The Rule of Law All the Way Up

Introducing my recently-published chapter on the Rule of Law and Canadian constitutional law

LexisNexis Canada recently published (if I understand correctly, as a standalone book as well as a dedicated issue of the Supreme Court Law Review (2d)) Attacks on the Rule of Law from Within, a collection of essays co-edited by my friends Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire. The publisher’s blurb gives a concise summary of the project’s background and contents:

This volume is a collection of six papers developed from the Runnymede Society’s 2018 national conference by a community of legal experts in response to Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s comment that “the phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her”. 

Grounded on the intuition that the legal profession supports the rule of law, the papers examine the historical perspective on threats to the rule of law, the sufficiency of the current Canadian legal framework to support this ideal and how the principle of stare decisis as observed by the Supreme Court of Canada undermines the spirit of the rule of law. The volume also discusses how the law relating to Aboriginal title and the duty to consult fails to adhere to the Rule of Law standards … to the detriment of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

I am honoured to have contributed to this volume, with an essay called “The Rule of Law All the Way Up”, which focuses on what I see as the lack of commitment to the Rule of constitutional Law in by scholars, judges, and politicians. Here is the abstract:

Canadian constitutional law is seldom criticised for its failure to live up to the ideal of the Rule of Law. This article argues that it should be so criticised. A number of widely accepted or uncontroversial Rule of Law requirements―the need for general, stable, and prospective rules, the congruence between the “in the books” and the law “in action, and the availability of impartial, independent courts to adjudicate legal disputes―are compromised by a number of ideas already accepted or increasingly advocated by Canadian lawyers, judges, and officials.

This article describes four of these ideas, to which it refers as “politicization techniques”, because they transform what purports to be “the supreme law of Canada” into a set of malleable political commitments. These are, first, deference to legislatures or the application of a “margin of appreciation” and the “presumption of constitutionality” in constitutional adjudication; second, constitutional “dialogue” in which courts not merely defer, but actively give way to legislative decisions; the substitution of political for legal judgment through the application of the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the rewriting of constitutional law by the courts under the banner of “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

The article concludes with an appeal to those who profess commitment to the Rule of Law in relation to the Constitution not to embrace or endorse the means by which it is subverted.

The entire chapter is available to download on SSRN. It builds on many of the themes developed on my posts here ― the rejection of judicial deference on constitutional issues, whether to legislatures or to the administrative state; the imperative to renounce the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”; and the perils of “living constitutionalism”. Some of these, notably the issue of deference to administrative interpretations of constitutional law and constitutional interpretation, I will also be pursuing in future work. (Indeed, the first of these is the subject of the paper I will be presenting at the Journal of Commonwealth Law symposium next month.)

I am very grateful to Ms. Baron and Professor St-Hilaire for having given me the opportunity to present these thoughts, and write them up for publication. I am also grateful to Justice Bradley Miller, of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who gave me thoughtful comments when I presented my chapter (then still very much in draft form) at the 2018 Runnymede Society conference, as well as to Kerry Sun, who was a very helpful editor. And I am looking forward to reading the other contributions in the volume, once I am done preparing the talks I am about to give in the coming weeks.

CARL v Canada, 2019 FC 1126: Administrative Delegation and Guidelines

How far can an administrative agency go before it fetters its decision-making discretion? This is an important practical question. On one hand, the Federal Court of Appeal has recognized that agencies can issue guidelines—even in absence of any legislative authorization to do so (Thamotharem, at para 56), in part because agencies are masters in their own house (Prassad, at 568-569). One might argue that such a power is important and necessary for good government. But on the other hand, agencies cannot bind their own decision-makers through non-legal, non-binding policy guidelines—this impinges on the necessity, at common law, for decision-makers to exercise their functions independently. How do we square this impossible circle? How does independence—central to the Rule of Law, subject to statutory constraints—govern the efficiency of the administrative state?

The case of CARL v Canada, a recent Federal Court case, attempts to address this problem. In this post, I first address the issue at play in CARL. Then I address implications of the decision for good administration. Specifically, I argue that the Parliament should resile from broad-based delegations that empower decision-makers to issue guidelines; instead, these delegations, in order to respect the common law principle of independence, should clearly delineate when and where it is appropriate for decision-makers to bind themselves. The desire should be for more specificity in delegation.

Issue

CARL involved a challenge by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) against four so-called “jurisprudential guides” [JG] issued by the Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board [the Board], purporting to guide other members of the Board. Under s.159(1)(h) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act [IRPA], Parliament has authorized the Chairperson of the Board to issue JGs, which are guidelines based on model decisions by other decision-makers on the IRB. CARL challenged four JGs (Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China) on different grounds, only one of which is relevant for us here: “Do the impugned JGs unlawfully fetter Board members’ discretion and improperly encroach upon their adjudicative independence?” (para 55).

After concluding that the JGs in question permissibly specify issues of fact for decision-makers to consider, the Federal Court turned to the main issue of fettering. The Court, after considering the principle of adjudicative independence at common law (there was no Ocean Port argument about statutory ousting; see para 147), started the analysis by stating that there was no authority which permitted a decision-maker “to issue a JG or other “soft law” instrument that constrains the complete freedom of quasi-judicial decision-makers to make their own factual determinations, free from pressure or inducement from others” (102). The Court distinguished this sort of guideline from other situations, such as where a Minister issued his own policy guidelines (see Maple Lodge), and a situation where an adjudicative decision-maker bound itself as to its own procedures (Thamotharem).

The question of whether a guideline impermissibly fetters the discretion of a decision-maker turns on a basic distinction; whether a guideline purports to specify factual circumstances beyond the circumstances before a decision-maker (see para 172). It is fair game, in other words, for a guideline to set out general considerations that a decision-maker should undertake. It is not fair game for guidelines to impose “…an expectation that factual conclusions will be adopted or a requirement to provide reasoned justification as to why such conclusions were not adopted” (see para 150). A lack of indication in a guideline, for example, that each case should be judged on its own merits could be a significant problem (para 139). On the basis of these principles, the Court found that three of the four JGs presented a fettering problem.

Analysis

One might say that this case is largely a run-of-the-mill, administrative law case. One could be right. But normal cases sometimes present an opportunity to grapple with difficult and fundamental issues in administrative law. On that front, there are two main issues that this case raises: (1) the proper balance between administrative efficiency and Rule of Law concerns and (2) the specificity of Parliamentary delegation on these issues.

In my view, the Court in CARL basically outlines the correct principle at the outset when it said that

As far as factual determinations are concerned, the principle that “s/he who hears must decide” is sacrosanct. It is a fundamental pillar of the rule of law. It cannot be sacrificed on the altar of achieving greater consistency and efficiency in administrative decision-making (at para 1).

In absence of statutory ousting, the Court is absolutely correct—independence is an important virtue, connected to the Rule of Law. Where statutes are truly ambiguous, the courts should guard against encroachments on the principle of independence which at common law is extended to administrative decision-makers (see Matsqui). This is because of the Rule of Law itself. For example, Joseph Raz argued in his “The Rule of Law and its Virtue” that an independent judiciary is an integral component of the Rule of Law. It is impossible for all to be subjected equally to the law if the arbiter of the law is not separated from all the parties in front of it. This has particular resonance in administrative law. If an administrative decision-maker is to administer the law through delegated power, it should remain separate and apart from its controller, a particular executive actor. This is all subject, of course, to statutory constraint; the principle of parliamentary sovereignty takes priority over common law independence.

