Post-Truth, Redux

A faithful application of Vavilov reasonableness review exposes the rot at the core of Canada’s administrative law

Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already posted on the Federal Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157. He argues that it is a good illustration of how courts should review administrative decisions on the reasonableness standard, following the Supreme Court’s instructions in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. I agree with Mark’s analysis, so far as it goes: as a rigorous application of Vavilov that rightly emphasizes legal constraints on administrative decision-making, Justice Stratas’ reasons for the Court in Alexion are excellent. (In fact, let me highlight an additional passage that Mark does not mention: Justice Stratas notes, rightly, that administrators must interpret statutes “in a genuine, non-tendentious, non-expedient way … Result-oriented analysis is no part of the exercise”. [37] Amen!)

But, in my view they are also an excellent illustration of the considerable flaws of the Vavilov framework, with its insistence on the centrality of administrative reasons on all issues subject to the reasonableness standard of review, including issues of statutory interpretation. Indeed, Alexion illustrates the fundamental soundness of the approach taken in the case that is the great bogeyman of Canadian administrative law: the House of Lords’ Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission [1969] 2 AC 147. The concurring judges in Vavilov accused the majority of following Anisminic. If only!


As Mark explains in more detail, Alexion reviewed a decision by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board that the company was selling a product “at a price that, in the Board’s opinion, is excessive” (s 83 of the Patent Act). The Court of Appeal invalidated the Board’s decision, holding that it did not explain its reasoning on key issues, including the interpretation of s 85 of the Patent Act, which sets out the criteria the Board must apply in deciding whether the price of a patented medicine is “excessive”. As Justice Stratas notes,

[a]t best, on this point the Board obfuscated, making it impossible for a reviewing court to know whether the Board has helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have. By obfuscating, the Board has effectively put itself beyond review on this point, asking the Court to sign a blank cheque in its favour. … 

[T]he Board may have helped itself to powers the statute has not given it. The absence of a reasoned explanation on certain points means that we cannot be more definitive than that. [44]-[45]

Justice Stratas notes that the Board appears to have found the pricing of Alexion’s product unreasonable, and expresses his “fundamental concern … that the Board has misunderstood the mandate Parliament has given to it under s 85. At a minimum, a reasoned explanation on this is missing“. [48; emphasis mine] And further:

Section 85 speaks of “excessive” pricing, not  “reasonable” pricing. The two seem much different. If in fact they are not different, in the circumstances of this case the Board had to explain why. Nowhere does the Board do so. [52; emphasis mine]

If I may paraphrase Justice Stratas, he is saying: it looks like the Board is doing something it’s not supposed to be doing under the statute, but hey! maybe it’s not do these things, or maybe it can do these things after all ― and we, the Federal Court of Appeal, can’t know for sure. The suggestion here ― that, absent good quality reasons given by the administrator, a reviewing court cannot say whether the administrator, in Justice Stratas’ eloquent words, “helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have” ― is entirely consistent with Vavilov. There the majority insisted that

the focus of reasonableness review must be on the decision actually made by the decision maker …  The role of courts in these circumstances is to review, and they are, at least as a general rule, to refrain from deciding the issue themselves. Accordingly, a court applying the reasonableness standard does not ask what decision it would have made in place of that of the administrative decision maker … conduct a de novo analysis or seek to determine the “correct” solution to the problem. [83]

On this approach, Justice Stratas and his colleagues are not supposed to come to their own view of the meaning of s 85 and verify the Board’s compliance with it. They are confined to assessing the Board’s explanations as to whether it has complied. Absent an explanation, the exercise fails. Vavilov is an improvement over the earlier cases in that, when such failures occur, it allows the reviewing court to stop there and send the matter back to the administrator for a do-over, instead of making up an explanation and deferring to it. (See Mark’s post for more on this).


But to say that Vavilov improves over what I once described as a post-truth jurisprudence requiring judges to play chess with themselves and contrive to lose is not to say much. In fact, Vavilov does not even leave post-truth jurisprudence behind. For how else should we think of a requirement that judges ― of an appellate court, no less ― insist that they “cannot be definitive” about the interpretation of a statutory provision and about whether an administrator “helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have” ― which is to say, exceeded its jurisdiction (there, I said it) in applying that provision?

The truth is that judges can be definitive on such things. The truth is that Justice Stratas has much to say about the meaning of s 85 and the way in which it has to be applied, as well as the more general principles of statutory interpretation (see, in particular, his important caution that “[t]he authentic meaning of the legislation … is the law, not what some politicians may have said about it at some place, at some time, for whatever reason”). [53] (I recently addressed this point here.) The truth is that, as Justice Stratas notes, “[o]ver and over again, authorities have stressed that the excessive pricing provisions in the Patent Act are directed at controlling patent abuse, not reasonable pricing, price-regulation or consumer protection at large”. [50] A jurisprudence that requires a court to assert that, notwithstanding all of this, an administrative tribunal might somehow explain all that away, and show that when it said “reasonable” it meant “excessive”, and that when it “disregarded most of the … authorities”, [51] it still complied with the law, is the jurisprudence of la-la-land.

In reality, the Board’s decision has all the appearances of a textbook example of what Lord Reid in Anisminic described as an administrative tribunal having “misconstrued the provisions giving it power to act so that it failed to deal with the question remitted to it and decided some question which was not remitted to it”. When a tribunal does so, even though in a narrow sense “the tribunal had jurisdiction to enter on the inquiry”, it loses jurisdiction in a broad sense, and the resulting decision is a nullity. Canadian courts should be able to say so ― which means that they should be free, contra Vavilov, to “decide the issue themselves”, without waiting, or even affecting to wait, to be instructed by administrators who lack the legitimacy, the independence, and the competence to speak on questions of law with any real authority.

Why is it that we can’t have nice things? An important part of the problem is the fusion, in Canadian administrative law, of what in the United Kingdom (and New Zealand) are known as legality review and reasonableness review into a (supposedly) unified category of merits review. To make things worse, the Supreme Court remains committed to an oversimplified approach to merits review, such that it almost always has to be conducted on the same reasonableness standard. The reasons-first approach may be suitable for review of fact- or policy-based administrative decisions, but applied to issues of statutory interpretation it leads to Alexion-style absurdity.

What makes Alexion even more galling, though, is the nature of the administrative body it concerns. And that’s not only, and perhaps even so much, that, pursuant to s 91 of the Patent Act the Board’s members can legally be the first five strangers the Minister of Health meets on the street one day ― or hacks. (As I wrote this, I thought I’d look up the Board’s actual membership, in the hope of being able to add a disclaimer to the effect they are all, in fact, wise and experienced experts. Only, there doesn’t seem to be any information about them on the Board’s website. Of course that doesn’t prove that they actually are hacks, let alone people the Minister met on the street, but one might have thought some transparency was in order. UPDATE: Mea culpa. The information is there, however counter-intuitive its presentation may seem to me. The members’ bios are here.)

Worse is the fact that the Board acts as both prosecutor and judge in the cases it handles, the separation of powers be damned. This par for the course in the administrative state, to be sure ― but no less pernicious for all that. I note, for the sake of completeness, that it is “Board Staff” that “filed a Statement of Allegations” against Alexion, rather than Board members ― but staff (pursuant to s 93(2)(b) of the Patent Act) are managed by the Board’s Chairperson, i.e. one of its members. The Board’s internal “separation of powers” is more sham than ersatz.

Why exactly should the views of this judge-and-prosecutor, this two-headed abomination against due process of law, about the meaning of the statute it is charged with applying be entitled to any regard by actual judges? In Vavilov, the Supreme Court insists that this is to respect Parliament’s intent. But, as I have been saying since my first comment on Vavilov here, the Court ignores Parliament’s direction, in s 18.1(4)(c) of the Federal Courts Act that the federal courts grant relief when administrative decision-makers err in law, which clearly requires these courts to come to their own view about what statutes mean and whether the administrator in a give case has complied with the law. In this way too, Vavilov perpetuates Canadian administrative law’s disregard for truth.


In case this needs to be clarified, none of the foregoing is a critique of Justice Stratas and the decision in Alexion. As I said above, I think that the decision is about as good as it could have been while being a faithful application of the Vavilov framework. If the Board takes what Justice Stratas seriously, it will make a much better, and most importantly, a lawful decision next time. It is the framework itself that is rotten.

But the rot set in four decades ago, and no judge of the Federal Court of Appeal can solve them ― even one who has made Herculean efforts to, like Justice Stratas. Perhaps even the Supreme Court cannot fully undo the damage it has inflicted on our law when it turned away from the Anisminic path and waded into the dark forest of deference to the administrative state. But if Alexion illustrates the possibilities ― and the limits ― of what the Supreme Court accomplished in Vavilov, and I think it does, then one has to conclude that the Supreme Court hasn’t tried very hard at all.

Alexion: No Blank Cheques Here

In Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157, the Federal Court of Appeal clarified the law of judicial review post-Vavilov (particularly as it applies to reasonableness review) and set out an important reminder: administrators are not a law unto themselves. In order to make sure that this is the case, particularly in situations of legislative interpretation, administrators must explain their decisions. They must do so in a way that engages with the statute under interpretation. In this way, Alexion says something important: when administrators interpret statutes, there is only so much of a margin of appreciation. They must deal with the law.

I first describe the controversy in Alexion and the Court’s holding. Then I outline why this decision is a landmark one for the post-Vavilov world.

**

Alexion is a pharmaceutical company that produces a drug called Soliris. The Patented Medicine Prices Review Board had to decide whether Alexion priced Soliris excessively under the Patent Act. The relevant section is s.85 (1), which lists a number of factors that the Board must consider to make a determination. One of the factors is “the prices at which the medicine and other medicines in the same therapeutic class have been sold in countries other than Canada” (s.85(1)(c)). Only after a consideration of these factors can the Board turn its attention (if necessary) to s.85(2), which asks the Board to also consider “the costs of making and marketing the medicine and any other factors it considers relevant.”

As the Court aptly notes, “Section 85 is the law. The Board’s analysis should start with the law. Whatever the Board does must be consistent with the law” (Alexion, at para 34). The Board, in making its excessive pricing decision, noted that it is charged with determining “the relevance and weight of each factor” in s.85 (Alexion, at para 43). The Board concluded that Soliris was priced excessively, largely because it was priced more than the lowest international price in a list of seven comparator countries (Alexion, at para 3).  Put differently, out of all the seven countries, the Board found Soliris to be priced excessively because it was not the cheapest option. This was despite the fact that the Board’s own guidelines suggested that, normally, “the highest international price” is a key comparator (Alexion, at para 57). In reaching this conclusion, the Board seemingly followed a standard of “reasonableness”: because Soliris is price higher than one of the comparator countries, the Board implicitly concluded that the price of Soliris is unreasonable (see Alexion, at para 51).

For the Court, Stratas JA concluded that the Board failed to properly justify its decision with reference to the statute at hand: Alexion, at para 64, 66. The Court made a number of important comments justifying this decision:

  1. Prior to Vavilov, “…the Supreme Court instructed us to do our best to try to sustain the outcomes reached by administrators” which included “reviewing courts [picking] up an administrator’s pen and [writing] supplemental reasons supporting the administrators’ outcomes” (Alexion, at para 8). This “ghostwriting” was, as is evident, “antithetical to the reviewing courts’ role as an independent reviewer” (Alexion, at para 8).
  2. In this sense, there is a clear relationship between reasons and outcome on judicial review (Alexion, at para 28 et seq). While Vavilov speaks of outcome and reasons as separate, there are many cases where the reasoning on a particular legal question will lead to an illegal outcome; for example, in this case, “certain words the Board used suggest that it went beyond its permissible statutory mandate by regulating the reasonableness of pricing, rather than preventing abusive pricing…” (Alexion, at para 11).  In this case, when the Board spoke of “reasonableness” rather than abusive pricing, “[i]t may be that the Board was trying to reach an outcome that on the facts and the law was not reasonably open to it” (Alexion, at para 32).
  3. The failure of explanation in this case arose on a few different fronts:
  • The Board utterly failed to deal with the most important and central restriction on its authority: s.85 of the Patent Act. We  know that in paras 120-122 of Vavilov the Court notes that “the merits of an administrative decision maker’s interpretation of a statutory provision must be consistent with the text, context and purpose of the provision,” and that the decision-maker must demonstrate that its alive to these “essential elements.” This is because “the governing statutory scheme is likely to be the most salient aspect of the legal context relevant to a particular decision” (Vavilov, at para 108). So when the Board adopted a standard of reasonableness rather than addressing the actual point of the statute—set out in s.85 and the associated case law—it transgressed its authority.
  • The Board’s failure to explain its departure from its own Guidelines was problematic from a reasonableness perspective. While Guidelines adopted by the Board cannot supercede an analysis based on s.85 itself, they can validly guide discretion. Here, the Board did not explain why it did not follow its own Guidelines, which stressed the highest price comparator country.

