Liberty Matters

Judge Glock, “Albert Venn Dicey and the Immunity of the Administrative State” (December 2020)

Welcome to our December 2020 edition of Liberty Matters.  In this month’s forum Judge Glock has written our lead essay on the A.V. Dicey.  Dicey was an English legal scholar at Oxford in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who is best known for having popularized the phrase “the rule of law”.  Dicey’s most famous work was Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution and was widely read in Britain and America.  As Glock notes in his essay, Dicey argued that rule of law, which he saw as equality before the law including those in power, only existed in two countries, Britain and the US.  He contrasted those two nations with France where Dicey believed its administrative law tradition did not sufficiently hold government officials to the same standard as its citizens.  Glock’s essay is a powerful reminder of why Dicey is one of the most important legal scholars of the past 200 years and why his work has been so important in understanding how law and liberty are intertwined in the Anglo-American conception of legal justice.

The Discussion

Lead Essay: Judge Glock, "Albert Venn Dicey and the Immunity of the Administrative State" [Posted December 7, 2020]

Responses and Critiques

  1. Paul Moreno, "Interest-Group Liberalism and the Administrative State" [Posted December 10, 2020]
  2. Joesph Postell, "De-Immunizing the Administrative State: A Diceyan Prescription with an American Heritage" [Posted December 14, 2020]
  3. Michael Greve, "Qualified Immunity: A Qualified Amen to Judge Glock" [Posted December 17, 2020]

The Conversation

  1. Judge Glock, "Reply to Moreno, Postell, and Greve" [Posted December 21, 2020]
  2. Paul Moreno, "Imperia in Imperio" [Posted December 23, 2020]
  3. Joseph Postell, "On Officer Liability" [Posted December 29, 2020]
  4. Michael Greve, "Patterns of Evasion" [Posted December 31, 2020]

About the Authors

Judge Glock is the Senior Policy Advisor at the Cicero Institute.  He was formerly a visiting professor at the Department of Economics at West Virginia University. He received his Ph.D. in History with a focus on economic history from Rutgers University. Among other places, Judge's academic writing has been featured in the Business History Review, Review of Banking and Financial Law, and Tax Notes, and his public writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Politico. Judge focuses his research on the areas of regulation, financial reform, and housing policy.

     Watch Professor Glock's video Author Interview here.

Paul Moreno is the William and Berniece Grewcock Chair in Constitutional History at Hillsdale College.  He is also the director of academic programs at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center.  He received his Ph.D at the University of Maryland and has held visiting professorships at Princeton University and University of Paris School of Law.  He is the author of From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1933-1972 (1997) and Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History (2006). He is currently working on a book on the constitutional revolution of the New Deal. He has published articles in the Journal of Southern History, Independent Review, Journal of Policy History, and Academic Questions.  

     Watch Professor Moreno's video Author Interview here.

Joseph Postell is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale  College.  His research focuses primarily on regulation, administrative law, and the administrative state.  He is the author of Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government published by the University of Missouri Press in 2017.  He has written various scholarly articles on bureaucracies and administration.  He has also contributed numerous articles to Liberty Fund’s site Law and Liberty.

     Watch Professor Postell's video Author Interview here.

Michael Greve is a Professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School and author of The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012).  

     Watch Professor Greve's video Author Interview here.

LEAD ESSAY: Judge Glock, "Albert Venn Dicey and the Immunity of the Administrative State" 

Although most scholars’ legacies survive only in footnotes, Albert Venn Dicey won the greater glory of surviving in a phrase: “the rule of law.” Dicey popularized the term and made it not just an academic category but, eventually, a battle cry for politicians and policymakers of varied stripes.

The rule of law today means different things to different people. But Dicey’s particular conception is most often used to critique the rise of the administrative state. Dicey contrasted the rule of law, which he identified with the ordered liberties of the English speaking world, with the French droit administratif or administrative law, which he considered both arbitrary and dangerous.

