Did Dunsmuir Simplify the Standard of Review?

An empirical assessment

Robert Danay, Justice Canada and UBC

(The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Canada or the Government of Canada)

While the Supreme Court issued three sets of reasons in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick,[i] all members of the Court agreed that the system governing the standard of review in administrative law had become too complex and was in need of simplification. Mr. Justice Binnie offered perhaps the most compelling reason to support this reform: access to justice.

The existing system, Binnie J argued, inflated the time and legal resources required to adjudicate what is supposed to be a quick and inexpensive way of challenging governmental decisions. As he persuasively put it (at para. 133) “[e]very hour of a lawyer’s preparation and court time devoted to unproductive ‘lawyer’s talk’ poses a significant cost to the applicant.…A small business denied a licence or a professional person who wants to challenge disciplinary action should be able to seek judicial review without betting the store or the house on the outcome.” As a decade has now passed since these words were penned, it behooves us to ask: did the Court in Dunsmuir succeed in reducing the legal resources devoted by litigants to debating the standard of review? As readers of Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters blog may already know, my preferred approach to answering such questions is through empirical analysis.[ii] This case is no exception.

As described in greater detail below, after reviewing a sample of 120 factums filed by litigants before and after Dunsmuir was decided, it would appear that the Supreme Court may not have been successful in reducing the legal resources devoted by parties to mooting the standard of review. This suggests that – as Madam Justice Abella recently argued in Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.[iii] – significant new doctrinal changes may be needed in order to fully realize the goal of simplifying the standard of review for litigants and lower courts.

Methodology

Using WestlawNext Canada’s database of factums extracted from court files,[iv] I collected factums from judicial review applications and statutory appeals in the Ontario Divisional Court and the Federal Courts. With each jurisdiction, I collected the 30 factums in the database that were filed in the period immediately preceding the release of Dunsmuir (going back as far as July of 2006) as well as the most recent 30 factums found in the database (these span the period from September of 2013 to December of 2016).

As a rough measure of the extent to which parties spent legal resources on mooting the standard of review, I tabulated the number of paragraphs in each factum devoted to that issue as well as the proportion of the total paragraphs in each factum on the standard of review. Comparing the average of both figures from before and after Dunsmuir affords a crude assessment of whether the goal of simplifying the standard of review for litigants was successful.

With regard to the Ontario Divisional Court, the 60 factums that I examined concerned judicial review applications or statutory appeals of a variety of different administrative decision-makers, the most common being the Director of the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, a municipality, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario or the Environmental Review Tribunal. The 60 factums in the dataset that were filed in the Federal Courts primarily concerned a variety of intellectual property-related decision-makers such as the Registrar of Trade-marks and the Commissioner of Patents as well as the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and adjudicators dealing with federal labour relations matters.

Results: No Apparent Reduction in Legal Argument on Standard of Review

The results of this empirical analysis suggest that the Court in Dunsmuir may not have been successful in reducing the legal resources that parties were required to spend in order to address the standard of review

With regard to factums filed in the Ontario Divisional Court, the average number of paragraphs dealing with the standard of review increased from 8.5 paragraphs per factum before Dunsmuir to 10.4 paragraphs more recently, representing an increase of 22%. Similarly, the average share of factums devoted to debating the standard of review increased after Dunsmuir, from 14.2% in 2006-08 to 16.5% in 2013-15, which represents an increase of 16%.

Danay1

The data from the Federal Courts exhibit a similar trend. The average number of paragraphs dealing with the standard of review increased from 2.6 paragraphs per factum before Dunsmuir to 3.4 paragraphs more recently, an almost 31% increase. On the other hand, the overall percentage of factums devoted to the standard of review in the Federal Courts remained unchanged at 6%.

Danay2

While this limited study has some obvious methodological limitations,[v] it does seem to suggest that the changes made by the Supreme Court to the standard of review in Dunsmuir have not reduced the extent to which parties must devote resources to arguing the standard of review.

Conclusion: Vindication for Madam Justice Abella?

