Happy Constitution Day!

A love note to a document and a tradition

Today is Constitution Day in the United States. The reverence for and celebration of the Constitution ― not just on the anniversary of its signing at the conclusion of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, but throughout the year ― might seem as quaint to outsiders ― and indeed as irritating to a certain type of insider ― as The Queue to the Queen’s lying in state is in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the British and Commonwealth monarchy and the US Constitution have something important in common, despite the latter being the result of a rebellion, ostensibly against the former.

Despite their less-than-angelic origins ― despite the connection of both with conquest and oppression ― what they mean to their respective supporters is, on the one hand, stability and tradition, and on the other freedom and, perhaps paradoxically but still importantly in the case of the monarchy, a check on the ambition of passing office-holders. To embody these two clusters of values, which in human history have more often than not been at odds with each other, is a remarkable success, and well worthy of admiration.

The Constitution makes these commitments more explicitly, of course, and in a way that is more teachable. It has been on my mind of late because I have been preparing some introductory lectures on the UK constitution, and the American one is an excellent example at the same time as it is an excellent foil. For anyone interested in constitutionalism and in government more generally, not only in the United States but far abroad too, the Constitution and the intellectual tradition to which it gave rise ought to remain of the greatest interest.

Yet my impression is that, among those interested in comparative constitutional law, the US Constitution has become unfashionable. It is said to be too old or too odd; too absolutist in its approach to any number of problems, from the freedom of speech to judicial review of legislation; too bound up with itself and its own history. I think this view is a mistake. We need not emulate the United States, but treating the US Constitution as if it now has nothing to teach us deprives us of an example far more successful than many people either realize or care to admit.

And as for American absolutism, it is a view that we ignore at our peril. In The Federalist No. 48, James Madison wrote “that power is of an encroaching nature, and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it”. He thought that this proposition would “not be denied”. Yet there are dangerous fools who do in fact deny it. And many more, alas, simply forget it. The American constitutional tradition is the best remedy we have against such forgetfulness.

Nothing Doing

A brief rebuttal to responses to my last post on inappropriate criticism of the US Supreme Court’s abortion decision

My post yesterday, which took issue with what I see as disturbingly political criticism of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization has attracted a number of responses, and it might be worth offering a quick rebuttal to the negative ones. As with yesterday’s post, the aim is not to dunk on individuals, but to address what I see as trends.

Response #1: But there are American professors, to say nothing of the dissenting judges in Dobbs, who have criticized the decision!

Sure. And insofar as their criticism is based on constitutional argument, that’s great. But that doesn’t absolve the people who choose to criticise based on political rather than legal claims.

Response #2: Dobbs breaks the rules of stare decisis!

If most criticism of Dobbs by Canadian and other lawyers, law professors, and organizations were actually focused on its treatment of precedent, I would not have written yesterday’s post. But it just doesn’t. I have seen professors share cartoons of majority judges as Taliban.

I would also note that there is, at the very least, a danger of inconsistency when people put too much of an emphasis on arguments from precedent. To be sure, arguments about inconsistency or even hypocrisy aren’t as interesting as people sometimes think, because they don’t answer the question of when the inconsistent or hypocritical person is actually right. But from the standpoint of personal integrity the issue is worth keeping in mind. And so, how many of those Canadian readers who defend the US Supreme Court’s previous abortion decisions on this basis were as critical of the Supreme Court’s of Canada reversal of precedent on, say, assisted suicide as they are of Dobbs? How many would have been as critical if the 2016 election had gone just that little bit differently and a left-leaning US Supreme Court had reversed Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 US 310 (2010)?

Speaking of electoral outcomes and judicial appointments:

Response #3: The Dobbs majority judges were appointed by politicians who wanted to secure just this result!

So they were. But so what? A judicial decision stands or falls on its legal correctness. If it is correct, it doesn’t matter why the judge who made it was appointed. Ditto if it is wrong, of course. The issue of inconsistency or double standards is really worth thinking about here. The Justices appointed by Franklin Roosevelt were meant to uphold the New Deal policies, and did so. Earl Warren was a former politician, appointed by Dwight Eisenhower for crassly political reasons, so far as I understand. Are the decisions of the New Deal and Warren courts illegitimate for that reason alone? Nobody thinks that. Some were right, and some were wrong, and to say which were which we need to make a legal argument. So it is with Dobbs.

It’s also worth pointing out that the judges who dissented in Dobbs were also appointed with their views on this issue top of mind, and that their votes not only on this point but on almost every other are more closely aligned than those of their right-leaning colleagues. Yet somehow their votes are not dismissed as hackery for that reason.

And, before Canadians get self-righteous about just how political American judicial appointments are, they should recall that appointments to the Supreme Court are no less political, if perhaps less transparently political, here. So far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. If you take a different view, that’s fine too. But if you only proclaim this view in response to a decision you particularly dislike, I won’t take you too seriously.

And this brings me to

Response #4: But Dobbs is just different because it’s too important!

And, alternatively

Response #5: All constitutional decisions about rights are political anyway!

Thanks for making my point. You think that sometimes (#4), or indeed always (#5), constitutional adjudication is a political, not a legal, endeavour. This is a plausible view, but it is inconsistent with accusing the Dobbs majority of hackery ― they merely take the different side of a contentious political issue. And you should be advocating for the abolition of judicial review, à la Jeremy Waldron, because there’s no justification for having political decisions made by a small committee of unelected lawyers. As I pointed out yesterday, Dobbs is actually a step in the right direction from that perspective. If people were to take the Waldronian position openly, I’d debate them on the merits and be content. But when they insist on having judicial review of legislation, but only provided it goes just the way they like, I am upset and alarmed.

Who’s Afraid of the Rule of Law?

Many critics of the US Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights themselves embrace a purely political view of adjudication

Since the US Supreme Court released its decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overruled precedents finding a right to abortion in the US Constitution, there has been a great deal of public anguish and anger, not only in the United States but elsewhere too. In this post, I want to say something about non-American, and especially Canadian, responses. I won’t “bring receipts” ― that is, I won’t be linking to tweets, articles, etc. Partly, that’s because there are too many for any sort of representative survey. But mostly, because I will be very critical and don’t mean to target anyone in particular. The reason for writing this post is that I think I’m seeing broad and disturbing trends, not to dunk on individuals. If you think I’m describing things that aren’t there, well, I hope you’re right. But I doubt you are.

Let me note that this criticism does not mean that I am convinced Dobbs was correctly decided. I do not know enough about the original meaning of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution to say whether it was. And to a large extent, this will be my point: one has to know the law before saying that judicial decision was wrong, let alone implying that it was political or indeed corrupt, as many have done. And the non-American critics of Dobbs (many American ones too, to be sure) don’t know enough and seemingly don’t care. I can understand ― though by no means approve of ― this when the people involved are politicians or other non-lawyers. But it distresses me when the same comments are made or shared by lawyers, professors, and bar associations.

Before I get to why that matters, a quick word on a genre of reaction to Dobbs that has, I think, been especially common in the UK. The decision, we are told, shows how bad it is to have the courts deciding matters of great social concern; or indeed it proves that judicial review of legislation is a misbegotten arrangement. Respectfully, this makes no sense. Dobbs holds that there is no constitutional right to an abortion. This means that the legality of abortion will, for the foreseeable future, be decided by democratically elected legislatures, probably at the State level, though I take it that there have been noises about Congress intervening on one or the other side of the issue. (I don’t know enough to say whether that would be constitutional, but I have my doubts). And that’s exactly what the critics of judicial review and judicial power want ― legislators rather than courts settling rights issues. Dobbs gives them, on this issue, what they say they are after. It cannot logically prove that judicial review is bad ― if anything, it shows that judicial review can be sensitive to their concerns. (This blog’s readers will know, of course, these are concerns I mostly do not share.)