Yet Dicey’s critiques of administrative law have little to do with contemporary concerns. In fact, he contrasted the rule of law not with rule-making regulators, with whom he had some sympathy, but rather with the legal immunity of government officials. If one is allowed some liberties with his legacy, one can say that Dicey would be most exercised not by bodies like the Federal Communications Commission, but by the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which protects government officials from lawsuits. While the subject of qualified immunity is commonly debated in the realm of police procedure, there is almost no discussion of the immunity of other government officials such as regulators and inspectors.

This article considers Dicey’s legacy for the study of modern administrative law, most especially in the United States, and most especially his concerns for equality before the law and the immunity of government officials from suit. These ideas remain perhaps Dicey’s most important, yet underrated, contributions to scholarship.

Dicey’s Rule of Equality before the Law

Although Dicey both popularized and systematized the idea of the rule of law, the idea had many parents. Dicey attained his fame as the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, a seat he held from 1882 to 1909, but it was the first occupant of that chair, William Blackstone, who outlined an early conception of the rule of law. Blackstone wrote that the distinguishing fact about law is that “it is a rule; not a transient sudden order from a superior to or concerning a particular person; but something permanent, uniform, and universal.”[1] This definition, with its focus on rule-bound consistency and universality, would almost perfectly mimic Dicey’s. Other versions of the idea came from the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, who used a version of the phrase in a famous debate about Jamaica Governor Edward Eyre, who had massacred Jamaican inhabitants in the midst of a popular revolt. Mill led the call for a prosecution of Eyre, arguing that “government by law” was at stake, and that the failure to indict a high official for such a crime, even when carried out under color of legal authority, disrupted the English legal order.[2] Dicey shared Mill’s concern for Eyre’s actions, and made the prosecution of misbehaving government officials the heart of his work.[3]

It was in Dicey’s most famous book, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, published in 1885, that he first discussed what he called the “rule, supremacy, or predominance of law.”[4] To Dicey, the rule of law had three fundamental attributes: first, the absence of arbitrary authority in the executive; second, the formal legal equality of every person; and third, a constitution of some sort explaining how laws were made and applied.

Yet Dicey focused much of his work on the second attribute, equality before the law, and especially the idea that government officials, even when following orders, should be subject to normal legal procedures. When discussing the “principles of constitutional law,” he saluted “the greatest of all such principles, namely, that obedience to administrative orders is no defense” to suit or prosecution of executive officials.[5] When discussing French law, he said the “most despotic characteristic of droit administratif lies in its tendency to protect from supervision or control of the ordinary law Courts any servant of the State, who is guilty of an act, however illegal, whilst acting in bona fide obedience to the orders of his superiors.”[6] Dicey said the existence of legal remedies for citizens against any individual in government was essential, and claimed “This rule of law, which means at bottom the right of the Courts to punish any illegal act by whomsoever committed, is of the very essence of English institutions.”[7]

Dicey’s focus on remedies against executive overreach emerged from his obsession with legal procedure, a focus he carried on from his hero, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for whom, he noted “Procedure, dreary though the matter seems, was the favorite object of [his] intense attention and long study.”[8] Bentham mocked most declarations of abstract rights, such as those in the American Declaration of Independence, because they did not also explain the procedure to enforce them.[9] Dicey argued that unlike many formal and “rigid” constitutions that created individual rights, the English constitution took freedom as its baseline and focused instead on how to create procedures and remedies for protecting that freedom from invasion, including, of course, allowing lawsuits against officials.[10] As his friend the legal scholar Henry Maine said, in England, “substantive law has the look at first of being gradually secreted in the interstices of procedure,” and that procedure included the ability to bring actions against anyone.[11]

The other idea Dicey took from both Bentham and Maine was that the long history of the English constitution demonstrated the substitution of “status for contract.”[12] Status meant inherited privilege or privilege granted by government, while contract meant free and equal relations between peers, and in Dicey’s mind the constitution kept evolving to make contract sacrosanct. Dicey thus hated any laws that tended to take account of the status of individuals, such as the Landlord and Tenant Act of Ireland in 1870, which, he thought, “made the rights of Irish landlords and Irish tenants dependent upon status, not upon contract.”[13] In his conception, there should be no separate “classes” under English law, just equal rights and remedies. He said that “In England the idea of legal equality, or of the universal subjection of all classes to one law administered by the ordinary Courts, has been pushed to its utmost limit."[14]

