The Administrative State and the Common Law: Regulatory Substitutes or Complements?

37 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2016 Last revised: 11 Jul 2016

Date Written: June 1, 2016


The modern administrative state looms larger than ever, and grows at an ever-accelerating pace. Not everyone is pleased with these developments. Four such individuals — Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Thomas, Alito, and the late Justice Scalia — have expressed their displeasure, indeed their alarm, with consistency, clarity, and vigor. They warn that the rise of administrative agencies, and the attendant ascendance of doctrines of mandatory judicial deference to agency interpretations of federal law, signals no less than the end of our government’s separation-of-powers structure, and our right to live our lives without fear of bureaucratic encroachment at every turn. Their opinions and dissents sounding this theme reverberate with seemingly unprecedented urgency in the face of a never-before-encountered threat.

As it turns out, however, the same alarm bell was sounded decades ago — by Roscoe Pound. Pound viewed administrative action as lawless, capricious, and marred by prejudice. He warned that agencies were self-interested, too powerful, and ever grasping for even more power.

After outlining the uncannily similar attitude towards agencies expressed by Pound and our Supreme Court’s conservative core, this Article probes how those views diverge. For Pound, the ideal regulatory alternative to agency action was the common law of torts, which he characterized as the last bastion of a democratic society. This is decidedly not the view of the conservative core. Their antagonism towards the common law of torts, which apparently runs even deeper than their hostility towards agencies, is on full display in their federal preemption decisions. How, then, to fill the regulatory void the conservative core seems to leave agape? This Article proposes one possible path to the answer.

Drawing inspiration from the views of Pound himself, as well as the work of Guido Calabresi, this Article proposes that courts should adopt an altogether new approach, one whereby they effectively incorporate input from federal agencies, while at the same time ensuring that such agencies do not overreach. This need not entail the wholesale rejection of agency interpretive authority espoused by the conservative core in its non-preemption decisions. Instead, and as even Pound recognized, courts can and should exercise oversight to ensure that agency interpretations and conclusions are backed by responsible rulemaking procedures and empirical support. This approach can lead to an effective tort-agency partnership, where the administrative state and common law can operate as regulatory complements.

Keywords: preemption; Chevron deference; Auer deference; Roscoe Pound; Calabresi

JEL Classification: K13, K23, K41

Suggested Citation

Sharkey, Catherine M., The Administrative State and the Common Law: Regulatory Substitutes or Complements? (June 1, 2016). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 65, 1705, 2016, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-23, Available at SSRN:

Catherine M. Sharkey (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-998-6729 (Phone)

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