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.

The Sex Appeal of Power

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently, in both politics and law. The idea is what I call the “one-way ratchet fallacy” of power. It goes like this: when an institution or entity obtains power of some kind, that power will only ever be used to fulfill certain goals rather than others. That is, people might assume that power will always run in favour of the policy outcomes they like. This is, in a word, naïve—but at worst, it is a gross misunderstanding of the problems with power. The increasing tendency to think this way only reinforces the need for law and custom to limit, rather than unleash, power.

Two examples come to mind that illustrate this phenomenon. The first is an issue near and dear to my heart, and that issue is constitutional interpretation. In Canada, a major misunderstanding of the Persons Case holds that Canada’s Constitution is a “living tree”—in other words, the Constitution must “grow” to fit the emerging realities of today’s society. Under this theory, judges in a system of strong judicial review decide when and in what direction the Constitution should evolve.

Putting aside the fact that only some work has been done to actually provide rules to govern the “living tree” theory, and also putting aside the fact that the Supreme Court has never provided such guidance (and in fact does not consistently endorse this theory), there is a certain “ideological sex appeal” to living constitutionalism, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once said. That appeal is that the law and the Constitution can be used to achieve policy outcomes that one likes, ensuring that the Constitution protects certain outcomes that are consistent with “evolving standards of decency” (to borrow an American phrase). Unsurprisingly, progressives see the potential in living constitutionalism. It is a good way to ensure the Constitution keeps up with modern times and, potentially, modern progressive causes.

But, there is a major risk that should cause those who endorse living constitutionalism to pause. Living constitutionalism contains within it a dangerous assumption: that judges will always be on the side of angels. The risk was put eloquently by Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal in a talk a few years ago. The general gist of it is this: imagine, some years from now (or maybe we do not even need to imagine) that there is some existential crisis affecting our society. Courts are asked to deal with a legal issue arising out of that crisis. Would we rather the court decide the matter according to settled doctrine, painstakingly developed over generations? Or on the personal say-so of judges? There is a risk that the personal say-so of a judge might run in a direction that progressives would not like. Basically, without rules governing the exercise of legal power by judges, it’s a coin flip in terms of result.

Lest anyone think that this is an inherent flaw of progressives, those on the right can also fall victim to the alluring sex appeal of power. A good example is the recent Trump administration move to “ban” government contracting and other relations with businesses and others that offer some critical race theory training. Now, it is more than fair to say there are major debates raging right now about critical race theory. That’s a somewhat separate issue. What is important here is that the power of the government is being used to root out certain ideas rather than others.

This is a different issue from living constitutionalism, since here it could be argued that governments have the power to implement their view of the “public good;” law, by its nature, is supposed to be governed by rules that are as close to “neutral” as possible. So those on the right might feel emboldened by Trump’s move because it implements their view of the good. But once the precedent is set that governments can police ideology by picking winners and losers in business, and ferret out views it doesn’t like from the inside, it is just as possible that a future administration could fall victim to the sex appeal of power in the opposite direction. Power can be used, in the future, to limit the spread of ideas that those on the right might find appealing: free market economics, personal liberty, whatever it is.

While the situation is admittedly slightly different than the living constitutionalism example, this situation calls for a political custom surrounding the exercise of power. As Dicey said, laws are not enough; there must be a “spirit of legality” that governs the exercise of power. This is understood as a reference to customary norms governing the exercise of power. Surely, one custom might be that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers based on ideology (within reason).

The living constitution example and the critical race theory example illustrate the sex appeal of power. It can be exercised in a certain political direction, to be sure. And it might feel good for power to be exercised to the benefit of certain political factions. But the more power is granted to certain actors, and the more that laws and customs liberate that power, the more we might expect the one-way ratchet to keep ratcheting up. In politics, this might be one thing. But in law—especially when it comes to constitutional interpretation—the sex appeal of power is positively dangerous.

The Self-Own of Court-Packing

2020 dealt us another major blow last week, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Justice Ginsburg, agree or disagree with her jurisprudentially, was an inspiration to many. Rightly so. She was a trailblazer. Incidentally, for anyone interested, there is a great movie about her life in the law: “On the Basis of Sex.” Available on Crave, I think.

Predictably, though, the good feelings towards Justice Ginsburg have quickly morphed into a sickening volcano of politics. The story starts back in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia upon his death. The Senate, which has the advice and consent function on new judges under the US Constitution, and led by Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to even hold a vote on Garland. The rationale at the time was that, with a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled Senate, “[t]he American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” The gamble worked out for the Republicans, who won the Presidency in 2016 and were able to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Scalia’s old seat.

The Republicans put a mark in the sand in 2016, and if we lived in a world of consistency and honour, the Republicans would forestall their choice for the Supreme Court until after the 2020 election. But unfortunately, the Republicans see an opportunity. Mitch McConnell has announced that the Senate will consider the President’s nominee before the election. His justification for doing so, compared to 2016, is that now the same party holds the White House and the Senate. This is, to put it in a word, ridiculous. But in this imperfect world, I do not see any way for the Democrats themselves to stop the nomination from moving forward–save for some courageous Republicans.

The Democrats, angry by this, have lost their patience. Prominent Democrats have opened the door to court-packing, a play that would expand the court and allow Democrats (should they win the presidency) to “pack” the court with sympathetic judges. The underlying theory behind this move is simple: the Republicans have gamed the Supreme Court for too long, and the system itself is illegitimate. The Democrats have to react accordingly by bringing a gun to a gun fight. Or, perhaps more generously, the Democrats need to “expand democracy” (loads of problems with this that I cannot deal with here).

I think this is a flawed way of thinking that will simply lead to a race to the bottom. More promising are calls for a comprehensive deal between the parties. But if the choice is to pack the court or retain the status quo, I say retain the status quo, much as it pains me to say it. Life—and law—is not about utopia, but about choosing the least of bad options. And this is one of those situations.