**

There is a lot packed into Alexion, but I think it is worth noting the various things the Court does with Vavilov, especially when it comes to the reasonableness standard.

First, the Court arguably doubles down on the statute as the most important restraint on administrative power. Many of us who read Vavilov for the first time in December 2019 fastened onto paras 108-110 (and also paras 120-122) of that decision as quite important. Those paragraphs hardened a cardinal rule of administrative interpretations of law: it is the statute that the administrator is interpreting (its text, context, and purpose) that cabin the discretion of an interpreting administrator. Now, how this happens is where the rubber meets the road. But the fact that the statement was made by the Supreme Court—and that it is adopted wholeheartedly by the Court of Appeal in this case—is promising.

There are, of course, different ways that a court can ask an administrator to abide by the terms of its statute, and these ways can be more or less interventionist. Alexion is somewhat reminiscent of another case decided post-Vavilov, Richardson. I blogged about that case here. While the comments made by Nadon JA in that case were obiter, they staked out an even more radical understanding of Vavilov’s paragraphs 108-110 and 120-122. In that case, the administrator at hand erroneously applied the “implied exclusion” rule of interpretation, which the Supreme Court has held is insufficient as the sole basis on which to understand the meaning of statutory provisions (see Green, at para 37). Imposing the Supreme Court’s method of interpretation, particularly with regards to particular canons, is one way to force an administrator to abide by a statute. Another, more general and less stringent way, is what Stratas JA did in Alexion. There the Board misapprehended its own statutory purpose and failed to actually deal with the overriding goal of s.85: excessive & abusive pricing. It also ignored many of the factors set out in s.85(1). This is just a different way of getting at paras 108-110 of Vavilov: the Board failed to address its statute under the governing approach to statutory interpretation.

The fact that the Court in Richardson and Alexion did the same thing in different ways is perhaps indicative of a challenge with Vavilov. The decision says a lot, not all of it always internally consistent. Specifically, the challenge going forward with this rather legalistic vision of reasonableness review is how it meshes with the deference that is built-in to the Vavilov framework. Vavilov makes clear at various points that administrators are not asked to engage in a formalistic interpretation exercise (para 119), and that ‘[a]dministrative justice’ will not always look like ‘judicial justice’…” (para 92). Accordingly, as Professor Daly notes, “some portions of Vavilov are liable to become battlegrounds between different factions of judges, those who favour more intrusive review on questions of law in one camp, their more deferential colleagues in the other” (at 15). One could conceive, as Professor Daly does, of Richardson as “betraying a favouritism for an interventionist standard of reasonableness review on issues of statutory interpretation” (at 14).

However, I would say that Alexion and Richardson are of the same ilk, different points on a similar spectrum. Both are directed towards subjecting administrators to legal requirements, but Alexion does so in a more general way, faulting the administrator for failing to address the relevant statutory purpose (among other things). Richardson does the same thing in a more specific way, faulting an administrator for applying a proper tool of interpretation to the exclusion of the statutory purpose. Both, in my view, are plausible views of Vavilov.

Methodologically, there are other important elements of Alexion. One element is the connection that Stratas JA draws between reasons and outcome. Vavilov speaks of reasons and outcome as separate things, but in reality, they are probably intrinsically connected in at least some cases. Alexion provides a good example. In many cases, it was simply impossible for the Court to determine whether the Board had ventured an opinion on the core legal issue at play in the case. Where the Board did offer an opinion, it cast its decision in terms of the wrong legal standards.  This led it astray, and it was led astray because its reasoning failed to glom onto the important part of the entire thing: the statute.

This leads to a final point about Alexion. Thank goodness we no longer need to worry about courts coopering up deficient decisions under the Nfld Nurses line of cases. As the Court in Alexion mentions, this decision could have gone a very different way under pre-Vavilov case law. The Court would have asked itself to supplement reasons for decision instead of supplanting them.  But as the Court notes, “[m]any of us recoiled at this” (Alexion, at para 9). Why? Because it offends the principle of legality, fundamental to the administrative law system, for a court to uphold a decision that is legally flawed. Of course, deference sometimes asks us to abridge the principle of legality in a strict sense; but there are extremes, and a court making a decision for an administrator is to my mind (and, apparently the mind of the Supreme Court) a bridge too far. As the Court in Alexion says, there are no blank cheques in the law of judicial review (Alexion, at para 44).

All told, Alexion is an important recap of developments post-Vavilov. Particularly on the application of the reasonableness standard, the Court moves the needle in important ways.

The UK Way

What a recent decision of the UK Supreme Court can teach us about courts, legislatures, and rights

A recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, R (SC) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, [2021] UKSC 26, might be of interest for Canadian readers. Lord Reed’s judgment for the Court addresses issues that are relevant to current Canadian debates about the relationship between courts, legislatures, and rights, equality rights in particular. To be sure, the UK context is not the same as Canada’s. Still there are lessons to be learned there.

In a nutshell, at issue in SC was a statutory rule providing that one particular tax credit available to low-income families would only be payable in respect of a first and second child, but not for any subsequent children in a family. (Other benefits remained unaffected.) This was alleged to constitute discrimination, on a number of different grounds, in the protection of a right to family life, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Supreme Court found that there was indeed prima facie discrimination against women (who were more likely to be caring for multiple children) and children living in families with three or more children, as opposed to those living in smaller ones. But the rule was still justified as a reasonable means of ensuring the fiscal sustainability of the credit programme.

One could make many interesting observations about this. Canadian readers might want to consider the different approach to equality rights under the Convention and under s 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ―no abstruse inquiries into human dignity, histories of stereotyping, and so on, and a ready recognition of what we’d term “analogous grounds”, but also a greater willingness to defer to Parliamentary judgment, except where some particularly invidious forms of discrimination are concerned. But in this post I focus on a different issue: namely, Lord Reed’s comments on the nature and scope of Parliament’s engagement with rights, and the courts’ consideration of this engagement in assessing the compatibility of resulting legislation with the Convention.


These comments are part of Lord Reed’s discussion of “the use which can be made of Parliamentary debates and other Parliamentary material when considering whether … legislation is compatible with Convention rights”. [163] This was necessary because the parties argued about whether or not Parliament gave sufficient consideration to “matters which were argued to be relevant to the proportionality of the legislation, such as its impact upon the interests of the children affected”. [163] Lord Reed, however, cautions about this kind of argument, both out of respect for Parliament’s privileges and, no less importantly, in light of Parliament’s distinct constitutional role.

Parliamentary privilege, as part of the separation of powers, means relevantly “that it is no part of the function of the courts … to exercise a supervisory jurisdiction over the internal procedures of Parliament”. [165] In particular, courts should not expect and must not demand “transparent and rational
analysis” of rights claims by Parliament, because this “would be liable to make the process of resolving political differences through negotiation, compromise and the exercise of democratic power more difficult and less likely to succeed”. [171] The quality of the reasons given by individual Members of Parliament, or even by Ministers, is not what is at issue when courts assess the effect of statutory provisions on rights or their justification and proportionality in a democratic society.

Another aspect of the separation of powers, Lord Reed points out, is the distinction between Parliament and government. Among other things, this means that “[a]s a matter of daily reality, ministers and party whips
have to negotiate and compromise in order to secure the passage of the legislation which the Government has promoted, often in an amended form.” [166] And it follows from this that “[t]he reasons which the Government gives for promoting legislation cannot therefore be treated as necessarily explaining why Parliament chose to enact it”. [166] Neither the government nor individual members can be taken to be speaking for Parliament. Its “will … finds expression solely in the legislation which it enacts”, [167] and its “intention … or (otherwise put) the object or aim of legislation, is an essentially legal construct, rather than something which can be discovered by an empirical investigation”. [172]

At most, Lord Reed says, courts inquire into “whether matters relevant to compatibility” between an impugned statute and Convention rights “were raised during the legislative process”, while “avoid[ing] assessing the adequacy or cogency of Parliament’s consideration of them”. [182] If they were, then ― regardless of the quality of these debates ― Parliament’s enactment may be entitled to an additional measure of deference. The converse, however, is not true: lack of Parliamentary consideration of the issues does not count against the statute.

Canadian courts need to take heed. The most egregious example of their failure to attend to the principles Lord Reed expounds is surely the one Maxime St-Hilaire and I have written about here: the first instance judgment in the Québec mosque shooter’s case, R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 (since reversed in part by the Court of Appeal, and now under appeal at the Supreme Court). There, Professor St-Hilaire and I noted, the judge engaged in

play-by-play commentary on Parliamentary debate, praise for “[o]pposition members [who] did their job”, [1146] denigration of a government member’s answer as being of “dubious intelligibility” [1137] and of the Parliamentary majority as a whole for its “wilful blindness” [1146] in the face of opposition warnings.

Another recent example is provided by Justice Zinn’s comments in Smith v. Canada (Attorney General), 2020 FC 629 to the effect that “[a] statement made by the Prime Minister at the time as to the intent of Parliament and its members ought to be accorded significant weight, if not considered conclusive on the issue of Parliamentary intent”. [85]

But even the Supreme Court has sometimes succumbed to such misguided reasoning, if in less extreme forms. Thus in R v Safarzadeh‑Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, [2016] 1 SCR 180, Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, picked and chose among various purposes offered by the Minister who had promoted the legislation at issue, declaring one to be the real purpose of the statute and the others “peripheral”. This arguably crosses the line into “impeaching” Parliamentary statements, and certainly wrongly attributes a Minister’s supposed purpose to Parliament, to the detriment of the separation of powers and to the advantage of the executive over the legislature.

That said, two caveats are in oder. First, Lord Reed’s emphasis on the separation of the executive and the legislature may not always be appropriate in the Canadian context, at least outside of minority government situations. When one considers the law-making practices of some governments and legislatures ― notably, ubiquitous abusive omnibus legislation, or laws interfering with constitutional rights passed in a matter of days, it is difficult to maintain that the legislatures involved are anything other than inanimate rubber-stamps, quite devoid of any “will of their own”. More generally, Canadian legislatures lack certain features and institutions that serve to maintain the Westminster Parliament’s partial independence from the executive. But that doesn’t change the principle that courts should not attribute the executive’s purposes to the legislature. Partly, this is to avoid rewarding the executive for overwhelming the legislature; partly because, as Lord Reed says, it is not the courts’ place to assess the quality of legislative deliberation, and that includes the degree of its independence from the executive.

Second, Lord Reed’s discussion of deference ― both the narrow point described above, to the effect that Parliament’s consideration of an issue should reinforce curial deference to its choices, and what he says elsewhere in the judgment ― is also to be treated with the greatest caution in Canada. Lord Reed is judging in a constitutional system where Parliamentary sovereignty rather than constitutional supremacy is the ultimate principle. But, moreover, section 1 of the Canadian Charter requires any limitations on the rights it protects to be “demonstrably justified” (emphasis mine). The wording of the European Convention is a bit different ― it speaks (for example in article 8, which was at issue in SC) of limits “necessary in a democratic society”. Those readers ― and judges ― who, like me, attach importance to the words of constitutional texts may well think that the Charter‘s emphasis on demonstrable justifications calls into question the appropriateness of judicial deference to legislative choices, and especially of deference on no stronger a basis than the fact that the legislature turned its mind to an issue.

But judges are not the only Canadians who should take note of Lord Reed’s explanations. The proponents of the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”, which allows legislatures to maintain in operation laws that are contrary to the Charter‘s guarantees, ought also to consider what Lord Reed says about the difference between courts and legislatures. Their argument is premised, in part, on the claim ― often asserted though seldom supported ― that legislatures will serve “as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted” with “the thoughtful participation of the people themselves”, in the words of Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a post over at Policy Options. Lord Reed’s explanations show why this claim is unlikely to be true, or at least nearly as true as its proponents make it out to be.

