On Law and Music

What is the relationship, if any, between law and music?

As a musician myself, I notice many commonalities between law and music. As a jazz musician, improvisation is what I spend a lot of time thinking about. To improvise over a tune, it helps to know the notes in the tune, the chords underneath it, and the structure of the song. Artists can break these rules, and perhaps the best music comes when the rules are broken. But to break the rules, the cardinal idea of music—it has to sound good—cannot be lost. In other words, an artist has to implicitly justify her departure from the structure of the tune with the most convincing reasoning of all—the fact that the music, nonetheless, still sounds good.

It is only a small jump to move to the world of interpretation. Many have written about the aesthetics of law. In a similar vein, in a delightful article, Jerome Frank analyzes the relationship between legal interpretation and music. I preface this by saying that Frank was a noted legal realist, and I am no legal realist. Nonetheless, the intersection he explores between music and interpretation is, at the very least, interesting. For Frank, the relationship between a composer and a performer is quite similar to the relationship between a legislature and a judicial interpreter. The composer is the legislature, and it “cannot help itself” [1264]: interpretation of whatever is intended (or written, depending on one’s view of the idea of “intent”) must fall to the court—much like a piece of music, composed by someone perhaps generations ago, must fall to a performer.

Once the performer  receives the item to be interpreted, three considerations become important. First, the entire point of a performance is to perform: the performer must give due respect to the composer, because he was the one who made the song that the audience will enjoy. Sometimes in music—particularly jazz—you hear a performer that is ostensibly playing a tune but it is something completely different: he says he is playing “Autumn Leaves,” but he is improvising—almost too much—on the original tune. Sometimes this is good, but many times it isn’t, if only because the composer was the one who made the song (in this case, there is a time for soloing, but it’s important to “play the head,” as it were: “Autumn Leaves” is just fine as it is). As a general rule, I think this tracks to legislation, where the interpreter should do his best to remain true, within reason, to the law.  But, as a second consideration, there will always be an inevitable slippage between what the composer wanted (or even what the composer wrote) and what the performer does. The performer may make an inadvertent error, doing violence to the intention of the author. The composer may herself make a musical error, in which case the performer is left in the position of correcting it or leaving it as is. Finally, the interpreter may make a deliberate choice to change the composer’s creation. A jazz musician can do everything from “bending” the notes, to changing the rhythm, to even “going outside” the chord structure, creating dissonance where none was intended. The “free jazz” school, for example,  “developed in the 1960s as a rejection of conventional musical structures: things like melody, harmony, and chord progressions.”  While the free jazz school in many senses merges the role of composer and performer, creator and interpreter, it demonstrates the extreme end of the spectrum—musicians (and interpreters) can make choices given the structure of the music they are asked to perform.

As a musician, I focus much of the time on bebop, hard bop, and other “straight-ahead” styles—perhaps this explains my preference for textualism as a general interpretive method. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the choices interpreters and performers make can sometimes make the composer’s or legislature’s creation make more sense—or sound better. And if that is the goal, then  sometimes the interpreter and performer will need to make on-the-spot decisions about how a cacophony of words (or notes) should be put together into a convincing performance. As Frank notes, interpretation is a human activity, and human creativity can make sense of what, on its own, may not make sense. Law is not always coherent, because humans are not always coherent. Yet interpreters, taking a step back, can sometimes (within the context of the interpretive rules) make sense of the law.

Frank’s piece underscores the balance that must be struck in interpretation between fidelity to legislative wishes and the “human” element of interpretation that must make sense of what is in front of a court. On one hand, slavish devotion to the law can lead to absurdity; and for that reason, we have an “escape valve” available for those cases, among others (like scrivener’s error). But in most cases, there is something important about remaining relatively true to the composer’s wishes. The composer created the music for a reason. The performer is being asked to perform it. For the performer to turn the tune upside down is a drastic choice that, at least in some sense, undermines the relationship between composer and musician.

Cannonball Adderley - IMDb
Cannonball Adderley

What does this musical story tell us about interpretive methodology? Methodology cannot perfectly guarantee correspondence between law creation and law interpretation. What is important, though, is that courts make a choice to commit themselves to rules in advance: just like performers (minus the free jazz folks) commit themselves to chords, notes, rules of rhythm, etc. The choice to commit oneself to a “structured and deliberate methodology” as Justice Malcolm Rowe and Michael Collins said in a recent paper, is immensely important. It prevents rank instrumentalism by an interpreter, where a result is chosen and then justified after the fact. A structured and deliberate methodology, as Rowe and Collins note, does not tie an interpreter’s hands, just like chords and notes do not tie a performer’s; but it does structure the choices an interpreter or musician can make, for the benefit of the listeners who  generally do not want to hear dissonance all night. As above, an interpreter who breaks these rules—say, to solve an absurdity—does so because the methodology permits it. He can justify his departure under the rules, much like a musician can justify a departure from notes and chords as justified according to the reality of what sounds good to an audience. The point, as Rowe and Collins say, is that the methodology forces an implicit justification.

The analogy between music and law is imperfect, in part because different musical styles ask different things of performers. A classical musician is likely to be closer to a composer’s wishes than a jazz musician is, and this is in part defined by the rules of the particular style. Nonetheless, the relationship between composers and performers does track to legislative activity. And it shows us how, in many aspects of life outside of law, rules are important even if imperfect.

Interpretation and the Value of Law II

This post is written by Leonid Sirota and Mark Mancini.

We read with interest Stéphane Sérafin, Kerry Sun, and Xavier Foccroulle Ménard’s reply to our earlier post on legal interpretation. In a nutshell, we argued that those who interpret legal texts such as constitutions or statutes should apply established legal techniques without regard for the political valence of outcomes. Only in this way can law function as a common reference and guide in a pluralistic, democratic society in which, as Madison eloquently argued in Federalist No. 10, disagreement about fundamental values and the policies required to implement them is pervasive and bound to remain so “[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it”.

Our interlocutors claim that our argument leads legal interpretation into “insipid literalism” and, ultimately, sees law as nothing more than a form given to the outcome of power struggles, rather than as the product of reason striving to advance the common good. We remain unconvinced. Our interlocutors seem to wish to escape the more controversial uses to which the “common good” term has been put, but rely on ambiguous claims in doing so. We write today to address some of these claims.

The bottom line is this: if our interlocutors wish to fundamentally change the way we understand texts by sotto voce urging interpreters to adopt a “substantively conservative” position at the outset of the interpretive task, we must dissent. If they wish to simply “tune-up” the way we use purpose and context to enrich our understanding of bare texts, then that is a worthy contribution to the ongoing effort in which many of us are engaged: trying to make Canadian interpretation more workable, less results-oriented, and more focused on the text itself, understood in light of its legislative context in real, practical cases.

Our response is divided into two parts. First, we describe how our interlocutors misunderstand the relationship between, as Jeremy Waldron put it, “The Concept and the Rule of Law”. Second, we catalogue the ways in which our interlocutors’ position is muddled.

  1. The Rule of Law and the Concept of Law, Again

For our interlocutors, “it is clear” that when we say that interpretation must strive for neutrality in order to enable law to guide the members of a pluralistic society, we are “operating within a positivist legal framework”. At the same time, they suspect us of wanting to smuggle a substantive agenda of expanding pluralism into our interpretive views. Respectfully, they are simply mistaken about this. To be sure, as they suggest, the idea of law as a guide for citizens, and hence of the importance of the law’s compliance with the requirements of Rule of Law that make its guidance effective, is an important feature in the work of some positivists, such as Joseph Raz. But its not the positivists’ exclusive preserve.

Consider Professor Waldron’s argument that we need “to overcome casual positivism―to keep faith with a richer and more discriminating notion of law” (19) ― and further, that “[i]t is a mistake to think that a system of rule could be a legal system if there is no publicly accessible way of identifying the general norms that are supposed to govern people’s behavior” (26). Guiding behaviour, including by enabling and encouraging self-application of publicly available rules by those subject to them, and so upholding human dignity, is a key feature of the Rule of Law discourse, but also, Professor Waldron urges, of the very concept of law. This argument was as much on our minds as Professor Raz’s.

And if Professor Waldron might still be regarded as a positivist, trying to merely formulate a better version of that school’s doctrine, Lon Fuller is, alongside John Finnis and Ronald Dworkin, the epitome of Anglo-American non-positivism. And the idea of law as a guide is perhaps best represented in his famous parable of King Rex, the hapless legislator who repeatedly failed to make laws that his subjects could follow. For Fuller too, the requirement that law be framed so as to outline the state’s expectations of its citizens is a matter of respecting human dignity. It is also a matter of what he describes as reciprocity between those in power and those subject to their decisions. The former can expect compliance if, and only if, they frame their demands in such a way that the latter can make sense of them.

