What’s Up with Gundy?

Posted on November 14, 2019 by Allan Gates

Last summer the Supreme Court announced its decision in Gundy v. United States.  Conservative advocates had eagerly followed the case, hoping it would restore the nondelegation doctrine to the glory days of 1935, the year Schechter Poultry and Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan used the nondelegation doctrine to cut down a broad swath of New Deal programs.

The decision in Gundy disappointed conservative hopes, but only by the slimmest possible margin.  A plurality of four justices — Justice Kagan joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor — voted to uphold the statute in question, following the very tolerant nondelegation analysis the Court has used consistently for decades.  Three justices — Justice Gorsuch joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas — voted to invalidate the statute using a new and much more robust nondelegation analysis.  Justice Alito concurred in the judgment reached by the plurality, but only because a short-handed Court did not have a majority of Justices willing to establish a new (or resurrect a very old) nondelegation standard.  His opinion openly invited a new nondelegation challenge once the Court has a full complement of nine justices.  Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in Gundy because he was not on the Court when it heard oral argument.

College fellow Lisa Heinzerling wrote a very perceptive blog post about Gundy last May, three weeks before the decision was announced, noting that the Court was lingering over Gundy longer than any other case that Term.  In retrospect, the timeline is even more interesting than Lisa could have known.  Gundy was argued on the first day of the Term, October 2, 2018.  It was decided at the very end of the Term, June 20, 2019.  Justice Kavanaugh joined the Court on October 6, 2019.  Presumably, Justice Kavanaugh was in the room at every conference in which the Court struggled over how to resolve its 4-4 split over nondelegation in Gundy.  When one considers this timeline, Justice Alito’s open invitation for another nondelegation challenge packs special punch.

The significance of the unusual timeline was not lost on Gundy’s counsel, a New York public defender who had taken Gundy’s case farther than anyone could have expected.  She promptly filed a petition for rehearing.  Rehearing in the Supreme Court is extremely rare, but Gundy’s public defender aptly noted that her request presented one of the few circumstances that has prompted the Court to grant rehearing in the past, namely a short-handed Court that divided 4-4 with a new justice in place who could resolve the split if rehearing were granted.

The timeline of the Court’s consideration of Gundy’s petition for rehearing is also interesting.  The petition was filed on July 11 and scheduled for consideration at the Court’s October 1, 2019 conference.  Following that conference, the Court relisted the petition for consideration at the October 11, 2019 conference.  Since then it has been relisted four more times.  Most recently the petition has been scheduled for consideration at the November 15 conference. 

As the Justices ponder Gundy’s petition for rehearing, it seems likely they know if rehearing were granted, the result would be different the second time around.  Among other things, the Court is probably considering how the general public would react to seeing the Court flip on a do-over of a high profile constitutional case solely because a new Justice joined the Court, particularly when that Justice was confirmed by a bare partisan majority after a bruising confirmation hearing.

It is worth noting that there are petitions for certiorari pending in Paul v. United States and Caldwell v. United States, cases identical to Gundy, that were being held pending the decision in Gundy.  The Court might mitigate the public appearance of a highly political flip by taking one of those cases as the vehicle for addressing nondelegation.