The Yale Law Journal

January 2017

Localist Administrative Law

Nestor M. Davidson

abstract. To read the voluminous literature on administrative law is to inhabit a world focused almost exclusively on federal agencies. This myopic view, however, ignores the wide array of administrative bodies that make and implement policy at the local-government level. The administrative law that emerges from the vast subterranean regulatory state operating within cities, suburbs, towns, and counties has gone largely unexamined.

Not only are scholars ignoring a key area of governance, but courts have similarly failed to develop an administrative jurisprudence that recognizes what is distinctive about local agencies. The underlying justifications for core administrative law doctrines at the federal level, such as deference to agency expertise and respect for separation of powers, must be adapted for local contexts in which mayors can sit on city councils, agencies may operate with few clear procedural constraints, and ordinary citizens can play a direct role in determining policy.

To remedy these gaps in the literature and the doctrine, this Article makes three contributions. First, it offers a detailed descriptive account of local administration, outlining domains of local agency action, the governmental structures that define those agencies, and practical details of local agency operation. The Article then draws from this empirical grounding to identify particularly salient factors that can more transparently inform judicial review of a variety of local agency actions, from statutory interpretation to substantive policymaking to enforcement and licensing. These factors include the particular and varied nature of local-government structures, the tension between informality and procedural legitimacy within local administration, the mottled interplay of public and private spheres in local governance, and local agency expertise that reflects local knowledge.

This localist perspective, finally, has direct relevance to core scholarly debates in both local-government law and administrative law. An understanding of local administration adds a layer of internal complexity to questions of local-government authority and identity, reorienting discussions about democratic accountability and experimentalism. It likewise holds the promise of deepening administrative jurisprudence with a perspective that reaches across the entire range of our vertical federalism. In short, the world of local agencies opens a window for the study of an important, yet underappreciated, set of institutions. Calling attention to these agencies will ultimately foster a new discourse about administrative law for local-government scholars and a broader understanding of governance for scholars of administrative law.

author. Professor, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Co-Director of the Urban Law Center, Fordham Law School. For helpful feedback with earlier drafts, the author wishes to thank Annie Decker and David Franklin, with whom this project began, as well as Paul Diller, Elizabeth Fisher, Clare Huntington, John Infranca, Joseph Landau, Ethan Leib, Gillian Metzger, David Schleicher, Nadav Shoked, and Olivier Sylvain, as well as participants in workshops at the Association for Law, Property, and Society, Chapman Law School, the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, and Willamette College of Law. Tim Fitzmaurice, Adam Minchew, Pekham Pal, and Dillon Stern provided excellent research assistance.


In the waning days of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene promulgated a regulation that would have limited sales based on the portion size of so-called “sugary” drinks.1 This effort was the best-known—and arguably the most controversial—of a long series of public-health rules from the agency that included smoking restrictions, a ban on trans fats, and a mandate for listing calorie counts in restaurants.2 Before the portion-limit regulation could take effect, however, the New York state courts invalidated it on grounds seemingly familiar to any scholar of administrative law: separation of powers and the nondelegation doctrine.3

What is distinctive about this controversy is not that the judiciary found that an administrative agency had overstepped its bounds; that much is relatively banal, although not without its problems in this particular case.4 It is, rather, that the relevant agency promulgating the rule at issue was part of a local government.

In legal scholarship, administrative law is almost always synonymous with federal administrative law.5 The institutional frameworks, doctrinal questions, and theoretical concerns that drive the voluminous literature on administrative law almost exclusively take the alphabet soup of federal executive-branch agencies, acting pursuant to statutes enacted by Congress and overseen by Article III courts, as the reigning paradigm. The preoccupations and prescriptions of mainstream administrative law accordingly flow from this institutional and regulatory context.6

This myopic federal focus obscures a massive, submerged, and surprisingly vibrant domain of administration that exists at the local-government level. Nested within the tens of thousands of cities, suburbs, towns, and counties that span the country is a vast panoply of local agencies with significant front-line regulatory responsibility. These agencies work in policy domains as varied as economic regulation, public health, land use, policing, environmental protection, education, public benefits, and consumer welfare.7 It is no exaggeration that almost every area of local governance operates through myriad zoning boards, education departments, police commissions, motor vehicle bureaus, social-service agencies, and similar institutions. If, as the introduction to a leading casebook on local-government law puts it, three core relationships have traditionally defined the field—those “between cities and higher levels of government, between neighboring cities, and between cities and the people who live within their boundaries”8—then local administration represents a crucial fourth relationship—between and among institutions within local governments.

