Setting the Story Straight

History, Originalism, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Comeau

Over at the historical blog Borealia, Bradley Miller ― no, not that Bradley Miller ― has a post defending the treatment of history in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in  R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15. Professor Miller argues that, contrary to what I said in my own comment on Comeau, to which he refers a number of times,

the courts took history and historical evidence and inquiry seriously in Comeau. In fact, historical analysis was central to the case against Comeau’s right to bring beer over the provincial boundary.

Professor Miller also suggests that Comeau illustrates the difficulties that would arise out of attempts to apply originalist methodologies to the interpretation of Canada’s constitution. With respect, I think Professor Miller misunderstands my criticisms of Comeau, which have to do not with the substantive outcome but with the way in which the Supreme Court treated historical evidence. As for Professor Miller’s critique of originalism, it reprises arguments that were made 35 years ago in the United States ― and addressed by the development of originalist theory since then.

Regarding substance, I am obviously not well positioned to debate Professor Miller’s assessment of what he describes as the “two very different versions of history [that] emerged from two historians involved in the litigation”, one presenting Confederation as a triumph of economic liberalism, the other emphasizing more cautious views among the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867. I am tempted to say that, even if the Fathers of Confederation endorsed international protectionism and government intervention in the economy, that doesn’t really dispose of the question of their intentions as to non-tariff barriers to inter-provincial trade. Practical politicians rarely hold fully consistent views, and at least today many would distinguish ― however little basis there may be for this distinction in economic theory ― barriers to trade across and within international borders. But perhaps things were different in 1867.

Be that as it may, though Professor Miller says that “[a]t the Supreme Court, the justices preferred the latter [i.e. more nuanced] view” of the Fathers’ attitudes to free trade, there is little basis for this claim in Comeau. The Court (or, likely, Chief Justice McLachlin) says that “the historical evidence, at best, provides only limited support for the view that” section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the provision at issue, “was meant as an absolute guarantee of trade free of all barriers”. [67] But the Court never actually refers to the evidence on the other side of this debate, even though, as Professor Miller points out, this evidence was submitted to the Court’s attention by the Attorney-General of Alberta’s factum. [16]-[20] (I don’t agree with Professor Miller that these five paragraphs are “central” to the factum, but they are certainly there.)

If anything, this choice to ignore historical evidence that arguably supported the Supreme Court’s conclusion reinforces my view that Comeau was dismissive of history’s value to constitutional adjudication. In other cases, the Supreme Court is eager to seize on such evidence, for example by directly quoting the framers of the constitutional provisions at issue and the documents that reveal their plans and intentions. In Comeau, by contrast, the Court does no such thing. The other ways in which the Court is disparaging towards historical evidence is its insistence that such evidence, unlike that drawn from the social or health sciences, cannot justify reconsideration of precedent, and its aversion to the use of historical expert evidence.

Ultimately, as I argue in my Comeau comment and also in a response to some of my fellow-critics, the Supreme Court’s decision is driven by a conviction that a federalism where internal barriers to trade arising out of provincial regulation are pervasive is the right sort of federalism. The Court does not defend this conviction on historical grounds; it just says that that’s what federalism means. Thus I do not think that “historical analysis was central” to Comeau. Perhaps an opinion focusing on the evidence to which Professor Miller refers and reaching the same outcome the Court reached could have been written. But the point is that it wasn’t. History, in Comeau, is neither the main character nor even a supporting one; it is an adversary to be neutralized and dispatched before moving on to the more important business of constitutional policy-making.

As for Professor Miller’s comments on originalism, they are even less convincing than his defence of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Comeau. Professor Miller describes originalism as “a technique which is often a tool of social conservatives seeking to squash rights for women, LGBT people, and others, and very uncommon in Canadian constitutional cases”. His evidence for this condemnation? Why, a link to one of Sean Fine’s “Tory judgesscreeds ― this one, ironically, decrying the appointment of Justice Bradley Miller to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Professor Miller also informs us of “the challenges that originalists face in trying to document a singular and enforceable original intention or original meaning in a document that was as much-Fathered as the [Constitution Act, 1867]”, of his belief that the Fathers of Confederation might not have wanted originalism to be the methodology used to interpret the constitution they created, and of the danger “that this methodology might leave judges needing a resident historian to co-preside on the bench in constitutional cases”. The living constitutionalist “methodological status quo” serves Canadians just fine, Professor Miller concludes ― and those who disagree should just think about the goings-on south of the border “over the last year and a half”.