The data reviewed above provide some support for the provocative position taken by Abella J in Wilson. In that case Abella J decried as “insupportable” the fact that a substantial portion of the parties’ factums in that case and the decisions of the lower courts were occupied with what the applicable standard of review should be. This, she suggested (at para 20), required the Court to “think about whether this obstacle course is necessary or whether there is a principled way to simplify the path to reviewing the merits.”

Madam Justice Abella’s proposed solution was to adopt a single reasonableness standard of review.[vi] While none of her colleagues were willing to endorse this proposal, Abella J conceded (at para. 19) that “[t]here are undoubtedly many models that would help simplify the standard of review labyrinth we currently find ourselves in.” If simplification in the name of access to justice remains a priority, members of the Court will need to explore and adopt such a model in the coming years. If they do, then that new model will be ripe for further empirical assessment when it is ultimately applied by litigants and lower courts.



[i]
[2008] 1 SCR 190 [Dunsmuir].

[ii] See Robert Danay, “Quantifying Dunsmuir: An Empirical Analysis of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Jurisprudence on Standard of Review” (2016) 66 UTLJ 555 [Danay, Quantifying Dunsmuir].

[iii] [2016] 1 SCR 77 [Wilson].

[iv] WestlawNext indicates on its website that this database “includes facta extracted from the court files of significant court cases in every Canadian Common Law jurisdiction.” These documents are selected from cases that fall into 12 different subject areas including “Canadian Cases on Employment Law,” “Canadian Environmental Law Reports,” “Intellectual Property Cases” and “Municipal and Planning Law Reports.”

[v] Aside from the fact that the dataset of factums is not truly random, I have not sought to control for potentially confounding factors using a multiple regression analysis. For an explanation of why I tend to reject doing so see Danay, Quantifying Dunsmuir, supra note 2 at 576.

[vi] Ibid. at paras. 28-37.

Constitutional Job Placement

In a post on Concurring Opinions, Gerard Magliocca asks an interesting question about what importance, if any, should attach to the fact that a constitutional provision invoked in a case has never been applied by the courts, or has not been applied in a very long time. It is, arguably, a specific instance of the broader question of how the law ought to deal with unusual situations on which precedent is lacking; as I observed here, in a post prompted, in part, by prof. Magliocca’s musings on the subject of judicial review of unusual statutes, that broader question is not an easy one.

What prompted prof. Magliocca’s recent post is a challenge to President Obama’s healthcare reform invoking the “origination clause” of the Constitution of the United States (Art. I, s. 7, cl. 1, which provides that “[a]ll Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills”), but the question can be asked more broadly, in the Canadian context as well as in the American one. Prof. Magliocca suggests that

 legal academics … act too much like a job placement service for unemployed constitutional clauses.  (“You have a superb resume Mr. Contracts Clause.  Out of of work since 1934?  No problem–I’ll make some calls.”)  The complete absence of the Origination Clause from modern constitutional thought must mean something other than “The Constitution has been betrayed.”

Prof. Magliocca seems to be suggesting that if courts have not applied a constitutional provision in decades or even centuries, they should not start now. And legal academics should stop urging them to do so. Being in the process of working on a paper that does just that with the freedom of conscience guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I have a stake in this debate, so feel free to take what follows with a generous helping of NaCl. For what it’s worth, however, I think that prof. Magliocca’s suggestion is unwarranted.

Indeed, some constitutional provisions ― the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of conscience among them ― seem to be caught in a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing neglect by courts and scholars alike. There are no judicial decisions applying them, therefore they attract little academic interest, therefore nobody (whether lawyers or judges) knows what to make of them, therefore there are no judicial decisions applying them. Now it is probably unfair to criticize the practitioners’ reluctance to invoke neglected constitutional provisions as betrayal, because legal practice is essentially conservative, and both advocates and judges always prefer familiar arguments to novel ones. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing, because the limits and potential consequences of relying on old arguments are well understood, whereas reliance on new and under-explored claims might lead to undesirable and difficult to anticipate consequences. Legal academics are in a position to break the vicious circle, because they can make formerly exotic arguments more familiar and work out their implications in advance of actual application. It seems to me that they should be commended rather than chided when they try to do so, and help give full effect to the constitutional text they are explicating in the process.

