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When and Why Would Courts Defer to Other Entities?

How does a court decide to give deference to the decisions of an administrative agency? Professor Gary Lawson outlines four possible reasons that a court might defer to an agency. When evaluating a particular court opinion that relies on a previous agency decision, the rationale for the court’s deference needs to be taken in account. https://youtube.com/watch?v=yuAuIqohhZ0


Why would a court ever choose to give any measure of weight to the decision of an administrative agency? Well I like to break this down into classes of reasons why a court might choose to give weight to the decision of a prior decision maker. One is what I sometimes call legal deference. By that I just mean you're commanded to do it by some higher authority. Federal courts give weight, often decisive weight, to the factual findings of juries because the Constitution orders them to do so. Federal courts of appeals give weight to the factual findings of trial courts, of district judges, in civil bench trials because the federal rules of civil procedure order them to do it. A second kind of deference is what I like to call, in pompous academic fashion, epistemological deference. If you think that prior decision maker has expertise that you don't have, is more experienced than you are, has had a better opportunity to think this through than you are, or is just smarter than you are, whatever the rationale might be there are circumstances where somebody else's decision is good evidence of the right answer. Third possible reason for giving weight to someone else's decision is because it's easier and cheaper. It's a lot easier to ask yourself, "Was this prior decision maker completely crazy?," than it is to ask yourself, "What's the right answer?" So we can often economize on time and resources to ask a lesser question, to hold a party to a lesser standard just because it clears cases off of your docket more readily. Then finally, a fourth possible reason for giving weight to the views of a prior decision maker is that you systematically value that decision maker. If it's a dispute, if that prior decision maker is contesting with someone else who is objecting to their decision, you may just like that decision maker more than you like the contestant and that would be a reason why you might choose to favor them. How one evaluates any judicial practice of deference, I suspect turns largely on which of those rationales you think is operating. You're probably going to think differently about deference if you think the court is ordered to do it than if you think the court is just systematically favoring one party or the court is just trying to make its life easier by lightning its workload. Those are quite different rationales. As you study Administrative Law I hope you think very carefully as you encounter each of the different deference doctrines, and there are many different deference doctrines, which of those forces are at work.

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