The suggestion that originalism is somehow responsible for the misery of the Trump presidency ― the prospect of which was denounced by many prominent originalists ― is, to put it as politely as I can, puzzling. But Professor Miller’s other critiques of originalism are not much better. He ignores the existence of originalist arguments in favour of marriage equality and against sex discrimination, among other progressive causes, in the United States, and of Kerri Froc’s feminist originalism in Canada. He also ignores the fact that so-called “new originalism”, focused on the public meaning of constitutional texts rather than the intentions of their authors, developed (starting in the late 1980s!) precisely in response to criticism about the impossibility to ascertain the joint intention of multiple authors who may or may not themselves have been originalists. (Professor Miller might be suggesting that a “much-Fathered” text cannot even have a “singular original meaning” ― but the fact that he also seems to think that he understands the Comeau judgment, ostensibly the joint product of nine fathers and mothers, rather detracts from whatever strength that criticism might otherwise have had.) As for courts needing resident historians ― the Supreme Court in Comeau says that it can do the job without professional assistance, and of course it is managing to dabble in social and health sciences without resident experts. Last but not least, Professor Miller should know, having linked to Benjamin Oliphant’s and my article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, that the claim that originalism is “uncommon” in Canada, and living constitutionalism is the secure status quo, is simply false. The use of originalist reasoning is pervasive, albeit also erratic, in the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision in Comeau is consistent with the best evidence of the original public meaning of section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, any such consistency is accidental, rather than the result of serious engagement with the evidence. Unlike many of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, Comeau is a living constitutionalist, policy-driven decision that accords little importance to history, and as such, it is a poor foundation for any conclusions about the feasibility or soundness of originalist constitutional interpretation. Unpersuasive arguments against originalism, which ignore the developments in originalist theory over the last decades, are sadly not uncommon. Yet if we are to develop something better that what Mr. Oliphant and I described as “a buffet-line approach to interpretation, unfettered by standards for the principled application of the interpretive methods available”, we must begin by understanding the different options on the menu. Perhaps, having done so, we will conclude that originalism is not the right choice. But we cannot come to this conclusion on the basis of outdated clichés and persistent misunderstandings.

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.

Repurposing Constitutional Construction

Is Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick’s theory of originalist constitutional construction relevant to Canadians?

Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick’s important essay “The Letter and the Spirit: A Unified Theory of Originalism” has been available for some time already, but it is still worth a comment here. Professors Barnett and Bernick have great ambitions for their project, hoping that it will serve to rally and reconcile the adherents of most if not all of the various forms of originalism ― which Benjamin Oliphant and I once described as “a large and ever-growing family of theories of constitutional interpretation” ― and rather fractious one, too. Indeed, although Professors Barnett and Bernick also think that their approach can serve to shore up the distinction, sometimes said to be evanescent, between originalism and living constitutionalism, a version of their theory, albeit justified on grounds different from those that they put forward, might serve to reconcile originalism with much of what the Supreme Court of Canada says and does about constitutional interpretation.

The “unified theory of originalism” seeks to achieve what others, it is often said (including by at least some originalists), failed to do: constrain originalist judges, in particular in those cases where the original meaning of the constitutional text is not enough to do dispose of the dispute. “New originalist” theories, such as those previously put forward by Professor Barnett, sharply distinguished constitutional interpretation ― “the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text” (3) ― and constitutional construction ― “the activity of giving that content legal effect” (3). The text, as originally understood, might not tell us how a given dispute ought to be settled, and so a court would need to develop further rules, consistent with but not dictated by the text, to resolve the controversy. But originalist theories that accepted the interpretation-construction distinction tended to have little to say about how courts should go about articulating these rules. Indeed, Professor Barnett previously argued that constitutional construction is not an originalist activity at all, since it is, by definition, not a function of the original meaning of the constitutional text.

Not so, Professors Barnett and Bernick now argue: construction not only can but must be originalist. When “the letter” of the constitution, the original public meaning of its text, understood in its context, is not enough to dispose of case, the court’s construction of the constitution must be guided by its original “spirit” ― that is, the purposes animating the text being applied, or indeed the constitutional text as a whole. These purposes are not the intentions of the constitution’s framer’s as to the effects it would produce in addressing the specific dispute at hand ― which will often be non-existent, and might be inconsistent with the text even when they exist. Rather, they are “the functions” that the constitutional provisions being applied were meant to serve “at the time each constitutional provision was enacted”. (15) Although this approach to constitutional construction is thus a form of purposivism, the purposes to which it gives effect are not those of the court or of society at the time of adjudication, but those of the constitution’s designers. The focus is on “the design principles that explain the specific provisions and general structure of the Constitution”, (41) understood at the appropriate level of abstraction.

