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.

On Canadian Statutory Interpretation and Recent Trends

I have had the pleasure of reading (for the first time front-to-back) the legal interpretation classic, Reading Law by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. For Canadian courts struggling with how to source and use purpose when interpreting statutes, Reading Law provides valuable assistance. It does so by outlining two schools of thought on how to source purpose, schools of thought that are prevalent in Canadian debates and recent decisions over statutory interpretation. On the one hand is purposivism; on the other hand is textualism. While these schools do not actually differ about whether purpose should form part of the interpretive exercise, they do differ about how to actually determine what purpose governs. Canada’s recent statutory interpretation cases point to the textualist direction.

The first school of thought, broadly known as purposivism, is apparently Canada’s leading approach to statutory interpretation.  Purposivism “acknowledges that the meaning of language is imprecise and measures words against contextual, schematic, and purposive considerations” (see Hutchison, here, at 8). Aharon Barak claims that:

[a]ccording to purposive interpretation, the purpose of a text is a normative concept. It is a legal construction that helps the interpreter understand a legal text. The author of the text created the text. The purpose of the text is not part of the text itself. The judge formulates the purpose based on information about the intention of the text’s author (subjective purpose) and the “intention” of the legal system (objective purpose) (Barak, Purposive Interpretation, at 110).

The motivation behind purposivism is a sort of legal realism that queries whether text can ever truly be clear enough to be a dominant force in legal interpretation (see, for a characteristic example of this line of thinking, the opinion of Breyer J in FCC v NextWave Personal Communications Inc, 537 U.S. 293, 311). Purpose is thus a way to deal with latent ambiguities that may naturally arise in text. And importantly, purpose is focused on the “ends” a statute is designed to achieve, perhaps at a high level of abstraction or generality. On a radical purposive account, the goal of interpretation is to effectuate whatever the court determines the purpose(s) to be; text is merely a means to the end of purpose. Put differently, text is derived from purpose under the purposive account.

On the other hand is “textualism.” Textualism receives a bad rap in Canada, but that is probably more due to caricature than a real appraisal of the merits and demerits of the textualist method. Here Scalia & Garner have much to say. While the central feature of textualism is the idea that “if the text…is clear, interpreters should not impeach the text using extrinsic evidence of statutory purpose…” (Manning & Stephenson, Legislation and Regulation, at 94), textualism does not ask a court to “put on blinders that shield the legislative purpose from view” (Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also William Popkin, “An ‘Internal’ Critique of Justice Scalia’s Theory of Statutory Interpretation,” 76 Minn L Rev 1133, 1142 (1992)).  Instead, purpose is “deduced from a close reading of the text” (Scalia & Garner, 20).  Put differently, purpose is derived from text on the textualist account.

Why are textualists concerned about purposes achieved without reference to the text? First, textualists are concerned about the generality problem (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation,” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)). A court motivated by its own results-oriented reasoning could choose a purpose that is barely represented in text, or is otherwise quite abstract in relation to text. Indeed, at the highest level of generality, every statute could be said to pursue “justice and security” (see Radin). But choosing that purpose could distort the means used by the statute chosen to achieve its ends by “enabling…crabbed interpretations to limiting provisions and unrealistically expansive interpretations to narrow provisions” (Scalia & Garner, at 20). This particular problem also has resonance in administrative interpretations of law, where an expansive purposive interpretation of enabling provisions could actually result in more deference to decision-makers than what the text itself allows.

Second, textualists are concerned with the realities of the legislative process and the fact that legislatures are imperfect. The takeaway from the Legal Process school, which influences purposivism, is that legislatures pursue reasonable purposes reasonably. But textualists understand that legislation, especially in the US, is a result of legislative compromise. While purposes may be clear, text pursues purposes in different ways. In this way, textualists are more concerned with the implementational rather than the ulterior purposes of legislation. Legislation can implement purposes in text in various ways.  A generalized example here is instructive:

For example, a statute providing a specific protection and a discrete remedy for purchasers of goods can be said to have as its purpose “protecting the consumer.” That would not justify expansive consumer-friendly interpretations of provisions that are narrowly drawn (Scalia & Garner, at 57).