Equality before the law was thus the very centerpiece of Dicey’s idea of the rule of law. Sometimes he even replaced the phrase “rule of law” with the phrase “the rule of equal law.”[15] Early in his career he claimed that “Half of the evils of modern England arise from the undue prominence of class distinctions.”[16] Although at first directed against the aristocracy, he later focused his criticisms at the special exemptions given to some working-class groups. The law on which he trained his sharpest barbs was not one creating a new regulatory body, but the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, which, he said, “confers upon a trade union a freedom from civil liability…and in short confers upon every trade union a privilege and protection possessed by another person or body of persons.”[17] Elsewhere he described the act as “legalized wrong-doing” which meant the “the rule of equal law is in England now exposed to a new peril.”[18] Anything that moved the English constitution backwards from contract to status was therefore an inexcusable danger, and that would include giving executive officers a special status.

The English Idea of Separation of Powers

In the final degree, most questions of administrative law are questions about the separation of powers. Administrative law concerns how an executive branch handles powers that more often belong to either the legislative or judicial branches, such as when an executive commission writes a “rule” or a law, instead of the legislature, or when that commission prosecutes a case through an administrative law judge instead of a typical judge in the judicial branch.

Yet Dicey was suspicious of the whole idea of “the so-called ‘separation of powers’…” or, in other words, of preventing “the government, the legislature and the Courts from encroaching on one another’s province.” He thought this principle of rigid separation came from Monstequieu’s misunderstanding of earlier English procedure.[19] In Dicey’s conception, the separation of powers meant the inability of the judicial branch to check the executive. As he said on the final page of his Introduction to Study of the Law of the Constitution, the “separation des pouvoirs [separation of powers] means, as construed by Frenchman, the right of the government to control the judges.”[20] In fact, he said that it is the “the ‘separation of powers,’ on which…the droit administratif of France depends.”[21]

Such an understanding of the separation of powers still allowed Dicey to rail against the existence of executive-branch judges. His focus on procedure and remedies meant he understood that no matter what formal rights were given individuals, if they were tried under judges controlled by the executive, government officials would typically triumph and individual citizens would typically lose. Thus one of the centerpieces of his attack on the droit administratif concerned the fact that all French government officials were tried by the Council of State, which was itself an arm of the French government.[22] Dicey would be dismayed by the rise of what would later be known as “administrative law judges.”

Today, however, most administrative law discussions concern not adjudications by administrative judges but the legislative power of administration commissions. Dicey had little anxiety about such semi-legislative bodies, and the reason comes from his belief in the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament. As one of his contemporaries, Walter Bagehot, wrote in The English Constitution (1867), the “secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers.”[23]

Dicey’s belief in the total sovereignty of Parliament, which he considered the premier fact of the English constitution, meant he believed it could delegate its rule-making power to other bodies. The second chapter of his Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, in fact, is called “Parliament and Non-Sovereign Law-Making Bodies,” where he described how everything from colonial governments to railroads could make “bye-laws” with all the force of law. In his conception, in fact, even judges, with their “judge-made law,” were just one type of delegated legislator under Parliament, whose specific expertise, as we would call it, should help filling out general principles set by Parliament.[24] Thus the focus of modern administrative law critiques on rule-making (and in England what is called “delegated” or “secondary” legislation) would be of little concern for Dicey.[25] Dicey wanted to protect judges’ independence to protect citizens in individual cases, but his background meant he would have less concern about the executive, or the judiciary, filling out the general rules created by the legislature.