But the most common type of reaction to Dobbs holds that it is a manifestly wrong decision made by partisan hacks and/or (more likely “and”) misogynists, and one that shows that the US Supreme Court isn’t a real court and that it will, wittingly or not, destroy the rule of law. I think that, putting these claims in the best possible light, to the critics it is simply inconceivable that in this day and age the constitution of an enlightened state committed to the Rule of Law would not protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Hence, a judicial decision holding that the US Constitution does not protect this right is egregiously wrong and either bigoted or partisan or both.

But the premise is quite obviously misguided. Take Australia, which, like Canada before 1982, has (virtually) no national protections for individual rights. If somehow a case arguing that there is an implied right to an abortion similar to the implied freedom of political communication that Australian courts have in fact inferred from the Commonwealth Constitution made its way to the High Court, and the High Court rejected the claim, would the critics of Dobbs be saying that its judges are bigots and hacks? Perhaps they would, and this is a rather scary thought ― it would mean that to avoid being tarred as a bigot and hack a judge would need to be willing to quite clearly make things up. More likely, though, they would not. The idea that an existing constitution “in a free and democratic society”, to borrow the Canadian Charter‘s language, does not protect abortion rights is not unintelligible.

Ah, but Australia is different, they might say. It actually lacks a national bill of rights, and the United States obviously don’t. That’s true so far as it goes, but you might think that the response to that is a given bill of rights may or may not protect a given right, even an important and widely recognized one. The Charter, for instance, doesn’t protect property rights. Whether a given bill of rights protects a given right is a question of law, to be authoritatively answered by the courts responsible for applying that bill of rights and, not authoritatively but importantly, by anyone with a sufficient knowledge and understanding of the constitution in question.

A judicial decision holding that a given constitution doesn’t protect a given right, such as Dobbs, can result from two causes. (1) The court may be wrong. It may be just wrong in the way that courts staffed by human beings are sometimes wrong, or it may even be captured by hacks or bigots. Or (2), it may be the case that the constitution actually fails to protect the right in question. Then the constitution may then be defective; it may stand in urgent need of amendment, and be subject to criticism until that takes place. But, for its part, the court faithfully applying this constitution would be blameless.

The critics of Dobbs are convinced that it falls into category (1). But they make no argument to exclude the alternative (2). Such an argument would need to parse the relevant provisions of the US Constitution in accordance with some plausible interpretive methodology. And not only do the Canadian and other non-American critics of Dobbs not articulate such an argument; they are ― and I say this with respect, if only because I am in the same position as they ― not qualified to do it. (That’s obviously not because you have to be American to be so qualified, but because you do need to study the relevant materials.) Without an argument for why Dobbs is wrong as a matter of US constitutional law, criticism of the US Supreme Court’s majority is at least as unfair and unjustified as any of, say, Stephen Harper’s attacks on the Supreme Court of Canada or the British government’s on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Why are we seeing such criticism? And why do I care, anyway? The answer to both question is the same: I strongly suspect that a great many people, including, most regrettably, lawyers (including those of the academic and journalistic varieties) are themselves taking an entirely political approach to law. It does not matter to them that they do not know enough US constitutional doctrine and history to articulate a plausible interpretation of the relevant provisions, or that many of them might not even know what these provisions are. At best, they think that a constitution is sufficiently interpreted by reference to purely moral considerations. At worst, that one need not bother with anything resembling interpretation and that only the rightness of the outcome matters to how we think about judicial decisions. But there is little daylight between these two views.

And this bothers me to no end, because I doubt that the people ― the lawyers ― who take such an approach to opining on the US constitution would take a different one to the constitutions of Canada or of the UK. If you think that the US Constitution is all about morality or the vibe of the thing, there is no reason why you wouldn’t think that about any other. To my mind, this, rather than the decision in Dobbs ― which may, for all I know, be quite wrong ― is tantamount to a rejection of the Rule of Law. I understand that people are upset about Dobbs. If some country commissioned me to write a constitution and to just do what I thought was right, I would include abortion rights, and property rights, and many other rights besides. But that doesn’t mean that any existing constitution protects my pet list of rights and liberties. If you cannot accept that any existing constitution might also not protect yours, you don’t believe in law. Sorry.

Keeping Faith

A master class in public meaning originalism, delivered by the US Supreme Court’s Justice Elena Kagan

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered its decision in Chiafalo v Washington, upholding the constitutionality of a state statute imposing fines on “faithless” presidential electors ― those who do not vote for the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. The majority judgment, given by Justice Kagan for a seven-judge majority (and indeed unanimous on some key points), should be of some interest to Canadian readers for what it says about constitutional interpretation and, in particular, about the role of conventions and practice. As others, notably Josh Blackman over at the Volokh Conspiracy, have noted, Justice Kagan’s opinion is a thoroughly, and intelligently, originalist ― which should remind skeptics of originalism inclined to dismiss it as a partisan affectation that it is not.


As Justice Kagan explains,

Every four years, millions of Americans cast a ballot for a presidential candidate. Their votes, though, actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each State appoints based on the popular returns. Those few “electors” then choose the President. (1)

But what is it that ensures that the vote of the Electors is aligned with that of the electorate? The text of the Constitution of the United States says little on this. Article II, §1, cl 2 provides that

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Nothing here suggests that the Electors are bound to follow the popular vote; indeed, nothing here suggests that a popular vote need be held at all. At least some of the framers of the Constitution expected the Electors to exercise their personal discernment in choosing the President. Alexander Hamilton’s vision, in Federalist No. 68, is the best known. He hoped that the President would be chosen

by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

But this is not how things worked out. As Justice Kagan puts it, “[a]lmost immediately, presidential electors became trusty transmitters of other people’s decisions”. (13) This was the result of the development of political parties, not anticipated ― indeed feared ― when the Constitution was being drafted. George Washington was elected without meaningful opposition. But, once he retired, presidential elections were contested by parties. As Justice Kagan explains, initially

state legislatures mostly picked the electors, with the majority party sending a delegation of its choice to the Electoral College. By 1832, though, all States but one had introduced popular presidential elections. … At first, citizens voted for a slate of electors put forward by a political party, expecting that the winning slate would vote for its party’s presidential (and vice presidential) nominee in the Electoral College. By the early 20th century, citizens in most States voted for the presidential candidate himself; ballots increasingly did not even list the electors.

The alignment between the popular and the electoral votes (within each State, of course, there being, as we know, no necessary alignment at the national level) was thus secured by a combination of State law and partisanship ― but also by what looks, to an observer based in a Westminster-type constitutional system, an awful lot like constitutional convention. Law allowed partisans to be appointed as electors, and partisanship motivated them to vote for their party’s candidate. But so too did a sense of propriety, of moral obligation. This moral obligation, explains why those electors who, from time to time, broke with their party were called “faithless”. There is normally nothing “faithless”, except to a rabid partisan, about putting country ahead of party. But something greater than partisanship is at stake in the presidential election ― nothing less, indeed, than democratic principle itself. And “convention” is what Westminster systems call the settled practice of constitutional actors rooted in constitutional principle.