Lord Reed points out that the way in which Parliament does its business does not require debate and articulation of rights, or any particular degree of thoughtfulness on the part of the people’s representatives, let alone the people themselves. He writes:

First … Parliament does not give reasons for enacting legislation: it simply votes on a motion to approve a proposed legislative text. There is no corporate statement of reasons, and the individual members of Parliament do not give their reasons for voting in a particular way. …

Secondly, the decisions which Parliament takes are not necessarily capable
of being rationalised in any event. In the first place, Parliament does not operate only, or even primarily, as a debating chamber. It is also a forum for gathering evidence, and for extra-cameral discussion, negotiation and compromise. Furthermore, the way in which members of Parliament vote will usually, but by no means always, reflect party policy, and may be influenced by the discipline imposed by the party whips. [167]-[168]

Lord Reed further explains that while the courts’ task is “the production of decisions arrived at by an independent and transparent process of reasoning”, Parliament’s is

the management of political disagreements … so as to arrive, through negotiation and compromise, and the use of the party political power obtained at democratic elections, at decisions whose legitimacy is accepted not because of the quality or transparency of the reasoning involved, but because of the democratic credentials of those by whom the decisions are taken. [169]

In other words, when Parliament makes a decision, including a decision that impacts or even directly concerns the rights of citizens, it need not act on the basis of reasoned deliberation. It is just as likely to be giving effect to the results of horse-trading or to the political tactics of the majority, its ministry, and its whips. Rights, or any other considerations, need not be articulated in any sort of intelligent fashion in this process. To be sure, sometimes they will be ― but this is no more than a happy accident. It cannot be the foundation of a constitutional theory, let alone the basis on which anyone should accept that their rights can be suspended by a political faction that holds them in contempt.


For all that Canadians like to think of themselves as open to learning from the constitutional law of other countries ― and despite some reservations I have on this score! ― I think that we do not do it nearly enough. There is indeed a great deal to learn out there, and not least from the courts that, to some, might seem passé ― those of the United States and the United Kingdom. SC is a good reminder of that.

Esprit d’Escalier

Just two years after its notorious decision in Gray’s case, the Supreme Court took a more skeptical view of the executive’s claims of broad emergency powers

There is a wonderful French phrase that describes the flash of wit that only comes well after the conversation in which it would have served is over ― say, as one is walking down the stairs, leaving the party: esprit d’escalier. We’ve all had it, no doubt. A so has the Supreme Court ― or so it seems to me after reading an old decision co-blogger Mark Mancini recently pointed out to me, In re Price Bros and The Board of Commerce of Canada, (1920) 60 SCR 265.

This case offers a spirited example of robust statutory interpretation being used to counter-act an overbroad grant of discretion to the executive in wartime legislation. For this it deserves to be more widely known (and I take it that this was Mark’s first interest in the decision). But, for my part, I cannot fail to note the sad contrast with the Supreme Court’s better-known engagement with such things just two years earlier, with In Re George Edwin Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150.


Recall that in Gray, a majority of the Supreme Court adopted an extremely broad reading of the powers delegated to the Governor-in-Council by the War Measures Act, 1914. Specifically, the key issue there was whether the governor could, by regulation, override an exemption from the obligation to do military service that had previously been granted by statute. In the leading judgment (in which three of the four judges in the majority concurred), Justice Anglin recognized that

[n]o doubt the amendment of a statute or the taking away of privileges enjoyed or acquired under the authority of a statute by order-in-council is an extreme exercise of the power of the Governor-in-council to make orders and regulations of a legislative character. (180)

Still, he found that it was justified, in view of the breadth of the grant of powers in section 6 of War Measures Act

to do and authorize such acts and things and to make from time to time such orders and regulations as he may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.

These words were followed by an enumeration of specific subjects the regulations could address, but since that was introduced by a clause providing that the enumeration was “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms”. For Justice Anglin, this meant that it would be wrong to apply to ejusdem generis maxim of statutory interpretation, which suggests that mention of examples means that the general category has to be understood by reference to these examples.

And Justice Anglin insisted, too, that

The exercise of legislative functions such as those here in question by the Governor-in-council rather than by Parliament is no doubt something to be avoided as far as possible. But we are living in extraordinary times which necessitate the taking of extraordinary measures. (181-82)

Chief Justice Fitzpatrick made a similar point:

It seems to me obvious that parliament intended, as the language used implies, to clothe the executive with the widest powers in time of danger. Taken literally, the language of the section contains unlimited powers. Parliament expressly enacted that, when need arises, the executive may for the common defence make such orders and regulations as they may deem necessary or advisable for the security, peace, order and welfare of Canada. The enlightened men who framed that section, and the members of parliament who adopted it, were providing for a very great emergency, and they must be understood to have employed words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said. (158-59)


Meanwhile, Price Bros concerned an order of the Board of Commerce requiring a paper company to supply specified quantities of newsprint to certain newspapers. (Remember those?) Simplifying somewhat, the Board’s jurisdiction to make such an order was supported on two grounds. First, a previous order under the War Measures Act invested the Board with the powers of a “Commissioner and Controller of Paper”, including, specifically, the power to make orders of this nature. Second, the Board separately had jurisdiction under the Combines and Fair Prices Act (the forerunner of the Competition Act) to regulate trade in a “necessary of life”, defined as

a staple and ordinary article of food (whether fresh, preserved, canned, or otherwise treated) clothing and fuel, including the products, materials and ingredients from or of which any thereof are in whole or in part manufactured, composed, derived or made, and such articles of any description as the Board may from time to time by special regulation prescribe.

The Supreme Court, with only Justice Mignault dissenting as to the War Measures Act, and unanimously as to the Combines and Fair Prices Act, found that the Board’s order was ultra vires.

Justice Idington, who had dissented in Gray, effectively rejected its holding that the delegation of power under section 6 of the War Powers Act is practically unlimited and isn’t confined to the matters enumerated in that provision. For him, one of these subjects had to support the impugned regulations, and none could. In particular, authority to regulate “trading, exportation, importation, production and manufacture” cannot

apply to the mere direction of selling newsprint paper by a manufacturer thereof to a person wishing to use it. Indeed, after much consideration, I cannot think how that purely business transaction of a very ordinary type can be said to have any relevancy to the matters therein specified of possibly vital importance in many ways conceivable in a state of war. (270)

Justice Brodeur, who had also dissented in Gray, was of a similar view.

For their part, Justices Duff and Anglin, who had been in the majority in Gray, neither contradicted nor endorsed this analysis; nor did they so much as mention Gray. (Nor did their colleagues, for the record.) They focused on a somewhat different issue: that regulation of the paper trade in 1920, a year and a half after the armistice and almost a year after peace was officially concluded, could not sensibly be said to be “necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada” “by reason of the existence of … war”. Justice Duff was all circumlocution, but Justice Anglin went so far as to say that it would take bad faith to really think so, and the government must rather have been mistaken about its war powers subsisting despite the war having ended, to “[t]he common knowledge possessed by every man on the street, of which courts of justice cannot divest themselves”. (279)

As for the other argument, to the effect that the Board could regulate newsprint as a “necessary of life”, the Court was, as mentioned above unanimous in rejecting it, and indeed in finding it rather unserious. Justice Anglin’s reasons, though, are worth a closer look, because they offer yet another point of contrast with Gray. In that case, he had found that the prefatory “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing” excluded the application of the ejusdem generis canon of interpretation. Not so here with the “articles of any description” clause, though Justice Anglin explicitly noted that

[a]t first blush the words “of any description” appended to the general words “other articles” would almost seem to have been inserted  to indicate an intention to exclude the application to this section of the ejusdem generis rule, and to require that the general words “other articles” should here be given their ordinary general construction. (283)

But, Justice Anglin said, “consideration of the character of the Act and of the context as a whole” suggests “that Parliament cannot have meant that words the ‘other articles’ should bear their ordinary broad signification”. (285) For one thing, Parliament wouldn’t have needed to describe staple foods explicitly, if it were otherwise; for another, because the designation of an item as a “necessary of life” by the Board allowed for the imposition of criminal penalties for its “accumulation or withholding from sale”, he found it

inconceivable that Parliament meant to confer such wide and unheard of powers. I rather think that no one would be more surprised and shocked than the legislators themselves were they informed that they had done so. I am therefore satisfied that Parliament must have intended that the words “other articles of any description” in sec. 16, notwithstanding their obvious and emphasized generality, should receive a much more restricted construction. (286)

Justice Anglin observes, for good measure, that Poarliament “must be taken to have been fully cognizant of … the ejusdem generis rule of construction so frequently acted on by the courts”. (286)


All that makes sense to me; there is much to like about Price Bros. But wouldn’t the arguments that prevailed there ― and prevailed rightly ― have applied with equal force in Gray? If general language referring to “articles of any description” could be read down to only apply to a comparatively narrow class of items; if the courts, rather than an administrative board, could authoritatively interpret what is necessary for life; if Parliament must be taken to be cognizant of the ejusdem generis principle when legislating; a fortiori, if the limited reading of the War Measures Act offered by Justices Idington and Brodeur deserved no express disagreement; why wasn’t any of that so in the earlier case?

The answer, I’m afraid, seems inescapable. When the judges saw “extraordinary times”, a “time of danger”, “a very great emergency”, they saw also “extraordinary measures” taken by “enlightened men”. Once the danger had passed, the enlightened men became capable of incompetence if not bad faith, and judges gathered their wits, or redressed their backbones. A Marxist take on it all might point out that the Supreme Court refused to take the side of a simple farmer torn off from his land and sent to do and die, but did side with capitalists denied the opportunity of profit. But I am no Marxist, and have no reason to suppose that this is fair. More likely, the older maxim is the better: Inter armes tacent leges.

So perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps we should even be happy that the judges did, after all, recover ― mostly. Consider Justice Mignault’s partial dissent in Price Bros: Neither common knowledge nor even proclamations by the King satisfied him, and he insisted that only a proclamation by the Canadian government, in the form prescribed by the War Measures Act, would have put an end to the government’s emergency powers under that Act. The government had not troubled itself with issuing such a proclamation. This might be something to ponder as we are dealing with one emergency, and facing strident calls for governments to proclaim and assume enormous powers to try to deal with yet another, climatic, one.

But this brings me to the last point I’ll make here, and it might be a somewhat hopeful one. Gray is usually taken as authority for Parliament’s ability to delegate vast powers to the executive, especially in emergency contexts. That’s true, so far as that goes. But it’s worth noting, first, that just two years after it was decided it may already have been seen as something of an embarrassment, including by the same judges who decided it. Perhaps more significantly, at the very least, Price Bros should be taken as authority for the proposition that courts should not take the executive’s assertions about the existence of emergencies and the need for emergency powers on faith. However deferential they may be while the emergency is ongoing, their willingness to check the executive in this respect is a salutary constraint on powers that could easily destroy the constitution in its absence.

The Politics of Law

Is law truly just a function of politics? Should it be?

It is common in progressive circles (and, increasingly, in conservative circles, to some extent) to say that law=politics, or some variation thereof (law is always political, law is political, etc etc). The claim is usually offered without much in the way of qualification, and it appears to capture the many aspects of “law”; the creation of law, the implementation of law, and the interpretation of law.

In this post, I argue that this claim is either banally true or implausible because it merges law with politics in a way that our current system simply cannot support. To determine its veracity, the claim must be examined closely—in relation to the various ways that political considerations interact with law. A failure to do so infects the “law=politics” claim with a fatal imprecision.

I first outline the limited ways in which the claim is likely true. Then I shift gears to a normative argument: while the claim may be true in certain ways, it is not self-evident that it should be true across the legal system. In other words, there is good reason to accept that law may be “political” in certain ways; but it isn’t the case that it should be in all aspects of the law (its creation, implementation, and interpretation).

***

Before jumping in, I should acknowledge some imprecision in terms here. The law=politics claim is often made bluntly, without defining what is meant by “politics” or “political.”  It could mean, for example, that law is inevitably wrapped up in partisan politics. It could mean that law is not necessarily co-extensive with partisanship, but is correlated with political ideology more broadly. Or it could mean something very simple: law is “political” in the sense that people are “political,” meaning that law mediates disputes in a society where political disagreement is inevitable.  It could also mean a combination of all three of these things, or more.

All of these claims could be descriptively true in various ways, in relation to different aspects of law-making, implementation, and interpretation. But a failure to distinguish between these various definitions of “politics” and “political” presents an immediate hurdle for those who claim, without qualification, that law is always political. As I will note throughout, these various claims to the political nature of law may be more or less true given the institutional context. It does not follow that every political consideration is always relevant to the law.

***

Starting with the descriptive claim, it is clearly true that law can be political. The creation of law in the legislature is itself a political act. Laws are created to achieve certain aims; these aims can clearly be motivated by ideologies; and the content of law is not “neutral” as between political aims. Political parties make up the legislatures, and they vie for power in elections. In this case, and quite obviously, law is the product of political machinations. It follows that the creation of law itself can be motivated by wholly ideological reasons, quite aside from any claims to public reason or ideological neutrality. As I will note below, the notwithstanding clause is a good example of a situation where a legal power can be exercised for solely political reasons.

