Taming the Administrative State

Two books in the administrative law literature

In the spirit of the upcoming review of Dunsmuir by the Supreme Court, I’ve read two important books about administrative state skepticism in the United States: Phillip Hamburger’s The Administrative Threat; and Joseph Postell’s Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional GovernmentBoth books address the constitutionality and necessity of the “administrative state,” and I see some of these conclusions transferring to the Canadian context. What follows is my tortured look at the problems of constitutionality and necessity with a Canadian twist.

Hamburger’s short, pithy text is a condensed version of his other important work, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? The Administrative Threat starts from an historical perspective and builds a sustained response to the administrative state. Hamburger analogizes modern administrative power to the English prerogative power. This prerogative power was famously abused, it was absolute, and it operated outside of the law—it was, according to Hamburger, “extralegal.” To Hamburger, the Star Chamber is the quintessential example of such power.

Hamburger argues that the US Constitution from the beginning barred such prerogative power, repackaged in “administrative” terms. Articles I (legislative power exclusively in the Congress) and III of the US Constitution (judicial power exclusively in the courts), block “irregular” or “extralegal” power, according to Hamburger. When decision-makers create binding rules, they operate outside of the constitutional structure. The worry is more pronounced when decision-makers combine rule-making (legislative), adjudicative (judicial), and investigatory (executive) functions. From a separation of powers perspective, we should be  concerned about such power concentrated in the hands of bureaucrats.

On the other hand, Postell’s book attempts to place the administrative state and its challenges in the context of American constitutional history. Postell argues that “administrative state skepticism,” far from being a new, radical movement, is entrenched in the idea of American constitutionalism. Similarly, to Postell, modern administrative law insufficiently addresses the threat of the administrative threat and its combined executive, judicial, and legislative power. Postell’s review of history demonstrates how Americans have dealt with the threat of administrative power, if imperfectly.

What do these books have to say to Canadians? The books basically assault (1) the constitutionality of the administrative state and deference to it and (2) the necessity of the administrative state. These arguments can transfer, if uneasily, to Canadian law. It’s worth mooting them out to see where they go, if we view a generalized notion of the separation of powers as a worthy organizing principle of the legal system.

Canada’s separation of powers is in part rooted in the judicature provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 96 protects the role of superior courts of inherent jurisdiction. Parliament cannot divest these courts of their core powers, while non-core powers can be divested if they were not exercised exclusively by superior courts in 1867, or if they were but the broad policy context of the decision-maker transforms the decision-maker’s function (Reference Re NS Tenancies Act).

It could be tempting in the Canadian context to say, as Hamburger does in the American, that the vesting of power in administrative tribunals somehow deprives the constitutionally protected courts of their powers of adjudication and interpretation of law. At first blush, there is no case for this in Canada, because the “core” of s.96 powers is drawn narrowly, and clearly law adjudication and application is not part of that core. For example, the Federal Court is a statutory court created under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867.  The Supreme Court itself is a mere “s.101 court.” Yet both courts clearly have the power to interpret and apply law, and that power does not derogate in any meaningful way from the power of s.96 courts to do the same. If the logic follows, therefore, there is no constitutional problem with similarly constituting administrative tribunals.

But this is an unsatisfying conclusion, because there is a meaningful distinction between s.101 courts, for example, and administrative decision-makers. Most importantly, the former can stand in review of the latter (ie) the Federal Court to the Refugee Appeal Division. And there are certain principles that thelcourts must uphold–judicial independence, the Rule of Law, the list goes on. In upholding those principles in cases, the courts must interpret and apply law against the delegated decision-maker. One has a supervisory function over the other, a constitutional role recognized as a part of the Rule of Law. On this question, the distinction is not between s. 96 courts and all other decision-makers, but rather between supervisory courts and other statutory creations.

So, even if interpretation and application of law is not a core function of courts, it is a function on judicial review conducted by courts. This function of law  interpretation and application is something quintessentially judicial. The transfer of these powers to statutory institutions, created by the government that adopts the laws under interpretation, seems to remove something from the uniformity required by the Rule of Law and implicit in ss. 96 and 101. Law that is interpreted by a thousand statutory creations cannot be a uniform law interpreted and enforced across the legal system by courts with a constitutional connection. If this is a constitutional problem, it would require a recognition that s.101 courts (and perhaps other supervisory courts) have some higher constitutional purpose alongside s.96 courts. Such an argument is not new,  and in my view, it is implicit in the Rule of Law, the requirements of judicial review, and legal uniformity. Delegation (read: divestment) of the powers of s.96 and 101 courts would, on this account, raise constitutional concerns.