What does this dispute between textualists and purposivists have to do with Canada? From a descriptive perspective, it describes perfectly what is happening in Canadian courts right now with regards to purpose. Normatively, Scalia & Garner’s text explains why a textualist-purposive approach is well-justified.

On the descriptive account, the Supreme Court in the past has fallen victim to the “level of generality” problem. West Fraser is a classic example. There, the dispute was whether a British Columbia statute permitted fines to be levied for workplace safety violations against owners of land on which accidents occurred. The relevant provision under which West Fraser was fined was, by its text, only applicable to “employers.” But Chief Justice McLachlin, for the majority, held that the ultimate purpose of the statute was to “promote workplace safety in the broadest sense” (see West Fraser, at para 17). This allowed her to conclude that the particular text of the section under interpretation should be interpreted to cover off West Fraser’s conduct. But here is a classic example of the purposive approach: purpose was used to interpret the text under consideration, rather than the other way around.

Justice Côté in dissent, in my view, had much better of the argument. Her view was that the relevant provision had chosen the means by which to pursue the purpose of workplace safety. The text had chosen “limited means” to pursue that purpose—by limiting fines to employers (see West Fraser, at para 107). This is a classic dispute between ulterior and implementational purposes.

Justice Côté’s view has recently been picked up in recent Supreme Court cases and in cases in the Federal Court of Appeal. I cite two examples here. First is Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. There, the dispute was what purpose should be chosen: for the majority, the purpose of the Arbitration Act, as directly reflected in the relevant statutory provisions, was that the Act ensures that parties abide by their agreements. But in dissent, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ would have pitched the purpose of the statute at the level of “access to justice.” Moldaver J in majority rejected the dissent’s characterization, holding that this purpose could “distort the actual words of the statute” (Telus, at para 79). The access to justice purpose was not rooted in statute. Moldaver J, then, could be said to adopt a position closer to Cote J in West Fraser, and closer to the textualist position identified by Scalia & Garner.

Similarly, in Hillier, Justice Stratas rejected the Attorney General’s attempt to cast a statute at the high level of abstraction of “administrative efficiency.” Rather, he concluded that not “every section in the Act is aimed at furthering efficiency” (Hillier, at para 35). Rather, the relevant provision under interpretation “pursues a different, more limited purpose” (Hillier, at para 35). That limited purpose governed, not the abstract purpose chosen by the Attorney General.

In these cases, the Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Appeal corrects the error in West Fraser. And here is a good point to say why it is that the textualist approach adopted by Moldaver J and Stratas JA is preferable. First, as noted above, a liberal application of the purposive approach could lead to high error costs. By prioritizing ulterior motive over implementational purpose (abstract versus specific purposes), the court could fail to understand how and why a statute achieves a particular goal. In other words, reasoning backwards from purpose (as McLachlin CJ did in West Fraser) could lead to ignoring what the text actually says, and how the text decides to pursue a particular goal. For McLachlin CJ in West Fraser, it was of no moment that the relevant provision only applied to employers. But this was the interpretive dispute at hand. The interpretive approach in West Fraser, in this sense, ignores the import of the text.

Secondly, and pragmatically, choosing more abstract purposes of statutes over more implementational ones does not actually help the interpretive task. To say that the purpose of a statute is “access to justice” will rarely do anything to determine how the text is actually supposed to be interpreted. This is because there are many different ways that a statute can methodologically choose to pursue access to justice. More likely, abstract, ulterior purposes can be used to distort text to achieve policy outcomes the interpreter likes. This is profoundly violative of the Rule of Law.

And finally, as Scalia & Garner note, perhaps the most important interpretive canon is that one which says that “[t]he words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). This sentiment has been expressed by the Supreme Court of Canada, particularly where text is “clear” (see Celgene, at para 21). It is as old as Justinian’s Digests (“A verbis legis non est recedendum”). A powerful principle of democracy justifies the canon. It is, after all, text which is enacted by our democratic institutions. Purpose should revolve around text, such that the purpose with the most reflection in text should govern. Sourcing text from purpose risks prioritizing an ideal with little democratic pedigree over the specific and finely-wrought means by which the text enacts that purpose.

Overall, and while no Canadian court will probably ever describe itself as textualist, courts in Canada are increasingly looking to text to discern purpose. In my view, this is a salutary development.