The Supreme Court of United States (SCOTUS), in the recent Gundy decision, once again rejected a challenge to a delegation of legislative power based on the so-called non-delegation doctrine. The non-delegation doctrine, in theory, holds that all legislative power rests in Congress, and so by necessary implication, Congress cannot delegate that power away to agencies without an “intelligible principle” to guide the delegation. In practice, the SCOTUS has only ever sustained a non-delegation challenge in a handful of cases in the New Deal era, instead endorsing wide delegations of authority to any number of administrative bodies for over 70 years. One might say that the Court’s reluctance to invoke the non-delegation doctrine is due to the important fuel that delegation provides to the administrative state. Indeed, one might argue that such widespread delegation is necessary for the project of “modern governance.”
But this is not necessarily true. Much of the discussion of limitations on the administrative state speaks in large generalities, and Gundy is no exception. The spectre of the destruction of the modern government that Americans (and Canadians) have come to know is always invoked by those who seek to preserve its power. But, if the non-delegation doctrine is constitutionally justifiable, its invocation in any of its instantiations will not end up destroying modern government. This is because non-delegation limits do not speak in absolute prohibitions, but rather limits in degree and emphasis; shifting the onus back to Congress to legislate within the confines of the Constitution. Canadians should take note and remain wary of arguments advanced by those who reject constitutional limits on administrative power based on functional scares.
Gundy involved a delegation of power from Congress to the Attorney General, under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Under SORNA, it is up to the Attorney General to decide whether the statute’s requirements for registration of sex offenders convicted before the enactment of the statute apply.
Nonetheless, based on existing doctrine, Kagan J for the plurality said that the delegation in SORNA “easily passed constitutional muster.” This is because, to Kagan J, the SCOTUS in a previous case had already cabined the Attorney General’s discretion in this regard by requiring that SORNA apply to all pre-Act offenders “as soon as feasible.” Taken in light of the context, text, and purpose of the statute, the Court found that the delegating language was sufficiently cabined in order to provide an intelligible principle, because the Attorney General’s discretion is limited to deciding when it is feasible to apply the statute. The Court, then, interpreted the statute to avoid the non-delegation problem, as it had done years previously in the Benzene Case.
This conclusion appeared driven not only by the law, but by the consequences of permitting a non-delegation challenge to succeed. Kagan J frighteningly noted that “…if SORNA’s delegation is unconstitutional, then most of Government is unconstitutional—dependent as Congress is on the need to give discretion to executive officials to implement its programs.” Alito J concurred in the result, but noted that should a majority of the Court wish to revisit the non-delegation doctrine, he would.
Justice Gorsuch penned an important dissent. In it, he criticized the plurality’s apparent waving-away of the delegation problem. In the litigation, the Department of Justice did not concede that the Attorney General was required to apply the statute to pre-Act offenders “as soon as feasible.” More to the point, the Attorney General has wide discretion to select the offenders, if any, that should be subject to the statute. For Gorsuch J, “[t]hese unbounded policy choices have profound consequences for the people they affect,” including criminal defendants. In light of Gorsuch J’s problem with the SORNA delegation, he proposed a new test. That test would permit Congress to delegate the power to “fill up the details” of a statute—so delegation would not be prohibited outright. And, the delegation of power may make the “application of that rule depend on executive fact-finding.” But for Gorsuch J, the intelligible principle doctrine “has no basis in the original meaning of the Constitution, [or] in history” and should be replaced by a basic requirement that Congress make the necessary policy judgments.
In response to the problem that some have raised that Gorsuch J’s test would spell doom for the administrative state, he responded as such:
The separation of powers does not prohibit any particular policy outcome, let alone dictate any conclusion about the proper size and scope of government. Instead, it is a procedural guarantee that requires Congress to assemble a social consensus before choosing our nation’s course on policy questions….Congress is hardly bereft of options to accomplish all it might wish to achieve.
I think Gundy contains within it a number of important implications for the delegation of legislative power that apply in both Canada and the United States. The first question is whether it is really true, as Kagan J notes, that non-delegation would render most of government unconstitutional; the second is the sort of limits that one could envision applying to delegations of power.
The Kagan J criticism is a classic functionalist proposition. So the argument goes, if the Court enforces a non-delegation norm of any sort, it would interfere with the practical ability of agencies to implement their enabling statutes, hobbling modern government. And to some observers, it wouldn’t take a full-fledged non-delegation doctrine: even some limitations on administrative government could have “pernicious consequences.” But this strikes me as a vast overstatement, and a self-defeating one at that. First, if Kagan J is right that most of government constitutes a delegation problem as the Constitution is interpreted, what does that say about modern government? It says that government as constituted is a sprawling beast that has far outpaced the Constitution. Some might respond: who cares? But for anyone who cares about the Rule of Law, and government by law, the Constitution reigns supreme over the fiat of administrators. And if one is a legal formalist—as I am—then the arrangement of an extra- constitutional government is itself a problem for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons.
