In order to ensure that Congress does not cede its lawmaking authority to the executive branch, the Court requires that Congress provide “intelligible principles” when it delegates authority to enforce the laws to agencies within the executive branch. This rule, called the “Nondelegation Doctrine,” is designed to protect Congress’s lawmaking role within the separation of powers and, ultimately, to protect against a tyrannical consolidation of power in the executive branch.
Does SORNA’s delegation to the attorney general to determine the retroactive application of the Act violate the Nondelegation Doctrine?
The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act
In 2006, Congress enacted SORNA to “establish a comprehensive national system for the registration” of sex offenders. Before SORNA, every state had its own registration system, and the federal government required states to adopt certain unifying measures or lose certain federal funds. SORNA strengthened these baselines, but it also did more.
In particular, SORNA created—and required states to create as a condition of receiving certain federal funds—criminal penalties for individuals who fail to comply with its registration requirements. SORNA created a federal three-tier system for classifying sex offenders based on the significance of their offense, and made it a federal crime to fail to register for a specified number of years, depending on the tier of the crime. (This was different from the classification system that many states previously used, which set requirements based on individualized risk assessments of the offenders.) The Act states that a person who (1) “is required to register under” SORNA; (2) “travels in interstate or foreign commerce”; and (3) “knowingly fails to register or update a registration as required by” SORNA is guilty of a federal crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). It also requires states (again, as a condition of receiving certain federal funds) to “provide a criminal penalty that includes a maximum term that is greater than 1 year for the failure of a sex offender to comply with” SORNA’s registration requirements.
But Congress didn’t specify whether these new criminal provisions would apply to pre-Act offenders. (The question was important: legislators estimated that there were more than 500,000 pre-Act offenders when Congress passed the law.) Instead, Congress left it to the attorney general. SORNA says: “The Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the requirements of this subchapter to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of this chapter…and to prescribe rules for the registration of any such sex offenders…” 34 U.S.C. § 20913(d).
This gives the attorney general quite a bit of discretion. It allows the attorney general to apply SORNA to pre-Act offenders immediately, or later, or not at all. It also allows the attorney general to make a decision at one time, but to change course later, or under any new president, with regard to whether and how SORNA’s registration requirements would apply to pre-Act offenders.
In fact, various attorneys general have exercised this discretion, at least to some extent. Attorney General Alberto G. Gonzales issued an interim rule about six months after Congress passed SORNA stating that SORNA would apply to pre-Act offenders. Since then, different attorneys general issued different guidelines as to how it would apply, particularly with regard to offenders who had been released from prison for longer than SORNA’s maximum registration periods (for example, a person who was released more than 25 years before Congress enacted SORNA, but who would be subject to a maximum 25-year registration period under SORNA). As relevant to this case, Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidance in 2010 that SORNA credit pre-Act offenders with their entire prior period in the community, regardless of what a local jurisdiction might decide.
In 2005, Herman Avery Gundy pled guilty in Maryland to sexual assault of a minor. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with ten years suspended and five years of probation.
In November 2010, Gundy completed his state sentence and was transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to serve a related federal sentence. The Bureau of Prisons transferred Gundy from Maryland to a prison in Pennsylvania. In July 2012, it transferred him to a halfway house in New York to complete his sentence. Gundy was released on August 27, 2012. He remained in New York.
In October 2012, Gundy was arrested in New York and charged with violating SORNA’s federal criminal provision. The indictment alleged that Gundy (1) was “an individual required to register” under SORNA based on his 2005 Maryland sex offense, (2) traveled in interstate commerce, and (3) “thereafter resided in New York without registering” as required by SORNA.
Gundy moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing, among other things, that SORNA could not constitutionally apply to him, because Congress delegated too much authority to the attorney general to make a fundamentally legislative decision about whether SORNA applied to pre-Act offenders. The district court initially dismissed the indictment, but later, on remand from the Second Circuit, rejected Gundy’s constitutional argument. The Second Circuit affirmed, and remanded the case for trial. Gundy was convicted, and the district court sentenced him to time served and five years of supervised release. Gundy appealed, again arguing that SORNA could not constitutionally apply to him. The Second Circuit again rejected this argument. This appeal followed.
In order to protect Congress’s lawmaking authority within our separation-of-powers system—and to ensure that Congress does not cede this authority to the executive branch—the Court has set a standard for congressional delegations: it requires Congress to provide “intelligible principles” whenever it delegates authority to enforce the law to agencies within the executive branch. This is called the “Nondelegation Doctrine.”