Dicey’s Equal Rule of Law in America

Ironically, perhaps, considering Dicey’s focus on the English constitution, it was in America that Dicey’s work found its greatest reception. One reason is that Dicey often celebrated America’s constitutional heritage. Unlike Bagehot’s The English Constitution, which was an extended explanation of why Britain’s Parliamentary government was superior to America’s presidential and congressional government,[26] Dicey’s Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution located the “rule of law” in only two places, England and America, and he found his foil, instead, in France.[27] Dicey celebrated the “spirit of legalism” that pervaded both England and America, and even, at one point, proposed a common citizenship for the two countries.[28] At times, he even considered America as the very culmination of English legal ideas that were still incipient in his homeland. He claimed that the English Constitution “more truly than any other polity in the world, except the Constitution of the United States, [was]based on the law of the land” or the rule of law.[29]

Yet Dicey’s love for America was balanced by his concerns for its “rigid” constitution, its “excessive” federalism, and its general focus on separation of powers. He in fact argued that divided powers inherent in federalism created the idea of separation of powers in government, since the “federal spirit…is carried much farther than is dictated by the mere logic of the constitution. Thus the authority assigned to the United States Constitution is not concentrated in any single official or body of officials.”[30] Some of Americans’ most trenchant modern critiques of administrative law, resting on a reading of the Constitution and its stark divisions of legislative, executive and judicial powers, simply did not interest Dicey.

Yet Dicey still has much to say on other aspects of the rise of the administrative state in America, and especially the rise of the immunity of executive officers, which in Dicey’s time was exceptional, but which today protects wide swathes of officials and official actions in America.

For most of American history, all government officers were subject to lawsuits for whatever they did, no matter who ordered their actions.[31] It wasn’t until Spalding v. Vilas, in 1896, that the Supreme Court, seemingly out of whole cloth, suggested that some top officers of government could be immune from suits when performing their official duties.[32] And it was only in the more recent, and half-remembered, case of Barr v. Mateo (1959), that the court extended that immunity to most officers of government. The novelty of the idea is indicated by the fact that this latter case elicited five separate opinions from five separate justices, all contesting its meaning.[33] Eventually, the courts only slightly “qualified,” or limited, that immunity for police officers and lower functionaries.[34] In 1988 the federal government passed the “Westfall Act” which gives all federal employees absolute immunity from tort law when engaged in their duties, and obliged the suits be transferred to the government. This gives all sorts of regulatory and other officials immunity even when performing plainly unconstitutional or illegal acts.[35]

As the Westfall Act indicates, the old conception of officer liability at law has been replaced with a waiver of “sovereign immunity” of government from suit, and thus we decided to make the government liable even if individuals are not. But as Dicey said of a similar move at the time in France, which made the government increasingly subject to damages: “It ought to be noted that this extension of the liability of the state must, it would seem, in practice be a new protection for officials.”[36] This is indeed what has happened in America.

Today, issues of “qualified immunity” for police officers, mainly for shootings or killings of civilians, are at the forefront of the political debate. There have been consistent calls by legal scholars to remove this immunity, but few connect it to administrative law. [37] Even fewer discuss the problem that almost any government official is now immunized against lawsuit no matter what his or her actions, whether it be a housing inspector issuing a fine or an Occupational Safety and Health Administration official invading a premise. In each case, the officer can plead that they were just doing their duty and escape any possibility of sanction.[38] Dicey would be horrified.

The goal of equality before the law, as Dicey framed it, remains a touchstone for those interested in both equality and liberty in America. Although the extent to which officers should be liable to suit is open for debate, we can legitimately be concerned about the ramifications of the current immunity. The full extent of Dicey’s ideas about the equal rule of law has been largely forgotten. Yet the importance of this idea is Dicey’s greatest gift, one which, if anything, carries more weight than when he first promulgated it back in 1885.

[1] Blackstone’s Commentaries, vol. 1, 44.

[2] Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 146.

[3] Dylan Lino, “The Rule of Law and the Rule of Empire: A.V. Dicey in Imperial Context,” The Modern Law Review 81, no. 5 (Sept. 2018): 750-751.

[4] A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 110.

[5] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, cxlviii.

[6] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 225.

[7] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 314.

[8] See A.V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law & Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), 146.

[9] Dicey, Law & Public Opinion, 104 (“He dissected with merciless severity the patent fallacies of the Declaration of Independence.”) Later in his life Dicey came to have some sympathy for such declarations of rights. “For the doctrine of innate rights, logically unsound though it be, places in theory a limit upon the despotism of the majority,” and American Declaration was “after all a formal acknowledgement that sovereign power cannot convert might into right.” Dicey, Law & Public Opinion, 219.

