Lost Virtue

Joseph Raz revisits the subject of the virtue of the Rule of Law

Joseph Raz recently posted on SSRN a short essay call “The Law’s Own Virtue“, based on remarks he delivered on the occasion of receiving the Tang Prize. The essay revisits themes explored in Professor Raz’s famous article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, defending the same view that the Rule of Law does not mean the rule of good law, and that its requirements on the exercise of public power are formal and procedural, but not substantive. It is a view that I share, for what that’s worth. But there is an aspect of Professor Raz’s argument which is new, at least in comparison with his classic article, and which strikes me as deeply disturbing.

Professor Raz now makes the intention of government actors central to his discussion of the Rule of Law. He starts from the proposition that “one, commonly agreed, aim of the [Rule of Law] is to avoid arbitrary government”. (5) This is where the focus on the reasons for government action enter the picture, as Professor Raz defines “[a]rbitrary government [as] the use of power that is indifferent to the proper reasons for which power should be used”. (5) Government power should be used “to follow and to apply the law”; (6) If it is used with this intention, the Rule of Law is being complied with. It follows that

not every failure of the government to be guided by the law is a breach of the [Rule of Law]. For the most part such failure is due to mistakes and incompetence. Even the most conscientious and qualified government is liable to fail in such ways. (6)

Intention is also relevant when assessing (from the Rule of Law standpoint) the exercise of interpretive and discretionary powers, and indeed the rule-making powers. When making or interpreting law under the Rule of Law, governments must “not … promote their own interest, but that of  … the governed … includ[ing] their moral interests”. (8) Beyond that, however,

[d]etermining what ends to pursue in the exercise of discretionary powers, or in the interpretation of the law, is the stuff of ordinary politics, and the [Rule of Law] does not review the success of politics. (6)

Professor Raz sums his argument as follows:

Based in the main on only two premises, that governments may act only in the interests of the governed, and that honest mistakes about what that is, and what it entails are the stuff of ordinary politics, and honest mistakes about this do not violate the rule of law, I concluded that the virtue of the rule of law lies in tending to secure that the government acts with the manifest intention of serving the interests of the governed. (15)

Professor Raz’s original view of the virtue of law was that it was indifferent to governmental purposes. Compliance with the Rule of Law, he famously wrote, is like the sharpness of a knife: a quality that can be used in the service of bad ends, as well as good ones. The test for such compliance had to do with the form of laws (notably their clarity, openness, and stability) and with respect for legal procedures (the independence of courts, the executive complying with the law that authorizes it to act, and so on). An ill-intentioned, self-serving or abusive government could comply with the Rule of Law; a well-intentioned but incompetent one, not necessarily.

This view is reversed in Professor Raz’s return to the subject and, as noted above, I do not think that his change of heart is for the better. I think it is dangerous and counter-productive to judge governments by intention, both as a general matter and specifically when it comes to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Moreover, even if intention were a relevant consideration, the pursuit of the “interest of the governed” seems a particularly unhelpful standard by which to judge governments.

Generally speaking, I think we would do well to embrace Lord Acton’s distrust of “[t]hose who judge morality by the intention [and] have been less shocked at the crimes of power … than at those committed by men resisting oppression”. The time elapsed since Acton’s death should only have reinforced this attitude. And it is especially relevant to the issue of the Rule of Law. Governments themselves don’t allow people to get away with law-breaking by pleading “mistakes and incompetence”. If you are caught speeding, telling the cop that you’re just a mediocre driver and, while desirous of complying with the traffic code, sometimes forget to check how fast you are going isn’t going to get you too far, I suspect. So why should you have any patience with similar claims by a government? Lon Fuller, in particular, emphasized the reciprocity that the Rule of Law fosters in the relationship between government and citizen: as the quid pro quo for the citizen’s law-abidingness, the government ensures that the law allows the citizen to plan his or her life. Under Professor Raz’s approach, this reciprocity can break down. The citizen is still asked to obey, but the government only to intend to do so.

Of course, Fuller, as well Professor Raz in “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, recognized that compliance with the Rule of Law is (usually) a matter of degree. A certain level of compliance is necessary; beyond that, the question becomes one of excellence, and perhaps even excess. But I don’t think that this is Professor Raz’s point in “The Law’s Own Virtue”. If “manifest intention” to act in the appropriate way is the relevant standard, then even fairly egregious failures, so long as they are due to good faith incompetence, perhaps even honest carelessness, will be excused, and not only a government’s inability to reach excellence.

