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.

Arguing against Originalism Badly

Noura Karazivan’s flawed argument against using originalism to understand constitutional structure

Noura Karazivan has recently published an article called “Constitutional Structure and Original Intent: A Canadian Perspective” in the University of Illinois Law Review. Prof. Karazivan raises interesting questions: what is, and what should be, the mix of originalism and living constitutionalism in the Supreme Court’s treatment of constitutional structure ― understood as the set of institutions that make up Canada’s government, and the relations among them. Unfortunately, prof. Karazivan’s argument suffers from her failure to engage seriously with contemporary originalist thought, or indeed to take note of recent work exploring it in the Canadian context, and her answer to the normative question, which decisively favours living constitutionalism, is unsatisfactory.

* * *

Prof. Karazivan’s starting point is an orthodox proposition: “[i]n Canadian constitutional law, there is no doubt that a broad, purposive, and progressive approach”, described by the famous “living tree” metaphor, “is preferred” for the interpretation of any and all constitutional provisions, (630) though she acknowledges that the Supreme Court uses other interpretive methods too. In addition to being used in the interpretation of constitutional text, living constitutionalism has played a crucial role in a number of decisions concerning constitutional structure. For example, in l’Affaire Nadon, Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, the Court’s “conclusion would probably have been different” had it not engaged in “actualizing” its place in the constitutional structure, and only looked “its role in 1875”. (648)

Yet in a couple of recent decisions, says Prof. Karazivan, the Court adopted a more originalist approach to constitutional structure, rather than the evolutionist one that it normally favours. Prof. Karazivan focuses on Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, but also mentions Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 31. In the former, “the Court greatly relied on the intent of the 1867 framers”, (646) who wished the Upper House to supply “sober second thought”. The Court disregarded the practice of partisan appointments to the Senate, the Senate’s contemporary role, and even “the impact of the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982”, (647) which arguably transferred the role of protector of constitutional rights from the Senate to the judiciary. Meanwhile, in Trial Lawyers, the superior courts’ historic dispute-settling role was crucial to the decision.

Prof. Karazivan argues that the Supreme Court was wrong to resort to originalism in these decisions. She gives four reasons. First, she takes Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 SCR 486 to stand for the proposition that the judiciary is not bound by the intent of constitutional framers. Second, originalism can make no democratic claim in Canada, since the Constitution Act, 1867 was the work of “a group of white men, mostly Parliamentarians, concerned with the preservation of British institutions on Canadian soil”, while “[t]he constitutional negotiations in 1982 were even less ‘democratic'”. (651; square quotes in the original) In short, “Canada does not have a great constitutional moment”. (651) Third, the Canadian constitution is simply too rigid for the courts not to update it from time to time. Finally, a “living tree” approach to interpretation yields a fuller understanding of both the constitution as a whole and its various components, as well as being “in line with Canadian constitutional structure and tradition”. (654)

* * *

As I said at the outset, this is unconvincing. Prof. Karazivan repeats pieties about the superiority of living constitutionalism to originalism without understanding what originalism actually is. Although she refers, in passing, to the distinction between originalist interpretation that seeks the intent of constitutional framers and that which centres on the constitution’s original public meaning, her article focuses on original intent ― which relatively few contemporary originalists are still committed to. Prof. Karazivan also enlists a number of cases, such as the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference and Reference re Employment Insurance Act (Can.), ss. 22 and 23, 2005 SCC 56, [2005] 2 SCR 669, in support of the proposition that living constitutionalism is the dominant approach to interpretation in Canada, while originalism has been rejected. Yet Benjamin Oliphant and I have shown that not only do these cases not support the claim of a wholesale rejection of originalism, but they are arguably (in the case of the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference) or quite clearly (in the case of Employment Insurance Reference) consistent with public meaning originalism.

More broadly, we have also shown that the Supreme Court has never squarely rejected the more plausible forms of originalism, and indeed that various forms of originalist reasoning make frequent, if erratic, appearances in the Court’s reasoning. In particular, as both we and J. Gareth Morley and Sébastien Grammond have observed, originalist reasoning features heavily not only in the Senate Reform Reference, which prof. Karazivan decries, but also in the Nadon Reference, which she commends. Mr. Oliphant and I have also pointed out that cases on the jurisdiction of superior courts have had an originalist bent well before Trial Lawyers. In short, at the level of description, prof. Karazivan’s story, in which a largely living constitutionalist Supreme Court issued a couple of aberrant originalist decisions is much too simple.

