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Rules of Rulemaking: the Canard of Consistency

January 20, 2016
Canard: 1. a groundless rumor or belief. 2. (French) ‘duck,’ from Old French caner ‘to quack

In earlier posts, I have discussed two canards about rulemaking in North Carolina

I will finish this series on some core beliefs about rulemaking with an environmentally-centered, critical look at this final canard:

  • Rulemaking processes should be consistent from authorization to judicial review

Frankly, no one who practices or follows environmental law in this State could take seriously the claim that the legislature cares much about consistency in administrative law processes, such as rulemaking. What do they care about, and how should judges review their grants of authority, if not by seeking consistency, a long and hallowed hallmark of legal fairness?

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Defenestration of DEHNR: John Morris comments on DWR and the agency in general

January 20, 2016

One of my hopes for this blog was that it might evolve into a discussion, even debate, over the history of environmental law and policy in North Carolina. Some of the people who were principally involved in shaping that history over the last forty to fifty years are still around, but have rarely shared their views publicly on what worked and what did not work.

One such person is John Morris. John headed the N.C. Division of Water Resources for many years. He worked his way up to that position in other jobs that gave him a view of State environmental policy, and he has remained an engaged observer in the few years since his retirement in the mid 2000s. So I was delighted that John emailed to share what he called a “comment” on my entry about the rise and fall of DEHNR from a “big tent” agency to its much smaller and more tightly focused role today.

John’s comments are important and in-depth enough to deserve their own entry, and so what follows after the break is his response in its entirety.

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Rulemaking authority in N.C. — are rules legally as powerful as statutes?

December 14, 2015

What is the power of an agency rule? The longstanding canard is that a rule has the force of law, just like a statute. So, for example, rules can alter the common law:

Where an agency has the authority to act, its rules and regulations have the binding effect of statutes and may accordingly alter the common law. Taylor v. Superior Motor Co., 227 N.C. 365, 367, 42 S.E.2d 460, 461 (1947) (noting that “proper regulations authorized under the Act have the binding effect of law,” because such regulations “are the tools used to effectuate the policy and purposes of the Act.”)

In re Declaratory Ruling by NC Comm’r of Insurance Regarding 11 N.C.A.C. 12.0319, 134 N.C. App. 22, 30 (1999).

Similarly, the view has long and generally been that agencies are bound by their own rules, since the rules are, essentially, just like statutes. See, e.g., Snow v. Board of Architecture, 273 N.C. 559 (1968); 2 Am. Jur.2d Administrative Law § 350 (1962) (“Procedural rules are binding upon the agency which enacts them as well as upon the public of the agency, and the agency does not, as a general rule, have the discretion to waive, suspend, or disregard in a particular case a validly adopted rule so long as such rule remains in force.”).

But here’s another conundrum about rules: they don’t always get treated with the same legal respect as statutes, despite what some court opinions say, and what the Administrative Procedures Act seems to imply about them.

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Rulemaking authority in N.C. – how specific does it have to be?

November 25, 2015

It’s impossible to grasp modern American environmental law without some understanding of administrative law–the law that limits and empowers governmental agencies (like U.S. EPA and N.C.’s Department of Environmental Quality). One of the primary ways that executive branch agencies carry out their work is through “rulemaking.” Rulemaking is the process for establishing rules (“regulations”) that have the force of law. Rules and regulations are at the center of many, if not most, of the current controversies over environmental law. So it’s important to understand how and why rules get made–what the “rules for rulemaking” are. The practicing environmental lawyer needs this understanding to advise clients every day, and the person interested in reform of environmental law and policy needs at least a general understanding of the rulemaking process in order to be effective.

So in this and a few followup posts, I will discuss some problems in the way that rules are authorized in North Carolina (and elsewhere, but my focus is on the Tarheel state).  I have structured this discussion as “canards, conundrums and conclusions” and I will present three canards, more than three conundrums and a few conclusions.

Canard: 1. a groundless rumor or belief. 2. (French) ‘duck,’ from Old French caner ‘to quack

My three canards–things that are widely believed to be true about the legislative authority for and power of rules–are these:

  • Authority for rulemaking is rarely in question and easily found; more critical is whether there are “adequate guiding standards” for the particular rule that’s created
  • Rules have the same legal power as statutesfor example, they bind the agency as well as persons outside the agency; they can change the common law; and they can’t be waived or disregarded by the agency that made them
  • Rulemaking processes should be consistent from authorization to judicial review

These three propositions are not actually “groundless,” as the definition above implies, but they are taken almost as gospel by most administrative lawyers. In fact, when you scratch their surface just a little, the conundrums pop right up.

