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.

Putting Stare Decisis Together Again

Originalists and living constitutionalists alike have good Rule of Law reasons for being wary of appeals to reinvigorate stare decisis

It is hardly news for those who follow Canadian public law that the Supreme Court tends to have little regard for precedent. Indeed, to the surprise of most people and the chagrin of many, it even freed lower courts to disregard its own precedents, in some circumstances, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. For many people, this lack of regard for stare decisis is part of a broader pattern of erosion of the Rule of Law. Dwight Newman and, separately, Brian Bird and Michael Bookman, made this argument in their respective contributions to the collection of essays/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review on threats to the Rule of Law in Canada edited by Maxime St-Hilaire and Joana Baron in 2019.

The relationship between stare decisis, the Rule of Law, and the desire to do justice in particular cases and to improve the law going forward is not only a source of difficulties in Canada, however. So tomorrow (December 15) at 2PM Eastern, a panel of the Global Summit, an online conference organized by Richard Albert, will try to shed some light on it with participants from the United States (Jeffrey Pojanowski and Marc DeGirolami), and Australia (Lisa Burton Crawford), as well as yours truly. Our chair will be an Italian colleague, Andrea Pin. This should be a lot of fun, and the other participants are all first-magnitude stars. (In case you’re wondering how they let me in ― well, I helped Prof. Pin put it together, so they couldn’t conveniently boot me out!)

The proceedings will, naturally for these plague times, be on Zoom. You can register here ― it’s free! My understanding is that they will be recorded and will, eventually be made available to all. These things tend to take some time though, and are bound to with an event as big as the Global Summit, so I encourage you to watch tomorrow if you can. And, to convince you to give it a go, here is a flavour of own presentation.


Critics of the lack of respect for precedent in Canadian public law tend to argue that enough is enough, and the Supreme Court should go back to a much more robust ― and consistent ― application of stare decisis. My argument is that this is too simple, too idealistic a response. In a perfect world where judges had generally been committed to the Rule of Law, unwavering respect for precedent may well be what an ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law requires. But the world of Canadian public law is far from being perfect in this way. Much of this law suffers from deep Rule of Law problems, some of which I described in my own contribution to the St-Hilaire & Baron volume. As a result, while I share the desire to put stare decisis together again, I argue that this operation will be a delicate one, and must be careful and somewhat selective.

One issue which I’ll address here ― there will be more in my talk (assuming I don’t run out of time, that is!) ― is the concern that respect for precedent may force courts to apply something other than the correct legal rule, be it constitutional, statutory or, arguably, even a common law principle. Lord Sankey, perhaps the chief ― if also most misunderstood ― authority on constitutional interpretation in Canada describes the issue eloquently in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58. Pointing out that “[u]nder our system, decided cases effectively construe the words” of enactments, including constitutional enactments, Lord Sankey highlights

a danger that in the course of this process the terms of the statute may come to be unduly extended and attention may be diverted from what has been enacted to what has been judicially said about the enactment. To borrow an analogy; there may be a range of sixty colours, each of which is so little different from its neighbour that it is difficult to make any distinction between the two, and yet at the one end of the range the colour may be white, and at the other end of the range black. (DLR 64)

Lord Sankey’s concerns in the Aeronautics Reference are those of an originalist avant la lettre: “[t]he process of interpretation as the years go on”, he warned,

ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction … should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies.

Some prominent academic originalist voices have echoed this belief, notably Gary Lawson, Randy Barnett, and Amy Coney Barrett (back when she was still in academia). However, they are not alone in worrying about precedent standing in the way of an accurate application of the law. Debra Parkes raises the same concern from a Canadian living constitutionalist perspective: “[t]he entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has arguably strengthened the case for overruling earlier decisions that are inconsistent with the evolving interpretation of various Charter rights”. (137) Similarly, the late Joseph Arvay and his co-authors have argued that “it is the role and duty of the [Supreme] Court to provide what it believes to be a correct interpretation of the Charter, even if that involves admitting long-standing and oft-repeated past judicial error”. (69)

Of course, originalists or those who are chiefly concerned with the stability of the law may view the living constitutionalist position as simply empowering judges to legislate their particular preferences from the bench. And, admittedly, some living constitutionalists seem to seek a sort of permanent revolution in constitutional law. Mr Avray and his co-authors wrote that “an examination of the role of stare decisis in Charter litigation reveals some transformative Charter moments lost”, (62; emphasis in the original) suggesting that they might be expecting the courts to change society rather than be its reflection, as living constitutionalism seems to suggest. I personally think that this tension between applying the law, even an ever-evolving law, and transforming it is fatal to living constitutionalism’s claim to be a sustainable approach to constitutional interpretation. But let me put that aside for the purposes of this post (and of my talk tomorrow).

Here, I will take living constitutionalism at its word, as an approach to constitutional interpretation that holds that the law is shaped by the needs and values of society as they stand from time to time. On this view, updating legal doctrine to align it with these needs and values as they happen to stand now is not exercise of will, but simply what the Rule of Law requires. Living constitutionalists saying “this precedent no longer reflects the values of Canadian society and must therefore be discarded” are no different, in their relationship to the Rule of Law, from originalists saying “this precedent is inconsistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text, and must therefore be discarded”.

Call this, if you will, the horseshoe theory of constitutional stare decisis. Radical originalists and radical living constitutionalists agree, at least at the level of broad principle. In practice, there may still be substantial disagreement between those originalists who, like Prof. Barnett, distinguish constitutional interpretation and construction, and see a role for stare decisis in the latter, and living constitutionalists (and those originalists) for whom all constitutional questions are essentially similar in being determined by the constitution itself. But, that important detail aside, both sides of the horseshoe agree that the constitution’s meaning cannot be superseded by judicial interpretation, and remains directly binding on courts, regardless of what their predecessors may have said about it.

From my own originalist perch, I agree with this view. The Rule of Law concerns about the stability of legal doctrine are serious, of course. But the concern on the other side of the scale is no less based on the Rule of Law. The issue is with what Lon Fuller called “congruence” between the law on the books and the law as it is actually applied. (I wrote about this here.) Law cannot guide behaviour ― and thus play its moral role in providing a secure environment for citizens and establishing a mutually respectful relationship between the citizens and the state ― if it is not applied in accordance with its terms. Officials, including judges, who do not apply the law as it stands are engaged in nothing less than “lawless application of the law”. In my view, lawlessness cannot become the foundation of a Rule-of-Law compliant law; it must be expunged for our legal system to have a claim to the kind of authority that Fuller envisions.


As mentioned, this is only a preview. In my talk ― and, hopefully, in a paper that will come out of it ― I will try to address a couple of other reasons why I think it is a mistake to simply insist that the Supreme Court go back to upholding precedents. The problems with the Rule of Law in Canadian public law run much deeper than a lack of regard for stare decisis, and addressing this issue in isolation will not really resolve them. I hope that you can “come” to the talk, and that we can continue this discussion there!

Still Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court tries to bring more rigour to constitutional interpretation and takes a step towards textualism, but won’t admit it

In my last post, I summarized the opinions delivered in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32. While the Supreme Court unanimously holds that corporations are not protected from cruel and unusual punishment by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority (Justices Brown and Rowe, with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) and the principal concurrence (Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) strongly disagree about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation and to the role in this process of international and foreign legal materials.

As promised, in this post I present my thoughts on these opinions, primarily on their general approach to interpretation, though I’ll say something on the role of international and foreign materials too. I will, once again, begin with Justice Abella’s opinion, which in my view is representative of what I have described as “constitutionalism from Plato’s cave” ― the judicial creation of constitutional law out of abstract ideals favoured by the judges themselves rather than genuine interpretation of a constitutional text. I will then turn to the majority opinion, which repudiates constitutionalism from the cave, but also seemingly rejects what I regard as the best interpretive method, public meaning originalism. I will argue that there is less to this rejection than meets the eye.

One question on which I will say nothing, although the majority and the principal concurrence trade sharp accusations on it, is which of these opinions is more consistent with precedent. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have pointed out in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence”, the Supreme Court has never been consistent in how it interpreted the constitution, mixing and matching originalist and living constitutionalist approaches in any number of unpredictable ways. (Mr. Oliphant has developed this theme elsewhere too.) Justices Brown and Rowe are right to call for more rigour and consistency on this front; but they are wrong, as is Justice Abella, to suggest that has been any rigour and consistency in the past. Whatever their flaws, neither the majority nor the concurring opinion break with established law, because there is no real law to break with.


