44]


I am happy to see such extensive debate of constitutional interpretation taking place at the Supreme Court, though like Justice Kasirer I am a bit mystified by the reasons why it took place in this case. As co-blogger Mark Mancini and I argued just recently, Canadian law will benefit from more and better conversations about constitutional interpretation. A discussion of the use of international and comparative materials is also welcome, though again I wonder if this was the case in which it had to happen.

At the same time, by way of a preview of my next post, I will say that the treatment of constitutional interpretation in this case is not altogether satisfactory. To be sure, the majority opinion is a step in the right direction, as the contrast with Justice Abella’s concurrence makes clear. Yet although a substantive improvement on the alternative, this opinion engages in some misdirection and perpetuates the confusion that all too often characterize discussions of constitutional interpretation in Canada.