[10] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 118.

[11] Henry Maine, Dissertations on Early Law and Custom (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1886), 389.

[12] See Dicey's desire to abolish all laws based on status. Dicey, Law & Public Opinion, 108.

[13] Dicey had the same complaint about workman’s compensation act of 1897, ibid, 201. Law & Public Opinion, 187.

[14] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 114

[15] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 122.

[16] Richard Cosgrove, The Rule of Law: Albert Venn Dicey, Victorian Jurist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 31.

[17] A.V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law & Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), 373.

[18] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, lviii and 122.

[19] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 219-220.

[20] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 229. Like Philip Hamburger today, Dicey also thought administrative law looked a lot like the tendencies of the Tudors and Stuarts. He observes that “the prerogative maintained by Crown lawyers under the Tudors and the Stuarts bear a marked resemblance to the legal and administrative ideas which at the present day under the Third Republic still support the droit administratif of France.” Ibid, xxvii. Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[21] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 138-139

[22] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 235-240.

[23] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, 2nd ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, [1867] 1873), 48.

[24] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 18, See also, Ibid, 36. For his later concerns, however, at the broad discretion given by enactments to some officials, such as Insurance Commissioners, to make new rules, see Dicey, Law & Public Opinion, 369.

[25] Michael Taggart “From ‘Parliamentary Powers’ To Privatization: the Chequered History of Delegated Legislation in the Twentieth Century,” University of Toronto Law Journal 55 (2005): 575-627

[26] See Bagehot, English Constitution

[27] Indeed, many of Dicey’s ideas came from conceptions of France in Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, where which contrasted the freedom of America with the failures of the ancient regime in his own country. See Bernard J. Hibbets, “The Politics of Principle: Albert Venn Dicey and the Rule of Law,” Anglo American Law Review 23 (1974): 10. Dicey once cited Tocqueville as the most important influence on his thinking. Cosgrove, Rule of Law, 13.

[28] Lino, “The Rule of Law and the Rule of Empire,” 748-749; Cosgrove, The Rule of Law, 198.   

[29] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 314. Emphasis added.

[30] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, 83. See also, “Federalism means the distribution of the force of the state among a number of co-ordinate bodies each originating in and controlled by the constitution.” Ibid, 87.

[31] For discussion of history of suits against government officers, including in equity, see John Harrison, “Ex Parte Young,” Stanford Law Review 60 (2008): 989-1022.

[32] Spalding v. Vilas, 161 U.S. 483 (1896)

[33] Barr v. Mateo, 360 U.S. 564 (1959)

[34] Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)

[35] See, e.g., Osborn v. Haley, 549 U.S. 225 (2007).

[36] Dicey, Study of the Law of the Constitution, lxiii. Dicey ended his chapter comparing the rule of law and droit administratif by citing a French theorist stating a division between two types of countries, those where effort is to “shelter the liability of the State behind the personal responsibility of the servant.” The other where “every effort is made to cover the responsibility of servant of the State behind the liability of the state itself.” Ibid, 267.

[38] See Ali v. Rumsfeld, 649 F. 3d 762 (D.C. Circ 2011) on Westfall Act immunizing officers in War on Terror.


Paul Moreno, "Interest-Group Liberalism and the Administrative State" 

Judge Glock introduces a new (to me) insight into A. V. Dicey’s classic view of the constitutional problem of the administrative state. As Philip Hamburger has recently demonstrated, the ways that “administrative law” is unlawful are many. Glock via Dicey focuses on one fundamental problem: the immunity of government officers, which Dicey believed violated the bedrock principle of equality before the law.