This seems easy enough in the abstract. But the problem becomes more difficult when we are speaking about when administrative decision-makers themselves purport to bind their own discretion in the name of efficiency. Here, the Court’s concern is right on point. The delegation of power to agencies is motivated, in large part, by efficiency concerns. The argument runs something like this: Parliament cannot make, and the executive cannot administer, all of the law required to run a country at any particular point; so Parliament delegates power away to do these things to so-called expert tribunals to take advantage of their expertise, and so that the laws can be administered and made efficiently in order to keep up with modern necessities. I have significant problems with this traditional story, but let us assume it is true. The delegation of power to publish JGs is important from an efficiency perspective, because it creates economies of scale. These economies of scale are particularly directed towards issues of fact, which might arise across factual contexts—this is true with regard to refugee determinations, where the same conditions and facts may frequently arise in relation to specific countries. Those who might view administrative decision-makers as repositories of expert efficiency could say that the frequent issuance of JGs under appropriately delegated authority is highly desirable. The creation of economies of scale in the administrative state—a foundational principle of efficiency—is exactly what we expect from administrative decision-makers.

But the cost of efficiency could come against the judicial independence component of the Rule of Law. If, in the name of efficiency, administrative decision-makers purport to limit the right of individuals to a common law, independent decision-maker, it is clear that the administrative efficiency concern must give way. In this sense, there is no real balance to be had between efficiency and independence. Independence must govern, absent a statute saying otherwise. Experts should be on tap, not on top.

This is particularly true in refugee contexts. Refugee determinations are not a place to experiment with economies of scale. These determinations must be based on the inherent qualities of a refugee claimant’s circumstances. It is an individual assessment. In that context, independence takes on even greater importance. Attempting to completely stultify that process through internal guidelines is profoundly corrosive of a refugee’s right to determination on the facts.

This relates to the second concern. When Parliament delegates power to create JGs in s.159(1)(h), it does so in capacious and ambiguous language:

s.159(1) The Chairperson is, by virtue of holding that office, a member of each Division of the Board and is the chief executive officer of the Board. In that capacity, the Chairperson

[…]

(h) may issue guidelines in writing to members of the Board and identify decisions of the Board as jurisprudential guides, after consulting with the Deputy Chairpersons, to assist members in carrying out their duties.

Such a delegation illustrates the broader point about efficiency that characterizes the act of delegation itself. Parliament saw fit, in this delegation, not to specify the kinds or scope of JGs that would be permissible or impermissible. For example, the Court in CARL had to decide whether JGs could be issued in respect of issues of fact. Further, it is unclear just how far a JG should be able to go, if indeed such an instrument could be used to specify issues of fact. Rather than specifying these matters, the delegation is broad-based, purporting to clothe the Chairperson of the IRB with authority to issue guidelines of any sort. But clearly, such guidelines could be problematic from an independence perspective. These sorts of broad delegations, while lawful and constitutional, are undesirable from a good governance perspective. They fail to adequately state up front the sorts of considerations that decision-makers and courts should take into effect when issuing and reviewing JGs. The failure to do so rests a great deal of authority in administrative decision-makers to issue any number of JGs, with the only control an application for judicial review.

The weight of controlling administrative discretion cannot be borne by the courts alone. Parliament, too, has a role to play in good governance; by issuing clear, legislative rules that bind these decision-makers in the exercise of their authority. The goal of such rules would be to clearly demarcate where common law protections begin and end. Put differently, administrative decision-makers should not be able to, internally, subvert the common law of independence without Parliament’s express imprimatur. Otherwise, the game is rigged from the inside.

Upcoming Canadian Talks

Save the dates!

In a couple of weeks, I will be hopping on to a 13-hour transpacific flight and heading to Canada to give a series of talks. Here are the dates and topics. I don’t have all the details about the exact time and location yet, so if you are based at or near one of the host institutions, keep an eye out ― or get in touch with me or my hosts closer to the day.

  • September 26, University of Victoria, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): “The Road to Serfdom, 75 Years On”. I take it that this will be inaugural Runnymede event at UVic, and I am very honoured to be part of it.
  • September 30, Université de Sherbrooke, Faculty of Law: « Route de la Servitude: fermée pour travaux (de démolition)… depuis 75 ans ». This will be the French version of the UVic talk; I’m afraid I’m a bit puzzled by the title, but I didn’t to choose it.
  • October 2, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): “An Election Is No Time to Discuss Serious Issues. Really?” This will be discussion of the regulation of civil society participation in election campaigns, which has been much in the news in recent weeks.
  • October 4, University of Waterloo (Freedom of Expression in Canada Workshop): “A Conscience- and Integrity-Based Approach to Compelled Speech”. The workshop is being organized by Emmett Macfarlane, who has just told it is full… but there is apparently a waitlist. My paper builds, of course, on what I have had to say about things like the citizenship oath, the Law Society of Ontario’s “statement of principles”, and Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax stickers.
  • October 9, Université du Québec à Montréal, Département des sciences juridiques: « Les élections sont-elles une occasion de se taire? ». This will be the French version of the Toronto talk, with a discussion of the Québec legislation thrown in.
  • October 11-12, Ottawa (Workshop on the Royal Prerogative): “The Royal Prerogative in New Zealand”. This is the first meeting of a group put together by Philippe Lagassé to carry out a SSHRC-funded research project on the prerogative in Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Professor Lagassé also tells me the workshop is “pretty much full”. Are you seeing a theme here? Yep, I’ve managed to get myself invited to really cool workshops.
  • October 16, McGill University, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): a discussion with Paul Daly on administrative law. If the Supreme Court co-operates, we will, of course, discuss the Vavilov and Bell/NFL cases, in which the Court may, or may not, completely change the Canadian law of judicial review. If the decisions are not released, it will be a more general conversation. Either way, I am looking forward to
  • October 18, Université de Montréal (Symposium of the Journal of Commonwealth Law): “Unholy Trinity: The Failure of Administrative Constitutionalism in Canada”. I will be presenting a paper arguing that the Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case illustrate the problems that plague “administrative constitutionalism” ― the view that administrative decision-makers’ decisions bearing on constitutional rights are entitled to judicial deference.

I am grateful to the people who have invited me and/or organized these events. (A special shout-out to my co-blogger and president of the Runnymede Society, Mark Mancini!) If you are able to make it to one (or more) of the talks, please say hello. It is always a pleasure to meet some of my readers in person. See you soon!

The System Is Working

Environmentalist groups have a point when they say they are being muzzled by Elections Canada; trouble is, that’s exactly how the law is meant to work

As the media reported earlier this week, environmentalist groups are angry at Elections Canada, which has warned them that spending money to raise awareness of climate change in the run-up to the coming federal election would subject them to the rules on “third party” participation in election campaigns. Many are feeling that they will be required to keep quiet during the campaign, which rather defeats the purpose of being advocacy groups. Even the BBC has a story on this.