The real issue between our interlocutors and us, we suspect, is not a conflict between positivism and natural law, to which one of us (Sirota) is rather sympathetic. Nor is it our commitment to some nihilistic form of neutrality or, conversely, pluralism. As to the former, substantive legislation is of course not neutral―it embodies the commitments of its makers. The task of an interpreter is to ascertain and give effect to these commitments. To do so well, the interpreter must try to bring both established semantic, contextual, and substantive interpretive tools, and (most importantly) an equanimous disposition to his work―precisely to give effect to the commitments made by those with the authority to enact legislation and avoid imposing his own. A judge interpreting the law will never be perfectly neutral in fact, but an interpreter has no business abusing his position to advance pluralism in law, anymore than he is free to make the law more conservative, more progressive, or anything in between (this point was put eloquently by Justice Stratas in Kattenburg, at para 45). 

Lastly, the issue between our interlocutors and us is not a disagreement about whether law should be infused with reason rather than being a matter of raw power. What we disagree about is how reason matters. For us, as for Fuller, what matters is “the inner morality of law”, or its “artificial reason” as Coke put it ― the morality or reason of legal craft and technique, which ensures that law is intelligible to all those subject to it, simply because they are thinking, reasoning human beings, and which is inherent in the enterprise of governing through law, properly understood, rather than emanating from some benevolent ruler whom the  “[s]ubjects will come to thank”. Our interlocutors’ focus is less on form and more on the content of the law; the reason they appeal to is more substantive than the one on which we focus. We turn now to the substance of their argument.

2. The Motte and Bailey of the Common Good Approach

As we note above, the second broad point we wish to make relates to the ambiguities, whether studied or inadvertent, in our interlocutors’ arguments. We outline three areas where our interlocutors’ positions are confusing. In each, our interlocutors could, on one hand, be advancing controversial propositions about the way texts are interpreted—propositions which could run against the need to avoid outcome-based reasoning. On the other hand, our interlocutors’ position could be wholly uncontroversial, simply relating to the relative place of various interpretive tools (like purpose). If it is the former, our interlocutors should say so clearly. If it’s the latter, our interlocutors should disclaim some of the more controversial purposes for which their arguments could be used.

(A) The Natural Law Motte-and-Bailey

Our interlocutors spend a lot of time talking about natural law. They see it as reflected in the legislative process itself—to them, the natural law tradition asks us to “construe the law itself as permeated by reason.” In a passage bound to feel rather opaque to non-aficionados of the tradition, our interlocutors argue that “[n]atural law reflects an idea of reason immanent in the positive law and lends it intelligibility; while in making its general precepts more specific, the positive law realizes and makes concrete the otherwise abstract elements of the natural law.” More specifically, our interlocutors suggest (putatively relying on Justice Miller in Walsh) that all legislation is designed for the “common good.” So, for our interlocutors, it appears that a reflection on the natural law and the “common good” is inherent in the activity of legislating itself. Even the Constitution, they claim, is influenced by the idea of the “common good.”

We question whether the “common good” can mean the same thing in all these contexts. Hand-waving towards Aquinas or a “model opinion” does not adequately answer this question. Our interlocutors seem to assume that the “common good” as a theoretical matter has been stable across time—from the Angelic Doctor to Justice Miller in 2021. This seems intuitively wrong. Even according to those who subscribe to the natural law tradition, there are debates about what the natural law prescribes.

But ultimately, what we are interested in is how this all bears on legal interpretation; how jurists have applied this idea of the “common good” in relation to real cases and current circumstances. Here, we notice that our interlocutors’ suggestion that appeals to natural law and to the common good are nothing more than reminders of the law’s rationality and pursuit of ascertainable purposes is by no means the only view. Adrian Vermeule, for his part, argues for a “substantively conservative” approach to interpretation designed to support the rulers in endeavours—as Vermeule describes it—to “legislate morality” and to support “the traditional family.” This seems to be a fundamentally different use of the term “common good” than our interlocutors propose.

These two radically different approaches are deployed in typical motte-and-bailey fashion. When outlining their own agenda, the latter-day promoters of the “common good” and natural law support Vermeule’s project to use interpretation to stop the “urban-gentry liberals” from prioritizing their own “financial and sexual” satisfactions, on the basis of external values that exist outside of constitutional and statutory texts. When pressed, however, they retreat to the seemingly innocuous claims about law’s rationality, made to appear rooted in legislation and the Constitution.

These two positions are incompatible. If our interlocutors wish to claim that the pursuit of the “common good” is inherent in the act of legislating, that is a proposition we would be prepared to entertain within the context of deciding what a particular text means, although at least some (and perhaps a good deal of) legislation is demonstrably directed at the private benefit of the law-makers or their constituents, or at entrenching outright bigotry, with appeals to the common good nothing more than a smokescreen. But if our interlocutors wish, instead, to impose an “illiberal legalism,” as Vermeule does, that does not “play defensively within the procedural rules of the liberal order,” than that is a different matter entirely. The former deals with matters of interpretation. The latter concerns itself with the culture wars of the day. Our interlocutors should either disclaim Vermeule’s use of their “common good” or accept it.

(b) The Purposivism Confusion

Our interlocutors’ position on interpretation itself is also equivocal. The language of the “common good”, as used by our interlocutors, seems to invoke one rather uncontroversial argument with which we completely agree: text cannot be understood without understanding its abstract and particular purposes. That is a proposition that textualists and non-textualists alike accept (see A. Scalia and B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, at 20), and which is hornbook law in Canada. But at the same time, that basic argument raises more questions than it does answers.

Our interlocutors claim that there is “one truth” in the idea of “purposive interpretation”—the premise that law is designed to fulfill an “end” that is “intelligible to reason.” Our interlocutors embrace a “teleological outlook on the essential nature of legislation.” This seems right so far as it goes. As Max Radin notes in his famous article “A Short Way with Statutes,” “the legislature that put the statute on the books had the constitutional right and power to set [the statute’s] purpose as a desirable one for the community” (398). We agree that texts must be read in light of their purposes if we wish to understand why a legislature used certain words in creating a particular rule ― though again we caution that the legislature’s motives may not have been at all noble or reasoned.

If this is all our interlocutors are suggesting, their use of the “common good” phraseology is benign and probably a distraction. Like Asher Honickman in his response to our interlocutors, we do not see these invocations as adding anything to current debates about understanding legal texts. But we take our interlocutors to be saying something, and so simply saying that law is a teleological enterprise is incomplete without specifying how text drives the interpretive process. What needs to be decided is how we choose what purposes are relevant to interpretation. Here, we could speak of “ulterior” purposes—à la “mischief”—or “implementational purposes”—the legal rules (such as rules, standards, or delegations) that legislatures use, in text, to enact particular ulterior purposes (see, for a discussion of these different purposes, Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” at 863, 876). At the highest level of abstraction, one could say that laws are designed to achieve “justice and security” or the “common good” or the “public interest.” This does not tell us much about how a legal instrument should be interpreted, because legislatures do not implement ulterior purposes at all costs or in totality, and courts err when they interpret statutes with this assumption, as one of us has argued here based on the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser. Interpreters must work between purposes, keeping a clear eye on the text and the way it enacts particular legal rules (see Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, at 187).   

At times our interlocutors seem to agree with this position. They say that courts cannot “override the terms or the finitude of a statute” and that “no human law-giver can conceivably grant benediction to the common good across the whole of human affairs.” We agree. And yet, we note that an assumption that the legislature’s “reasoned choice is rendered intelligible by the idea of the common good” ignores that language may only imperfectly capture that aim.  Our interlocutors’ position is similar to the old “strong purposivist” view represented in the Hart & Sacks Legal Process materials: legislatures consist of reasonable people pursuing reasonably purposes reasonably. If one takes this view, then it is possible to claim that the idea of the “common good” contains within it substantive aims that could and should override the terms of a statute. If this is what our interlocutors argue, we must disagree, simply because the implementational means employed by legislatures will always be over- and underinclusive in relation to purposes stated at a high level of abstraction. Overriding the text of a statute in favour of a court’s appreciation of purpose risks ignoring the means the legislature chose.