Some States, though, felt that relying on convention was not enough, and legislated to back up the electors’ moral duty with a threat of punishment. According to Mr Chiafalo, they could not do so constitutionally. After all, the Constitution’s framers meant for them to exercise their own judgment, guided but not fettered by that of the voters. And the very vote “elector” connotes the exercise of a personal choice.


Not so, says Justice Kagan. For her, “the power to appoint an elector (in any manner) includes power to condition his appointment—that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect”. (9) A “demand that the elector actually live up to his pledge, on pain of penalty” (10) is nothing more than a condition of appointment, which nothing in the Constitution’s text prohibits. Justice Thomas, concurring (with the agreement of Justice Gorsuch), disagrees with this approach. For him, imposing such conditions is not part of the original meaning of the power of choosing the “manner” of the electors’ appointment. Instead, the States’ ability to do so comes from the structure of the Constitution, which preserves their powers unless expressly limited, and from the Tenth Amendment, which codifies the same principle. Justice Thomas makes some compelling points, but this disagreement is not so important for Canadian readers ― or, for that matter, for practical purposes.

What matters most is Justice Kagan’s firm rejection of an appeal to the purported authority of the Framers’ supposed expectation that “the Electors’ votes [would] reflect their own judgments”. (12) This rejection is firmly rooted in original public meaning originalism:

even assuming other Framers shared that outlook, it would not be enough. Whether by choice or accident, the Framers did not reduce their thoughts about electors’ discretion to the printed page. All that they put down about the electors was what we have said: that the States would appoint them, and that they would meet and cast ballots to send to the Capitol. Those sparse instructions took no position on how independent from—or how faithful to—party and popular preferences the electors’ votes should be. (12-13)

This is a great passage. For one thing, it refers to an important reason for being suspicious about the intentions and expectations of constitutional framers: they might not all have agreed with those whose views are on the record. For another, there is an allusion, which I personally find delightful, to Hamilton’s rather hubristic suggestion, in the first paragraph of the Federalist No. 1 that the U.S. Constitution would

decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Justice Kagan understands, as Hamilton did not (or at least affected not to) that choice and accident are not so easily disentangled, even in constitutional reflection. Most importantly, though, Justice Kagan drives home the point that “thoughts” “not reduce[d] … to the printed page”― or, more precisely, the enacted page ― do not bind. Justice Thomas specifically concurs with the majority on this point, explaining that “the Framers’ expectations aid our interpretive inquiry only to the extent that they provide evidence of the original public meaning of the Constitution. They cannot be used to change that meaning.” For all its reputation of being incorrigibly politically divided the Supreme Court of the United States is unanimous on this.

Justice Kagan goes on to make another argument, which is less straightforwardly originalist. She appeals to what she regards as the settled practice ― and what I have suggested we may regard as the convention ― of electors casting their ballots only to ratify the voters’ choice, rather than to make their own. “From the first”, Justice Kagan points, “States sent them to the Electoral College … to vote for preselected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. And electors (or at any rate, almost all of them) rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role.” (14)

It is not quite clear how much weight this should carry on a proper originalist interpretation. In a post at Volokh, Keith Whittington suggests (based on an article which Justice Kagan actually cited ― for another point) that

we should think of this tradition of pledged electors as a “constitutional construction” that is consistent with the constitutional text but not required by the constitutional text. …  But that by itself does not tell us whether such constructions can be leveraged to empower state legislatures to punish or replace faithless electors or whether this longstanding norm has fixed the meaning of the text in a way that cannot be altered by future changes in our shared practices. How constitutional text and tradition interact is a difficult conceptual problem, and the Court’s opinion highlights that problem without doing very much to explain how it ought to be resolved.

Indeed, I’m not sure that the argument from practice or convention has a great deal of weight for Justice Kagan: she might only be making it to turn the tables on Mr. Chiafalo, who invoked the (quite exceptional, as Justice Kagan shows) example of past “faithless electors” to argue that it proves that the Constitution protected their autonomy.

But Justice Kagan does suggest what I think is a good reason why the argument should have weight in the particular circumstances of this case: the practice, and arguably even the convention, forms part of the context to a constitutional text ― namely, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, “grew out of a pair of fiascos” (14) at the elections of 1796 and 1800. Prior to it, electors cast two votes; the candidate who received the most became president, and the next one, vice-president. In 1796 the top two candidates were “bitter rivals” (14) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, Jefferson, his party’s intended presidential candidate, was tied by its intended vice-president, Aaron Burr, as the electors who supported the one all supported the other. To prevent this reoccurring, the presidential and vice-presidential ballots were split. Justice Kagan points out that, in this way, “[t]he Twelfth Amendment embraced” party politics, “both acknowledging and facilitating the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting”. (14)

The issue isn’t quite the same as the one that, as I argue in a recent article about which I blogged here, the Supreme Court of Canada faced in the Senate Reform Reference, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. There, the original public meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 had to be established by referring to conventions. In Chiafolo, conventions are not necessary to establish the original meaning of the Twelfth Amendment. But it is arguably fair to say that the Twelfth Amendment implicitly ratifies them, or takes them into account; while it might have been written as it was in the absence of conventions, the fact that is that it was written as it was because the conventions existed. As a result, Justice Kagan’s appeal to practice, or to convention, is, at least, less troubling here than it might have been in the absence of something like the Twelfth Amendment.


All in all, then, her opinion is an interesting demonstration of what good originalism looks like ― and also of the fact that it can be practiced by a judge who is nobody’s idea of a conservative or a libertarian, and with the agreement of her colleagues, including those whose ideological leanings are quite different from hers. Justice Kagan may or may not be correct: at the Originalism Blog, Michael Ramsay argues that she is not. But that does not matter so much to me. As Asher Honickman recently argued in response to another American decision, textualist ― and originalist ― interpretive methods do not promise complete legal certainty, but they are still valuable because (among other things) they narrow the scope of possible disagreements, and do provide more certainty than alternatives. Justice Kagan and her colleagues show us how to keep faith with a constitutional text. We should pay attention.

A Tale of Two Scandals

Partisanship is undermining political accountability and constitutional checks and balances

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Here some harsh—yet entirely justified—words about unconstitutional actions of the executive branch of government:

[N]ot only were there no clear means of constitutional restraint, there was obvious intent to accomplish the scheme well outside the public eye. The scheme was blocked by the unlikely combination of whistleblowing and informal political pressure. Even worse, a defiant [executive] refuses to admit to any wrongdoing at all—even calling the key piece of evidence … a “perfect” call. It was essentially our good fortune (through the courage of the whistleblower) that the [voters] have access to partial information about the scandal so they can factor it into their electoral calculus. What’s the constitutional check for misconduct of that kind? Citizens can’t run to court to block this particular abuse of … power. We can’t even count on public knowledge for public accountability. The [executive] is still actively holding back material evidence. (Paragraph break omitted)

And here’s a trick question: what scandal is being described here? Is it Donald Trump’s attempt to use aid granted by Congress to suborn a Ukrainian announcement of an investigation into a political rival? Or is it Justin Trudeau’s attempt to have a prosecution of a corrupt engineering company stopped from going to trial to avoid financial difficulties for that company―and political embarrassment in Québec? The answer is, technically, that it’s former. The quotation is from the January 22 instalment of “French Press”, the thoughtful newsletter written by David French for The Dispatch. (While we’re at it, may we recommend Advisory Opinions, an equally thoughtful podcast Mr. French co-hosts with Sarah Isgur?) But, by our lights, Mr. French might as well have been writing about l’Affaire SNC Lavalin.

