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Nicholas Bagley, The Procedure Fetish, 118 Mich. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

Every administrative law professor has been there. Perhaps you are discussing hard-look review, notice-and-comment rulemaking, or procedural challenges to non-legislative rules. Students, perhaps puzzled by the courts’ (mostly the D.C. Circuit’s) indifference to the spare requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, may wonder where this layer of doctrine comes from or, more importantly, why it is there. At that point you go back to the beginning of the class. Remember concerns about how the “fourth branch of the Government . . . has deranged our three branch legal theories much as the concept of a fourth dimension unsettles our three-dimensional thinking”?1 Remember the theory about agency behavior that posits regulators’ incentives will steer them toward servicing the industry they are supposed to monitor in the public interest?2 These additional procedures are here to compensate for those worries about legitimacy, capture, and public participation, thus justifying and improving the workings of the administrative state.

So far, so familiar. But then the plot takes a twist. Professor Nicholas Bagley bursts like Kool-Aid Man through the wall of your classroom. This intruder, however, is telling you to stop drinking the Procedural Kool-Aid that has sustained so many administrative law jurists and scholars. (Not so much “OH YEAH!” as “No.”) In The Procedure Fetish, forthcoming in the Michigan Law Review, Bagley contends that procedural constraints on agency action can sometimes bolster legitimacy and improve governance, but lawyers’ unexamined fealty to the cult of procedure does not hold up to scrutiny. Further, Bagley argues that for progressive lawyers and scholars this faith is misguided and plays into hands of those who seek to undermine an activist state. Although Bagley speaks primarily here to his progressive fellows-in-arms, this sharply argued paper merits the attention of administrative lawyers of every stripe. It changes the way I will teach the subject. (Also, it is a great read; the prose sings and sometimes even struts.)

Invoking a provocative blog post by Mark Tushnet, Bagley argues that progressives should abandon the “defensive crouch administrative law” that manifests itself in the eternal solicitude for ever more procedural protections in doctrine and legislation. (P. 9.) Pressing for such procedures to shore up the administrative state’s legitimacy concerns buys into the narrative, unjustified in Bagley’s view, that its legitimacy is in question at all. This, Bagley argues, is a sucker’s game: we have sought ever more procedure for decades, but complaints about legitimacy have never gone away. It is time to recognize that “a crisis that endures is not a crisis; it is the steady state.” (P. 41.) Failing to do so only plays into the hands of conservative and libertarian critics who benefit from framing the administrative state as a problem to be solved and who will never be satisfied with the half-measures on offer anyway. (P. 60) (Oddly enough, in this respect Bagley’s argument resembles originalists who view calls for judicial restraint and respect for stare decisis as unilateral disarmament against living constitutionalism.)

To make this case, however, Bagley needs to cure his fellow administrativists of procedural neuroses that, in his telling, amount to a kind of irrational faith. There is no need to “redeem” the administrative state through a “separation-of-powers liturgy” that re-presents the original constitution through a form of procedural transubstantiation. (P. 41.) Bagley both proclaims the death of the procedural gods that failed and, with reformist zeal, seeks to strip administrative law’s altars of the scholastic encrustments impeding a true, unadulterated faith in the administrative apparatus. In doing so, he smashes two idols in mainstream doctrine: arguments that administrative procedure is necessary for (1) the legitimacy of the administrative state and (2) its accountability to the public interest.

Even if concerns about legitimacy are valid (a point Bagley vigorously disputes), he contends that arguments that additional procedures will cure the problem are too abstract to be useful and fail in many particular instances. Not only is the administrative state’s legal pedigree unblemished, he contends, it’s a lawyer’s mistake to think that bulking up notice-and-comment rulemaking or allowing pre-enforcement review will put to rest broader, popular concerns about its legitimacy. “Legitimacy arises more generally from the perception that an agency is capable, informed, prompt, responsive, and fair.” (P. 49.)

Adding procedures may sometimes do that, but it can also bog down agencies and make them look more like mere producers of Federal Register tomes, not nimble defenders of the public interest. If anything, invasive judicial review can undercut legitimacy. The searching review of hard look and intricate requirements of notice-and-comment rulemaking make it such that “[a]gencies are … bashed in court and in the press for their purported negligence and carelessness. Sometimes the bashing is warranted; often it is not.” (P. 59.) An agency (often unfairly) cast as a poor student staying after school to redo homework is hardly a figure of esteem and legitimacy in the public eye. To underscore this point, Bagley notes that two of the most respected agencies in the public eye—the Federal Reserve and the Defense Department—are the least procedurally constrained.

Bagley then takes aim at the nostrum that additional procedure is necessary to prevent regulated industries from capturing agencies. If anything, he contends, this argument does not take the lessons of public choice theory seriously enough. Procedure is not always neutral, Bagley contends, but rather can help well-funded, repeat industry players trip up activist agencies that run through the many traps of administrative law and policymaking. Even when rules are not invalidated for one or another procedural flaw, the gold-plating necessary to insulate rules from judicial review diverts scares resources away from enforcement and other new regulatory projects.

In sum, proceduralism “has a complex, contingent, and often ambiguous connection to legitimacy and capture.” Bagley counsels progressive lawyers to “develop a more granular perspective” about the costs and benefits of particular procedures, greet new proposed procedures “with skepticism,” and stop the “endless handwringing over agency legitimacy and accountability,” which abets a “suspicion of the state” that is difficult “to harmonize with a progressive belief in the promise of government to achieve collective goals.” (P. 78.)

All told, we can view this work as administrative-law spin on Gerald Rosenberg or Morton Horwitz, pointing toward the hollow hope of administrative procedure and asserting that the rule of law(yers) in administrative law is not an unqualified human good. Its particular prescriptions overlap with a broader coalition of scholars skeptical of administrative common law. Kathryn Kovacs has argued, from the perspective of superstatute theory, that the administrative common law of procedure is illegitimate. Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have recently argued for judicial minimalism in this area not, as Bagley does, in the name of progressive governance, but rather based on more general welfarist concerns. Finally, a scholar more sympathetic to originalism and legislative supremacy will question departures from the Administrative Procedure Act’s often sparse requirements of agencies. Having pressed the last point myself, I will happily rely on Bagley’s analysis when critics claim that the sky will fall without administrative common law. (On the other hand, I am more open than Bagley to proposals that would require Congress to approve major administrative rules.)

Those likely to disagree with Bagley’s prescriptions form a similarly motley coalition. Small-government or constitutional originalist critics of the administrative state may find the administrative common law of procedure a second-best solution for hamstringing Leviathan. (It is no surprise that in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham, conservative and libertarian public interest groups filed amicus briefs defending the D.C. Circuit’s Paralyzed Veterans doctrine, which required agencies to go through notice-and-comment rulemaking to amend an interpretive rule.) In the event she is not convinced by Bagley, Professor Gillian Metzger, a prominent and eloquent defender of administrative common law, might find herself lined up, methodologically at least, with the “anti-administrativists” she chastised in her recent Harvard Law Review Foreword.

All of which is to show that, as I remind my students, doctrinal positions and ideological stances do not always line up administrative law and scholarship. This is part of what makes the subject so fun and fresh. As are articles like Bagley’s, which I encourage all administrative lawyers and scholars to read.

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  1. FTC v. Ruberoid Co., 343 U.S. 470, 487 (1952).
  2. Thomas W. Merill, Capture Theory and the Courts: 1967-1983, 72 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 1039 (1997).
Cite as: Jeffrey Pojanowski, How to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Administrative State, JOTWELL (August 16, 2019) (reviewing Nicholas Bagley, The Procedure Fetish, 118 Mich. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN),