Chenery Unmasked: Reasonable Limits on the Duty to Give Reasons

64 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2013

See all articles by Richard W. Murphy

Richard W. Murphy

Texas Tech University School of Law

Date Written: 2012


Eighty years ago in SEC v. Chenery, the Supreme Court declared, “an administrative order cannot be upheld unless the grounds upon which the agency acted in exercising its powers were those upon which its actions can be sustained.” Translation: Courts and agencies must not deploy post hoc rationales during judicial review to save discretionary administrative actions. Over time, this contemporaneous-rationale rule has seeped deep into the marrow of administrative law.

But this Chenery rule is wrong — or at least not quite right. Chenery’s basic, procrustean mistake was to state a categorical rule even though reliance on post hoc rationales is sometimes sensible. Courts have reasonably responded to this overreach by cheating on Chenery. The law in this area is therefore more confused than it should be, which impedes clear thinking about how post hoc rationales could be integrated into administrative and judicial procedures to improve them both. Chenery's bar is, at bottom, a judicially-crafted, common-law style rule designed to encourage agency responsibility and judicial efficiency. It is not constitutionally compelled. Courts therefore can change it, and they should do so, giving up Chenery's misleading clarity for a pragmatic, rule-of-reason approach.

Or, as Judge Friendly suggested over forty years ago, courts should recognize that applying Chenery is “perhaps more art than science.”

Keywords: Chenery, post hoc rationales, judicial review of agency action, remand without vacation, arbitrariness review, Nondelegation Doctrine

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Richard Wyman, Chenery Unmasked: Reasonable Limits on the Duty to Give Reasons (2012). University of Cincinnati Law Review, Vol. 80, No. 3, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Richard Wyman Murphy (Contact Author)

Texas Tech University School of Law ( email )

1802 Hartford
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States
806-742-3990 ex.320 (Phone)

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