There too the effective head of the executive branch and his political henchmen sought to pervert the course of the execution of the law in their partisan interest. There too, they were discomfited by the unlikely decision of an official to blow the whistle instead of doing their bidding, and the resulting political pressure. There too, this political pressure was enough to arrest the illicit scheme itself, but not to bring about any real acknowledgement of wrongdoing; on the contrary, the master of the executive branch made a great show of having acted in the public interest. There too only partial information was allowed to filter out into the public domain through the medium of legislative hearings, and claims of executive privilege were raised to prevent key witnesses from speaking, or at least speaking fully. There too the courts would have been of no avail in any attempt to get to the bottom of what happened. The similarities between the two scandals are striking.

There are also some meaningful differences, to be sure. For one thing, the person who stood of in the way of the Trudeau government’s scheme to save SNC Lavalin was none other than the Attorney-General. No such high-ranking official has stood up to the Trump administration’s plans. For another, some heads have rolled as a consequence of l’Affaire SNC Lavalin: those of the Prime Minister’s principal secretary (albeit that he made a comeback only months later) and of the head of the civil service. Whether even such imperfect accountability is visited on the Trump administration is, at present, very doubtful. Another difference: obstructive as they have been, the members of Mr. Trudeau’s party in Parliament didn’t stonewall the investigation into his government’s misbehaviour to anything like the same degree as the members of Mr. Trump’s in Congress.

Still, this would be thin gruel for customary Canadian self-congratulation. In response to arguments to the effect that, since the executive’s shady plans were not allowed to come to pass, our constitutional system is working more or less as it should, we expressed here the

worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

Our constitutional system, we suggested, lacks the checks and balances that would ensure, or at least make it sufficiently likely, that a lawless executive could not get away with it. In particular, we were skeptical about the ability of the rules and conventions surrounding the accountability of the executive to Parliament to do this work.

Although we did not say much about this in that post, an important reason for this is partisanship, particularly the strong form of party discipline that characterizes the Canadian system. A majority party lines up behind the government formed by its leader, and has every incentive to close ranks, even at the cost of public-serving accountability. This is the inherent flaw of responsible government, which means that the ministry must have the support of a parliamentary majority (or at least an unchallenged plurality). In theory, this subordinates the executive to Parliament. In practice, the power dynamic is more often than not precisely the opposite. Of course, the obverse of this flaw is the executive’s ability to govern effectively and to implement its legislative agenda. All constitutional arrangements come with trade-offs. The question is not whether we can avoid trade-offs altogether, but whether we have made the right ones.

What is disheartening is that in the United States, whose constitutional framers made different trade-offs from ours, and where a different ― and seemingly more robust ― set of checks and balances was put in place to contain the executive, the same problem seems to have nullified those checks and balances. Mr. French writes that “[w]hen presidents work in secret to substitute their personal priorities for the public good … impeachment is the difference between punishment and permission when a president abuses his power while conducting affairs of state”. Yet if the president’s partisan allies refuse to even recognize the legitimacy of this procedure, they make him (or eventually her) just as unaccountable as a Canadian Prime Minister able to command a Parliamentary majority.   

This is not necessarily to disparage anything and everything about political partisanship. A case can be made for the proposition that Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency is the consequence of weak parties as much as of strong partisanship. But it should be clear by now that adjusting our constitutional systems to strong, and perhaps hypertrophied, partisanship is a challenge that a variety of democratic polities must face, and quickly. Our political scandals sound similar because our constitutional weaknesses are.

The Fault Will Be Ours

Lord Sumption on politics, law, and the meaning and decline of democracy

A couple of months ago, Jonathan Sumption, former barrister extraordinaire, recently-retired UK Supreme Court judge, and well-regarded historian too, delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures for this year, speaking on Law and the Decline of Politics. Despite my delay in getting to them, I think they are worth writing about. Lord Sumption’s arguments challenge most if not all of us in one way or another. I expect that those used to the North American way of thinking about constitutional law will find them more uncongenial than many lawyers in the United Kingdom or in New Zealand, but Lord Sumption’s views do not neatly fit into any pre-defined category, and will have something that will force just about anyone to reflect. (I particularly recommend the lectures to any students who are about to start studying law; they are quite accessible, but will give you an excellent preview of many of the debates you will confront in the coming years, and expose you to a way of thinking that is not exactly prevalent in North American law schools.)

In a nutshell, Lord Sumption’s argument is that, as he put it in the first lecture, “Law’s Expanding Empire“,

law does not occupy a world of its own. It is part of a larger system of public decision making. The rest is politics. The politics of ministers and legislators of political parties, of media and pressure groups, and of the wider electorate. (2-3)

The question is, how does law relate to this larger system? What is the place of law vis-à-vis politics? Should it, in particular, be used to control political outcomes and bring them into alignment with some set of substantive values? Lord Sumption wants to caution us against the dangers he says lying in wait if we go down this path. But it is not because he takes an especially optimistic view of politics. In this post, I summarize the five lectures. (It will, I am afraid, be quite long.) I will comment separately.


Lord Sumption’s misgivings appear especially strongly in his first lecture. Law, he says, is an alternative to chaos. But just how much law (and how many lawyers) do we need? Lord Sumption observes that

Until the 19th century, most human interactions were governed by custom and convention. The law dealt with a narrow range of human problems. It regulated title to property, it enforced contracts, it protected people’s lives, their persons, their liberty and their property against arbitrary injury, but that was about all. Today, law penetrates every corner of human life. (3)

It need not be that way. The Rule of Law requires limitation of government power and the protection against interference with life, liberty, and property, as well access to the courts to enforce these limits and protections, but it does not necessarily follow that law needs to be pervasive. Rather, this is something that the voters have chosen, in an ongoing fit of general optimism about the prospects of collective action. Democracy “has inevitably led to rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity”. (4)

Moreover, after a retreat over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, “a growing moral and social absolutism … looks to law to produce conformity”. Even when there is no real consensus in the community about what how a particular moral issue ought to be treated,

we resort to law to impose uniform solutions in areas where we once contemplated a diversity of judgment and behaviour. We are afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with. (6)

It is as if moral judgment, which would have been individual in the past, has increasingly been collectivized. In a growing number of cases, moreover, this judgment has been delegated to the judiciary.

At the same time, there has been a push to take judgments about safety and security away from individuals and hand them over to public authorities, under judicial supervision. As more misfortunes appear preventable, the demands are made for them to be prevented; “we are no longer willing to accept the wheel of fortune as an ordinary incident of human existence”. (7) Yet this is achieved only by “restricting the liberty of the public at large in order to deprive them of the opportunity to harm themselves”. (7)

The result of it all, Lord Sumption says, is the comeback of the Hobbesian Leviathan: “[t]he 17th century may have abolished absolute monarchy but the 20th century created absolute democracy in its place”. (8) And unlike when government was an external, antagonistic force, democratic government “is us”. (8) We both fear and repose our fondest hopes in it.


In his second lecture, “In Praise of Politics“, Lord Sumption asks, “how do we control the potentially oppressive power of democratic majorities without undermining democracy itself?” (2) He focuses on the notion of legitimacy, which he defines as “a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we don’t like what they are doing”. (2) Any government, but especially a democratic one, must preserve its legitimacy. Democracy does this by accommodating differences between majorities and minorities, and securing compromises that mean that minorities do not become “permanently disaffected groups [with] no common bonds to transcend their differences with the majority”. (2) This can be done through representative government or through law.

