Reclaiming the Legal Fiction of Congressional Delegation

31 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2011

Date Written: 2011


The framework for judicial review of agency statutory interpretations is based on a legal fiction – namely, that Congress intends to delegate interpretive authority to agencies. Critics argue that the fiction is false because Congress is unlikely to think about the delegation of interpretive authority at all, or in the way that the Court imagines. They also contend that the fiction is fraudulent because the Court does actually care about whether Congress intends to delegate interpretive authority in any particular instance, but applies a presumption triggered by statutory ambiguity or a particularized analysis involving factors unrelated to congressional delegation. In this Essay, I argue that critics have misjudged the fiction. First, there is direct evidence that Congress attends to the delegation of interpretive authority and is likely to view the delegation of regulatory authority as sufficient to convey a delegation of interpretive authority. Second, there is indirect evidence that the Court’s framework tracks how Congress decides to delegate. The Court is employing a fiction in the sense that it is not looking for actual legislative intent but is imputing legislative intent. But that fiction is no different in kind than the one that the Court employs in other contexts. By viewing the fiction of congressional delegation as worse than it is, critics have had license to disregard it in evaluating how to allocate interpretive authority between courts and agencies. My argument would bring that issue back to how Congress designs statutes.

Keywords: Chevron, Mead, Brown & Williamson, statutory interpretation, delegation, political scienc, administrative law, legal fiction, administrative procedure, agencies, agency expertise, political accountability, legislative intent, Congress

Suggested Citation

Bressman, Lisa Schultz, Reclaiming the Legal Fiction of Congressional Delegation (2011). Virginia Law Review, Forthcoming , Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 11-14, Available at SSRN:

Lisa Schultz Bressman (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-343-6132 (Phone)
615-322-6631 (Fax)

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