Lest this discussion seem abstract, let us conclude with a reminder of what this “strong purposivist” view means in practice: the early-20th century Holy Trinity case of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibited the immigration to the US of “foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States”. It was intended to ban the immigration of Chinese workers―but did not specifically say so. The language of the statute also covered an Anglican priest engaged to work in the United States. Yet the Court held that it did not apply to him, because the United States was a “Christian nation,” and hence the law could not have been meant to exclude Christians as well as minorities. Here, we see that the court took a highly abstract background principle and used it to supplement the terms of a statute. This appears to be fine under at least one reading of the “common good” interpretive idea. And yet, this is an outrageous violation of the Rule of Law’s requirement that law be publicly stated and applied in accordance with its enacted terms. It is also, and not coincidentally, an example of intolerable partiality and bigotry.

We conclude this section by restating the point: our interlocutors’ embrace of teleology in law is interesting and welcome, but not helpful by itself. This is because it does not answer fundamental questions about the relationship between text and purpose; and, at best, a perspective focused on “the common good” adds no conceptual heft to relevant and current interpretive debates. We are left wondering whether our interlocutors simply believe in purposive interpretation, or whether they are advancing some other case.  

(C) The Political Confusion

Last but not least, it is important to emphasize that the idea of the “common good”, which our interlocutors present as having a consistent, definite meaning over time, has been put to very different uses by very different people. Our interlocutors claim, for example, that Josh Hammer’s idea of “common good originalism” is perfectly within the tradition of textualism and positivism.Our interlocutors want to reassure us that interpretation drawing on the “common good” does not pursue external policy goals, but rather seeks to determine the meaning of the law from within.

This is a valiant effort, but it flies in the face of the expressly political valence of Hammer’s essay. Hammer makes the following points about his proposed method:

I call my jurisprudential framework “common good originalism,” and I would humbly submit that it be adopted as conservatives’ new legal standard-bearer—a worthy complement to other simultaneously unfolding New Right/“new consensus” intellectual efforts.

[…]

Put more simply: The concerns of nation, community, and family alike must be prioritized over the one-way push toward ever-greater economic, sexual, and cultural liberationism. And this must be true not merely as a matter of public policy, but as a matter of legal interpretation.

Indeed, the entire first part of Hammer’s essay (and another more recent one) trades in politics. The point for Hammer seems to be the development of a certain type of conservative interpretive method that is an adjunct to a political project. One wonders why Hammer needed or wanted to include expressly political statements in a piece that is—our interlocutors tell us—wholly about interpretation. Do our interlocutors disclaim this part of Hammer’s essay, and more generally, how do they distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the concept of the “common good”?

That the “common good conservative” movement is a political project is clear from the reaction to the US Supreme Court’s Bostock case. As one of us wrote here, in that case, Gorsuch J decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, despite their not being expressly listed in the statute, because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. In all likelihood, the framers of Title VII did not foresee that the statute would protect sexual orientation and gender identity. Indeed, as Alito J pointed out in dissent, Congress had declined to add sexual orientation and identity to Title VII in the past.

Now, what divided the majority and the dissent in Bostock was a question of pure textual interpretation. As Tara-Leigh Grove argues, Bostock is representative of “two textualisms.” And as Asher Honickman points out, there are reasons to debate the respective roles of social context, expectations, and semantic context in Bostock. This debate has nothing to do with the political valence of one or the other interpretation.

And yet the conservative meltdown over Bostock focused squarely on the results of the case. Here we see the worry about “economic, social, and cultural liberationism.” For Hammer, Bostock was not a mistaken application of textualism, but a showcase of its fundamental faults, laying “bare the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the conservative legal movement.” Hence Hammer’s proposal of common good originalism, designed to solve this very “failure.”

Bostock raises many questions about the aims of the “common good” movement more generally, and its relationship to interpretive method. One is hard-pressed to find how the concept of “the common good” solves any legal problems in Bostock that cannot be solved by robust debate among textualists about the role of expectations, intentions, and purpose. While one of our interlocutors seems to suggest that the result in Bostock was wrong because judges should take account of the underlying “metaphysics” of words, we view this perspective as a distraction for judges working through real cases—and this is clearly not what Hammer et al seem to be getting at. They have identified a “failure” in interpretive method—a result that they, for one reason or another, do not like. They have designed an interpretive method to solve that problem. Without Gorsuch J’s political “mistake” in Bostock, “common good originalism” was unlikely to ever enter the conversation as it has (which is all the odder since Bostock is a statutory case). As a result, we cannot endorse this fundamentally political project.

Conclusion

Those who subscribe to the “common good” in interpretation are on the horns of a dilemma. There are those who seek to use the concept for expressly political ends, through the task of interpretation as a sort of “living tree” for conservatives. And then there are our interlocutors, who appear to defend the concept as limited, well-understood, and innocuous. We hope our interlocutors can determine which of these options is theirs—and if they simply wish to change emphasis in textual interpretation, then they can join the ongoing debate on that question.

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.

Constitutional Law Ruins Everything. A (sort of) response to Mancini’s “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation.”

This post is by Andrew Bernstein.

No! I am not an academic nor was meant to be.
Am a mere practitioner, one that will do
To settle a dispute, argue an appeal or two
When advising clients, the law’s my tool.
Deferential, if it helps me sway the court
Argumentative, and (aspirationally) meticulous.
Case-building is my professional sport
Trying my hand at theory’s ridiculous!
But I’ll dip a toe into this pool.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot and anyone who appreciates poetry)

Also, this is a blog post, so no footnotes or citations. Sorry!

As a lawyer whose most enduring interest for the last 30 years has been Canada’s constitutional arrangements, it gives me great pains to confess to you that I have concluded that constitutional law ruins everything. Or, perhaps put more judiciously, the kinds of debates that we have about constitutional interpretation are not especially instructive in dealing with other types of legal questions, such as statutory or common-law interpretation. There are many reasons for this, but the central one, in my view, has to do with the fact that while reasonable people may disagree on the outcome of a statutory interpretation, or a question of common law, those people will largely agree on the method of conducting those analyses. In constitutional interpretation, we don’t have consensus on “how” so it’s no wonder that the outcomes can be so radically different.

What are we really asking courts to do when we ask them to resolve a dispute? There are no doubt some high-minded theoretical answers to this (“do justice between the parties,” “ensure that capitalism is never threatened,” “enforce institutional sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia”) but from a practitioner’s perspective, the answer is actually straightforward: sort out the facts and apply a set of legal rules to those facts. Overwhelmingly those rules come from a variety of legal instruments, such as statutes, regulations, by-laws, and other “outputs” of political institutions such as Parliament, legislatures or municipal councils. If these institutions they don’t like the judicial interpretation of what they have passed, they can change the instrument accordingly. Moreover, these institutions are democratically elected, so if citizens do not agree with the laws that get made, they can replace them at the next election. Although this “feedback loop” suffers from many inefficiencies and obstacles in practice, it is essential to maintaining the concept of self-government by majority rule. What this means is that courts know what they are supposed to be doing when they interpret statutes: they look for legislative intention, as expressed by the words of the document. While courts are entitled to employ whatever clues they might be able to find in things like the legislative history, they appreciate that those clues must be used judiciously, as one speech by one MP does not a legislative intention make. And courts appreciate that the words of the document ultimately govern – although compliance is less than perfect, courts generally understand that they are not to circumvent the meaning of legislation with some kind of analysis based on the instrument’s supposed “purpose.”

While it is frequently accepted that the objective of statutory interpretation is to discern legislative intent, the question of why we would want to do so is not frequently interrogated. After all, while it may make eminent sense to give effect to a law that was passed a week ago, why would a self-governing people want to be governed by legislation that was passed by a legislature that is no longer in session? Perhaps by a different political party? The answer is partially pragmatic (it would be awfully cumbersome to have to re-enact every law each time a legislature was dissolved) but the real reason is the existence of the democratic feedback loop. Statutory interpretation operates on the presumption that, if no legislature has repealed or amended the statute, the people (as represented by the legislature) are content with it as it stands. In fact, this is the reason why no legislature can bind a future one to things like supermajority requirements. Because it is the people’s current intention – and not their past intention – that governs.

Constitutional law is designed to be immune to the democratic feedback loop. At least some aspects of the constitution are specifically intended to limit democratic institutions. The essence of that aspect of constitutionalism is the protection of vulnerable and/or minority groups from the potential for ill-treatment by the majority. Sometimes these protections take the role of institutional structures (such as federalism, regional representation in central institutions, and, according to some, a separation of powers) and other times they are specific guarantees of rights that specifically limit government action: freedom of expression, equality, or even “life, liberty and security of the person.” Cumulatively, this constitutional architecture is supposed to create a balance between self-government and limited government, ensuring that Canadians can govern ourselves, while not permitting the majority to oppress minorities.

