Charting the New Landscape of Administrative Adjudication
Christopher J. Walker
Which should prevail—the Take Care Clause of Article II or the Due Process Clause? To Justice Breyer’s chagrin, the majorities in Lucia v. SEC and Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB expressly declined to resolve whether the U.S. Constitution condones SEC administrative law judges’ and other similarly situated agency adjudicators’ current statutory protection from at-will removal. The crux of the problem is that, on one hand, senior officials may use at-will removal to pressure agency adjudicators and thereby potentially imperil the impartiality that due process requires. On the other hand, Article II limits Congress’s ability to cocoon executive officers, including potentially agency adjudicators, from at-will removal.
This Article argues that the executive branch itself can and should moot or mitigate this constitutional clash. Nothing in Article II prevents the president from issuing executive orders and agencies from promulgating regulations—collectively, what I refer to as “impartiality regulations”—that require good cause for disciplining and removing agency adjudicators, as well as other means of protecting adjudicator impartiality. Indeed, the executive branch has a long-standing yet overlooked practice of using executive orders and regulations for similar purposes. Impartiality regulations are but one form of the executive branch’s internal separation of powers. Such self-imposed separation provides a strong theoretical and practical solution for the agency-adjudicator dilemma.
Unlike rulemaking and judicial review, administrative adjudication is governed by a norm of exceptionalism. Agencies rarely adjudicate according to the Administrative Procedure Act’s formal adjudication provisions, and the statute has little role in defining informal adjudication or specifying its minimum procedural requirements. Due process has almost nothing to say about the matter. The result is that there are few uniform, cross-cutting procedural requirements in adjudication, and most hearings are conducted using procedures tailored for individual agencies or programs. This Article explores the benefits and costs of adjudication’s exceptionalism norm, an analysis that implicates the familiar tension between uniformity and specialization in the law. It argues that the exceptionalism norm overemphasizes specialization, at great cost. This Article urges a new regime designed to more properly balance the values of specialization and uniformity. The proposal contemplates that as in rulemaking, the project would entail an interbranch effort to protect fundamental rights and promote institutional integrity while preserving space for needed agency discretion.
Are There as Many Trademark Offices as Trademark Examiners?
Michael D. Frakes & Melissa F. Wasserman
Federal trademark-registration rights have grown in import, and trademark owners have taken notice. In the fiscal year of 2018, over 660,000 federal trademark registration applications were filed with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“Trademark Office”), representing a 60 percent increase from a decade prior. Yet despite the fact that there is growing concern that the Trademark Office is routinely issuing inconsistent trademark determinations, systematic empirical studies of the administrative process of obtaining federal registration rights are virtually nonexistent. This Article begins to close this gap by conducting the first large-scale study of trademark officials, known as trademark-examining attorneys, who make the initial determination on whether to accept or decline a federal trademark registration. Utilizing a novel dataset comprising over 7.8 million trademark applications, this Article examines the extent to which trademark-examining attorneys’ determinations differ from one another. We find substantial heterogeneity in Trademark Office outcomes. Trademark-examining attorneys have wildly divergent publication rates and registration rates even while controlling for a range of characteristics of the applications. The duration of time an application is before the Trademark Office also varies considerably among trademark-examining attorneys as does whether a filed opposition is sustained.
In our nation’s immigration system, a noncitizen charged with deportability may be detained pending the outcome of removal proceedings. These individuals are housed in remote facilities closely resembling prisons, with severe restrictions on access to counsel and contact with family members. Due to severe backlogs in the adjudication of removal proceedings, such detention may last months or even years.
Many of the noncitizens initially detained by enforcement officials have the opportunity to request a bond hearing before an administrative adjudicator called an immigration judge (“IJ”). Although these IJs preside over relatively formal, on-the-record hearings and are understood to exercise “independent judgment,” concerns have been raised that they are subject to control by political superiors in the executive branch.
This Article analyzes approximately 780,000 custody decisions by IJs from January 2001 through September 2019 to explore the question of political influence over these adjudicators. Its bivariate analyses based on cross-tabulations, without additional controls, show that noncitizens have fared worse in bond proceedings during the Trump administration than they did during the prior two presidential administrations. Importantly, these differences were not limited to decisions rendered by Trump-appointed IJs. Rather, all IJs—regardless of the president whose Attorney General appointed them—have been more likely to deny bond or impose a higher bond amount during the Donald Trump Era than during the Barack Obama or George W. Bush (“Bush II”) Eras. Although this analysis does not control for the myriad of demographic, political, economic, geographic, and institutional factors that could impact decision-making, these findings call into question the political independence of IJs making decisions on noncitizen bonds.