As mentioned in my last post, Justice Abella insists that her approach to interpretation is “contextual” and, above all, “purposive”. In truth, it might be better described as authorizing constitution-making by the Supreme Court. It is “the Court” ― following an American usage, Justice Abella does not bother specifying which one ― that “has, over time, decided who and what came within the Charter’s protective scope”. [49] The Supreme Court does not simply decide cases in which the question arose. No, it apparently ruled, as a matter of discretion, on whom the Charter will protect going forward.

Judicial rulings in constitutional cases are not, for Justice Abella, mere workings out of the constitution’s meaning. Indeed, the constitutional text plays no special role in interpretation for her. This is unsurprising, because Justice Abella embraces the view that co-blogger Mark Mancini recently described as “linguistic nihilism” ― the idea “that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous”, so that “the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game”. (Of course this is of a piece with Justice Abella’s commitments in administrative law.) It is also unsurprising, then, that her discussion of international materials suggests that text does not really matter at all, and a variety of differently-worded provisions all stand for the exact same principles, without any meaningful inquiry into the relevance, if any, of their language. In fact, Justice Abella is openly disdainful of the possibility that textual nuance ― such as “the presence of a comma” [75] ― might make a difference in interpretation.

Another reason for Justice Abella’s refusal to be bound by constitutional text is that this ” could unduly constrain the scope of [constitutional] rights”. [75] This reflects the conviction, common among living constitutionalists, that judicial re-writing of constitutions is a one-way ratchet unfailing causing rights to expand. This view is belied by experience. But, quite apart from that: “unduly” by what standard? If not by reference to text, how do we know what is the due scope of constitutional rights? This ambiguity is of a piece with Justice Abella’s insistence that section 12 “is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. Its intended beneficiaries are people, not corporations.” [51] Is meant… by whom? Intended… by whom? And how do we know?

As Mr. Oliphant and I noted in the paper linked to above, “[m]arks on paper have no will or agency and thus can have no ‘purposes’ or ‘intentions’ that are independent of willful actors”. (537) One possibility, as we suggested, is that this language becomes an opening for an inquiry into the intentions of the Charter‘s framers. But Justice Abella isn’t very interested in that. Unlike the Supreme Court in some cases, she doesn’t consider the Charter‘s drafting history or the views of its framers, beyond a passing reference to Pierre Trudeau’s general comments about the Charter‘s raison d’être.

Justice Abella’s use of ambiguous language and the passive voice, like her refusal to be bound by text or to commit to any hierarchy of interpretive sources, suggest that she believes herself to have has complete discretion in deciding what the Charter is to mean. Her own sense of justice is the only standard of who is “due” protection under the constitution, and what protection they are “due”. This is unsurprising, of course, from someone who professes impatience with the Rule of Law and prefers a “rule of justice”. Constitutional purposes, as she conceives of them, are Platonic abstractions, which the wise ― she the wisest ― must interpret for the rest of us.

As I have said a number of times in the past, “constitutionalism from the cave” is not real constitutionalism. It is antithetical to the Rule of Law. Ultimately, it undermines the foundations of judicial review: if the constitution means whatever unelected judges preoccupied with international approval more than with the law or the commands of the constitution’s framers say it means, there is no particular reason why the political branches would comply with these judges’ musings. It is good that this view is dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court’s majority.


In contrast to Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe emphasize the importance of constitutional text. It is not, I think, merely a matter of the text being chronologically the first consideration for a court engaged in constitutional interpretation: “constitutional interpretation” is “the interpretation of the text of the Constitution”. [9] The text is its focus and overriding constraint; it has “primacy” over other considerations. [10, citing Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511 at [36]]

One way in which the text matters is, of course, through the ordinary meaning of its words and the inferences that can be drawn from it. Here, since the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of human suffering, it stands to reason that section 12 does not protect corporations. But the significance of the text goes further. The history of the text and the changes it underwent are relevant too, as Justices Brown and Rowe show by pointing ― in language that, as I noted in my last post, closely mirrors that of my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case ― to the contrast between the language of section 12 and that of its predecessors in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688. Other provisions on the text are relevant too.

To my mind, this ― so far as it goes ― is a sound approach to constitutional interpretation, and I am happy to see it forcefully stated by a majority of the Supreme Court. If I were to put a label on it, it would be “textualism”. Consider the definition of textualism given by then-Judge, now Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a lecture I reviewed here:

Textualism … insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

This is what Justices Brown and Rowe are doing: insisting that the object of interpretation is words, text, and focusing on their ordinary meaning, which is a hard constraint on interpretation.

Yet Justices Brown and Rowe reject the label of textualism. To their mind, what they are doing is purposive interpretation. Judge Barrett, as she then was, saw purposivism as the opposite of textualism, though in my post I cautioned that “many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive”. Perhaps this is what Justices Brown and Rowe are advocating ― a sort of “purposivism”, if that’s what they prefer to call it, but one that has a great deal more in common with textualism as defined by Judge Barrett than with “purposivism” as defined by Justice Abella.

So maybe the moral of the story here is that we all should be less hung up on labels. But in my view there is a real cost to the lack of clarity that the labels used by the Supreme Court generate. I wrote about this here when I commented on R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40. In that case, similarly to here, the majority and the dissent both claimed to be engaged in purposive interpretation. But the majority, I argued, was in effect following a public meaning originalist (and hence textualist) approach, while the dissent was doing constitutionalism from the cave. As I said then, to pretend that textualist interpretation is really purposive generates unnecessary detours. Here, the majority’s references to human dignity as the purpose of section 12 do no real work, and unnecessarily burden the reasoning with what is, by the Supreme Court’s own well-known admission in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 SCR 483, “an abstract and subjective notion”. [22] And, as I also said in my comment on Stillman, mislabeling an originalist or textualist interpretation as purposivist makes it possible for the partisans of an entirely different version of purposivism to invoke cases that go directly against their views as support for them. Justice Abella does precisely that here (at [73]).

Worse still, from my perspective, than the mere confusion about labels is the seeming rejection by Justices Brown and Rowe of the substance of public meaning originalism, under the label of “new textualism” which they borrow from Aharon Barak’s Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, where it stands as a shorthand for Justice’s Scalia’s interpretive approach. This is the idea, as President Barak put it, “that that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”. (82; reference omitted) Justices Brown and Rowe claim that this approach is “not remotely consistent” [12] with theirs. If they are right, this would be the first rejection of public meaning originalism by the Supreme Court. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, until now, the only versions of originalism that had been clearly rejected were those, disfavoured by originalists themselves, that focus on original expected applications and outcomes.

Yet it will take more than this opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe to make me give up on originalism. Let me note, first, that Justice Brown himself was a co-author of the Stillman majority opinion (and that its other co-author was Justice Moldaver, who agrees with Justices Brown and Rowe here). I described that opinion as “perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron“. And yes, Caron ― which Justices Brown and Rowe repeatedly cite ― was a public-meaning originalist judgment, as I explained here. Both Stillman and Caron focused on ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional provisions at issue there by reference to how they would have been understood by “a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”, over dissents that favoured, respectively a more policy-infused approach and one based on the alleged intent of the framers. If Justices Brown and Rowe really meant to reject public meaning originalism, would they be relying on these cases? That seems implausible.

No less importantly, consider what Justices Brown and Rowe say elsewhere in their opinion. When they discuss the use of international and foreign materials, they draw an “important distinction … between instruments that pre‑ and post‑date the Charter“. [41] The former “clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed”, whether or not they were binding on Canada. The latter, only matter if they bind Canada, and even then subject to only a presumption that Canadian constitutional law conforms to them, and to the principle that international law does not automatically become part of Canadian law. This isn’t quite originalism: an originalist would be warier still of materials that post-date the Charter, although, as I am about to explain, without necessarily rejecting their relevance in all cases. But it’s pretty close. Originalists believe that constitutional text must be interpreted in context as of the date of its enactment, and reference to international materials available to Canadian framers is certainly a legitimate part of ascertaining the context in which the Charter‘s original meaning should be established. The fact that Justices Brown and Rowe draw a dividing line at the moment of the Charter’s enactment suggests that they are, in fact, open to something like originalist thinking.