Another possible reason for the absence of judicial precedent enforcing a constitutional rule is simply that the rule is (almost) never infringed. I don’t know if this may explain the lack of precedent on the origination clause, but I have suggested (in the post linked to above and, at greater length, in a paper called “Towards a Jurisprudence of Constitutional Conventions”, 11 Oxford U Commonwealth LJ 29 (2011)), that it is this that explains the absence of precedent enforcing constitutional conventions ― rather than conventions’ inherent unenforceability, as A.V. Dicey claimed. When a usually-respected rule of constitutional law is infringed, courts should not be any less willing to step in than in cases involving more frequently breached provisions, and I don’t think it is wrong for academics to remind them of this duty.

But why is it that a rule obeyed so regularly that adjudication is, for long periods of time, unnecessary to enforce it, can suddenly be disobeyed, triggering litigation? The reason has to do, at least in part, with a paradox created by entrenched constitutional texts. In a constitutional system consisting entirely of conventions and statutes that can be amended by an ordinary parliamentary majority, the constitutional rules will never long differ from the constitutional ideas prevailing in society or among officials. (Courts might still have to step in to clarify the rules, as the Patriation Reference shows, because conventions can be uncertain, but such cases will probably not be very frequent.) But with an entrenched constitutional text, (a part of) the rules stays fixed while the prevailing constitutional theory changes. Because the claims made by advocates and accepted by courts tend to reflect the constitutional theory of the time, constitutional provisions that do not conform or are simply not relevant to it tend to disappear from judicial decisions. Yet because an entrenched constitutional text ― unlike constitutional conventions ― does not change with the prevailing ideas, these provisions remain available for invocation in legal arguments by those who, for one reason or another, can and choose to reject the prevailing constitution theory. There is no easy way out. Originalists cannot make the evolution of constitutional ideas stop; non-originalists cannot wish away an entrenched constitution. It is important to keep in mind, too, that constitutional ideas can evolve in more than one direction ― not only away from an entrenched provision, but also back towards it. If academics are free to urge the former sort of evolution, there is no reason they could advocate the latter.

I will consider one more possible reason for judicial non-enforcement of a constitutioinal provision. It may be thought that the courts are incapable of applying a rule well enough, or that other branches of government will do it better. Such claims may be advanced as a more “politically correct” cover for a belief that the provision in question really should not be part of the constitution at all (as they might be in the post-New Deal constitutional discourse in the United States with respect to many rules protecting economic rights, such as the Contracts clause prof. Magliocca pokes fun at, or federalism). But they can be made sincerely (as when Jeremy Waldron makes them with respect to constitutional guarantees of individual rights), and they might sometimes be valid. However, their validity is surely fair game for academic contestation. A scholar can also plausibly (if optimistically) argue that although courts made a mess out of a constitutional provision in the past, his or her new theory would allow them to enforce it competently. Again, I don’t see why academics should take prof. Magliocca’s advice.

The point is not, of course, that every constitutional provision must be put to work. It is many of the constitutional ideas and arguments that are (possibly) valid and interesting within a given constitutional system are, for one reason or another, nowhere to be found in the courts. It is for these ideas and arguments that academics can act as a “job placement service.” And if working with and on behalf of ideas isn’t part of a scholar’s job description, I don’t know what is.

Mass Confusion

There is a long article in the New York Times about the increasing opposition to the use of exceedingly long prison sentences―often life imprisonment without parole―as punishment for all sorts of crimes, often not involving any violence, including drug-related offences, resulting in the phenomenon of “mass incarceration.” The article highlights the findings of social scientists that mass incarceration has long stopped contributing to the ongoing fall in crime rates, if it ever did, and that it may even be creating more crime than it prevents, by destroying the “social fabric.” At the same time, it results in enormous increases in public spending on prisons. And many people, including judges, feel that it is simply unjust to put people away, often forever, despite their very limited culpability. It is an interesting piece, but I would like to highlight a few distinctions which it blurs or does not make at all.

