By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
23 June 2019 in the Wall Street Journal
The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.
The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.
The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.
In their quest to control governmental power and protect individual liberty, the Framers separated federal power among three branches of government. As Justice Gorsuch notes, they also “went to great lengths to make lawmaking difficult,” requiring consent of both houses of Congress and the president, or legislative supermajorities. The veto was the executive branch’s only role in the legislative process.
That was deliberate. Justice Gorsuch quotes Montesquieu, who was quoted by James Madison in Federalist No. 47: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.”
For more than a century after its creation, the high court actively policed the separation of executive and legislative powers, requiring Congress to make the hard, politically risky policy decisions and permitting only limited delegation of operational details. But in the 1930s, under pressure to uphold the vast delegations of the New Deal, the justices changed course and held that delegation was permissible so long as an “intelligible principle” could be discerned to govern how that power was exercised.
Gundy offered an excellent opportunity to begin reasserting the original constitutional design. Sorna’s delegation of power was extreme. While setting up an elaborate registration system for sex offenders convicted after its enactment, the law granted the attorney general “authority to specify the applicability of the requirements of this subchapter to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of this chapter.” A single official in the executive branch was given the power to impose requirements carrying severe criminal penalties on more than 500,000 Americans, and then to carry them out.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the plurality opinion, struggled mightily to find an intelligible principle. She wrote that the court had interpreted Sorna as requiring applicability “to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible.” But as Justice Gorsuch noted, that language appears neither in the statute nor in the Justice Department’s implementing regulations.
Justices Gorsuch’s and Alito’s opinions, together with Justice Kavanaugh’s strong separation-of-powers jurisprudence as an appellate judge, suggest that a majority of justices are prepared to reimpose proper constitutional restraints on congressional delegations. All they need is a suitable case.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.