All in all, my point is not that Justices Brown and Rowe are originalists. However, they are textualists, which is a big part of originalism, and their approach has at least some significant affinities with public meaning originalism. It is unfortunate that their self-misunderstanding muddies the waters. But if we focus on what they do rather than on what they say about what they do we can see that their opinion, despite its flaws, is an important step in the right direction, and by far preferable to Justice Abella’s.


I turn, finally, to the issue of international and comparative materials. I agree with the majority’s calls for care and discernment in the way such materials are used. Partly this is a matter of legal and intellectual rigour. Partly, as Justices Brown and Rowe say, of “preserving the integrity of the Canadian constitutional structure, and Canadian sovereignty”. [23] Justice Abella’s concerns about whether foreign scholars and courts will pay attention to Canadian constitutional law are beside the point. Ultimately, the Canadian constitution means what it means, and not what some international treaty, let alone foreign constitutional text, might mean ― a matter on which Canadian courts often could not pronounce. I would, however, add two further observations, which I already made here in discussing similar issues that arose in the Supreme Court’s decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, [2019] 1 SCR 3.

First, international and foreign materials may be more relevant and persuasive to courts engaged in constitutional construction, and in particular (but not only) in the demarcation of reasonable limits on rights under section 1 of the Charter, than in cases such as this one, which concern the interpretation of the Charter‘s text. When courts develop legal doctrine, they have more reason to look to international experience ― including international experience post-dating the Charter‘s enactment ― than when they seek to discern the meaning of the Charter‘s words ― an exercise to which, as Justices Brown and Rowe recognize, international and foreign materials post-dating the Charter are unlikely to be relevant. The majority’s unwillingness to seriously engage with public meaning originalism causes it to seemingly lump all constitutional questions together and so to lose sight of this nuance.

Second, when and to the extent that international and foreign law is relevant, judicial consideration of it should, as I wrote in my comment on Frank, “not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete”. I’m not quite sure what Justices Brown and Rowe mean by saying that such materials should be kept to “providing support and confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation”. [22; emphasis in the original] But it would not be intellectually honest for a court to only consider materials that agree with its conclusions and deliberately discard others. If the court considers foreign and international sources, it should address those that it does not find persuasive.

The court should also be careful not to misunderstand or mischaracterize these sources. Justice Abella’s invocation of the “judges in the majority” in Furman v Georgia, 402 US 238 (1972), as having “definitively discussed” the purpose of the Eighth Amendment is an example of such dangers. There was no unified majority in Furman; the two judges whom Justice Abella quotes, Justices Marshall and Brennan, were in fact the only ones who took the position they took, which was that the death penalty was necessarily cruel and unusual punishment. Three others took a more limited view that opened the door to the re-imposition of the death penalty, which was given the green light in Gregg v Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976), in effect reversing Furman. If judges are to refer to foreign law, they need to understand and be honest about it.


Overall, the Supreme Court, and specifically the majority opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe, brings a welcome dose of rigour to the task of constitutional interpretation in Canada. The primacy of constitutional text as the object of interpretation is affirmed, while freewheeling discretion to make the constitution the best it can be in a judge’s opinion is rejected. There is also a more rigorous approach to the use of international and foreign materials in constitutional interpretation. Compared to the alternative vividly illustrated by Justice Abella, this is all very welcome (and all the more so if, as I hypothesized in my last post, Justice Abella’s opinion was originally intended to be the majority one).

But the majority opinion is very far from perfect, and it will perpetuate much of the confusion that afflicts constitutional interpretation in Canada. Even as it adopts the methods of textualism and is largely compatible with public meaning originalism it disclaims the former and purports to reject the latter. This messiness is the sad consequence of a lack of serious thought about constitutional interpretation in Canada. One can only hope that this gap will be filled in the years to come.

Let Us Reason Together

A call for dialogue on constitutional interpretation, free from anti-originalist myths

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, an originalist scholar and appellate judge, to the US Supreme Court provoked a flare-up of interest in originalism from people who do not normally spend much time thinking about constitutional interpretation. That would be all to the good, if this engagement did not all too often rely on myths and misconceptions, some of them dating from the early days of modern originalism, others bearing little relationship with what any serious originalists in the US and Canada believe. (An entire Twitter account has now sprung up to collect some of these misconceptions.) In this post, we address a couple of myths about constitutional interpretation that underlie the memes, tweetstorms, and political zingers, and call on our readers to engage in more fruitful conversation about constitutional interpretation.

Myth 1: Originalism freezes the preferences and intentions of the founders in law

The overall view of originalism held or propagated by most of its lay critics and, alas, many professional ones, is that it is meant to keep it exactly as the framers of the constitution intended, obstinately refusing to recognize any changes in society that have occurred since the framing. Hence the much repeated claims that, for example, Justice Barrett couldn’t even be appointed to the Supreme Court since the framers of the US Constitution had not anticipated women judges. In the Canadian context, those who hold this view insist that a rewriting of the Constitution Act, 1867 by living constitutionalist judges was necessary to make women eligible to serve in the Senate, since the Fathers of Confederation did not mean for them to do so.

These claims are based on several misconceptions. One has to do with the nature of the originalist enterprise. Most originalists today recognize that it is both wrong and, in all likelihood, futile to seek to give effect to the intentions or expectations of the framers of a constitution. Wrong, because only that which is enacted through the relevant constitution-making process, can be binding. Intentions, hopes, and expectations are not. Futile, because―as the critics of early versions of originalism pointed out―constitutional texts are typically compromises reached by large and diverse groups of framers, who do not necessarily share intentions and expectations as to what their handiwork will achieve and how it will be applied in practice.

The task of the originalist constitutional interpreter is to focus on that on which the framers of the constitution agreed and which is binding law: the text. This is not to say that originalism is equivalent to “strict constructionism”. A good originalist knows that text is read in context, and some originalist theories, at least, even accommodate the idea of unwritten constitutional rules. A good originalist, like Justice Barrett, also knows that legal texts can be written at different levels of generality, and that they can employ standards as well as rules, and seeks to give effect to the language as written, neither narrowing it if broad nor expanding it if narrow.

This, incidentally, is another reason why an “expected applications” approach to interpretation is not good originalism. If the framers of the text used language that calls on its interpreters to engage in moral or practical reasoning, for example by prohibiting “cruel” punishments or “unreasonable” searches, the interpreters who would confine the text to what was regarded as cruel or unreasonable when it was enacted would disregard these instructions. To the extent that this is what the derisive label of “frozen rights” or “frozen concepts” interpretation refers to, the derision is justified. But, while in fairness to originalism’s doubters such criticism could be levelled at its early practitioners (including, sometimes, Justice Scalia), contemporary originalists know better than to make this mistake.

As a result, more often than not, originalism has no difficulty applying constitutional rules to changing and developing society. Broad constitutional language will encompass cases not anticipated by its framers. The so-called “Persons Case” is an example: it is probably true that the Fathers of Confederation would not have expected women to be appointed to the Senate, but they used language that, as Lord Sankey shows, naturally extended to women, and therefore did not need to be construed as barring their appointment. Another example from the United States: infrared technology, used to “search” homes from the outside, were clearly not in the contemplation of the framers. But Justice Scalia, originalist though he was, held in Kyllo that using it was indeed a search for the purposes of the 4th Amendment, which protects the privacy of the home from invasion by new means as well as old.

That said, originalists do not believe that constitutional language, even when broad, let alone when precise, is infinitely malleable. As Lord Sankey says in the Persons Case, had the framers of 1867 chosen to specify that Senators were required to be men, no legitimate interpretation could have bypassed or overturned this choice. Indeed, few, if any, living constitutionalists would disagree. This brings us to the next myth.

Myth 2: Originalists just don’t want the constitution to change

What if the Constitution Act, 1867 had specified that being male was a qualification for being a Senator? Originalists believe that such an unfortunate drafting choice of the constitution’s framers would have had to be undone by constitutional amendment, and welcomed such an amendment. Originalism is an approach to interpreting a text as it stands from time to time; it does not counsel against that text being amended when it is no longer in tune with the needs of society, provided that the amendment is carried out by means provided in the constitution, rather than by the courts. The claims, made by originalism’s American critics, that originalists would somehow disregard constitutional amendments that protect the rights of African Americans, women, and other groups are quite without foundation in any originalists’ actual commitments. They also ignore voluminous originalist research into the meaning of these amendments.

