ArtI.S1.4.2 Historical Background on Delegating Legislative Power

Article I, Section 1:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

The extent to which Congress can delegate its legislative powers has been informed by two distinct constitutional principles: separation of powers and due process. A rigid application of separation of powers would prevent the lawmaking branch from divesting itself of any of its power and conferring it on one of the other branches. But the doctrine is not so rigidly applied as to prevent conferral of significant authority on the Executive Branch.1 In J. W. Hampton, Jr. & Co. v. United States,2 Chief Justice William Howard Taft discussed the ability of Congress to delegate power, stating:

The Federal Constitution . . . divide[s] the governmental power into three branches. . . . [I]n carrying out that constitutional division into three branches it is a breach of the National fundamental law if Congress gives up its legislative power and transfers it to the President, or to the Judicial Branch, or if by law it attempts to invest itself or its members with either executive power or judicial power. This is not to say that the three branches are not co-ordinate parts of one government and that each in the field of its duties may not invoke the action of the two other branches in so far as the action invoked shall not be an assumption of the constitutional field of action of another branch. In determining what it may do in seeking assistance from another branch, the extent and character of that assistance must be fixed according to common sense and the inherent necessities of the governmental co-ordination.3

In Loving v. United States,4 the Court distinguished between its usual separation of powers doctrine—emphasizing arrogation of power by a branch and impairment of another branch’s ability to carry out its functions—and the delegation doctrine, “another branch of our separation of powers jurisdiction,” which is informed not by the arrogation and impairment analyses but solely by the provision of standards.5 This confirmed what had long been evident—that the delegation doctrine is unmoored to traditional separation of powers principles.

The second principle underlying delegation law is a due process conception that undergirds delegations to administrative agencies. The Court has contrasted the delegation of authority to a public agency, which typically is required to follow established procedures in building a public record to explain its decisions and to enable a reviewing court to determine whether the agency has stayed within its ambit and complied with the legislative mandate, with delegations to private entities, which typically are not required to adhere to such procedural safeguards.6

Two theories suggested themselves to the early Court to justify the results of sustaining delegations. The Chief Justice alluded to the first in Wayman v. Southard.7 He distinguished between “important” subjects, “which must be entirely regulated by the legislature itself,” and subjects “of less interest, in which a general provision may be made, and power given to those who are to act under such general provisions, to fill up the details.” While his distinction may be lost, the theory of the power “to fill up the details” remains current. A second theory, formulated even earlier, is that Congress may legislate contingently, leaving to others the task of ascertaining the facts that bring its declared policy into operation.8

Field v. Clark, 143 U.S. 649, 692 (1892); Wayman v. Southard, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1, 42 (1825). back
276 U.S. 394 (1928). back
Id. at 406. Chief Justice Taft traced the separation of powers doctrine to the maxim, Delegata potestas non potest delegari (a delegated power may not be delegated), id. at 405, but the maxim does not help differentiate between permissible and impermissible delegations, and Court has not repeated this reference in later delegation cases. back
517 U.S. 748 (1996). back
Id. at 758–59. back
Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238, 310–12 (1936); Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 424–25 (1944). Because the separation of powers doctrine is inapplicable to the states as a requirement of federal constitutional law, Dreyer v. Illinois, 187 U.S. 71, 83–84 (1902), it is the Due Process Clause to which federal courts must look for authority to review delegations by state legislatures. See, e.g., Eubank v. City of Richmond, 226 U.S. 137 (1912); Embree v. Kansas City Road Dist., 240 U.S. 242 (1916). back
23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1, 41 (1825). back
The Brig Aurora, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 382 (1813). back