Historically speaking, the Nondelegation Doctrine has been loose and quite permissive, giving Congress wide berth. Thus, the Court has said that a congressional delegation satisfies the Nondelegation Doctrine “if Congress clearly delineates the general policy, the public agency which is to apply it, and the boundaries of th[e] delegated authority.” American Power & Light Co. v. SEC, 329 U.S. 90 (1946). To date, the Court has found only two statutory delegations that violated the Doctrine, and both of those provided almost no guidance to the executive.
Still, Gundy contends that SORNA’s delegation to the attorney general to determine the Act’s application to pre-Act offenders violates the Doctrine. Gundy argues first that SORNA provides no intelligible principles to the attorney general, because it doesn’t say “whether he should make any pre-Act offenders register; which offenders should be required to register; or even what he must (or must not) consider in deciding these questions.” He says that even the government concedes that SORNA allows the attorney general to take no action at all, to wait years before taking action, and to reverse course at any time. Gundy claims this unbridled authority “can only be characterized as ‘legislative’ power” in violation of the separation of powers.
Gundy argues next that the Court should apply a heightened nondelegation standard in this context, and that SORNA violates the heightened standard, too. In particular, Gundy claims that SORNA delegates “significant power” to the attorney general “to make policy decisions that bear directly on an individual’s liberty…; disturb settled expectations of law…; and infringe states’ sovereign interests (by regulating purely intrastate conduct and dictating to states, as a condition of federal funding, how they must regulate and criminalize conduct within their own borders).” Gundy contends that these features of SORNA require a heightened nondelegation standard, and that SORNA fails, because “the statute gives the attorney general no meaningful guidance as to how to exercise these vast powers.”
The government counters that SORNA satisfies the traditional Nondelegation Doctrine. The government says that the Act identifies the official to whom it delegates authority (the attorney general), and that SORNA’s text and history sufficiently provide a “general policy” that the attorney general should pursue in making the determination. The government claims that SORNA thus easily satisfies the deferential traditional nondelegation standard.
To illustrate its point, the government contends that SORNA provides the attorney general the exact same discretion as a hypothetical (and valid) statute that required all pre-Act offenders to register but authorized the attorney general to grant waivers. Under this hypothetical (and, again, valid) statute, “the scope of [the Attorney General’s] authority…would be the same.” The government says that if Congress can enact this hypothetical statute (which it can), then it can also enact SORNA.
The government argues next that the Court need not address Gundy’s argument about a heightened nondelegation standard. The government contends that SORNA does not raise especial concerns that would justify a heightened standard, that the Court has already rejected a heightened standard, and that SORNA would satisfy any standard, anyway.
This case addresses a key question left open the last time the Court took on SORNA, in Reynolds v. United States. 565 U.S. 432 (2012). In that case, the Court ruled that pre-Act offenders do not have to register under SORNA until the attorney general validly specified that the Act’s registration provisions applied to them. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noted that SORNA potentially raised a nondelegation problem:
it is not entirely clear to me that Congress can constitutionally leave it to the Attorney General to decide—with no statutory standard whatever governing his discretion—whether a criminal statute will or will not apply to certain individuals. That seems to me sailing close to the wind with regard to the principle that legislative powers are nondelegable.
This case picks up that cue. That’s notable, because the Nondelegation Doctrine has been all but dormant since 1935. In that year, the Court ruled in Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan, 293 U.S. 388 (1935), and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935), that two different statutes were unconstitutional. Since then, the Court has not ruled a single act of Congress unconstitutional under the Doctrine. This case could resurrect this long-dormant doctrine.
This could be especially significant in the broader context of a Court that seems increasingly skeptical, even hostile, to aggressive agency rule-making—what some describe as impermissible “lawmaking”—within the executive branch. This hostility comes out in the increasingly common arguments from some quarters against judicial deference toward agency rule-making under so-called “Chevron deference.” Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Chevron deference says that the courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of a statute, so long as the interpretation is reasonable. Opponents of Chevron deference call for greater judicial scrutiny of agency interpretations, in order to rein them in. (As this piece goes to print, Judge Brett Kavanaugh is fielding questions on this precise topic from senators on the Judiciary Committee.) Arguments against Chevron deference share this feature with arguments against the deferential Nondelegation Doctrine: They both seek to control an executive bureaucracy that some see as an unaccountable, lawmaking “fourth branch” of government.
Within this context, the Gundy decision could contribute to an overall move by the Court to rein in executive agency actions. Such a move could shift power away from executive agencies to Congress.
But on that point, it’s important to remember that in our separation-of-powers system there’s a third independent branch of government, the judiciary. And if the Court exercises its prerogative to shift power in this way—by tightening up the Nondelegation Doctrine, by doing away with Chevron deference, or by otherwise reining in agencies’ actions—it looks more like the judiciary is the branch that gets a boost in power.