In Canada, any appeals to the possibility of constitutional amendment tend to be dismissed as fanciful. Our constitution is said to be impossible to amend. But this simply isn’t so. Indeed, given that Canada is a federation, it is difficult to imagine an amending formulate less restrictive than the “7/50” that the Constitution Act, 1982 makes the default. It is worth recalling that prior to 1982 convention required at least as much consensus, and possibly unanimity―and yet amendments to the Constitution Act, 1867 were made from time to time. This is not to deny, of course, that convincing our fellow-citizens and legislators that our favourite constitutional reform projects are worthwhile is difficult. But this is as it should be in a constitutional democracy, and no reason for seeking to implement these projects through judicial fiat.

A call to Dialogue

Now, originalism is not above criticism or beyond reproach. For example, we might usefully debate the feasibility of inquiries into the original public meaning of constitutional texts, the worry that a public meaning originalism that acknowledges the underdeterminacy of much constitutional language fails to usefully constrain judges, and the possibility that self-proclaimed originalist judges will only use their ostensible commitments as a smokescreen to hide their implementation of favoured policies. Originalism faces theoretical challenges, such as the issue of its relationship with the principle of stare decisis (to which Judge Barrett devoted much of her scholarship), and―especially in the Canadian context―the need to make sense of significant unwritten constitutional rules.

We would welcome engagement with these issues, so long as it took originalism as a serious theory and practice, rather than a self-evidently mistaken unCanadian aberration. For all the protestations of the Canadian legal academy (and, more rarely, of the courts) that originalism has no place in our jurisprudence, it is simply beyond doubt that something akin to originalism is often, although by no means always, an important factor in the Supreme Court’s decision-making. If the Court is wrong to reason in this way, the critics should explain why, instead of insisting, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that it doesn’t.

We would also welcome a clear articulation of the critics’ own interpretive commitments, which is curiously missing from Canadian (and, mostly, even American) scholarship. We are admonished that the Canadian constitution is a “living tree”, but seldom told what precisely this means. For example, when are the courts entitled or required to “evolve” constitutional meaning? On what should they base their decision to do so? Are there limits to their power? By what means does living constitutionalism protect against judges who are less enlightened than the framers of the constitution or who think that changed circumstances require restricting rights instead of expanding them? Without an explanation on these and some other matters, it is difficult to compare the plausibility of living constitutionalist and originalist theories, and assertions of the former’s superiority fall to be taken on faith, which is antithetical to serious scholarly or even political debate.

Such debate would be to our mutual advantage, originalists and living constitutionalists alike. After all, we are not merely trying to score rhetorical points or preserve our positions, whether in politics or in the academy, from competitors. We are trying to answer difficult but consequential questions about the way in which judicial power ought to be exercised and our fundamental laws are to be applied. If we are to have any chance of getting at the right answers to these questions, we need to make our best arguments and measure them against the best arguments of those who disagree with us. Come, let us reason together.

Missing the Forest for the Living Tree

What Lord Sankey actually meant with his living tree metaphor

It is often said that the only interpretive method sanctioned in Canadian constitutional law is one that recognizes , in a well known articulation in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698, “that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life”. [22] The “living tree” metaphor comes from a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98, better known as the “Persons Case” because it resolved the question of whether women could be “qualified persons” for the purposes of section 24 of the then-British North America Act, 1867, which governs appointments to the Senate.

As Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown, the conventional view that living constitutionalism is our law is mistaken: the Supreme Court in fact frequently, if unsystematically, resorts to other interpretive methods, and indeed the Same-Sex Marriage Reference itself is consistent with an originalist approach. Moreover, as we discuss at some length, and as I long-ago suggested here, and now-Justice Bradley Miller has demonstrated, the view that Edwards employed and requires what has come to be known as “living tree” interpretation is simply wrong. It cannot be sustained on a fair reading of the case, which turns on the deployment of orthodox statutory interpretation techniques.

But of course the people who invoke Edwards and the “living tree” metaphor aren’t making it up: the words really are there. But what exactly do they signify, if not that the meaning of the constitution changes over time? Here is my best reading: it is shorthand for the Canadian constitution as a whole ― the constitution considered, in J.A.G. Griffith’s phrase, as “just what happens” ― as opposed to the text of what we now call the Constitution Acts.


Recall that Lord Sankey’s judgment proceeds in two main sections: first he deals with what he refers to as “[t]he external evidence derived from extraneous circumstances”, (DLR 99) namely the suggestion that the reference to “persons” in section 24 was specifically a reference to male persons because it implicitly incorporated the common law rule excluding women from public office. This, Lord Sankey says, “is a relic of days more barbarous than ours”, (99) and he is generally unimpressed with the strength of this “external” evidence, which had swayed the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Towards the end of that section of his judgment, Lord Sankey starts pivoting to the interpretation of section 24 itself. He notes that

No doubt in any code where women were expressly excluded from public office the problem would present no difficulty, but where instead of such exclusion those entitled to be summoned to or placed in public office are described under the word “person” different considerations arise.

The word is ambiguous and in its original meaning would undoubtedly embrace members of either sex. On the other hand, supposing in an Act of Parliament several centuries ago it had been enacted that any person should be entitled to be elected to a particular office it would have been understood that the word only referred to males, but the cause of this was not because the word “person” could not include females but because at Common Law a woman was incapable of serving a public office. (104-105)

The question is whether such implicit understandings are binding. Lord Sankey warns that “[c]ustoms are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared”. (105) He says, accordingly, that history ― in this case, the history of the exclusion of women from public office ― is not determinative. With this he turns to the examination of “the internal evidence derived from the [B.N.A.] Act itself”, (106) beginning not far from where he left off: with a warning that the Judicial Commitee “must take great care … not to interpret legislation meant to apply to one community by a rigid adherence to the customs and traditions of another”. (106)

And then, after a quick glance at the history of Confederation, Lord Sankey comes to the famous metaphor:

The B.N.A. Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits. The object of the Act was to grant a Constitution to Canada.

“Like all written constitutions it has been subject to development through usage and convention:” (Canadian Constitutional Studies, Sir Robert Borden, 1922, p. 55) .

Their Lordships do not conceive it ta be the duty of this Board—it is certainly not their desire—to cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation so that the Dominion to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, may be mistress in her own house, as the provinces to a great extent, but within certain fixed limits, are mistresses in theirs. (DLR 106-107)

A couple of further general considerations follow. For one thing, Lord Sankey notes that, while it is true that a “large and liberal” interpretation is appropriate for a constitutional statute, “the question is not what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said”. (107) (This blog’s readers need go no further than yesterday’s post by co-blogger Mark Mancini for a re-articulation of this principle.) For another:

[T]heir Lordships [are not] deciding any question as to the rights of women but only a question as to their eligibility for a particular position. No one either male or female has a right to be summoned to the Senate. The real point at issue is whether the Governor-General has a right to summon women to the Senate.

And then Lord Sankey gets on with really deciding the case by deploying the whole arsenal of usual statutory interpretation techniques. In my earlier post on Edwards, I compared this to “Ravel’s Boléro, an almost-endless repetition of the same simple theme with different instruments”.

Putting all that together, it is clear that Lord Sankey’s judgment is, above all, textualist. He attaches little attention to early history or to intentions and expectations. (Justice Wakeling of the Alberta Court of Appeal, among others, should take note.) By the same token, he is not trying to re-write the text, or to give words new meanings they didn’t have at the time of their enactment. As he says, if the statute referred to men alone instead of using language that in its “original meaning” could encompass women, the case would be open and shut. To repeat, the “living tree” is absolutely not an invitation to update the constitution. But what is it?

To the extent the metaphor does work, it is to help warn against the temptation to “cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction”. Rather, Lord Sankey says, they must receive “a large and liberal interpretation” ― consistent, however, “not [with] what may be supposed to have been intended, but what has been said” ― to ensure freedom of action “within certain fixed limits” ― fixed, mind you! ― for governments, federal and provincial alike. In this sense, Edwards really is about the right of the Governor General, which is to say of the federal government of the day, to appoint women to the Senate. It is this freedom that must not be unnecessarily curtailed, or “cut down” as Lord Sankey says.

The actions of the government in the constitutional sphere ― “just what happens” ― are the living tree. This tree can grow as society changes, because the government will take actions, which will then develop into practices, and these in turn into “usage and conventions”, in response to social change. But this growth is constrained by constitutional text, whose meaning, while free of presuppositions long pre-dating its enactment, may not change.


