Uncertainties of the Administrative State

Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe and former SCOTUSblog contributor Joshua Matz came out with an excellent book last year in which they examine the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on a variety of topics—equal protection, health care, campaign finance, free speech, gun rights, presidential power, privacy, etc.—during the years since Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court.

Uncertain Justice

I must say that, though the title initially suggested to me a disparaging account of the Roberts Court, I found the work as a whole to be quite even-handed and (dare I say) judicious. The authors do an excellent job aiding the reader to appreciate the nuances and merits of conflicting values which divide our country and often the Court itself. In fact, I am now inclined to interpret the “Uncertain” of the title as referring to the inherent intractability of certain conflicts of constitutional values or textual interpretation.

As I penned my last post discussing the controversy over immigration and administrative action, I recalled a relevant passage from Chapter 7, “Presidential Power: Hail to the Chief.” Therein, Tribe and Matz relay the “clash” between Roberts’ majority opinion and Breyer’s dissent regarding the appropriate degree of control Presidents ought to exercise over administrative agencies.

The case was Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). The act established a 5-member board in which the board members could only be removed by the SEC and only for “good cause.” The SEC is an independent agency, already enjoying some degree of insulation from presidential control. By custom, its commissioners can only be removed by the President due to “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” Thus, no direct lever of control existed between the President and the PCAOB. The Court struck down the removal provision by 5-4 decision because it failed to vest removal authority directly in the hands of the President.

Tribe and Matz explain the majority’s reasoning:

Writing for the Court and quoting Article II, Roberts grounded his opinion in the importance of formal control: “The President cannot ‘take care that the Laws be faithfully executed’ if he cannot oversee the faithfulness of the officers who execute them….Neither the President nor anyone directly responsible to him, nor even an officer whose conduct he may review only for good cause, has full control over the [PCAOB].

The co-authors next explain Breyer’s reasoning in dissent:

Describing the reach of federal law, Breyer emphasized that, “given the nature of the government’s work, it is not surprising that administrative units come in many different shapes and sizes.” Because of this diversity, he reasoned, the Constitution recognizes “the various ways presidential power operates.” Such a pragmatic approach doesn’t take presidential power to fire as the sine qua non of control over agencies. Instead, it acknowledges that, “as human beings have ever known since Ulysses tied himself to the mast so as safely to hear the Sirens’ song, sometimes it is necessary to disable oneself in order to achieve a broader objective.” By freeing bureaucrats from political control, Breyer reasoned, we can enhance their legitimacy and credibility as technocrats and neutral arbiters.

These conflicting points of view about how much control presidents should have over administrative agencies is not only relevant to the current controversy over immigration policy, but goes to the difficulty of squeezing the administrative state into our conceptions of tripartite government. Agencies are created and enabled by congressional statute yet are placed structurally within the executive branch under the charge of the President, the chief executive officer. In addition to their executive function, agencies operate in a quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial capacity, thus blurring the traditional distinctions between each governmental power even as they facilitate the effective exercise of those powers. Agencies are expected to be accountable to the people via the people’s representatives, who themselves are often at odds with one another. If that is not enough, balanced against the democratic principle is the interest in efficient and technically expert administration somewhat removed from the vagaries of day-to-day politics. Given these muddled expectations, it is no surprise then that reasonable minds differ on how administrative agencies should work in practice.

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Tribe discusses his book below. Of particular note, he highlights the fact that the Court is less partisan than the popular press would lead us to believe. For example, the Roberts court has been unanimous 1/3 of the time. Only 1/5 of the time has the Court been divided in 5-4 decisions, and 1/3 of those involved unlikely alliances of liberal and conservative justices. For more discussion of Supreme Court decision making, see my post here.

A.K.

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