It is common in progressive circles (and, increasingly, in conservative circles, to some extent) to say that law=politics, or some variation thereof (law is always political, law is political, etc etc). The claim is usually offered without much in the way of qualification, and it appears to capture the many aspects of “law”; the creation of law, the implementation of law, and the interpretation of law.
In this post, I argue that this claim is either banally true or implausible because it merges law with politics in a way that our current system simply cannot support. To determine its veracity, the claim must be examined closely—in relation to the various ways that political considerations interact with law. A failure to do so infects the “law=politics” claim with a fatal imprecision.
I first outline the limited ways in which the claim is likely true. Then I shift gears to a normative argument: while the claim may be true in certain ways, it is not self-evident that it should be true across the legal system. In other words, there is good reason to accept that law may be “political” in certain ways; but it isn’t the case that it should be in all aspects of the law (its creation, implementation, and interpretation).
Before jumping in, I should acknowledge some imprecision in terms here. The law=politics claim is often made bluntly, without defining what is meant by “politics” or “political.” It could mean, for example, that law is inevitably wrapped up in partisan politics. It could mean that law is not necessarily co-extensive with partisanship, but is correlated with political ideology more broadly. Or it could mean something very simple: law is “political” in the sense that people are “political,” meaning that law mediates disputes in a society where political disagreement is inevitable. It could also mean a combination of all three of these things, or more.
All of these claims could be descriptively true in various ways, in relation to different aspects of law-making, implementation, and interpretation. But a failure to distinguish between these various definitions of “politics” and “political” presents an immediate hurdle for those who claim, without qualification, that law is always political. As I will note throughout, these various claims to the political nature of law may be more or less true given the institutional context. It does not follow that every political consideration is always relevant to the law.
Starting with the descriptive claim, it is clearly true that law can be political. The creation of law in the legislature is itself a political act. Laws are created to achieve certain aims; these aims can clearly be motivated by ideologies; and the content of law is not “neutral” as between political aims. Political parties make up the legislatures, and they vie for power in elections. In this case, and quite obviously, law is the product of political machinations. It follows that the creation of law itself can be motivated by wholly ideological reasons, quite aside from any claims to public reason or ideological neutrality. As I will note below, the notwithstanding clause is a good example of a situation where a legal power can be exercised for solely political reasons.
As well, the implementation of law by administrators, state officials, police, and others will not always be perfectly consistent with what the law says. Officials could operate on personal whim or policy preferences that are inconsistent with the policy preferences specified in the law. After all, state officials routinely fall below the standards set by the law and the Constitution—one only need to look at the number of constitutional challenges against state action that are successful in Canadian courts (though, of course, this may be due to stringent constitutional standards rather than routine malfeasance by state officials). Whether this is due to cognitive biases, outright hostility to legal norms, or mistaken application, laws can best be seen as ideals that state officials will sometimes fall below. This illustrates that state officials—at best—can only approximate legal norms. In administrative law, for example, the law of judicial review could be understood as an attempt to police the gap between the law on the books and the law as applied; to inch state officials towards following the law on the books, as much as possible.
Similarly, as a descriptive matter, the interpretation of law could be “political” or perhaps more aptly, “ideological.” Law is fundamentally a human business, and interpretation cannot be a perfect science, a simple application of axioms to words. Human beings have cognitive biases and judges are simply human beings. Notwithstanding the fact that judges sometimes speak as if they are neutral protectors of constitutional values, it is simply impossible to guarantee that law will always be interpreted authentically. To be clear, this tendency is likely true across the political spectrum—results-oriented interpretation can be common on the left or the right, and in each case, it is unavoidable that there will be results-oriented interpretation.
That said, we simply do not know the extent to which any of the above is even true in Canada. While it is plausible to suggest that judges and officials may have their judgments infected by ideology extraneous to the legal instrument under interpretation, this should not be overstated. Empirical research would be helpful in determining the extent of this phenomenon. For the most part, though, Canadian judges likely do their best to apply the law according to its terms. (NB: see Emmett Macfarlane’s work here, which tackles some of these issues. I’ve ordered the text).
As a normative matter, let us assume that it is true that implementation and interpretation of law can be “political” or “ideological” or something of the sort. There are two options: we create rules, standards, and principles to limit the gap between the law as adopted and the law as applied; or we do not. The form of these rules, standards, and principles is unimportant for our purposes. For now, it is enough to say that there is a fork in the road. Either we choose to limit the political/ideological discretion of state actors—including judges—or we do not. The point here is that while there can never be perfectly “neutral” or “impartial” creation, implementation, and interpretation of law as a matter of fact, it is desirable—as a normative matter—to limit the role of pure ideology in certain areas of law, to the extent we can.
This is obviously not true in the context of law-creation. The public understandably, and quite likely, wants our laws to be the product of a democratically-elected legislature (to the extent our electoral system leads to fair democratic outcomes in the abstract). In this sense, people vote for representatives that share their priors or who they wish to see in the legislature. Those legislatures, composed as they are by political parties, will pass laws that reflect the majority will (again, to the extent the “majority will” is represented in our electoral system). Ideally, in legislative debates, we want all the cards on the table. We want our representatives to fully and frankly air their ideological differences, and we want the public to be able to judge which program of government is best. In this sense, it is undesirable as a normative matter to (somehow) limit the politics of law in the realm of legislation.