For its part, Elections Canada has issued a response claiming that the Canada Elections Act doesn’t prevent advocacy groups from advocating, so long as they register if they spend $500 or more and comply with the spending cap. Elections Canada adds that the registration requirement “leads to increased transparency” and has been in place “for nearly 20 years”. Helpfully, I suppose, the statement concludes with an acknowledgement that the rules “can be complex”, and Elections Canada is happy to answer questions about them.

The rules are indeed somewhat complicated, as I explain below. But the bottom line is simple enough. Despite the officials’ protestations, NGOs ― be they environmentalist or other ― have a point when they say that they are being muzzled. To some extent, that’s what the Canada Elections Act is designed to do; to an even greater extent this might be an unintended consequence of the Act’s pursuit of transparency, but an entirely predictable one. The issues are well known; I, for one, raised them in my statement to the House of Commons Select Committee that considered the latest round of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. The only surprising thing is the degree to which people still end up being surprised when problems of sort arise.


The Canada Elections Act‘s regulation of political spending is predicated on the idea that attention during election campaigns should be focused on politicians ― individual candidates and political parties, especially parties. Parties, if they run candidates in all ridings, are able to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising ― which they are entitled to buy at favourable rates, in addition to an allowance of free airtime. Non-politicians ― that is, individuals, labour and student unions, corporations, and NGOs ― are known as “third parties” in the election law jargon and, as I explained here, their participation in electoral debates is viewed as anomalous, indeed suspicious, and is strictly limited.

One set of limits concerns the amounts of money third parties are allowed to spend, which are only a small fraction of the spending allowed political parties. The Supreme Court has upheld the limitation of third party spending during election campaigns, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although there is good reason to be critical of that decision, which I have even rated as one of the worst in the last fifty years. (As I noted here, the High Court of Australia was also quite skeptical of Harper in a recent decision.) Last year, Parliament enacted further limits that apply even before the formal campaign begins, and their constitutionality has not yet been tested; Harper, in my view, does not dispose of the question.

In addition to spending limits, “third parties” are also subject to onerous registration and reporting requirements. Some of these are the cause of the latest dust-up. Specifically, Division 1 of Part 17 of the Canada Elections Act imposes such requirements on “third parties” that incur more than $500 of expenses on, notably “partisan activities” and “partisan advertising” during the “pre-election period”, which begins on June 30 of the year for which a fixed-date election is scheduled and ends with the start of the election campaign. During the election campaign itself, governed by Division 2 of Part 17, “election advertising”, as well as “partisan activities” count for the spending thresholds that can trigger registration and reporting requirements.

The definitions of “partisan” and “election advertising”, found in section 2(1) of the Canada Elections Act, are very broad. The former term “means the transmission to the public by any means during a pre-election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes” a party or a candidate, further defined in section 2(7) as “naming”, “identifying” (“including by … logo” or picture, as the case may be, and “providing a link to an Internet page that” names or identifies the party or candidate. “Election advertising” includes the same things as “partisan advertising”, but also “taking a position on an issue with which a … party or candidate is associated”, even without naming that party or candidate. Since issues with which no candidate or party “is associated”, come election time, are about as common as colour pictures of a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade, the definition of “election advertising” encompasses pretty much any advertising that has anything to say on matters of government or policy.

Now, some means of communicating with the public are exempted from these definitions. In particular, the exemptions cover anything that the media will print or broadcast without charge to the speaker ― things like quotes in news items, interviews, and op-eds. Also exempt are organizations’ communications with their members, shareholders, or employees, as well as “the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of his or her personal political views”. Note, though, that on its face the latter exemption doesn’t cover ― indeed, it rather pointedly excludes ― a group’s or an organization’s online communications, even if not paid for (for example, tweeting under the organization’s handle). And of course, any communication that the media are not interested in carrying free of charge will count as an advertising. In effect, for groups and organizations, the media are the gatekeepers of their ability to communicate with the public without having to register as “third parties”.

So what’s the big deal about registration? Well, although you won’t know it from the Elections Canada statement linked to above, registration doesn’t just mean filling out a form. There are a number of other requirements. To begin with, unions and corporations cannot register before their board has adopted a resolution authorizing them to incur expenses on “partisan” or “election advertising” (sections 349.6(5) and 353(5) of the Canada Elections Act). All “third parties” are also required to have a “financial agent” who will be responsible for collecting money to be spend on “partisan” or “election advertising” and for spending it (sections 349.7 and 354). These transactions must be done through a separate bank account (section 358.1) After the election is over, a detailed report on the money collected, advertising taken out, and costs incurred must be filed (section 359). And this is not all. Those “third parties” that spend more than 10,000$ are also required to file interim reports during the course of the election campaign and, most significantly, to appoint auditors (section 355) and file the auditor’s report on their spending (section 360).

Needless to say, this is all quite costly, at least in time, but also ― especially for those third parties that spend more 10,000$ ― in money. Big trade unions, whose budgets are extracted from workers who don’t get a say on whether to contribute or on how the money is spend, may not be especially troubled by these costs. But for NGOs, whose income comes from voluntary (albeit taxpayer-subsidized) donations, and which need to be much more careful about how they spend it, compliance with the Canada Elections Act may be too expensive. From their perspective, the sensible if unfortunate thing to do may well be to keep quiet for the duration of the election campaign, or even starting with the beginning of the pre-campaign period.

This means that for a period of almost four months preceding the election ― the period when the most people pay attention, even if it’s still sporadic and fragmentary attention, to political and policy issues ― civil society organizations may indeed be prevented from expressing their opinion about politicians, except to the extent that the media will let them. Again, the bigger and better-known you are, the less of a problem this may be for you. Smaller groups, whose views are (naturally and fairly) of less interest to the media, will find it more difficult to get across to the voters. The more unusual voices, in other words, are the ones who are the most at risk of being silenced ― in effect if not, perhaps, in intent ― by the Canada Elections Act.

And of course even for larger groups, having to pass through the media means sound-bite-sized interventions have a much better chance of getting across to the voters than anything more serious. Say that a politician or party is anti-environment, or pro-worker, or something equally inane, and the media may well pick it up. But they’re not going to run a detailed report card assessing the competing parties’ platforms on some issue ― but publishing it on an NGO’s website, let alone running it as an advertisement would mean having to comply with burdensome registration and reporting requirements under the Canada Elections Act.


No wonder, then, that environmentalists are feeling muzzled and frustrated. And of course groups pursuing other agendas may be feeling that way too ― or may come to feel that way when the occasion arises. They have more than a little justification. And they shouldn’t be the only ones feeling wronged. The voters should be too. You may not miss the presence of a particular set of activists in the election campaign, but the rules that silence them silence the activists on your side too. You may not be all that interested activists generally have to say, but you should be interested in politicians’ feet being held to the fire.