Glock rightly points to the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, which gave British labor unions legal immunities, and which Dicey called “legalized wrongdoing.” This Act became the model for the kind of privilege that American labor leaders desired. Exemption from the antitrust laws and the abolition of the “labor injunction” came in the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932. Federal promotion of collective bargaining came in the 1935 National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act. (For a long time, Wagner’s bill was called the “Trade Disputes Act.”) The Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Wagner Act (hot on the heels of President Roosevelt’s threat to “pack” the Court) marked the beginning of the modern entitlement state. It is one of the shortcomings of Christopher Caldwell’s generally excellent book, The Age of Entitlement, that it does not recognize the link between this original entitlement act and the later Civil Rights Act that he says ushered in “the age,” particularly when the latter was in so many ways the product of the former.[1]

However, these acts seem to belie Dicey’s assumption of a tradition of “equality before the law”—or at least makes it appear to be more of an aspiration than a tradition. American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers believed that England (his native country) more readily adopted union-empowering legislation like the Trade Disputes Act precisely because it was a class-based, aristocratic society. The American insistence on legal equality was the obstacle on this side of the Pond. As the great progressive legal scholar Roscoe Pound would say in 1958, under the Wagner Act unions were free to commits torts against persons and property, interfere with the use of transportation, break contracts, deprive people of the means of livelihood, and misuse trust funds, “things no one else can do with impunity. The labor leader and labor union now stand where the king and government . . . stood at common law.” Rather than a countervailing force to limit corporate power, unions had themselves gained “a despotic centralized control.”

It is notable that the English Trade Disputes Act did not establish an administrative body like the National Labor Relations Board. Instead, British unions established a political party, the Labour Party, to look after union interests. In the United States, organized labor became the most important interest group in the mid-twentieth century Democratic party, but did not turn the Democrats into a Labor party. Indeed, many labor historians lament this fact, claiming that the American political and legal system blunted the potential for the labor movement to transform American capitalism, repeatedly “deradicalizing” the labor movement.

The radical potential of the American labor movement could be seen in the “sit-down strikes” of 1937. The strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, put them in the public eye, and provided the backdrop to President Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court. It is not implausible that the Court’s dramatic reversal in April, 1937, upholding the Wagner Act, which almost everybody expected it to strike down, was in response to the sit-down strikes, to provide an alternative forum to resolve industrial disputes.

The American administrative law of labor highlighted the uniquely powerful place of courts and judicial review in the American administrative state. The Labor Board displayed all the constitutional pathologies of the twentieth century—the delegation of legislative power, its combination with executive and judicial power, and regulatory “capture.” Thus Congress significantly restructured the Board in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was rather like an Administrative Procedure Act specifically for labor relations. The Board nevertheless remained “captured” by the unions. Law Professor Sylvester Petro described “how the NLRB repealed Taft-Hartley” in a 1958 book.[2] Thus courts had to intervene to address some of their most salient abuses.

The Wagner Act made it illegal for employers to discriminate against union labor, and thus compelled employers to bargain collectively and exclusively with unions that themselves discriminated against blacks. (Ironically, the Wagner Act introduced the term “affirmative action.” If an employer was found to violate the act, the Board could compel it to “cease and desist… and to take such affirmative action… as will effectuate the policies of this act.”)[3]The leading black civil rights organizations sought but did not obtain a non-discrimination provision in the Wagner Act. The courts began the reform of the Wagner Act. During World War Two the courts established that unions had a duty of “fair representation.” They did not have to admit blacks as members, but could not discriminate against them if they had the power to bargain for them. The Court recognized that the Wagner Act had given unions quasi-sovereign power. Though it is not usually seen as a “nondelegation” case, this was essentially what the Court did—recognized the enormous power that the Wagner Act had given to unions, and tried to hold them to a constitutional standard of equal protection.[4] The Labor Board remained hostile to civil rights issues, having been “captured” by unions that discriminated against them to one degree or another.

During and after World War Two, presidential commissions were established to prohibit racial discrimination by government contractors. Their impact was limited by the fact that the contractors had to bargain with discriminatory unions. (Many of them did use union discrimination as a convenient cop-out.) In the 1960s the government became more insistent. John F. Kennedy introduced the term “affirmative action” into his 1961 executive order, and employers began to engage in what is sometimes called “soft affirmative action”—letting minorities know that opportunities were available, advertising in black newspapers and recruiting at black colleges, adopting systematic hiring policies rather than relying on nepotism and the “old boys network.” The major change came in the “Philadelphia Plan” in the Johnson administration. First targeted at certain construction trades in particular cities, it was the first program to demand statistical profiles and “goals and timetables” for increasing minority employment.[5] This program was in keeping with Johnson’s Howard University commencement address in 1965, which called for “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” But union resistance, and a challenge by the Comptroller General that the plan violated government procurement laws, led the Johnson Labor Department to suspend the plan.

