Rethinking Judicial Review of Expert Agencies
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The role of generalist courts in reviewing the work of expert agencies is generally portrayed as either an institutional necessity on the one hand or a Pandora’s Box on the other. Courts are expected to ensure the accountability of agency actions through their legal oversight role, yet on matters of science policy they do not have the expertise of the agencies nor can they allow themselves to become amateur policymakers in the course of their review. Given these challenges, we set out to better understand what courts are doing in their review of agency science. We conducted a qualitative examination of the courts’ review of challenges to agency scientific choices in the entire set of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Our study revealed an increasingly rigorous and substantive engagement in the courts’ review of scientific challenges to the EPA’s NAAQS over time that tracked the Agency’s own progress in developing rigorous analytical approaches. Our findings, albeit preliminary, suggest the emergence of a constructive partnership between the courts and agencies in science policy in NAAQS cases. In overseeing scientific challenges, the courts appear to serve as a necessary irritant, encouraging the agency to develop much stronger administrative governance and deliberative decisions on complex science-policy issues. Conversely, in developing stronger decisionmaking processes, the resulting agency efforts have a reciprocal, positive impact on the courts’ own standards for review. The courts and agencies thus appear to work symbiotically through their mutual efforts on the establishment of rigorous analytical yardsticks to guide the decision process. While our findings may be limited to the NAAQS, which likely present a best case in administrative process, the findings may still offer a grounded, normative model for imagining a constructive and even vital role for generalist courts in technically complex areas of social decision making.