It is unfortunate that people appeal to the authority of Lord Sankey’s judgment in Edwards without actually thinking about what that judgment says and does. Justice Rothstein admitted, in a lecture, that he’d never read it until retiring from the Supreme Court. I suspect he is not alone. Of course people who extol Lord Sankey also pay not heed to his overtly originalist opinion in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

But the Aeronautics Reference is a niche interest, a hidden gem. Edwards, by contrast, is supposed to be the most iconic case in all of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence, a font of wisdom and a national symbol, a literal monument. And it truly is a great case, with a great judgment given by a great jurist. If only people would pay it the well-deserved compliment of reading understanding what makes its greatness by reading it closely from beginning to end instead of just taking a line out of the decision, they wouldn’t miss the forest for the living tree.

The Rule of Law All the Way Up

Introducing my recently-published chapter on the Rule of Law and Canadian constitutional law

LexisNexis Canada recently published (if I understand correctly, as a standalone book as well as a dedicated issue of the Supreme Court Law Review (2d)) Attacks on the Rule of Law from Within, a collection of essays co-edited by my friends Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire. The publisher’s blurb gives a concise summary of the project’s background and contents:

This volume is a collection of six papers developed from the Runnymede Society’s 2018 national conference by a community of legal experts in response to Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s comment that “the phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her”. 

Grounded on the intuition that the legal profession supports the rule of law, the papers examine the historical perspective on threats to the rule of law, the sufficiency of the current Canadian legal framework to support this ideal and how the principle of stare decisis as observed by the Supreme Court of Canada undermines the spirit of the rule of law. The volume also discusses how the law relating to Aboriginal title and the duty to consult fails to adhere to the Rule of Law standards … to the detriment of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

I am honoured to have contributed to this volume, with an essay called “The Rule of Law All the Way Up”, which focuses on what I see as the lack of commitment to the Rule of constitutional Law in by scholars, judges, and politicians. Here is the abstract:

Canadian constitutional law is seldom criticised for its failure to live up to the ideal of the Rule of Law. This article argues that it should be so criticised. A number of widely accepted or uncontroversial Rule of Law requirements―the need for general, stable, and prospective rules, the congruence between the “in the books” and the law “in action, and the availability of impartial, independent courts to adjudicate legal disputes―are compromised by a number of ideas already accepted or increasingly advocated by Canadian lawyers, judges, and officials.

This article describes four of these ideas, to which it refers as “politicization techniques”, because they transform what purports to be “the supreme law of Canada” into a set of malleable political commitments. These are, first, deference to legislatures or the application of a “margin of appreciation” and the “presumption of constitutionality” in constitutional adjudication; second, constitutional “dialogue” in which courts not merely defer, but actively give way to legislative decisions; the substitution of political for legal judgment through the application of the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the rewriting of constitutional law by the courts under the banner of “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

The article concludes with an appeal to those who profess commitment to the Rule of Law in relation to the Constitution not to embrace or endorse the means by which it is subverted.

The entire chapter is available to download on SSRN. It builds on many of the themes developed on my posts here ― the rejection of judicial deference on constitutional issues, whether to legislatures or to the administrative state; the imperative to renounce the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”; and the perils of “living constitutionalism”. Some of these, notably the issue of deference to administrative interpretations of constitutional law and constitutional interpretation, I will also be pursuing in future work. (Indeed, the first of these is the subject of the paper I will be presenting at the Journal of Commonwealth Law symposium next month.)

I am very grateful to Ms. Baron and Professor St-Hilaire for having given me the opportunity to present these thoughts, and write them up for publication. I am also grateful to Justice Bradley Miller, of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who gave me thoughtful comments when I presented my chapter (then still very much in draft form) at the 2018 Runnymede Society conference, as well as to Kerry Sun, who was a very helpful editor. And I am looking forward to reading the other contributions in the volume, once I am done preparing the talks I am about to give in the coming weeks.

Comeau’s Lesson

It’s not that the courts have generally messed up Canadian federalism, still less that they should improve it

The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, which eviscerated section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to uphold the power of the provinces to impose barriers to inter-provincial trade (so long as they are “rationally connected” to some real or made-up regulatory objective) has been sharply and almost universally criticized. Indeed, I can’t recall another decision of a court that, according to more than a few Canadian lawyers, can do virtually no wrong, that was met with such widespread disapproval. But, though I too have argued that Comeau was wrongly decided and very poorly reasoned, I would like to push back against a view expressed by some of my fellow critics, especially by Emmett Macfarlane in Maclean’s, that not only Comeau, but the broader Canadian federalism jurisprudence is fundamentally wrong.

Professor Macfarlane argues that this jurisprudence distorts “the obviously centralized constitutional design implemented in 1867”. He writes that

past courts … trampled over the written text and intent of the framers to dramatically broaden the powers of the provinces while artificially narrowing relevant federal provisions like the trade and commerce clause. … [L]ongstanding federalism jurisprudence … is … a product of judicial invention rather than a reflection of the constitutionally established powers.

Professor Macfarlane also faults the Supreme Court for “abandon[ing] its famous ‘living tree’ metaphor to treat ancient federalism precedent as inviolable.” Philippe Lagassé, paraphrasing Craig Forcese, similarly writes that “it’s hard not to notice that the [Supreme Court] is encasing Canadian institutions in amber”.

With respect, I think that these critiques are largely misguided. Canadian federalism jurisprudence is far from perfect, and I have criticized it from time to time, but it does not merit wholesale condemnation. It is important to distinguish among the multiple issues that arise under the general label of federalism. Failures to deal with some of them do not negate successes in other areas. And it is important not to lose sight of the courts’ task in enforcing a federal distribution of powers ― or, for that matter, any kind of entrenched constitutional provisions: not to make federalism great again, let alone the best it can be, but to give effect to the arrangements arrived at by political actors in the past (and susceptible of revision by political actors in the future).

One kind of issues that courts applying a federal constitution must address has to do with the interpretation of the heads of power it assigns to one or the other level of government. In Canada, these are mostly, though not exclusively, found in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and much of the groundwork of interpreting them was done in the first decades after Confederation by the British judges sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It is a venerable Canadian tradition, going back to FR Scott and even earlier scholars, to attack these judges ― pausing only to fawn over them for their decision in the “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), from which the “living tree” metaphor is drawn.

For my part, however, I do not agree that they somehow distorted the Constitution Act, 1867. As Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, their interpretation of sections 91 and 92 was based on the public meaning of these provisions at the time of their enactment. It also took into account the most obvious, and distinctive, fact about the distribution of powers in Canada: that the powers of both orders of government are set out in the Constitution Act, 1867 (in contrast to the United States, and also Australia), and thus must be read together so that all can be given effect. The oft-heard complaint about the courts’ narrow reading of the federal “trade and commerce” power ignores  the existence of both the provincial power over “property and civil rights”, and of other federal powers, such as “banking” and “bankruptcy and insolvency”, which a broad reading of “trade and commerce” would render nugatory. Without going into more detail, I remain of the view that the interpretive part of the Canadian federalism jurisprudence is mostly, if not entirely, satisfactory. It is, moreover, a good thing, not a bad one, that the Supreme Court has resisted the temptation of re-writing these precedents in the name of the living tree; absent a showing, such as one that was made in Comeau, that they were at odds with the original public meaning of the Constitution Act, 1867, their endurance is cause for celebration.

The second type of federalism issues involves the drawing of the boundaries between the powers attributed to the two levels of government. These can overlap, even if they are interpreted in a way that accounts for the distribution and so reduces the overlay to some extent. Doctrines like federal paramountcy, inter-jurisdictional immunity, double aspect, and co-operative federalism determine, for example, whether the courts will conclude that a federal and a provincial law that are plausibly within the respective powers of the legislatures that enacted them are in conflict, and what happens if they are. The Constitution Act, 1867 bears on these questions, but only to some extent, so that the courts have mostly operated without textual guidance in this area.

Many of the rules the courts have developed are of more recent vintage than the interpretations of the heads of powers in sections 91 and 92 ― and of lesser quality. Since I started blogging (and it’s only been a little over six years), I have had occasion to denounce the Supreme Court’s paramountcy jurisprudence, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the doctrine of inter-jurisdictional immunity and the Court’s attempt to freeze it. Meanwhile, in an important recent article, Asher Honickman has criticized the Supreme Court for abandoning the textually-required exclusivity of the federal and provincial heads of power. Both Mr. Honickman’s criticisms and mine, as well as a noticeable part of the invective directed at the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Comeau, has to do with the Court’s embrace of the concept of “co-operative federalism”, which seems to be based on the idea that the more regulation there is, the better off we are. The court has sometimes tried to rein in this idea, notably in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, where it rejected Québec’s attempt to force the federal government to hand over the data from its defunct gun registry. But, as Comeau demonstrated, co-operative federalism keeps coming back to haunt its jurisprudence.

