Nondelegation on Stilts

18 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2020

Date Written: October 7, 2020


Five sitting Supreme Court justices appear ready, perhaps eager, to adopt a more assertive approach in applying the principle that the Constitution forbids Congress to delegate legislative power to any other person or institution. In several separate opinions in recent cases, the conservative justices appear to converge on at least one new test for evaluating legislative delegations: a delegation is improper when Congress hands off an important policy issue to the executive branch for decision, and the executive uses that delegated power to control private conduct.

The Supreme Court has never struck down a federal statute based on such a test, and it should not start doing so now. Indeed, if the conservative justices truly do not want to substitute their own views of wise public policy for those of the political branches, they should run, screaming, away from the approach they have proposed for legislative delegations. A test based on the justices' perceptions of the importance of the underlying policy issues cannot help but simply reflect the justices' own political preferences. And a test skewed to disfavor regulatory interventions while giving non-regulatory choices a free pass flouts the Court's decision in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, which unanimously held that an agency cannot fix a statute's non-delegation problem by restricting its own power. An asymmetrical test also reflects a narrow and privileged view of liberty that cannot be rescued by pretending that "the whole of the people" consented to the conservative justices' vision of the separation of powers.

Keywords: Non-delegation, Separation of Powers, Supreme Court

Suggested Citation

Heinzerling, Lisa, Nondelegation on Stilts (October 7, 2020). NYU Environmental Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Lisa Heinzerling (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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