Prof. Karazivan’s normative argument is even weaker. Her appeal to the authority of Justice Lamer’s opinion in the BC Motor Vehicle Act Reference has to be set against not only the arguable  consistency of this opinion with public meaning originalism, but also its author’s resort to more explicitly originalist reasoning elsewhere. For instance, in B(R) v Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, [1995] 1 SCR 315 he wrote that

[t]he flexibility of the principles [the Charter] expresses does not give [the courts] authority to distort their true meaning and purpose, nor to manufacture a constitutional law that goes beyond the manifest intention of its framers. (337)

Prof. Karazivan’s denial that Canada had “a great constitutional moment”, and her insistence that the drafting of the Constitution Act, 1867 (by “white men”) and that of the Constitution Act, 1982 (presumably by persons unknown) would be simply bizarre were they not sadly typical of the ritual denigration of Canadian constitutional history in which even Supreme Court judges have been known to engage. The truth, though, is that Canada did have not one, but two great constitutional moments ― in the mid-1860s and the early 1980s. My friend Alastair Gillespie has been exploring the first of these in a compelling (and ongoing) series of papers for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which, as I have written in a recent post for the CBA National

make clear [that] the Fathers of Confederation wrestled with such seemingly contemporary questions as whether diversity is a source of weakness of strength for a political community, what claims such a community may legitimately make on minorities within its midst, and what rights these minorities may assert against the community. The settlement of 1867 was a remarkable achievement in this regard.

To be sure, the Fathers of Confederation were indeed white men ― as were those who took part in the framing of the US Constitution, to which prof. Karazivan does not deny the status of a “great constitutional moment”. This is one reason, among others, why I do not find the democratic case for originalism very compelling. But the sexism and racism of our 19th-century forbears is not a reason for dismissing the substance of their achievements; and least of all for allowing a group nine men and women, who are if anything even less representative of society than the Fathers of Confederation on every dimension except for gender, the power to re-write the constitution. As for the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it was preceded by wide-ranging public consultations which resulted, for example, in the adoption of section 28 at the urging of feminist groups, as Kerri Froc has shown. Why prof. Karazivan claims it was undemocratic, I cannot understand.

That the constitution is rigid and difficult to amend is a feature, not a bug that needs to be removed by the backdoor expedient of judicial reinterpretation. The politicians who came up with and agreed to the amending formula in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 obviously thought it was flexible enough. Why were they wrong? That said, had prof. Karazivan taken public meaning originalism, and in particular the work of those originalists who recognize the distinction between constitutional interpretation and constitutional construction, seriously, she would have realized that many, perhaps most originalists do not advocate for a static constitutional law. They insist that the meaning of the constitution’s text is fixed, but recognize that this text can in fact be applied to facts and circumstances quite unforeseen at the time of its drafting through the development of constitutional doctrine.

Finally, I fail to see how living constitutionalism can lead us to a better understanding of the constitution. The argument, insofar as I understand it, seems question-begging. Saying treating the constitution as a “living tree” allows us to understand it better presupposes that the object of constitutional interpretation is the contemporary constitution rather than the intention of the constitutional text’s drafters or its original public meaning ― which is very much the point in issue. To be sure, Canadian constitutional tradition is laden with denunciations ― usually quite ignorant denunciations ― of originalism. But as the emerging Canadian scholarship that takes originalism seriously shows, these denunciations do not tell us the whole story. Nor can they serve as a normative justification in the absence of any more compelling ones.

* * *

As I mentioned at the outset, prof. Karazivan addresses an important question, that of the place of originalism in the Supreme Court’s understanding of constitutional structure. Unfortunately, she does so in a way that reflects a simplistic or outdated understanding of originalism, and as a result oversimplifies relevant precedents and offers thoroughly unconvincing arguments against originalism. That her arguments do not succeed does not show that the Court is right to be as originalist as it is, or that it ought to be more so. That case remains to be made. But so does prof. Karazivan’s in favour of living constitutionalism. Her article does not advance it.

Dirty Word or Dirty Little Secret?