There are reasons of principle and pragmatism for my conclusion. The entire point of the Supreme Court—in both Canada and the United States—is to act as an apex court in a system of judicial review. Despite the fashionable trend towards eroding the distinction between law and politics, judicial review is a quintessentially legal task, asking whether government laws or action remain consistent with some external norm, such as the Constitution. To do so, over time, courts (in theory) develop settled doctrine and precedent to govern the application of the law. To be fair, we have never reached this Nirvana in law. But in the application of law, we do our best to depoliticize the process as much as we can, so that the work judges do has some legitimacy attached to it.

Whether one accepts this or not, as time has gone on, especially in the United States, the Supreme Court appointment process itself has become politicized, undermining the perception of the review role of the court. Ideological litmus tests abound, and as noted above, at least in recent memory, the Republicans have played games with the nomination process. This raises a question. Even if the application of law is, ideally, removed from the spectre of “politics” (a vexing terminological question I am conveniently sidestepping here), there is still a question of perception. In other words, the system must also be supported by a “spirit of legality,” as Dicey put it. In service of that spirit, it is my view that political actors sometimes need decline to exercise power they strictly have in legal form in order to create an institutional culture of respect for the law. This goes both ways.  While it is true that the Republicans have the “raw power” to move a nomination through the Senate, they may want to keep their powder dry in the name of the rule they created in 2016, and as a means to protect the legitimacy of the Court in the public eye. And the Democrats will want to abstain from moving on court-packing, because it too transforms the trappings of the court into an ideological fever-pitch. Even if one believes the system is illegitimate, making it more illegitimate is a self-own.

I am alive to the criticism that I live in a world that either never existed or is long gone. That is, at least since Bork (and likely before), the Supreme Court selection process has been a breeding ground for partisan considerations. This is true. But that is not a reason to go further down the rabbit hole. If anything, it is a moment to reflect how far we have come, and what we need to do to ensure our institutions retain legitimacy. As Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg note, court-packing is anathema to the Rule of Law.

Arguments from principle nowadays are not very convincing to many, left and right, who view themselves as engaged in a culture war where institutions are just organs of power, rather than bodies with designed and limited powers. So let me speak their language on my second point. Court-packing will be like a drug for the Democrats. It will feel really good to dunk on the Republicans for a few years. But as Joe Biden aptly noted in 2019:

In other words, on and on the merry-go-round goes. And it will never end. The Democrats have to ask themselves an important question if they go down the road of court-packing: are you so sure that you will end up on the winning end of the deal, over the years? How much would you be willing to bet? The Republicans have gamed the Court far more effectively than the Democrats over the years. There is no reason to believe that would stop in a post-court-packing world. In other words, as a matter of strategy, unless the Democrats are sure they would end up winning, the smart play is to simply hold fire.

Holding fire is not desirable for many in today’s world, as I alluded to above. Today, the name of the game is power. Those who consider themselves engaged in a culture war view the matter as a tactical one, in which power that is held must be used to extinguish the other side. But there are more important things than winning a political battle. Institutions that are designed to apply law, for all of us, is one of those important things.

On the other hand, holding fire is not the ideal solution here, by far.  While there are many permutations on offer, I am quite convinced that Ilya Somin’s suggested solution is one worth exploring. Here it is:

  1. The Republicans promise not to confirm any Supreme Court nominee until after January 20 of next year, at which time whoever wins the election will get to name Justice Ginsburg’s replacement.

2. In exchange, the Democrats promise not to support any expansion of the size of the   Supreme Court for at least the next ten years.

This solution puts protecting the institution at the forefront before political victories. And it buys time for the sides to cool down the temperature and do the right thing. There are  other options on the table: term limits, mandatory retirement, the list goes on. In a healthy constitutional democracy, all of these things should be on the table. Of course, I have no hope that this these solutions will come to pass. That in itself is an indictment of the American constitutional democracy as it stands.

All in all, court-packing poses the question to the Democrats: are you confident in your side winning the war over the long term? If you aren’t, court-packing is a gamble that could hurt the Democrats over the long haul. And nowadays, maybe that is the most important consideration for culture warriors to keep in mind. Self-owning is never fun.

Just Hook It to My Veins

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s excellent lecture on statutory and constitutional interpretation

Justice Scalia’s 1989 Lecture on “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis” is well known; indeed it has featured in a post by co-blogger Mark Mancini. Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit revisited that lecture last year, and her remarks have been published recently, as “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis: Redux“. They are a short and profitable read, including for Canadian lawyers, to whom almost everything Judge Barrett says is relevant. Judge Barrett’s comments have mostly to do with statutory and constitutional interpretation, but they also touch on the issue of “judicial activism”. And I agree with just about every word.


The main topic Judge Barrett addresses is textualism. She defines it as the approach to interpretation that

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)

Judge Barrett contrasts textualism, so understood, with the view that “statutory language isn’t necessarily a hard constraint. … Sometimes, statutory language appears to be in tension with a statute’s overarching goal, and … a judge should go with the goal rather than the text”. (856) Judge Barrett labels this latter approach “purposivism”, but that is perhaps not ideal, since many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive.

With this in mind, the first three of Judge Barrett’s canards are “textualism is literalism” (856); “[a] dictionary is a textualist’s most important tool” (858); and “[t]extualists always agree”. (859) She notes that

[l]anguage is a social construct made possible by shared linguistic conventions among those who speak the language. It cannot be understood out of context, and literalism strips language of its context. … There is a lot more to understanding language than mechanistically consulting dictionary definitions. (857)

The relevance of context to interpretation is an important reason why textualists (and originalists) don’t always agree. If it were simply a matter of consulting the dictionary and the grammar book,

one could expect every textualist judge to interpret text in exactly the same way. Popping words into a mental machine, after all, does not require judgment. Construing language in context, however, does require judgment. Skilled users of language won’t always agree on what language means in context. Textualist judges agree that the words of a statute constrain—but they may not always agree on what the words mean. (859)

The example of such disagreement that Judge Barrett provides concerns the interpretation of the provisions of the US anti-discrimination statute ostensibly directed at discrimination “because of sex” as applying, or not, to sexual orientation and gender identity. Judge Barrett describes what happened at the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, but a similar disagreement arose when the matter was decided by the Supreme Court in Bostock v Clayton County, 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020). Mark wrote about it here.