One concerns the label “non-violent crime”. There are many crimes not involving violence, or even threats of violence,―fraud, for example, or blackmail. I don’t think it is very helpful to confuse acts of that kind, which would be considered crimes on any, including the most libertarian, account of criminal law, with things like drug possession or trafficking. We can of course debate the appropriate penalties for fraud, but I doubt that many would argue that it should never be punished with imprisonment. Drug crimes are another matter. So I think that the category of “victimless crimes” is a better focus of concern than that of non-violent crimes.

A related point is that a discussion of penalties for victimless crimes, especially drug-related crimes, feels incomplete without any mention of the question whether these should be criminalized at all. Yet that is exactly what the Times‘ article manages. For all the discussion of the costs, human, social, and economic, of mass incarceration, it never really raises the issue of decriminalization. The closest it comes is by mentioning the fact that some now advocate “diverting” those found guilty of drug crimes from incarceration to treatment―but of course this implies that what these people did was a crime to begin with.

Another point of confusion concerns different sentences that the article lumps together as contributing to mass incarceration. There are simply very long sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, and specifically life imprisonment without parole. Yet these three types of sentences can raise different issues. Sometimes a sentence will be unjust because it is disproportionate to the crime, regardless of whether it is mandatory or the product of judicial discretion. With a mandatory sentence, the lack of such discretion will sometimes be a problem, but perhaps not always―I’m not aware, for instance, of people arguing that the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years, which Canada imposes for premeditated murder, is unjust. Life imprisonment without parole, whether or not it is a mandatory sentence for any give crime, raises issues of its own. In Germany, for example, it has been held to be an unconstitutional violation of human dignity. I’m rather skeptical about such claims, but they are out there―and they are only made, so far anyway, with regard to life without parole, not any other sentence, except the death penalty of course.

The final point I want to make is, as it happens, one I previously raised (here, here, and here) with respect to the death penalty. Most arguments about it―in favour or against―are either consequentialist or deontological/justice-based, and it is sometimes remarkable how arguments of one or the other sort are made in specific contexts. With the penalties that contribute to creating mass incarceration too we see both sorts of arguments. Social scientists whom the Times quotes stay in the realm of consequences, as do the politicians who are now beginning to reverse some “tough-on-crime” policies. On the other hand, those who deal with specific cases―a prisoner interviewed by the Times and the judge who imposed a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment on her―speak of the injustice of that sentence.

Mass incarceration is a huge problem, and a disgrace, for the United States―and also to Canada insofar as our government seems keen to import some of the policies that create it. All the more important to think clearly about it.

Death Penalty and Dignity

The topic of tomorrow’s class in Jeremy Waldron’s Human Dignity seminar is the death penalty and, having blogged about the sorts of arguments that are made for and against it here and here, I want to come back to the topic, because a couple of things caught my eye as I was doing the readings.

One is a passage in Justice Brennan’s opinion in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), a case in which a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States declared the death penalty unconstitutional in that country. Justice Brennan has no doubt about the sort of arguments that really count in the death penalty debate:

From the beginning of our Nation, the punishment of death has stirred acute public controversy. Although pragmatic arguments for and against the punishment have been frequently advanced, this longstanding and heated controversy cannot be explained solely as the result of differences over the practical wisdom of a particular government policy. At bottom, the battle has been waged on moral grounds. The country has debated whether a society for which the dignity of the individual is the supreme value can, without a fundamental inconsistency, follow the practice of deliberately putting some of its members to death. (296)

Now I don’t know whether this is true as an empirical matter. Perhaps, up to 1972, “the battle” always had “been waged on moral grounds.” But, as my previous two posts suggest, it does not really seem to be the case anymore, at least not in the political realm, as opposed to philosophical discussions. If Justice Brennan’s reading of the debate was correct at the time, this means there has been an important change in the way Americans argue about the death penalty. But perhaps he was wrong, deliberately or not, mistaking what he wanted to be the case for what actually was.