There is, I think, a third category of federalism issues ― those that have to do with the general implications of this principle, as implemented in the Constitution Act, 1867 and other constitutional provisions. It encompasses cases such as Hodge v The Queen, (1883) 9 App Cas 117Liquidators of the Maritime Bank of Canada v. Receiver-General of New Brunswick, [1892] AC 437, to some extent the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, and more recently cases concerning constitutional amendment, including the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217. In various ways, these cases hold that provinces are autonomous political communities and not mere components of the Canadian whole. This conclusion is an inference from the history and text of the Constitution Act, 1867. Perhaps the inference is wrong. All I can say here in its defence is that it is not enough to point to John A. Macdonald’s hope that provinces would in due course become no more than glorified municipal governments, if not wither away. Macdonald had initially hoped for a legislative union instead of a federal one. He lost that all-important fight, and the federation created by the Constitution Act, 1867 did not reflected the vision of Macdonald alone. To be sure, a federation without economic union may have been of little use; but a federation without meaningfully autonomous provinces would have been impossible.

Balancing these two considerations is no doubt exceedingly difficult ― but, fortunately, it is usually not the courts’ job. For the most part, it is the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 (and its amendments) who did it when they distributed powers between Parliament and the provinces. They were, on the whole, remarkably successful, though of course, that’s not to say that they got everything right, still less that what was right in 1867 is also right a century and a half later. But, right or wrong, the Constitution Act, 1867 is the law, the supreme law of Canada, and the courts must enforce it to the best of their ability ― not re-write it. As the one British judge for whom Canadian lawyers usually profess admiration, Lord Sankey LC, wrote in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58, that

[t]he process of interpretation [of the Constitution Act, 1867] as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR 65)

Thus, when they adjudicate, the courts’ task is usually to ascertain what the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 did. They do not need to update the balance between centralization and decentralization, between union and autonomy, from case to case. Nor have they the authority to try.

The problem with Comeau is that the Supreme Court made the attempt. According to the classification I sketched out in this post, the main question in Comeau was of the first, interpretive type (albeit that it concerned a limitation on, not a grant of, legislative powers). Had the Court got the interpretation right, it would have had to deal with additional questions belonging to the second, line-drawing, category. Comeau was not a case of the third type, and the Supreme Court erred in treating it as such. One of the rare defenders of Comeau, the usually very astute Chantal Hébert, makes the same mistake in her column for The Star. In her view, the case was “a timely reminder that Constitution does not cast the provinces as junior partners of a unitary federation”. Perhaps that’s how the Supreme Court saw it, but it’s not what the legal issue was.

Yet regrettably, many of Comeau‘s critics too seem to be taking the wrong lesson from it. They want the Supreme Court to remake Canadian federalism in the name of the “living tree” or of the desire which, Andrew Potter tells us, Canadians feel for an ever closer union. To ask the Court to remake the law in this way is only to encourage further mistakes in the future. To be sure, some corrections are in order, mainly in the realm of doctrines operating at the boundary of federal and provincial jurisdictions. But they would involve, in Mr. Honickman’s words, “getting back to the constitutional division of powers” laid down in 1867 ― not updates in the service of economic policy or nation-building. If such updates are necessary, they must be carried out by politicians following the procedures provided for constitutional amendment, not judges. What Comeau teaches us is not that our federalism jurisprudence as a whole is hidebound or perverse, but that the Supreme Court should stop playing constitution-maker’s apprentice and stick to enforcing the law.

Unmaking History

In the “free the beer” case, the Supreme Court shows ― again ― that it is the spoiled child of the Constitution

When it accepted to pronounce on the constitutionality of non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade, the Supreme Court had a chance to make history. In R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, the Court chose to unmake it instead. Far from “freeing the beer” and invalidating legislation that prevents bringing booze from one province to another and other regulatory schemes built on provincial protectionism, Comeau countenances even restrictions on inter-provincial trade that would previously have been thought flatly unconstitutional. In the process, it tramples over constitutional text and history, as well as logic.

Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides that “[a]ll Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces”. But free of what exactly? Of any and all regulation, or of just some particular kinds? In Gold Seal Ltd v Alberta (Attorney-General),  (1921) 62 SCR 424, the Supreme Court held that “free” meant “free from tariffs”. In Comeau, it was asked to revisit this holding. As the Court ― its members evaded responsibility for their (mis)judgment by attributing it to the institution, though I am looking forward to Peter McCormick or someone else exposing the true author(s) ― notes, this question is of the highest importance:

If to be “admitted free” is understood as a constitutional guarantee of free trade, the potential reach of s. 121 is vast. Agricultural supply management schemes, public health-driven prohibitions, environmental controls, and innumerable comparable regulatory measures that incidentally impede the passage of goods crossing provincial borders may be invalid. [3]

* * *

Before answering the interpretive question, however, the Supreme Court addresses a different one: whether the trial judge was entitled to depart from Gold Seal to hold that s. 121 applied to non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade. The judge had taken up the Supreme Court’s invitation, issued in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, to revisit precedent in light of newly available evidence. In Bedford and Carter v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331, which dealt with the constitutionality of the provisions of the Criminal Code relative to prostitution and assisted suicide respectively, the evidence that was held to allow lower courts to revisit Supreme Court precedent came mostly from the social sciences. In Comeau, the trial judge relied on new historical evidence about the context and original meaning of s. 121.

This, the Supreme Court insists, was not something that Bedford authorizes. Bedford “is not a general invitation to reconsider binding authority on the basis of any type of evidence”. [31; emphasis mine] What is required is a showing “the underlying social context that framed the original legal debate is profoundly altered”, [31] triggering the applicability of the Court’s “living tree” approach to the constitution. Historical evidence, which the court derides as “a description of historical information and one expert’s assessment of that information”, does not count: “a re-discovery or re-assessment of historical events is not evidence of social change”. [36]

In conversation with Maclean’s, Carissima Mathen said the Court “essentially chastised the trial judge for going beyond his authority, in terms of feeling free to disregard this older decision”. Were she less polite, prof. Mathen could have described the Supreme Court as delivering a benchslap to the trial judge, at once gratuitous and telling. Gratuitous, because this part of the Court’s reasons is, in my view, obiter dicta ― it is not part of the reasoning that’s necessary to the decision, which is based on the court’s own re-examination of the constitution and relevant precedent (including, as we’ll see, a departure from Gold Seal). Telling, because the disparagement of history is of a piece with the Court’s broader approach to the constitution, on which more below.

Embarking on its own analysis of s. 121, the Court repeats that a robust reading of this provision would call into question much existing regulation. But, it concludes, such a reading is not required. The constitutional text is “ambiguous, and falls to be interpreted on the basis of the historical, legislative and constitutional contexts”, [54] ― though it is mostly the latter that does the work in the Court’s reasons.

Historical context, in the Court’s view, is inconclusive, because different visions of what form of economic union Confederation would implement were presented by the political actors at the time (none of whom the Court actually quotes). Although it duly notes that “in drafting s. 121, [the framers of the constitution] chose the broad phrase ‘admitted free’ rather than a narrower phrase like ‘free from tariffs'”, [64] the Court insists that “[w]e do not know why they chose this broader, and arguably ambiguous, phrase”, [64] and concludes that “the historical evidence, at best, provides only limited support for the view that ‘admitted free’ in s. 121 was meant as an absolute guarantee of trade free of all barriers”. [67; emphasis in the original]

This is bizarre. Surely we can tell that, if the framers were consciously choosing between a narrower and a broader versions of a constitutional ban on barriers to trade, they chose the broader because the narrower did not capture all the barriers they meant to prohibit. As Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, the Supreme Court is no stranger to the “originalist inference” ― reasoning from a choice made during the framing of a constitutional text between competing proposed versions of a provision. The inference seems obvious here, but the Court avoids it. Even more remarkably, the Court also ignores the injunction in Bedford that appellate courts are not to re-assess “social and legislative evidence”, [49] including expert evidence, presented at trial. While the wisdom of this injunction is highly questionable, the Court is, admittedly not for the first time, simply ignoring relevant precedent, without bothering to either distinguish or overrule it.

