The Private Delegation Doctrine

63 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2020 Last revised: 16 Feb 2021

Date Written: February 14, 2021


Since its earliest days, Congress has delegated lawmaking authority to Executive Branch officials. Over time, a body of Supreme Court case law, known as the Delegation Doctrine, has grown up (ostensibly) to regulate Congress’s ability to offload legislative authority to administrative agencies. Occasionally, however, Congress, like state legislatures and municipal councils, bypasses executive officials and directly delegates lawmaking authority to private parties. The Supreme Court has addressed those delegations in only few cases and struck down three of them, the last one in its 1936 decision in Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238. In those cases, the Court did not rely on the Article I Vesting Clause or separation of powers principles, as it has in the case of delegations to administrative agencies. Instead, the Court held the delegations unconstitutional by invoking the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Nonetheless, the Court did not explain why the Due Process Clauses play that role, and the Court has not offered a rationale since 1936. Perhaps the reason for that omission is that the Court’s contemporary “procedure vs. substance” dichotomy has obscured the original meaning of the Due Process Clause: namely, a guarantee that the government comply with “the law of the land” before trespassing on someone’s life, liberty, or property. That guarantee, which reaches back to Article 39 of Magna Carta, means that the government cannot legislate around the Constitution by empowering a private party to act in a lawless fashion. Put differently, Congress cannot escape constitutional restraints by delegating government authority to private parties to accomplish indirectly what Congress cannot do directly. So viewed, the Private Delegation Doctrine continues to have vitality today in areas such as the constitutionality of private prisons.

Keywords: delegation doctrine, private delegation doctrine, magna carta

Suggested Citation

Larkin, Paul J., The Private Delegation Doctrine (February 14, 2021). Florida Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Paul J. Larkin (Contact Author)

The Heritage Foundation ( email )

214 Massachusetts Ave NE
Washington, DC 20002-4999
United States
202-608-6190 (Phone)

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