My talk on originalism at the Université de Montréal

Last week, I spoke at the Université de Montréal about the two articles Benjamin Oliphant and I have co-written on originalism in Canada. Joanna Baron of the Runnymede Society organized the event, Matt Harrington, of UdeM’s common law programme, hosted it, and Dwight Newman commented on the presentation and the papers. I am very grateful to them all for making it happen! Here’s the video:

Ms. Baron and I also recorded a podcast for the forthcoming Runnymede Radio series (you can listen to a teaser here). It should be available in the coming weeks.

During my visit to Montreal I also gave a guest-lecture at McGill, which was as fun as speaking there always is, and I am very grateful to Johanne Poirier who gave me the opportunity to address her constitutional law class.

A Pile of Problems

A critique of Steven Penney’s take on the Supreme Court’s distinction between criminal and administrative penalties

Steven Penney has recently posted to SSRN an interesting article, published last year in the Supreme Court Law Review, criticizing the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence distinguishing the imposition of “administrative” and “criminal” penalties. People (and corporations) who risk the latter kind of penalties ― “true penal consequences” as the Court calls them ― benefit from a variety of procedural protections which section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “[a]ny person charged with an offence”. Those facing only “administrative” penalties ― which can include suspensions of licenses (to drive or to practice a profession) and fines, even fines ranging in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars ― are not protected by the Charter.

Prof. Penney traces the intellectual roots of this distinction to the Canadian rejection of the “Lochner era” in American constitutional jurisprudence, which is generally thought to have involved judicial subversion of valuable economic regulation intended to protect society’s less powerful members.  Prof. Penney shares the concern that motivated this rejection, but argues that it has been taken too far. The “shadow of Lochner“, as his article’s title has it, has dimmed the guiding lights of the Charter, even as

[l]egislatures have increasingly relied on administrative and civil enforcement regimes to address forms of wrongdoing previously left to the criminal law. In many instances, the sanctions accompanying these regimes are harsh, the targets are ordinary people, and the rules protecting adjudicative fairness are weak. (309)

Prof. Penney argues that section 11 of the Charter should be interpreted more broadly, to provide procedural protections to persons involved in administrative as well as criminal proceedings. The government’s ability to justify restrictions to or departures from these protections under section 1 should be enough to prevent them from standing in the way of truly important economic regulation ― but the necessity of these restrictions or departures would have to be justified.

This is an intriguing argument. I have written here about Thibault c. Da Costa, 2014 QCCA 2347, a case in which the distinction between administrative and criminal penalties was used to uphold the imposition, on a financial advisor who had swindled some of his clients, of fines that were higher than those authorized by the applicable legislation as it stood at the time of the acts. In the criminal context, paragraph 11(i) of the Charter, which entitles persons charged with an offence “if found guilty of the offence and if the punishment for the offence has been varied between the time of commission and the time of sentencing, to the benefit of the lesser punishment”, prohibits this. But the Québec Court of Appeal took the view that the proceedings here were not really criminal, because the fines imposed were not “true penal consequences”, and so their retrospective increase was upheld. I wrote that the decision, although legally correct, was disturbing. Prof. Penney discusses two decisions of the Supreme Court that also apply this distinction to disturbing effect (as he, persuasively in my view, argues):  Guindon v Canada, 2015 SCC 41, [2015] 3 SCR 3 and Goodwin v. British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), 2015 SCC 46, [2015] 3 S.C.R. 250.

At the same time, however, Prof. Penney’s article suffers from a some flaws that are, sadly, characteristic of Canadian constitutional thought. One issue I have with Prof. Penney’s argument is that it mostly does not question the conventional wisdom on the “Lochner era” in which it finds the roots of the problem it tries to push back against. According to this conventional wisdom, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), held up, in prof. Penney’s words, “a rigid and formalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights to limit state efforts to enact and enforce progressive economic legislation”. (308) This is questionable; indeed, recent scholarship argues that it is simply wrong. David Bernstein, whose book prof. Penney cites but does not engage with, has shown that, far from being intended to protect the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the legislation invalidated in Lochner served to protect (relatively) big ― and unionized ― established businesses against smaller, family-owned competitors. Many other laws invalidated in the “Lochner era” ― which were never as numerous as subsequent criticism made them out to be ― were similarly objectionable. Meanwhile, this reviled jurisprudential era has served as the foundation for the subsequent expansion in the enforcement of constitutional rights in the non-economic realm.