This sounds great in theory, but immediately creates a dilemma: who gets to decide on the limits of “limited government?” Someone has to, and (if the constitution is going to be effective at curbing democratic excess) it has to be a different “someone” than the majoritarian institutions that actually do the governing. And although there are different models around the world, in Canada (like our American neighbours), we entrust that job to the Courts. This is not an uncontroversial decision, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that courts are institutionally well-suited to the job, with their adversarial model of fact-finding and decision-making. Second, courts are presided over by judges, who are just (as Justice Stratas recently said) lawyers who have received a judicial commission. There is no reason to think they are especially well suited to weighing the interests that a complex society needs to achieve an ideal balance between, for example, liberty and security, or equality and religious freedom. Third, judges are famously unrepresentative: they are whiter, richer, more male, more Christian, older and more conservative than the population. Nowhere is this more apparent than the apex of judicial decision-making, the Supreme Court of Canada, which got its first female judge in the 1980s and has never had an indigenous or any type of non-white judge or a judge from the LGBTQ community. Eighty five of Canada’s ninety Supreme Court judges have been Christian, the other 5 have been Jewish. No Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or even (admitted) atheists . Nevertheless, these 9 judges get to make significant decisions that have a major impact on social policy. Since the Charter was enacted, the Supreme Court has had a major role in liberalizing access to abortion, permitting medical assistance in dying, liberalizing prostitution laws, freeing access to cannabis, prohibiting the death penalty, enhancing public employees’ right to strike, and many other social policy decisions that were different from the democratic choices made by legislatures. In Canada, most decisions to strike down legislation have tilted towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there have also been decisions (most infamously, relating to private health care in Quebec) that tilt more towards the conservative side. This is not inherent to the process of adjudicating rights: the United States Supreme Court has grown increasingly conservative in the last 20 years, striking down liberal legislation relating to campaign finance, voting rights, and only yesterday striking down pandemic limitations on gatherings in houses of worship.

The combination of anti-democratic process and anti-democratic outcomes that constitutional adjudication creates has been subject of concern and criticism since judicial review was created in Marbury v. Madison. This, in turn, has led to the development of theories that are designed to constrain judicial decision-making. While some of this may be results-oriented, at its core, the goal of all “court-constraining theories” of constitutional interpretation is to give constitutional decision-making a touchstone by which decisions can be evaluated. Readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with these theories, such as textualism, or public-meaning originalism, which stand in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as “living tree constitutionalism” or (in Leonid’s catchy turn of phrase “constitutionalism from the cave”). While I will undoubtedly not do them justice, the “touchstone theories” posit that the meaning of constitutional rights are more-or-less fixed (although may need to be applied in novel situations) and it’s the job of the courts to find and apply those fixed meanings, while “living tree constitutionalism” allows the meaning of these rights to evolve over time, and it’s the job of the courts to decide when and how to permit that evolution to take place.

To use an over-simplified example, imagine a constitutional guarantee of “equality,” which (it is agreed) was understood to mean “equality of opportunity” at the time it was enacted. And imagine that 40 years later, it is established that the historical and systemic disadvantages suffered by certain groups means that merely providing equal opportunity proves insufficient to providing those groups with a fair outcome. Touchstone constitutionalists could suggest that although what constitutes “equality of opportunity” may have to change to meet changing social circumstances, but does not permit courts to go further and use the constitutional guarantee of “equality” to impose equality of outcomes. Living tree constitutionalists could posit that the guarantee of equality was intended to ensure that people do not suffer disadvantage because of their immutable characteristics, and if we now recognize that this can only be done by providing equality of outcome, then this is what courts should do.

What’s important to appreciate is that our protagonists on both sides are not disagreeing just on the outcome. They are disagreeing on the fundamental nature of the exercise. Touchstone constitutionalists believes that the courts’ job is essentially to be the “seeker” in a game of hide and seek, while the living tree constitutionalists believe that the courts are playing Jenga, carefully removing blocks from the bottom and building the tower ever higher, with its ultimate height limited only by how far they can reach.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? No one and everyone. In fact, as I read Mark’s post to which I am (ostensibly) responding, I understand his plea to be not that touchstones – regardless of how old they may be – are normatively a fantastic way to adjudicate modern problems but rather that the alternative to touchstones is anarchy (or Kritarchy), and that has to be worse. Similarly, critics of touchstone constitutionalism are concerned about being forever bound by the past, without providing a particularly good explanation of what could or should reasonably replace it without ultimately resorting to the idea that we have to trust our judges to make good decision. This of course, begs the question “if we are relying on someone’s judgment, why is it the judges and not the people’s through their democratically elected representatives?”

What am I saying? I’m saying that the “touchstone vs. tree” debate is actually a normative question, that people like to dress up as one that has an objectively ascertainable answer. But in truth, where you stand on this will really depend on your own personal value system, as informed by your own experiences. If you value predictability and stability, and/or the idea of judges making decisions about what is right, fair or socially appropriate is offensive to you, you may be inclined towards touchstone constitutionalism. If you value substantive outcomes, and see the judicial role as guaranteeing and enforcing rights as they evolve, you will be inclined towards the living tree. Of course, this is to some degree all a false dichotomy. There are many places available between either end of this spectrum and everyone ultimately ends up tends towards one of the more central positions. For example, it is difficult to find anyone who seriously doubts the correctness of Brown v. Board of Education, even though there’s at least an argument that certain touchstones informing the meaning of equal protection in the United States’ 14th amendment contemplated segregation. On the other hand, no matter how alive one’s tree might be, respect for a system of precedent is necessary if you are going to continue to call what you are doing “law” as opposed to policymaking by an unaccountable institution that has only faint markings of democratic accountability.

So why does constitutional law ruin everything? As I see it, is that this unresolvable dilemma in constitutional law has a tendency to bring its enormous baggage to other areas, and leave it there. But it’s not clear that these oversized duffles filled with decades of counter-majoritarian sentiment are really going to assist what I would consider to be the very different exercise of statutory interpretation (I’m well aware of the argument that the constitution is just an uber-statute and should be interpreted accordingly, but that’s really just an argument for touchstone constitutionalism so I will conveniently ignore it). Why? Because unlike in constitutional interpretation, we have broad consensus on how to go about the exercise of statutory interpretation entails: it entails trying to determine what the legislature intended by the text that it enacted. And although this exercise can be difficult at times, and reasonable (and unreasonable) people can often disagree, they are disagreeing on the outcome and not the process. No one truly suggests that the courts should play Jenga when interpreting statutes; they are always the seeker in a game of hide-and-seek, using well-understood tools and rules. Of late, we have been describing those as “text, context and purpose” but long before that catch phrase existed, we had the lawyer’s toolbox of logic, common sense, experience, and approximately 400 years of common-law jurisprudence on canons of statutory construction (well-defended by Leonid in his recent post). It’s true that these rules are convoluted and it’s not always straightforward to apply them. Some judges and courts give more weight to (for example) the purpose of statute and the presumption against absurdity, while others might be more interested in the intricacies of grammatical structure. But these are matters of emphasis, and the degree of variation relatively modest. In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus, at least among Canadian courts, about how the exercise of statutory interpretation ought to be conducted, and, in the main, it is done with amazing regularity.

OK so we have covered the constitution (where there is no agreement on the game, much less the rules) and statutes (where everyone is singing from the same hymnbook). What remains is common law, and it is probably the strangest of all these creatures because it is, by necessity, hide-and-seek but what you are looking for is Jenga blocks. There is, of course, an important touchstone courts and judges look to: precedent. But if you stretch far back enough, the touchstone itself has no touchstone other than “what judges think is best.” In many ways, it’s “law from the cave” but the cave is extremely old, dark, and you probably can’t see the exit, so you are stuck inside unless or until the legislature “rescues” you and replaces the common law rules. This leads to a fascinating problem: because it’s based on precedent, common law derives its authority from consistency. But because it’s judge-made, judges feel relatively free to remake it in appropriate circumstances. In many ways, it’s the worst of both theoretical worlds: it is bound by (some may say stuck in) the past and also readily changeable by judges. But somehow it works anyway, and with much fewer lamentations from the theorists who worry about either of these things (excluding, of course, administrative law, which by unwritten constitutional principle must be comprehensively re-written every ten years to keep a group of frustrated practitioners on their toes).

So in short, I endorse Mark’s sentiment that we need neutral principles in adjudication. But I disagree that they are in short supply. We have neutral principles in statutory interpretation, and they work as well as any system that is administered by a few hundred people across the country possibly could. We have essentially one neutral governing principle in common law analysis, which is “mostly follow precedent.” So what we are really talking about is constitutional law, where the debate between the touchstone cops and the living tree arborists is essentially unresolvable because when you scrape to the bottom it asks “what do you value in a legal system” and it’s no surprise that there isn’t universal agreement on this. But there is a strong consensus on how to engage in interpretation outside the constitutional context, and we should not let the constitutional disagreements obscure that.