The reason why this approach to construction is justified, indeed required, has to do with the nature of the relationships between the judges, the constitution, and the citizens subject to it. According to Professors Barnett and Bernick, judges (as well as all other government officials) are fiduciaries; they exercise discretionary powers and their “decisions … bring the government’s coercive power to bear upon us to our detriment, or that prevent the government’s power from being used to our benefit”. (19) Judges enter into their fiduciary relationship with the people by swearing an oath “to support this Constitution” and, like parties to a contract, they must perform their undertaking in good faith. Specifically, when the letter of the constitution leaves them with discretionary decisions to make, judges must not seek to exercise their discretion so as “to recapture foregone opportunities” (24) to implement their own constitutional preferences instead of “supporting” the constitution that was ratified (and amended) by the people, and so “to change the Constitution through adjudication” (31).

This justification might be of limited interest outside the American context. While thinking of government officials as fiduciaries might be helpful, Canadian judges do not swear “to support” the Canadian constitution. In fact, their oaths do not refer to the constitution at all, but rather to their “duties” or “powers and trusts”. As for the notion of good faith, it is a latecomer to Canadian contract law, or perhaps a foundling, and was no part of it in either 1867 or even 1982 ― though arguably that’s beside the point, because the Canadian judicial oaths do require judges to act “faithfully”. So I’m not sure if thinking of judges as having explicitly foregone opportunities for constitutional rectification in the course of adjudication is especially helpful in Canada. Certainly many Canadian judges do not think of themselves as having made any such undertaking. Having repeatedly argued that the state cannot dictate the contents of people’s conscientious obligations ― whether in the case of the citizenship oath or in that of the Law Society of Ontario’s “statement of principles” ― I will not insist on telling judges how to think of theirs.

But that doesn’t mean that Professors Barnett and Bernick’s ideas about how judges ought to engage in constitutional construction are irrelevant to Canada. The case for requiring fidelity to what they call the spirit of the constitution ― to the purposes for which the constitution’s provisions were designed and to what Lord Atkin, in the Labour Conventions Reference, described as “its original structure” ― does not, I think, depend on the wording and import of Canadian judicial oaths, or on the applicability of contractual principles of good faith. It rests, rather, on the nature of activity of judging and of interpretation. The idea that interpreters are to identify the purposes of legislation, the reasons for which it was enacted, and apply legislation in a manner that furthers these purposes is a longstanding one. As Lon Fuller pointed out in a passage from The Morality of Law that I have discussed here, it was captured in Haydon’s Case, (1584) 3 Co Rep 7a:

for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law,) four things are to be discerned and considered:

1st. What was the common law before the making of the Act.
2nd. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide.
3rd. What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth.
And, 4th. The true reason of the remedy; and then the office of all the Judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.

To apply this to constitutional rather than statutory texts, some minor adjustments are in order, notably to account for the fact that constitutions are not (primarily) enacted against a common law background, but the substance of this principle is still relevant in the constitutional context ― all the more so since Canadian constitutional texts are, for the most part, statutes in form.

And indeed the Supreme Court has often endorsed a purposivism that appeals to the sort of originalist considerations on which Professors Barnett and Bernick would have the courts focus. For example, in R v Big M Drug Mart [1985] 1 SCR 295, Justice Dickson (as he then was) held that that

[t]he meaning of a right or freedom guaranteed by the Charter was to be ascertained by an analysis of the purpose of such a guarantee; it was to be understood, in other words, in the light of the interests it was meant to protect. … [T]he purpose of the right or freedom in question is to be sought by reference to the character and the larger objects of the Charter itself, to the language chosen to articulate the specific right or freedom, to the historical origins of the concepts enshrined, and where applicable, to the meaning and purpose of the other specific rights and freedoms with which it is associated within the text of the Charter. (344; underlining in the original, paragraph break removed.)

To say that courts are to look for the functions constitutional provisions were intended to have at the time of their framing is simply a different way of putting the same thing. And this passage from Big M is not unique, as Mr. Oliphant and I show in the article referred to above, and also in the follow-up piece looking at “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“.