Consider an example that I have previously discussed here as a Rule of Law failure: the Canadian law on the standard of review in administrative law. The Supreme Court changes the rules all the time, sometimes announcing that it does so and sometimes not; it often fails to follow the rules it has itself announced; its deferential approach is not impartial between the citizen and the government and allows erroneous legal interpretations arrived at by decision-makers who are not independent of the government to become the law. For all that, I am happy to suppose that the Supreme Court judges intend to follow the law, except in those cases where they (not inappropriately) reconsider their precedents, and that to the extent they are engaged in (re-)making the law, they think they act in the best interest of Canadians. The vexing inability to come up with and follow a truly legal framework is, at least for the most part, the fruit of plentiful mistakes and abundant incompetence. But so what? That doesn’t change the fact that where citizens (not to mention other judges) ought to find law, they find muddle. The Supreme Court’s pronouncements provide no useful guidance, and thus appear arbitrary, even if they do not meet Professor Raz’s narrow definition of arbitrariness. 

This example also points to another troubling claim in Professor Raz’s discussion: that legal interpretation is equivalent to an exercise of discretionary powers and must be assessed as “the stuff of ordinary politics”, not a Rule of Law issue. As not only John Marshall but also the Professor Raz of “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” recognized, the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is. This is significant, because the courts are not engaged in “ordinary”—which I think must mean partisan and self-interested—politics when interpreting or even developing the law. Their performance in doing so cannot be judged politically, either as a normative matter (because political criteria are the wrong ones to apply to judicial decisions) or as a descriptive one (because the courts, being unelected and independent, are not subject to political judgment anyway). Of course, a political judgment in the shape of legislation or constitutional amendment overturning a judicial decision is possible; perhaps this is what Professor Raz means. But such legislation is fairly rare, and constitutional amendment still more so. In the ordinary course of things, the only judgment that we can pass on the judiciary’s exercise of interpretive and creative powers is a moral one, and it must be based on Rule of Law-related criteria, not political ones.

Finally, in any case, I think that “the interest of the governed” is not a standard by which the actions of any institution of government can usefully be assessed. “The governed” are not a homogeneous undifferentiated mass. The are individuals, organizations, and groups. Their interests differ, and sometimes—indeed, quite often—clash. Government action that is in the interest of some will run counter to the interest of others. The more things some people get governments to do, the more toes these governments must step on to accomplish these things (whether these toes’ owners are aware of being trampled on or, as often is the case, not). Now, perhaps the idea is that any plausible-seeming conception of the public interest will do, so long as the government is not blatantly oppressive and self-serving. Yet not only is it doubtful that even this test can eliminate controversy but, more importantly, it is quite meaningless. Protectionist legislation that blatantly favours, say, producers over consumers, or indeed government over citizens, can be dressed up in some public-spirited guise, and intelligent people will fall for this trickery, be they the judges of the Supreme Court in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, or Sir William Blackstone, who wrote that

the statute of king Charles II which prescribes … a dress for the dead, who are all ordered to be buried in woollen … is a law consistent with public liberty; for it encourages the staple trade, on which in great measure depends the universal good of the nation.

The Rule of Law, I submit, is not only not the rule of good law, but also not the rule of well-intentioned law. The purposes of public institutions that create, interpret, and apply the law, or exercise discretionary powers granted by law, are not relevant to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Innocent incompetence can lead to Rule of Law failures, while a self-interested government, for example one preoccupied with lining the pockets of its supporters and winning the next election, however worthy of condemnation, may well abuse its power in a manner that is consistent with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz’s classic article on the virtue of the Rule of Law remains an essential reference point for those of us who are interested in the subject. His return to the topic, sadly, will not be one.