This history matters. Rectifying the record is useful for its own sake of course. Prof. Penney says that “[t]he story of Lochner is well known” (310) ― and, in the next sentence, misstates the year in which it was decided; an accident, no doubt, but an ironic one. Prof. Penney quotes a passage from Justice Cory’s reasons in R v Wholesale Travel Group Inc, [1991] 3 SCR 154 describing the “so-called ‘Lochner era'” as the period of time when “courts struck down important components of the program of regulatory legislation known as ‘the New Deal'”. But of course the “Lochner era” began well before Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, and most of the laws struck down during this period had nothing to do with it. In short, “the story of Lochner” is rather less well known than one might be tempted to suppose; what people think they know about it may be ideological myth more than reality. More importantly, however, recovering Lochner‘s philosophy ― an opposition not to any and all economic regulation, but to the sort of regulation that privileges some groups in society above others ― might also make us rightly more suspicious than we tend to be of the  regulatory schemes that the courts end up protecting by invoking the administrative-criminal distinction. In my post on Thibault I suggested that courts should be wary of “the specious claims professional organizations, and governments which choose to delegate their regulatory powers to them, make about their role” when they ask themselves whether the penalties at issue are administrative or penal in nature. Remembering Lochner‘s lesson ― that economic regulation is not always as benign and protective as it seems ― might help here.

My other, and more important, objection to prof. Penney’s argument concerns his approach to constitutional interpretation. He “claim[s] … that the Supreme Court’s construal of ‘charged with an offence'” in section 11 of the Charter as excluding administrative proceedings  “is too restrictive”. (323) It is too restrictive, prof. Penney argues, because of the bad consequences it produces ― in the sense that individual rights to “adjudicative fairness in contesting substantial state-imposed penalties” (324) are under-protected. As I suggest above, I think that prof. Penney is right to decry the under-protection of these rights. But it is not enough to say that, because interpreting a constitutional provision in a certain way produces unpleasant consequences, a different interpretation can and ought to be adopted.

The jurisprudence that prof. Penney criticizes arguably illustrates the perils of this approach. In prof. Penney’s telling, the Supreme Court is concerned about the costs of enforcing the Charter‘s procedural protections for the state’s ability to impose economic regulations, more than it is about the consequences of not enforcing these protections when “true penal consequences” such as imprisonment are not at stake. A consequentialist approach to constitutional interpretation can go either way; there is no guarantee that it will always be right-protecting. Consequentialism, in turn, is one possible way of implementing the “living tree” interpretive methodology that the Supreme Court and Canadian academia loudly insist is the only appropriate one. It’s not the only way ― one might be a living-treeist without being a consequentialist. But saying “living tree” is not enough to decide cases. Once one accepts that constitutional meaning can change, one has to figure out what it should change to, and this is where consequentialism comes in. If one wants to foreclose, or at least to limit, its influence in constitutional interpretation, one should, I suspect, abandon living-treeism, at least in the radically unspecified form in which it is practised in Canada.

Now, it is not clear that doing so will lead to results that prof. Penney or I would find pleasant in this particular case. The main alternatives to living-tree constitutional interpretation are the different versions of originalism. (For a primer, see Benjamin Oliphant’s and my paper recently published in the Queen’s Law Journal.) An originalist approach to section 11 of the Charter would consist in asking whether (depending on the version of originalism one subscribes to)  “charged with an offence” would have been understood in 1982 as applying to administrative proceedings or was intended to apply to them by the Charter‘s authors. And I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that, insofar as these questions do have an ascertainable answer (they might not; perhaps the phrase “charged with an offence” is irreducibly vague, forcing an originalist interpreter into the “construction zone” that is, on some views, not very different from living tree interpretation), this answer does not turn on competing, and potentially variable, cost-benefit analyses, which will inevitably be influenced by personal preferences, of judges or scholars. Originalism is not necessarily more rights-protective than living-treeism ― though as prof. Penney shows, living-treeism isn’t always very rights-protective either. But originalism does hold out a promise of a constitutional law that is actually law-like, in that it is independent of the individuals who apply it. In the long run, this is not only valuable in itself, but arguably also more likely to protect individual rights in situations where doing so is likely to be seen as undermining important social objectives ― which after all is the whole point of constitutional rights protection.

