Civil Servant Disobedience

33 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2019 Last revised: 30 Jul 2019

See all articles by Jennifer Nou

Jennifer Nou

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: March 20, 2019


Bureaucratic resistance has long been a feature of the administrative state. What is striking is the extent to which it has become publicly defiant under the Trump Administration. Civil servants are openly flouting executive directives in their official capacity, despite strong norms to the contrary. The social practice raises both parallels and contrasts to civil disobedience by private citizens—meriting an analogous need for sustained scholarly debate about the phenomenon. This symposium article seeks to isolate civil servant disobedience conceptually and begin an exploration into its normative implications. In particular, it considers the ideal of a reciprocal hierarchy, whereby political appointees consult the expertise and experience of career staff as required by statute. This ideal may help to inform evaluations of civil servant disobedience as a form of bureaucratic process-perfection alongside other legitimating criteria. These factors, however, may also suggest that disobedience is often difficult to justify in practice.

Keywords: civil disobedience, bureaucratic resistance, civil servants, military disobedience, democratic bureaucracy

Suggested Citation

Nou, Jennifer, Civil Servant Disobedience (March 20, 2019). Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, 2019, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 708, Available at SSRN:

Jennifer Nou (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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