The ostensible rationale for registration and reporting requirements is that they serve to promote transparency, in addition to assisting in the enforcement of spending limits applicable to “third parties”. It is on that basis that the Supreme Court upheld those requirements that apply in the course of the election campaign ― although not those applicable in the pre-campaign period, which weren’t yet in the Canada Elections Act ― in Harper. Yet one needs to weigh the value of transparency against the costs that its pursuit imposes on those subject to the Canada Elections Act ― and, as I have just explained, on the voters who are being deprived of important contributions to the electoral debate.

The Harper majority’s analysis on this point was quite perfunctory. There is no real discussion of compliance costs and their deterrent effects. Instead, the majority is content to baldly assert that “[t]he appointment of a financial agent or auditor is not overly onerous. Rather, it arguably facilitates the reporting requirements.” [145] Even worse, the majority did not at all consider what I think is the crucial issue: the thresholds at which the registration and reporting requirements kick in. All it said was that the requirements “vary depending on the amount spent on election advertising”. [145] Yet one can accept the principle of imposing such requirements on heavy spenders while also acknowledging that the existing rules go much too far.

In New Zealand, “third parties” are not required to register until they spend NZ$13,200 (ca. C$11,000); more detailed reporting requirements only apply once a “third party” spends NZ$100,000. (Even then, third parties aren’t peremptorily required to provide an auditor’s report, although they may be asked to do so.) These strike me as rather more reasonable figures than those in the Canada Elections Act, though even they should probably be multiplied several-fold to account for the fact that New Zealand’s population is only a small fraction of Canada’s.

It is difficult to believe that a “third party” spending a few thousand, or even tens of thousand of dollars is going to have any substantial impact on an election by itself. At most, it may be successful enough in getting other people ― voters, media, or politicians ― to discuss the issues it is raising. It is this discussion, rather than anything published on an NGO’s website or even a Facebook ad, that might, conceivably albeit theoretically, matter. In the abstract, this discussion might be enriched by more disclosure. In practice, the very real costs of the disclosure requirements end up preventing the conversations from happening at all. I fail to see how the voters benefit from this.


As Elections Canada points out in its response to the environmentalist groups, the “advertising during the election period has been subject to the Canada Elections Act for nearly 20 years”. This is true. (As noted above, rules on advertising in the pre-election period are new.) For about half of this time, it has been known, at least to those who study these things, that the rules tend to hobble not business interests, but labour unions and civil society groups. Colin Feasby wrote about this in 2010; I did (in the context of Québec elections, which are subject to similar but even more draconian rules) in 2012; also in 2012 Tom Flanagan came out in support of rules like those in the Canada Elections Act, whose enactment he had opposed, with the declared intention to muzzle unions; I updated Dr. Feasby’s findings in an article published in 2015. And in my statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs when it was studying amendments to the Canada Elections Act last year (which, among other things, introduced restrictions on “third parties” in the pre-campaign period) I specifically mentioned both the registration and reporting requirements’ tendency to muzzle civil society, and the needless low threshold at which these requirements apply. Needless to say, that had no effect on the resulting legislation.

Yet at every election the impact of restrictions on “third parties” seems to surprise. It happened in Québec in 2014, when the Chief Electoral Officer tried censoring a short documentary a group of citizens had produced to oppose the election of the Parti québécois and the enactment of its “values charter”. Eventually, the Chief Electoral Officer changed his mind; but he was wrong to do so. It happened again in Québec in 2018, now with environmentalist groups being targeted. And now it’s happening at the federal level. The system, one might say, is working. It was designed to shut down political debate not dominated by politicians or the media. That’s what it’s doing.

It will be obvious that I don’t think it’s a good system. Like the National Post’s Chris Selley, I think the rules need to be changed. Whether any restrictions on political spending are justified is debatable but, as noted above, one can accept the premises of Canada Elections Act and still support relaxing its requirements a great deal. Ideally, the next Parliament will take up the issue. But there is also room for litigation. Certainly rules on pre-campaign spending, whose constitutionality has not yet been tested all the way to the Supreme Court can be challenged. But perhaps even the registration and reporting rules upheld in Harper could be attacked, provided that the courts are forced to consider solid evidence of their pernicious effects.

The First Year of Law School

For many, the coming of September signals the start of a new school year. More specifically, law schools will be kicking into full gear in the coming days and weeks, and nervous 1Ls will occupy the halls of law schools the country over. 1L can be a scary time; meeting new people, overcoming the challenges of a rigorous academic education, and simply learning a new legal language can all appear daunting. I write today to try to assuage some concerns, and in general, make a few recommendations about how to approach life, law, and law school. Of course, my views are simply based on my experiences. But I am in the position of being about 2 years out of the law school experience, and in that time, I have gained some perspective about how to get the most out of one’s time at law school. I present these ideas in no particular order.

The first thing that is important, I think, is to recognize for whom the law is designed. I had a professor in my first year of law school tell us that we were now separate and apart from the man or woman  on the street, who could not understand legal language. Of course, this is strictly true; people who aren’t trained as lawyers are not lawyers. But I think it is important to retain perspective. The law is not designed to separate the intelligentsia from the rest of us. It is designed for the people, and lawyers are there to communicate complex legal concepts to the people. Once one becomes a lawyer, they do not stand separate and apart from the rest of society. And one is no better than anyone else simply because they have chosen a life of the law.

This is why I urge students to learn plain-language writing, and to not take prose tips from the old judges you read in 1L. Far be it from me to dole out writing tips, but I think that learning to write for one’s audience is such an important skill that should be inculcated in the first year of law school. This takes practice. But it will make you a better, more relatable lawyer in the long run, especially if you wish to practice law.

Secondly, I think it is important to enter law school with an open mind. One might have an idea as to the sort of career path in the law that one will take once entering the law school. But it is important to recognize that that path should not be set in stone. At the stage of entering law school, it is hard to fathom the ways in which you will grow; the passions you will develop; and the skills you will learn. You may very well be a different person at the end of the experience. So, if you really want to be a criminal lawyer now, nurture that interest. But do not stop thinking about the other possible avenues.

Third, I would view law school as a time to intellectually feast. This is true even if you do not want to be an academic. There will likely never be another time (unless you pursue graduate studies) where you can sit back and learn for the sake of learning. You will be surrounded by smart students and professors. Take advantage of that opportunity. It will also make you a better lawyer in the long run.

Connected to this is the ever-present issue of grades. Grades are the necessary evil of law school. Indeed, it is true that one needs good grades in order for certain doors to open. But keep in mind that you will have an impoverished law school experience if you only take courses in which you think you will do well in your upper years. Take courses that will challenge you. Do so for two reasons. First, a course that challenges you is, in its own right, a benefit to you. You will learn something you didn’t know before, in a way that forced your mind to operate in different ways. Second, if you put in enough work, a challenging course could end up being a sparkling A on your transcript.

Fourth, work hard—but do not shun your friends and family. This is a grave mistake that can sometimes be made by those who feel they need to work 24/7 to do well or to be an ideal lawyer. The assumption is not true. It is more important to work smart rather than hard. By this, I mean adopt a method for reading cases that works for you; decide what the most important parts of the case are and focus on those parts. In class, consider the possibility that it is bad for your overall education to transcribe pages of notes, much of which might be irrelevant come exam time. By listening intently and writing down what is important, you end up leaving more time at the back-end to study the material, rather than creating some master document of the material that is 100 pages long. Hopefully, with this sort of method in place, you have time to retain connections with those that matter to you. Because law school is only three years, but friends and family are forever.

