The coming invigoration of the non-delegation doctrine, long-declared dead, is now nearly certain. In a recent statement, Justice Kavanaugh signaled his interest in revisiting the long-dormant doctrine in a future case. But, while Justice Kavanaugh’s statement all but confirms that the Court will breathe life into the non-delegation doctrine sometime soon, questions still remain about its ultimate scope and whether it can be applied in a predictable and coherent way.
The Gundy Opinions
The federal non-delegation doctrine has been less of a doctrine than a ghost story told to law students since it was last used to strike down a federal statute in 1935. In theory, if not, in fact, the non-delegation doctrine places limits on Congress’s power to vest decision-making authority in other branches of government, most notably, administrative agencies. But, despite renewed interest among some members of the Supreme Court in the years since the New Deal, there had been no great likelihood that the Court would animate the doctrine until the 2019 Gundy v. United States opinion. The statutory provision at issue in Gundy grants the attorney general (AG) the authority to apply provisions of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) retrospectively, that is, to conduct that took place before the statute was enacted. Although there were five votes to uphold the statute’s delegation of authority to the AG, no opinion commanded a majority of the Court. In her opinion for a plurality of four, Justice Kagan narrowed SORNA by reading into it a requirement for the AG to implement SORNA “as soon as feasible.” In light of this limitation on the AG’s discretion, she concluded, the provision “easily passes constitutional muster” because it gives the AG an “intelligible principle” to follow, which is all that the non-delegation doctrine requires.
Justice Alito provided the fifth vote to uphold the statute but made clear that he favored a more robust vision of non-delegation. He noted that, in another case, he would support an effort to “reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years” if a majority of the Court was willing to take that step.
In a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch opined that, unlike Justice Alito, he “would not wait” for the next case to set out his vision for a robust non-delegation doctrine. Leaning heavily on a formalist conception of separation of powers, Justice Gorsuch opined that the structure of the Constitution demands the separation of legislative authority from the executive branch. Notably, he ventured that the “intelligible principle” test that has been the touchstone of the non-delegation doctrine for generations has “mutated” and has “no basis in the original meaning of the Constitution [or] in history.” Reaching back to pre-New Deal precedent, Justice Gorsuch drew a distinction between Congress’s responsibility to make policy decisions and its power to authorize agencies to “fill up the details.” While Congress is ultimately responsible for setting policy, Justice Gorsuch suggested that it would be constitutional for Congress to authorize the executive branch to “fill in even a large number of details. . . or to exercise non-legislative powers.”
Justice Gorsuch concluded with what can only be described as request to Justice Kavanaugh, who took no part in the Gundy opinion, to help make a majority to invigorate the non-delegation doctrine: “I remain hopeful,” wrote Justice Gorsuch in closing, that the Court will return to the issue of delegation “in a future case with a full panel.”
Evan C. Zoldan is a Professor of Law at the University of Toledo College of Law. He researches legislation, including legislative power, the legislative process, and statutory interpretation. His work on legislative power questions whether Congress and state legislatures may target named individuals for special treatment.
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