Prof. Penney’s article is valuable because it attracts our attention to a number of serious problems affecting our constitutional law. On the one hand, there is problem of insufficient constraints on the imposition of “administrative” penalties, which the article decries. On the other, there are the twin problems of reliance on a blinkered version of history and on open-ended “living tree” constitutional interpretation that opens the door to consequentialist reasoning unconstrained by anything other than personal preferences, which the article exemplifies. Proponents of prof. Penney’s interpretive approach might say that my argument is contradictory, since it suggests that the constitution might not give us the resources to address the problem prof. Penney identifies. But if that is so, the solution is not to surreptitiously re-write the constitution under the guise of an interpretation that will only be adhered to by those who share the interpreter’s beliefs, but to amend it in a way that will be binding on all future interpreters, whatever their personal views.

Was Scalia Spooky?

Antonin Scalia’s views on snooping, in the 1970s and later

The Globe and Mail‘s Sean Fine is as good a reporter as he is a bad analyst. Both of his qualities ― an impressive ability to find and tell a great story, and an unthinking belief in simplistic ideological classification of judges ― are on full display in his latest article, a fascinating story of how Antonin Scalia, then a professor at the University of Chicago, was commissioned to produce a report on “United States Intelligence Law” for the McDonald Commission, which investigated the RCMP’s espionage activities and whose eventual recommendations led to the creation of CSIS. Mr. Fine contrasts “[t]he report’s scrupulously impartial (for the most part) author” with the judge that he would become; the former, sensitive to privacy rights if also keen to ensure that intelligence agencies can operate effectively; the latter, in Mr. Fine’s telling, brazenly unconcerned with them, and condoning “torture in some circumstances”. But things are more complicated than Mr. Fine lets on.

Before I get to that, I’ll note little anecdote that Mr. Fine passes over, perhaps because this is a bit too inside-baseball for the Globe‘s readers. Mr. Fine explains that it was Peter Russel, who was the director of research for the McDonald Commission, who recommended then-professor Scalia’s hiring ― on the advice of Edward Levi (Scalia’s boss as Attorney-General in Gerald Ford’s administration) and Herbert Wechsler (a distinguished scholar, notably of the “neutral principles” fame). What Mr. Fine does not mention is that prof. Russel’s recommendation (a scan of which is included in the article) noted that Levi and Wechsler ranked Scalia ahead of none other than Robert Bork. (Prof. Russell, by the way, seems to have had a bit of an issue with names in that memo, referring to “Anthony” Scalia and “Richard” Bork.) Ironically, the Reagan administration would later rank Scalia and Bork in the same order when it came to making their appointments to the Supreme Court. Scalia was nominated in 1986, and confirmed by the Senate on a 98-0 vote; Bork was nominated in 1987 and rejected by the Senate after hearings so bitter that his name became a verb, in which his views and record were arguably distorted out of all recognition by Ted Kennedy and the latest recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

And, to get back to my point, this is a bit what Mr. Fine tries to do with the late Justice Scalia, albeit on a much smaller scale. He makes a point of noting that prof. Russell

would … later be appalled by the justice’s support of originalism – a judicial philosophy in which constitutional rights do not evolve over time, but stay rooted in the vision of the Founding Fathers of the United States. “Originalism is absolute nonsense”,

he quotes prof. Russell as saying. And he refers repeatedly to a “2007 speech” Scalia gave in Ottawa, in which “he was more the suspicious-of-too-many-legal-protections conservative”.  But Justice Scalia’s originalism was neither “nonsense” nor all bad for the protection of privacy rights against over-curious governments.

Prof. Russell, Mr. Fine, and those who think like them ― admittedly, a large contingent in Canada ― might just learn a thing or two from the expanding scholarship documenting the presence of originalism in Canada, and in some cases advocating the expansion of this presence. This scholarship includes (but is not limited to) recent articles by Sébastien Grammond and J. Gareth Morley focusing on the Supreme Court’s opinions on the appointment of Justice Nadon and Senate reform; an as-yet-unpublished paper by Asher Honickman, on federalism; Kerri Froc’s work on women’s rights; and the pair of articles that Benjamin Oliphant and I wrote last year. The first of these, which should come out any day now in the Queen’s Law Journal, shows that contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court has not squarely rejected originalism, least of all what is arguably the dominant form of originalism now, one focused on the original meaning of constitutional texts (rather than their framers’ intentions or expectations). The second, due to come out in the UBC Law Review later this year, shows that, in fact, the Supreme Court resorts to originalist reasoning in a surprising variety of cases. If Prof. Russell is right that “originalism is absolute nonsense”, then not only has the Supreme Court never renounced it, but in fact large swathes of its jurisprudence (and of that of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council), are nonsensical too.

