Interpretation and the Value of Law

Why the interpretation of law must strive for objectivity, not pre-determined outcomes

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

We write in defence of a simple proposition: there is a value in ordering relations among individuals in large communities through law, rather than through other modes of exercising authority, and this value is not reducible to the goodness―by whatever metric―of the content of the law. Of course, good law is better than bad law, but law as a form, as the institution that allows individuals, groups, and organizations to interact with one another in predictable ways while constraining what those with power can do to those without, is precious quite apart from its substantive merits.

Law is the only mediator we have in a pluralistic society where there is limited agreement on foundational moral values, and still less on the best ways of giving them effect. Law records such agreement as exists for the time being, while also exposing this record to critique and providing a focus for efforts at reform. It is neither sacred nor permanent, but it is a common point of reference for the time being for people who disagree, sometimes radically, about the ways in which it should be changed. These are valuable functions regardless of whether one agrees with the substance of the law as it stands from time to time. Increasingly, however, certain schools of thought tend to deny that law has any value apart from its utility as a means to some political or another. We regard this as a dangerous development.

Now, to serve as the common point of reference in the face of widespread disagreement about values and policies, law must have some characteristics beyond its substantive political content; it must contain other features, often described in the literature on the Rule of Law. For example, it must be public, sufficiently certain, and stable. Of course, law actually enacted by constitution-makers, legislators, or officials exercising delegated authority, or articulated by common law courts, sometimes falls short of the ideals of clarity or certainty. Sometimes the words of this law will be broad, dynamic, and open-textured. But for law to fulfil its function, indeed to be law at all, it must have a fixed content independent of the views and preferences of those to whom the law applies. To the extent this understanding of law is now considered unorthodox, we hope to correct the record.


When law as enacted or articulated is not self-explanatory, it must be interpreted, ultimately by judges. The orthodox view, which we regard as correct, however old-fashioned it may seem, is that judges must do this by applying legal tools and techniques. Ideally, these must themselves be well-known, certain, and stable, although we acknowledge that the law of interpretation has often failed to live up to this ideal, even if the strongest critiques of legal interpretation as radically indeterminate have always been overstated. Judges will sometimes develop legal doctrine beyond what is apparent on the face of a constitutional or statutory text, engaging in the activity American scholars describe as construction. They may also distinguish or even overrule precedents. In doing so, however, judges must remain faithful to the principles and purposes of the law as they have found it enacted or articulated by the institutions―above all, the democratic institutions―our polities have authorized to resolve, for the time being, disagreements among their members.

Those who have come to reject the value of the law as law often regard legal interpretation as the weakest link which they can break to subvert the law’s function as the common guide and reference for people who disagree with one another. They want, instead, to use interpretation to impose values and policies that are not in the law as enacted or articulated, and which are, instead, those of the parasiti curiarum who seek to give the courts this inflated, and fatally distorted, sense of their role.

These parasiti belong to schools of thought―and political factions―that are, ostensibly, fiercely opposed to one another. On the one hand, there are those who favour “living tree” interpretation in constitutional law and freewheeling pragmatism in statutory interpretation, aiming to keep up with ever-changing notions of social justice by means of “progressive” and “modern” interpretations that update the law from time-to-time. On the other, there are those who demand that constitutions and statutes be read so as to promote a religiously-infused “common good”. The substantive political commitments of these schools are far apart.

Yet the two camps share one key belief: they both see law as merely an instrument with which to achieve their preferred political aims. Both are firmly convinced that it is legitimate to impose their respective hierarchy of values on society through judicial and administrative fiat, and urge judges and administrators to do just that, regardless of whether the constitutional and statutory texts being interpreted in fact embody these values. Indeed, they also share a certain legal and linguistic nihilism that causes them to deny that a legal text can have a meaning independent of its interpreter’s will. As a result, they are quite happy to use interpretation to reverse-engineer the meaning of laws in accordance with their preferences, regardless of these laws’ text or history and of the longstanding interpretive techniques.


For our part, we maintain that the judges’ interpretive role is not to impose some pre-determined set of values onto the law but to seek out the moral and policy choices that are embedded in the law as they find it. Judges do so by—to the extent possible—making the law’s text the object of interpretation. Even in the “construction zone”, where they apply legal texts to new situations or develop doctrine to apply vague textual commands, judges must seek, in good faith, to implement the choices made by those who made the law. At all times, they must strive to put aside their own moral and policy views about what the law should be, because they are not the ones charged with resolving moral and policy disagreements in our constitutional systems.

This is a pragmatic as well as a dogmatic position. Judges lack not only the legitimacy but also the ability to make moral and policy choices. Living constitutionalism, for example, asks judges to interpret the Constitution to take account of the moral views or practical needs of a particular political community at a particular point in time. This is impossible, even putting to one side the difficulties in defining the relevant community (especially in a federation such as Canada!), and even if members of political communities did not, in fact, sharply disagree with one another. Even politicians, with their access to pollsters, constant communication with their constituents, and the incentives provided by regular elections are not especially good at assessing the voters’ values and needs. Judges could not succeed at this, and should not try.

More importantly, though, living constitutionalism asks judges to change or override the meaning of the law as written in the name of extraneous moral principles or policy preferences, which it purports to locate in the political community. Pragmatism in statutory interpretation does much the same thing. This approach is problematic enough when it comes to ordinary legislation, because it arrogates the process of amendment to judges. It is doubly troubling in the constitutional realm: not only does it arrogate the process of amendment to judges, but it undermines the purpose of Constitutions—to place certain structural choices about institutions, as well as certain individual rights and freedoms, beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of divided public opinion, leaving their amendment to more consensual procedures.

Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. A new illiberal strain of legal thought has risen on the right. Driven by Adrian Vermeule’s theory of “common good constitutionalism”, the idea is that conservatives should adopt a style of constitutional interpretation that would “involve officials reading vague clauses in an openly morally infused way … to reach determinations consistent with the common good.” The moral principles that would guide this endeavour are those drawn, above all, from the Catholic natural law tradition; the definition of the common good to which judges would advert is thus one which is, to put it mildly, not universally shared in pluralistic societies.   

This attempt by those on the right to reverse-engineer such an interpretive theory should be rejected just as firmly as living constitutionalism, which it mimics. For Professor Vermeule, for example, the very fact that progressives have used constitutional law itself to achieve their aims justifies a conservative attempt, not to put an end to such tactics, but to resort to them, albeit in the service of a different set of values. Like the progressives, he and his disciples look to extraneous moral and policy commitments as guides for legal interpretation, disregarding the law’s role as the authoritative record of the settlement of disagreement and point of reference for citizens whose views of what is good and just differ, seeking to impose pre-ordained results regardless of whether they are consistent with what the law actually is. It too regards separation of powers as passé, a relic of the Enlightenment’s mistakes and an obstacle in the path of those who know better than voters, constitutional framers, and legislators.

Indeed, not only the substance but the language and specific proposals of the two anti-liberal camps resemble one another. In a striking parallel with Justice Abella’s embrace of the courts as the “final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”, the reactionaries want judges to exhibit “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’ because one of if its core premises is that ‘promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority’ given its link to securing the common good.” And, just as  Justice Abella  wants to upturn settled jurisprudence (except, of course, when she doesn’t) and “give benediction” to new constitutional doctrines, common good constitutionalism is skeptical about aspects of constitutional law that have been taken as a given for generations, including fundamental freedoms and structural limits on the accumulation of power within a single institution. Perhaps especially salient is the embrace by both the progressives and the reactionaries of the administrative state, and the corresponding rejection of the separation of powers. In other words, for both camps, established limits on actors in the system are of no moment if they stand in the way of certain political goals.

Now, to be charitable, it is possible that the illiberal thinkers are simply seeking to discover whether certain values are embedded in particular texts. Maybe it is true, for example, that the “peace, order, and good government” power reflects certain values that coincide with the political preferences of those on the right, or for that matter on the left. But this cannot be stipulated: those making such claims must demonstrate that general constitutional language―cabined and explained as it is by enumerated and limited grants of power―really carries the meaning they ascribe to it. Such demonstrations tend to be lacking, and the claims are often implausible. The “peace, order, and good government” language, for example, is only relevant when it comes to the federal heads of power; is it possible that the federal, but not the provincial, powers in the Canadian constitution reflect a “common good” view of government? Such questions abound, and in truth we suspect that the project pursued by the majority of those for whom concepts such as the “common good” or the “living tree” must guide legal interpretation has little to do with objective analysis and discovery.


Before concluding, a few words are in order about what we do not argue here. First, we do not claim that law and politics, or law and morality, are entirely separate realms. Obviously, law is shaped by politics: the making of constitutions and of legislation is a political process. It involves heated debate about moral and policy considerations, with which―one hopes―constitutional framers and legislatures wrestle. The outcome of these political processes is then subject to political critique, which again will feature arguments sourced in morality and policy. In a democracy, the legal settlements are only ever provisional, although some require greater degrees of consensus than others to displace.

And even at the stage of interpretation, it would be impossible to say that judges are merely robots mechanically following prescribed algorithms. Judges are influenced by their own experiences, which is perhaps to some extent for the better; they aren’t always able to shed their pre-dispositions, though this is surely generally to the worse. Indeed, it is important to recall that constitution-makers and legislators often invite judges to engage in moral and practical reasoning by appealing to concepts such as reasonableness in the provisions they enact. This is not always an appropriate legislative choice, but it is not the judges who are to blame for it.

That said, when it comes to interpretation, there should be a separation between law and politics. That is, interpretation must be guided by rules and doctrines that help judges to avoid, as much as humanly possible, making decisions on their own say-so, arrogating to themselves the roles of legislators to decide what laws should be under the pretense of declaring what they mean. This is admittedly a matter of degree. No one should insist that judges unduly fetter the natural import of words they are asked to interpret by insisting on so-called “strict constructions,” or read appeals to their own moral and practical reasoning as having been fully determined by the law-maker. Nonetheless, the judicial task should not be unbounded, with no restriction on the sorts of moral considerations judges are equipped to take into account.


In sum, we propose not to purge the law of moral and policy considerations, but to re-commit to the view that considerations embedded in legal texts adopted by democratic institutions after proper debate and subject to revision by the same institutions are the ones that ought to matter in legal interpretation. They, that is, rather than the real or hypothetical values and needs of contemporary society, let alone the conjectures of 16th century scholars from the University of Salamanca.

This upholds the authority of democratic institutions while calling on the courts to do what they ought to be able to do well: apply legal skills to reading and understanding legal texts. No less importantly, this allows the law itself to perform its unique and precious function, that of providing a touchstone for the diverse members of pluralistic communities, who disagree with one another’s moral and political views, yet still need a framework within which disagreements can be managed and, more importantly, they can simply get on with their lives. The illiberal attempts to subvert the law’s ability to do so, in the pursuit of victories which would come at the expense of citizens’ personal and political freedom, are a cause for concern, and for resistance.

The Common Good Administrative State

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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