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.

A View from South of the Border

Dunsmuir, Chevron, and what Canadians and Americans can learn from each other about judicial deference and interventionism

Jeffrey Pojanowski, University of Notre Dame

First, I would like to thank Leonid and Paul for inviting me to contribute to this symposium. Reading up on Dunsmuir and its legacy has expanded my horizons on administrative law and introduced me to great Canadian legal scholarship. My sense is that Canadian administrative law scholars are engaged in important conversations with their counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K., whereas U.S. scholars, per usual, are doing their own thing. For reasons I discuss below, that separation may make some sense. But I am also convinced that further conversation between these wings of Anglo-American public law is important, for we are all struggling with the tension between the supremacy of law and the need for sound, politically responsive policy in a complex world. To keep within the space allotted, I will focus on only one of the many comparative angles, namely the extent of correctness review in our two systems. (On the U.S. end, I will only be discussing federal administrative law, not the law governing review of agency action in state governments.)

Dunsmuir, especially as interpreted in Edmonton East, indicates a broad presumption against review for correctness. The exception for general legal questions of substantial importance is narrow, deference on Charter interpretations has taken a bite out of the exception for constitutional questions, and jurisdictional review is withering away. As indicated by the 5-4 vote in Edmonton East, however, this broad presumption of reasonableness is controversial, and there is some indication that a return to contextual factors will defeat a strong, rule-like presumption of reasonableness review.

In the United States, standards of review are (sometimes nominally) governed by a statute, the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), which separates questions of law, fact, and policy. As a result, unlike Dunsmuir’s transubstantive reach, we have three separate doctrinal hooks for review, though there is some overlap. For findings of fact, the “substantial evidence” standard is similar to the jury review standard, though with a mood that is a little more searching. On questions of policy, the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of reasonableness governs and, while it has its complexities, there is little doctrinal support for anything like correctness review. Thus, on questions of fact and policy, the U.S. tracks Canada in eschewing correctness review.

Judges and scholars in the U.S., however, are obsessed with judicial review of legal questions. Here, the landmark case is Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Chevron offers a deceptively simple test. First, courts ask, using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation, whether the legislation speaks clearly to the question at hand. If so, that interpretation governs. If the question is unclear, the court then asks whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. If it is, that interpretation stands, even if it were not the one the court would have adopted under de novo review. Looming large above this two-step doctrine is the “step zero” question: when does Chevron apply, as opposed to a less-deferential standard of review? Even the most zealous judicial advocates of Chevron deference agree that an eligible interpretation must represent the agency’s authoritative judgment over a statute it administers. Without further qualifications, this strong Chevron approach would look much like the presumption of reasonableness review in Edmonton East.

Yet it is not that simple. In United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218 (2001), the Supreme Court rejected a broad Chevron rule in favor of a standard. Even when an agency administers a statute, the Court will look for contextual factors to suggest an exercised delegation of interpretive authority from Congress to the agency. Most prominently, Mead links implied delegation to an agency’s power to make policy through reasonably formal measures, such as legislative rulemaking and procedure-heavy adjudication. Agencies that have those powers and use them have a much stronger chance of receiving Chevron deference on an interpretation than those that lack them or do not use them. In subsequent cases, most notably the healthcare case King v. Burwell, the Court has also indicated that on some legal questions of major importance, it would be implausible to infer that Congress intended deference, even if the agency administers the statute and uses formal procedures. Thus, unlike Dunsmuir, Mead carves out for non-deferential review some legal questions that reside under the aegis of agency’s statute.

Therefore, in the U.S. a rough contextualism reigns supreme, with defeasible rules of thumb about when one can imply a delegation of interpretive authority from Congress to the agency. As in Canada, there is substantial (though not unanimous) dissatisfaction with the doctrine from opposite ends of the spectrum. Those who complain about the unpredictability of the doctrine post-Mead would warn a Canadian pushing for contextualism to be careful about what you wish for. On the other side, a more legalist strain has attacked the legitimacy of any legal deference, claiming that it flouts the APA, abdicates judicial duty, or unfairly biases adjudication in favor of the government. Like Alberta is to Canada, this latter chorus is not the dominant voice in American jurisprudence, but it represents the most sustained attack on deference in a long while.

Arguments about deference touch on deep questions of jurisprudence that transcend national boundaries. But it is also possible to ask mid-level questions about whether, given a set of assumptions or features of a legal system, deference on questions of law makes sense. If a legal community has a uniform approach to statutory interpretation, correctness review might be easier to manage; similarly, deciding when an interpretation is beyond the realm of reason is more tractable if judges carry roughly the same measure. In the United States, there can be sharp disagreements among textualists and purposivists about what counts as a good argument, and thus what makes an interpretation “clear” or “unreasonable.” If the Interpretation Act and Elmer Driedger-style-purposivism lead to interpretive practice as uniform in action as it appears on the books, this suggests that, ceteris parabis, Canadian judges could feel more comfortable than their U.S. counterparts in patrolling agency interpretations of law.

But not all else is equal. If the ordinary science of statutory interpretation in Canada is broadly purposive, that could strengthen the case against correctness review on legal questions. As a legal realist would be quick to point out, picking a statute’s purpose, selecting the level of generality at which to describe the purpose, and making the consequentialist judgment about which interpretation promotes that purpose can be a deeply political and policy-laden endeavor, one that looks a lot more like making law than finding it. On those premises, the standard justifications for Chevron ring true; compared to courts, agencies have superior technical expertise and are more accountable to the political branches. Judicial review of law and policy blur in a way less amenable to the distinctly judicial craft.

In systems like the U.S. where interpretive formalism has much greater purchase, a root-and-branch defense of correctness review could have more stable ground. Where inputs like text, structure, and linguistic canons offer substantial guidance, a formalist judge could contend that resolving a disputed question of interpretation can be separated from the consequent policy implications. (She would be wrong if interpretive formalism is illusory, but she would be right on her own premises.) As I have argued, it is therefore telling that Chevron’s most prominent critics today are neoclassical formalists who resist strongly purposive and dynamic approaches to interpretation. This is not to say such formalists maintain that the law never “runs out” on judicial review. There will be questions, like whether an agency’s regulation is “in the public interest,” that are in fact not questions of interpretation amenable to the formalist toolkit, but rather placeholders for delegated policymaking and its accompanying reasonableness review. But for the formalist, the line between law and policy is sharper, or at least legal disagreement crosses into policy choice much further down the line than the standard interpretive legal realist story suggests. If so (a big if!), that would muddy the policy-based case for broad deference on questions of law.

This critique of reasonableness review on law is not the only one available, but it is the one underwriting deference skepticism in the U.S. today. A Canadian deference skeptic who also rejects interpretive formalism would have to pursue other avenues and explain why judicial policy balancing is superior to its agency counterpart. And, as American scholars like Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have both argued, that is a challenging task. On the other hand, American jurists and scholars who defend Mead’s contextualism and reject interpretive formalism might look northward to bolster their position by reading the burgeoning Canadian literature criticizing Edmonton East. And, thanks to the internet, such exchange does not require a passport, let alone a drive to the Peace Bridge crossing.

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 of 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 these 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 R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295 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.