But I do not think what Kagan J says is true, on the facts of Gundy or generally. First, Gundy involved a very particular type of delegation: the power to essentially decide how a statute applies, if at all. Some might say that these sorts of delegations exist all over the map, and they may be right. But one can draw a meaningful distinction between delegations that are meant to “fill in the details” of a statute, even in a legislative sense, and delegations designed to give power to an administrator to decide how, when, and to whom a statute applies, as in SORNA. Gymnastics around “feasibility” aside, SORNA delegates wide power for the Attorney General to decide the scope of application of a statute. This allows him to make law outside of the requirements of bicameralism and presentment. And for instrumentalist reasons, this is a problem: the Rule of Law requires predictability, and why should those deserving the presumption of innocence be subject to the whims of a chief prosecutor as to whether their conduct violates the law?
Now consider the consequences if a non-delegation limit is imposed on Congress. This would not render most of government unconstitutional, nor would it have “pernicious consequences.” Such arguments mistake the mere existence of a limitation for its extent. No one—not even Gorsuch J—is suggesting that delegation itself is unconstitutional. Such a finding would, indeed, render unconstitutional administrative government. But limiting delegation to simply require Congress to speak in more detail would only minimally increase the transaction costs of legislating while paying much more ex post in terms of predictability and consistency with the Constitution. It is unclear to me why the proponents of the administrative state fight even this requirement.
And this flows into the second question. Assuming the non-delegation doctrine is constitutionally justifiable, there are any number of limits that could be imposed on delegations, each of which would not hobble the ability of government to delegate. Courts could require Congress to speak using a clear-statement rule when it chooses to delegate legislative power. This would be on the theory that the delegation of power has the risk to be extra-constitutional, and should be treated with caution from a Rule of Law perspective. The SCOTUS already accepted this sort of requirement in the Benzene Case, when it interpreted the statute at issue to avoid the delegation problem in absence of any clear statement in the legislation. While clear statement rules of this sort could be attacked from the perspective that they allow courts to put their fingers on the scale in favour of certain interpretive outcomes, one might respond that the preferred outcome in this case is one protected by the Constitution in the form of a limit or restriction on delegation. It is apparent that requiring Congress to use a clear statement would likely do nothing to stop modern government.
Courts could also simply enforce the intelligible principle doctrine on its own terms. That is, courts should simply ask whether there is a “principle” that is “intelligible.” Intelligibility would impose some requirement on courts to actually interrogate the policy aims of a delegation to determine its internal consistency, and perhaps question whether it actually provides guidance to executive officials. A principle that is unintelligible will not provide guidance. One could meaningfully question whether courts have actually applied the existing doctrinal instantiation of the non-delegation doctrine on its own terms.
Finally, non-delegation limits might be imposed by the elected branches: this was the approach that was seemingly advocated by then Professor Antonin Scalia in a paper he wrote after the Benzene Case: (the questions raised by delegation “…are much more appropriate for a representative assembly than for a hermetically sealed committee of nine lawyers”). Congress could simply start to speak clearly. The incentive for Congress to do this might be political. As I have noted elsewhere, the delegation of power can be wielded in either direction. Gundy provides a great example. The delegation of power to the Attorney General to decide when, how, and to whom a law applies is a great deal of power. Right-wing legislators might predict that, when they are not in power, such a power might be used against political causes they support. In the US, Democrats are already seeing how powers can be abused by the Attorney General. Of course, the power of the executive can filter through executive agencies, as well. If Congress itself recognizes the ability for delegated power to be used for ends with which it may not be sympathetic, it may have an incentive to limit and control delegation within constitutional limits.
None of these limitations spell the end of administrative governance. Far from it. I fear that the death knell of administrative government is a rhetorical tool used by administrative law functionalists who wish to preserve the power of the administrative state. But as Gundy shows, the powers conferred on executives by Congress can be vast—and the delegation of vast power can be abused, contrary to constitutional limits. All actors in the system have the ability and the responsibility to prevent that abuse, as a corollary to the Rule of Law.
The upshot of all of this is that the administrative state is likely here to stay, but it does not have to remain in its current form to be successful or useful. It can move towards consistency with the Constitution at a small marginal cost to its supposed efficiency and effectiveness.