Ideology in Constitutional Scholarship

Is most writing about constitutional law and theory (in the United States, but perhaps also in Canada) “intellectually corrupt”? In a post on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, Jason Brennan, a philosopher and economist from Georgetown, says that it is. But, while his description of constitutional scholarship is, unfortunately, right, his explanation and evaluation of the problem seem too simplistic to me.

The problem with constitutional scholarship, says prof. Brennan, is

that almost everybody does the following:

1. Start with a political philosophy–a view of what you want the government to be able to do and what you want to the government to to be forbidden from doing.

2. Take the Constitution as a given.

3. Reverse engineer a theory of constitutional interpretation such that it turns out–happily!–that the Constitution forbids what you want it to forbid and allows what you want it to allow.

Academic arguments to the effect that something desirable is, unfortunately, unconstitutional, or that something undesirable is, alas, constitutional, are too few and too far between. Scholarship becomes indistinguishable from legal or political argument (these two being the same thing). “But,” says prof. Brennan, “academic legal theory is supposed to aim at truth. Legal theorists are not–or should not be–fighting political battles.”

If a scholar in another field – say in the interpretation of philosophical texts – acted like constitutional scholars act in the interpretation of legal text, we would think them “intellectually corrupt.” So why is it ok for constitutionalists to behave this way? Prof. Brennan claims that

[t]he only real defense of this practice I’ve seen is one that starts by arguing that the law is supposed to be normative and authoritative. However … –the case for legal positivism seems so strong that … this [does not seem] plausible.

In his own view, which he labels as “legal positivist and legal realist,” “laws [are]sociological phenomena, and whether a law is good or just is a contingent fact.” The constitution means what it means, not what whoever is reading it would like it to mean.

Prof. Brennan’s description of constitutional scholars as fighting political battles certainly rings a bell. His post was written in the context of the litigation surrounding president Obama’s healthcare reform, and academic commentary on it was, indeed, largely marked by the commentators’ ideology. But this phenomenon is very widespread. Indeed, what I have seen and heard at NYU suggests that some academics, at least, though don’t know how many, are open about regarding ideological acceptability as a criterion for assessing the value of a theory.

But is constitutional theory tainted by ideology because legal academics are intellectually corrupt, or because they are completely misguided about legal philosophy and fail to recognize the overwhelming arguments in favour of legal positivism, as prof. Brennan suggests? I think that things are much more complicated.

The problem with his explanation is that it assumes that there is a truth of the matter about constitutional interpretation, which a constitutional theory should uncover. But there is no objective truth about what a constitution means. To be sure, some constitutional provisions are clear enough, and one would be hard-pressed to find ideological interpreters disagreeing about their meaning. Many in the United States, especially on the political left, think that the equality of states’ representation in the Senate is morally indefensible, but no left-wing academic will say that the constitution doesn’t require it. But much of the constitution is not clear. Nor is it obvious how the meaning the less clear provisions is to be ascertained. It is possible, I think, to exclude some constitutional interpretations, even of less clear provisions, as quite obviously wrong. Whatever the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” means, it surely makes the imposition of torture as a punishment unconstitutional. But what about death penalty? Different people can have different, reasonable, answers to that question, and they can – indeed they must – argue about which of these reasonable answers is better.

Law, in Jeremy Waldron’s words, is an “argumentative practice.” We argue about what this or that legal rule means – and that is an inextricable part of what law is, not a sad accident. This is especially true of constitutional law, for a number of reasons. One is simply that the stakes it involves are very high. What the state can and cannot do matters, sometimes at the level of policy, sometimes at the level of morality if not in the day-to-day lives of most people, and sometimes both. Another reason for the special importance of disagreement and argument to constitutional law is that constitutional texts are more vague than most legal sources. This is partly due to the need to secure agreement, often a super-majority agreement, on a text despite disagreements over specific rights, and to make that agreement last for decades and even centuries. This is also partly due to the fact that, contrary to what prof. Brennan seems to think obvious, much law – and certainly constitutional law – presents itself as morally good, and quite deliberately speaks in morally loaded terms. The third, related, reason why argument is so important in constitutional law is that it must somehow reconcile an arguably even greater number of competing values than other areas of the law. Democracy, federalism, Rule of Law, separation of powers, and protection of individual rights pull it in different directions. A constitutional text is, at most, a partial arbitrament between these (and other) competing values; it reflects them all, to some extent, and interpretations favouring one or another are bound to be plausible.

