Rule of Law

Allstates Refractory Contractors, LLC v. Walsh

In Allstates v. Walsh, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered whether OSHA’s statutory authority to establish workplace safety standards is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.

Case Summary

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Secretary of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have the power to set workplace safety standards. In 2019, general contractor Allstates Refractory Contractors, LLC was cited by OSHA for violating those safety standards. The company later filed a lawsuit against OSHA, arguing that the agency’s power to establish workplace standards is unconstitutionally broad, in violation of the “nondelegation doctrine.”

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio dismissed Allstates’s suit, applying longstanding Supreme Court precedent that permits Congress to make broad delegations to agencies. The company appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and in January 2023 CAC filed an amici curiae brief on behalf of law professors Julian Davis Mortenson and Nicholas Bagley in support of the Labor Secretary.

Our brief explained that the Constitution, as originally understood, was not meant to limit legislative delegations. Allstates claimed that the “original meaning of Article I” supports a more stringent limit on Congress’s power to delegate than is reflected in modern Supreme Court precedent—which requires only that Congress provide an “intelligible principle” to guide an agency’s formulation of policy. But as we demonstrated, Article I’s original meaning provides no basis for any limit on legislative delegations of authority, much less the strict new limits that Allstates advocated.

In the Founding era, legislative delegations of rulemaking authority were a familiar and uncontroversial feature of British and American law. Parliament had a long tradition of delegating broad discretionary authority to the king and other agents, and in the years after independence, delegations were likewise pervasive in America in state governments and under the Articles of Confederation.

As we further explained, the Constitution was not meant to prevent Congress from delegating. Although the Constitution divides power among three branches and assigns all “legislative powers” to Congress, nothing about that division limits Congress’s power to delegate rulemaking authority to agencies, so long as Congress retains ultimate control over the legislative process. Furthermore, the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification betray no concern about this type of legislative delegation.

Congressional practice in the early Republic refutes any notion that the Constitution was originally understood to prohibit delegation. As the Supreme Court has noted, early legislation is “strong evidence of the original meaning of the Constitution,” and the first Congresses routinely delegated major policy questions to the executive branch—granting sweeping policymaking authority over matters of the highest economic and political significance in statute after statute, often with little or no guidance.

Finally, our brief showed that modern proposals for strict delegation limits hinge on principles with no historical grounding. Allstates, for example, echoed recent claims that delegation becomes problematic if it involves regulating “private conduct” or resolving “major policy questions.” But in the Founding era, no one drew such distinctions, much less invoked them to justify early delegations. Instead, Congress repeatedly delegated broad authority to fashion rules governing private conduct during the nation’s first decade, yet these laws never provoked any comment that power over “private conduct” could not be delegated.

In sum, the Constitution’s original meaning offers no justification for limiting Congress’s power to delegate as Allstates and others have urged.

In August 2023, the Sixth Circuit rejected Allstates’s constitutional challenge and held that OSHA’s statutory authority is appropriately guided by an “intelligible principle,” as required by Supreme Court precedent. The court did not address Allstates’s claim that the “intelligible principle” test violates the original meaning of the Constitution, explaining that the court was bound by precedent to apply that test.

Case Timeline

  • January 30, 2023

    CAC files amici brief on behalf of law professors Julian Davis Mortenson and Nicholas Bagley

    Allstates Amicus Brief
  • April 27, 2023

    Sixth Circuit hears oral arguments

  • August 23, 2023

    Sixth Circuit issues its decision