Some Major Questions About Major Questions

In West Virginia v EPA, the Supreme Court of the United States, wielding the “major questions doctrine” found that the EPA did not have the statutory authority to adopt regulations implementing the Clean Power Plan, initially proposed by the Obama administration in 2015.  In this post, I describe why I think this decision was ultimately misguided, how the major questions doctrine might be recast, and why some of the dissent’s concerns are themselves misguided. In short, while I share concerns about agency opportunism, I do not think this judicial creation is the solution.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has broad authority to establish regulatory “standards of performance” in relation to certain categories of pollutants. These include the adoption of the “best system of emission reduction,” taking into account various factors, that the EPA administrator “determines has been adequately demonstrated.” Under this provision, the EPA adopted a “generation-shifting” system rather than a plant-by-plant regulation system; in other words, it decided that the “best system of emission reduction” included generation-shifting. A generation-shifting approach, as I understand it—such as cap-and-trade, or investment in alternative sources—is a different sort of regulation because it purports to operate on a system-wide basis, rather than on an individual source basis. The EPA’s regulatory choice thus cut rather broadly to attack emissions across different sectors. There is much more detail in the opinions that I am leaving out for the sake of brevity.

The majority opinion (Roberts CJ) concluded that this was a “major question,” meaning there was “every reason to hesitate” before concluding that Congress meant to confer this authority on the EPA (20, see also Brown & Williamson, at 159-160). In order to draw this conclusion, Congress would need to include special authorization, or a so-called “clear statement.” In “major questions” cases, the majority tells us that “both separation of powers principles and a practical understanding of legislative intent” make it reluctant to find that the EPA’s stated authority here was buried in “vague” provisions like s.111(d) (19); here we see some concern about agency opportunism and attempts to expand statutory authority. The Court tells us that it has, as a matter of course, deployed the major questions doctrine in extraordinary cases where the agency asserts broad authority of economic and political significance (17). Put simply, as the majority frames it, the major questions doctrine is like a substantive canon of construction: the Court proceeds on its own assumption that Congress would not have wanted the EPA to have this authority, absent an explicit statement otherwise.

In dissent, Kagan J attacked the majority’s use of the major questions doctrine. Chiding the doctrine as a “get-out-of-text-free card” (28), Kagan J reasoned that the statute here was broad, but not vague (8). The breadth of the statute was by design. While this was so, Kagan J noted that the grant was also constrained: in concluding what the best system of emission reduction is, the EPA must consider “costs and non-air impacts” while making sure that the best system has been “adequately demonstrated” [7].

For Kagan J, the invocation of the major questions doctrine elided this delegation of power. She reasoned that the “doctrine,” such as it is, had only been deployed as part and parcel of ordinary statutory interpretation, determining the scope of delegated power conferred on an agency: “the text of a broad delegation, like any other statute, should be read in context, and with a modicum of common sense” [13]. Kagan J was concerned that the use of this special rule short-circuited the Court’s duty to actually determine what the statutory provisions meant, and whether the EPA’s regulation fit within the provision. Kagan J goes on to wax poetic about the importance of expertise and the administrative state (I’ve registered my opposition to these particular, age-old arguments before, and renew them to some degree below).

That said, I see a few problems with the majority’s recast of the major questions doctrine:

  • Despite the majority’s protestations otherwise, there has been a shift in the way the major questions doctrine works. Scholars, as I read them, tend to disagree about which cases mark the turning point, but I think it is fair to say that WV v EPA is the capstone. As I understood it, the doctrine was previously attached to Chevron deference. If a question was a “major question,” it was a reason to deny deference to the agency’s asserted interpretation; not a presumptive rule against ordinary agency action in certain, ill-defined “major” areas. But now the doctrine has taken on a life of its own; gone is Chevron. The lineage of this change does not suggest that it is justified.

 In Brown & Williamson, for example, the Court conducted a normal statutory analysis as prescribed under Chevron Step 1, and concluded that “Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products” (Brown & Williamson, 126, 132). It was only after this exhaustive analysis that the Court additionally concluded that, given Congress’ structured and deliberate scheme for tobacco regulation, the FDA could not likely have been given the authority to regulate tobacco products (Brown & Williamson, 159-160). This was not a standalone, substantive canon of construction; it was a tool of judicial common sense, an insight drawn from the application of the tools of interpretation, to determine that a statute precluded the agency’s view. Second, in Utility Air, the majority (Scalia J) questioned whether the agency’s construction could be reasonable under Chevron Step 2, given its “claim to extravagant statutory power” (Utility Air, at 20). Here, the “major questions” concern operates as a sort of defeasible outer limit that limits the range of reasonable options at Chevron Step 2. Even in King v Burwell, the Court used the major questions exceptions as a means to an end: to conclude that it should conduct an independent assessment of the statute in that case. In all of these cases, the major questions doctrine was operating more as an “add-in,” or “tie-breaker”: see, relatedly, fn 3 of the concurring opinion of Gorsuch J.