The “legislative context” that the Court refers to is the placement of s. 121 in a Part of the Constitution Act, 1867 that largely deals with financial issues. The Court considers that  its other provisions “attach to commodities and function by increasing the price of goods”, suggestion that s. 121 does not “capture merely incidental impacts on demand for goods from other provinces”, rather that “direct burdens on the price of commodities”. This might be the Court’s best argument, though it may also be that, as the trial judge found, s. 121 was put where it was simply because this was as good a place as any other in the Constitution Act, 1867. Be that as it may, the Court itself does not seem to attach all that much importance to its conclusion on this point.

The heart of the Court’s reasoning is its discussion of the principle of federalism, which it finds to have two implications of particular relevance to the question of the constitutionality of barriers to inter-provincial trade. One is the exhaustiveness of distribution of powers between Parliament and the provinces. The other is the idea of a balance between the powers of the two levels of government ― and the Court’s role in maintaining that balance. As to the former, the Court insists that there must be no “constitutional hiatuses — circumstances in which no legislature could act”. [72] For any given policy ― including the imposition of barriers to inter-provincial trade ― there must be a level of government competent to enact it, alone or at least in “co-operation” with the other. As to the latter, the Court quotes F.R. Scott for the proposition that “[t]he Canadian constitution cannot be understood if it is approached with some preconceived theory of what federalism is or should be”, [82] and insists that, rather than “a particular vision of the economy that courts must apply”, federalism “posits a framework premised on jurisdictional balance that helps courts identify the range of economic mechanisms that are constitutionally acceptable”. [83]

Here, the Court contradicts both the constitution and itself. Constitutional hiatuses are not anathema to federalism. They exist: in section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (which limits the powers of both Parliament and the legislatures to interfere with the independence and jurisdiction of superior courts); in sections 93(1) and (2) (which limit the provinces’ ability to interfere with minority rights in education, without allowing Parliament to do so); and, even on the Court’s restrictive reading, in s. 121 itself. And then, of course, there is the giant constitutional hiatus usually known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the smaller but still significant one called section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. As for the court’s disclaimer of authority and desire to impose a particular vision of federalism or the economy, it is simply laughable. The idea that federalism requires judicially-imposed “balance” rather than the respect of the letter of the constitution, and any conceivable form of economic regulation must be able to be implemented are precisely the sort of preconceptions that the Court pretends to banish from our constitutional law.

Oblivious to its own incoherence, the Court claims that federal balance would be undermined, and a “constitutional hiatus” created, by an overbroad interpretation of s. 121. Instead of “full economic integration” [85] or “absolute free trade”, the Court propounds what it presents as a compromise:

s. 121 … is best conceived as preventing provinces from passing laws aimed at impeding trade by setting up barriers at boundaries, while allowing them to legislate to achieve goals within their jurisdiction even where such laws may incidentally limit the passage of goods over provincial borders. [91]

The notion of impediment to trade is seemingly a broad one, extending to any provincial law that “imposes an additional cost on goods by virtue of them coming in from outside the province”, [108] or indeed bans inter-provincial importation outright. But, crucially, only laws “aimed at” creating such impediments are prohibited by s. 121, and this will be an extremely narrow category. In effect, it seems that only laws serving primarily “purposes traditionally served by tariffs, such as exploiting the passage of goods across a border solely as a way to collect funds, protecting local industry or punishing another province” will count ― and even that “depending on other factors”. [111] A law having a “rational connection” [113] to some other regulatory purpose, such as “protecting the health and welfare of the people in the province”, [112] or most any other conceivable regulatory objective, will survive. The law at issue survives because it is part of a regulatory scheme intended “to enable public supervision of the production, movement, sale, and use of alcohol within New Brunswick”. [124] Its effects on inter-provincial trade in liquor coming to New Brunswick are merely “incidental”, and constitutionally permissible.

This is wrong in many ways. As a starting point, the Court is answering the wrong question. The issue is not how s. 121 is “best conceived”, but what its purpose is, and how that purpose can be given effect. As Randy Barnett and Even Bernick write in a their essay on purposive constitutional construction (which I reviewed here),

[t]o formulate a rule with reference to the function that the relevant provision is designed to perform is not a matter of making the law “the best it can be” but giving effect to the law as best one can. A judge who decided a case on the basis of some other reason—however normatively appealing that might seem—would be departing from the law entirely. (27)

Second, the Court is wrong to claim that its approach to s. 121 is consistent with precedent. However narrowly it construed s. 121, Gold Seal at least maintained an outright prohibition on inter-provincial tariffs. Following Comeau, tariffs are fine ― provided that they are rationally connected to some regulatory scheme that can be spun to appear to be directed a public health and welfare objective. So much for stare decisis. Most importantly though, as Malcolm Lavoie points out in a CBC op-ed, the Court’s “approach practically nullifies Section 121”, because legislation primarily intended to deal or interfere with inter-provincial trade is already something that provinces cannot enact ― if anyone can, it is Parliament, under section 91(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867. (Professor Lavoie, it is worth noting, is the author of the most important article on the Comeau litigation, which the Court ignored, as it ignored all other scholarship touching on the case, as well as recent work on constitutional interpretation more broadly).

* * *

What causes the Court to re-write the Constitution Act, 1867 (while insisting that it is not making a policy decision), ignore precedent (while admonishing the trial judge for doing so), all in the name of a quest for a federal balance that it is quite different from the one the framers of the constitution struck (while denouncing the imposition of pre-conceived notions of federalism)? Emmett Macfarlane, writing for Maclean’s, denounces Comeau as “craven”, the result of “politicized timidity”. He is not wrong about this (though I think he is in his general denunciation of the federalism jurisprudence), but let me be more specific. In my view there are two (loosely related) problems with the way the Court decided Comeau: its pro-regulatory bias, and approach to constitutional interpretation.

The Court’s bias in favour of regulation appears in the introduction of both the decision as a whole (at [3], quoted above) and that of the substantive part (at [51], in similar terms). The Court is preoccupied by the fact that s. 121 might prevent the enactment of some forms of regulation. It is this, rather than the more general notion of “constitutional hiatuses” that leads it to narrow s. 121 into oblivion. As noted above, hiatuses exist, and the Court is actually quite fond of expanding them, s. 96 and the Charter especially. It is the prospect of constitutional limits on economic regulation that makes the Court suddenly desirous to ensure that Canadian legislatures can make or unmake any law whatever.

As for the Court’s interpretive method, it is implicitly, though not explicitly, living constitutionalist. In an appendix to the “Originalist Reasoning” article, Mr. Oliphant and I wrote that in Comeau the Court “be faced with a stark interpretive choice between a very strong originalist case”, which prevailed at trial, “and arguments based (perhaps paradoxically) both on stare decisis and what may be perceived as the needs, or at least the expectations, of current society”. These perceived needs are reflected in the Court’s pro-regulatory bias which causes it to impose its own vision of federalism. And doing so is all the easier if historical evidence can be treated as less significant and worthy of deference than equivalent social scientific evidence, twisted, or even ignored.

* * *

As I wrote in an essay published last year in Diritto Pubblico Comparato ed Europeo, the well-documented hefty costs of the regulatory schemes which the Supreme Court thought it so important to preserve from constitutional challenge, and the fact that this cost is, in many cases, disproportionately borne by the most economically disadvantage members of Canadian society, ought to remind us that “living constitutionalism can come at a price, not only to abstract ideals such as the Rule of Law, but also to individuals and families, including, and even especially, to the most vulnerable”. (644) To be sure, we can in theory demand that our politicians enact inter-provincial free trade even if our judges will not impose it. But this argument could be made in response to literally any constitutional claim. The raison d’être of an entrenched, judicially enforceable constitution is that the political process sometimes fails to translate just demands, and indeed even popular demands, into legislation, due to either the tyranny of self-centred majorities, or the well-organized resistance of self-interested minorities. Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 was enacted in recognition of this reality. The Supreme Court presumes to update our constitution, but it lacks the wisdom of those who wrote it.

It has been said, perhaps unfairly, that Viscount Haldane was “the wicked stepfather of the Canadian Constitution“. The Supreme Court deserves to be called the Constitution’s spoiled child. This child demands that its parent conform to its demands, and throws tantrums whenever it does not. Unfortunately, too many people find this child’s petulance endearing. Perhaps Comeau will convince them that it must, at long last, be made to behave.