Judge Barrett then turns to another issue, this one concerned specifically with constitutional interpretation: should the constitution be interpreted differently from other legal texts? The idea that it should ― for which Chief Justice Marshall’s well-known admonition in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819) that “we must never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding” (407) is often taken to stand ― is Judge Barrett’s fourth canard. For her, “the Constitution is, at its base, democratically enacted written law. Our approach to interpreting it should be the same as it is with all written law.” (862) To be sure, the Constitution contains “expansive phrasing and broad delegations of congressional and executive authority to address unforeseen circumstances”. (862; footnote omitted) (One might do an interesting comparison of the US and Canadian constitutions on this point: as a very superficial impression, I am tempted to say that the delegations of legislative power are more precise in the Constitution Act, 1867, but those of executive power are even more vague.) But while constitutional language differs from that of an ordinary statute, the ways in which it should be interpreted do not: “[t]he text itself remains a legal document, subject to the ordinary tools of interpretation”. (862) Indeed, as Justice Scalia already argued, this the only reason for having installing courts as authoritative interpreters of the Constitution: were it not an ordinary law, why would we allow ordinary lawyers to have anything to do with it?

In particular, the principle that “the meaning of the law is fixed when it is written”, which is “a largely, though not entirely, uncontroversial proposition when it comes to statutory interpretation”, (863) applies to the Constitution too. This principle is indeed recognized, in statutory interpretation, even by the Supreme Court of Canada: R v DLW, 2016 SCC 22, [2016] 1 SCR 402 is a recent example. In the constitutional realm, however, our Supreme Court buys into the canard denounced by Judge Barrett ― or at least says it does. (Reality is often different.) As Judge Barrett explains, “as with statutes, the law [of the Constitution] can mean no more or less than that communicated by the language in which it is written” (864) ― and what that language communicates must of course be understood with reference to what it meant when it was communicated, not what it would come to means at some future date.

Judge Barrett makes an additional point which requires some clarification in the Canadian context, so far as statutes are concerned. It concerns the importance of compromise to the drafting of legal texts. For Judge Barrett, since laws reflect arrangements reached by representatives of competing or even conflicting interests, their interpreters should seek to give effect to these agreements and compromises, notably through “reading the text of the statute at the level of specificity and generality at which it was written, even if the result is awkward”, (863) and even when it might seem in tension with the statute’s purpose. The Canadian caveat is that our statutes are, at least to some extent, less the product of compromise than those of the US Congress. Especially, but not only, when they are enacted by Parliaments and legislatures where the executive has a majority, they reflect the executive’s policy, and are primarily drafted by officials executing this policy. But one should not make too much of this. As I pointed out here, statutes ― including in Canada ― often reflect compromises between a variety of purposes and values, even if these compromises are the product of a cabinet’s disucssions or even of a single politician’s sense of what is right and/or feasible. It follows that statutes should indeed be read carefully, with text rather than any one among these purposes being the interpretive touchstone. And as for constitutional interpretation, Judge Barrett’s point applies with full force. It was nowhere better expressed than by Lord Sankey in the  Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on 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 of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

After briefly passing on the idea that “judicial activism is a meaningful term” (865) ― she notes that, actually, “there is no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be an activist” (865) ― Judge Barrett turns to the view that a legislature’s failure to overrule a judicial decision interpreting an enactment can be taken as assent to the interpretation. For one thing, since the meaning of a statute is fixed at the time of its enactment, “what a later Congress” ― or Parliament or legislature ― “thinks is irrelevant”. (867; footnote omitted) But further, “even if we did care, there is no way to reliably count on congressional silence as a source of information”. (868) Silence might just mean that the legislature is unaware of the decision, or it might mean that the legislature finds intervention inexpedient, or not enough of a priority, though desirable in the abstract. Judge Barrett does not quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, but she reminds us that we ought not to mistake lethargy for strategy. Judge Barrett also refers to the bicameralism-and-presentment legislative procedures of the US Constitution, but that discussion is probably less relevant to Canadian readers.

Indeed I am not sure how salient this issue of acquiescence-by-silence is in Canada, as a practical matter. I don’t seem to recall decisions invoking this argument, but I may well be missing some. Judge Barrett’s attention to it is still interesting to me, however, because it is one of the possible justifications for the persistence of adjudicative (or as Bentham would have us say “judge-made”) law (not only in statutory interpretation but also in common law fields) in democratic polities.

In that context, I think that Judge Barrett is right that we cannot draw any concrete inferences from legislative silence. My favourite example of this is the issue of the admissibility of evidence obtained in “Mr. Big” operations, where suspects are made to believe that confessing to a crime is the way to join a powerful and profitable criminal entreprise. Such evidence was largely admissible until the Supreme Court’s decision in  R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52, [2014] 2 SCR 544, which made it presumptively inadmissible, except when tight safeguards are complied with. This was a major change, framed in almost explicitly legislative language. Yet Parliament ― with, at the time, a majority ostensibly focused on law-and-order issues ― did not intervene in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, just as it had not intervened before it. Does this mean Parliament agreed with the law as it stood before Hart, and changed its mind as a result of Justice Moldaver’s reasons? Probably not. What does its silence mean, then? Who knows. As Judge Barrett suggests, this does not really matter.