However, as a normative matter, the story changes dramatically when it comes to law implementation and interpretation. Our Supreme Court endorses the proposition, for example, that interpretation must be conducted in order to “discern meaning and legislative intent, not to ‘reverse-engineer’ a desired outcome” (Vavilov, at para 121). Administrative decision-makers implementing law have only limited reserve to bring professional expertise to bear (Vavilov, at para 31); otherwise, they are creatures of statute, and are cabined by the terms of their statutes (Chrysler, at 410). Put differently, administrative actors implementing law have no independent reserve to make free-standing ideological determinations that are not incorporated into the law itself. A different way to put it: law is political in the legislatures, but when it is being interpreted or implemented, courts must discover the political choices embedded in the law itself.
The Court also endorses a law and politics distinction, as a constitutional matter, when it comes to judicial independence. It says that judicial independence is “the lifeblood of constitutionalism in democratic societies” (Ell, at para 45), which “flows as a consequence of the separation of powers” (Provincial Judges Reference, at para 130). Judges should not, at least as a positive matter, render decisions that are infected by ideology—because it is the legislature’s job to make judgment calls based on political considerations, economic tradeoffs, or otherwise.
I could go on with examples of how our Court—and our system—endorses a separation between law and politics. For what it’s worth, and no matter the descriptive reality, I believe there is wisdom in articulating limits to the free-standing ideological whims of administrators and judges. Of course, these limits will not be perfect, and they will not reverse the reality that implementation and interpretation will sometimes be driven by results. But the use of rules, standards, and principles to cabin these free-standing policy preferences can be useful in ensuring that state actors and judges justify their decisions according to certain, universal standards.
Two examples could be offered. First, in statutory interpretation, we have semantic canons, presumptions, and tools to try to determine the authentic meaning of law. These “off-the-rack” tools and presumptions are far from perfect, as Karl Llewelyn once pointed out. They can be contradictory, and they are not axiomatic laws of nature that lead inexorably to certain results. But we have these rules for a reason. We use them because we have made an ex ante judgment, over the years, that they will help interpreters reach the authentic meaning of legislation (or, if one is an intentionalist, the authentic intention of legislatures). We do not expect judges to distribute palm-tree justice when faced with a law. Instead, we expect judges to justify their interpretive result through the prism of these canons and presumptions, because they are semantically and substantively useful. We do this because there is a law and politics distinction between legislative work and judicial work, endemic to our Constitution.
Of course, there is a recognition that legal principles may themselves have a certain political valence. Presumptions of liberty, substantive equality, strict construction of taxation laws–all of these rules could be said to contain certain “political” suppositions. As I have written before, I am generally not supportive of certain substantive presumptions of interpretation that put a thumb on the scale. But as Leonid Sirota writes, some of these presumptions are plausibly connected to the legal system–in this sense, they are political, but they represent values that are endemic to the legal system as it stands. Substantive equality is similar. It can, at least plausibly, be traced to the text and purpose of s.15 of the Charter. These are principles that have some connection to our legal system; they are not representative of the whims of the particular interpreter in a particular case. At any rate, forcing interpreters to justify their decisions is useful in itself.
Secondly, Doug Ford’s recent decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause presents a good difference between the ways in which law can be political, and the ways in which it should not be. When a government invokes the notwithstanding clause, it is not necessarily an exercise of reason. It could be a blunt assertion of legislative power. Now, that assertion of power can be justified by any number of considerations. If some detractors are correct, for example, Ford’s use of the clause in this case could simply be designed to punish his opponents. Less likely, it could be a good-faith attempt by a legislature to come to a different definition of a rights-balance. Whatever it is, the use of the notwithstanding clause is an exercise of power that could be motivated by distinctly political aims. In this way, legislation is quite clearly political.
However, and even if naked political judgments are not justiciable once invoked under cover of the notwithstanding clause, the public may wish to articulate a different justificatory standard for the use of power that is legalistic in nature. As Geoff Sigalet & I wrote here, the public may wish to subject politicians who invoke the notwithstanding clause to a standard of justification—the politicians should offer legitimate, objective reasons for the invocation of the clause. Again, this is not a legal requirement. But as a matter of custom, it is a requirement that the public may wish to impose on politicians as a check on rank political judgments. By imposing such a standard, the public can disincentivize uses of the clause that are not backed by solid, legal reasons.
None of this is new. Indeed, Dicey argued that for the Rule of Law to flourish in any society, the society must contain a “spirit of legality” that is separate and apart from any limits imposed on power by courts themselves. This spirit of legality presupposes that there are some areas where the public should expect better than rank political and ideological judgments. Of course, the law & politics distinction is a matter of some controversy, and I cannot address every aspect of the distinction here. Suffice it to say: broad claims that “law is always political” cannot hold. Law is descriptively political in some ways. It does not follow that it should be in all cases. Quite the opposite, sometimes it is best for rules, standards, and principles to cabin the ideological capture of courts and others, as best they can. This will not be perfect, it will not always work, and it is not a mechanical process. But it’s worth trying.