Representative institutions, in contrast to winner-take-all direct democracy, exist in part to accommodate the interests and demands of minorities. They make compromise possible. Building on the thought of James Madison and Edmund Burke, Lord Sumption argues that “political elites have their uses. Professional politicians can fairly be expected to bring to their work a more reflective approach, a broader outlook and a lot more information than their electors”. (3) They are also better placed to further national “collective interests which extend over a longer time scale and a wider geographical range than are ever likely to be reflected in the public opinion of the moment”. (3)

Bypassing the processes of representative government, as was done with the Brexit referendum is dangerous. Compromise becomes impossible, as

52 per cent of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48 per cent don’t matter at all. … It is the mentality which has created an unwarranted sense of entitlement among the sort of people who denounce those who disagree with them as enemies, traitors, saboteurs, even Nazis. This is the authentic language of totalitarianism. It is the lowest point to which a political community can sink, short of actual violence.

Lord Sumption warns, however, that disengagement from politics calls into question the ability of the political process to generate compromise and legitimacy. Political parties play an important role in securing the accommodation of various interests in policy-making, but as their membership has declined greatly, they are no longer representative of the broader citizenry, and the candidates whom they put forward are increasingly out of touch with the voters. All this “is, in the long
run, likely to lead to a far more partisan and authoritarian style of political leadership”. (5)

Law, the other barrier to oppressive majorities, has become more important as politics has lost its lustre. The politicians’ authority is waning, but the judges’ is undiminished; indeed it is growing:

Judges are intelligent, reflective and articulate people. They are intellectually honest, by and large. They are used to thinking seriously about problems which have no easy answer and contrary to familiar clichés, they know a great deal about the world. The whole judicial process is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning, social observation and ethical value judgment that seems, to many people, to introduce a higher morality into public decision-making. (5)

The judiciary is now more active than it used to be in policing the actions of other public authorities. It does so, in particular, by enforcing the principle of legality, which Lord Sumption suggests should rather be called “the principle of legitimacy”. The principle is appropriately applied to ensure that Parliament faces the consequences of measures that would amount to, notably, “retrospective legislation, oppression of individuals, obstructing access to a [c]ourt, [or] acts contrary to international law”. However, it can be taken further, and made into a barrier to Parliament acting, even advisedly, in ways the courts simply disagree with.

However much we may agree with the outcomes in particular cases, we should be wary of this empowerment of politically unaccountable institutions. It is not the courts’ function to generate compromise, and therefore legitimacy. The law’s strengths are also its weaknesses:

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous. But in public affairs these are not always virtues. Opacity, inconsistency and fudge maybe intellectually impure, which is why lawyers don’t like them, but they are often inseparable from the kind of compromises that we have to make as a society if we are going to live together in peace. (7)


Lord Sumption’s third lecture, “Human Rights and Wrongs” focuses on what he describes as “an unfriendly meeting” (1) between law and politics. The idea of fundamental rights is not new; in earlier times it was expressed through the concept of natural rights. The trouble with it, however, is that

[t]o say that rights are inherent in our humanity without law is really no more than rhetoric. It doesn’t get us anywhere unless there is some way of identifying which rights are inherent in our humanity and why, and that is essentially a matter of opinion. (2)

Indeed, “[r]ights … are the creation of law which is a product of social organisation and is therefore, necessarily, a matter of political choice”. (2) How is the choice to be made, how are the differences of opinion to be settled? Appealing to democracy is a problem since the point of rights is to protect people from what democratic majorities might do to them. But what else is there? Neither religion nor ideology work in a democratic society.

Still, there is wide agreement that there are some truly fundamental rights: those having to do with due process of law (though Lord Sumption does not use this label), and democratic rights, such as “freedom of thought and expression, assembly and association, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections”. (3)

Legislators can create further rights, including by subscribing to rights-creating treaties. But what Lord Sumption describes as “dynamic treaties”, such as the European Convention Human Rights (ECHR), as it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), whose content keeps being developed by supranational institutions after their implementation in law “escape[] parliamentary control”. (3) As Lord Sumption describes the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence, it “develops [the ECHR] by a process of extrapolation or analogy so as to reflect its own view of what additional rights a modern democracy ought to have”. (3) This goes beyond “applying an abstract statement of principle to concrete facts” that weren’t originally anticipated, or giving effect to “concepts … such as the notion of inhuman or degrading treatment [that] plainly do evolve over the time with changes in our collective values”. (4) Such developments are “a form of non-consensual legislation”. (4)

Good or bad, this judicial legislation is controversial; in any case, law should not be made judges, disempowering citizens. In particular, questions about the limitation of rights, the purposes for which it can be undertaken, and the degree to which it is necessary, “are all intensely political … . Yet, the [ECHR] reclassifies them as questions of law”, (6) to be settled by the courts rather than the political process.

We can think of democracy, Lord Sumption says, either as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” or as “a system of values”, (7) of substantive requirements that a political system must fulfill. A political system that is democratic in one sense is not necessarily democratic in the other. Lord Sumption worries that “[d]emocracy, in its traditional sense” (that is, the first one) “is extremely vulnerable to the idea that one’s own values are so obviously urgent and right that the means by which one gets them adopted don’t matter”. (7) And he worries that many lawyers are tempted to attribute such urgency to liberal values. For his part, he rejects this view, which he finds

conceptually no different from the claim of communism, fascism, monarchism, Catholicism, Islamism and all the other great isms that have historically claimed a monopoly of legitimate political discourse on the ground that its advocates considered themselves to be obviously right. (7)


Lord Sumption’s fourth lecture, “Rights and the Ideal Constitution” takes on a constitutional system that has implemented a number of substantive, values-based constraints on democratic decision-making: that of the United States. Lord Sumption is skeptical of what he calls the “legal model” of the state, since “in the long run, political constraints on the part of majorities are likely to be a great deal more effective than legal ones”. (2) To be sure, the “legal model” promises constraint “based on a body of principle applied by judges” (3) immune from the sort of pressures and incentives to which politicians are subject. This model is based on mistrust of “elective institutions” and their ability “to form opinions about [rights] with the necessary restraint, intelligence or moral sensibility”. (3)

Against that, Lord Sumption argues, we need to count the value of legitimacy: “‘We, the people,’ is the emotional foundation of democracy in Britain as well as in the United States”. Democratic decision-making is also egalitarian. A constitution that enforces a set of substantive values, be they those of “liberalism, human rights, Islamic political theology or the
dictatorship of the proletariat” (4) is neither egalitarian nor legitimate in the eyes of those who do not share these values. It is, therefore, not the right kind of constitution: “the proper function of a constitution is to determine how we participate in the decision-making processes of the state and not to determine what the outcome should be”. (4) Instead of looking for “the right answers to … moral dilemmas”, a polity should content itself with “a political process in which every citizen can engage whose results, however imperfect, are likely to be acceptable to the widest possible range of interests and opinions”. (4)

Echoing the arguments made in the previous lecture in the context of the ECHR, Lord Sumption reiterates that in deciding rights claims based on vague constitutional language judges are deciding not so much “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist. Yet, that is surely a question for lawmakers and not judges.” (5) Anyway, “on politically controversial issues, the decisions of judges almost always involve a large element of political value judgment”, and “are not necessarily wiser or morally superior to the judgments of the legislature”. (5) Lord Sumption also reiterates his earlier point that judicial resolution of essentially political disputes does not leave room for compromise and accommodation. By contrast, political compromise may succeed at resolving differences in the community, as it did over abortion in Britain (in contrast to the United States).