I wouldn’t have much to write about, I suppose, if I always agreed with the courts. I should be more grateful than I tend to be to judge who make wrongheaded decisions ― they may be messing up the law and people’s lives, but they are helping my career. Still, at the risk of depriving myself of future material, I call upon Judge Barrett’s Canadian colleagues to read her remarks and to take them on board. They are smart and show a real commitment to the Rule of Law. And, on a more selfish note, it really is nice to agree with a judge for a change.

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A Citizen’s Guide to the Rule of Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Faith

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

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


As Justice Kagan explains,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Results-Oriented Conservatism: A Defence of Bostock

Should textualism lead to more “conservative” outcomes as a matter of course? No.

Those who wish to transform textualism—a methodology of interpretation—into a vessel for conservative policy outcomes are in the wrong business. Instead of being in the business of law, they are in the business of politics. For years, a small group of Canadian judges have fought hard against this tendency. As Justice Stratas, for example, notes in Hillier, at para 33:

Those we elect and, within legislative limits, their delegatees (e.g., Ministers making regulations) alone may take their freestanding policy preferences and make them bind by passing legislation. Absent constitutional concern, those who apply legislation—from the most obscure administrative decision-makers to the judges on our highest court—must take the legislation as it is, applying it without fear or favour. Their freestanding policy preferences do not bind, nor can they make them bind by amending the legislation: Euro-Excellence Inc. v. Kraft Canada Inc., 2007 SCC 37, [2007] 3 S.C.R. 20 at para.

On this account, the proper venue for political change is the legislature, not the courts. For that reason, it was always faulty to attach a political agenda to textualism. Recent “disappointments” for conservatives at the Supreme Court of the United States are a reflection of the reality: textualism was never designed to achieve certain policy ends, and rightly so. Conservatives who wish to do so, in my view, are just as unprincipled as living treeists, who would adapt the Constitution and statutes to suit their policy preferences.

To make this point, I focus on the SCOTUS’ recent decision in Bostock, which has rankled conservatives who have a political agenda (though as I will note, there are others who have principled objections to the interpretation in Bostock). I first outline why, on first principles, Gorsuch J’s interpretation in the case is justified. Then I move on to consider the perils of the approach shared by some conservatives and progressives. As Brian Tamanaha notes in his important book, this results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation is profoundly disrespectful of the Rule of Law, which presupposes law as an independent field, a closed system–even if we may only reach that result imperfectly.

Bostock—Textual Interpretation

The case of Bostock in the United States is perhaps the best example of conservatives who have been somehow “betrayed” by textualism. Here are some examples:

  • In the link above, Josh Hammer says that Bostock represents the end of legal conservativism, arguing that “[w]hat we need is a more forceful conservative legal movement, just as willing as the left to make moral arguments in court, based on principles of justice, natural law…the common good and religious and moral traditions underlying Anglo-American constitutional order.” Forget if these traditions are not represented in legislation; they should somehow subvert Congress’ choices.
  • Senator Josh Hawley spelled the end of the conservative legal movement, arguing: “And if those are the things that we’ve been fighting for—it’s what I thought we had been fighting for, those of us who call ourselves legal conservatives—if we’ve been fighting for originalism and textualism, and this is the result of that, then I have to say it turns out we haven’t been fighting for very much.”
  • Robert George argues that the case “…vindicates Adrian Vermeule’s warning to conservatives that trying to combat the longstanding “progressive” strategy of imposing a substantive moral-political agenda through the courts by appointing “originalist” and “textualist” judges is hopeless.” What is the conservative version of such an agenda? The goal is to “…advance a socially conservative moral and political vision.”

I could go on. What unites these critiques is the idea that somehow the Court, in applying a plausible textual interpretation, failed conservatives on substantive grounds. To this I say: so be it. The place for these visions of the good deserve to be aired in public, not in august courtrooms.

What was the offense caused to conservatives in Bostock? The Court (per Gorsuch J for the majority) decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. The textual problem in Bostock was, in some ways, staggering: Title VII does not include sexual orientation or identity as distinct grounds of discrimination. However, for Gorsuch J, the ordinary meaning of the term “sex” applied today just as it did when Title VII was promulgated. Applying that definition, Gorsuch J reasoned that when one discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, one must necessarily discriminate on the basis of sex. This is because when one fires someone, for example, for being gay, they are necessarily making an implicit judgment about the person’s gender. If a man is attracted to another man, and is fired on that basis, the employer is implicitly saying that she would tolerate that attraction if the employee was a woman attracted to a man. Gender plays at least some small part in the decision to fire.

Because of the text of Title VII which prohibits discrimination “because of sex,” it did not matter if gender was not the primary cause of the discrimination. The “because of” standard encompasses even a 1% causal vector of the discrimination. This was supported by precedent.

Notably Gorsuch J refused to consider the fact that post-Title VII enactment Congresses have not amended Title VII to include sexual identity or orientation. This “post-enactment legislative history,” as it is technically called, should be anathema to textualists, because there is no good reason to suppose why Congresses failed to amend the statute. Just like pre-enactment legislative history, this sort of evidence should not ground an interpretation on its own; at best, it can be used with caution, particularly where the reason why Congress failed to act is clear.

My main point here is not to defend this particular interpretation, but I cannot help but make a tentative case for Gorsuch J’s view. I do this in order to demonstrate that the real dispute here is not a political one, but a legal one, between textualists. In my view, a number of interpretive considerations support his view.

Text: Gorsuch J’s textual interpretation comes down to the plausibility of his point that sex is inextricably linked to sexual orientation and identity: or more specifically, that discrimination on these grounds are all closely related. While Alito J in dissent disputed this point, and others have as well, there is some textual logic to it. First, there are at least some cases where sex is necessarily bound up with discrimination based on orientation. If there is even a chance that an employer could tolerate opposite sex attraction, but oppose same sex attraction, then the relevant difference is sex. With that aside, more importantly, a textual interpretation of the words “because of” leads to the conclusion that these words are broad. Broad words=broad meaning. On that account, any chance that discrimination could occur on the basis of sex, in the course of discrimination based on other unlisted grounds, is encompassed in the “because of” language.

Precedent supported this conclusion. In Oncale (per Scalia J, the king of textualists), Justice Scalia held that Title VII prohibited discrimination based on same-sex harassment. Why? Because the words “because of” encompassed situations involving same sex: “…we hold today that nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a claim of discrimination “because of…sex” merely because the plaintiff and defendant…are of the same sex” (79).

This is a simple matter of dynamic interpretation. When courts interpret broad, causal language, they must apply these terms to new situations. This is not a re-writing of the statute. Indeed, both sides in Bostock agree that the meanings of “sex” and “because of” are the same when Title VII was enacted and in the present day. But where new fact situations arise, that original meaning must be applied to new situations. As Justice Scalia noted in Oncale, while male-on-male sexual harassment was not the evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, “…statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed” (my emphasis). As Justice Scalia also says in his classic A Matter of Interpretation, statutory interpretation is governed by the rule that text should be interpreted “….to contain all that it fairly means” (23). This is all Gorsuch J did in Bostock.

Some might say this is a plain meaning approach. But I don’t see it. Justice Gorsuch gave the words “sex” and “because of” the same meaning they had when Title VII was enacted. He merely interpreted those words to encompass phenomenon that reasonably fall within their ambit. The fact that a phenomenon is new does not mean that it is necessarily excluded from broad statutory language. The question then is not whether Congress anticipated particular applications to new phenomenon. The question is whether the text can cover off those applications.

Context and Legislative History: If the text is clear—or at least clear enough—then there is no need or warrant to deviate from it. The Canadian Supreme Court accepts this reality (see Celgene, at para 21, and more, and more). And so does the American Supreme Court: see Milner. What this means is that legislative history, and post-enactment legislative history, cannot enter the interpretive task. This means that the fact Congress did not act to explicitly adopt certain explicit prohibitions is irrelevant.

Why should these be considered irrelevant? Post-enactment legislative history is a dangerous tool, on both principled and pragmatic grounds. On the former, legislative history goes to the intent of lawmakers, not to the natural import of the words they adopt in legislation. The latter matters. Whatever Congress did or didn’t do is of no relevance to the meaning of the words adopted. But the problems mount on pragmatic grounds. Legislative history, as Justice Scalia always noted, is not probative, because whatever people say may not be reflected in text. Post-enactment legislative history is even worse. Now we are trying to draw inferences based on what Congress did not do. That is a fool’s errand. As Justice Gorsuch notes, we will never know why Congress did not act to amend Title VII. This is not interpretation, but rather arm-chair psychology about what Congresses may have thought.

Results-Oriented Conservatism

Before continuing, I want to clearly acknowledge that there are plausible textual interpretations that run counter to Gorsuch J’s view. Some could argue that Gorsuch J’s analysis is a literalist approach, rather than one based on ordinary meaning. One could even say that Gorsuch J’s interpretation is itself compelled by results oriented reasoning, rather than the law. But this latter attack would only be strong if Gorsuch J’s approach was not plausibly based on text and precedent. Since, I hope, most would concede that this is a close call (in the name of humility), it is difficult to say anyone was results-oriented in Bostock. Better to keep politics out of it—after all, lawyers have no special political views warranting special treatment—and view the matter as a textual disagreement. I would characterize Bostock as a debate about legal interpretation, not political aims.

But there are exogenous, conservative forces that want to introduce this phantom into Bostock. Conservatives often get angry at progressives who invoke living constitutionalism (in Canada, the living tree metaphor) to adapt the Constitution to present realities. In Canada, we are familiar with this interpretive trick. How else to explain what Justice Abella did in SFL, where she, in all her wisdom, decided that it was now the time to grant “benediction” to a right to strike in Canada’s Constitution? The same phenomenon is at play when conservatives seek to use the law to achieve policy aims that should be achieved in the legislature.

Both attempts by ideologues to subvert law should be rejected. This is no longer a popular view, but law is an autonomous field, within reason, in the realm of statutory interpretation. The methods of interpretation are just that: methodologies. They are designed to reach the authentic meaning (contrast this with intent or expected application) of legislation. If a Congress passes legislation that is socialistic, then it should be authentically applied, leading to socialistic outcomes. If Congress passes legislation cutting back on social benefits, that legislation should be applied leading to its natural outcome. Judges do not bring special moral or political wisdom to the interpretive task. If lawyers are upset about the terms of legislation, they can speak out about it in the political realm. But that’s all.

The flaws of adopting a political approach to interpretation are not only present on a principled basis. If the political aims of legislation become the sole basis on which interpretation is conducted, then the incentive is to simply appoint people based on their substantive political views, not on the quality of their legal craft. To some extent, this is already happening in the United States. In that context, all we will see is a flat-out war between progressives and conservatives who seek to subvert law to their own aims. Nothing, not even law, which is supposed to be a fetter on political wishes, will be sacred anymore. From a strategic perspective, this is bad for either side. Victories achieved by one side in the courtroom can easily be overturned once the “other side” achieves power. And the merry-go-round goes on.

Better, in my view, to hone our arguments to legal ones, applying neutral methodologies, as best we can. Interpretation is designed to determine the meaning of legislative texts. Let the legislature legislate, and let courts interpret. Believe it or not, lawyers and their political views are not particularly enlightened.