Administrative Law’s Virtues and Vices

What Joseph Raz’s classic Rule of Law article tells us about administrative law

Joseph Raz’s article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” (eventually incorporated in the collection of essays The Authority of Law: Essays on Law and Morality) is well known, mostly for the argument that the Rule of Law should not be confused with good law, and that a legal system can be thoroughly iniquitous while still complying with its requirements. The Rule of Law (I follow Jeremy Waldron’s practice in capitalizing the phrase), Professor Raz famously says, is like the sharpness of a knife: a knife needs to be sharp to be useful, and a legal system should comply with the requirements of the Rule of Law to be effective, but that tells us nothing at all about whether the knife is being used to cut bread or to kill people, and whether law is used to protect or to repress them. Professor Raz describes his “conception of the rule of law”  as “formal”, (214) although a number of its tenets have to do with the operation of the courts, and best described (following Professor Waldron again) as procedural, rather than formal.

I think, however, that Professor Raz’s understanding of the Rule of Law amounts to a substantive one in one particular area, in which his insights are not, so far as I know, particularly appreciated: administrative law. Administrative decision-making and its review by the courts are at the heart of the Razian Rule of Law. The third Rule of Law “principle” Professor Raz lists, after the ones calling for “prospective, open, and clear” (214) laws and “stable” ones, (214) is that “the making of particular laws (particular legal orders) should be guided by open, stable, clear, and general rules”. (215) This is a warning about the dangers of administrative (and executive more generally) discretion:

A police constable regulating traffic, a licensing authority granting a licence under certain conditions, all these and their like are among the more ephemeral parts of the law. As such they run counter to the basic idea of the rule of law. They make it difficult for people to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law. (216)

This is not to say that no executive power can be exercised consistently with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz suggests that the problem with its “ephemeral” nature

is overcome to a large extent if particular laws of an ephemeral status are enacted only within a framework set by general laws which are more durable and which impose limits on the unpredictability introduced by the particular orders. (216)

This framework includes

[t]wo kinds of general rules … : those which confer the necessary powers for making valid orders and those which impose duties instructing the power-holders how to exercise their powers. (216)

The former are the substantive statutory (or prerogative) basis for the exercise of executive power. The latter, which I think would include both procedural rules strictly speaking and those guiding the administrative decision-makers’ thought process (such as the prohibition on taking irrelevant considerations into account or acting for an improper purpose), form an important part of administrative law.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law “principle” is that of judicial independence. But the way he explains is also directly relevant to administrative law. Professor Raz points out that

it is futile to guide one’s action on the basis of the law if when the matter comes to adjudication the courts will not apply the law and will act for some other reasons. The point can be put even more strongly. Since the court’s judgment establishes conclusively what is the law in the case before it, the litigants can be guided by law only if the judges apply the law correctly. … The rules concerning the independence of the judiciary … are designed to guarantee that they will be free from extraneous pressures and independent of all authority save that of the law. (217; paragraph break removed)

Although Professor Raz does not explore the implications of this for administrative law (why would he have, in the post-Anisminic United Kingdom?), they seem obvious enough. Only independent courts applying the law, and not acting on extra-legal considerations can assure that the law is able to guide those subject to it. Administrative decision-makers, however, typically lack anything like the safeguards that exist for the independence of the judiciary. In Canada, in Ocean Port Hotel Ltd v British Columbia (General Manager, Liquor Control and Licensing Branch), 2001 SCC 52, [2001] 2 SCR 781,  the Supreme Court has held that there is no constitutional requirement of administrative tribunal independence. In Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Government of Saskatchewan, 2013 SKCA 61, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld legislation that allowed an incoming government to summarily dismiss all the members of an administrative tribunal in order to replace them with those deemed more ideologically  acceptable. Indeed, for many administrative tribunals, their sensitivity to considerations of policy ― and ideology ― is part of their raison d’être. This makes it essential that independent courts be committed to policing these (and other) tribunals’ compliance with the law ― with the entire framework of stable general rules that guide administrative decision-making, both the limits on substantive grants of power and the procedure- and process-related administrative law rules. Judicial deference to non-independent, policy-driven administrative decision-makers is incompatible with legally bound adjudication that is necessary for the law to provide guidance, and is thus anathema to the Rule of Law as Professor Raz describes it.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law requirement is that “[t]he principles of natural justice must be observed”. This is a point that obviously applies to administrative law, as everyone now agrees ― in a (perhaps insufficiently acknowledged) victory for administrative law’s erstwhile critics. But here too it is worth noting Professor Raz’s explanation: respect for natural justice is “obviously essential for the correct application of the law and thus … to its ability to guide action”. (217) (Of course, respect for natural justice is important for other (dignitarian) reasons too, but they are not, on Professor Raz’s view, embedded in the concept of the Rule of Law.)