Yet it may well be that―as my previous posts suggest―moral grounds are not those on which opponents of the death penalty ought to be fighting if they care to win. Justice Brennan’s victory in Furman was short-lived, Merely four years later that decision was (partially) overturned in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) which held that the death penalty was not unconstitutional provided that its imposition was surrounded with certain safeguards.

And the story of two Canadian cases discussing the death penalty, in the context of challenges to decisions of the Canadian government to extradite to the United States people who are at risk of being executed there is interesting too. In Kindler v. Canada (Minister of Justice), [1991] 2 S.C.R. 779, a 4-3 majority held that extradition in these circumstances did not breach s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the dissenters’ furious invocations of human dignity notwithstanding. 10 years later, in United States v. Burns, 2001 SCC 7, [2001] 1 S.C.R. 283, the Court effectively reversed Kindler, in a unanimous judgment that did not discuss human dignity at all. And while it does invoke some arguments that appeal to considerations of dignity and justice―the risk that innocents will be put to death if the the death sentence is applied, and the irremediable cruelty of the “death row phenomenon”―its makes them look as though they are almost secondary. The first argument is that Canada’s law and public policy (especially in foreign affairs) consistently condemn the death penalty, so that its rejection ranks among the basic tenets of the Canadian legal system. (Possibly, probably even, that is because Parliament and the government of Canada came to regard the death penalty as morally wrong, but the Supreme Court doesn’t say that!)

All that is not to say that this is how things should be. If one is philosophically inclined, one is likely to regret the avoidance of the “moral ground” in favour of “merely” practical considerations. On the other hand, perhaps there is in fact good reason for that avoidance. Moral arguments can cut both ways―Kant, the great moralist and champion of human dignity, thought that the death penalty was not just permissible, but absolutely required in cases of murder―and there is no good way of proving their correctness to everyone’s satisfaction, and so to persuade people. (People still can change their minds of course. Justice Harry Blackmun did so famously. He dissented in Furman and, much later in life, dissenting again from a denial of certiorari (the U.S. equivalent of a leave to appeal to the Supreme Court) in Callins v. Collins, a death penalty case, where he wrote that “[f]rom this day forward, [he] no longer [would] tinker with the machinery of death” (par. 7) and that his court’s continued willingness to do so “lessens us all” (par. 40).) Maybe there is more agreement, or at least less intractable disagreement, to be found on the ground of practical considerations.

The Forms and Limits of Persuasion

There was a very interesting piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker yesterday in New York Times magazine, about the ways in which we make up and change our minds. The immediate context to which it is directed is U.S. presidential campaign, in which both contenders (though especially Mitt Romney) have had some notorious “flip-flops.” But of course the issues it explores are relevant beyond the field of politics;  for example, they are of great importance to the law.

The law, as Ronald Dworkin, Jeremy Waldron, and others like to remind us is (in prof. Waldron’s words) “an argumentative practice.” A huge part of it involves two sides arguing their cases in front of an adjudicator or a group of adjudicators, who must then make up their minds about the decision. The parties are required to present evidence in support of their arguments, and the adjudicators’ decision is expected to be responsive to that evidence. What Lon Fuller might have called the forms and limits of persuasion matter enormously to lawyers and all those interested in the law’s operation.

But is persuasion just a pipe dream? In the final sentence of the article, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business says that “the truth is that our minds just aren’t set up to be changed by mere evidence and argument presented by a ‘stranger.’” That doesn’t bode well for the enterprise of law. Fortunately, what the article says before reaching this grim conclusion suggests that it is, in fact, misleading.

For one thing, the tendency to ignore evidence and argument manifests itself more or less strongly depending on context. “In some cases,” says Ms Koerth-Baker, “if we want to think of ourselves as thoughtful and open-minded — we can adopt identities that actually encourage flip-flopping” – or, less contemptuously, changing our minds in response to facts and arguments. “This is why juries function,” – and judges, too, of course – “and it’s what places pressure on scientists to form opinions based on reliable data.” The ethos of a dispassionate, careful decision-maker, one who must consider and respond to facts and arguments and, if necessary, change one’s mind, can apparently go to great lengths to overcome our natural inclination to decide on the basis of emotions and partiality to our own kind.