Against Administrative Supremacy

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

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Common Good Administrative State

The Internet has been captivated by Professor Adrian Vermeule’s provocative essay in The Atlantic on so-called “common good constitutionalism” (CGC). CGC could be describes as part of a larger theory that co-blogger Leonid Sirota calls “right-wing collectivism,” which “blends support for using the power of the state to advance traditional moral values, a hostility to free markets, and nationalism.” CGC picks up the mantle in the legal realm, with Vermeule suggesting that “substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read in the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution” should be the starting point for interpretation. These substantive principles include

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

CGC is clearly distinguishable from other political and legal theories of interpretation. It does not ally itself with originalism, in that originalism is not expressly designed to promote certain substantive political aims. On the other hand, CGC does not take freedom of the individual as the dominant good in a polity, as libertarians might. Instead, CGC intends to promote substantive conservative ideals in constitutional law.

This is a rough-and-ready description of CGC, and for those who want a more in-depth description of the theory’s substantive ends, Leonid Sirota has written a post on CGC here, and others have written well-justified critiques of Vermeule’s position. My goal in writing today is to suggest some implications of CGC for administrative law and the delegation of power to administrative agencies. I do not think that a state or court that sets out to accomplish what Vermeule suggests would be able to avoid delegating power to agencies—this Vermeule seems to acknowledge. The question is whether such delegation is desirable, and whether the conservative adherents of Vermeule’s theory would themselves accept an ever-growing administrative (rather than democratic) behemoth.

I first describe what Vermeule says about the administrative state in his controversial piece and a related piece. Then I address some implications of CGC for administrative law and delegation. My view is that CGC depends–crucially–on the administrative state to effectuate its aims. But there is no guarantee that the administrative state can be wielded to achieve those goals.

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Vermeule spends the majority of his time talking about the ends associated with his CGC, and rightly so: these are controversial aims that run against orthodox opinion and established authority. However, he does devote some time to discussing how his CGC will affect the “structure and distribution of authority within government.” It is worth quoting the entirety of what Vermeule says about administrative agencies and bureaucracy; clearly, these institutions form the means to Vermeule’s ends:

As for the structure and distribution of authority within government, common-good constitutionalism will favor a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy, the latter acting through principles of administrative law’s inner morality with a view to promoting solidarity and subsidiarity. The bureaucracy will be seen not as an enemy, but as the strong hand of legitimate rule.

This is the entirety of what Vermeule says about bureaucracy in his piece, but there is a lot of meaning packed in these words. The last link in Vermeule’s comments links to another piece he wrote in which he discusses the ability of the administrative state to actively promote religion. In this piece, Vermeule suggests that “specialization” in administrative agencies is neither here nor there on religion, because “specialization is an intrinsically neutral institutional technology.” Vermeule says, on this basis:

So the administrative state, in my view, is an institutional technology that can be put to good or bad ends, and is no more intrinsically hostile to religion than is, say, the use of written rather than oral communication.

[…]

Let me distinguish two ways the administrative state could be put to beneficial use to promote religion. One is by clearing away legal and economic obstacles to religious practice, obstacles thrown up by other sorts of institutions; another is by directly and affirmatively promoting religious values.

For Vermeule, then, the picture seems to be of an administrative state actively advancing a certain discretionary agenda, perhaps unconstrained by constitutional or legal arguments that might confine that discretion, with the gargantuan task of promoting “solidarity and subsidiarity.” Unfortunately, no matter whether such a state is desirable, I do not find such a state practical in any sense of the term.

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Consider, first, the supposition that the bureaucracy would be “strong” in itself, acting under a “strong” Presidency. This comment seems to recall the unitary executive theory, under which “whatever authority the executive has must be controlled by the President.” This includes bureaucratic agencies operating under the President. These sorts of agencies can be contrasted with independent agencies, typically styled as such because their heads are removable by the President only for cause (though see Vermeule’s piece here). On the unitary executive theory, bureaucrats fall under the control of the President, exercising his constitutionally-delegated Article II authority.

At first blush, the unitary executive theory might appear to be a normatively desirable way to control bureaucrats. After all, Article II is clear that it is the President who holds the executive power, and so any exercise of that power must be controlled by the President. This theory has infiltrated the Supreme Court of the United States’ cases, particularly the so-called “Peek-a-boo” case (PCAOB v Free Enterprise Fund).

But practically, I have always been skeptical that the unitary executive theory is any more than a constitutional ideal rather than a practical, empirical fact. That is, it is somewhat of a legal fiction. The President of course cannot control every executive agent. And this is where Vermeule’s use of the administrative state as an instrument of CGC will falter. The political science and public choice literature is rife with theories of bureaucratic “drift,” under which agency members might “drift” from the statutory authorization giving them power. The same type of executive drift is possible from the perspective of the President; where preferences diverge between career staff and bureaucrats may have ideas of their own. After all, “…agencies (often have different goals than politicians or different judgments about how best to achieve those goals.” (see Jacob Gerson’s piece here). In the United States, for example, Jennifer Nou has written about civil servant disobedience, an increasingly prominent phenomenon during the Trump era. What is the Vermeulian plan for a disruptive civil service, with its own preferences, and its own agenda? In other words, do we think a strong bureaucracy will fall in line to CGC?

For example, one form of contestation might arise when a CGC President wants to promote “subsidiarity.” What incentive is there for a national administrative agency to embrace the principle of subsidiarity in the exercise of its legal functions? This seems to be a situation where there could be a classic preference divergence, where in the halls of power there is probably an incentive to arrogate more and more power to federal authorities over local authorities.

The upshot of Vermeulian CGC is that it would, I suspect, necessitate a mass amount of delegation to administrative agencies (though Vermeule does not expressly say this). Keeping in mind that Congress already has a difficult time in deciding how to monitor its delegations of power, and given that the pace and breadth of delegation seems to grow year over year, I have no faith that a CGC-based state would be able to control the mass delegation it plans. And it is worthwhile to question whether more delegation to administrative agencies is at all desirable.

These concepts are not new, and are fairly simple to understand. But they represent general rules about how the bureaucracy operates. There is no guarantee that a strong bureaucracy, as Vermeule wants it to be, will be a faithful agent for the President.