But more directly relevant to my present topic is our discussion, in the first paper, of the contrast between Justice Scalia’s reasons, for a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court of the United States, in Kyllo v United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), and Justice Binnie’s reasons for the unanimous Supreme Court of Canada in R v Tessling, 2004 SCC 67, [2004] 3 SCR 432. As we explain (actually, the credit here goes to Mr. Oliphant):

The issue, in both cases, was whether the use of a thermal imaging device by the police amounted to a “search” within the meaning, respectively, of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and section 8 of the Charter. In Kyllo, Justice Scalia … found that because information about what went on within the home ― however collected ― would have been secure from search and seizure at the time the Fourth Amendment was passed, the state cannot now invade that sphere of privacy through the use of new technology.

Justice Binnie, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, disagreed… Justice Binnie rejected the relevance of Kyllo on the basis that it was “predicated on the ‘originalism’ philosophy of Scalia J.,” [61] and because it is not “helpful in the Canadian context to compare the state of technology in 2004 with that which existed at Confederation in 1867, or in 1982 when s. 8 of the Charter was adopted.” [62]

Tessling is an odd hill upon which to make a stand against originalism. Kyllo, which the Court in Tessling refused to follow, did not restrict constitutional meaning to those realities foreseen by the framers, as originalism does according to the “frozen rights” or “dead” constitution caricature frequently encountered in the Canadian literature. It did precisely the opposite. … Indeed, it is not clear to us just what Justice Binnie is actually rejecting in refusing to follow the “originalist” philosophy underlying Kyllo, or in stating that it is unhelpful “to compare the state of technology” in 2004 with what which existed in 1982. The logic of Kyllo was to deny that changes in technology can diminish the scope of constitutional protection over time; there was no “comparison” of technologies, because changes in technology were irrelevant to the interpretive question of what was protected. (25-26; a paragraph break and a reference removed)

We conclude that

In the ultimate result, and despite frequent and nebulous assertions that the Charter must be read in a “large,” “liberal,” and “generous,” manner, Justice Scalia’s originalist philosophy unquestionably resulted in a more general and robust protection for personal privacy than Justice Binnie’s “purposive” approach to interpreting section 8 of the Charter. (27)

Of course, this is not to say that Justice Scalia was always right, on privacy issues or on anything else. Indeed, this does not even prove that originalism is the better approach to constitutional interpretation than whatever it is that the Supreme Court of Canada is doing. But both originalism and Justice Scalia’s legacy are more complex than many Canadians, including Mr. Fine, tend to assume. We owe Mr. Fine for telling us a story that shed more light on the late Justice’s oeuvre. It’s too bad he tried to shoehorn that story into a simplistic ideological framework that is as misleading as it is useless.

A Frozen Concept

Here is a stray thought inspired by the discussion of interjurisdictional immunities in the Supreme Court’s decision in Rogers Communications Inc. v. Châteauguay (City), 2016 SCC 23, about which I wrote yesterday. One way in which the Supreme Court has, or so it is often claimed, dismissed originalist constitutional interpretation is by comparing it to a theory of “frozen concepts” which cannot evolve as the times require. In Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 S.C.R. 698, the Court proclaimed that

[t]he “frozen concepts” reasoning runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life. [22]

Speaking extra-judicially, then-Justice Binnie went one step further and referred to “a theory of frozen rights with no realistic prospect of a thaw.”

However, as Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in a recent paper, equating originalism with a simple belief that the concepts used in a constitutional text are “frozen” reflects a misunderstanding if not a misrepresentation of contemporary originalism, at least, or especially, of contemporary originalism which accepts a distinction between constitutional interpretation and construction. Indeed, as we further argue, the Court itself occasionally resorts to originalist reasoning, some of which could arguably be described as reflecting a “frozen concepts” view of constitutional law.

Be that as it may, the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunities is probably the single best example of a “frozen concept” in Canadian constitutional law. In Canadian Western Bank v. Alberta, 2007 SCC 22, [2007] 2 S.C.R. 3, the majority opinion stated that

interjurisdictional immunity is of limited application and should in general be reserved for situations already covered by precedent. This means, in practice, that it will be largely reserved for those heads of power that deal with federal things, persons or undertakings, or where in the past its application has been considered absolutely indispensable. [77]

The majority in Rogers Communications quoted this passage with approval, and approach the issue of interjurisdictional immunity accordingly, asking whether there was precedent for treating the location of radiocommunications equipment as belonging to the “core” of the federal power over radiocommunications.