Of course, notwithstanding Justice Dickson’s admonitions in Big M, the Supreme Court of Canada has not been consistently originalist ― far from it, though as Mr. Oliphant and I demonstrate, it has been more originalist than living constitutionalists in Canada and elsewhere care to admit. The warning, arguably implicit in Justice Dickson’s comments, and explicit in at least Supreme Court cases warning against judicial re-writing of the constitution in the name of purposivism, which Professors Barnett and Bernick reiterate, has gone unheeded in some noteworthy Canadian cases, such as those that gave “constitutional benediction” to the alleged rights of organized labour. Precedents, such as Big M, articulating what might well be the right constitutional theory are no guarantee that this theory will be applied in a principled or consistent fashion. As William Baude suggests in a recent essay exploring originalism’s ability to constrain judges, “originalism can still have constraining power, but mostly for those who seek to be bound”. (2215) But those members of the Canadian judiciary who do indeed seek to be bound by the constitution could, I think, usefully consider the argument advanced by Professors Barnett and Bernick as a guide in their endeavours.

Was Lon Fuller an Originalist?

Some thoughts on Lon Fuller, the Rule of Law, and constitutional interpretation

I think that the best argument for originalism is that it is required by the principle of the Rule of Law. (Jeffrey Pojanowski’s contribution to an online symposium on originalism organized by Diritto Pubblico Comparato ed Europeo earlier this year makes this argument nicely and concisely.) So I probably brought some confirmation bias to a re-reading of Lon Fuller’s discussion of the Rule of Law requirement of “congruence between official action and the law” in The Morality of Law, which makes me think that he would have been at least sympathetic to originalism.

If law is to guide the behaviour of those to whom it is addressed, it is not enough that it be public, intelligible, stable, and so on. It must also be applied and enforced consistently with the way it is supposed to be. A failure of congruence, Fuller explains, amounts to nothing less than “the lawless administration of the law”. (81) It can result from a number of causes, some perhaps innocent, like “mistaken interpretation”; others having to do with the lack competence or intelligence; and in extreme cases “bribery”, “prejudice”, and “drive towards personal power”. (81) (The attempt at classification is mine; Fuller, somewhat oddly, presents this various causes pell-mell.)

Importantly, although one might be tempted to think that it is primarily the executive that has to be vigilant to ensure that it applies the law as written, Fuller was clear that the requirement of congruence is addressed to the judiciary too. The lower courts had to ensure that they applied the law as set out by the higher ones, but even an apex court has responsibilities towards the Rule of Law. After a detour into the importance of generality, coherence, constancy, and prospectivity in the articulation of adjudicative law, Fuller writes:

The most subtle element in the task of maintaining congruence between law and official action lies, of course, in the problem of interpretation. Legality requires that judges and other officials apply statutory law, not according to their fancy or with crabbed literalness, but in accordance with principles of interpretation that are appropriate to their position in the whole legal order. (82)

He proceeds to recommend the principle of articulation articulated in Haydon’s Case, (1584) 3 Co Rep 7a:

for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law,) four things are to be discerned and considered:

1st. What was the common law before the making of the Act.
2nd. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide.
3rd. What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth.
And, 4th. The true reason of the remedy; and then the office of all the Judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy.

Now, this quotation, which I have presented in the same way as Fuller does, is somewhat incomplete. Here is the full statement of “the office of all the Judges” according to Heydon’s Case:

always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.

Fuller, instead of the reference to “the true intent of the makers of the Act”, adds one further element of his own,

a fifth point to be “discerned and considered,” which might read somewhat as follows: “How would those who must guide themselves by its [i.e. the Act’s] words reasonably understand the intent of the Act, for the law must not become a snare for those who cannot know the reasons of it as fully as do the Judges. (83)

In subsequent discussion, Fuller proceeds to criticise what he calls “an atomistic conception of intention”, which “conceives the mind to be directed … toward distinct situations of fact rather than toward some significance in human affairs that these situations may share”, (84) and denies the relevance of intention in interpretation, or at any rate in difficult interpretative questions, which arise in individual situations ostensibly not anticipated by the legislator. Intention matters, Fuller insists, but it is clear from the example he uses ― that of a dead inventor whose work must be continued from an incomplete design by another person ― that it is not an actual, specific intention that he has in mind, but the general purpose of the document to be interpreted that can be ascertained from its contents; indeed Fuller commends the exclusion of “any private and uncommunicated intention of the draftsman of a statute” (86) from its legal interpretation.

