The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.
The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.
The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.
Gundy offered an excellent opportunity to begin reasserting the original constitutional design. Sorna’s delegation of power was extreme. While setting up an elaborate registration system for sex offenders convicted after its enactment, the law granted the attorney general “authority to specify the applicability of the requirements of this subchapter to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of this chapter.” A single official in the executive branch was given the power to impose requirements carrying severe criminal penalties on more than 500,000 Americans, and then to carry them out.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the plurality opinion, struggled mightily to find an intelligible principle. She wrote that the court had interpreted Sorna as requiring applicability “to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible.” But as Justice Gorsuch noted, that language appears neither in the statute nor in the Justice Department’s implementing regulations.