This is not, strictly speaking, originalism. Along with the whole machinery of “pith and substance,” “double aspect,”  and “paramountcy,” it is a creature of constitutional construction ― the judicial development of doctrines necessary to give effect to a constitutional text, which is often insufficient to resolve a dispute on its own. (Canadian Western Bank sets out this development in great detail.) Constitutional construction, as Randy Barnett for example has argued, is not itself originalist ― only interpretation can be.

Yet the idea that interjurisdictional immunity is alive and well ― but only in those areas where there is precedent for its application is nothing if not the “freezing” of a constitutional concept ― albeit one developed by judges rather than provided by the constitutional text. For close to a century, the doctrine developed in fits and starts ― and then, in 2007, Justice Lebel and, of all people, Justice Binnie concluded that that was it, and that the time had come to freeze it in its then-current state. This decision is rather puzzling. For one thing, it seems to sit uneasily with the Supreme Court’s oft-repeated commitment to “living-treeism” ― reiterated in Canadian Western Bank, where the majority opinion insists that “the interpretation of [legislative] powers and of how they interrelate must evolve and must be tailored to the changing political and cultural realities of Canadian society.” [23] And for another, it is not clear that the normative arguments for treating a statutory or constitutional text as “frozen” until amended by the body that enacted it apply to a judicially-developed doctrine ― or at least that they can support a “freezing” of such a doctrine deeper than that effect by the usual principles of stare decisis.

Whether or not treating it in this way makes sense, the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity is a “frozen concept” in Canadian constitutional law. It is one more reason to treat judicial protestations to the effect that such things are unknown this side of the border as too much. Slogans do not help us understand constitutional law, or anything else.

Originalism ― The Talk

My remarks on originalism in Canada at the Courts and Politics workshop

Yesterday, I spoke about the place of originalism in Canadian constitutional jurisprudence at the Courts and Politics workshop that Kate Puddister and Emmett Macfarlane had convened at the University of Guelph. The whole things was a lot of fun and very educational, not least for me as one of the rare lawyers in a group of (mostly) political scientists, and I am very grateful to the organizers for inviting me.

My talk was, of course, based on the articles on the topic of originalism in Canada that Benjamin Oliphant and I have co-authored. Here is the draft of my remarks.

* * *

Few legal concepts have been so little understood yet so much vilified as originalism has been in Canada. Adam Dodek has said that “originalism” is a “dirty word” on this side of the Canada-U.S. border. Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Canadian jurists, including former Supreme Court judges, took to the media to remind us that originalism has no place in our law. It is my respectful contention today that they were repeating a myth that is at odds with the facts. Misunderstood, vilified, and unacknowledged, originalism is nevertheless a staple of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence.
Now, it is important to clarify what I mean by “originalism” ― and what those scholars who take originalism seriously mean by this term. In Canada, we are used to associating it with a number of rather unflattering metaphors. We think of “frozen rights,” of the “dead” constitution. We also think that originalism requires the interpreter of the constitution to defer to the subjective intentions of the individual framers, and we have much less reverence for, and ― perhaps partly as a consequence ― know less about the thoughts of, the framers of our constitution, both those who created it in the run-up to 1867 and those who added to it in 1982, than Americans know about their framers. Last but not least, we tend to do draw a simple equation between originalism on the one hand, and conservatism on the other.

Yet this view of originalism is a distorted one; it reflects, at most, the state of originalist thought in the early 1980s. Originalism itself is not frozen in time, and it is our loss when we pretend that it is and refuse to learn about what it is like today. In the interests of time, I will only briefly mention three salient characteristics of contemporary originalism ― keeping in mind that it is no longer, if it ever was, a single, unified theory, and that not all originalists necessarily subscribe to the beliefs of most of their fellows. First, originalism largely accepts that the meaning of a constitutional text does not settle each and every conceivable constitutional question. Insofar as a text is vague, or specifically refers to evaluative concepts (such as reasonableness or cruelty), giving it legal effect requires not only “interpretation,” but also “construction,” which is not bound by the views and expectations of constitutional framers, and can thus allow constitutional doctrine ― although not the meaning of the text itself ― to evolve. Second, as I just mentioned, the views of the framers, their expectations, their intentions are not dispositive in constitutional interpretation. While knowing them can help us understand the text, it is ultimately the text itself that is authoritative, and its public meaning, rather than the framers’ private is are generally regarded as the object of constitutional investigation. And third, while in its beginnings originalism was indeed an intellectual project of the American right, it has been embraced by both libertarian and progressive scholars, who have for example made an originalist case for same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In Canada, Kerri Froc has urged the reinvigoration of s. 28 of the Charter from a feminist ― and an originalist ― perspective.