The final point that I can raise is something that is of the utmost importance to me, personally: dare to be different. If you don’t agree with something your professor or fellow classmate says, and have an intelligent critique to offer, speak up. Of course, this is not an invitation to interrupt a lecture with uninformed commentary. No one likes that. But if you have an informed disagreement with a professor that is material to the class discussions, let him or her know. This will help you to learn the language of argument in the law, not to mention that it will force you to understand the material from different perspectives. Being different can come at a cost. But it is worth standing up for what you believe in.

Overall, take law school for what it is; a glorious opportunity to learn and to grow. Do not take it as an opportunity to be competitive, or to prove you are the smartest. You will lose out in the end. Remain humble, eager to learn, and be proud of what you stand for and believe. In my view, these are the tickets to a fantastic law school experience.

The Tragedy of Lord Sumption

Thoughts on Lord Sumption’s views on the relationship between law and politics

In my last post, I summarized at length Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, delivered earlier this year. As I noted there, Lord Sumption’s views on politics, law, and the relationship between the two are challenging ― especially, but by no means only, to those of us who support judicial review of legislation. Here, I would like to explain why I think there is much truth in what Lord Sumption says, but also to point out the weaknesses and even contradictions in his claims.

By way of reminder, Lord Sumption begins by arguing that the domain of law has been expanding for the last two hundred years, as people have (once again) turned to the state as the provider of physical and economic security and moral certainty. But this expansion has brought with it concerns that the state’s power reaches too far. Representative politics can help mitigate these concerns by generating compromise and accommodation between majorities and minorities. Yet as politics loses its lustre, people turn to law to control the outcomes politics produces. Law promises (and sometimes delivers) principled decision-making, but it does so at the cost of compromise and accommodation and thus, ultimately, legitimacy. The courts end up creating and defining new constraints on politics, and there is little to choose between such constraints being undemocratically imposed in the name of liberalism or of some other ideology. Moreover, in the long run, politics, with its capacity to legitimate limitations on state power provides better security for rights than the law. Yet politics is ailing. Constitutional reform, and especially constitutional entrenchment, will not save it. If democracy is hollowed out, Lord Sumption grimly concludes, we will not notice, “and the fault will be ours”. (V/7; NB: I will use roman numerals to designate the lecture, and arabic ones for the page in the transcript; links to individual transcripts are in the previous post.)


Significant parts of Lord Sumption’s argument run along the lines drawn by Jeremy Waldron, notably in “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review”. The emphasis on the importance of disagreement and the preference for settling disagreement about rights through the political process, in part because it is more egalitarian than adjudication, sound Waldronian. The skepticism about the capacity of judges, or indeed of anyone else, to find out the truth of the matter about moral issues, is Waldronian too. Lord Sumption does not mention Professor Waldron, or indeed any thinker more contemporary that A.V. Dicey, so it’s not quite clear whether how direct Professor Waldron’s influence on him is. However, original or not, these points are important and bear repetition.

Lord Sumption’s critique of the undemocratic character of “dynamic treaties” ― or, I would add, any constitutional documents interpreted as “living instruments” ― builds on these arguments. He focuses on the judicial creation of rights on the basis that “a modern democracy ought to have” (III/3) them ― or, in other words, of what I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” ― as qualitatively different from mere application of fixed texts to new facts. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this strikes me as compelling. Lord Sumption’s argument tracks public meaning originalist views, a point to which I will return, but since he does not disclose his influences, I don’t know whether he is at all interested in originalist theory. It is worth noting that, in a later lecture on “Judicial Review and Judicial Supremacy“, Professor Waldron too has focused on living constitutionalism, and specifically the claim that a constitutional court is entitled “to develop new views about (what the court thinks) the constitution ought to have forbidden (though it did not) and to act on these views” (40) as especially problematic.

One additional point on which Lord Sumption echoes that lecture of Professor Waldron is the rejection of comprehensive systems of values as suitable objects for judicial enforcement. Professor Waldron does not want judges to “begin to think of themselves and present themselves as pursuing a coherent program or policy rather just responding to” (27) individual violations of the constitution that happen from time to time. Lord Sumption’s forceful rejection of values systems ― which he equates with one another for this purpose, so that entrenchment and judicial enforcement of a liberal dogma is, in a sense, no different from that of “Islamic political theology or the dictatorship of the proletariat” (IV/4) ― seems to reflect this concern. If asked to take judicial review of legislation as a given, as Professor Waldron does in the “Judicial Supremacy” lecture, Lord Sumption would also urge a piecemeal rather than a systematic approach as the more modest one.


But Lord Sumption’s argument is not simply a reprise of Professor Waldron’s. What makes him interesting, and challenging not just for supporters of judicial review of legislation but also for critics, is that his vision of politics is a gloomy one. Those who have misgivings about judicial review, including Professor Waldron or, to take a couple of Canadian examples, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in a lecture on “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture” and Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a Policy Options post earlier this year, tend to be fairly optimistic about democratic politics. Professor Waldron, especially in “The Core of the Case”, thinks that democratic majorities will protect rights about as well as courts, although in later work he has recognized that some minorities (such as criminal suspects) might end up being routinely shortchanged by the democratic process. He has also forcefully criticized the views of those who equate the Rule of Law with the protection of property and contract rights and, on this basis, are skeptical of social legislation and the welfare state. Chief Justice Joyal, for his part, has extolled “bold” and

“purposeful” governance … expected to include and achieve … the realization of big and bold federal and provincial objectives [and] to assist in the accommodation and brokering of … diverse and conflicting interests underlying the various societal ills and problems. 

Accommodation and compromise are the best outcomes that Lord Sumption sees democratic politics produce. “Bold” and “purposeful” governance? He seems pretty skeptical. It is not just that he sees and laments the decline in the authority of political institutions ― Chief Justice Joyal saw and lamented that too. More interestingly, I take Lord Sumption to raise the possibility that, even when it functions well, democratic politics is dangerous.

Much of Lord Sumption’s first lecture is devoted to establishing this proposition. Pointing out “rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity” (I/4), as well the voters’ tendency to be “afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with”, (I/6) he seems to echo Lord Acton’s prescient warning, in the Lectures on Modern History, about seeing the “[g]overnment [as] the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man”, (289) though again he does not refer to Acton or to any other source. Lord Sumption’s concern at the far-reaching and unrealistic expectations that people have of government and government’s tendency to restrict liberty to try to meet these expectations points to an ineradicable flaw of democracy.