All that said, Lord Sumption cautions that it does not follow “that there are no rights which should be constitutionally protected in a democracy”. (6) Rather, “one must be very careful about which rights one regards as
so fundamental as to be beyond democratic choice”. (6) Again, life, liberty, property, due process, and democratic rights fit the bill. But they will not be enough to protect against the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately, “the Courts cannot parry the broader threat that legislative majorities may act oppressively unless they assume legislative powers for themselves”. (7) If any barrier can do that, it must be found in the political culture, not in the law.


Lord Sumption’s fifth and last lecture, “Shifting the Foundations“, addresses the proposals for introducing the “legal model” of the state to the United Kingdom. Lord Sumption suggests that, although presented as a solution to the ongoing crisis of political institutions, this idea, like all calls for institutional reform in response to crises real or supposed, has little to do with the problems it purports to address. There is something, Lord Sumption says, to the criticisms of the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, said to be “obscure, old-fashioned, out of step with international practice and giv[ing] far too much power to Parliament”. (3) But there is also something to be said in defense of these arrangements.

Lord Sumption points out that “[t]he godparents of written constitutions have been revolution, invasion, civil war and decolonisation”. (3) Nothing of the sort has happened in the UK in centuries. As a result, there is no blank slate on which to write a new constitution. If this were nevertheless done, the result, even if

an artefact of perfect rationality, a thing of great intellectual beauty … would have no basis in our historical experience, and experience counts for a great deal in human affairs; more than rationality, more even than beauty. Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law. (3)

Besides, the flexible political constitution has been able “to adapt to major changes in our national life which would have overwhelmed much more formal arrangements”. (3)

The problem, and not just in the UK but elsewhere, Lord Sumption argues, is not with institutions but a political culture struggling with

long term decline in the membership … of all the major national political parties, falling turnout at elections, widespread contempt for professional politicians, the rise of powerful regional nationalisms offering a more immediate source of legitimacy. (4)

The reason for this malaise, Lord Sumption suggests, is that democracy cannot meet the unrealistic expectations for it that result “from the eternal optimism of mankind, … a misunderstanding of the role of politicians, and … an exaggerated view of their power to effect major change”, as well as “the auction of promises at every general election”. (5) This produces “a sense of impotent frustration [that] undermines public confidence in the whole political process”. (5) Those who are disappointed with the representative institutions (Lord Sumption specifically mentions environmentalists frustrated by inaction on climate change) are prepared to look to a strongman who will “get things done”. A further problem is that “[p]eople expect their representatives, not just to act for them, but to be like them”, yet “all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracy is only different in that the aristocracies are installed and removable by popular vote”. (5) This exacerbates “[r]esentment of political elites”, (6) which plays a large role in current politics.

For Lord Sumption, constitutional change is not the answer to these difficulties, although he is interested in electoral reform “if it boosted public engagement with politics and enabled them, once more, to accommodate differences of interest and opinion across our population”. (7) An entrenched constitution subject to judicial interpretation, by contrast, “will simply produce a partial shift of power from an elective and removable aristocracy of knowledge to a core of professional judges which is just as remote, less representative and neither elective nor removable”. (6)

Lord Sumption ends on a dark note:

we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours. (7)


As noted above, there is much to reflect on here. I am not suggesting that everything Lord Sumption says is right; indeed, it cannot be, because his arguments are not altogether consistent with one another. I will set out some reflections on Lord Sumption’s views in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that, if we are to avoid the dark future whose possibility Lord Sumption asks us to confront, we need to think seriously about the issues he cogently outlines.

Offspring of Depravity

The origins of the administrative state, and why they matter

To a degree that is, I think, unusual among other areas of the law, administrative law in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada is riven by a conflict about its underlying institution. To be sure there, there are some constitutional lawyers who speak of getting rid of judicial review of legislation and so transferring the constitution to the realm of politics, rather than law, but that’s very much a minority view. Labour unions have their critics, but not so much among labour lawyers. But the administrative state is under attack from within the field of administrative law. It has, of course, its resolute defenders too, some of them going so far as to argue that the administrative state has somehow become a constitutional requirement.

In an interesting article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” recently published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson challenge the defenders of the administrative state by pointing out its intellectual origins in what they persuasively argue was

a time, worldwide and in the United States, of truly awful ideas about government, about humanity, and about the fundamental unit of moral worth—ideas which, even in relatively benign forms, have institutional consequences that … should be fiercely resisted. (828)

That time was the 1930s.


Professors Calabresi and Lawson point out that the creation of the administrative state was spearheaded by thinkers ― first the original “progressives” and then New Dealers ― who “fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions”. (829) At an extreme, this rejection of the belief in equality led them to embrace eugenics, whose popularity in the United States peaked in the 1930s. But the faith in expertise and “the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls” (829) is a less radical manifestation of the same tendency.

The experts, real or supposed ― some of whom “might well be bona fide experts [while] [o]thers might be partisan hacks, incompetent, entirely lacking in judgment beyond their narrow sphere of learning, or some combination thereof” (830n) ― would not “serve as wise counselors to autonomous individuals and elected representatives [but] as guardians for servile wards”. (830) According to the “advanced” thinkers of the 1930s, “[o]rdinary people simply could not handle the complexities of modern life, so they needed to be managed by their betters. All for the greater good, of course.” (834) Individual agency was, in any case, discounted: “the basic unit of value was a collective: the nation, the race, or the tribe. Individuals were simply cells in an organic whole rather than ends in themselves.” (834)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson are careful to stress that the point of their argument is not condemn the administrative state by association with the worst excesses of the times in which it originated. Rather, they want to push back against the trend, exemplified in articles such as Gillian Metzger’s “1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege“, of treating the foundation of the administrative state as deserving of particular deference or respect. They explain that

[b]ecause there is no authoritative constitutional text emanating from the 1930s, any reasons for treating that decade as interpretatively sacrosanct must focus on the moral goodness of the ideas that grounded that period. Many of the intellectual currents that dominated the 1930s were, frankly, very bad. As a starting point for thinking about human affairs, one’s first instinct should be to run as far away from that decade as quickly as one can. More fundamentally, the bad ideas of the 1930s that specifically drove the construction of certain parts of the modern administrative state—belief in omnipotent government by socially superior experts under broad subdelegations of legislative power, with a formal (or rote) separation of powers seen as an anachronistic hindrance to modern scientific management of people, who are not ends in themselves but simply means to the accomplishment of collective nationalist or tribalist ends—are at the intellectual core of just about everything bad that occurred during that decade. (839)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson conclude that, instead of looking to the 1930s as a source of public law we should ― even on purely moral grounds, in addition to fidelity to law ― we should look to the 1780s and the 1860s. The former decade was marked by “libertarian and egalitarian commitments to replace European feudalism with something new and better”, (842) as well as to separation of powers; the latter, by important progress in the implementation of those libertarian and egalitarian commitments, initially admittedly honoured in the breach in many ways. Professors Calabresi and Lawson also appeal to another historical point: the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, to which they trace what they call “the principle of legality, which says that executive and judicial actors can only act in accordance with preexisting law”. (863)


While I think it is a little, and perhaps more than a little, optimistic to connect this principle ― this formulation of the Rule of Law ― to the Magna Carta, it is supposed to be central to Canadian, and not only American, administrative law. As the Supreme Court said in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, “[b]y virtue of the rule of law principle, all exercises of public authority must find their source in law.  All decision-making powers have legal limits”. [28] But the belief in the superiority of administrative power wielded by alleged experts for what is deemed, by them, to be the public good is very much a part of our administrative law too, and it goes back to the same roots as that of the American champions of the administrative state. As co-blogger Mark Mancini has argued here,

the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. … For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean [the] school of thought[] dominant in the New Deal era.