This is a rough-and-ready attack on delegation, but it is admittedly not where the debate currently is in Canada.  Instead,  Professor Glover recently asserted that the administrative state could be constitutionally mandated.  But the same concerns I’ve noted above are relevant here. Apart from whether the administrative state is constitutional in the first place, the effect of constitutionally entrenching the administrative state (whatever that term means) would be the establishment of at least some adjudicative bodies alongside s.96 courts. Yet the Supreme Court has said that legislatures and Parliament cannot, in effect, constitute s.96 courts (see McEvoy, at 719). More importantly, it would be an odd constitutional mandate that requires the legislature to maintain an aspect of the Constitution through ordinary legislation, putting it in the realm of majority control. This is the opposite of what a Constitution is about–putting certain matters beyond the reach of the majority.

If we accept that there may be constitutional concerns with delegation, deference to that delegation should similarly raise problems. As Hamburger notes, deference has a little explained practical effect. When courts defer to administrative decision-makers in Canada, they effectively impose an onus on claimants to rebut a presumption of legality. Government lawyers have the upper hand—the decisions of their own statutory creations are what they defend. This raises a question of doctrinal independence, though emphatically not independence in the traditional, judicial sense. On questions of law, as Dunsmuir notes, a core function of s.96 courts (which extends to all judicial review courts) is the enforcement of that law against administrative decision-makers.  But deference to the administrative state dilutes that enforcement function, sacrificing it at the altar of expertise, while giving the government an upperhand. The concern here is that the decision under review is viewed as presumptively legal when there is no reason to presume it so.

This raises the necessity question, and whether administrative law and its doctrines can save us from the constitutional worries associated with the administrative state. Or perhaps there is another option. The books raise the prospect that we may not need the administrative state if we embrace certain constitutional principles.

To Postell, the administrate state is broken, and we do not need it in its current form. More importantly, administrative law can’t save us. As I have written before, and as Postell demonstrates, the tools of delegation and deference are used as quintessentially political tools. From the New Deal to the conservative counter-revolution, deference evolved as a way for governments to impress on courts their political will—their desire to limit the supervisory function of courts. These tools have operated at the same time as the administrative state has grown, an insatiable beast eating up more basically adjudicative and legislative functions.

Yet, the answer is not necessarily a strict politics-administration dichotomy. Instead, Postell puts forward the idea of a “constitutional administration,” where representation and republican protections are the organizing principles of the administrative state, rather than rule by experts.  Postell points out that contrary to scholarly “consensus,” antebellum America was not a place of robber-barons and laissez-faire, but instead a place where this constitutional administration flourished. There was an administrative state, and much of it operated at the state and local governments, subject to strict judicial review. At the national level, a stricter separation of powers governed, based on principles of non-delegation of legislative powers and strong-form judicial review. These forms of regulation, though based on simple principles rather than variable forms of expertise, accomplished the policy goals of the era.

In contrast, modern administrative state sympathizers argue that complex problems require complex solutions and that an expert administrative state is required to efficiently manage public policy. First, one has to seriously query whether the administrative state any longer accomplishes this goal, if it ever did. Expertise is not empirically demonstrated by administrative state defenders. And not all administrative tribunals are “flexible” (whatever that means), quick, and cost-effective, like the Court seemed to think in Edmonton East .As an example, the wait time for a refugee hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board is currently 20 months.

More fundamentally, and as Richard Epstein points out, a complex society does not necessarily require complex rules in a complex bureaucracy. Simple legal rules based around the common law can transform and adapt to exigencies of modern society while similarly protecting individual liberty. Further, much of the administrative state is executive action that could be completed by the executive itself, as Hamburger notes. If the legislature stays in its lane by adopting clear rules, and the executive completes its executive functions, the combination of powers in the administrative state is avoided.

None of this should be construed as a full acceptance of either Hamburger or Postell’s thesis in the Canadian context. A simpler system of administrative law based on republican principles is not doable in Canada. But both authors give us something to think about. It might be worthwhile thinking about taming the administrative state.