And here is where political ideology, which helps order these values, comes in. Constitutional theory, like any legal theory, is different from scientific theory, because it is in some measure argument. And argument about constitutional theory involves values, and hence ideology. It is fair, I think, to call it intellectually corrupt if it is limited to values and ideology and ignores legal sources. Any scholarship that deserves the name must be in touch with the reality it describes, explains, or critiques, so constitutional theory must, so far as possible, be grounded in constitutional text and precedent. But that will not make it free of ideology.

That said, it should still be possible for a scholar to acknowledge that his or her preferred constitutional interpretation is, if not incorrect by some (nonexistent) purely objective standard, unlikely to be adopted by courts (or other constitutional actors). One should strive to be clear-eyed about such things, and admittedly, legal academics often are not. To that extent, their scholarship suffers from a serious weakness.

Independence Enough Day

Ontario’s Small Claims Court relies on the work of 400 “deputy judges” – practising lawyers who take up part-time judging gigs, for an average of 19 sitting days a year. Subs. 32(1) of the the Courts of Justice Act provides that they are appointed by “[a] regional senior judge of the Superior Court of Justice … with the approval of the Attorney General,” for a three-year term if the deputy judge is younger than 65, or a one-year terms if he or she is older (subss. 32(2) and 32(3)). Subs. 32(4) provides that the appointments are renewable “by a regional senior judge of the Superior Court.” The Ontario Deputy Judges’ Association challenged the constitutionality of the reappointment provision, arguing that it compromised the court’s independence. Last week, Ontario’s Court of Appeal issued reasons for its rejection of the challenge, in Ontario Deputy Judges’ Association v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2012 ONCA 437.

The deputy judges’ sole argument was that the process of reappointment at the discretion of a regional senior judges did not appear to be sufficiently independent. Although it is not clear whether the argument was exactly the same on appeal, at trial, they had argued that the problem with this arrangement was that it did not grant deputy judges  “input from an independent body, the right to participate in some form of hearing or inquiry and the provision of reasons” (Ontario Deputy Judges Association v. The Attorney General of Ontario, 2011 ONSC 6956, par. 23).

As the court of first instance had done, the Court of Appeal rejected this argument. It held that, as the Supreme Court suggested in Valente v. The Queen, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 673, reappointment of a judge at the discretion of a member of the judiciary, unlike reappointment at the discretion of a member of the executive (such as the Attorney General), raises no concerns over independence sufficient to make it unconstitutional. It may or may not make the judge perfectly independent, but it makes him or her independent enough.

That sounds right to me as a matter of constitutional law. The constitution sets only a minimal standard, in judicial independence as in other matters. Whether a system that relies consistently on ad hoc deputy judges – who, presumably, are much cheaper than full-time ones – is the sort of civil justice system we want to have is another question, which should be addressed to legislatures, not courts.

In an Unknown Language

It is not every day, or even every month, that courts get to quote and discuss a statute enacted in the reign of Edward III. But the BC Court of Appeal did just that in an interesting decision it issued last week, in the case of Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia, 2012 BCCA 282. The issue in the case was whether documents (prepared in the ordinary course of business) in French could be submitted as exhibits to an affidavit tendered in evidence in a civil lawsuit in British Columbia without being translated. In effect, the fight is largely about who has to pay to have the documents translated – the party submitting them, or the other side. At first instance, the judge ruled in favour of the BC government, which argued that untranslated documents in French could not be admitted.

The two main issues on the appeal were whether the British Proceedings in the Courts of Justice Act, 1731 (U.K.), 4 Geo. II, c. 26 was in force in BC and, if so, whether it prohibited the admission of documents in languages other than English.

The Court began by briefly reviewing the history of language use in English courts. As it explained,

[b]y the 13th century, and possibly earlier, oral proceedings in the King’s Court were conducted in French.  … [T]he variety of English dialects made the English language inappropriate for court proceedings.  Latin was the written language.

However, throughout the 14th century, use of the English language was on the rise, and the oral language of the courts became inaccessible to most people.  As a result, the Pleading in English Act, 1362 (U.K.), 36 Edw. III, c. 15 … was enacted (par. 19-20).