In other words, constitutional law ruins everything. But I told you that at the beginning.

Textualism for Hedgehogs

Why substantive canons belong in textualist interpretation, and what this tells us about neutral interpretive principles

I hope that you have read co-blogger Mark Mancini’s post on “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation“. In a nutshell, Mark argues for the application of politically neutral principles to the interpretation of legal texts, and against the fashionable view that it is inevitable, or indeed desirable, that interpreters will seek to fashion texts into instruments for the advancement of their preferred policy outcomes. It is a superb essay, and I agree with almost everything Mark says there.

Almost. In this post, I would like to explore one point of disagreement I have with Mark. Although it concerns a minor issue and does not detract from Mark’s overall argument at all, I think it helps us clarify our thinking both about legal interpretation and also about the meaning and purpose of legal neutrality. This point of disagreement concerns, of all things, “substantive canons of construction”.


Mark argues that textualism is a set of morally-neutral interpretive techniques that allow an interpreter to (my words, but Mark’s meaing, I think) serve as a faithful agent of the body enacting the legal text. (Mark focuses on statutes, but the same considerations apply to constitutional texts.) Other approaches allow or even require the interpreter to impose a certain set of substantive commitments, which may or may not be shared by the authors of the legal texts, on them. Textualism seeks to avoid doing so by asking the interpreter to focus on the text itself, relying on its letter and its spirit alone, rather than on any external commitments. In this context, Mark notes a possible (and indeed common) objection:

[O]ne might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. 

Mark appears to grant this objection to the use of substantive canons in statutory interpretation, while denying that it undermines his broader argument:

I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. 

But then Mark walks back the concession to some extent, writing that “these canons could be justified on other grounds” , for example “as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of ‘stabilizing’ the law.”

By my lights, Mark’s initial concession is a mistake, and the walk-back too half-hearted. Substantive interpretive canons ― interpretive presumptions such as those requiring clear statements for statutes to derogate from common law or statutory rights, to change the law retroactively or to create exorbitant powers (for example Henry VIII clauses), or calling for narrow constructions of penal or taxing statutes ― deserve a more robust defence, which I will offer here. Most of them are not only “justified on other grounds” but are actually closely connected to the reasons for endorsing textualism and neutral interpretation more broadly.

These reasons include the separation of powers and democracy, which, taken together, mean that law should be changed in consequence of the choices of democratically elected legislatures and of such other actors to whom legislatures have properly delegated their law-making powers (assuming that such delegation can ever be proper). But they also include the Rule of Law, notably the idea that the law ought to be sufficiently public and certain to guide the subject. Textualism gives effect to the separation of powers and democracy by asking judges to give effect to legislatures’ choices and warning them not to override these choices by applying their own subjective preferences or substantive values not endorsed by the legislature. It also gives effect to the Rule of Law by ensuring that subjects, or at least their legal advisors, have access to the same information that will be used by those who interpret and apply the law. They can thus anticipate the law’s application better than if it can be given a meaning based on unenacted values available only to judges or administrators at the point of application.

Consider now how substantive canons serve the same ends. Their contribution to upholding the Rule of Law values of notice and guidance is perhaps most obvious. When courts refuse to read unclear or ambiguous statutes as imposing criminal or tax liability, they are ensuring that people are warned before their liberty and property are put in jeopardy, and can guide themselves accordingly. Similarly, when courts apply the principle of legality, which requires clear statutory language to over-ride or oust established common law rights, be they the right to access court (as in Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 or property rights in Wells v Newfoundland, [1999] 3 SCR 199, they ensure that people are given warning before these rights are abrogated. Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court in Wells, explained this:

In a nation governed by the rule of law, we assume that the government will honour its obligations unless it explicitly exercises its power not to.  In the absence of a clear express intent to abrogate rights and obligations – rights of the highest importance to the individual – those rights remain in force.  To argue the opposite is to say that the government is bound only by its whim, not its word.   In Canada this is unacceptable, and does not accord with the nation’s understanding of the relationship between the state and its citizens. [46]

The argument about the relationship between textualism and separation of powers and democracy is perhaps somewhat less straightforward. But I think it’s not unfair to say that the obverse of insisting that it is the prerogative of legislatures, as the bodies representing the electorate, to have the law reflect their choices is that the law should reflect their choices. Textualism does this by emphasizing the primacy of text, which the legislature actually enacted, as the object of interpretation. Substantive canons are nothing more than an insistence that certain choices clearly appear to have been made in the text. Mark writes that “legislative sovereignty” means that “the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement”, but I’m not sure that legislative supremacy requires deference to sotto voce or accidental legal change.

On the contrary, I think that for an interpreter to insist that the legislature spell out the consequences of its enactments rather than let them be inferred promotes legislative authority by requiring the democratic sovereign to squarely address the issues instead of leaving them to be worked out by unelected officials and judges. At the same time, however, it also promotes the more “negative” aspect of the separation of powers by freeing judges from becoming the legislatures’ accomplices is abuse of power. Subject to constitutional constraints, it is wrong for the courts not to give effect to legislation, but they are not, I think, under a duty to add to legislated iniquity of the legislature itself has not dared require it.

To be sure, it is possible for judges to misapply substantive interpretive canons so as to make them into instruments for refashioning legislation in accordance with their own preferences and values. Judges can be skillful practitioners of Nelsonian blindness and refuse to see in a statute that which is clearly there ― just as, on other occasions, they can see there that which is not. But I do not think that this necessarily makes substantive canons anathema to textualism. As then-Judge Amy Barrett has explained in a lecture devoted largely to a defence of textualism (which I summarized here), textualist adjudication is not mechanical. It requires judgment. A sparing ― judicious ― application of substantive canons calls for good judgment, but in this it is no different from other aspects of textualist interpretation or judicial decision-making more generally.

All that having been said, the impulse to disclaim and renounce the use of interpretive techniques that seem to bias adjudication in favour of particular outcomes is understandable as part of a broader appeal for neutrality. But here, I think, an appeal to precedent is relevant. Judges applying established substantive canons (or any other established interpretative techniques) is not introducing their own values into the law. They are not ― again, assuming they are not abusing their power ― wielding discretionary authority to bring the law into alignment with their policy preferences. They are not springing a surprise on the legislature (or the litigants). They are following established conventions for reading legal texts, which legislatures (or least the people drafting bills for them) can and ought to know.

Now, perhaps there is a further point of subtle disagreement between Mark and me here. Mark writes that “while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be”. I think this a little imprecise. Like other legal rules, the established conventions of interpretation are not, themselves, value-free; I don’t think they could be. The conventions of textualism promote democratic authority, the separation of powers, and the Rule of Law. These are political values, in a broad sense, and I think that a defence of textualism should proceed on the basis that these are good values, not that that textualism has nothing to do with them. What should indeed be apolitical, to the extent possible for human beings, is the application of interpretive rules, not their content. However, an interpretive rule whose content is such as to make apolitical application impossible, is of course flawed from this standpoint.


What we should be looking for, then, are interpretive rules that can be applied impartially ― not mechanically, to be sure, but without the interpreter drawing on his or her subjective values, preferences, and beliefs about good policy. At least some forms of purposivism, as well as living constitutionalism and its analogues in statutory interpretation fail this test. Textualism, as Mark argues, is a more promising approach. But at the same time ― and not coincidentally ― textualism promotes important constitutional values: the Rule of Law, democracy, and separation powers.

Substantive interpretive canons, I have argued, promote the same values, and thus have a place in textualist interpretation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that substantive canons are pre-eminently textualist interpretive tools, rather than those of some other interpretive approach. Like other kinds of interpretive canons, to which Mark refers, they are rules about reading texts ― albeit more than the other kinds, perhaps, they are rules for reading legal and, even more specifically, legislative texts. Their use has little to with legislative purpose, for example, and they may sit uneasily with a pragmatist or evolutionist approach to interpretation. They are not attempts to devine a legislature’s intentions hidden between textual lines, but rather rules about the legal meaning of enacted texts. Textualists should embrace substantive canons, not just as a grudging concession to precedent, but as a set of tools to wield with discernment, but also with confidence.

“Purposive” Does Not Equal “Generous”: The Interpretation Act

It is often said in Canada that statutes must be interpreted “purposively” and “generously.” Many cite the federal Interpretation Act’s s.12, which apparently mandates this marriage between purposive and generous interpretation:

12 Every enactment is deemed remedial, and shall be given such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as best ensures the attainment of its objects.