As well, the implementation of law by administrators, state officials, police, and others will not always be perfectly consistent with what the law says. Officials could operate on personal whim or policy preferences that are inconsistent with the policy preferences specified in the law. After all, state officials routinely fall below the standards set by the law and the Constitution—one only need to look at the number of constitutional challenges against state action that are successful in Canadian courts (though, of course, this may be due to stringent constitutional standards rather than routine malfeasance by state officials). Whether this is due to cognitive biases, outright hostility to legal norms, or mistaken application, laws can best be seen as ideals that state officials will sometimes fall below. This illustrates that state officials—at best—can only approximate legal norms. In administrative law, for example, the law of judicial review could be understood as an attempt to police the gap between the law on the books and the law as applied; to inch state officials towards following the law on the books, as much as possible.

Similarly, as a descriptive matter, the interpretation of law could be “political” or perhaps more aptly, “ideological.” Law is fundamentally a human business, and interpretation cannot be a perfect science, a simple application of axioms to words. Human beings have cognitive biases and judges are simply human beings. Notwithstanding the fact that judges sometimes speak as if they are neutral protectors of constitutional values, it is simply impossible to guarantee that law will always be interpreted authentically. To be clear, this tendency is likely true across the political spectrum—results-oriented interpretation can be common on the left or the right, and in each case, it is unavoidable that there will be results-oriented interpretation.

That said, we simply do not know the extent to which any of the above is even true in Canada. While it is plausible to suggest that judges and officials may have their judgments infected by ideology extraneous to the legal instrument under interpretation, this should not be overstated. Empirical research would be helpful in determining the extent of this phenomenon. For the most part, though, Canadian judges likely do their best to apply the law according to its terms. (NB: see Emmett Macfarlane’s work here, which tackles some of these issues. I’ve ordered the text).

***

As a normative matter, let us assume that it is true that implementation and interpretation of law can be “political” or “ideological” or something of the sort.   There are two options: we create rules, standards, and principles to limit the gap between the law as adopted and the law as applied; or we do not.  The form of these rules, standards, and principles is unimportant for our purposes. For now, it is enough to say that there is a fork in the road. Either we choose to limit the political/ideological discretion of state actors—including judges—or we do not. The point here is that while there can never be perfectly “neutral” or “impartial” creation, implementation, and interpretation of law as a matter of fact, it is desirable—as a normative matter—to limit the role of pure ideology in certain areas of law, to the extent we can.

This is obviously not true in the context of law-creation. The public understandably, and quite likely, wants our laws to be the product of a democratically-elected legislature (to the extent our electoral system leads to fair democratic outcomes in the abstract). In this sense, people vote for representatives that share their priors or who they wish to see in the legislature. Those legislatures, composed as they are by political parties, will pass laws that reflect the majority will (again, to the extent the “majority will” is represented in our electoral system). Ideally, in legislative debates, we want all the cards on the table. We want our representatives to fully and frankly air their ideological differences, and we want the public to be able to judge which program of government is best. In this sense, it is undesirable as a normative matter to (somehow) limit the politics of law in the realm of legislation.

However, as a normative matter, the story changes dramatically when it comes to law implementation and interpretation. Our Supreme Court endorses the proposition, for example, that interpretation must be conducted in order to “discern meaning and legislative intent, not to ‘reverse-engineer’ a desired outcome” (Vavilov, at para 121). Administrative decision-makers implementing law have only limited reserve to bring professional expertise to bear (Vavilov, at para 31); otherwise, they are creatures of statute, and are cabined by the terms of their statutes (Chrysler, at 410). Put differently, administrative actors implementing law have no independent reserve to make free-standing ideological determinations that are not incorporated into the law itself. A different way to put it: law is political in the legislatures, but when it is being interpreted or implemented, courts must discover the political choices embedded in the law itself.

  The Court also endorses a law and politics distinction, as a constitutional matter, when it comes to judicial independence. It says that judicial independence is “the lifeblood of constitutionalism in democratic societies” (Ell, at para 45), which “flows as a consequence of the separation of powers” (Provincial Judges Reference, at para 130). Judges should not, at least as a positive matter, render decisions that are infected by ideology—because it is the legislature’s job to make judgment calls based on political considerations, economic tradeoffs, or otherwise.

I could go on with examples of how our Court—and our system—endorses a separation between law and politics. For what it’s worth, and no matter the descriptive reality, I believe there is wisdom in articulating limits to the free-standing ideological whims of administrators and judges. Of course, these limits will not be perfect, and they will not reverse the reality that implementation and interpretation will sometimes be driven by results. But the use of rules, standards, and principles to cabin these free-standing policy preferences can be useful in ensuring that state actors and judges justify their decisions according to certain, universal standards.

Two examples could be offered. First, in statutory interpretation, we have semantic canons, presumptions, and tools to try to determine the authentic meaning of law. These “off-the-rack” tools and presumptions are far from perfect, as Karl Llewelyn once pointed out. They can be contradictory, and they are not axiomatic laws of nature that lead inexorably to certain results. But we have these rules for a reason. We use them because we have made an ex ante judgment, over the years, that they will help interpreters reach the authentic meaning of legislation (or, if one is an intentionalist, the authentic intention of legislatures). We do not expect judges to distribute palm-tree justice when faced with a law. Instead, we expect judges to justify their interpretive result through the prism of these canons and presumptions, because they are semantically and substantively useful. We do this because there is a law and politics distinction between legislative work and judicial work, endemic to our Constitution.

Of course, there is a recognition that legal principles may themselves have a certain political valence. Presumptions of liberty, substantive equality, strict construction of taxation laws–all of these rules could be said to contain certain “political” suppositions. As I have written before, I am generally not supportive of certain substantive presumptions of interpretation that put a thumb on the scale. But as Leonid Sirota writes, some of these presumptions are plausibly connected to the legal system–in this sense, they are political, but they represent values that are endemic to the legal system as it stands. Substantive equality is similar. It can, at least plausibly, be traced to the text and purpose of s.15 of the Charter. These are principles that have some connection to our legal system; they are not representative of the whims of the particular interpreter in a particular case. At any rate, forcing interpreters to justify their decisions is useful in itself.

Secondly, Doug Ford’s recent decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause presents a good difference between the ways in which law can be political, and the ways in which it should not be. When a government invokes the notwithstanding clause, it is not necessarily an exercise of reason. It could be a blunt assertion of legislative power. Now, that assertion of power can be justified by any number of considerations. If some detractors are correct, for example, Ford’s use of the clause in this case could simply be designed to punish his opponents. Less likely, it could be a good-faith attempt by a legislature to come to a different definition of a rights-balance. Whatever it is, the use of the notwithstanding clause is an exercise of power that could be motivated by distinctly political aims. In this way, legislation is quite clearly political.

However, and even if naked political judgments are not justiciable once invoked under cover of the notwithstanding clause, the public may wish to articulate a different justificatory standard for the use of power that is legalistic in nature. As Geoff Sigalet & I wrote here, the public may wish to subject politicians who invoke the notwithstanding clause to a standard of justification—the politicians should offer legitimate, objective reasons for the invocation of the clause. Again, this is not a legal requirement. But as a matter of custom, it is a requirement that the public may wish to impose on politicians as a check on rank political judgments. By imposing such a standard, the public can disincentivize uses of the clause that are not backed by solid, legal reasons.

None of this is new. Indeed, Dicey argued that for the Rule of Law to flourish in any society, the society must contain a “spirit of legality” that is separate and apart from any limits imposed on power by  courts themselves. This spirit of legality presupposes that there are some areas where the public should expect better than rank political and ideological judgments. Of course, the law & politics distinction is a matter of some controversy, and I cannot address every aspect of the distinction here. Suffice it to say: broad claims that “law is always political” cannot hold. Law is descriptively political in some ways. It does not follow that it should be in all cases. Quite the opposite, sometimes it is best for rules, standards, and principles to cabin the ideological capture of courts and others, as best they can. This will not be perfect, it will not always work, and it is not a mechanical process. But it’s worth trying.

Against Pure Pragmatism in Statutory Interpretation III: A Way Forward and Walsh (ONCA)

About a month ago, I wrote two posts attacking the concept of “pragmatism” in Canadian statutory interpretation. So my argument goes, the seminal Rizzo case, while commonly said to herald a “purposive” approach to interpretation, is actually methodologically pragmatic This is because the famous paragraph from Rizzo, which contains a list of things an interpret must take into account, does not assign ex ante weights to these factors. That is, it is up the interpreter to choose, in the circumstances of particular cases, which factors will be most relevant. In short, while everyone in theory agrees on what the goal of interpretation is, that agreement rapidly breaks down in the context of particular cases.

In these circumstances, methodological pragmatism is attractive because it permits interpreters to use an entire array of tools as they see fit. So the story goes, this freedom leads to “flexibility.” But it can also lead to a number of pathologies in interpretation that should be avoided. In this final post of the series, I outline these pathologies, sketch a path forward, and then highlight a recent example case (Walsh) from the Ontario Court of Appeal that demonstrates why methodological pragmatism unleashes judges to an unacceptable degree. The point here is that interpretation is designed to determine what the legislature meant when it enacted words. Purpose is important in ascertaining that meaning, but ascertaining purpose is not the point of interpretation. This leads to an approach that prefers some ordering among the relevant interpretive tools (for want of a better phrase), rather than a flexible doctrinal standard motivated by methodological pragmatism.

The Pathologies of Pragmatism

By now, and as I have outlined above and in my previous posts, Canada’s approach to statutory interpretation is oddly enigmatic. On one hand, everyone (seems) to agree on the goal of the enterprise: when courts interpret statutes, they are seeking to discover what Parliament intended when it enacted a particular provision or provisions. Putting aside thorny issues of what “legislative intent” might mean (and see here Richard Ekins’ important work), in practical terms, we are seeking to discover the legal meaning and effect of language enacted by Parliament; we are, put differently, seeking to discover what change has been effected in the law (either common law or existing statute law) by Parliament’s intervention (see Justice Miller’s opinion in Walsh, at para 134).

When a law is adopted, one can speak of ends and means, and it’s this framework that guides the discussion to follow. It would be strangely anodyne to claim that Parliament speaks for no reason when it legislates. We presume, in fact, that every word enacted by Parliament means something (represented in canons like the presumption against surplusage, see also Sullivan at 187). And so it only makes sense to take account of a particular provision’s purpose when considering interpretation. Those are the ends for which Parliament strove when adopting the legislation. Selecting the proper ends of interpretation—at the proper level of abstraction, bearing on the actual text under consideration—is an integral part of interpretation. To avoid a strictly literal approach, text must be read in this context.

But, importantly, this is not the end. What about means? In some ways, and as I will show through the example case, means are the real subject of debate in statutory interpretation. Parliament can achieve an objective in many different ways. In general, Parliament can enact broad, sweeping, mandatory language that covers off a whole host of conduct (within constitutional limits). It could leave it at that. Or it could enact permissive exceptions to general mandatory language. It can enact hard-and-fast rules or flexible standards. Administrative schemes can delegate power to “independent” actors to promulgate its own rules. The point here is that Parliament can decide to pursue a particular, limited purpose, through limited or broad means. This is Parliament’s choice, not the court’s.

While free-wheeling pragmatism can lead to all sorts of pathologies, I want to focus here on the relationship between ends and means, between purpose and text. Pragmatism can distort the proper ascertainment of ends and means. In some cases, the problem will be that the court, without any doctrinal guidance, chooses a purpose at an unacceptably high level of abstraction (see, for example, the debate in Telus v Wellman, and Hillier), perhaps even to achieve some pre-ordained result. The courts can do so because, if one simply follows Rizzo, there is no requirement that a judge seek textual evidence for the establishment of a purpose. Yet we know that, as a descriptive matter, it is most common that purpose is sourced in text (see Sullivan, at 193): an interpreter can usually glean the purpose of the legislation, not from legislative history, subsequent legislative enactments, or even the judge’s own imagination, but from the text itself.

This descriptive state of affairs is normatively desirable for two reasons. First, the point of interpretation is not to establish the purpose or mischief the legislature was intending to solve when it legislated (despite Heydon’s Case). The point is to discover the intent of the legislature as represented in the meaning of the words it used. The words are the law. Purpose assists us in determining the meaning of those words, but it cannot be permitted to dominate the actual goal of the enterprise. A pragmatist approach permits, at least in some cases, for that domination to exist: if purpose is better evidence of intention than text, in some cases, then it can be permitted to override text. But this undermines the point of interpretation.  

Secondly, for all we might say about legislative intentions, the best practical evidence of intention is what has been reduced to paper, read reasonably, fairly, and in context. Since statutory interpretation is not a theoretical exercise but a problem solving-one, the practicality of doctrine is central. For this reason, purpose can best assist us when it is related and grounded in text; when the text can bear the meaning that the purpose suggests the words should carry. To the extent pragmatism suggests something else, it is undesirable.