For another, knowing that one will be giving reasons for a decision changes the way one approaches making it. “Simply having to articulate why you believe what you do can also end up changing your attitude.” Not always in entirely desirable ways. People who know they must explain their decisions will sometimes take the decision that is easiest to explain, even though they might feel it is not quite right substantively. We might guard against the danger But, suggests a psychologist from the University of Virginia, ” if you have to explain your preferences, you’re likely to adopt an attitude that makes sense to your interlocutor, even if it conflicts with your emotions.”

The way our justice system is set up helps ensure that our judges are open to persuasion by evidence and arguments. Judges believe in and are committed to the impartial decision-maker’s ethos, which suggests that they are likely to do a decent job living up to it. In order to help them do so, and also in order to verify whether they do, there is a strong expectation, increasingly taking the form of a legal rule, that judges will give reasons for their decisions. These reasons typically summarize the parties’ main arguments, and respond to them. This forces judges “to adopt an attitude that makes sense to” the parties, as well as to consider the parties’ views. This, turn, is one of the ways in which law protects human dignity, as Jeremy Waldron points out. (Perhaps, in this limited sense, reason-giving can in fact exercise a  “pull towards goodness,” on judicial decisions, a possibility about which I have otherwise expressed skepticism, assuming a more substantive meaning of “goodness.”) And perhaps our judicial selection mechanism, which means that judges are recruited from the ranks of experienced litigators and legal academics, two professions which prize and help develop one’s ability to articulate one’s thinking, helps limit the risk that judges will give insincere but easy-to-state reasons for their decisions.

Despite my usual gloomy disposition (including a lack of faith in judges, at least when it comes to their ability to develop legal rules, as for example here), I am inclined to conclude on an optimistic note today. Our courts are organized in ways that counteract human beings’ poor decision-making skills, which psychologists are now describing in ever more depressing detail. And it is noteworthy that this is the result of a gradual development of the court system, rather than of its deliberate organization on scientific lines. (Those who hear an echo of Hayek here are right.) Our individual decision-making might be bad, but the accumulated intuition of generations is surprisingly good.

Arguing with Death, Again

I wrote, three months ago now, about the sorts of arguments people make for and against the death penalty. Contrary perhaps to our intuitions, from at least the times of Thucydides, death penalty’s opponents have tended to resort to consequentialist arguments, while its supporters have relied on appeals to justice. A couple of interviews the BBC has taken in California, where the abolition of death penalty is going to be the subject of a referendum in the fall, confirm this trend – mostly.

The mother of a murdered child, who supports the death penalty, talks about justice for the killer. “He deserves” to be put to death; he ought to pay for the victim’s suffering. The former warden of a prison who once oversaw executions and now opposes the death penalty talks about its expense and ineffectiveness.

Things are more complicated though. The mother (perhaps prompted by the interviewer, whom we don’t hear) speaks of lethal injection being “humane,” the “most humane” thing that can be done to the murderer. Never mind whether this is really so. What I want to emphasize is that, despite appealing to justice in the shape of retribution, she is not calling for him to be tortured and brutalized as he tortured and brutalized her son. The ex-warden, for her part, brings up the irrevocable injustice of innocents possibly being executed.

And then there is, on both sides, an argument that I hesitate classify as being either about justice or about consequences – the one about “closure.” The mother says she needs the death penalty inflicted on her son’s killer to have it; the ex-warden says that’s a “false hope.”

So the issue is complex. Still, a point a made in my original post might be true. Arguments made for the sales pitch to the electorate might (need to be) different from those that avail in philosophical disputations or even in a personal reflection on a fraught moral issue. (This might, incidentally, be a partial response to the worry, expressed for example by Jeremy Waldron, that judicial resolution of moral issues like the death penalty takes them from the realm of serious thinking into that of legal technicalities. It seems that the political process isn’t much better than the judicial one, since also transforms the way these issues are considered, albeit in a different way.)

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.