The Politics of Law

Is law truly just a function of politics? Should it be?

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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

“Clear Enough”

Some thoughts on statutory interpretation.

As I finish my graduate studies at  Chicago, it struck me that a major theme of legal design is the degree of perfection (if any) we should expect from legal rules. Drafted legal rules—whether by the legislature or judiciary—will always be over and underbroad, because rules of general application cannot foresee every idiosyncratic individual application. In such a case, the extent to which a perfect rule can be created is dependent on the extent to which we balance the error rate of application with the ease of administrability of a straightforward rule. Here, we will never come to a perfect balance, but we can try to come to something that is defensible and workable.

The same sort of consideration applies in the field of statutory interpretation. The most important issue in statutory interpretation is the clarity exercise—how clear is clear enough? Finding that a statutory text is clear on its face leads to a number of important consequences. For one, the Supreme Court has said that where text is “precise and unequivocal, the ordinary meaning of the words play a dominant role in the interpretive process” as opposed to purpose (Canada Trustco, at para 10). Additionally, the use of Charter values in statutory interpretation to gap-fill only arises where there is ambiguity in the ordinary textual meaning (BellExpressVu, at para 28). And, as Gib Van Ert points out, the Federal Court of Appeal seems to be adopting a similar rule in the context of international law.

Some may object at the outset to a consideration of “clarity” as a means of discerning legislative intent on a particular subject. This line of opposition is deeply rooted in the idea of legal realism, with its skepticism of judicial modes of reasoning and the rejection of abstract legal thought as a means to come to clear answers on the law. Representative works in this regard include John Willis’ “Statutory Interpretation in a Nutshell,” where he argues that, in modern legislation which uses wide language (often to delegate authority to others), literal interpretation does no good, essentially because the language is broad and unclear. And he notes that even if interpretation could be  clear or plain on its face, there are differences between judges as to what “plain” constitutes (see 10 and 11). Additionally, Karl Llewellyn’s classic article on the “dueling canons of interpretation” sheds doubt on the use of the canons of statutory interpretation to come to any clear meaning that is not inspired by motivated reasoning. Underlying each of these important critiques is a belief in the relativism and contingency of language. Clarity, on this account, is probably a fool’s errand, in part because ascribing an intent to the legislature is difficult with open-textured language, and in part because language itself is inherently unclear. If this is true, it will be the rare case indeed where a court should be convinced that a text is clear.

While this might sound good to a lawyer’s ear—especially a lawyer that is paid money to exploit ambiguities—it does not comport with the way we use language in the majority of cases. And this is where the example of crafting legal rules comes into handy. One might wish to craft a legal rule to cover all of the interstitial, idiosyncratic applications—ones that are weird or abnormal. But then we create a rule that might work well in the individual case, and not in the general run of cases. Instead, we should craft legal rules based on the 98% of cases, not the 2%: see Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World on this score. In the realm of statutory interpretation, this means that we should start with the going-in, commonsense presumption that language is generally clear in the majority of circumstances, after a bit of listening and synthesis. People transact in the English language everyday with no major kerfluffles, and even conduct complex business and legal dealings without requiring a court to opine on the language they are using. This underlying mass of cases never makes it to court precisely because English works. The problem with statutory interpretation cases, then, is the major selection effect they present. The cases that make it to court, where the rules are developed, are the cases that are most bizarre or that raise the most technical questions. Those are not the cases on which we should base rules of general application. Instead, the rule should simply be that English works in most circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that each of us can generally communicate—with only small hiccups—in the day-to-day world.

If that is the rule adopted, and if legal language is really no different in kind (only in degree of specificity and technicality), then a court should not be exacting in its determination of the clarity of a statutory provision. That is, if language generally works on first impression, then there is no need for a court to adopt a presumption that it doesn’t work, and hence that something greater than “clear enough” is required to definitively elucidate the meaning of a text. We should merely assume that language probably works, that legislatures know language, and that courts have the tools to discern that language. While we should not assume that language is perfect, we should at least assume that it is workable in an ordinary meaning sense.

This approach also has the benefit of commonsense. Perfection is not of this world.  The legal realists put way too high a standard on the clarity of language, to something approaching perfect linguistic clarity rather than semantic workability. We should not craft legal rules around the fact that, in some far-off circumstances, we can imagine language not working.

What does this mean in operation? The American debate over Chevron deference supplies a good example. Chevron holds that where Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue, courts should not afford deference to an agency’s interpretation of law. This is Chevron Step One. If Congress has not spoken clearly, the court moves to Chevron Step Two, where it will defer to the interpretation and uphold it if it constitutes a reasonable interpretation of law. In a recent case, Justice Gorsuch concliuded at Chevron Step One that the text was “clear enough,” so that deference should not be afforded. The clear enough formulation is reminiscent of Justice Kavanaugh’s article, where he explains the various divisions among judges about clarity:

I tend to be a judge who finds clarity more readily than some of my colleagues but perhaps a little less readily than others. In practice, I probably apply something approaching a 65-35 rule. In other words, if the interpretation is at least 65-35 clear, then I will call it clear and reject reliance on ambiguity-dependent canons. I think a few of my colleagues apply more of a 90-10 rule, at least in certain cases. Only if the proffered interpretation is at least 90-10 clear will they call it clear. By contrast, I have other colleagues who appear to apply a 55-45 rule. If the statute is at least 55-45 clear, that’s good enough to call it clear.

Kavanaugh’s approach is probably closer to the right one, if we accept the general proposition that language will be workable in the majority of cases. If there is no reason to doubt language, then clarity will be easier to come by. It is only if we go in assuming the case of unworkability that clarity becomes a fool’s errand. But from a perspective of legal design, this is not desirable.

Law has a reputation for being a highly technical field, with a laser focus on commas, semicolons, and correcting the passive voice. But at the level of designing legal rules, including rules governing language, the best we can hope for is workability, not technical precision. This is because designing rules involves tradeoffs between incentives, administrability, and fit. And because humans are not perfect, we cannot design rules at this level of abstraction that are perfect. As a result, in the language context, the best we can and should do is workability in the general run of cases.

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.