The Supreme Court has also accepted this general principle in the context of the judge-made rule that benefits-conferring legislation should be interpreted liberally (see Rizzo, and more recently, Michel v Graydon).

Putting aside the judge-made rule itself, which raises similar but somewhat separate questions, I write today to make a simple point: this injunction in the Interpretation Act cannot be read so as to render purposive interpretation the same as a “generous” interpretation. Doing so could violate the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence, which promotes an authentic determination of purpose according to the legislative language under consideration (see my post on Rafilovich). Indeed, as is clear in the constitutional context, purposive interpretation will often lead to the narrowing of a right, rather than a generous interpretation of that right (see, for a recent example, R v Poulin). Similarly, a purposive interpretation in statute law will lead to a narrowing of the meaning of a particular statutory provision to its purposes. Those purposes will best be reflected in text (see Sullivan, at 193; see also here). For that reason, the Interpretation Act can only mandate a simple canon of interpretation: “The words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). Words should be interpreted fairly but only insofar as purpose reflected in text dictates.

One cannot read the Interpretation Act to mandate a generous interpretation over a purposive one. The text of the provision in question says that “fair, large and liberal construction” must be rendered in a way that “best ensures the attainment of the [enactment’s] objects.” This means that purpose is the anchor for a “generous” interpretation within those purposes. Put differently, we should read words to mean all that they can fairly mean, but we cannot use some injunction of “generosity” to supplant the words or the purposes they reflect.

Prioritizing “generosity” over the natural reading of text in its context would lead to all sorts of practical problems. For one, it is difficult to determine what a “generous” interpretation of a statute would mean in practical terms (see Scalia & Garner, at 365). Does this simply mean that “[a]ny doubt arising from difficulties of language should be resolved in favour of the claimant”? (see Rizzo, at para 36). This could be defensible. But the risk is that using the language of “generosity” could invite judges to expand the scope of language and purpose to suit policy outcomes/parties they prefer.

We should be careful of this language for this reason. More importantly, if “generosity” means that the legitimately-sourced purpose of legislation can be abrogated, the language is quite inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s actual approach to interpretation in recent cases (see Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich).

Rather, the reading of the relevant section of the Interpretation Act must be taken to conform with the Supreme Court’s governing approach to statutory interpretation.  In this sense, the “fair, large, and liberal” interpretive approach mandated by the Interpretation Act might be explained by contrasting it to an old form of interpretation that virtually no one adopts now: strict constructionism. Strict constructionism, most commonly adopted in the adage that “statutes in derogation of the common law were to be strictly construed” (Scalia & Garner, at 365) was unjustified because it violated the “fair meaning rule”; the text, in its context, must be interpreted fairly. No one today—not even textualists—are strict constructionists, because everyone accepts the idea that text must be interpreted fairly. If the Interpretation Act is a response to strict constructionism, its language could perhaps be forgiven. But it should be taken no further than the fair-meaning rule, which rests on identifying relevant purposes in text and using those purposes to guide textual interpretation.

An example of a party attempting to use the Interpretation Act is a manner I consider impermissible occurred in Hillier. There, Ms. Hillier relied on the Interpretation Act and the general canon of interpretation that benefits-conferring legislation is to be liberally interpreted. Putting aside this canon (dealt with in Hillier, at para 38), the Interpretation Act was marshalled by Ms. Hillier to suggest that the court should rule in her favour. Stratas JA rejected this erroneous reliance on the Interpretation Act, concluding (at para 39):

[39]  To similar effect is the interpretive rule in section 12 of the Interpretation Act. It provides that “[e]very enactment is deemed remedial, and shall be given such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as best ensures the attainment of its objects.” Section 12 is not a licence for courts and administrative decision-makers to substitute a broad legislative purpose for one that is genuinely narrow or to construe legislative words strictly for strictness’ sake—in either case, to bend the legislation away from its authentic meaning. Section 12 instructs courts and administrative decision-makers to interpret provisions to fulfil the purposes they serve, broad or narrow, no more, no less.

This is an accurate description of the function of the Interpretation Act, which finds agreement with the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence, such as I can discern it. Purpose—usually sourced in text—guides textual interpretation. Purpose and text should be read synthetically together to render a fair meaning of the language at hand. But broad notions of “generosity” or “fairness” should be not be used to supplant the authentic purpose(s) of legislation, derived in text. And “generosity” is not an end-round around the language the legislature actually uses.

Results-Oriented Conservatism: A Defence of Bostock

Should textualism lead to more “conservative” outcomes as a matter of course? No.

Those who wish to transform textualism—a methodology of interpretation—into a vessel for conservative policy outcomes are in the wrong business. Instead of being in the business of law, they are in the business of politics. For years, a small group of Canadian judges have fought hard against this tendency. As Justice Stratas, for example, notes in Hillier, at para 33:

Those we elect and, within legislative limits, their delegatees (e.g., Ministers making regulations) alone may take their freestanding policy preferences and make them bind by passing legislation. Absent constitutional concern, those who apply legislation—from the most obscure administrative decision-makers to the judges on our highest court—must take the legislation as it is, applying it without fear or favour. Their freestanding policy preferences do not bind, nor can they make them bind by amending the legislation: Euro-Excellence Inc. v. Kraft Canada Inc., 2007 SCC 37, [2007] 3 S.C.R. 20 at para.

On this account, the proper venue for political change is the legislature, not the courts. For that reason, it was always faulty to attach a political agenda to textualism. Recent “disappointments” for conservatives at the Supreme Court of the United States are a reflection of the reality: textualism was never designed to achieve certain policy ends, and rightly so. Conservatives who wish to do so, in my view, are just as unprincipled as living treeists, who would adapt the Constitution and statutes to suit their policy preferences.

To make this point, I focus on the SCOTUS’ recent decision in Bostock, which has rankled conservatives who have a political agenda (though as I will note, there are others who have principled objections to the interpretation in Bostock). I first outline why, on first principles, Gorsuch J’s interpretation in the case is justified. Then I move on to consider the perils of the approach shared by some conservatives and progressives. As Brian Tamanaha notes in his important book, this results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation is profoundly disrespectful of the Rule of Law, which presupposes law as an independent field, a closed system–even if we may only reach that result imperfectly.

Bostock—Textual Interpretation

The case of Bostock in the United States is perhaps the best example of conservatives who have been somehow “betrayed” by textualism. Here are some examples:

  • In the link above, Josh Hammer says that Bostock represents the end of legal conservativism, arguing that “[w]hat we need is a more forceful conservative legal movement, just as willing as the left to make moral arguments in court, based on principles of justice, natural law…the common good and religious and moral traditions underlying Anglo-American constitutional order.” Forget if these traditions are not represented in legislation; they should somehow subvert Congress’ choices.
  • Senator Josh Hawley spelled the end of the conservative legal movement, arguing: “And if those are the things that we’ve been fighting for—it’s what I thought we had been fighting for, those of us who call ourselves legal conservatives—if we’ve been fighting for originalism and textualism, and this is the result of that, then I have to say it turns out we haven’t been fighting for very much.”
  • Robert George argues that the case “…vindicates Adrian Vermeule’s warning to conservatives that trying to combat the longstanding “progressive” strategy of imposing a substantive moral-political agenda through the courts by appointing “originalist” and “textualist” judges is hopeless.” What is the conservative version of such an agenda? The goal is to “…advance a socially conservative moral and political vision.”

I could go on. What unites these critiques is the idea that somehow the Court, in applying a plausible textual interpretation, failed conservatives on substantive grounds. To this I say: so be it. The place for these visions of the good deserve to be aired in public, not in august courtrooms.

What was the offense caused to conservatives in Bostock? The Court (per Gorsuch J for the majority) decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. The textual problem in Bostock was, in some ways, staggering: Title VII does not include sexual orientation or identity as distinct grounds of discrimination. However, for Gorsuch J, the ordinary meaning of the term “sex” applied today just as it did when Title VII was promulgated. Applying that definition, Gorsuch J reasoned that when one discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, one must necessarily discriminate on the basis of sex. This is because when one fires someone, for example, for being gay, they are necessarily making an implicit judgment about the person’s gender. If a man is attracted to another man, and is fired on that basis, the employer is implicitly saying that she would tolerate that attraction if the employee was a woman attracted to a man. Gender plays at least some small part in the decision to fire.

Because of the text of Title VII which prohibits discrimination “because of sex,” it did not matter if gender was not the primary cause of the discrimination. The “because of” standard encompasses even a 1% causal vector of the discrimination. This was supported by precedent.

