Thursday, June 20, 2019
The Supreme Court today rejected a nondelegation challenge to a provision in the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act that authorized the Attorney General to "specify the applicability" of the registration requirement under the Act to pre-Act offenders. We last posted on the case--an analysis of the oral arguments--here.
The ruling leaves the nondelegation standard in place, but perhaps not for long. There are three clear votes (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Gorsuch), and probably a fourth (Justice Alito), to reevaluate and tighten up the standard. If Justice Kavanaugh, who was recused from today's ruling, joins those four, the Court will likely take a new approach to nondelegation in coming Terms, and sharply restrict Congress's authority to delegate powers to executive agencies. Depending on the approach, this could take down any number of federal statutes that give discretion to executive agencies.
In short: We still have an "intelligible principle" approach to the nondelegation doctrine, which permits Congress to delegate broad authority and discretion to executive agencies. But that's likely to change soon.
The case, Gundy v. United States, tested SORNA's delegation to the AG as a violation of the separation of powers. In short, Gundy argued that Congress ceded away too much law-making authority to the Executive Branch when it authorized the AG to "specify the applicability" of the Act's registration requirement to pre-Act offenders.
The Court ruled 5-3 (Justice Kavanaugh recused) to uphold the delegation.
Justice Kagan wrote the plurality opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. The plurality said that SORNA's delegation to the AG satisfied the long-standing nondelegation doctrine test--that a congressional act that delegates authority to the Executive Branch with "intelligible principles" does not violate the separation of powers. Justice Kagan wrote that SORNA's delegation provided "intelligible principles," because it only delegated to the AG the power to determine when (but not if) SORNA's registration requirement would apply to pre-Act offenders. She argued that Congress authorized this flexibility because of the possible logistical issues for some pre-Act offenders (those who have been released from prison, e.g.) to register. She wrote that this understanding of the delegation is confirmed by the Act's test and legislative history, and by the Court's interpretation of the delegation in Reynolds v. United States.
Justice Alito concurred in the result, but wrote separately to say that he'd be willing to consider the "intelligible principle" approach to the nondelegation doctrine in an appropriate case.
Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. Justice Gorsuch argued that the "intelligible principle" approach to the nondelegation doctrine allows too much congressional delegation to the Executive Branch and violates the separation of powers.