Jody Freeman & Matthew Stephenson, The Anti-Democratic Major Questions Doctrine, Sup. Ct. Rev. (forthcoming 2023).
Abstract: West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency is the Supreme Court’s most important administrative law decision in decades. The opinion’s significance is due principally to the Court’s embrace of an aggressive version of the so-called “major questions doctrine” (MQD), which appears to require unusually explicit statutory authorization before agencies may undertake “major” regulatory actions. The West Virginia Court claims that this strong MQD is based on longstanding precedent, and that its use has salutary effects on the policymaking process. Neither claim is accurate. In Part I of this Article, we show that the strong version of the MQD embraced by the West Virginia Court is in fact relatively new; the extent of the doctrinal innovation is obscured by the fact that the MQD label has been unhelpfully attached to several related but distinct interpretive techniques, which we disentangle. In Part II, we turn to the impact of this new MQD on the policymaking process, focusing in particular on democratic accountability. While the MQD’s proponents claim that this doctrine protects separation-of-powers principles and the prerogatives of Congress, in fact the new MQD is more likely to weaken democratic accountability by shifting power from the elected branches to the courts, undermining transparency, and exacerbating the already excessive tendency toward minoritarian obstruction in Congress. The West Virginia Court’s aggressive MQD would likely have other effects; perhaps most importantly, this version of the MQD makes it much more difficult for the federal government to address new problems under broadly worded statutes. Both the MQD’s supporters and its detractors anticipate that the doctrine will result in less, and less aggressive, federal regulation. For purposes of this Article, though, our critique of the MQD focuses less on its impact on policy outcomes (though we think this is very important), and more on the impact of the MQD on the policymaking process, especially the extent to which the MQD makes that process less democratic.