By Prof. Philip Hamburger – Imprimis –
There are many complaints about administrative law—including that it is arbitrary, that it is a burden on the economy, and that it is an intrusion on freedom. The question I will address here is whether administrative law is unlawful, and I will focus on constitutional history. Those who forget history, it is often said, are doomed to repeat it. And this is what has happened in the United States with the rise of administrative law—or, more accurately, administrative power.
Administrative law is commonly defended as a new sort of power, a product of the 19th and the 20th centuries that developed to deal with the problems of modern society in all its complexity. From this perspective, the Framers of the Constitution could not have anticipated it and the Constitution could not have barred it. What I will suggest, in contrast, is that administrative power is actually very old. It revives what used to be called prerogative or absolute power, and it is thus something that the Constitution centrally prohibited.
But first, what exactly do I mean by administrative law or administrative power? Put simply, administrative acts are binding or constraining edicts that come, not through law, but through other mechanisms or pathways. For example, when an executive agency issues a rule constraining Americans—barring an activity that results in pollution, for instance, or restricting how citizens can use their land—it is an attempt to exercise binding legislative power not through an act of Congress, but through an administrative edict. Similarly, when an executive agency adjudicates a violation of one of these edicts—in order to impose a fine or some other penalty—it is an attempt to exercise binding judicial power not through a judicial act, but again through an administrative act…
The Rise of Absolutism in America
The United States Constitution echoes this. Early Americans were very familiar with absolute power. They feared this extra-legal, supra-legal, and consolidated power because they knew from English history that such power could evade the law and override all legal rights. It is no surprise, then, that the United States Constitution was framed to bar this sort of power. To be precise, Americans established the Constitution to be the source of all government power and to bar any absolute power. Nonetheless, absolute power has come back to life in common law nations, including America…
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