  Sometimes, however, the problem will lie in the means; while the relevant purpose may be common ground between the parties, there may be a dispute over the meaning of language used to achieve those ends. Such disputes tend to focus on, for example, the choice between ordinary and technical meanings, the role of particular canons of interpretation, and (importantly for our purposes) the relationship between the properly-scoped purpose and the language under interpretation. It is the job of the interpreter to work among these tools synthetically, while not replacing the means Parliament chose to accomplish whatever purpose it set out to accomplish. But with pragmatism, no matter the means chosen by Parliament, there is always the chance that the court can dream up different means (read: words) to accomplish an agreed-upon purpose. Often, these dreams begin with a seemingly benign observation: for example, a court might simply conclude that it cannot be the case that a posited interpretation is the meaning of the words, because it would ineffectually achieve some purpose.

These pathologies can work together in interesting ways. For example, an expansive purpose can cause distortions as the means selection stage of the analysis; a court entranced by a highly abstract purpose could similarly expand the means chosen by the legislature to achieve those means. But even in absence of a mistake at the sourcing stage, courts can simply think that Parliament messed up; that it failed to achieve the purpose it set out to achieve because the means it chose are insufficient, in the court’s eyes.

A Way Forward

When constructing doctrine, at least two considerations to keep in mind pertain to flexibility and formality, for want of better words. Flexibility is not an inherently good or bad thing. Being flexible can permit a court to use a host of different tools to resolve disputes before it, disputes that sometimes cannot be reduced to a formula. Too much flexibility, however, and the judicial reasoning process can be hidden by five-part factorial tests and general bromides. Ideally, one wants to strike a balance between formal limits on how courts must reason, with some built-in flexibility to permit courts some room to react to different interpretive challenges.

The point I have made throughout this series is that Rizzo—to the extent it is followed for what is says—is pragmatic, methodologically. Whatever the benefits of pragmatism, such a model fails to establish any real sequencing of interpretive tools; it does not describe the relationship between the interpretive tools; and leaves to the judge’s discretion the proper tools to choose. While subsequent Supreme Court cases might have hemmed in this pragmatic free-wheeling, they have not gone far enough to clarify the interpretive task.

The starting point for a way forward might begin with the argument that there must be some reasons, ex ante, why we should prefer certain interpretive tools to others. This starting point is informed by a great article written by Justice David Stratas, and his Law Clerk, David Williams. As I wrote here:

The piece offers an interesting and well-reasoned way of ordering tools of interpretation. For Stratas & Williams,  there are certain “green light” “yellow light” and “red light” tools in statutory interpretation. Green light tools include text and context, as well as purpose when it is sourced in text. Yellow light tools are ones that must be used with caution—for example, legislative history and social science evidence. Red light tools are ones that should never be used—for example, personal policy preferences.

In my view, this sort of approach balances formalism and flexibility in interpretation. For the reasons I stated above, the legislative text is really the anchor for interpretation (this is distinct from another argument, often made, that we “start with the text” in interpretation). That is, the text is the best evidence we have of intention, often because it contains within it the relevant purpose that should guide us in discovering the meaning of the text. For this reason, legislative text is a green light consideration. Purpose is also a green-light consideration, but this is because it is sourced in text; if it was not, purpose would be misused in a way that might only be recognizable to a methodological pragmatist. Other tools of interpretation, such as legislative history and social science evidence, can be probative in limited circumstances.

The key innovation here is the Stratas & Williams approach does not rule out so-called “external sources” of meaning, but it does structure the use of various tools for interpretation. For example, the approach does not raise a categorical bar to the consideration of legislative history. But it does make some ex ante prediction about the value of various tools, reasoning for example that purpose is most relevant when it is sourced in text.

This is an immediate improvement over the pragmatist methodology, at least when it comes to my core area of concern, the relationship between purpose and text. In the pragmatist model, purpose can be erroneously sourced and then used to expand the means chosen by the legislature; in other words, it can be used to override the language chosen by the legislature. Under the Stratas & Williams model, such a situation is impossible. Any purpose that is helpful and relevant to the interpretive task will be contained within the language Parliament chose, even if that language is limited, imperfect, or unclear.

An Example Case: Walsh

Much of this can be explained by a recent case, Walsh, at the Ontario Court of Appeal. While Walsh is a very interesting case for many reasons, I want to focus here on a key difference between the majority decision of Gillese JA and the dissent of Miller JA. Gillese JA seems to implicitly adopt a pragmatic approach, arguably making purpose rather than text the anchor of interpretation—presumably because the case called for it. Miller JA, instead, makes text the anchor of interpretation. The difference is subtle, but immensely important, because each opinion takes a different view of the “means” chosen by Parliament.

At issue in Walsh was s.162.1(1) and (2) of the Criminal Code. Section 162.1(1), in short, “makes it an offence for a person to knowingly disseminate an ‘intimate image’ of a person without their consent” [61]. An “intimate image” is defined by s.162.1(2), and relates to a “visual recording of a person made by any means including a photographic, film or video recording.”

Stripping the dispute down to brass tacks, the issue in this case was whether a FaceTime call that displays certain explicit content could constitute a recording. The problem, of course, is that FaceTime video calls cannot be conventionally saved and reproduced, like a photo (putting aside, for a moment, the possibility of recording a FaceTime video call). The Crown, at trial, argued that the language of the provisions are written broadly, and must be read “in the context of the harm that s.162.1 was enacted to address: sexual exploitation committed through technology, including cyberbullying and revenge porn” [23, 55]. For the Crown, the answer was found by reasoning from this general “mischief” that the statute was designed to address: the harm would still exist even despite “the recipient’s inability to further share or preserve the moment…” [23]. The defense, on the other hand reasoned from the ordinary meaning of the word “recording,” concluding that “recording” alludes to the “creation of an image that can be stored, viewed later, and reproduced” [57].

Gillese JA for the majority agreed with the Crown’s argument. She listed five reasons for her agreement, but one is particularly relevant on the issue of the relationship between text and purpose. Gillese JA writes, at paras 68 and 70:

[68] Fourth, restricting the meaning of “recording” to outdated technology—by requiring that it be capable of reproduction—would fail to respond to the ways in which modern technology permits sexual exploitation through the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. In so doing, it would undermine the objects of s.162.1 and the intention of Parliament in enacting it.

[…]

[70] …Giving “visual recording” a broad and inclusive interpretation best accords with the objects of s.162.1 and Parliament’s intention in enacting it.

As we will see, this is precisely backwards.

Miller JA’s dissent should be read in whole. It is a masterclass in statutory interpretation, and it is particularly representative of the approach I favour. But most importantly, Miller JA outlines why the majority’s approach demonstrates a means problem, as described above. For Miller JA, there is no purpose-sourcing problem here, since, as he says, there is common ground about the mischief that these provisions were designed to address [179]. However, for Miller JA, a proper application of the various tools of interpretation counselled an approach that did not rewrite the terms of the statute; the means chosen by the legislature. This approach is supported by a number of considerations. First, as Miller JA says, the term “recording” must be given its ordinary meaning. This is the going-in presumption, absent good reasons otherwise. But for Miller JA, the Crown offered no objective support for its assumption that the term “recording” must encompass the FaceTime video at issue. While dictionary meaning and ordinary meaning are two different things, dictionary meaning can shed light on ordinary meaning, and Miller JA noted that there was no instance of the term “recording” being used to describe a “visual display created by any means” [159].

This might have been enough, but the Crown offered another argument: that the term “recording” must be understood as encompassing new forms of technology [162]. Of course, because of the original meaning canon, it could not be said that any linguistic drift in the term “recording” is legally relevant in this case [166]. However, it is a common application of the original meaning rule that where words are written in a broad and dynamic manner, they could capture phenomena not known to drafters at the time of enactment. For Miller JA, however, this argument failed when it comes to the word “recording.” For him, FaceTime was clearly a phenomenon that existed at the time these provisions were drafted, and in fact, the context of the provisions indicated that Parliament had actually distinguished, in other places, recordings versus “visually observing a person…” [174-176]. The term “recording,” then must rely on the concept of reproducibility, as distinguished from other sorts of displays that cannot be saved and reproduced. This latter category of displays was known by Parliament when it crafted these provisions, but it is conspicuously absent from the provisions themselves.

Miller JA, having disposed of these arguments, then clearly contrasts his approach to Gillese JA’s:

[171] What the Crown is left with is the proposition that a reauthoring of the provision would better achieve s.162.1’s purpose….But where Parliament chooses specific means to achieve its ends, the court is not permitted to choose different means any more than it would be permitted to choose different ends. The interpretive question is not what best promotes the section’s purpose, such that courts can modify the text to best bring about that result, but rather how Parliament chose to promote its purpose

[172] …Although the Crown’s argument is framed in ascertaining the conventional, ordinary meaning of language, it is actually an argument about what meaning ought to be imposed on s.162.1, so as to best achieve the purposes of this section.

These paragraphs are remarkable because they clearly set up the difference between Gillese JA’s approach and Miller JA’s approach; the difference between a methodologically pragmatic approach, and an approach that roots ends in means, purpose in text. For Gillese JA, one of her five reasons for accepting the Crown argument pertained to the fact that the defense’s offered interpretation would fail to achieve the agreed-upon purpose of the provisions. This sort of reasoning is only possible under a pragmatic approach, which permits courts to prioritize different interpretive tools as they see fit. The result is a Holy Trinity abomination: where purpose is the anchor for interpretation, and the text is massaged to achieve that purpose, in the court’s view.

Miller JA’s approach is better, if one follows the argument in this post. His approach clearly sees text as an interpretive “tool” that is prior to all the others, in the sense that it is (1) what the legislature enacted to achieve some goal (2) it, practically, is the best evidence we have of what the purpose of the legislation is. Under this formulation, it is not up to the courts to decide whether better means exist to achieve the purpose of the legislation. If this were the case, the point of interpretation would be to identify the meaning of purpose, rather than the meaning of language as evidence of intention. Miller JA explicitly assigns more weight to the text in cabining the purposive analysis.

The Walsh case illustrates the problem that pragmatism has created. While all agree on the point of interpretation, that agreement tends to break down when we begin to apply the tools we have to determine the meaning of the text. Methodological pragmatism offers no hope for solving this problem, because it fails to take a stand on which tools are best. The Stratas & Williams approach, and the approach offered by Miller JA in Walsh, envisions some ranking of the interpretive tools, with text playing a notable role. This approach is better. It moves us away from the endless flexibility of pragmatism, while still leaving the judge as the interpreter of the law.

Against Pure Pragmatism in Statutory Interpretation II: Evaluating Rizzo

Part II in a 3 part Double Aspect series

Please read Part I of this series before reading this post.

In the first post of this series, I set out to explain the concept of pragmatism in statutory interpretation, as explained by Ruth Sullivan. My contention was that Rizzo, arguably Canada’s seminal statutory interpretation judgment, is a pragmatic judgment. Relatedly, I argued. that a purely pragmatic approach to statutory interpretation, while providing interpreters with maximum flexibility, also fails in two potential ways: (1) it permits judges to assign weights to interpretive tools that may run counter to the point of statutory intepretation: to discern what this particular text means; and (2) it could lead to methodological unpredicability–a problem that I will outline in Part III of this series.

In this post, I will address why Rizzo is a fundamentally pragmatic judgment. It is pragmatic because it leaves open the possibility, particularly in the use of purpose, for text to be supplanted if other interpretive tools point in another direction. In other words, it does not make a claim that some interpretive tools are more appropriate than others in the abstract. In the pragmatic approach, it is up to the judge to assign the weights; rather than the methodological doctrine guiding this selection, the judges themselves have unbridled discretion to mould statutory interpretation methods to the case in front of them, based on factual contexts, contemporary values, or otherwise. As I will note in Part III, this sounds good in theory—but in practice is less than desirable.

Rizzo was a garden-variety statutory interpretation case, and I need not go deep into the facts to show what is at stake. Basically, the key question was whether employees of a now-bankrupt company could  claim termination and severance payments after bankruptcy [1]. The key problem was whether the relevant legislation permitted the benefits to accrue to the employees, even though their employment was terminated by bankruptcy rather than by normal means. The relevant provisions of the Bankruptcy Act and the Employment Standards Act, on a plain reading, seemed to prevent the employees from claiming these benefits if their employment was terminated by way of bankruptcy [23].

The Supreme Court chastised the Court of Appeal for falling into this plain meaning trap. To the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal “…did not pay attention to the scheme of the ESA, its object or the intention of the legislature; nor was the context of the words in issue appropriately recognized” [23]. The Supreme Court endorsed this now-famous passage as the proper method of interpretation in Canada:

21 Although much has been written about the interpretation of legislation (see, e.g., Ruth Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation (1997); Ruth Sullivan, Driedger on the Construction of Statutes (3rd ed. 1994) (hereinafter “Construction of Statutes”); Pierre-André Côté, The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada (2nd ed. 1991)), Elmer Driedger in Construction of Statutes (2nd ed. 1983) best encapsulates the approach upon which I prefer to rely. He recognizes that statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone. At p. 87 he states:

Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.

