Environmental law has never felt so undemocratic. On nearly every aspect of environmental protection, the federal government is disconnected from the desires of its citizens. The best most citizens can hope for is that a still-distant election will produce a friendlier administration, one that will manage to embrace our priorities despite the immense influence of industry. There’s an irony beneath that sense of powerlessness, one that reveals a tragic flaw in modern environmental law. I want to both explore that flaw and introduce a tool from environmental law’s past that might help fix it. It’s a tool that entrusts ordinary people to decide: the jury.
The modern administrative state has always faced ongoing debates about the appropriate balance between administrative authority and procedural constraint. But this moment of debate is about more than just the familiar clashes between “big government” and “free market” visions of political economy. These attacks on the administrative state—and the historical and current efforts to (re)build administrative institutions—are a critical frontline for our substantive moral values of democracy, equality, and inclusion.
Many of the critical day-to-day governance decisions — from zoning to civil rights enforcement to worker protections, financial regulations, and consumer rights — take place within the administrative state. Without a greater degree of democratic responsiveness and accountability within the administrative process, these substantive rights are unlikely to be vindicated or equitably enforced. This means that policymakers and administrative law scholars alike need to start approaching the task of administrative institutional design with a greater attention to power disparities.
Here we discuss a type of organizing that has followed in the wake of mass commenting efforts, focused on analyzing the content of comments and ensuring their due consideration. Our central example comes from the Department of Education’s recent notice of a proposed rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the meaning of Title IX for complaints of sexual harassment (an umbrella legal term that includes sexual violence). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the activism around the ED’s interpretation of Title IX in the Obama years, the agency recorded over 124,000 comments—and spurred the creative cataloging initiative we spotlight here. By analyzing comments themselves, participants in this initiative seek to support public engagement with administrative law and vindicate the democratic values at the heart of notice-and-comment mandates.
For the first time in nearly a century, the conservative scholars, judges, lawyers, and advocacy groups challenging the constitutional foundations of the modern administrative state have reached a critical mass. However, by relying on originalist foundations, these critics may be inviting in a Trojan Horse. As I argue in a forthcoming article, returning to 19th century administrative law would smuggle in an unwelcome consequence: largely eliminating judicial review of the constitutionality of agency action. As a result, they may have to choose between their originalist attack on the modern administrative state and preserving a type of court review they value highly.
In this anti-regulatory moment, notice-and-comment might seem a quaint artifact from a bygone age: with such meager regulatory output, especially aimed at industry, what is left to comment on? Instead, however, notice-and-comment has become a key tool of opponents of the current administration—a vehicle for mobilizing “grassroots experts” and enabling marginalized voices to speak against dehumanizing agency action.
Medicare would serve as the first real test of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned the allocation of any federal funds to entities that discriminated on the basis of race. The success of Title VI would depend on forging a strong relationship between officials administering the program and the civil rights movement. The change that ultimately resulted from this collaboration offers a concrete example of how democratic movements can leverage grassroots pressure, public enforcement and government spending power to transform sectors of the economy.