Political scientists, economists, and scholars of public management have long grappled with the interplay between bureaucracy and democracy at the local level.9 Yet legal scholars have been oddly absent from this discourse, paying too little attention to the inner workings of local government in general10—and even less to the important arena of local agency practice11—despite the voluminous literature on administrative law and practice that predominates at the federal level. This is unfortunate, because the administrative state that exists at the local-government level—one might call it the administrative city-state—is every bit as worthy of scholarly examination as its more familiar federal counterpart.12

When one turns the lens on the metaphorical microscope, what does local administration actually look like? It is difficult to generalize, given the number and variety of local agencies, but several themes emerge. First, as noted, local agencies reflect the breadth of the work of local governments. Agencies are involved in the delivery of core local services, such as education, policing, and sanitation, often the functions most closely identified with local governments.13 But it is easy to forget that local governments also exercise significant regulatory authority, delegated from the state government or under “home rule.”14 Local agencies, for example, set the rules and oversee the functioning of many aspects of the built environment—through zoning, subdivision rules, building and housing codes, and similar statutory regimes. They also regulate significant aspects of local economies, including wage and hour rules, workplace conditions, and antidiscrimination requirements. And an increasingly important aspect of local regulation involves the environment. Much of local agencies’ work across policy areas happens through licensing,15 but local agencies also engage in traditional direct regulation.16

If this is what local agencies do, what can be discerned about the legal and institutional contexts in which they operate? Local agencies are not simply junior-league counterparts to federal agencies. While there are some local governments—particularly in larger cities such as New York—that have surface resemblance to the federal three-branch paradigm, most have distinctly different structures.17 For example, many local governments have little or no formal separation of powers, with lawmaking authority often vested in a unified legislative-executive body. The “mayor” in these jurisdictions, if there is one, is just another council member. Even for those local governments that have a recognizable independent chief executive, that executive’s ability to directly oversee agencies is often circumscribed.18 And many local agencies are subject to quite limited electoral accountability, reporting to the state or entirely lacking a relevant, direct electoral mechanism of any sort.19

While some local agencies, moreover, are well staffed and operate as formally as any federal agency, local administration tends to work more informally. Indeed, the precise procedural requirements binding local agencies are often surprisingly murky.20 Local agencies also often operate at the edge of a blurry line between governmental action and public participation. Community engagement in zoning regulation, school board decisions, police review commissions, and other examples of the blending of public and private underscore the breadth of citizen participation in local agency work that is uncommon at the federal level.21 And local-government functions can be entirely privatized, including some administration. All of these variations inform this Article’s first aim—providing a descriptive foundation to understand the nature and work of local administration.

Shifting from this empirical grounding to doctrinal questions, this Article argues that these features of local agency context and practice should shape a new, distinctly localist administrative jurisprudence.22 Courts—and it is mostly state courts that review local agency action—engage in judicial review across a variety of contexts, from statutory interpretation, to substantive agency policymaking, to policing the bounds of procedural regularity.23 When they do, they should attend to four particularly salient aspects of the local context.

First, rather than importing federal—or even state—administrative law norms wholesale, courts should be clear-eyed about the doctrinal implications of local governmental structure and the complex nature of delegated authority for local agencies.24 Courts should consider, for example, whether limits on executive oversight militate against deference, or whether the absence of separation of powers in a local government might change the nature of the nondelegation doctrine. Similarly, the fact that many local agencies have two layers of oversight—by their local and state governments—may mitigate concerns about capture, corruption, and faithless agents. In these and many other ways, the details of local governmental structure matter for judicial review.25

Second, courts should be sensitive to the contexts for formality and informality in the work of local agencies. In most instances, as with the approach that courts take when scaling deference in reviewing federal administration,26 formality should be accorded judicial respect. Where an agency has acted through legislatively prescribed procedure or adopted careful processes of its own, with substantial evidence when appropriate, that should merit deference, all other things being equal. On the other hand, more so than at the federal level, there are contexts where the relative informality of local practice, particularly to the extent that such informality reflects community involvement, may be consistent with norms of considered judgment.27

Third, courts should be attentive to the role of private parties and the community in local administration. The scope of private involvement—both within traditionally governmental entities and through privatization—can be a rationale for the kind of vigorous nondelegation doctrine seen in local administrative law (by stark contrast to federal law). But the porous line between public and private at the local level can also weigh in favor of a more pragmatic approach to nondelegation, so long as that approach is undertaken with appropriate caution.28

Finally, reviewing courts should take a nuanced view of local agency expertise. In some contexts, this is as straightforward as crediting local technical experts, as with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a nationally recognized leader in public health. In other contexts, however, agencies serve less as a repository of technical expertise and more as a mediating body to channel local input and knowledge. This is still valuable expertise, but of a different sort than the kind of scientific or industry-specific knowledge with which courts credit federal agencies.29

