Over at JOTWELL last week, I reviewed Amy Semet’s terrific new article An Empirical Examination of Agency Statutory Interpretation, which is forthcoming in the Minnesota Law Review. Here’s a snippet from my review:
Inspired by Lisa Bressman and Abbe Gluck’s pioneering empirical study on how congressional staffers approach drafting statutes, I spent months in 2013 surveying federal agency rule drafters on how they interpret statutes and draft regulations. Among its many methodological limitations, my study focused exclusively on agency rulemaking. Agencies, of course, interpret statutes in a variety of other regulatory contexts, including adjudication, enforcement, guidance, permitting, and monitoring—just to name a few. Indeed, it’s fair to say that most agency statutory interpretation takes place outside of the rulemaking context.
Thanks to an exciting new voice in administrative law, we now have some more light shining into this black box of agency statutory interpretation. In An Empirical Examination of Agency Statutory Interpretation, Amy Semet turns her attention to agency adjudication and, in particular, how the multi-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approaches statutory interpretation.1 To conduct this empirical assessment, Semet reviews more than 7,000 cases that the NLRB heard over two dozen years (1993-2016) and three presidential administrations (Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama). This study provides a treasure trove of insights into agency statutory interpretation. Here are a few of the highlights . . . .
And here is the abstract for the article:
How do administrative agencies interpret statutes? Despite the theoretical treatment scholars offer on how agencies construe statutes, far less is known empirically about administrative statutory interpretation even though agencies play a critical role in interpreting statutes. This Article looks behind the black box of agency statutory interpretation to review how administrative agencies use canons and other tools of statutory interpretation to decide cases. Surveying over 7,000 cases heard by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) from 1993-2016, I analyze the statutory methodologies the Board uses in its decisions in order to uncover patterns of how the Board interprets statutes over time. Overall, I find no ideological coherence to statutory methodology. Board members switch between textualist or purposive methods depending upon the partisan outcome sought. Indeed, Board members often use statutory methodologies to dueling purposes, with majority and dissenting Board members using the same statutory methodology to support contrasting outcomes. The Board has also changed how it interprets statutes over time, relying in recent years more on vague pronouncements of policy and less on precedent or legislative history. Moreover, despite scholars arguing that agencies should interpret statutes differently than courts, in practice, this study indicates that the NLRB interprets its governing statute in similar fashion to how courts do. After analyzing the empirical data, I set forth policy recommendations for how agencies should interpret statutes. The balance required—between policy coherence, stability and democratic accountability—is fundamentally different in the context of agency statutory interpretation than for interpretation by a judicial body. Rather than acting like a court, adjudicative agencies like the NLRB should leverage their expertise to arrive at an interpretation that best effectuates the purpose of the statute. For an agency like the NLRB that makes decisions almost exclusively through adjudication this may necessitate that the agency reveal its statutory interpretation in a more transparent fashion through rulemaking.
This post is part of the Administrative Law Bridge Series, which highlights terrific scholarship in administrative law and regulation to help bridge the gap between theory and practice in the regulatory state. The Series is further explained here, and all posts in the Series can be found here.