Posted on May 30, 2019 by Lisa Heinzerling
In the first week of October, the justices heard argument in Gundy v. United States, in which a convicted sex offender argues that the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) violates the nondelegation doctrine by giving the Attorney General untrammeled authority to decide whether the law’s registration requirements, backed by criminal penalties, apply at all to offenders convicted before the statute was enacted. Gundy is the only case from the Court’s October argument session left to be decided.
Around the time of the oral argument in Gundy, I heard several Court watchers predict that the case would be decided easily, and against Gundy, through a narrowing interpretation that would avoid any serious nondelegation issue. The government had argued that the Attorney General’s discretion could be limited by finding that “the text and context” of SORNA convey an instruction to the Attorney General to “specify the applicability of SORNA’s registration requirements to pre-Act offenders ‘to the maximum extent he finds to be feasible.'” Such guidance from Congress would easily satisfy the Court’s existing jurisprudence on nondelegation.
As time passes, however, this seemingly straightforward resolution of Gundy seems ever less probable. One problem for the government is that the limiting principle it asserted – “to the maximum extent he finds to be feasible” – does not appear in the statute. Conservative justices wedded to textualism may be hesitant to read into the statute a limitation the text does not identify.
Moreover, the justices have already passed up a chance to interpret SORNA narrowly to avoid the very challenge they now face. In 2013, in Reynolds v. United States, the Court found that SORNA’s registration requirements did not apply to pre-Act offenders until the Attorney General said they did. Chief Justice Roberts, who at oral argument had asked counsel for the government whether delegating this degree of authority would create a nondelegation problem, joined Justice Breyer’s majority opinion without comment. By interpreting SORNA to require action from the Attorney General before the law’s registration requirements may apply to pre-Act offenders, the Court in Reynolds created the constitutional conflict it now confronts.
Another worrisome sign for the government is that four of the Court’s current justices have in recent years expressed constitutional anxieties about Congress’s broad delegations of power to administrative agencies. Gundy may give them the chance to revive or even expand a constitutional doctrine that has not been used to invalidate a federal statute since 1935.
If the Court invalidates SORNA as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority, the consequences could be gigantic. A reawakened nondelegation doctrine could run like a scythe through the scores of statutes – including, of course, environmental statutes – that grant broad authority to administrative agencies. Operating that destructive instrument would be the least politically accountable of all the branches of government.
The Court could try to limit a decision invalidating SORNA, based on such factors as the criminal context; the worrisome power of the Attorney General as both prosecutor and quasi-legislator; and the backward-looking nature of the application of registration requirements to pre-Act offenders. Even a limited invalidation, however, would mark a significant turning point in administrative law, with destabilizing consequences for federal environmental programs. The longer we wait for the Court’s decision, the more likely it is that the justices are grappling with the most fundamental questions raised by this case.
NOTE: A version of this post was published by ACSblog in September 2018.