Using this approach, the Court reasoned that the provisions in questions needed to be interpreted with their objects in mind—specifically, the relevant provisions were designed to “protect employees” [25]. For example, section 40 of the Employment Standards Act, one of the provisions in question, “requires employers to give their employees reasonable notice of termination based upon length of service” [25]. Such a notice period (with termination pay where the employer does not adhere to the notice period), is designed to “provide employees with an opportunity to take preparatory measures and seek alternative employment” [25]. Ditto for the provisions governing severance pay [26].

The Court also relied on a number of other interpretive factors to reach the conclusion that the severance and termination pay provisions governed even in cases of bankruptcy.  Two are important here. First, the Court relied on the absurdity canon: where possible, interpretations of statutes that lead to “absurd results” should be avoided. Particularly, the Court, endorsing Sullivan, notes that “…a label of absurdity can be attached to interpretations which defeat the purpose of a statute or render some aspect of it pointless or futile…” [27]. In this case, the fact that an employee could be terminated a day before the bankruptcy—and receive benefits—and another employee could be terminated after bankruptcy—and not receive benefits—was an absurdity that ran counter to the purpose of the statute to provide a cushion for terminated employees [30].  The Court also focused on legislative history, which it acknowledged can play a “limited role in the interpretation of legislation” [35].

All of this to say, Rizzo is, to my mind, a pragmatic judgment for statutory interpretation. This is because, when it endorses the classic Driedger formula at paragraph 21, it does not venture further to show which of the interpretive tools it relies on are to be given the most weight in interpretation; and accordingly, Rizzo could lead to courts assigning weights to interpretive tools that could distort the process of interpretation. For example, the Rizzo Court does not say—as later Supreme Court cases do—that purpose cannot supplant text in interpretation (Placer Dome, at para 23). In other words, when courts source purpose, text is given more weight in interpretation because it is the anchor for purpose (see, for example, the Court’s analysis in Telus v Wellman, at paras 79, 82-83). This can be seen as the Court saying that text is assigned the most weight in interpretation, and that purpose is parasitic on text. When sourced in this way, then, there is no reason to assume that there will ever be a conflict between purpose and text, because purpose is merely one way to understand text. But Rizzo does not say this, instead suggesting that in some cases, purpose can supplant text.

This is the product of pragmatism. Taken on its own, Rizzo’s endorsement of Driedger permits “…each judge [to take advantage] of the full range of interpretive resources available….and deploys those resources appropriately given the particularities of the case” (see here). The possibility for highly abstract purposes to, in appropriate cases, subvert text is a function of the failure of Rizzo to assign clear weights to the interpretive tools in a way that reflects Canada’s fundamental constitutional principles, including the task of courts to discover what the text of statutes mean. I should note, though, that this is not a bug of pragmatism to its adherents; rather, it is a feature. The pragmatists conclude that text should have no special role in interpretation if other factors push against giving effect to text. As I will point out in my next post, this liberates judges to an unacceptable extent when measured in relation to the basic task of interpretation.

Against Pure Pragmatism in Statutory Interpretation I

The first post in a three-part Double Aspect series.

Rizzo & Rizzo, arguably Canada’s leading case on statutory interpretation, has now been cited at least 4581 times according to CanLII. Specifically, the following passage has been cited by courts at least 2000 times. This passage, to many, forms the core of Canada’s statutory interpretation method:

21                              Although much has been written about the interpretation of legislation (see, e.g., Ruth Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation (1997); Ruth Sullivan, Driedger on the Construction of Statutes (3rd ed. 1994) (hereinafter “Construction of Statutes”); Pierre-André Côté, The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada (2nd ed. 1991)), Elmer Driedger in Construction of Statutes (2nd ed. 1983) best encapsulates the approach upon which I prefer to rely.  He recognizes that statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone.  At p. 87 he states:

Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.

This paragraph has reached the status of scripture for Canadian academics. To many, it stands as a shining example of how Canadian law has rejected “plain meaning,” or “textualist” approaches to law (though these are not the same thing at all, scholars as eminent as Ruth Sullivan have confused them).  Most notably, as Sullivan argues, the practice of the Supreme Court of Canada under the auspices of the modern approach could be considered pragmatist. In many ways, pragmatism is considered by many in related fields to be an implicitly desirable good. Pragmatism in statutory interpretation, to its adherents, pulls the curtain back on judicial reasoning in statutory cases, asking courts to candidly weigh the factors they think are most important to reaching the proper result.

Pragmatism can be seen as a sliding scale—where one factor (such as text) is most persuasive, other factors (such as extrinsic evidence) will need to be stronger to overcome the text. In other cases, the opposite may be true. Notably, as championed by people like Richard Posner, pragmatism is focused on achieving sensible results. Therefore, the methodological approach used to achieve those results matters less than the results themselves.

While I am not sure proponents of pragmatism would classify Rizzo, particularly its leading paragraph, as a pragmatic judgment, in my view, Rizzo alone illustrates the key problem with pragmatism as an organizing and standalone theory of statutory interpretation. The Rizzo formula simply presents a laundry list of factors which should guide judicial decision-making, but fails to prescribe weights ex ante to those factors. It seems to assume that, in each case, the weights to the various factors are either (1) equal or (2) assigned by the judge in a given case. This is the key virtue of pragmatism. But it is also its vice, because “…without an advance commitment to basic interpretive principles, who can anticipate how a judiciary of Posnerian pragmatists would articulate and apply that law?” (see here, at 820). In other words, in a pragmatic approach “[e]verything is up for grabs” (820). Specifically, pure pragmatism has a number of potential issues:

  • It ignores that, in our legal system, the text of the statute (read in light of its context and purpose, sourced in text) is what governs, and for that reason, should be given the most weight in all interpretation, even if the text is open-textured. Courts must do the best they can to extract meaning from the text, read in light of its context. Call this formalism, call it textualism, call it whatever. The Supreme Court has said that the task of interpretation cannot be undertaken in order to impeach the meaning of text with extra-textual considerations (Telus v Wellman, at para 79).
  • Aside from the in-principle objection, there is a practical problem. While pragmatists claim that they are bringing the judicial reasoning process into the open, forcing judges to justify the weights they assign to various interpretive factors, in truth a fully-discretionary approach permits judges to reach any result they might wish, especially if they take into account broad “values-based” reasoning, as Sullivan advocates, or source purpose at some high level of abstraction, untethered to text.
  • Finally, the invitation to consider all factors in statutory interpretation, invited by Rizzo and the pragmatists, seems to assume that each interpretive factor will have something to say in a range of cases. But there are inherent problems with each interpretive factor, including text. The question for statutory interpretation methodology is, in the run of cases, which factors are more persuasive and controlling? By failing to provide an ex ante prediction about this question, pragmatists run close to abridging the idea that courts are supposed to develop norms—guiding principles—for statutory interpretation (see 2747-3174 Quebec Inc, at 995-996).

In order to develop these arguments, and address powerful (and some not-so-powerful) counter-arguments, I will be launching a series on Double Aspect on statutory interpretation, designed around the idea of pragmatism. The second post in the series will summarize Rizzo and why it is indicative of a pragmatist approach. The third post in the series will point out, using Rizzo itself, the flaws of pragmatism. It will also laud the Supreme Court and lower courts for, in recent years, blunting the edge of the pragmatist approach. Overall, this series will be designed to show that while text, context, and purpose are relevant interpretive factors, the task of interpretation is one that must be guided by ex ante guiding principles, not an “anything goes” approach. To this end, a recent attempt by Justice David Stratas and David Williams to assign ex ante weights to statutory interpretive factors is laudable and desirable. It should be followed.

A note of caution: the point of this series is not to advocate for a purely text-based approach, or a “plain-meaning approach.” Many have fallen into the trap of simply labelling arguments that highlight the primacy of text as being “textualism” or “plain-meaning.” Many resist the idea of text as a governing factor in interpretation because they believe it is equal to a literal reading, or because it does not take context into account. Virtually no one advocates for this line of thinking anymore. It is a strawman.

Additionally, the point of this series is not to impugn pragmatism wholesale. Instead, the point of this series is to point out that while pragmatism and flexibility have their place in interpretation, those things cannot come at the expense of an interpretive methodology that guides judges according to the core tenets of our legal system, including the separation of powers, as understood by the Supreme Court (see again Telus v Wellman, at para 79).

Stay tuned.

The Top Statutory Interpretation Cases of 2020

A banner year for interpretation

Introduction

To say that one believes in “purposive interpretation” has been the calling card of Canadian legal scholars for some time. Saying this, as some do, is radically incomplete. That is because competing schools of thought also look to purpose. Textualists, for example, look to the context in which words are used, as well as the purpose evident in those words (Scalia & Garner, at 20). To say that one is a purposivist might as well mean nothing, because everyone—even textualists—“routinely take[] purpose into account…” (Scalia & Garner, at 20).

Far from just being a lazy turn of phrase, though, the routine deployment of the term “purposivism” as a distinct school of thought blocks us from a clearer conversation about what should matter in statutory interpretation. For example, the real division between textualists and others is how purpose is sourced in statutory interpretation: textualists are wary of importing some abstract purpose to subvert a “close reading” of the text (see Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also the opinion of Côté Jin West Fraser), while others might source purpose differently. Saying that one is a “purposivist” also does not answer an important question: which purpose should count more in interpretation, since statutes often pursue multiple purposes at different levels of abstraction? (see, for an example of this, Rafilovich). These are real interpretive questions that are only now receiving any sort of sustained attention in the case law.

I should not hide my priors here. I too think that purpose is a relevant consideration in statutory interpretation, because it assists in the task of reading text to mean all it fairly encompasses. But purpose can be abused: indeed, “[t]he most destructive (and most alluring) feature of purposivism is its manipulability” (Scalia & Garner, 20). Because purposes can be stated in all sorts of ways, it is up to the judge, in many cases, to choose the most appropriate purpose to assist in interpreting the text. Sometimes, purpose can subvert text—which, of course, is problematic if the purpose is not sourced in text (McLachlin CJC’s opinion in West Fraser is a classic example of this).  Put simply: purpose informs text, it does not supplant it (Placer Dome, at para 23).

For that reason, we must come to sound and principled ways of sourcing purpose, rather than simply stating that we look to purpose. It is this theme that defined, in my view, the task for judicial interpreters in 2020. The following three cases are, to my mind, exemplars of dealing with some of these deeper questions in statutory interpretation. Rather than simply reciting the Rizzo & Rizzo formula and taking an “anything goes” approach to interpretation, these cases delve deeper and answer some knotty interpretive questions in a way that furthers a discussion about statutory interpretation in Canada—particularly with reference to the so-called “purposive” approach. Because these cases start a conversation on these issues (and because I happen to agree with the methodology employed by the judges writing the lead opinions in each case), these are the top statutory interpretation cases of 2020, in no particular order:

Michel v Graydon, 2020 SCC 24

In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt with the question whether it is “possible to vary a child support order under the [Family Law Act] after the order has expired, and after the child support beneficiary ceases to be a “child” as defined in the [Family Law Act]” [2]. This seemingly technical question of family law, however, gave rise to all sorts of interpretive problems: the role of social science evidence in statutory interpretation, the problem of unbridled consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, and the problem raised when judges invoke both “liberal” and “purposive interpretation” in the same breath.

For Brown J, the answer to question in the case was found relatively confined to the legislative text and scheme. Starting from the text of the provision, Brown J concluded that the relevant text of the Family Law Act “creates an avenue for courts to retroactively change any child support order, irrespective of the beneficiary’s dependent status and irrespective of whether the order is extant at the time of the application” [20]. This was because of the placement of the relevant statutory scheme. Among other things, s.152 contained no textual restriction on the courts—for example, s.152(1) “contains no reference to the defined term ‘child’ that might serve to qualify the authority of a court to vary child support” [22]. The scheme of the Family Law Act supported this conclusion [23].

For Brown J, this textual conclusion was basically the end of the story (see also schematic considerations at paras 24, 26, 27). Importantly, though, Brown J’s textual conclusion was supported by a properly-scoped purpose. Brown J identified that one of the dominant features of the Family Law Act—given the statute it replaced—was a desire to “expan[d] on the circumstances under which a court may vary a child support order” [28]. Read in light with the text, the result was clear.