As Mark notes, “in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives” ― though of course they looked to the United States for inspiration. (There’s anything wrong with looking to the United States, of course; that’s what I’m doing here!) But then again, we had also had our own band of eugenicist progressives too, some of whom have statues on Parliament Hill. And we had our more peculiar rotten ideas about government too. The 1930s were a bad time ― arguably an especially bad time― in Canada, as well as in the United States and, for this reason, the argument made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is relevant to Canadians.

Of course, the Canadian constitution is not the same is the American one. In particular, it does not incorporate as strong a conception of the separation of powers. Arguments to the effect that the administrative state in its current form is unconstitutional are much less straightforward in Canada; perhaps they are wrong. Certainly the case against the delegation of legislative power is more difficult to make under the Constitution Act, 1867, than under the U.S. Constitution. But all this means is that the moral case made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is that much more significant. If the modern administrative state is the misbegotten offspring of an especially depraved epoch, then it should be dismantled, even if it is not unconstitutional. (The case for it being constitutionally required, however, is that much weaker ― not that it had much strength to begin with.)

And the advice to look to the 1780s or the 1860s is applicable to Canada too. Admittedly, the 1780s do not hold the same significance for our constitutional history as they do for our neighbours. But the ideas of what Jeremy Waldron calls “enlightenment constitutionalism”, which Professors Calabresi and Lawson associate with the 1780s, are relevant to Canada. Indeed, our own constitutional arrangements implement some of what, as I suggested in my critique of Professor Waldron’s arguments here, were the Enlightenment’s signal contributions to constitutional thought ― federalism and judicial review of legislation. As for the 1860s, sapienti sat.


As I noted at the outset, the moral worth of the administrative state is not just a matter for political philosophers to debate. It is an issue that is tied up with the ongoing fights about the details of administrative law doctrine. Perhaps this worth is unconnected to its sinister origins. But I think that it is for pro-administrativists to make this case. And I am quite skeptical that they can succeed. As have noted a number of times, most recently here, “[t]he administrative state is the state of prisons, of border control, of professional regulators determined to silence their members if not to impose official ideology on them”. It has come rather less far from its smug, authoritarian beginnings than its defenders would have us believe.

“Clear Enough”

Some thoughts on statutory interpretation.

As I finish my graduate studies at  Chicago, it struck me that a major theme of legal design is the degree of perfection (if any) we should expect from legal rules. Drafted legal rules—whether by the legislature or judiciary—will always be over and underbroad, because rules of general application cannot foresee every idiosyncratic individual application. In such a case, the extent to which a perfect rule can be created is dependent on the extent to which we balance the error rate of application with the ease of administrability of a straightforward rule. Here, we will never come to a perfect balance, but we can try to come to something that is defensible and workable.

The same sort of consideration applies in the field of statutory interpretation. The most important issue in statutory interpretation is the clarity exercise—how clear is clear enough? Finding that a statutory text is clear on its face leads to a number of important consequences. For one, the Supreme Court has said that where text is “precise and unequivocal, the ordinary meaning of the words play a dominant role in the interpretive process” as opposed to purpose (Canada Trustco, at para 10). Additionally, the use of Charter values in statutory interpretation to gap-fill only arises where there is ambiguity in the ordinary textual meaning (BellExpressVu, at para 28). And, as Gib Van Ert points out, the Federal Court of Appeal seems to be adopting a similar rule in the context of international law.

Some may object at the outset to a consideration of “clarity” as a means of discerning legislative intent on a particular subject. This line of opposition is deeply rooted in the idea of legal realism, with its skepticism of judicial modes of reasoning and the rejection of abstract legal thought as a means to come to clear answers on the law. Representative works in this regard include John Willis’ “Statutory Interpretation in a Nutshell,” where he argues that, in modern legislation which uses wide language (often to delegate authority to others), literal interpretation does no good, essentially because the language is broad and unclear. And he notes that even if interpretation could be  clear or plain on its face, there are differences between judges as to what “plain” constitutes (see 10 and 11). Additionally, Karl Llewellyn’s classic article on the “dueling canons of interpretation” sheds doubt on the use of the canons of statutory interpretation to come to any clear meaning that is not inspired by motivated reasoning. Underlying each of these important critiques is a belief in the relativism and contingency of language. Clarity, on this account, is probably a fool’s errand, in part because ascribing an intent to the legislature is difficult with open-textured language, and in part because language itself is inherently unclear. If this is true, it will be the rare case indeed where a court should be convinced that a text is clear.

While this might sound good to a lawyer’s ear—especially a lawyer that is paid money to exploit ambiguities—it does not comport with the way we use language in the majority of cases. And this is where the example of crafting legal rules comes into handy. One might wish to craft a legal rule to cover all of the interstitial, idiosyncratic applications—ones that are weird or abnormal. But then we create a rule that might work well in the individual case, and not in the general run of cases. Instead, we should craft legal rules based on the 98% of cases, not the 2%: see Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World on this score. In the realm of statutory interpretation, this means that we should start with the going-in, commonsense presumption that language is generally clear in the majority of circumstances, after a bit of listening and synthesis. People transact in the English language everyday with no major kerfluffles, and even conduct complex business and legal dealings without requiring a court to opine on the language they are using. This underlying mass of cases never makes it to court precisely because English works. The problem with statutory interpretation cases, then, is the major selection effect they present. The cases that make it to court, where the rules are developed, are the cases that are most bizarre or that raise the most technical questions. Those are not the cases on which we should base rules of general application. Instead, the rule should simply be that English works in most circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that each of us can generally communicate—with only small hiccups—in the day-to-day world.

If that is the rule adopted, and if legal language is really no different in kind (only in degree of specificity and technicality), then a court should not be exacting in its determination of the clarity of a statutory provision. That is, if language generally works on first impression, then there is no need for a court to adopt a presumption that it doesn’t work, and hence that something greater than “clear enough” is required to definitively elucidate the meaning of a text. We should merely assume that language probably works, that legislatures know language, and that courts have the tools to discern that language. While we should not assume that language is perfect, we should at least assume that it is workable in an ordinary meaning sense.

This approach also has the benefit of commonsense. Perfection is not of this world.  The legal realists put way too high a standard on the clarity of language, to something approaching perfect linguistic clarity rather than semantic workability. We should not craft legal rules around the fact that, in some far-off circumstances, we can imagine language not working.

What does this mean in operation? The American debate over Chevron deference supplies a good example. Chevron holds that where Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue, courts should not afford deference to an agency’s interpretation of law. This is Chevron Step One. If Congress has not spoken clearly, the court moves to Chevron Step Two, where it will defer to the interpretation and uphold it if it constitutes a reasonable interpretation of law. In a recent case, Justice Gorsuch concliuded at Chevron Step One that the text was “clear enough,” so that deference should not be afforded. The clear enough formulation is reminiscent of Justice Kavanaugh’s article, where he explains the various divisions among judges about clarity:

I tend to be a judge who finds clarity more readily than some of my colleagues but perhaps a little less readily than others. In practice, I probably apply something approaching a 65-35 rule. In other words, if the interpretation is at least 65-35 clear, then I will call it clear and reject reliance on ambiguity-dependent canons. I think a few of my colleagues apply more of a 90-10 rule, at least in certain cases. Only if the proffered interpretation is at least 90-10 clear will they call it clear. By contrast, I have other colleagues who appear to apply a 55-45 rule. If the statute is at least 55-45 clear, that’s good enough to call it clear.