What is more, at times, Lord Sumption seems to accept that certain rights are could appropriately be entrenched beyond the reach of democratic politics. He mentions, repeatedly, rights not to have one’s life, liberty, or property interfered with arbitrarily or without the ability to challenge the interference in court, as well as democratic rights. At other times, admittedly, Lord Sumption seems to say that, in the United Kingdom anyway, an entrenched constitution ― even, it might seem, one limited to protecting these rights, would be inappropriate. This contradiction is never fully resolved, although perhaps what Lord Sumption means is that a narrowly drawn constitution protecting these rights is theoretically desirable, but does not offer sufficient benefits to be worth the dislocation that would occur if it were to be enacted in the UK. Be that as it may, Lord Sumption’s nods in the direction of a limited entrenched constitution and his support for a fairly robust version of the principle of legality ― including in cases like R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, which others have criticized as impinging on Parliamentary sovereignty ― suggest concern at what democratic institutions, if left unchecked, might do to important rights and constitutional principles.

This is what prompts me to see Lord Sumption’s vision of law and politics as tragic. He doesn’t have much hope for law, and says we must trust in politics, but his “praise of politics”, to borrow the title of his second lecture, is damningly faint. If all goes as well as it might, he says, we’ll keep muddling through, and not oppress too many people while lurching between overbearing optimism and fretful censoriousness. And perhaps, all will not go so well, although we will not even notice.


Is this the best we can do? I do not want to give quite so easily, and so I would like to try to rescue law, and perhaps, in a way, even politics, from Lord Sumption’s critique. This is almost a matter of necessity: after all, Lord Sumption himself thinks that some measure of entrenchment may well be justified, or at least excusable, and between that and his admonition to avoid dislocating established and functioning constitutional orders, those of us living in polities with entrenched constitutions should probably try to make them work before thinking about abolishing them. Moreover, even if we agree with Lord Sumption that entrenching rights is a bad idea, we still need to think about structural features of constitutions, to which Lord Sumption pays almost no attention. (This is another element of his thinking that he shares with Professor Waldron.) And besides, I am as worried as Lord Sumption by the overbearing, illiberal tendencies of contemporary democracy, and less willing to resign myself to them.

One question that needs to be asked is whether attempts to impose legal constraints on government are necessarily bound to degenerate into living constitutionalist creation of unwarranted constraints by the courts. Lord Sumption seems to think so. He implicitly accepts the living constitutionalist view that constitutional terms such as “due process of law” have no fixed meanings, and that adjudication based on such terms is inevitably going to answer the question not “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist”. (IV/5) And, to be sure, there is no shortage of living constitutionalists who agree with him, from the hosts of the Stereo Decisis podcast to Supreme Court judges giving constitutional benediction to rights they invent. As I have suggested here,

if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. 

But while Lord Sumption is right about this, I believe he errs in accepting that adjudication of rights issues must devolve into judicial benediction of rights or ― what is equally non-judicial ― dogmatic deference to legislative choices. In many ― I think in most ― cases, an originalist court that seeks to ascertain the public meaning of constitutional texts, and perhaps to engage in good-faith development of constitutional doctrine based on the texts’ original purposes can actually avoid adjudicating primarily on the basis of its normative priors. As William Baude has pointed out, this requires an effort at self-restraint on the court’s part: the court must accept that its first task is to ascertain the meaning of existing law, without rushing to conclude that this meaning is obscure so as to impose its own views on the parties. But I do not think that such an effort is impossible for courts to undertake. Indeed, even that ostensible champion of living constitutionalism, the Supreme Court Canada, already engages in originalist adjudication, admittedly of varying quality, in a non-negligible number of cases, as I have most recently discussed here.

Emphasizing the importance of constrained, originalist constitutional adjudication ― rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that the courts will do what they please with constitutional texts ― is all the more important because it can help resolve not only cases about fundamental rights but also those dealing with structural aspects of constitutions. Lord Sumption says almost nothing about federalism and separation of powers; to me, the way in which he breezes past them in his discussion of the United States is quite disappointing, a rare moment of incuriosity in an otherwise very thoughtful lecture series. Lord Sumption’s preferred understanding of democracy, as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” (III/7) seems to put structural issues front and centre. And given his sharp comments about the pernicious effects of bypassing the usual parliamentary mechanism in favour of a referendum on Brexit, I think he ought at least to give some thought to the question of whether, quite apart from entrenching rights, the decision-making processes of representative democracy may require robust constitutional safeguards against elected officials inclined to sacrifice them for momentary political advantage.

Ultimately, though, I think that Lord Sumption is too quick to reject the desirability of substantive limits on legislation, as well as to ignore the need for structural safeguards. He thinks that it is not a problem that, under the existing UK constitution, “the limits on what Parliament [or legislatures] can do depend on political conventions [that] derive their force from shared political sentiment which would make it politically costly to disregard them”. (V/2) (The situation is the same under the Canadian constitution except with respect to issues on which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has something to say.) Yet Lord Sumption gives cogent reasons to think that democratic politics often do not make it costly for Parliament to overreach and overregulate; and, on the contrary, that voters will, in the long run, demand too much conformity and control. These concerns echo those already expressed F.A. Hayek’s, in The Road to Serfdom. They are not new. They should be addressed, if possible, with more than vague hopes of compromise.

Indeed, I also think that Lord Sumption oversells compromise. He is right that one cannot expect to always get what one wants in politics, and that unwillingness to give an inch to partisan opponents one believes to be unprincipled at best, if not outright evil, is a real problem. But surely compromise isn’t valuable on any terms. To say so is only to encourage extremist opening bids by people who will expect us to agree to slightly more moderate versions of their still unreasonable demands in the name of accommodation. (The Québec government’s defence of its anti-religious dress code as moderate is a good example of this.) Compromise is important, but it cannot always be justly expected. As Lord Sumption himself recognizes, there are laws that make civilized coexistence or full membership in a democratic community impossible.


Lord Sumption’s Reith lectures are well worth listening to or reading, and reflecting on. They challenge those of us who support judicial review of legislation with an accessible but powerful restatement of the Waldronian case against that constitutional device and affirmation of the importance of democracy. They challenge Waldronians and other supporters of democratic institutions with a frank and not at all optimistic assessment of these institutions’ output. They are not right about everything ― but, insofar as they are wrong, they are wrong in interesting ways. As I said in introducing my summary of the lectures, I think that incoming law students, in particular, would benefit from engaging with Lord Sumption’s ideas. But so would those with more experience of the law. I am sure I have.

The Fault Will Be Ours

Lord Sumption on politics, law, and the meaning and decline of democracy

A couple of months ago, Jonathan Sumption, former barrister extraordinaire, recently-retired UK Supreme Court judge, and well-regarded historian too, delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures for this year, speaking on Law and the Decline of Politics. Despite my delay in getting to them, I think they are worth writing about. Lord Sumption’s arguments challenge most if not all of us in one way or another. I expect that those used to the North American way of thinking about constitutional law will find them more uncongenial than many lawyers in the United Kingdom or in New Zealand, but Lord Sumption’s views do not neatly fit into any pre-defined category, and will have something that will force just about anyone to reflect. (I particularly recommend the lectures to any students who are about to start studying law; they are quite accessible, but will give you an excellent preview of many of the debates you will confront in the coming years, and expose you to a way of thinking that is not exactly prevalent in North American law schools.)