So, quite aside from the sotto voce overturning of these, weaker versions of the major questions doctrine, the consequences of moving from a deference rule (a rule changing the intensity of review, but not changing the legislature’s delegation process) to a delegation rule (a rule denying a power to delegate straightforwardly on an ill-defined set of questions at all)  is not small, and there are two. First, because the Court only offers a set of mushy guidelines for what constitutes a “major question” on which Congress will require an explicit statement, Congress may be left wondering how and when it must make itself “clear.” Second, on principle, Congress regrettably must—according to the Court’s standards—make itself clear. This was not required under Chevron. As Kagan J notes, the major questions doctrine—as deployed by the Court in WVA v EPA—basically shortcircuited this statutory analysis. Instead, rather than determining whether the statute supported the EPA’s reading, the Court was rather results-oriented: because the issue is big, even normal statutory authorization should not count, even though the EPA’s view was plausible (and certainly not vague—as Kagan J says, the issue here is breadth). It is plausible, as the majority suggests, that Congress did authorize this power in the text of its law. But this authorization was not explored, or otherwise, was inexplicably not enough.

  • Gorsuch J, in a concurring opinion, attempted to avoid this conclusion by stating that substantive canons of construction are accepted tools of interpretation. Indeed they are. But one should evaluate the lineage and triggers for these substantive presumptions, and at any rate, all should agree they should be used with caution and rooted in consistent doctrine and principle. Otherwise, they can be manipulable “get out of text free” cards. For this reason, many of the substantive canons are rooted in clear constitutional concerns: for example, some of the presumptions concerning federalism.

What is the constitutional basis of this form of the major questions doctrine?  One candidate might be the same pool of principles that grounds the non-delegation doctrine. But I think it is hard to justify this doctrine as some extension or analogue to the non-delegation doctrine (cf Cass Sunstein) in the mould of the Benzene Case. Undoubtedly, one can conceive of some important similarities—the Court has sometimes gestured to an asserted power as being too broad to justify Chevron deference. But, again, in all the cases, the problem was simply that Congress had foreclosed such extravagant regulation. Instead, the non-delegation doctrine, as a constitutional doctrine, is primarily concerned with the scope of delegated power. Courts seek an intelligible principle to determine whether the power is adequately guided. The idea is that, absent a guiding, legislative principle, an agency is exercising legislative power unconstitutionally, in a manner contrary to Article I.

While there are powerful historical arguments against the non-delegation doctrine that I am not equipped to evaluate, I take it as a given that it is alive and well, and that it—at least in some part—aims at preserving legislative power and control over administrative decision-making. Nonetheless, the new major questions doctrine deployed by the Court in WV v EPA is not, at least primarily, concerned with the breadth of delegated power per se. As Kagan J recounts, the delegation of power to the EPA in this case is, indeed, broad, but it is not beyond the pale. The EPA does have some meaningful constraints built-in to the statute, and such constraints likely save the delegation from any challenge on non-delegation grounds. The major questions doctrine, then, isn’t so concerned with the breadth of delegated power as much as the significance of the issue at hand. But issue significance does not necessarily equal broad delegated power; in other words, we can have broad delegated power in unimportant areas, which could plausibly raise non-delegation concerns, or we can have narrow delegations in important areas, which would raise major questions concerns. These doctrines are aiming at different things. As John Manning so eloquently said: “If the point of the nondelegation doctrine is to ensure that Congress makes important statutory policy, a strategy that requires the judiciary, in effect, to rewrite the terms of a duly enacted statute cannot be said to serve the interests of that doctrine.”

In whole, the result of this doctrinal shift is a complication of the basic task of the law of judicial review, and an arguable corruption of the legislation delegating the power at issue. The law of judicial review is designed to be an adjunct branch of statutory interpretation, to determine the scope of powers granted to an administrator. Whether Chevron has one or two steps, this is the core of the thing. With this new major questions doctrine, the law of judicial review is somewhat different. Less important is the text of the laws delegating power. More important is whether the court thinks the issue over which the power is delegated is “important” or “big” enough. This abstracts away from the core question on judicial review: does the agency have this asserted power to conduct this action, no matter how big the problem  may be?