Notably Gorsuch J refused to consider the fact that post-Title VII enactment Congresses have not amended Title VII to include sexual identity or orientation. This “post-enactment legislative history,” as it is technically called, should be anathema to textualists, because there is no good reason to suppose why Congresses failed to amend the statute. Just like pre-enactment legislative history, this sort of evidence should not ground an interpretation on its own; at best, it can be used with caution, particularly where the reason why Congress failed to act is clear.

My main point here is not to defend this particular interpretation, but I cannot help but make a tentative case for Gorsuch J’s view. I do this in order to demonstrate that the real dispute here is not a political one, but a legal one, between textualists. In my view, a number of interpretive considerations support his view.

Text: Gorsuch J’s textual interpretation comes down to the plausibility of his point that sex is inextricably linked to sexual orientation and identity: or more specifically, that discrimination on these grounds are all closely related. While Alito J in dissent disputed this point, and others have as well, there is some textual logic to it. First, there are at least some cases where sex is necessarily bound up with discrimination based on orientation. If there is even a chance that an employer could tolerate opposite sex attraction, but oppose same sex attraction, then the relevant difference is sex. With that aside, more importantly, a textual interpretation of the words “because of” leads to the conclusion that these words are broad. Broad words=broad meaning. On that account, any chance that discrimination could occur on the basis of sex, in the course of discrimination based on other unlisted grounds, is encompassed in the “because of” language.

Precedent supported this conclusion. In Oncale (per Scalia J, the king of textualists), Justice Scalia held that Title VII prohibited discrimination based on same-sex harassment. Why? Because the words “because of” encompassed situations involving same sex: “…we hold today that nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a claim of discrimination “because of…sex” merely because the plaintiff and defendant…are of the same sex” (79).

This is a simple matter of dynamic interpretation. When courts interpret broad, causal language, they must apply these terms to new situations. This is not a re-writing of the statute. Indeed, both sides in Bostock agree that the meanings of “sex” and “because of” are the same when Title VII was enacted and in the present day. But where new fact situations arise, that original meaning must be applied to new situations. As Justice Scalia noted in Oncale, while male-on-male sexual harassment was not the evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, “…statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed” (my emphasis). As Justice Scalia also says in his classic A Matter of Interpretation, statutory interpretation is governed by the rule that text should be interpreted “….to contain all that it fairly means” (23). This is all Gorsuch J did in Bostock.

Some might say this is a plain meaning approach. But I don’t see it. Justice Gorsuch gave the words “sex” and “because of” the same meaning they had when Title VII was enacted. He merely interpreted those words to encompass phenomenon that reasonably fall within their ambit. The fact that a phenomenon is new does not mean that it is necessarily excluded from broad statutory language. The question then is not whether Congress anticipated particular applications to new phenomenon. The question is whether the text can cover off those applications.

Context and Legislative History: If the text is clear—or at least clear enough—then there is no need or warrant to deviate from it. The Canadian Supreme Court accepts this reality (see Celgene, at para 21, and more, and more). And so does the American Supreme Court: see Milner. What this means is that legislative history, and post-enactment legislative history, cannot enter the interpretive task. This means that the fact Congress did not act to explicitly adopt certain explicit prohibitions is irrelevant.

Why should these be considered irrelevant? Post-enactment legislative history is a dangerous tool, on both principled and pragmatic grounds. On the former, legislative history goes to the intent of lawmakers, not to the natural import of the words they adopt in legislation. The latter matters. Whatever Congress did or didn’t do is of no relevance to the meaning of the words adopted. But the problems mount on pragmatic grounds. Legislative history, as Justice Scalia always noted, is not probative, because whatever people say may not be reflected in text. Post-enactment legislative history is even worse. Now we are trying to draw inferences based on what Congress did not do. That is a fool’s errand. As Justice Gorsuch notes, we will never know why Congress did not act to amend Title VII. This is not interpretation, but rather arm-chair psychology about what Congresses may have thought.

Results-Oriented Conservatism

Before continuing, I want to clearly acknowledge that there are plausible textual interpretations that run counter to Gorsuch J’s view. Some could argue that Gorsuch J’s analysis is a literalist approach, rather than one based on ordinary meaning. One could even say that Gorsuch J’s interpretation is itself compelled by results oriented reasoning, rather than the law. But this latter attack would only be strong if Gorsuch J’s approach was not plausibly based on text and precedent. Since, I hope, most would concede that this is a close call (in the name of humility), it is difficult to say anyone was results-oriented in Bostock. Better to keep politics out of it—after all, lawyers have no special political views warranting special treatment—and view the matter as a textual disagreement. I would characterize Bostock as a debate about legal interpretation, not political aims.

But there are exogenous, conservative forces that want to introduce this phantom into Bostock. Conservatives often get angry at progressives who invoke living constitutionalism (in Canada, the living tree metaphor) to adapt the Constitution to present realities. In Canada, we are familiar with this interpretive trick. How else to explain what Justice Abella did in SFL, where she, in all her wisdom, decided that it was now the time to grant “benediction” to a right to strike in Canada’s Constitution? The same phenomenon is at play when conservatives seek to use the law to achieve policy aims that should be achieved in the legislature.

Both attempts by ideologues to subvert law should be rejected. This is no longer a popular view, but law is an autonomous field, within reason, in the realm of statutory interpretation. The methods of interpretation are just that: methodologies. They are designed to reach the authentic meaning (contrast this with intent or expected application) of legislation. If a Congress passes legislation that is socialistic, then it should be authentically applied, leading to socialistic outcomes. If Congress passes legislation cutting back on social benefits, that legislation should be applied leading to its natural outcome. Judges do not bring special moral or political wisdom to the interpretive task. If lawyers are upset about the terms of legislation, they can speak out about it in the political realm. But that’s all.

The flaws of adopting a political approach to interpretation are not only present on a principled basis. If the political aims of legislation become the sole basis on which interpretation is conducted, then the incentive is to simply appoint people based on their substantive political views, not on the quality of their legal craft. To some extent, this is already happening in the United States. In that context, all we will see is a flat-out war between progressives and conservatives who seek to subvert law to their own aims. Nothing, not even law, which is supposed to be a fetter on political wishes, will be sacred anymore. From a strategic perspective, this is bad for either side. Victories achieved by one side in the courtroom can easily be overturned once the “other side” achieves power. And the merry-go-round goes on.

Better, in my view, to hone our arguments to legal ones, applying neutral methodologies, as best we can. Interpretation is designed to determine the meaning of legislative texts. Let the legislature legislate, and let courts interpret. Believe it or not, lawyers and their political views are not particularly enlightened.

Lost Virtue

Joseph Raz revisits the subject of the virtue of the Rule of Law

Joseph Raz recently posted on SSRN a short essay call “The Law’s Own Virtue“, based on remarks he delivered on the occasion of receiving the Tang Prize. The essay revisits themes explored in Professor Raz’s famous article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, defending the same view that the Rule of Law does not mean the rule of good law, and that its requirements on the exercise of public power are formal and procedural, but not substantive. It is a view that I share, for what that’s worth. But there is an aspect of Professor Raz’s argument which is new, at least in comparison with his classic article, and which strikes me as deeply disturbing.

Professor Raz now makes the intention of government actors central to his discussion of the Rule of Law. He starts from the proposition that “one, commonly agreed, aim of the [Rule of Law] is to avoid arbitrary government”. (5) This is where the focus on the reasons for government action enter the picture, as Professor Raz defines “[a]rbitrary government [as] the use of power that is indifferent to the proper reasons for which power should be used”. (5) Government power should be used “to follow and to apply the law”; (6) If it is used with this intention, the Rule of Law is being complied with. It follows that

not every failure of the government to be guided by the law is a breach of the [Rule of Law]. For the most part such failure is due to mistakes and incompetence. Even the most conscientious and qualified government is liable to fail in such ways. (6)

Intention is also relevant when assessing (from the Rule of Law standpoint) the exercise of interpretive and discretionary powers, and indeed the rule-making powers. When making or interpreting law under the Rule of Law, governments must “not … promote their own interest, but that of  … the governed … includ[ing] their moral interests”. (8) Beyond that, however, “[d]etermining what ends to pursue in the exercise of discretionary powers, or in the interpretation of the law, is the stuff of ordinary politics, and the [Rule of Law] does not review the success of politics”. (6)

Professor Raz sums up his argument as follows:

Based in the main on only two premises, that governments may act only in the interests of the governed, and that honest mistakes about what that is, and what it entails are the stuff of ordinary politics, and honest mistakes about this do not violate the rule of law, I concluded that the virtue of the rule of law lies in tending to secure that the government acts with the manifest intention of serving the interests of the governed. (15)

Professor Raz’s original view of the virtue of law was that it was indifferent to governmental purposes. Compliance with the Rule of Law, he famously wrote, is like the sharpness of a knife: a quality that can be used in the service of bad ends, as well as good ones. The test for such compliance had to do with the form of laws (notably their clarity, openness, and stability) and with respect for legal procedures (the independence of courts, the executive complying with the law that authorizes it to act, and so on). An ill-intentioned, self-serving or abusive government could comply with the Rule of Law; a well-intentioned but incompetent one, not necessarily.