Kavanaugh’s approach is probably closer to the right one, if we accept the general proposition that language will be workable in the majority of cases. If there is no reason to doubt language, then clarity will be easier to come by. It is only if we go in assuming the case of unworkability that clarity becomes a fool’s errand. But from a perspective of legal design, this is not desirable.

Law has a reputation for being a highly technical field, with a laser focus on commas, semicolons, and correcting the passive voice. But at the level of designing legal rules, including rules governing language, the best we can hope for is workability, not technical precision. This is because designing rules involves tradeoffs between incentives, administrability, and fit. And because humans are not perfect, we cannot design rules at this level of abstraction that are perfect. As a result, in the language context, the best we can and should do is workability in the general run of cases.

A View from South of the Border

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

Jeffrey Pojanowski, University of Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial Independence in America

A look at the conventions of judicial independence in the United States

Although American constitutional thought has long ignored the fact that conventions are scarcely less important to the operation of the Constitution of the United States than they are to Westminster-type constitutions, this blind spot is being removed. Tara Leigh Grove’s forthcoming article on “The Origins (and Fragility) of Judicial Independence” under the US Constitution is largely, and deliberately, a story of conventions, and a well-told one. Although Article III of the Constitution entrenches some protections for judges ― the tenure and salary guarantees that were already protected in Great Britain by the Act of Settlement 1701 ― prof. Groves shows that much of the architecture of judicial independence that observers of the American judiciary take for granted has no obvious foundation in the constitutional text. It is, instead, built of convention.

Prof. Grove examines three ways in which judicial independence is respected in the United States that “are so deeply ingrained in our public consciousness that it rarely occurs to anyone to question them”, and that they have assumed the status of “self-evident” “truths”:

judges are entitled to life tenure and salary protections, and cannot be removed outside the impeachment process. Political actors must comply with federal court orders. And “packing” the Supreme Court is wrong. (1)

There is, prof. Grove argues, nothing self-evident about any of this. The constitutional text was once thought to permit these violations of judicial independence. But then ― quite recently ― “political actors built the conventions” that make them well-nigh unthinkable. (2)

More specifically, prof. Grove shows that American political actors long thought that it was permissible to remove judges from office by abolishing their courts (except the Supreme Court itself, on the basis that it alone was explicitly mentioned in the constitution). There were a number of attempts to do so, some of them successful:

Through at least the early twentieth century, although the abolition of federal court judgeships was controversial, it was by no means considered “ridiculous” or “off-the-wall”. (13)

And yet over the course of the last century that is exactly how this idea came to be treated. Indeed the very fact that judges had in the past been removed because their courts were abolished was forgotten. Proposals of such measures are now met with consternation and fierce resistance ― as befits violations of conventions.

Similarly, although there now exists “widespread and bipartisan consensus that political actors must abide by federal court orders”, (17) this too is a relatively recent constitutional innovation. While some scholars still suggest that there is, occasionally, room for executive resistance to judicial decisions, political actors have abandoned this view, which they had long held. Prof. Grove traces this change of political heart to the aftermath of  desegregation decisions, showing that even those politicians who, like President Eisenhower, had originally seemed to accept resistance to court orders as legitimate then came to condemn it. From then on, “subsequent political actors did not want to be equated with the segregationists who led the ‘massive resistance’ to” the cause of civil rights. (25)

Last but not least, “[t]here is a strong norm today against … modifying the [Supreme] Court’s size in order to alter the future course of its decisions”. (29) Yet the text of the US Constitution says nothing about the number of judges there must be on the Court (except that there must be a Chief Justice), and historically, Congress has decreased and increased it on a number of occasions, “often … in part for partisan reasons”. (30) Indeed, the convention against doing so has not been around for as long as one might think. Prof. Grove points out that although Franklin Roosevelt’s notorious “court-packing” scheme  aroused “strong opposition”, it “also had considerable support in Congress and came close to passage”. (29) It is only “starting in the late 1950s”, (34) some time after a proposal for a constitutional amendment fixing the Supreme Court’s size failed to pass, that the convention against court-packing solidified ― to the point where the term “court-packing” became an all-purpose epithet.

Prof. Grove argues that the conventions of judicial independence are “historically contingent”; they could have been different now, and they might be different in the future. She notes that there is no convention preventing the enactment of legislation denying the federal courts, or specifically the Supreme Court, the jurisdiction over certain types of cases, although in her view “the protection for judicial independence would be far stronger if there were a convention leading officials not even to propose, much less seriously consider, jurisdiction-stripping bills”. (42) Why, though, is there no such convention, while there conventions against firing judges by abolishing courts, disobeying court orders, or court-packing? Prof. Grove attributes the difference to “narratives” ― to the way lawyers and officials (many of them, of course, lawyers by training) ― were told the stories of the various forms of interference with the courts and re-told these stories in their turn. Conventions developed against those practices that the “narratives” condemned, and against that which it did not.

Prof. Grove concludes with a question that has caused considerable difficulty to courts and scholars in the Commonwealth: that of the relationship between conventions and law. Could it be the case that “the norms protecting judicial tenure and requiring obedience with federal court orders have become so well-accepted that they have transformed into binding rules of law”? (54) Prof. Grove says that she “do[es] not foreclose the possibility that conventions may over time crystallize into legal rules”, thought “the precise mechanisms by which such crystallization may occur” remain uncertain. (54) She notes that ultimately both conventions and legal rules can change in response to a changed political environment ― and cautions that this change need not always be for the better.

Prof. Grove’s historical account is worth the attention of anyone interested in American Constitutional law. Her demonstration of the importance of conventions in the operation of the constitution ― small c ― of the United States should provide an effective counter-argument to claims of exceptionalism, and resulting superiority or inferiority (depending on the speaker’s substantive views), made both in America and in the Commonwealth. “Written” constitutions do not settle all constitutional questions, nor do they prevent the development of conventions that restrict the discretion that constitutional actors might seem to enjoy under the terms of black-letter constitutional law, whether authoritatively enacted or common law.

Prof. Grove’s account leaves a number of important questions unanswered ― not only that of the interplay between convention and law and the possibility of “crystallization”, but also that of the role of “narratives” in relation to conventions. Saying that narratives determine whether conventions do or not arise seems to beg the question of why narratives develop in one way rather than another, and perhaps to obscure the role of constitutional principles that underpin conventions in shaping those narratives. Perhaps prof. Grove might have paid more attention to what the principle of judicial independence means ― and, for instance, to whether it actually requires restrictions on legislatures’ ability to limit courts’ jurisdiction. (It seems to me that some legislative control over jurisdiction is necessary for the good administration of justice, and that removal of discrete elements of a court’s jurisdiction will not always, perhaps rarely, interfere with its independence.)

But these are friendly criticisms ― one cannot expect a single article to fully tell a story as complex as that which prof. Grove begins. I hope that she and/or her colleagues will take it up. Constitutional theory can only be enriched if American scholars pay constitutional conventions the attention they deserve. Prof. Grove makes a very valuable contribution to this endeavour.