In a nutshell, Lord Sumption’s argument is that, as he put it in the first lecture, “Law’s Expanding Empire“,

law does not occupy a world of its own. It is part of a larger system of public decision making. The rest is politics. The politics of ministers and legislators of political parties, of media and pressure groups, and of the wider electorate. (2-3)

The question is, how does law relate to this larger system? What is the place of law vis-à-vis politics? Should it, in particular, be used to control political outcomes and bring them into alignment with some set of substantive values? Lord Sumption wants to caution us against the dangers he says lying in wait if we go down this path. But it is not because he takes an especially optimistic view of politics. In this post, I summarize the five lectures. (It will, I am afraid, be quite long.) I will comment separately.


Lord Sumption’s misgivings appear especially strongly in his first lecture. Law, he says, is an alternative to chaos. But just how much law (and how many lawyers) do we need? Lord Sumption observes that

Until the 19th century, most human interactions were governed by custom and convention. The law dealt with a narrow range of human problems. It regulated title to property, it enforced contracts, it protected people’s lives, their persons, their liberty and their property against arbitrary injury, but that was about all. Today, law penetrates every corner of human life. (3)

It need not be that way. The Rule of Law requires limitation of government power and the protection against interference with life, liberty, and property, as well access to the courts to enforce these limits and protections, but it does not necessarily follow that law needs to be pervasive. Rather, this is something that the voters have chosen, in an ongoing fit of general optimism about the prospects of collective action. Democracy “has inevitably led to rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity”. (4)

Moreover, after a retreat over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, “a growing moral and social absolutism … looks to law to produce conformity”. Even when there is no real consensus in the community about what how a particular moral issue ought to be treated,

we resort to law to impose uniform solutions in areas where we once contemplated a diversity of judgment and behaviour. We are afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with. (6)

It is as if moral judgment, which would have been individual in the past, has increasingly been collectivized. In a growing number of cases, moreover, this judgment has been delegated to the judiciary.

At the same time, there has been a push to take judgments about safety and security away from individuals and hand them over to public authorities, under judicial supervision. As more misfortunes appear preventable, the demands are made for them to be prevented; “we are no longer willing to accept the wheel of fortune as an ordinary incident of human existence”. (7) Yet this is achieved only by “restricting the liberty of the public at large in order to deprive them of the opportunity to harm themselves”. (7)

The result of it all, Lord Sumption says, is the comeback of the Hobbesian Leviathan: “[t]he 17th century may have abolished absolute monarchy but the 20th century created absolute democracy in its place”. (8) And unlike when government was an external, antagonistic force, democratic government “is us”. (8) We both fear and repose our fondest hopes in it.


In his second lecture, “In Praise of Politics“, Lord Sumption asks, “how do we control the potentially oppressive power of democratic majorities without undermining democracy itself?” (2) He focuses on the notion of legitimacy, which he defines as “a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we don’t like what they are doing”. (2) Any government, but especially a democratic one, must preserve its legitimacy. Democracy does this by accommodating differences between majorities and minorities, and securing compromises that mean that minorities do not become “permanently disaffected groups [with] no common bonds to transcend their differences with the majority”. (2) This can be done through representative government or through law.

Representative institutions, in contrast to winner-take-all direct democracy, exist in part to accommodate the interests and demands of minorities. They make compromise possible. Building on the thought of James Madison and Edmund Burke, Lord Sumption argues that “political elites have their uses. Professional politicians can fairly be expected to bring to their work a more reflective approach, a broader outlook and a lot more information than their electors”. (3) They are also better placed to further national “collective interests which extend over a longer time scale and a wider geographical range than are ever likely to be reflected in the public opinion of the moment”. (3)

Bypassing the processes of representative government, as was done with the Brexit referendum is dangerous. Compromise becomes impossible, as

52 per cent of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48 per cent don’t matter at all. … It is the mentality which has created an unwarranted sense of entitlement among the sort of people who denounce those who disagree with them as enemies, traitors, saboteurs, even Nazis. This is the authentic language of totalitarianism. It is the lowest point to which a political community can sink, short of actual violence.

Lord Sumption warns, however, that disengagement from politics calls into question the ability of the political process to generate compromise and legitimacy. Political parties play an important role in securing the accommodation of various interests in policy-making, but as their membership has declined greatly, they are no longer representative of the broader citizenry, and the candidates whom they put forward are increasingly out of touch with the voters. All this “is, in the long
run, likely to lead to a far more partisan and authoritarian style of political leadership”. (5)

Law, the other barrier to oppressive majorities, has become more important as politics has lost its lustre. The politicians’ authority is waning, but the judges’ is undiminished; indeed it is growing:

Judges are intelligent, reflective and articulate people. They are intellectually honest, by and large. They are used to thinking seriously about problems which have no easy answer and contrary to familiar clichés, they know a great deal about the world. The whole judicial process is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning, social observation and ethical value judgment that seems, to many people, to introduce a higher morality into public decision-making. (5)

The judiciary is now more active than it used to be in policing the actions of other public authorities. It does so, in particular, by enforcing the principle of legality, which Lord Sumption suggests should rather be called “the principle of legitimacy”. The principle is appropriately applied to ensure that Parliament faces the consequences of measures that would amount to, notably, “retrospective legislation, oppression of individuals, obstructing access to a [c]ourt, [or] acts contrary to international law”. However, it can be taken further, and made into a barrier to Parliament acting, even advisedly, in ways the courts simply disagree with.

However much we may agree with the outcomes in particular cases, we should be wary of this empowerment of politically unaccountable institutions. It is not the courts’ function to generate compromise, and therefore legitimacy. The law’s strengths are also its weaknesses:

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous. But in public affairs these are not always virtues. Opacity, inconsistency and fudge maybe intellectually impure, which is why lawyers don’t like them, but they are often inseparable from the kind of compromises that we have to make as a society if we are going to live together in peace. (7)


Lord Sumption’s third lecture, “Human Rights and Wrongs” focuses on what he describes as “an unfriendly meeting” (1) between law and politics. The idea of fundamental rights is not new; in earlier times it was expressed through the concept of natural rights. The trouble with it, however, is that

[t]o say that rights are inherent in our humanity without law is really no more than rhetoric. It doesn’t get us anywhere unless there is some way of identifying which rights are inherent in our humanity and why, and that is essentially a matter of opinion. (2)

Indeed, “[r]ights … are the creation of law which is a product of social organisation and is therefore, necessarily, a matter of political choice”. (2) How is the choice to be made, how are the differences of opinion to be settled? Appealing to democracy is a problem since the point of rights is to protect people from what democratic majorities might do to them. But what else is there? Neither religion nor ideology work in a democratic society.

