Paul L. Caron

Monday, February 27, 2023

Blank & Osofsky: Democratizing Administrative Law

Joshua D. Blank (UC-Irvine; Google Scholar) & Leigh Osofsky (North Carolina; Google Scholar), Democratizing Administrative Law, 73 Duke L.J. __ (2024):

Duke Law Journal (2022)When agencies make statements about the law, people listen. This insight yields a fundamental tension. According to one set of views, such agency statements, and their ability to influence public behavior, are critical not only for a well-functioning bureaucracy, but also for our entire system of government. According to another set of views, this agency power, if left unchecked, could border on tyranny.

Administrative law responds to this tension through an extensive, purportedly comprehensive, framework that attempts to police agency statements. The framework places different types of agency statements into different legal categories. 

On the one hand, legislative rules make new binding law. On the other hand, less formal guidance (including interpretive rules and policy statements) offers an agency’s interpretive or policy positions about the law. Scholars and courts have long debated the categorization effort, as well as what legal consequences flow from it.

In this Article, we identify a striking gap in this categorization framework. As a critical part of their service to the general public, agencies often simply explain the law. Although such explanations are central to agency interactions with the public, the intricate administrative law framework that applies to agency statements fails to capture such explanations. Agency explanations of the law could be seen as a subset of existing categories of agency statements (such as “legislative rules,” “interpretive rules,” or “policy statements”), but agency explanations do not fit comfortably into any of these categories. All of these regimes assume that agencies are communicating what the law is, or what agencies believe it to be. But when agencies provide such explanations to the public, they often present the law as simpler than it is, or what agencies believe it to be.

We argue that administrative law’s failure to address communications between agencies and the general public reflects a broader “democracy deficit.” Administrative law fails to ensure that agency communications with the general public occur in ways that are consistent with essential features of democratic governance, such as transparency, public scrutiny, and debate. In contrast, when sophisticated parties and industry insiders engage with agencies regarding formal guidance, there are ample protections to engender agency transparency and provide affected parties with opportunities to contribute to the guidance.

After identifying the democracy deficit in administrative law, we propose a framework for infusing agency communications with the general public with the same administrative law and democratic values as those that apply in interactions between agencies and sophisticated parties. These reforms would encourage public participation in the drafting and issuance of agency explanations of the law, provide opportunities for challenge of published agency explanations, and offer members of the public the ability to rely on certain agency explanations and to bind the agencies to follow these statements in enforcement of the law. We also identify the types of agency communications with the public that are most urgently in need of reform.

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