Over at Opinio Juris, some familiar names are discussing a new paper by Joel Trachtman and Greg Shaffer, “Interpretation and Institutional Choice at the WTO.” Here's how the authors describe the paper:
Our article develops a new framework for understanding the drafting and interpretation of the agreements of the WTO, based on comparative institutional analysis. Our aim is to provide a better means for describing and assessing the consequences of choices in treaty drafting and interpretation. Both treaty drafting and judicial interpretation implicate a range of interacting social decision-making processes, including domestic, regional, and international political, administrative, judicial, and market processes — which we collectively refer to as institutions. Our framework focuses attention on the way that choices among alternative institutions implicate different social decision-making processes, thereby affecting participation and welfare. We draw on specific examples from WTO case law to illustrate our framework. While our article focuses on the WTO, the framework that we develop has general relevance for understanding the interpretation of international and domestic legal texts from “law and economics” and “law and society” perspectives. It builds on work by Grief, Komesar, North and Williamson. We develop further the comparative institutional analysis suggested by these and other authors.
Here are some snippets of the comments provided by others:
I want to highlight one point that I particularly appreciate in the article and want to explore further. It is relationship between the drafting text and the interpretative methods of the Appellate Body. One of the few places that the treaty drafters were explicit about the interpretative methods that WTO panels and the Appellate Body should use was in the Anti-Dumping Agreement. That interpretative rule requires deference to national government actions when the action is within a “permissible interpretation” of the Agreement. As the authors note, several commentators believe that the Appellate Body has not been constrained by this rule and has adopted a more exacting substantive review process than the drafters intended. Indeed, this issue has raised the question of whether Appellate Body rulings have precedential status for subsequent WTO panels, because panelists have disagreed with the Appellate Body’s interpretation of the appropriate standard and failed to apply the Appellate Body’s rule.
A very shrewd observation of the authors is that, in a number of doctrinal areas, the AB has chosen approaches that entail judicial balancing, or case-by-case weighing of multiple factors or considerations, to “bright lines.” They are right that such an interpretative choice tends to be very (self-) empowering of the judicial branch. It is also a way of managing political conflict or disagreement in a fashion that may help preserve the legitimacy of the judiciary, since “bright lines” can often appear to favor systematically one value or one constituency over another in an area of normative contestation (the authors discuss the now clearly rejected (Shrimp/Turtle) “bright line” that the unadopted Tuna/Dolphin panels invented on PPMs, which systematically excluded a whole range of activist environmental strategies from consistency with WTO law): here we should consider Cass Sunstein’s thinking about “one case at a time.”
This Article, by Greg Shaffer and Joel Trachtman, makes the important point that choices in treaty drafting and judicial interpretation allocate authority. For example, a choice for rules (instead of standards) or reference to non-WTO norms and expert advice (instead of WTO law only) allocates authority, respectively, to negotiators (instead of the judiciary) and to other bodies or experts (instead of the WTO). This is clear and convincing. From there, however, the authors make an extra and less convincing step: after (descriptively) linking choice to authority they then (normatively) link type of authority to welfare and participation levels arguing, for example, that treaty drafters (setting rules) can be presumed to “maximize welfare” and offer more “transparency, accountability, and legitimacy” than the judiciary (applying standards) (p. 111). A similar hierarchy is presumed putting the WTO above standard-setting bodies such as Codex or the ISO, on the view that the latter “evade the need for consensus within the WTO” (p. 113) and are “subject to capture by certain interests” (p. 114).
The authors respond to these comments here.