Martin J concurred in the result, but conducted a policy analysis to support her concurrence. In Martin J’s view, child support cases called for (that old standard) of a “fair, large, and liberal construction” [40]. For Martin J, this sort of construction required a “contextual and purposive reading of s.152” that looks to “its wider legislative purposes, societal implications, and actual impacts” [40] in a way that “takes into account the policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [70]. Martin J concluded that “a jurisdictional bar preventing these cases from being heard not only rests in unsound legal foundations, it is inconsistent with the bedrock principles underlying child support and contributes to systemic inequalities” [40].

I agree with both judges that the text and context in this case supports this reading of s.152. But while both judges agreed on the ultimate result, the method they used to reach the result differs in important ways. While Brown J focuses largely on a contextual reading, Martin J incorporates other information, statistics, and an evaluation of the consequences of the interpretation to the result. As I will note, in this case, these approaches do not lead to dramatically different conclusions, because the tools all pointed to a certain result: text, social science, context, consequences. But where text and such other factors conflict, Martin J’s opinion raise a number of problems, in my view.

There are three comments to make about this case, and why it is important. First, Brown J’s opinion avoids the pitfalls that might be associated with external aids to interpretation.  Specifically, Martin J looked to various social science data related to poverty, family relationships, and marginalization. These are important topics, and in this case, the evidence supported the interpretation that Brown J undertook on the text. But the question arises: what to do when current social science evidence contradicts an analysis undertaken on the text? Put differently, if the text points in one direction, and that direction exacerbates problematic trends in social science evidence, which governs?

It is one thing to suggest that where the text is ambiguous, an interpretation which solves the supposed “mischief” the statute was aimed to solve should be preferred. One could make a case for that argument. But where the text and the evidence are directly contradictory, courts must follow the text because that is what the legislature enacted. This may sometimes lead to interpretations that do not make sense to contemporary society, or are unjust in face of empirical evidence, because the text was enacted at a particular time. But this is simply a function of the task of statutory interpretation, which is to determine what the legislature meant at the time of enactment (as I note below, this itself is a rule of interpretation). It must be remembered that external aids can be used to assist in interpreting the text. They cannot be used to subvert it. Martin J’s approach could lead to that result—though, as I note, the problem does not arise in this case because the text and evidence pointed to the same interpretive result.

Secondly, both opinions could be read as cabining the role of pure policy or consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, which could be an invitation for results-oriented reasoning. It is true that evaluating the competing consequences of interpretive options is a fair part of statutory interpretation (see Sullivan at 212 et seq; see also Atlas Tube, at para 10; Williams, at para 52). But there is a caveat: consequences cannot be used to dispense with the written text. This most arises in the context of the absurdity canon, where absurd interpretations of statutes are to be avoided. However, an overapplication of the absurdity canon can lead to many “false-positives” where consequences are labelled absurd in the judge’s opinion, even if those consequences are arguably a product of the text. This undermines the legislature’s role in specifying certain words. Instead, consequences can only be used to determine which of various “rival interpretations” are most consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute (see Williams, at para 10). In this way, consequences are not used to determine which interpretation is just or unjust in an abstract sense, but which interpretations are most consistent with the statute’s text, context, and purpose.

Brown J clearly used this sort of justified consequential analysis in his opinion. In connecting his preferred interpretation to the properly-scoped purpose of s.152(1), it was clear that his interpretation furthered that purpose. This is a proper use of consequences consistent with the text as the dominant driver of purpose.

On the other hand, Martin J’s opinion could be read in two ways: one undesirable, one not. First, it could be read as endorsing a wide-ranging assessment of consequences, at a high level of abstraction (for example, justifying her consequential analysis with reference to the need to abolish systemic inequalities: see paras 40, 70, 101).  This might be a very good thing in the abstract, but not all legislation is designed to achieve such lofty goals. If interpreted in such a way to reach a result the statute does not reach, statutes can be conceived as addressing or solving every societal problem, and therefore as resolving every unjust consequence—and this could lead to overextensions of the text beyond its ordinary meaning (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)).  This reading of Martin J’s opinion is not desirable, for that reason.

Another reading of Martin J’s opinion is that she roots her consequential analysis in the purpose of the statute as she sees it. For example, Martin J notes that her approach interprets s.152 with its “underlying purposes in mind” which includes the best interests of the child [76]. Martin J also notes that her interpretation favours access to justice, under-inclusivity, and socio-economic equality [72]. These factors may or may not be rooted to the statute under consideration.

If Martin J’s opinion is rooted in the recognized purpose of the best interests of the children, one can make the case that her opinion is justified as Brown J’s is. However, if read more broadly, Martin J could fairly be seen as addressing issues or consequences that may not fall within the consideration of the text. In the circumstances, I prefer to read Martin J’s opinion as consonant with Brown J’s. If that is done, there is no warrant to look to consequences that fall outside the purpose of the statute. But note: much will depend, as I note below, on how the purpose of a statutory provision is pitched.

Finally, Brown J’s opinion is tighter than Martin J’s in the sense that it does not raise conflicts between statutory interpretation principles. Martin J’s opinion arguably does so in two ways. First, it is well-known (despite the controversy of this practice in constitutional interpretation) that statutes must generally be interpreted as they would have been the day after the statute was passed (Perka, at 264-5). While there is some nuance on this point (see Sullivan, at 116-117), words cannot change legal meaning over time—but note that broad, open-textured terms can be flexibly applied to new conditions if the words can bear that meaning (see here). The key is that words can only cover off the situations that they can fairly encompass. But the injunction—repeated throughout Martin J’s opinion—that statutes must be interpreted in light of the “policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [72] at least facially conflicts with the original meaning canon. To Martin J’s defense, she is not the first to say this in the context of family law and child support (see Chartier, at paras 19, 21). But nonetheless, the court cannot have it both ways, and Martin J’s opinion cannot be taken to mean that the legal meaning of texts must be interpreted to always be consistent with contemporary Canadian society.

At best, it might be said that Martin J’s opinion in this respect permits the taking into account of contemporary considerations where the text clearly allows for such considerations, or perhaps where the text is ambiguous and one interpretation would best fit modern circumstances in a practical sense. But these modern circumstances cannot be shoehorned into every interpretation.

Secondly, there is a conflict in Martin J’s opinion, in a theoretical sense, between her invocation of a “fair, large and liberal” interpretation (see paras 58, 71) and her invocation of a “purposive” interpretation  (see para 71). As Karl Llewellyn pointed out long ago, it is not unheard of for tools of interpretation to conflict. But as much as possible, judges should not invite such conflicts, and I fear Martin J did this in her opinion by conflating liberal interpretation with purposive interpretation. As I have written before, these things are not the same—in fact they are opposites. The Interpretation Act does instruct a “large and liberal” interpretation, but only as the objects of a statute permit. The Supreme Court continues to insist on an approach to statutory interpretation that uses text to ground the selection of purpose (see here). As such, text and purpose read synthetically governs—not some judge-made conception of what constitutes a “large and liberal interpretation.” This statement cannot be used to overshoot the purposes of a statute, properly scoped.

Perhaps in this case the purposes permit a large and liberal interpretation, in which case Martin J can use both of these tools interchangeably. As I said, the problem isn’t this case specifically, but what would happen if Martin J’s approach is used in the general run of cases. But it is far from clear that purposive and generous interpretation will always–or even often–lead to similar results. More likely, purpose will limit the ways in which text can be read—it will not liberate the judge to take into account any policy considerations she wishes.

Michel v Graydon raises all sorts of interesting issues. But taking Brown J’s opinion on its own terms, it is a clinic in how to clearly interpret a statute in light of its properly-scoped purpose. While Martin J’s opinion could also be read in this way, it could be read to permit a more free-flowing policy analysis that subverts legislative language. In this sense, Martin J’s opinion should be affixed with a “caution” label.

Entertainment Software Association, 2020 FCA 100

ESA will stand, I think, for some time as the definitive statement in the Federal Courts on how to conduct statutory interpretation, and the role of international law in that endeavour.

In this case, the facts of which I summarized here,  the Copyright Board offered an interpretation of the Copyright Modernization Act that arguably placed extraneous materials ahead of the governing text. Here is what I wrote about the Board’s conduct at the time:

The Board’s chosen materials for the interpretive exercise were stated, according to the Court, at a high level of generality (see paras 53-54). For example, the Board focused on the preamble to the Copyright Modernization Act to divine a rather abstract interpretation that supported its view on international law (paras 53-54). It also invoked government statements, but the Court rightly noted that these statements construed s.2.4(1.1) as a “narrow, limited-purpose provision” [56], not as an all-encompassing provision that permitted the collection of tariffs in both instances. The use of these materials was used by the Board to herald a different, broader interpretation than what the text and context of the provision indicated. 

The Court rebuffed the Board’s effort in this regard. By noting that the provision under interpretation was a “narrow, limited-purpose provision,” the Court rejected attempts by the Board to drive the interpretation higher than the text can bear.  This is a worthy affirmation of the importance of text in the interpretive process, and a warning about the malleability of purposive interpretation.

Why is this opinion so important? It makes a now oft-repeated point that purposive interpretation is not conducted “at large.” That is, it matters how judges state the purposes they hope to use in the interpretive task. As the Supreme Court noted in Telus v Wellman, courts cannot use abstract purposes to “distort the actual words of the statute” (see Telus, at para 79). This counts as an endorsement of the traditional separation of powers, under which “…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts” [79].

ESA is important because it implements what the Supreme Court has now repeated in Telus, Rafilovich, and other cases. It is now clear law that purposes cannot be used to subvert text; that text is the starting point in legislative interpretation, and that in sourcing purpose, text confines the scope of the exercise. In my view, ESA (expertly written by Justice Stratas) makes the clearest case yet for a sort of text-driven purposivism in the context of Canadian statutory interpretation.

Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164

One underlying theme of much of what I have written thus far is a worry about results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation. To some, this might not be a risk at all. Or it might be a desirable feature: after all, if all law should simply be an adjunct of politics, then the policy preferences of judges are fair game. Of course, I readily admit that no legal system can reduce the risk of subjective policy-driven interpretation to 0; nor should it. But the Rule of Law, at its most basic, means that the law governs everyone—including judges. Part of the law judges must apply are the rules of statutory interpretation. Those rules are designed not to vindicate what the “just” result is in the abstract, what is “just” at international law (except where international law and domestic legislation meet in defined ways), or even what is “just” to the judge at equity or common law–except, of course, when statutes implicate common law rules. Statutory interpretation is a task that requires determining what the legislature thought was just to enact. As such, the rules of interpretation are guided towards that goal, and are necessarily designed to limit or exclude the preferences of judges or others, even if we reach that goal only imperfectly.

This important theoretical point was made in relation to the ascertainment of legislative purpose and international law in Kattenburg by Stratas JA. In Kattenburg, the underlying substantive issue was simple and narrow, as I wrote in my post on the case:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

However, on the intervention motions in Kattenburg, Stratas JA noted that some intervenors ttempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32). Stratas JA rejected such efforts.

Stratas JA’s rejection of these intervenors, and his strong words in denouncing them, raised the ire of some on law twitter. But anything worth doing won’t be easy, and Stratas JA said what needed to be said, particular when he noted that, with respect to the intervenors “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). 

 There’s no denying Stratas JA is pointing to an important methodological problem that is deserving of our attention. One way that purposes can be misstated, or used to subvert clear text, is by advancing broad understandings of international law to expand the purpose. As I’ve noted before, it is true that “international law can…be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity” (see here). But in many cases, international law will simply not be relevant to the interpretation of legislative texts, or the ascertainment of legislative purposes.

The attempt in Kattenburg to cast the legislative purpose to encompass some statement—any statement—on the legality of Israel’s conduct in the Middle East is a classic end-run around legislative text. While some of the intervenors may have wanted the Court to interpret the legislation in a particular way to encompass substantive policy goals encompassed in international law not only runs afoul of fundamental principle—international law only enters the task in defined, narrow ways—but it is contrary to precedent (see Vavilov, at para 121 and the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Such efforts should be rejected.

Conclusion

In many ways, the three cases I have chosen as important for interpretation in 2020 are all representative of a broader theme of which lawyers should be aware. That is, there is much more happening behind the curtains in Canadian statutory interpretation than might appear at first blush. “Purposive interpretation” is not the end of the story. What matters is how we source purpose, the sources we assess to assist the interpretive task, and the role of text in grounding the interpretive process. These cases all come to defensible conclusions on these questions. The insights of these cases can be distilled into a few key propositions:

  1. Purpose must be sourced in relation to the relevant text under consideration. In this way, we are interpreting text as the legislature enacted it, and we are not using purpose to subvert that authentic reading of the text.
  2. There are reasons to be worried about consequential analysis, to the extent it could permit an expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.
  3. There are reasons to be worried about international law, to the extent it could permit the expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.

All for the better.

A Happy New Year for interpretive nerds!

Constitutional Law Ruins Everything. A (sort of) response to Mancini’s “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation.”