The following Rule of Law principle Professor Raz describes is that

[t]he courts should have review powers over the implementation of the other principles. This includes review of … subordinate … legislation and of administrative action, but in itself it is a very limited review—merely to ensure conformity to the rule of law. (217)

Although review for conformity to the Rule of Law is “limited” in the sense that it need not entail review for conformity with any particular set of substantive fundamental rights, it is nevertheless very significant. It means that the courts are empowered to ensure the consistency of administrative decisions with grants of power that purportedly authorize them, as well as with the rules that govern the procedures and processes by which they are made. And while Professor Raz does not explicitly address the question of how stringently the courts should enforce these rules, it seems clear that only non-deferential correctness review will satisfy the requirements of the Rule of Law as he presents them.

Finally, Professor Raz writes that “[t]he discretion of the crime-preventing agencies should not be allowed to pervert the law”. (218) He addresses the behaviour of police and prosecutors, and specifically their ability to exercise discretion so as to effectively nullify certain criminal offenses. Yet, presumably, similar concerns apply to administrative tribunals ― most obviously, those that are charged with the prosecution of regulatory offences, but arguably others too. Professor Raz’s argument seems to be only a special case of Lon Fuller’s insistence (in The Morality of Law) on “congruence” between the law on the books and its implementation by the authorities, at least insofar as it applies to the executive. (Fuller also wrote about the what congruence meant in the context of statutory interpretation ― something I touched on here.)

Why is this important? I don’t suppose that an appeal to the authority of Professor Raz will persuade the proponents of judicial deference to administrative decision-makers, in and in particular to their interpretations of the law. Those who defend deference argue that administrative interpretations are the law, so that there is nothing else, no statutory meaning meaning or independent standards, for the judges to ascertain and enforce. As the majority opinion in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 put it,

certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

In such cases, the Supreme Court held, the courts would only engage in deferential reasonableness review of the administrative decisions. Moreover, Dunsmuir suggested, and subsequent cases have confirmed, that all questions regarding the interpretation of administrative decision-makers’ grants of power (the first part of what Professor Raz describes as the framework of general rules governing the making of administrative orders) will be presumptively treated as having no “one specific, particular result”. I have already argued that this is an implausible suggestion, because

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers.

But Professor Raz’s arguments point to an even more fundamental problem with the pro-deference position. Those who defend this position are, of course, entitled to their own definition of the Rule of Law, which is a fiercely contested idea. If they think that the Rule of Law does not require the existence of clear, stable, and general rules, or that it can accommodate “particular laws” not guided by such general rules, well and good. (It is worth noting, however, that Dunsmuir itself embraced an understanding of the Rule of Law not too distant from that advanced by Professor Raz: “all exercises of public authority must find their source in law”. [28]) But I do not think that the proponents of deference have a response to the underlying difficulty Professor Raz identifies. In the absence of general rules that are stable enough not to depend on the views each administrator takes of policy considerations, or simply in the absence of an enforcement of such rules by independent courts, people will find it “difficult … to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law”, “to fix long-term goals and effectively direct one’s life towards them” (220). As Professor Raz notes, this compromises respect for human dignity, which “entails treating humans as persons capable of planning and plotting their future”. (221)

I do not mean to exaggerate. As Professor Raz and other Rule of Law theorists note, compliance with the Rule of Law is a matter of degree. Deferential judicial review of administrative action is a failure of the Rule of Law as Professor Raz understands it, but it is hardly the worst failure one can imagine, at least so long as some meaningful review is still involved. (Suggestions, such as that recently voiced by Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, that there can be “unrestricted” [11] delegations of regulatory power are disturbing in this regard, but perhaps they only need to be taken seriously, not literally.) Nevertheless, and whether or not the proponents of judicial deference to administrative tribunals recognize this, deference does undermine the ability of citizens to rely on the law and to plan their lives accordingly. To that extent, it does amount to mistreatment by the state, of which the courts are part. It needs, at the very least, to be viewed with serious suspicion, and probably outright hostility. An administrative law that takes the requirements of the Rule of Law seriously has important virtues; one that does not is mired in vices.