Document Type


Publication Date





Scholars have long questioned the political and constitutional legitimacy of the administrative state. By 1980, a majority of Justices seemed to be poised to hold that large portions of the administrative state are unconstitutional. In 1984, the Court stepped back from that abyss and took a major step toward legitimating and democratizing the administrative state. The Court instructed lower courts to defer to any reasonable agency interpretation of an ambiguous agency-administered statute. The Court based this doctrine of deference on the superior political accountability of agencies. Henceforth, politically-unaccountable judges were prohibited from substituting their policy preferences for those of politically-accountable agencies. The Court recognized that agencies are politically accountable to the people because they are subject to the control of the elected President. The Court's 1984 effort to democratize the administrative state has fallen far short of its potential because of temporal problems with the manner in which the Supreme Court defines and implements the deference doctrine the Court announced in 1984 and the other two doctrines that require courts to defer to agency interpretations of agency-administered texts. The most important of those deference doctrines is explicitly premised on the Court's understandable belief that policy decisions should be made by the politically accountable President rather than by politically unaccountable judges. Yet, the Court's present method of implementing the deference doctrines has two unfortunate effects. First, in a high proportion of cases, there is a lag of four to eight years between the time that a President takes office and the time when a court is willing to acquiesce in implementation of the policies preferred by the President. In other words, each President is required to implement the policies preferred by his predecessor for at least one term and perhaps even for two terms. Second, in some important situations, regulatees are required to incur large costs in enforcement actions to comply with interpretations of agency rules that have already been rejected by the incumbent President by the time courts impose the costs on the regulatees and that were disavowed by the agency at the time the regulatees engaged in the conduct that is the basis for the enforcement actions. Professor Pierce explains why he believes that these results are unacceptable, and he proposes four changes in the Court's present methods of implementing the deference doctrines that will eliminate these effects and that will create a more democratic and constitutionally legitimate administrative state in which Presidents actually have the power to make changes in policy within the statutory boundaries set by Congress.

GW Paper Series

GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 173

Included in

Law Commons