Still, there is wide agreement that there are some truly fundamental rights: those having to do with due process of law (though Lord Sumption does not use this label), and democratic rights, such as “freedom of thought and expression, assembly and association, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections”. (3)

Legislators can create further rights, including by subscribing to rights-creating treaties. But what Lord Sumption describes as “dynamic treaties”, such as the European Convention Human Rights (ECHR), as it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), whose content keeps being developed by supranational institutions after their implementation in law “escape[] parliamentary control”. (3) As Lord Sumption describes the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence, it “develops [the ECHR] by a process of extrapolation or analogy so as to reflect its own view of what additional rights a modern democracy ought to have”. (3) This goes beyond “applying an abstract statement of principle to concrete facts” that weren’t originally anticipated, or giving effect to “concepts … such as the notion of inhuman or degrading treatment [that] plainly do evolve over the time with changes in our collective values”. (4) Such developments are “a form of non-consensual legislation”. (4)

Good or bad, this judicial legislation is controversial; in any case, law should not be made judges, disempowering citizens. In particular, questions about the limitation of rights, the purposes for which it can be undertaken, and the degree to which it is necessary, “are all intensely political … . Yet, the [ECHR] reclassifies them as questions of law”, (6) to be settled by the courts rather than the political process.

We can think of democracy, Lord Sumption says, either as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” or as “a system of values”, (7) of substantive requirements that a political system must fulfill. A political system that is democratic in one sense is not necessarily democratic in the other. Lord Sumption worries that “[d]emocracy, in its traditional sense” (that is, the first one) “is extremely vulnerable to the idea that one’s own values are so obviously urgent and right that the means by which one gets them adopted don’t matter”. (7) And he worries that many lawyers are tempted to attribute such urgency to liberal values. For his part, he rejects this view, which he finds

conceptually no different from the claim of communism, fascism, monarchism, Catholicism, Islamism and all the other great isms that have historically claimed a monopoly of legitimate political discourse on the ground that its advocates considered themselves to be obviously right. (7)


Lord Sumption’s fourth lecture, “Rights and the Ideal Constitution” takes on a constitutional system that has implemented a number of substantive, values-based constraints on democratic decision-making: that of the United States. Lord Sumption is skeptical of what he calls the “legal model” of the state, since “in the long run, political constraints on the part of majorities are likely to be a great deal more effective than legal ones”. (2) To be sure, the “legal model” promises constraint “based on a body of principle applied by judges” (3) immune from the sort of pressures and incentives to which politicians are subject. This model is based on mistrust of “elective institutions” and their ability “to form opinions about [rights] with the necessary restraint, intelligence or moral sensibility”. (3)

Against that, Lord Sumption argues, we need to count the value of legitimacy: “‘We, the people,’ is the emotional foundation of democracy in Britain as well as in the United States”. Democratic decision-making is also egalitarian. A constitution that enforces a set of substantive values, be they those of “liberalism, human rights, Islamic political theology or the
dictatorship of the proletariat” (4) is neither egalitarian nor legitimate in the eyes of those who do not share these values. It is, therefore, not the right kind of constitution: “the proper function of a constitution is to determine how we participate in the decision-making processes of the state and not to determine what the outcome should be”. (4) Instead of looking for “the right answers to … moral dilemmas”, a polity should content itself with “a political process in which every citizen can engage whose results, however imperfect, are likely to be acceptable to the widest possible range of interests and opinions”. (4)

Echoing the arguments made in the previous lecture in the context of the ECHR, Lord Sumption reiterates that in deciding rights claims based on vague constitutional language judges are deciding not so much “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist. Yet, that is surely a question for lawmakers and not judges.” (5) Anyway, “on politically controversial issues, the decisions of judges almost always involve a large element of political value judgment”, and “are not necessarily wiser or morally superior to the judgments of the legislature”. (5) Lord Sumption also reiterates his earlier point that judicial resolution of essentially political disputes does not leave room for compromise and accommodation. By contrast, political compromise may succeed at resolving differences in the community, as it did over abortion in Britain (in contrast to the United States).

All that said, Lord Sumption cautions that it does not follow “that there are no rights which should be constitutionally protected in a democracy”. (6) Rather, “one must be very careful about which rights one regards as
so fundamental as to be beyond democratic choice”. (6) Again, life, liberty, property, due process, and democratic rights fit the bill. But they will not be enough to protect against the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately, “the Courts cannot parry the broader threat that legislative majorities may act oppressively unless they assume legislative powers for themselves”. (7) If any barrier can do that, it must be found in the political culture, not in the law.


Lord Sumption’s fifth and last lecture, “Shifting the Foundations“, addresses the proposals for introducing the “legal model” of the state to the United Kingdom. Lord Sumption suggests that, although presented as a solution to the ongoing crisis of political institutions, this idea, like all calls for institutional reform in response to crises real or supposed, has little to do with the problems it purports to address. There is something, Lord Sumption says, to the criticisms of the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, said to be “obscure, old-fashioned, out of step with international practice and giv[ing] far too much power to Parliament”. (3) But there is also something to be said in defense of these arrangements.

Lord Sumption points out that “[t]he godparents of written constitutions have been revolution, invasion, civil war and decolonisation”. (3) Nothing of the sort has happened in the UK in centuries. As a result, there is no blank slate on which to write a new constitution. If this were nevertheless done, the result, even if

an artefact of perfect rationality, a thing of great intellectual beauty … would have no basis in our historical experience, and experience counts for a great deal in human affairs; more than rationality, more even than beauty. Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law. (3)

Besides, the flexible political constitution has been able “to adapt to major changes in our national life which would have overwhelmed much more formal arrangements”. (3)

The problem, and not just in the UK but elsewhere, Lord Sumption argues, is not with institutions but a political culture struggling with

long term decline in the membership … of all the major national political parties, falling turnout at elections, widespread contempt for professional politicians, the rise of powerful regional nationalisms offering a more immediate source of legitimacy. (4)

The reason for this malaise, Lord Sumption suggests, is that democracy cannot meet the unrealistic expectations for it that result “from the eternal optimism of mankind, … a misunderstanding of the role of politicians, and … an exaggerated view of their power to effect major change”, as well as “the auction of promises at every general election”. (5) This produces “a sense of impotent frustration [that] undermines public confidence in the whole political process”. (5) Those who are disappointed with the representative institutions (Lord Sumption specifically mentions environmentalists frustrated by inaction on climate change) are prepared to look to a strongman who will “get things done”. A further problem is that “[p]eople expect their representatives, not just to act for them, but to be like them”, yet “all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracy is only different in that the aristocracies are installed and removable by popular vote”. (5) This exacerbates “[r]esentment of political elites”, (6) which plays a large role in current politics.

For Lord Sumption, constitutional change is not the answer to these difficulties, although he is interested in electoral reform “if it boosted public engagement with politics and enabled them, once more, to accommodate differences of interest and opinion across our population”. (7) An entrenched constitution subject to judicial interpretation, by contrast, “will simply produce a partial shift of power from an elective and removable aristocracy of knowledge to a core of professional judges which is just as remote, less representative and neither elective nor removable”. (6)

Lord Sumption ends on a dark note:

we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours. (7)


As noted above, there is much to reflect on here. I am not suggesting that everything Lord Sumption says is right; indeed, it cannot be, because his arguments are not altogether consistent with one another. I will set out some reflections on Lord Sumption’s views in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that, if we are to avoid the dark future whose possibility Lord Sumption asks us to confront, we need to think seriously about the issues he cogently outlines.