This view is reversed in Professor Raz’s return to the subject and, as noted above, I do not think that his change of heart is for the better. I think it is dangerous and counter-productive to judge governments by intention, both as a general matter and specifically when it comes to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Moreover, even if intention were a relevant consideration, the pursuit of the “interest of the governed” seems a particularly unhelpful standard by which to judge governments.

Generally speaking, I think we would do well to embrace Lord Acton’s distrust of “[t]hose who judge morality by the intention [and] have been less shocked at the crimes of power … than at those committed by men resisting oppression”. The time elapsed since Acton’s death should only have reinforced this attitude. And it is especially relevant to the issue of the Rule of Law. Governments themselves don’t allow people to get away with law-breaking by pleading “mistakes and incompetence”. If you are caught speeding, telling the cop that you’re just a mediocre driver and, while desirous of complying with the traffic code, sometimes forget to check how fast you are going isn’t going to get you too far, I suspect. So why should you have any patience with similar claims by a government?

Lon Fuller, in particular, emphasized the reciprocity that the Rule of Law fosters in the relationship between government and citizen: as the quid pro quo for the citizen’s law-abidingness, the government ensures that the law allows the citizen to plan his or her life. Under Professor Raz’s approach, this reciprocity can break down. The citizen is still asked to obey, but the government only to intend to do so.

Of course, Fuller, as well Professor Raz in “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, recognized that compliance with the Rule of Law is (usually) a matter of degree. A certain level of compliance is necessary; beyond that, the question becomes one of excellence, and perhaps even excess. But I don’t think that this is Professor Raz’s point in “The Law’s Own Virtue”. If “manifest intention” to act in the appropriate way is the relevant standard, then even fairly egregious failures, so long as they are due to good faith incompetence, perhaps even honest carelessness, will be excused, and not only a government’s inability to reach excellence.

Consider an example that I have previously discussed here as a Rule of Law failure: the Canadian law on the standard of review in administrative law. The Supreme Court changes the rules all the time, sometimes announcing that it does so and sometimes not; it often fails to follow the rules it has itself announced; its deferential approach is not impartial between the citizen and the government and allows erroneous legal interpretations arrived at by decision-makers who are not independent of the government to become the law.

For all that, I am happy to suppose that the Supreme Court judges intend to follow the law, except in those cases where they (not inappropriately) reconsider their precedents, and that to the extent they are engaged in (re-)making the law, they think they act in the best interest of Canadians. The vexing inability to come up with and follow a truly legal framework is, at least for the most part, the fruit of plentiful mistakes and abundant incompetence. But so what? That doesn’t change the fact that where citizens (not to mention other judges) ought to find law, they find muddle. The Supreme Court’s pronouncements provide no useful guidance, and thus appear arbitrary, even if they do not meet Professor Raz’s narrow definition of arbitrariness. 

This example also points to another troubling claim in Professor Raz’s discussion: that legal interpretation is equivalent to an exercise of discretionary powers and must be assessed as “the stuff of ordinary politics”, not a Rule of Law issue. As not only John Marshall but also the Professor Raz of “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” recognized, the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is. This is significant, because the courts are not engaged in “ordinary”—which I think must mean partisan and self-interested—politics when interpreting or even developing the law. Their performance in doing so cannot be judged politically, either as a normative matter (because political criteria are the wrong ones to apply to judicial decisions) or as a descriptive one (because the courts, being unelected and independent, are not subject to political judgment anyway).

Of course, a political judgment in the shape of legislation or constitutional amendment overturning a judicial decision is possible; perhaps this is what Professor Raz means. But such legislation is fairly rare, and constitutional amendment still more so. In the ordinary course of things, the only judgment that we can pass on the judiciary’s exercise of interpretive and creative powers is a moral one, and it must be based on Rule of Law-related criteria, not political ones.

Finally, in any case, I think that “the interest of the governed” is not a standard by which the actions of any institution of government can usefully be assessed. “The governed” are not a homogeneous undifferentiated mass. The are individuals, organizations, and groups. Their interests differ, and sometimes—indeed, quite often—clash. Government action that is in the interest of some will run counter to the interest of others. The more things some people get governments to do, the more toes these governments must step on to accomplish these things (whether these toes’ owners are aware of being trampled on or, as often is the case, not).

Now, perhaps the idea is that any plausible-seeming conception of the public interest will do, so long as the government is not blatantly oppressive and self-serving. Yet not only is it doubtful that even this test can eliminate controversy but, more importantly, it is quite meaningless. Protectionist legislation that blatantly favours, say, producers over consumers, or indeed government over citizens, can be dressed up in some public-spirited guise, and intelligent people will fall for this trickery, be they the judges of the Supreme Court in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, or Sir William Blackstone, who wrote that

the statute of king Charles II which prescribes … a dress for the dead, who are all ordered to be buried in woollen … is a law consistent with public liberty; for it encourages the staple trade, on which in great measure depends the universal good of the nation.


The Rule of Law, I submit, is not only not the rule of good law, but also not the rule of well-intentioned law. The purposes of public institutions that create, interpret, and apply the law, or exercise discretionary powers granted by law, are not relevant to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Innocent incompetence can lead to Rule of Law failures, while a self-interested government, for example one preoccupied with lining the pockets of its supporters and winning the next election, however worthy of condemnation, may well abuse its power in a manner that is consistent with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz’s classic article on the virtue of the Rule of Law remains an essential reference point for those of us who are interested in the subject. His return to the topic, sadly, will not be one.

Something about the Zeitgeist

Justice Scalia is often snarky. But he gets as good as he gives. Both tendencies were recently on display, after Justice Scalia apparently asserted that judges interpreting law in accordance with the “spirit of the age” were among the causes of Nazi barbarities, including the Holocaust ― a none too subtle dig at “living constitutionalism” and, perhaps, “judicial activism” of all sorts (whatever judicial activism is). The first reaction of some (myself included) was to think of Goodwin’s law. Others wax sarcastic about “peak Scalia.” Both snark and counter-snark are unjustified.

Start with the snark. Of course, when the spirit of the age is rotten, interpreting law in accordance with it will give foul results. But what about Justice Scalia preferred originalist approach? It will give better results if the law one interprets was written in a more enlightened age than the interpreter’s own; but if a law reflects the prejudice and ignorance of times past, then it is interpreting it in accordance with the spirit of those times that will give us bigoted jurisprudence. If one believes, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, then originalism is, on balance, an unattractive interpretive approach, although this does not exclude the possibility that it will sometimes yield just results, perhaps even more just results than the alternatives.

Yet the dismissive responses to Justice Scalia’s comments are also a bit too quick. It is worth noting that, as Josh Blackman points out, Justice Scalia is not the first to remark on the role of the Nazi judges’ interpretive approach in enabling the crimes of the regime they served. Cass Sunstein has made the same point:

In the Nazi period, German judges rejected formalism. They did not rely on the ordinary or original meaning of legal texts. On the contrary, they thought that statutes should be construed in accordance with the spirit of the age, defined by reference to the
Nazi regime. They thought that courts could carry out their task “only if they do not remain glued to the letter of the law, but rather penetrate its inner core in their interpretations and do their part to see that the aims of the lawmaker are realized.” (1; references omitted.)

Closer to home, Justice Lamer, as he then was, observed in R. v. Collins, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 265, that “[t]he reasonable person is usually the average person in the community, but only when that community’s current mood is reasonable” (emphasis mine). The point Justice Scalia was, I think, trying to make ― in however exaggerated a fashion ― is the same as that at which Justice Lamer was getting in this passage: the “spirit of the age,” the Zeitgeist, can be foul, and when it is, it is the judiciary’s duty to resist it as best it can, to prevent it from contaminating the law.

We can, of course, debate whether originalism is the best, or even an adequate way of doing so. We can say that perpetuating the iniquities of the past is no solution to the injustices of the present. But the idea is not absurd. It deserves discussion, not derision. It’s a shame that the spirit of the age, what with its addiction to soundbites and gotcha lines, appreciates the latter more than the former.