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The Defenestration of DEHNR

September 28, 2015

In 2011, a story appeared that seemed to capture the essence of the N.C. legislative leadership’s feelings about DENR, the State environmental and natural resource regulatory agency. The story, first attributed to Speaker of the House Tom Tillis, said that an Appropriations Commitee co-chair, Rep. Mitch Gillespie, had drawn a bullseye on his legislative office window so that it lined up with his view of the Archdale Building, long time DENR headquarters. The story’s intrigue deepened when Rep. Gillespie left the legislature in 2012 to join Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration as an Assistant Secretary …. of DENR. By most accounts, Rep. Gillespie did a fine job while at DENR, as one might expect after his years of paying close attention to environmental issues and asking good questions on the legislative Environmental Review Commission.

But with Gov. McCrory’s signature on the 2015 Budget Bill, S.L. 2015-241, on September 18, DENR went away. It became the “Department of Environmental Quality.” Several of its formerly important functions were transferred to other departments. Over the last twenty-five years, the erosion in size and power of North Carolina’s main environmental agency has been so striking as to count as “defenestration,” with Rep. Gillespie’s office window bullseye adding a new layer of meaning to that term. But the erosion really began in the late 1990s, during the administration of Gov. Jim Hunt.

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Local government and the environment: preemption

March 16, 2015

What kinds of laws can a unit of local government in North Carolina–a city, a county, or a special purpose unit such as a soil and water conservation district–pass to adjust the balance between environmental protection and economic production? The answer to this general question starts with a search for authority given to the unit of government by the state legislature. There is also the open question of whether the N.C. Constitution itself grants some such authority.

Assuming there is a source of local power to act, the next question is whether State or federal government has already acted in a way that prevents the local unit from changing the law. This is the question of preemption, in legalese. My colleagues who focus on general local government law have ably discussed the way preemption questions are analyzed legally.  But environmental problems have contributed more than their share of major cases on preemption. And environmental problems seem destined to continue raising hard questions about the relative power of local versus state and federal governments, as political power ebbs and flows in Raleigh.

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Local government and the environment: the Constitutional starting point

March 2, 2015

Environmental law and constitutional law have shaped each other in profound ways.

This is not surprising, given environmental law’s intimate connection with the regulation of private property rights. It not surprising for another reason: a major part of environmental law, especially public environmental law, can be thought of as a species of administrative law. As such, environmental law problems often directly touch and concern fundamental issues such as the structure of government, the respective powers and duties of the major branches of government, and the powers and limits on governmental agencies.

In North Carolina, there is an even more direct connection: the state Constitution itself provides support for environmental protection, as a result of an amendment that passed overwhelmingly in 1972.  But the exact scope and meaning of the N.C. Constitution’s statement of environmental rights remains unclear, over forty years after it was passed as a constitutional amendment.

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What is environmental law? on fuzzy boundaries

February 23, 2015

Some fields of law have fairly clear boundaries. Not so with environmental law. In order to say anything with the least bit of clarity about the field of environmental law as such, you need some sense of what does and doesn’t count as part of the field. I have a simple model of what counts, for my own purposes. In this entry, I will explain my model of the field, and also talk about some of the limitations and unresolved boundary issues with my model. It starts with a recognition that law has long been concerned with two related things, natural resources and waste.

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How did stormwater control get so complicated? The coastal stormwater chapter, part 2

February 16, 2015

Few people understand how complicated the regulation of stormwater has become. It just sounds wrong that something as natural as rain and its runoff would lead to a byzantine system of regulations that range across all levels of government and that differ from place to place. In North Carolina, coastal stormwater rules are just one chapter in the development of this system, and they came about only after two hundred years of environmental legal efforts to manage stormwater. But they were critical to the development of the State’s regulatory system. In part 1 of this chapter, I outlined the early responses of State government to the problem of shellfish closures caused by coastal pollution, leading up to the inescapable realization in the mid-1980s, in North Carolina as elsewhere in the United States, that runoff from developed, impervious surfaces was the primary cause of high bacterial counts in coastal water, and thus of the loss of shellfish that were safe for human consumption. The byzantine bureaucracy behind stormwater regulation is a response to and an indicator of the huge public administration challenge presented by diffuse (nonpoint) sources of pollution.

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Why do states stifle their own environmental regulatory innovations?

February 2, 2015

North Carolina passed a series of laws in the 1970s that prevented its agencies and local governments from creating environmental regulations that were more stringent than federal regulations. These laws were called “Hardison amendments” in reference to then-Senator Harold Hardison, D-Lenoir, who chaired several important legislative committees, notably the Appropriations Committee. Environmentalists lobbied long and hard and finally succeeded in removing the Hardison amendments in the mid-1980s. For the next thirty years, North Carolina was often a national leader among states in innovative environmental regulatory approaches. But in 2011, with the return of a Republican majority to both legislative chambers for the first time since 1870, the legislature reinstated the Hardison amendments, in slightly altered form (originally the new language was added as GS § 143B-279.16; it was later re-codified into the Administrative Procedures Act as GS § 150B-19.3). Understanding the rise, fall, and restoration of North Carolina’s Hardison Amendments helps explain the political dynamics of environmental regulation at the state level in the United States.

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