This post is by Andrew Bernstein.

No! I am not an academic nor was meant to be.
Am a mere practitioner, one that will do
To settle a dispute, argue an appeal or two
When advising clients, the law’s my tool.
Deferential, if it helps me sway the court
Argumentative, and (aspirationally) meticulous.
Case-building is my professional sport
Trying my hand at theory’s ridiculous!
But I’ll dip a toe into this pool.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot and anyone who appreciates poetry)

Also, this is a blog post, so no footnotes or citations. Sorry!

As a lawyer whose most enduring interest for the last 30 years has been Canada’s constitutional arrangements, it gives me great pains to confess to you that I have concluded that constitutional law ruins everything. Or, perhaps put more judiciously, the kinds of debates that we have about constitutional interpretation are not especially instructive in dealing with other types of legal questions, such as statutory or common-law interpretation. There are many reasons for this, but the central one, in my view, has to do with the fact that while reasonable people may disagree on the outcome of a statutory interpretation, or a question of common law, those people will largely agree on the method of conducting those analyses. In constitutional interpretation, we don’t have consensus on “how” so it’s no wonder that the outcomes can be so radically different.

What are we really asking courts to do when we ask them to resolve a dispute? There are no doubt some high-minded theoretical answers to this (“do justice between the parties,” “ensure that capitalism is never threatened,” “enforce institutional sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia”) but from a practitioner’s perspective, the answer is actually straightforward: sort out the facts and apply a set of legal rules to those facts. Overwhelmingly those rules come from a variety of legal instruments, such as statutes, regulations, by-laws, and other “outputs” of political institutions such as Parliament, legislatures or municipal councils. If these institutions they don’t like the judicial interpretation of what they have passed, they can change the instrument accordingly. Moreover, these institutions are democratically elected, so if citizens do not agree with the laws that get made, they can replace them at the next election. Although this “feedback loop” suffers from many inefficiencies and obstacles in practice, it is essential to maintaining the concept of self-government by majority rule. What this means is that courts know what they are supposed to be doing when they interpret statutes: they look for legislative intention, as expressed by the words of the document. While courts are entitled to employ whatever clues they might be able to find in things like the legislative history, they appreciate that those clues must be used judiciously, as one speech by one MP does not a legislative intention make. And courts appreciate that the words of the document ultimately govern – although compliance is less than perfect, courts generally understand that they are not to circumvent the meaning of legislation with some kind of analysis based on the instrument’s supposed “purpose.”

While it is frequently accepted that the objective of statutory interpretation is to discern legislative intent, the question of why we would want to do so is not frequently interrogated. After all, while it may make eminent sense to give effect to a law that was passed a week ago, why would a self-governing people want to be governed by legislation that was passed by a legislature that is no longer in session? Perhaps by a different political party? The answer is partially pragmatic (it would be awfully cumbersome to have to re-enact every law each time a legislature was dissolved) but the real reason is the existence of the democratic feedback loop. Statutory interpretation operates on the presumption that, if no legislature has repealed or amended the statute, the people (as represented by the legislature) are content with it as it stands. In fact, this is the reason why no legislature can bind a future one to things like supermajority requirements. Because it is the people’s current intention – and not their past intention – that governs.

Constitutional law is designed to be immune to the democratic feedback loop. At least some aspects of the constitution are specifically intended to limit democratic institutions. The essence of that aspect of constitutionalism is the protection of vulnerable and/or minority groups from the potential for ill-treatment by the majority. Sometimes these protections take the role of institutional structures (such as federalism, regional representation in central institutions, and, according to some, a separation of powers) and other times they are specific guarantees of rights that specifically limit government action: freedom of expression, equality, or even “life, liberty and security of the person.” Cumulatively, this constitutional architecture is supposed to create a balance between self-government and limited government, ensuring that Canadians can govern ourselves, while not permitting the majority to oppress minorities.

This sounds great in theory, but immediately creates a dilemma: who gets to decide on the limits of “limited government?” Someone has to, and (if the constitution is going to be effective at curbing democratic excess) it has to be a different “someone” than the majoritarian institutions that actually do the governing. And although there are different models around the world, in Canada (like our American neighbours), we entrust that job to the Courts. This is not an uncontroversial decision, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that courts are institutionally well-suited to the job, with their adversarial model of fact-finding and decision-making. Second, courts are presided over by judges, who are just (as Justice Stratas recently said) lawyers who have received a judicial commission. There is no reason to think they are especially well suited to weighing the interests that a complex society needs to achieve an ideal balance between, for example, liberty and security, or equality and religious freedom. Third, judges are famously unrepresentative: they are whiter, richer, more male, more Christian, older and more conservative than the population. Nowhere is this more apparent than the apex of judicial decision-making, the Supreme Court of Canada, which got its first female judge in the 1980s and has never had an indigenous or any type of non-white judge or a judge from the LGBTQ community. Eighty five of Canada’s ninety Supreme Court judges have been Christian, the other 5 have been Jewish. No Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or even (admitted) atheists . Nevertheless, these 9 judges get to make significant decisions that have a major impact on social policy. Since the Charter was enacted, the Supreme Court has had a major role in liberalizing access to abortion, permitting medical assistance in dying, liberalizing prostitution laws, freeing access to cannabis, prohibiting the death penalty, enhancing public employees’ right to strike, and many other social policy decisions that were different from the democratic choices made by legislatures. In Canada, most decisions to strike down legislation have tilted towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there have also been decisions (most infamously, relating to private health care in Quebec) that tilt more towards the conservative side. This is not inherent to the process of adjudicating rights: the United States Supreme Court has grown increasingly conservative in the last 20 years, striking down liberal legislation relating to campaign finance, voting rights, and only yesterday striking down pandemic limitations on gatherings in houses of worship.

The combination of anti-democratic process and anti-democratic outcomes that constitutional adjudication creates has been subject of concern and criticism since judicial review was created in Marbury v. Madison. This, in turn, has led to the development of theories that are designed to constrain judicial decision-making. While some of this may be results-oriented, at its core, the goal of all “court-constraining theories” of constitutional interpretation is to give constitutional decision-making a touchstone by which decisions can be evaluated. Readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with these theories, such as textualism, or public-meaning originalism, which stand in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as “living tree constitutionalism” or (in Leonid’s catchy turn of phrase “constitutionalism from the cave”). While I will undoubtedly not do them justice, the “touchstone theories” posit that the meaning of constitutional rights are more-or-less fixed (although may need to be applied in novel situations) and it’s the job of the courts to find and apply those fixed meanings, while “living tree constitutionalism” allows the meaning of these rights to evolve over time, and it’s the job of the courts to decide when and how to permit that evolution to take place.

To use an over-simplified example, imagine a constitutional guarantee of “equality,” which (it is agreed) was understood to mean “equality of opportunity” at the time it was enacted. And imagine that 40 years later, it is established that the historical and systemic disadvantages suffered by certain groups means that merely providing equal opportunity proves insufficient to providing those groups with a fair outcome. Touchstone constitutionalists could suggest that although what constitutes “equality of opportunity” may have to change to meet changing social circumstances, but does not permit courts to go further and use the constitutional guarantee of “equality” to impose equality of outcomes. Living tree constitutionalists could posit that the guarantee of equality was intended to ensure that people do not suffer disadvantage because of their immutable characteristics, and if we now recognize that this can only be done by providing equality of outcome, then this is what courts should do.

What’s important to appreciate is that our protagonists on both sides are not disagreeing just on the outcome. They are disagreeing on the fundamental nature of the exercise. Touchstone constitutionalists believes that the courts’ job is essentially to be the “seeker” in a game of hide and seek, while the living tree constitutionalists believe that the courts are playing Jenga, carefully removing blocks from the bottom and building the tower ever higher, with its ultimate height limited only by how far they can reach.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? No one and everyone. In fact, as I read Mark’s post to which I am (ostensibly) responding, I understand his plea to be not that touchstones – regardless of how old they may be – are normatively a fantastic way to adjudicate modern problems but rather that the alternative to touchstones is anarchy (or Kritarchy), and that has to be worse. Similarly, critics of touchstone constitutionalism are concerned about being forever bound by the past, without providing a particularly good explanation of what could or should reasonably replace it without ultimately resorting to the idea that we have to trust our judges to make good decision. This of course, begs the question “if we are relying on someone’s judgment, why is it the judges and not the people’s through their democratically elected representatives?”

What am I saying? I’m saying that the “touchstone vs. tree” debate is actually a normative question, that people like to dress up as one that has an objectively ascertainable answer. But in truth, where you stand on this will really depend on your own personal value system, as informed by your own experiences. If you value predictability and stability, and/or the idea of judges making decisions about what is right, fair or socially appropriate is offensive to you, you may be inclined towards touchstone constitutionalism. If you value substantive outcomes, and see the judicial role as guaranteeing and enforcing rights as they evolve, you will be inclined towards the living tree. Of course, this is to some degree all a false dichotomy. There are many places available between either end of this spectrum and everyone ultimately ends up tends towards one of the more central positions. For example, it is difficult to find anyone who seriously doubts the correctness of Brown v. Board of Education, even though there’s at least an argument that certain touchstones informing the meaning of equal protection in the United States’ 14th amendment contemplated segregation. On the other hand, no matter how alive one’s tree might be, respect for a system of precedent is necessary if you are going to continue to call what you are doing “law” as opposed to policymaking by an unaccountable institution that has only faint markings of democratic accountability.

So why does constitutional law ruin everything? As I see it, is that this unresolvable dilemma in constitutional law has a tendency to bring its enormous baggage to other areas, and leave it there. But it’s not clear that these oversized duffles filled with decades of counter-majoritarian sentiment are really going to assist what I would consider to be the very different exercise of statutory interpretation (I’m well aware of the argument that the constitution is just an uber-statute and should be interpreted accordingly, but that’s really just an argument for touchstone constitutionalism so I will conveniently ignore it). Why? Because unlike in constitutional interpretation, we have broad consensus on how to go about the exercise of statutory interpretation entails: it entails trying to determine what the legislature intended by the text that it enacted. And although this exercise can be difficult at times, and reasonable (and unreasonable) people can often disagree, they are disagreeing on the outcome and not the process. No one truly suggests that the courts should play Jenga when interpreting statutes; they are always the seeker in a game of hide-and-seek, using well-understood tools and rules. Of late, we have been describing those as “text, context and purpose” but long before that catch phrase existed, we had the lawyer’s toolbox of logic, common sense, experience, and approximately 400 years of common-law jurisprudence on canons of statutory construction (well-defended by Leonid in his recent post). It’s true that these rules are convoluted and it’s not always straightforward to apply them. Some judges and courts give more weight to (for example) the purpose of statute and the presumption against absurdity, while others might be more interested in the intricacies of grammatical structure. But these are matters of emphasis, and the degree of variation relatively modest. In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus, at least among Canadian courts, about how the exercise of statutory interpretation ought to be conducted, and, in the main, it is done with amazing regularity.

OK so we have covered the constitution (where there is no agreement on the game, much less the rules) and statutes (where everyone is singing from the same hymnbook). What remains is common law, and it is probably the strangest of all these creatures because it is, by necessity, hide-and-seek but what you are looking for is Jenga blocks. There is, of course, an important touchstone courts and judges look to: precedent. But if you stretch far back enough, the touchstone itself has no touchstone other than “what judges think is best.” In many ways, it’s “law from the cave” but the cave is extremely old, dark, and you probably can’t see the exit, so you are stuck inside unless or until the legislature “rescues” you and replaces the common law rules. This leads to a fascinating problem: because it’s based on precedent, common law derives its authority from consistency. But because it’s judge-made, judges feel relatively free to remake it in appropriate circumstances. In many ways, it’s the worst of both theoretical worlds: it is bound by (some may say stuck in) the past and also readily changeable by judges. But somehow it works anyway, and with much fewer lamentations from the theorists who worry about either of these things (excluding, of course, administrative law, which by unwritten constitutional principle must be comprehensively re-written every ten years to keep a group of frustrated practitioners on their toes).

So in short, I endorse Mark’s sentiment that we need neutral principles in adjudication. But I disagree that they are in short supply. We have neutral principles in statutory interpretation, and they work as well as any system that is administered by a few hundred people across the country possibly could. We have essentially one neutral governing principle in common law analysis, which is “mostly follow precedent.” So what we are really talking about is constitutional law, where the debate between the touchstone cops and the living tree arborists is essentially unresolvable because when you scrape to the bottom it asks “what do you value in a legal system” and it’s no surprise that there isn’t universal agreement on this. But there is a strong consensus on how to engage in interpretation outside the constitutional context, and we should not let the constitutional disagreements obscure that.

In other words, constitutional law ruins everything. But I told you that at the beginning.