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But let’s assume that such a unity of identity and purpose is achievable—the administrative state, under this understanding, could become a tool for CGC and its programs. But this illustrates the problem with administrative power, based on it is upon contested notions of expertise and the “science of administration”: these tools can be easily co-opted and turned against CGC. On this account, the administrative state could be a self-defeating enterprise for CGC.

It is interesting, at least to me, that Vermeule calls the administrative state a neutral “institutional technology.” This might be strictly true, but it harkens back to an era when we spoke of ideas of strictly neutral expertise, or of the administrative state’s neutral status as a collection of good-faith individuals working towards the public good. One of the notions inculcated by the administrative law functionalists of a previous generation (like Wilson, Landis, and Goodnow) was the idea that administrative technology should be kept independent from the travails of politics. On this account, the administrative state might be described as a neutral technology.

But as I have written before (and as Vermeule seems to tacitly acknowledge), there is nothing technological or neutral about the administrative state. As mentioned above, agents within the state may have their own goals. But more importantly, if delegation is the so-called “engine” of the administrative state, then the currency we are really speaking about in administrative law is power. Power is what administrative agents act on when they create rules and make decisions. Courts are primarily concerned with whether these rules and decisions fall within the scope of the enabling power, and/or whether the power exercised by delegated officials is justified. Power, then, is given by the legislature to the delegated actor, and it is that power we should be concerned with.

Vermeule accepts that this power can be used to advance religious goals, or perhaps goals centred around the constitutional aims of CGC. But it is just as likely that this power can be co-opted by bureaucrats, courts, or politicians or judges of a different stripe, to advance an exact opposite version of the “common good.” As I wrote before:

Progressives have spent more than a generation asking courts to stay out of the business of administration, especially because of their supposed conservative and market-based political philosophy. This largely worked. The administrative state is now entrenched in many common law countries. But administrative power knows no ideology. Its only ideology is power, in a raw sense. That power—being judicial, legislative, and executive power merged—can be wielded by those with anti-progressive goals, or more dangerously, by those with authoritarian tendencies who seek to “throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

The number of times this has happened in administrative law history are too many to count: but consider the use of administrative agencies by FDR to advance the New Deal, and then the capture of these agencies some 50 years later by President Reagan to advance his deregulatory agenda. Recall that Chevron deference was introduced during the Reagan era, and served to assist the Reagan administration’s environmental agenda. The administrative state’s allyship with power makes it a dangerous tool that can be used for partisan or political ends that CGCers would find abhorrent. 

This is not, in itself, a bad thing. In fact, it subjects the administrative state—to the extent permissible with preference divergence—to the democratic accountability of elected officials. But let’s not pretend that the administrative state can be a neutral technology that always and everywhere can be transformed to CGC ends.

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If the administrative state is fundamentally about power, then we should be careful about its exercise. This is the traditional way we view power in constitutional law and administrative law. For example, judicial review in Canada is concerned with surveillance of lower decision-makers in order to ensure precise conformity to their enabling statutes (see Wall, at para 13; Vavilov, at paras 108-110). The same is true in the United States. CGC, then, turns the typical discussion of judicial review of administrative action on its head. Instead of discussing how best to control administrative decision-makers through doctrine, CGC seems to harken back to an old era of administrative law theory, where there is an implicit trust in administrative decision-makers to simply do the right thing. For the reasons I’ve noted above, it is unlikely that this will ever be the case. But as co-blogger Leonid Sirota points out, there is a downfall to assuming that power can simply be trusted to a massive administrative state, advancing the “common good” (whatever that turns out to be defined as):

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

Much administrative law is best conceived in this light. We are talking, after all, about the law which governs administrators—the judicial and legal controls that we apply to ensure the legality of state power. The worry is even greater in administrative law contexts, because Parliament can easily escape the strictures of judicial control by delegating power away. Judicial review, on this front, is concerned with managing the risks associated with delegated power, and the discussion should be the best doctrine to effectuate that concern. But CGC seems to unleash the administrative state, putting trust in the bureaucracy to achieve its aims. This, to my mind, is a classic mistake.

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Of course, I cannot address all of the implications of CGC in this (relatively) short post. I have tried to focus on a few implications for the world of administrative law. The metes and bounds of CGC will, hopefully, be fleshed out in further academic debate and discussion. For now, though, I am skeptical that the mass delegation of power that CGC will likely entail to the administrative state will be worth the risks associated with that delegation.

 

 

 

Can We Be Friends?: A Conservative Reply to Leonid Sirota’s “Refusionism”

This post is written by Thomas Falcone

I was surprised, if a little taken aback, by Leonid Sirota’s recent declaration on Double Aspect that he is opposed to co-operation with conservatives whom he deems insufficiently committed to a rigid Hayekian philosophy. The reason for my surprise lay not in Sirota’s ideology laid bare – he is commendably transparent about his public philosophy – but more to the creeping suspicion I had that I may have played a small part in inspiring his writing.

Sirota mentions “conversations” he engaged in at the recent Runnymede Society Law and Freedom Conference in Toronto as prompting his exposition of the reason why collaboration with conservatives is indefensible. Now, Sirota is a bit of a rock star at any Runnymede Society event – and rightfully so. His contributions to Canadian jurisprudential thought surely vault him into that vogue category of “thought leader.” I myself have plastered Double Aspect articles penned by him onto slides I’ve used in graduate seminars. Sirota’s leading ideas on originalism in a Canada are extremely impressive, and (as I have told him myself!) I am mostly in firm agreement with his opinions on the administrative state.

But I am compelled to respond to his call for libertarians to reject “refusionism”, which is to say his belief that we cannot be friends, let alone political allies. Perhaps he is right.


