Publication Rules in the Rulemaking Spectrum: Assuring Proper Respect for an Essential Element

Peter L. Strauss, Columbia Law School


The American rulemaking spectrum ranges from one Constitution, through hundreds of congressional statutes, thousands of administrative regulations, and tens of thousands of important guidance documents to innumerable more casual agency documents such as press releases or letters of advice. Our legal system treats constitutions, statutes and regulations, if valid, as binding text, subject only to the requirements that they be authorized by the superior authority and appropriately adopted following designated procedures; if valid, each of them has legislative effect on government and citizen alike, until displaced by another text validly adopted at the same or a higher level. The innumerable casual items at the base of this pyramid, while often in fact influential on private conduct, are denied any formal jural effect. It is at the level of important guidance documents that one finds confusion: confusion whether they are legitimate instruments of agency policy or a ruse to evade the higher procedural obligations associated with adopting regulations; confusion whether an agency may give them any jural effect and, if so, to what degree; and confusion whether and to what extent they must be respected by the courts. Since the frequency with which these documents are prepared suggests their importance, this confusion is regrettable.

Generally ignored provisions of the American Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(1,2), appear to recognize that these documents may be treated as if they were precedents (not legislative documents) if they have been appropriately published. Hence, they may be described as "publication rules," to distinguish them from the more formal regulations that are adopted following notice and comment procedures and that enjoy, if valid, legislative effect. The paper builds on these provisions to critique recent judicial decisions and to suggest a general approach to publication rules following the model of precedent.