With that in mind, I will discuss the ways in which originalism features ― albeit that it is never quite acknowledged ― in a number of the Supreme Court’s prominent decisions. In the papers, we discuss many other cases, and go back further in time, to the jurisprudence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (despite the fact that F.R. Scott chided it for failure “to apply the BNA Act as originally drafted”). In the interests of time, here I will focus on just a few recent decisions.

One type of cases that is shot through with originalist reasoning consists of those that involve “constitutional bargains,” compromises that led to the enactment or amendment of constitutional provisions. This notion goes back to Blaikie v. Québec, and indeed to much earlier Privy Council decisions, but it has been used to spectacular effect in the references regarding Senate reform and the appointment of Justice Nadon, a couple of years ago. The Court insisted that its role was to give effect to the agreements reached in 1867 and in 1875, respectively ― not to any modern conception of political morality or the public good. When it spoke of constitutional architecture in the Senate Reform Reference, the Court referred to the assumptions about how the constitution would operate that were held by the Fathers of Confederation ― not to the way in which the constitution actually operated, and still less to the way in which we might think it ought to operate, as a court truly committed to living constitutionalism might do. More recently, in the Caron case that dealt with legislative bilingualism in Alberta, both the majority and the dissent saw their task as consisting in giving effect to the bargain struck between the federal government and the inhabitants of the North-West, but disagreed about whether the public meaning of the words into which that bargain was put, or the intentions of the parties to the bargain, ought to determine its import.

Charter cases might seem an especially barren ground for originalists ― indeed, the Supreme Court’s embrace of the “living tree” metaphor as the guide to constitutional interpretation followed the enactment of the Charter, even though the Persons case, from which it is taken, was obviously not a Charter case. But here too, originalist reasoning is widespread. For one thing, the Court’s embrace of purposivism in Charter interpretation raises the question of whose purposes it seeks to uphold in applying the Charter. While it sometimes speaks as if the Charter had purposes of its own, independent of those of its framers and interpreters alike, this seems rather contrived. In any case, purposive interpretation is often similar to one or another sort of the originalist kind, sometimes the one following on intentions, and in other cases on public meaning.

A related point is that the Court frequently refers to the framers’ choices of wording ― which can be ascertained by referring to the Parliamentary record and the early drafts of what became the Charter ― to guide its interpretation. For instance, in R. v. Prosper, the Court invoked the fact that the framers of the Charter considered and rejected a broader version of the right to counsel than the one that ultimately made it into the constitutional text in order to justify not reading that text in a more expansive fashion. But the best-known instance of such reasoning is, no doubt, the exclusion of economic and property rights from Charter protection, which is based on the decisions made during the drafting of the Charter. (Indeed, when the Court recently chose to make an exception from this general principle for trade unions, it invoked a sort of hypothetical originalist argument, according to which other human rights documents protecting the unions’ rights were supposedly in the “contemplation” of the framers of the Charter.)

Finally, originalist reasoning features prominently in cases dealing with aboriginal law. To give just one example, the very recent decision in Daniels that the Métis fall within the scope of Parliament’s jurisdiction over “Indians” in s. 91(24) invokes the understanding of the term “Indian” in the years before and after Confederation, as well as the purposes for which that jurisdiction was assigned to Parliament. While I hesitate to call it entirely originalist, it at the very least comes close ― and it is perhaps worth pointing out that the decision was unanimous, and written by Justice Abella. No fire-breathing conservative, she.

All of this is not to say that the Supreme Court has been consistently originalist. It hasn’t. But then again, it hasn’t been consistently anything in particular. One of the hopes that we have for this work is that it will encourage Canadian scholars ― and judges, if possible ― to reflect much more seriously on constitutional interpretation than they have been in the habit of doing. It is not enough to recite pieties about the “living tree,” because even in its capacious shade, the hardy weed ― or is it the hopeful offshoots? ― of originalism break through.