How does this all translate into approaches to constitutional interpretation ― which, after all, Fuller does not actually discuss? Many Canadian readers will no doubt be inclined to think that Fuller is advocating something like purposive interpretation, to which the Supreme Court of Canada sometimes professes to adhere. But, as Benjamin Oliphant and I have explained in our work on originalism in Canada, purposivism, especially as articulated in … is arguably compatible with some forms of originalism. Fuller’s purposivism, it seems to me translates fairly well into public meaning originalism, given its emphasis, on the one hand, on the circumstances of the law’s making as being key to interpreting it, and on the other on the reasonable understanding of those to whom the statute is addressed as one of the guidelines for the interpreters. Fuller’s exclusion of the “private and uncommunicated thoughts” reinforces my view that it is public meaning, rather than original intentions, originalism that he supported, while his rejection of the “atomistic conception of intention” shows that he would have had no time for original expected applications ― which, of course, most originalists have no time for either.

Of course, Fuller was writing before originalism became a word, and a topic for endless debate. It is perhaps presumptuous, as well as anachronistic, to claim him for my side of this debate. Then again, Fuller himself insisted that text are not meant to apply to finite sets of factual circumstances within their author’s contemplation. So long as the mischiefs they are meant to rectify remain, they can be properly applied to new facts ― something with which public meaning originalists fully agree. In the case of the dead inventor, were we to summon his “spirit for help, the chances are that this help would take the form of collaborating … in the solution of a problem … left unresolved” (85) ― not of the dictation of an answer. And failing that, if we stay within the inventor’s framework, and remain true to his general aim, we have done the best we could. This is a standard by which I am happy to be judged.

An Originalism for North Freedonia

Thoughts on an essay on “Originalism without Text” by Stephen Sachs ― and its relevance to Canada

The latest issue of the Yale Law Journal includes a short but very interesting essay by Stephen Sachs, “Originalism without Text“. To be an originalist, prof. Sachs argues, is not just (or mostly) “to read words in a particular way”. (157) It is to attach special significance to the legal past, indeed to “treat[e] modern law as vulnerable to history as open to refutation by claims about the past”. (158) This claim matters for originalist theory but, and this is the point on which I want to focus here, it is especially important for any attempt to give an originalist account of the Canadian constitution.

Prof. Sachs asks us to imagine a hypothetical polity, Freedonia, that “has no writing and no written law”. (159) Its law, such as it is, is an oral tradition transmitted from generation to generation. If Freedonia decides to designate a particular point in the evolution of this tradition as a reference, and to say that no deviation from the law as it then stood is to be tolerated, then, says Prof. Sachs, Freedonia is an originalist polity. If innovations are made, and criticized on account of departing from that historical reference, such criticism is originalist.

This is so regardless of the fact that the critics’ point is not about enforcing the meaning of a canonical legal text ― which is what originalism is often understood to be about. In Prof. Sachs’s view, what matters is not whether the critics are appealing to the authority of a legal text, but the fact that “[t]hey’re trying to recover the content of the law as it stood at a specific point in history, because they believe that this antique law determines the law as it stands today”. (161) Prof. Sachs points out that “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Indeed, even in those polities where “unwritten” law coexists with written documents, it is important not to make the mistake of “reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165)

Prof. Sachs’s main concern seems to be with how the term “originalism” itself is used. He writes that “Freedonia is just a hypothetical, and it’s also a special case. In the real world, where literacy is widespread and ink is plentiful, we tend to write these things down” (168) ― these things being the fundamental rules according to which the polity functions. But I would suggest that the real world is more varied, and Freedonia is less hypothetical that Prof. Sachs lets on.

Consider another polity ― call it North Freedonia ― whose fundamental rules are of two kinds. An important part was written down at a particular historical juncture, some 150 years ago, when important institutional reforms were undertaken. But these reforms, important though they were, were not meant to upend other rules that existed in the form of unwritten understandings. Indeed, when one part of the rules was being written down, this was done in a way that only made sense on the assumption that the other, unwritten, part of the rules would continue in force. Much later, 35 years ago, North Freedonia again changed its fundamental rules, including by agreeing on a procedure for future amendments to replace informally-developed arrangements that had previously been made for this purpose. Once again, however, the unwritten rules ― which had evolved somewhat but remained stable in some key ways over the intervening 115 years ― were left in place, and the newly-written rules, as much as those written down a century earlier, only made sense in light of the unwritten ones.