“Affirmative action” was revived by President Nixon. He intervened in Congress to prevent a legal override of his executive order. His Labor Department defended the program in the courts. (Federal district and appellate courts approved of the Philadelphia Plan; the Supreme Court did not review their decisions.) He then extended the program to all government contractors. He was accused of cynically trying to “divide and conquer” his liberal opponents by pitting the labor and civil rights movements against each other. But the administration was responding to a genuine problem in the development of the American administrative state: the creation of one entitlement (collective bargaining) had collided with the establishment of another (nondiscrimination). University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Sophia Z. Lee has recently written about this problem (without understanding it) in The Workplace Constitution: From the New Deal to the New Right (Cambridge).

The bureaucratic-judicial construction of affirmative action in the government contracting program was largely replicated in the other major employment-discrimination program, the adoption of the “disparate impact” theory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many scholars have echoed policy historian Hugh Davis Graham’s observation that the system of racial preferences arose out of “a closed system of bureaucratic policymaking, one largely devoid not only of public testimony but even of public awareness that policy was being made.”[6] Race had always been the great exception to equality before the law, “the very centerpiece of Dicey’s idea of the rule of law.” But rather than address that anomaly, the New Deal administrative state established a system of class-based policies that exacerbated it.[7] The controversial system of race-based affirmative action arose largely in response to that first round of administrative state-building, and has been since expanded to a host of other groups, taking the United States ever farther away from its ideals of equality before the law and rule of law.


[1] I address this at length in the forthcoming article, “Administered Entitlements: Collective Bargaining to Affirmative Action,” Social Philosophy and Policy.

[2] Sylvester Petro, How the NLRB Repealed Taft-Hartley (Washington: Labor Policy Association, 1958).

[3] 49 Stat. 449 (1935), sec. 10(c).

[4] The leading cases were Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad, 323 U.S. 192 (1944) and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen & Enginemen, 323 U.S. 210 (1944). These cases arose under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, and were extended to the Wagner Act in 1953. See, generally, Paul Frymer, “Acting When Elected Officials Won’t: Federal Courts and Civil Rights Enforcement in the United States, 1935-85,” American Political Science Review 97 (2003).

[5] There were minor adumbrations of this approach by some New Deal agencies in the 1930s, and near the end of the Eisenhower administration’s Committee on Government Contracts.

[6] “The Great Society’s Civil Rights Legacy,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, ed. Sidney Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur (University of Massachusetts, 2005), 376.

[7] Paul Moreno, “An Ambivalent Legacy: Black Americans and the Political Economy of the New Deal,” Independent Review 6 (2002).


Joesph Postell, "De-Immunizing the Administrative State: A Diceyan Prescription with an American Heritage" 

Judge Glock’s essay on Albert Venn Dicey’s legacy for modern administrative law helpfully draws our attention to an important yet neglected issue: the legal immunity of administrative officers. Although Dicey is usually cited as a critic of the administrative state in general, Glock argues that his concerns were narrower than those of today’s “anti-administrativists,”[1] whose concerns are predominantly focused on “rule-making regulators” instead of the legal immunity of administrative officials. “Some of Americans’ most trenchant modern critiques of administrative law,” he writes, “resting on a reading of the Constitution and its stark divisions of legislative, executive and judicial powers, simply did not interest Dicey.”

Glock’s essay commendably highlights the issue of administrative officers’ immunity from personal liability – a modern departure from early American law. However, Dicey’s rule-of-law principles apply to a wider array of legal doctrines and principles than Glock lets on. Those principles can be invoked against other administrative law doctrines that place administrative decisions beyond the reach of judicial decision. In my view, therefore, Dicey is even more relevant to modern administrative law than Glock’s essay credits him for.