That Act, in a discussion that would fit right into modern Rule of Law literature, noted

great Mischiefs which have happened to divers of the Realm, because the Laws, Customs, and Statutes of this Realm be not commonly [holden and kept] in the same Realm, for that they be pleaded, shewed and judged in the French Tongue, which is much unknown in the said Realm; so that the People which do implead, or be impleaded, in the King’s Court, and in the Courts of other, have no Knowledge nor Understanding of that which is said for them or against them … ; and that reasonably the said Laws and Customs [the rather shall be perceived] and known, and better understood in the Tongue used in the said Realm, and by so much every Man of the said Realm may the better govern himself without offending of the Law, and the better keep, save, and defend his Heritage and Possessions; and in divers Regions and Countries, where the King, the Nobles, and other of the said Realm have been, good Governance and full Right is done to every Person, because that their Laws and Customs be learned and used in the Tongue of the Country.

It provided, accordingly, that “all Pleas which shall be pleaded in [any] Courts whatsoever … shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue,” though written records would be kept in Latin.

That situation persisted until the enactment of the the Proceedings in the Courts of Justice Act in 1731. That statute also took note of

many and great Mischiefs [which] do frequently happen to the Subjects of this Kingdom, from the Proceedings in Courts of Justice being in an unknown Language, those who are summoned and impleaded having no knowledge or understanding of what is alleged for or against them in the pleadings of their Lawyers and Attornies, who use a Character not legible to any but Persons practicing law

– and required that all written records also be kept in English rather than Latin, French, or any other language.

That statute was part of the law of England, which was received in British Columbia in 1858.

The Court of Appeal holds that it is still in force in the province. Parliament has made an exception to it insofar as criminal trials are concerned,  the accused now having the right to be tried in French. But, as regards civil procedure, it was neither repealed nor modified. The appellants’ argument that language rights must be interpreted generously is true so far as it goes, but  “the courts must not import language rights where they do not exist constitutionally or through statute, regardless of how desirable such importation may seem.” An argument of this sort is not enough to conclude that a statute has been repealed by implication.

The court further holds  that the 1731 Act applies to documentary evidence. The appellants claimed that its purpose, which is to increase access to justice, means that it should not be construed so as to prevent them from making their case. However, the court points out that though the statute’s “purpose was, generally speaking, to facilitate access to justice; more specifically … it was aimed at preventing the injustice that resulted from the conduct of litigation in a language most lay litigants could not understand” (par. 48). In a judicial understatement, Justice Bennett  observes that “[i]t is not clear to [her] how requiring a party to pay for the translation of evidence that the other party is obliged to tender would facilitate access to justice” (par. 51)

Rejecting some other arguments put forward by the appellants, the Court dismisses the appeal, and holds that the party tendering into evidence a document originally in French bears the burden of having it translated. That seems the right result to me. As Justice Bennett says, access  to justice is not served by letting people tender evidence which most citizens and most lawyers might not be able to understand. As a matter of policy, it would surely be better if a party were at least able to consent to French-language documents being admitted, but it is not for the courts to make this policy into law.

Happy Canada Day!

A few quotations to indulge, for a day, in that un-Canadian feeling, patriotism.

“There is room enough in this country for one great free people; but there is not room enough, under the same flag and the same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious, obstructive nationalities.” – Thomas D’Arcy McGee

“[L]et your motto be Canada first, Canada last, and Canada always.” – Sir Wilfrid Laurier

“Our hopes are high. Our faith in the people is great. Our courage is strong. And our dreams for this beautiful country will never die.” – Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Happy Canada Day, everyone!

The Separation of Spending and Speech

I commented yesterday onVincent Marissal’s column in La Presse about the impact of social media on the upcoming election campaign in Québec – and the way in which the social media undermine the regulation of the electoral process that limits the electoral expenses of “third parties” – citizens, groups, or organizations that are neither political parties nor candidates for office. I want to return to this topic, focusing now on its theoretical, rather than its practical, implications.

The current schemes for the regulation of electoral campaigns in Canada are premised on the idea that one must, generally, spend in order to speak – or at least, in order to make one’s speech heard by any significant number of people. So long as this premise holds, a limit on electoral spending is a limit on electoral speech. And, subject to a few exceptions (such as the publication of letters to the editor or op-eds in newspapers, at the newspapers’ expense), which were also exempt from the electoral regulations, that premise did in fact hold true until the advent of social media.

It no longer does. A tweet might be read by thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. A YouTube video can be seen by millions. And their authors will not have to pay a dime for the dissemination of their messages. Spending and speech have come apart – and a key assumption underlying the regulation of elections in Canada no longer holds true. So what becomes of our current regulatory schemes? Should we discard them as obsolete? And if so, what should we replace them with?