Can North Freedonia be originalist? Admittedly, scholars of high authority tell us that it is not. North Freedonian judges themselves tend not to think of themselves as being originalists; some loudly disparage the idea. But when they decide cases, their record is actually mixed. Though their decisions are far from consistently originalist, or consistently anything in particular, it is originalist rather more often than they care to admit. Still, could North Freedonians be consistent originalists even if they tried? On some views, those that Prof. Sachs challenges, the fact that some of their most important rules are not written down in authoritative texts would be a problem for them. Prof. Sachs argues forcefully and, in my view, convincingly, that these views are misguided. Though crucial aspects of North Freedonia’s constitution are unwritten, and though even the written parts rely on unwritten ones, North Freedonia could be originalist if it recognizes the authority of its past and accepts that claims about what it rules are today can be defeated by claims about what they were 35 or 150 years ago.

Now, some North Freedonians will object that Prof. Sachs’s theory is inapplicable to their polity, because it is about “recovering law” from the past ― and the unwritten rules of North Freedonia’s constitution are not actually laws, having been neither enacted in legislation nor laid down in judicial precedent. They are, instead, derived from the practice of North Freedonia’s political actors trying to exercise their discretionary powers in accordance with North Freedonia’s fundamental constitutional principles. But the objection is not convincing. The unwritten laws of Prof. Sachs’s Freedonia itself have never been enacted or, or at least for the most part, laid down in authoritative precedents. They are a tradition developed over time, up to a defined point in history, by the authorities responsible for its application. Though North Freedonia’s institutional arrangements are more complex than Freedonia’s, and include a measure of separation of powers, especially between judicial and other officials, the process by which its unwritten rules came to be, and thus their nature, is not relevantly different from those in Freedonia.

North Freedonias could be originalists if they wanted to.  Needless to say, that does not mean that they are, or prove that they ought to be. I’d say that they ought to give the idea some serious thought though. Jeffrey Pojanowski has outlined some very good reasons to do so in an excellent recent essay. But a fuller argument from me on that point must wait. Prof. Sachs’s conclusions are important in their own right, and an impetus for further reflection ― including in non-hypothetical polities.

The Originalist Papers

Benjamin Oliphant’s and my articles on originalism in Canada are officially out

Last year, I posted here the abstracts of two draft papers that Benjamin Oliphant and I had just finished writing. I am happy to report that both have now been published. The first one, “Has the Supreme Court of Canada Rejected ‘Originalism’?“, (2016) 42:1 Queen’s LJ 107, appeared back in January (despite what the journal says about the date!). The second, “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, (2017) 50:2 UBC L Rev 505, has only just come out.

In a nutshell, the first paper argues that, once we take stock of the developments in originalist thought (especially in the United States) over the last 30 years ― which too many Canadians who reject originalism out of hand have not done ― we realize that the answer to its title question is “no”. The precedents that are usually said to represent rejections of originalism do not support this conclusion. At most, they reject a type of originalism that no serious contemporary originalist endorses; they leave open the question of whether other originalist approaches might be used by Canadian courts.

The second paper answers this last question, from a descriptive perspective. It shows, with a variety of example drawn from the decisions both of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court Canada, spanning most of our constitutional history since Confederation, that our jurisprudence is replete with examples of originalist reasoning of various sorts. In some cases, courts look to the meaning of constitutional provisions at the time of their enactment; in others to the intentions of their framers; and in a few, perhaps even to the exact way in which the framers would have expected these provisions to operate. We do not claim that our constitutional law is systematically originalist; nor do we claim, in this paper anyway, that it ought to be. But we do argue that originalism has a significant, if underestimated, presence in Canada, and deserves careful study and serious consideration by Canadian lawyers, whether they be in practice, in academia, or on the bench.

Working on these papers has been a whirlwind. We’ve gone from discussions about putting together the couple of blog posts we’d written on originalism (which, we thought, would be enough to make up 3/4 of the single paper we were intending to write) to two published papers totalling 130 pages in just over 18 months. The papers took up a big part of my life (during an otherwise busy period involving the little matter of moving to New Zealand) ― and I’m pretty sure that it was the same for my co-author. I am very glad that these papers are now out of our hands, and beyond the reach of last-minute edits ― though you will see that we did our best on that front, even adding a post-script to the second paper after the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in R v Comeau, the “free the beer” case, just a few weeks ago. (Thanks to the UBC Law Review editors for accommodating us!)

I do hope that we will return to this topic eventually, though. Working with Mr. Oliphant has been a real pleasure, and I am very grateful to him for having taken time out of his busy life as an actual lawyer to go on this crazy adventure. If all goes well, you will hear from us (jointly or severally, and perhaps both) again. But for now, I at least will celebrate a bit. (No, not really. I have other papers to write.) And you, well, you should read our papers, if you haven’t yet!

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.