With these concerns in mind, I think it might be useful to consider how Canada deals with questions of this sort, because I think the doctrine aims at some of the same concerns as the major questions doctrine while avoiding some of the potential pitfalls, as I see them.

 In Canada, our going-in presumption is reasonableness review (for an apt description of why Canada gets this backwards in relation to the United States, see Leonid Sirota). This presumption can be rebutted, in which case the court reserves to itself the right to pronounce on the legal issue without any deference. One of the circumstances in which the presumption can be rebutted is in cases involving “general questions of central importance to the legal system as a whole” (see Vavilov, at para 58 et seq). This category has much in common with the gist behind the “major questions” category, but there are important differences. First, the justification for the central questions category in Canada is not concern about delegated power; rather, it is designed to protect the role of the judiciary as the most important external check on administrative power. Issues that are considered centrally important must be answered consistently by courts, because they engage the rule of law, over which the judiciary is the primary guardian. Notably, however, in defining a central question, the courts are careful not to unduly eat away at the legislature’s right to delegate power. As the Supreme Court says, “the mere fact that a dispute is ‘of wider public concern’ is not sufficient for a question to fall into this category—nor is the fact that the question, when framed in a general or abstract sense, touches on an important issue” (Vavilov, at para 61).

And so the questions recognized by the court concern the stability of the legal system, issues that transcend an administrator’s particular statutory grant of authority. These issues have typically concerned constitutional or quasi-constitutional issues. For example, in University of Calgary, the question was whether a decision of an administrator that a statute permits solicitor-client privilege to be set aside. The Court refused to defer in this case, because solicitor client privilege has a constitutional dimension, and the “question of what statutory language is sufficient to authorize administrative tribunals to infringe solicitor-client privilege is a question that has potentially wide implications on other statutes” (University of Calgary, at para 20).

Why is this doctrine preferable, at least on these points, to the major questions doctrine, as deployed in WV v EPA? For one, the Canadian version expressly forecloses the possibility that an issue’s importance factors into the analysis. Many issues can be characterized as important; this is the challenge of the law of judicial review, to channel and sometimes restrict administrative power over these important areas of public life. Second, the benefit of a rule restricting deference is that it can be justified with reference to fundamental tenets of the law of judicial review. There are good rule of law reasons, pertaining to the judicial duty to pronounce the law, to carve away deference in cases where an agency attempts to exert power in a way that may transcend its own statute, or engage quasi-constitutional norms. Legislatures should not be impliedly granted the power to, by delegation, carve away the core powers of judicial review. And so,  uniformity of the administrative justice system requires not percolation, but correct answers. This approach also answers for the problem of agency opportunism: an agency that seeks to manipulate its own powers in order to affect these broader areas of legal importance should be met with a resolute judiciary. Nonetheless, the category is pared down not to every conceivable important issue, but to core concerns of the judiciary that implicate the rule of law. With these more narrow justifications, I would venture that the Canadian law of judicial review—only on this score—may be more stable than the American.


In the meantime, I do not expect nor suggest that American courts should look to Canada for guidance. Even still, I do not think that the US situation is as dire as the dissent and some commentators suggest. As Kristin Hickman notes, Congress can rectify the ruling in WV v EPA tomorrow (even if it should not have to): it can simply legislate a clear statement. To be clear, this is an additional, probably unjustified hurdle. But the ball is in Congress’ court.  And, as I have argued before, non-delegation limits on administration will not hobble administration, and may actually incentivize better deliberation and guidance.  Further, administrative government is vast, and few regulations are challenged such that this case will make a difference on a wider scale. These are the practical realities that limit this new major questions doctrine, but I admit there may be more I am simply missing or misunderstanding

Nonetheless, as far as it goes, the new major questions doctrine that matured in WV v EPA is unwelcome from my perspective. Unlike the non-delegation doctrine, it cannot easily be traced to the same constitutional concerns, and it is isn’t immediately clear to me that “clear statements” will really provoke much deliberation. The doctrine appears to be a wholly judicial creation; it complicates the law of judicial review, puts a hurdle up for Congress, and finds no real animating purpose, beyond nods to concerns already covered by the existing non-delegation doctrine. I stress, as I did above, that I too worry about “bureaucratic domination,” drift, etc. But these are concerns that are best kept in check by a legislature and by consistent and principled application of the law of judicial review. Creating an amorphous thumb on the scale, in this manner, is an ill-fit.