The answer to these questions depends on the purpose for which we regulate electoral campaigns. The trouble is that our current regulations have not one, but two purposes On the one hand, as I noted in an op-ed Cyberpresse published in April, our electoral regulations aim to suppress the influence of money on the electoral process, which they assume to be unfair and/or pernicious. On the other, they aim, as I suggested in a recent post, to put political parties at the centre of the electoral process, by consigning “third parties” to the margins. These two purposes worked together so long as spend-to-speak model of electoral communications held, because limiting electoral expenses by third parties served both. But now it no longer does. It still works to reduce the influence of money, but limiting or prohibiting electoral expenditures by third parties no longer prevents them from speaking, loudly and to very large audiences, though social media. That is a central point of Mr. Marissal’s column – political parties can no longer be sure of controlling the electoral debate, and outsiders can easily play an important role in it.

So if our main concern is with the role of money, we can keep our electoral regulations as they are. Indeed, they are arguably less troubling now than they once were, since they do not actually prevent people from speaking out on political issues. In effect, they only direct that third parties must, during election campaigns, speak through social media. Only, I wonder if such a rule has any point. It is not money, after all, that our current regulations try to subdue, but the people who have a lot of it, individually or collectively. And if these people are able to speak anyway, through social media, what do we care to prevent them from spending their money on something they can get for free? If, however, our concern is to maintain the party- and candidates-centred model of elections, the current regulations are obsolete and utterly inadequate to the task. New rules are required – as well as the will and the means to police their application to the internet’s wilderness. I doubt that our governments have either.

Une campagne 1.9

Vincent Marissal a publié une chronique intéressante dans La Presse ce matin, sur “la première vraie campagne 2.0” que le Québec vivra lorsque les élections seront déclenchées – vraisemblablement dans les prochains mois. Contrairement aux États-Unis, où internet et, surtout, les réseaux sociaux ont transformé les campagnes électorales dès 2004, et certainement en 2008, le changement a tardé à se faire sentir au Québec. M. Marissal relève une autre différence: alors qu’aux États-Unis ce sont les candidats (notamment Barack Obama) qui ont donné aux nouveaux médias un rôle central dans les campagnes électorales, “la révolution 2.0 au Québec viendra probablement des électeurs plus que des partis politiques.” Comme toute révolution digne de ce nom, celle-ci va heurter les habitudes et les normes établies, non seulement sur le plan politique, qui n’est pas de mon ressort ici, mais aussi sur le plan juridique. Je me concentre, dans ce billet, sur les aspects pratiques des changements qu’elle amène, gardant une réflexion théorique pour un autre, bientôt.

Comme le souligne M. Marissal, la Loi électorale québécoise essaie de circonscrire les interventions dans une campagne électorale aux partis politiques. Les dépenses des “tierces parties” – c’est-à-dire tout le monde sauf les partis politiques enregistrés et les candidats – sont très sévèrement limitées. Or, dit-il,

Twitter, Facebook et surtout YouTube permettent ce que la loi électorale québécoise interdit: des interventions de tierces parties, non officiellement associées à un parti politique, anonymes le plus souvent et dont les interventions ne sont pas comptabilisées dans les dépenses électorales. …  [P]lusieurs groupes, en particulier du côté des artistes, sont très mobilisés contre le gouvernement Charest et … ils ne se gêneront pas pour intervenir lors de la prochaine campagne électorale sur les réseaux sociaux. En fait, c’est déjà commencé. … Encore là, toutefois, l’univers 2.0 appartient à tout le monde, et rien n’empêche des groupes favorables aux libéraux (ou opposés au PQ, à la CAQ ou à Québec solidaire) de jouer aussi cette carte [ce que certains font déjà].

Cependant, les choses ne sont pas si simples. La Loi électorale s’applique, en principe, aux interventions sur les médias sociaux. À cet égard, comme en d’autres matières, elle est plus restrictive que la Loi électorale du Canada, ainsi que la législation équivalente de certaines autres provinces. L’article 319 de la loi fédérale, par exemple, exclut de sa définition de la “publicité électorale” qu’elle réglemente et limite “la diffusion par un individu, sur une base non commerciale, de ses opinions politiques sur le réseau communément appelé Internet.” La loi québécoise ne contient pas d’équivalent de cette exemption (elle-même plutôt étroite puisqu’elle n’applique pas, notamment, à l’expression pré-électorale de groupes).