An Invitation

Can those who endorse “living tree” constitutional interpretation tell us why, and what it entails?

When Benjamin Oliphant and I wrote our twin articles on originalism in Canada, we did our best to avoid normative conclusions other than a call for further reflection on, and greater consistency in, constitutional interpretation. But, for me at least ― I cannot speak for my co-author, of course ―, the normative inquiry seems like a natural step to be taken soon. (We’ll see when and in what form.) And, right now, my preliminary view is that Canadian constitutional jurisprudence ought to be (more) originalist (than it is now), because the alternative, the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation, suffers from various problems.

But before really getting into an argument about why this is so, I probably need to understand what it is that I want to argue against better. I have no wish to attack a straw-man. And there is a greater than usual danger of doing so in debates about constitutional interpretation. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, originalism is often poorly understood in Canada, and only obsolete or caricatured versions of it are criticized. In part, this is as no doubt due to a lack of a good Canadian review of what originalism is, which is why we devoted a good deal of space and effort to producing one. Unfortunately, I am not sure that there is an equivalent statement of the views of the other side in this debate either.

So, I would like to ask for my readers’ help. Presumably, many of you think that the constitution ought to be understood as a “living tree”. That’s what the Supreme Court often tells us, after all, even as it not infrequently does something else altogether. It would be very helpful, in advancing the debate about constitutional interpretation, if both sides articulated their views clearly. Presumably, the “living tree” camp has had a while to form its beliefs, even if it has not had much need to explain them in recent decades. Can some of those in this camp take a stab at doing so now?

One way of going about it would be to bring into sharper focus the living constitutionalists’ objections to originalism. To do that, they might address some of the issues that Lawrence Solum describes, in a most helpful recent post on his Legal Theory Blog, as being the main ones “that divide originalists and living constitutionalists.” Here they are, reformulated as questions for living constitutionalists and adapted to the Canadian context:

1) Do you think that the linguistic meaning (communicative content) of the constitutional text changes over time after its entrenchment (say in 1867 or 1982)?

2) Do you think that the Supreme Court, Parliament, and the provincial legislatures should have a power to modify or override the communicative content of the constitutional text in response to changing circumstances and values?

3) Do you think that the original meaning of constitutional text is either radically indeterminate or so underdeterminate that originalism would not meaningfully constrain constitutional practice?

4) Do you think that the original meaning of our constitutional texts is epistemically inaccessible (i.e. we cannot know, or at least show that we know, what it is)?

5) Do you think that that judges are incompetent to investigate original meaning or so biased that they will be unable to act in compliance with original meaning (perhaps even if dispassionate scholars could do so)? In other words, do you think that originalist judges would simply be ideologues?

(Professor Solum asks an additional question, whether those who reject originalism want to “simply retire the Constitution as a framework of government”, but I’m pretty confident that few if any Canadian living constitutionalists do. Perhaps they have other objections to originalism though. If so, I would love to hear about those too.)

Beyond clarifying their objections to originalism, it would be great if some proponents of “living tree” constitutional interpretation clearly articulated their positive commitments or beliefs. To this end, I would like to suggest a few more questions, though I do not mean the list to be exhaustive:

6) Is updating constitutional meaning the exclusive prerogative of courts, or can other institutions (Parliament, the legislatures, the Crown) do it too? Why? If political actors can “actualize” constitutional meaning, should the courts defer to their attempts to do so?

7) When courts or other constitutional actors update constitutional meaning, what should they be taking into account? There are several possibilities: judicial precedents; popular opinion; the rules or principles expressed or implicit in non-constitutional law (perhaps especially legislation) as it stands from time to time; the judges’ own philosophical beliefs; perhaps others.

8) Are there any constraints on courts or other constitutional actors updating constitutional meaning? What are they? Are such constraints useful or indeed essential?

I am not being facetious here. When I say that these are questions to which I do not know and would like to learn the answers, I mean it. They are big questions, of course, and you might think that to answer them in an appropriately serious fashion you would need to write an article, or even a book, and have no time for that. Fair enough. Or you might make that your next project, in which case I will be looking forward to reading you whenever you are ready! But if you would like to attempt some short answers, that would be fantastic. I would be delighted to publish them, if you are ok with me doing so, or I will keep them for my own edification. It’s all up to you.

All That History

A historicist, if not quite an originalist, decision from the Supreme Court of Canada

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Daniels v. Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development), 2016 SCC 12, holding that Métis and non-status Indians fall within the scope of Parliament’s legislative power over “Indians” provided for in section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. While this outcome may have significant consequences, what interests me most is the approach that Justice Abella’s opinion for a unanimous court took to constitutional interpretation. While I would hesitate to call this approach originalist, it is clearly historical, and is (almost) entirely free from the Court’s habitual paeans to “living tree” constitutionalism.

The only real question for the Court was whether the Métis were “Indians” within the meaning of section 91(24). The government conceded that non-status Indians were. “The prevailing view,” Justice Abella noted, “is that Métis are ‘Indians’ under s. 91(24).” [22] This view is consistent with the way that the term “Indians” has been used throughout Canadian history, beginning before Confederation:

Before and after Confederation, the government frequently classified Aboriginal peoples with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage as Indians. Métis were considered “Indians” for pre-Confederation treaties such as the Robinson Treaties of 1850. Many post-Confederation statutes considered Métis to be “Indians.” [24]

Moreover, “the purpose of s. 91(24) in relation to the broader goals of Confederation” ― which was to ensure the federal government’s ability to maintain a good relationship with and control over the Aboriginal peoples, in particular those who might otherwise get in the way of its railway-building ― “also indicates that since 1867, ‘Indians’ meant all Aboriginal peoples, including Métis.” [25]

References to the use of the term “Indian” in pre-Confederation treaties and statutes enacted in the years immediately following Confederation, as well to the purposes that the head of power at issue served at Confederation, might be characteristic of originalist interpretation. However, Justice Abella then proceeds to examine the numerous instances in which governments both federal and provincial, as well as commissions of inquiry created by them, treated the Métis as included within the term “Indian,” over a period of time from 1894 to 1996 and beyond. This is no longer originalism, since the way in which the constitutional language was understood 30, or a fortiori 130 years after its enactment does not tell us much about either its original meaning or the intentions of its framers. If anything, this might justly be called living constitutionalism, were it not for the fact that this term is seldom used to describe the consistent attribution of the same meaning of a constitutional term. (I am not sure why that is the case, by the way.)

Justice Abella also noted that “while it does not define the scope of s. 91(24), it is worth noting that s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 states that Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples are Aboriginal peoples for the purposes of the Constitution,” which suggests that reading section 91(24) as including the Métis makes for a more harmonious constitutional order overall. She pointed out, too, that other decisions of the Supreme Court suggest that groups other than “Indians” in a narrow sense ― notably the Inuit ― can be included in the scope of s. 91(24). It is worth observing that, as Justice Abella noted, one of these decisions ― Reference whether “Indians” includes “Eskimo”, [1939] S.C.R. 104  ― “[r]el[ied] on historical evidence to determine the meaning of ‘Indians’ in 1867.” [39]

There is one brief allusion to the “living tree” approach to constitutional interpretation which the Supreme Court usually claims to favour in Justice Abella’s reasons. Distinguishing Daniels from R. v. Blais, 2003 SCC 44, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 236, Justice Abella quoted Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 S.C.R. 698 at par. 30 for the proposition that “[t]hat case [Blais, that is] considered the interpretive question in relation to a particular constitutional agreement, as opposed to a head of power which must continually adapt to cover new realities.” I do not think that the reference to “adaptation to new realities” does any work at all in Daniels. The balance of Justice Abella’s reasons shows that the understanding of section 91(24) has been consistent throughout its history.

Perhaps Daniels can be best understood as representing not any particular interpretive methodology, but the Supreme Court’s thoroughgoing if utterly unsystematic interpretive pluralism, of which Benjamin Oliphant and I speak in one of our recent papers. Historical, and even originalist arguments are an ineradicable part of this pluralism, but the court is not committed to them, and it can sometimes affect to dismiss them out of hand even as it uses them to great effect. Daniels is thus an important reminder that, to really understand the Court’s approach to constitutional interpretation, we must look carefully at what it does, and not just at what it says.