The Minor Questions Doctrine

54 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2020 Last revised: 23 Jun 2021

See all articles by Aaron L. Nielson

Aaron L. Nielson

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Date Written: August 14, 2020


Few aspects of administrative law are as controversial as the major questions doctrine—the exception to Chevron deference that bars courts from deferring to an agency’s otherwise reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute where doing so has extraordinary policy implications. Proponents of the major questions doctrine believe that the nation’s most significant questions should be decided by Congress, not agencies. The doctrine’s critics, however, counter that there is no sound reason to treat major questions differently from ordinary questions, if such a distinction even exists. The elevation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, two major proponents of the major questions doctrine, has reignited the debate. Both the doctrine’s friends and foes expect that the Supreme Court will soon begin more aggressively targeting major questions.

This Article, however, argues that focusing on major questions is myopic. Minor questions—those bipartisan, “good government” policies that do not attract much attention but that aect countless individuals in small ways—also matter. Because of Chevron deference, Congress and the Executive Branch often have overlapping authority to tackle such minor questions. Yet if one branch acts, that decision confers positive externalities on the other branch: the non-acting branch bene"ts from a policy it wants without having to pay for it. When incentives are structured this way, collective-action dynamics sometimes may prevent either branch from acting. The time thus has come to consider what this Article dubs the “minor questions doctrine”—a new approach to deference that targets collective-action dynamics by reducing overlapping policymaking authority over minor policies.

Keywords: administrative law, major questions doctrine, Chevron deference, separation of powers, collective action, policymaking

Suggested Citation

Nielson, Aaron, The Minor Questions Doctrine (August 14, 2020). 169 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 1181 (2021), BYU Law Research Paper No. 20-21, Available at SSRN:

Aaron Nielson (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

430 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

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