It is unfortunate that in Sirota’s attempt to describe what he calls “right-wing collectivism” he doesn’t bother to engage with any of the thinkers he finds so frightening. To be fair, however, the very nature of conservatism makes it difficult to attribute unifying policies or ideas that form a singular coherence. Oakeshott’s old adage that conservatism “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried” is helpful only insofar as it helps to explain that what a conservatism will stand for, or against, or agree to over time and after collective consideration, will vary in different places and amongst different peoples. Roger Scuton’s refrain that the task of a conservative is to assure people that their prejudices (properly understood as a person’s gut feeling) are justified is thus perhaps more helpful than Oakeshott’s old formulation.

In a Canadian context, Ben Woodfinden’s recent long essay in C2C Journal on Red Toryism is surely the closest thing we have to a contemporary “manifesto” of the sort of reform conservatism loosely associated with the broader movement Sirota wants to pre-emptively divorce himself from. But Sirota is right that conservatives ought properly to understand the goal of politics as being attached to the promotion of the highest good. This isn’t nearly as scary as he makes it out to be.

Take the institution of private property, for instance. Conservatives rightly commit themselves to the steadfast protection of this institution. But why is private property so important? Surely it cannot be a sacrosanct institution in-and-of-itself, despite idolatrous libertarian suggestions that the primacy of private property will result in an almost supernatural “spontaneous” right ordering of society. We can find a hint of why conservatism is associated with this institution in Scruton’s invaluable The Meaning of Conservatism:

“Home is the place where private property accumulates, and so overreaches itself, becoming transformed into something shared. There is no contract of distribution: sharing is simply the essence of family life. Here everything important is ‘ours’. Private property is added to, and reinforces, the primary social relation. It is for some such reason that conservatives have seen the family and private property as institutions which stand or fall together.”

Sirota’s biblical pronouncements of Hayekian “warnings” to the contrary, I would submit rather confidently that the vast majority of Canadians – and surely universally conservatives! – would agree on a general scale that the family is an immutable social good, and ought to be defended as the primary organizing unit of our society. The rather modest suggestion that I would posit to conservatives is that when we evaluate public policy proposals we adjudicate their desirability against whether or not they help or harm our shared social goods, like the family. Devin Drover has proposed publicly-funded therapy for families to combat the mental health crisis plaguing our society. US Senator Josh Hawley has proposed cash subsidies to families as emergency relief in response to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

Surely another commonly held value amongst Canadians is that it is better to work than to be idle. Having a job ties us to our community, provides us with income, and fills us with a sense of purpose. The notion that the state ought to be “neutral” as to whether people choose have jobs or sit around smoking cannabis would be nonsensical to the average person on the street. But that is precisely the Hayekian proposition Sirota suggests is “the philosophically and morally right position”, whereby individuals are the sole arbiters of their own ends. It is also a position completely alien to a conservative to whom work is fundamental good.

Recognition of the importance of work – and, indeed, the primacy of production over consumption (another value Sirota rallies against in his piece) – is central to Oren Cass’ The Once and Future Worker. And yet Cass’ proposed policy response to our society’s moral devaluation of work is, characteristic for a conservative, quite modest. He proposes a direct wage subsidy to not only make work more monetarily valuable but also signal the state’s – and thus our society’s – value of work. From an excerpt of Cass’ book in The American Interest:

“The subsidy would be calculated relative to a target wage of, say, $15 per hour and make up half the difference—so someone earning a market wage of $9 per hour would receive an additional $3 per hour. Such a subsidy would have two major effects: first, a substantial raise for low-wage workers, making each hour worked more valuable and yielding more take-home pay; second, encouragement for less-skilled workers to take that initial step into the workforce and for employers to offer such jobs.”

My point here is not to provide a laundry list of bold policy ideas that combat the scourges of family decline, widespread opioid misuse, loneliness and social isolation, and widespread disengagement of young men from the workforce. My point, rather, is to suggest that these are good and fundamentally conservative ideas. They are also not the stuff of totalitarian nightmares as Sirota will have us believe.


Finally, I feel compelled to address Sirota’s concluding appeal to the Book of Hayek. Here he suggests that power itself is an evil and thus there should be no power. This is untenable and flies in the face of our contemporary political reality. Harvard law professor Adrian Vermuele has best expounded on the internal contradictions at the core of Sirota’s philosophy by coining the phrase “the liturgy of liberalism.” How is it that liberalism, supposedly so profoundly committed to principles of freedom and liberty, can so quickly turn to repress any intellectual heterodoxy? Vermuele’s work is profound and complex, but the basic problem is that a political philosophy underpinned by nothing more than the idea of “freedom” will forever look for new oppressions to dismantle.

And herein lies the crux of my departure with Sirota: while he suggests conservatism is the flip-side to the woke-ism phenomenon, it is in fact libertarianism that is a not-so-distant cousin of SJWism. Both are committed to a religious devotion of individual preference maximization and will ruthlessly supress any suggestion that time, tradition, community, or common sense may occasionally contain more wisdom than the proclivities of any one person. Power is real and always will be – and as US Attorney General Bill Barr has noted, it is currently being deployed by left-leaning liberals against conservatives. I doubt libertarians will be spared.

This all bodes poorly, perhaps, for the future of a long-term political partnership with Sirota. But it need not foreshadow the demise of any would-be friendship. To the contrary, I am confident that right-leaning politics would benefit mightily from a continued dialogue around these difficult issues – especially in these difficult times. He is also, as I mentioned, a brilliant legal thinker. The reality is also that I know libertarians in 2020 are unlikely to try to “cancel” or “deplatform” me and I would never utilize such tactics against a libertarian. The same cannot be said for progressives. This may be a thin basis for continued political co-operation but the stakes are too high to let our disagreements overwhelm us.

 

Thomas Falcone is an LLM candidate at the University of British Columbia Peter A. Allard School of Law. He holds a BA in philosophy and political science, an MA in political science, and an LLB from the University of London. He is co-president of the UBC Runnymede Society chapter. You can follow him on Twitter @thomas_falcone.