Romancing the Law

An ode to formalism and reflections on Runnymede’s Law and Freedom Conference

I had the pleasure of attending last weekend’s Runnymede Society conference in Toronto. As always, the conference was a welcome opportunity to meet with old friends and new, and to reflect on a number of pertinent issues in Canadian law.

Perhaps because of my own research interests in the last year, I was particularly interested in a theme that seemed to run throughout the conference: the degree of confidence that each of us has in law, particularly the statutory law. Justice Stratas’ talk with Asher Honickman highlighted that there are many in the legal community that, if not giving up on law, are questioning its relevance in a society that is now defined by greater calls for context, nuance, individualized application, and discretion.  The virtues of rules—the creation of economies of scale, the structuring of norms and expectations according to positive orders, the costs saved at the ex post application stage—are apparently counterweighed by the potential for overbroad application, rank injustice, and otherwise discriminatory treatment.

The degree to which we are worried about these vices, or encouraged by these virtues, is probably a function of our belief in legislatures and their work product. Even if legislatures do not get things “right,” there are good reasons to believe that what the legislature does is owed a wide degree of respect–because of the value of legislative compromises, the “finely-wrought” legislative procedure, and the representative nature of the legislature . Nowadays, though, a commitment to the law passed by the legislature is labelled pejoratively as “formalist.” In administrative law, offshoots of this belief are characterized, dismissively and without analysis, as “Diceyan” or an unwelcome throwback to the days of “ultra vires” (take a look at the oral argument in the Bell/NFL & Vavilov cases for many examples of this).  In statutory interpretation, a belief that text in its context will generally contain answers is dismissed as a belief in “the plain meaning rule,” mere “textualism”–notwithstanding the important distinction between these two methods. In constitutional law, a focus on constitutional text is “originalism.” None of these are arguments, but they have since infiltrated the orthodoxy of the academy.

The consequences of this argument-by-label should not be understated. Take the case of statutory interpretation. The Supreme Court of Canada tells us that we should interpret statutes purposively, but at the same time, that the text will play a dominant role in the process when it is clear (Canada Trustco, at para 10). This implies that purposes, while helpful to the interpretive process, should not dominate where the text is clearly pointing in another direction.

But a focus on statutory text—especially the contention that text can ever be clear—is often derided as inconsistent with the contingent and “ambiguous” nature of language. So the argument goes, text can never truly be “clear,” and so textualism falls away. But whether the text of a statute will contain answers to an interpretive difficulty is, in part, a function of the judge’s belief in the coherence and determinacy of law—in other words, her appreciation of the point at which “law runs out”. A judge inclined to believe that the tools of statutory interpretation can be used to come to a defensible answer on a matter will commit herself to that task, and will probably not consider legislative language “ambiguous” in its purposive context. For her, law will maybe never run out, or if it does, it will only do so in the extreme case of true ambiguity, where no discernible meaning cognizable to human understanding could be appreciated. A judge less committed to the determinacy of law will be more willing to introduce extraneous materials—legislative history, Charter values—in order to come to a meaning that makes sense to her. For her, the law may “run out” quite early. The risk here, of course, is the enlargement of the scope for judicial discretion. For those who believe in the general soundness of statutory law, this creates the potential for conflict with the generally-elected representative body.

This is not a hypothetical problem. In the United States, Chevron administrative law deference rests on the judge’s appreciation of statutory language. At step 1, courts are asked to apply the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation to determine if Congress spoke clearly on a particular matter. If so, that meaning binds the agency. If not, at step 2, if there is ambiguity in a statute, courts defer to a reasonable agency interpretation. As Justice Scalia said, a judge committed to the text at step 1 will rarely need to move to step 2. In this way, there would be less scope for agencies to exercise virtually unreviewable discretion. Those who believe that law runs out earlier will, ceterus paribus, be more willing to allow multiple decision-makers to come to very different decisions on a matter so long as those decisions are roughly justified by a statute.

The various points on the spectrum of “giving up on law” will be the product of many factors, including factors particular to cases before courts. But at some level, a belief that text can, or should, contain answers seems to undergird the entire process of determining the meaning of a statute. I think there are good reasons to hold the belief that what the legislature produces is generally sound for reasons that are particular to the legislative process and the law in question. To my mind, judges should be wary of letting text “run out,” in part because of what replaces it; more abstract, generally less clear “second-tier” sources of legislative meaning (Note: sometimes text will be truly unclear, and a statutory purpose can be clearly gleaned from the text. Our law sees no problem with this, and neither do I).

This is not to presuppose that legislatures always make sense in their enactments. The process of making law is not designed to be a perfect application of human rationality or even of expertise. Legislatures sometimes don’t make sense. But there are good reasons to respect the legislative process. Importantly, seemingly non-sensical legislative compromises, run through readings in Parliament and the committee process, are sometimes the product of concessions to minority groups, represented through their Members of Parliament. These legislative compromises are sometimes essential, and should be respected even if they do not make sense. Judge Easterbrook puts it well: “If this [an outcome of statutory interpretation] is unprincipled, it is the way of compromise. Law is a vector rather than an arrow. Especially when you see the hand of interest groups.”

If the legislative process is imperfect, so is the process of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation will not always yield easy answers, or even the ex ante “correct” answer. The tools of statutory interpretation are often contradictory, some say outmoded, and sometimes unwieldly. But as Judge Posner said in his book Reflections on Judging, the tools of statutory interpretation are designed to impose meaning. Used authentically and faithfully, with a concomitant belief in the legitimacy of the law passed by the legislature, they help courts come to a defensible conclusion on the meaning of a provision; one that is consonant with the universe of laws in the statute book, with the particular statute’s larger purposes, and the immediate context of a statute.

It worries me that some no longer belief in this process—in the formal quality of law as law, in the idea that when the legislature speaks, it does so for a reason. Similarly, I worry that the invitation for judges to rely on values and principles extraneous to a statute—for example, Charter values, legislative history, etc—to impose a meaning on a statute is based on wrongheaded idea that judicial discretion is somehow absolutely better than legislative power. I, for one, think that we should expect judges in a constitutional democracy to believe in the law passed by the legislature. This is not judicial acquiescence, but there is perhaps a value to formalism. Parliament, to be sure, does not always get everything right. But there is a benefit to formalism: the way in which Parliament passes laws is subject to a formal process, interposed with legislative study. The way we elect our leaders and the way Parliament operates is, in a way, formal. The law it creates should be owed respect by those sworn to uphold it.

The debate over rules versus standards or discretion is one that is rife throughout history. But presupposing the debate, I always thought, was a belief in law itself. For those of us at Runnymede this weekend, we were invited to question whether that belief exists any longer.

Law Like Love

“What is law like? What can we compare it with in order to illuminate its character and suggest answers to some of the perennial questions of jurisprudence?”

That’s the opening of Jeremy Waldron’s “Planning for Legality,” 109 Mich. L. Rev. 883 (2010), a review of Scott Shapiro’s book Legality. When I read it recently, it immediately reminded me of W.H. Auden’s magnificent poem, “Law Like Love,” where Auden suggests that the question is perhaps absurd, but irresistible. Here’s a recording of Auden reading it.

I don’t know if Waldron’s line is a deliberate allusion. But my guess is that it is not. Law review articles, after all, are not Umberto Eco’s novels. They deal in footnotes, not allusions. If I’m right about this, I think it confirms just how brilliant Auden’s poem is – not only as a matter of literary merit, but also in that it is the best summary of the field of legal philosophy ever produced.