First, however, we must acknowledge that Glock is correct about the limits of Dicey’s critique of the administrative state. Dicey was, as Glock notes, a believer in legislative supremacy, which led him to reject the American version of separation of powers and therefore to accept the delegation of legislative power to administrative agencies. Because he started with the “belief in the total sovereignty of Parliament,” it followed that all legal authority could be vested by Parliament in other bodies at will. The American doctrine of the social compact, by contrast, starts with the belief that the people are sovereign, and that all government officials, including legislators, are creatures of the people. When the people vest legislative power in elected representatives, that power cannot be further delegated.[2] Dicey’s commitment to British constitutionalism caused him to overlook the problems associated with delegating legislative power to administrative bodies. 

Still, Dicey’s argument for the rule of law and his criticism of legal immunity of administrative officers is compelling. As a British legal theorist, Dicey understood the threat that executive control over judges posed to individual liberty. His fear of administrative power was rooted in British history, which witnessed assertions of prerogative power over courts by the Crown. His criticism of French droit administratif, as Glock explains, was rooted in its use of administrative tribunals, rather than independent courts, to try cases involving French government officials. This fact alone, however, suggests that Dicey’s concerns about administrative power went beyond the specific question of officer liability. His concerns focused on the broader issue of subjecting administrative officers to the law and the jurisdiction of ordinary courts. 

Defining the rule of law, Dicey famously explained that it meant “no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established before the ordinary courts of the land.” Furthermore, he added, “every man…is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals.”[3] Therefore, Dicey boasted, “[w]ith us every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen.” Officers, therefore, are “in their personal capacity, liable to punishment.”[4] Thus it is true that Dicey directly connected the rule of law to personal liability for government officials. But his principles extended more broadly to the legality of official action as such. If “every man is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals,” officers must be subject to judicial decision when legal controversy arises over the legality of their actions.

 This principle of administrative accountability to ordinary courts should be understood as much broader in its application than the issue of personal liability. Early American legal history, which supports Dicey’s conception of the rule of law, illustrates this. In early America administrative officers were indeed personally liable for damages caused by their illegal actions.[5] But administrators were held legally accountable in other ways as well. When administrators violated the law in the course of carrying out their responsibility, courts could review their decisions and reverse them, particularly when the administrators’ decisions were mandatory. Both at the state level (where most regulatory power resided in the 19th Century) and the national level, courts reviewed administrative decisions and invalidated them if they were not in accordance with law.[6] Most significantly, courts (rather than bureaucrats) were often the administrators themselves. As Ann Woolhandler writes, “[b]efore the development of more bureaucratic forms of government in the nineteenth century, the primary impact of government on citizens was through the courts,” not administrative agencies.[7]  In sum, the legality of administrators’ decisions could be reviewed by courts generally, and legislatures would often make courts the administrators in lieu of executive officers. All of these arrangements promoted Dicey’s rule of law principles.

This aspect of early American administrative law was once well understood. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote extensively about it.[8] Decades later, progressive legal theorists such as Ernst Freund and Roscoe Pound noted it as well.[9] As Pound explained, “nothing is so characteristic of American public law of the nineteenth century as the completeness with which executive action is tied down by legal liability and judicial review.”[10] In sum, one of the core principles of early American administrative law was that courts should be deeply involved in the administration of the law, including judicial review of the legality of administrative action. This was part of the design of early administration in America, in order to advance the same rule-of-law concepts that Dicey alluded to in his famous definition.

Consequently, Dicey’s argument for the rule of law can be applied to a variety of modern administrative law doctrines, beyond the issue of officer liability. For instance, perhaps the most famous principle of American administrative law is the “Chevron doctrine” which requires courts to defer to administrators’ interpretations of law. This doctrine is in serious tension with Dicey’s argument that the rule of law requires government officials to be “subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals.”[11]

Seen in this broader light, Dicey’s insights about the rule of law implicate not only the specific issue of official liability, but the general immunity of the modern administrative state from law. The existence of administrative courts and administrative law judges, judicial deference to administrative decisions, and other issues, are all aspects of the modern state that threaten a Diceyan conception of the rule of law. Judge Glock’s essay rightfully draws our attention to one of these issues, but Dicey’s insights can be usefully applied more broadly to critique the broader legal immunity of the administrative state.