Par contre, elle ne contrôle que les “dépenses électorales”, c’est à dire “le coût de tout bien ou service utilisé pendant la période électorale” pour aider un candidat ou un parti ou leur nuire (art. 404). En supposant qu’il s’agit du “coût” à la personne qui communique un message, la communication d’un message électoraliste sur les médias sociaux n’est pas couverte par cette définition, puisqu’elle est gratuite. Cependant, peu importe le moyen de communication choisi, la production d’un message électoraliste sera couverte par la définition de la Loi électorale si elle entraîne des dépenses.

Donc si vous tapez une missive anti-PLQ chez vous et la diffusez sur Facebook, vous ne contrevenez pas à la loi, puisque vous ne dépensez que votre temps. Mais si vous tournez une vidéo dénigrant ce même PLQ, dont la production et le montage en coûtent quelques centaines de dollars, et que vous la diffusez sur ce même Facebook ou sur YouTube, vous avez engagé une dépense électorale – ce que la loi vous interdit de faire.

Bref, M. Marissal a raison de dire que les médias sociaux changent ou, du moins, permettent de contourner, les règles du jeu établies avant leur apparition. Mais ils ne permettent pas de s’en affranchir tout à fait. Comme après la plupart des révolutions, l’ancien droit est tenace. On n’aura pas peut-être pas une campagne tout à fait 2.0 – mais au moins, 1.9.

Who Plays on a Level Field?

Any regulation of the democratic process reflects a certain normative view of an idealized democracy. For example the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), to allow corporate and union spending on electoral campaigns reflects a (stated) view that democracy functions best when the quantity of political speech speech is maximized, and is impaired if any category of speakers is silenced. Canadian electoral legislation and the leading cases in this area decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, Libman v. Québec (A.G.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569, and Harper v. Canada (A.G.), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, reflect a different normative view, which Colin Feasby, the most prolific writer on the law of democracy in Canada, has called an “egalitarian model” of elections. But such ideals leave much unsaid. The Supreme Court of the United States says that it maximizes freedom and the amount of information available to voters, but pays little attention, for example, to the likely detrimental effects the need to raise funds for an unlimited-expenses campaign has on the performance of elected officials (and candidates for office).

What does the Canadian “egalitarian model” leave unsaid? A metaphor that the Supreme Court uses in Harper, that of “a level playing field for those who wish to engage in the electoral discourse” (par. 62) is helpful to try to understand. The Supreme Court probably invoked it for no reason beyond its feel-good appeal to our sense of fair play (though the appeal is lost on some, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, who, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, (2011) 131 S. Ct. 2806, at 2826, Chief Justice Roberts has observed that although “‘[l]eveling the playing field’ can sound like a good thing … in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.” But I would like to extend the metaphor a little, and explore the implications of describing electoral debate as a football game (or a chivalry tournament – or, perhaps less romantically, a duel – for those who read the French version of the judgment, which speaks of debate “à armes égales”; the imagery is somewhat different, but still amenable to the interpretation I am about to suggest) because it reveals more than the Court probably intended about the roles of those involved in the political process under the egalitarian model.

If the electoral process as envisioned by the Supreme Court is a football game played on an “even playing field,” political parties are of course the teams playing on that field. According to the adherents of the egalitarian conception of democracy, they are the primary competitors for the prize of political power. Political parties are like professional sports teams, with coaching and scouting staff of consultants and opposition researchers, their farm clubs of youth organizations, their practice rosters of backbenchers and, of course, their fans among the voters. These fans, along with less interested spectators, are seating in the stands around the playing field. A few of them might unfurl some home-made banners to make their opinion of the proceedings or the competitors known, but for the most part they will, at most, cheer their favourites and boo the opponents. There are even cheerleaders around the field, although they wear suits, as befits members of editorial boards. Neither players nor spectators, they try to stir up the enthusiasm of the latter for the former.

This extended metaphor highlights some salient features of the egalitarian model of elections implemented by Parliament in the Canada Elections Act, and endorsed by the Supreme Court, such as the special status of the media and, most importantly, the central role of political parties in electoral discourse and the relative passivity of the voters. The metaphor only breaks down on Election Day, when the voters are at last allowed to leave the stands, and to choose the winner of the game they have (or have not) been watching.

I think this is a rather less rosy picture than that which the Supreme Court would like us to see. Metaphors, even old and stale ones, are dangerous that way.