Beyond jurisprudence, a final aim of this Article is to begin to illuminate ways in which the intersection of localism and administration has deep relevance for the literature in each domain. For scholars of local-government law, focusing on the work of agencies adds a layer of institutional depth to long-standing debates balancing local authority, community, democracy, and experimentalism against concerns about parochialism and exclusion.30 For administrative law scholars, adding an understanding of local administration to debates that are largely focused on the federal level complicates questions of the institutional predicates for administrative legitimacy, but also holds promise for developing a more coherent administrative law across the entire range of our vertical federalist system.31


The Article proceeds as follows. Part I begins as prologue, explaining in more depth the significance of the scholarly gap at the intersection of administration and local governance. Part II then turns to the largely federal predicates—structural, doctrinal, and conceptual—that animate mainstream administrative law and theory, to lay a comparative foundation. Part III shifts to the local, outlining the nature, function, and varied governmental-structural context of local agencies. Part IV builds on this empirical grounding to frame a jurisprudence of administrative law that foregrounds what is distinctive about local practice, illustrating its impact through two examples: reasonableness review and the nondelegation doctrine. Finally, Part V returns to the theoretical lacunae at the intersection of localism and administration, exploring implications for legal theory. This exercise holds important lessons about institutional structure, judicial oversight, and agency process in the administrative state that cannot be learned solely from studying the federal government, with significant consequences for our understanding of administrative legitimacy and, more broadly, the nature of governance.

i. a double lacuna: local/administration

To situate this Article, it is important to recognize that there is a missing focus on the institutions of administration in local-government legal scholarship and a corresponding missing focus on localism in administrative law scholarship. This double lacuna weakens both fields.

In local-government law, two broad themes tend to define the literature. First, legal scholars have long focused on questions of local legal authority and identity. In this vein, scholars have fruitfully explored the nature and limits of local autonomy, primarily in the context of the local-state relationship, but also in terms of the horizontal intergovernmental context in which local governments operate.32 As a conceptual matter, much of this scholarship engages with the nature of community and democracy in local governance, balancing those values with the risks of parochialism, externalities, and exclusion.33

A second strain in the local-government literature focuses less on legal identity and more on particular policy domains prominent at the local level. In this vein, scholars have engaged at times with administrative law in specific areas such as public health,34 land use,35 and public benefits,36 but there has been almost no scholarship that has attempted to knit these insights together across the range of substantive local domains.37

As valuable as this macroscale local governance and individual policy area focused literature is, the internal institutions of local governance should also matter for scholars of local government.38 The same questions of governmental structure and organization that are the staple of so much of the legal literature on administrative law and separation of powers at the federal level are worthy of exploring within the confines of local governments. Scholarship on federal separation of powers and administrative law takes as a foundation, albeit frequently implicit, that structure is critically important to understanding the nature of federal governance and that agency practice should inform administrative jurisprudence. Those same concerns should be equally relevant at the local level.

There has been some engagement in the legal literature with the nature of mayoral power, as part of bringing questions of internal structure to the larger debate about the authority and efficacy of local governments.39 Other scholars have examined the link between the structure of local governance generally and fiscal or other specific policy outcomes.40 And recent work has begun to apply insights from positive political theory to questions of local-government law, highlighting local institutional dynamics and allocation of authority.41 This scholarship, however, largely focuses on political leadership and not on the agencies and other internal institutions that perform much of the actual work of local governments.42 No one could reasonably suggest that the institutional context of federal law is irrelevant—indeed, much of the scholarship of administrative law at the federal level proceeds from precisely the opposite assumption. 43

The absence of deep engagement by legal scholars with the internal functioning of local governments is all the more striking when compared to the literature in political science, economics, public management, and urban affairs. That scholarship has long sought to develop frameworks for assessing links between structure and policy outcomes. Across several disciplines, a new institutionalist perspective has emerged that has focused intently on local governance.In political science, for example, there is a body of empirical and theoretical literature that seeks to categorize and understand the consequences of the varieties of local-government structure.44 Similarly, in new institutional economics, scholars have examined internal public agency function.45 And a prominent vein of the public administration literature takes as its point of departure that the structure of the institutions of local governance is significant.46 There is no need here to rehearse this interdisciplinary institutional literature in depth—suffice it to say (for the moment) that in closely cognate fields, scholars recognize that the internal structures of local governance matter as a theoretical and practical matter.47

On the other hand, if the internal workings of cities, suburbs, counties, and towns should matter to legal scholars, so too should doctrine matter to institutionalists in other academic disciplines. Scholars examining local governance in political science, economics, public management, and other fields too often proceed without sufficient recognition of legal constraints. Indeed, the argument that Gerald Frug and David Barron have made about interdisciplinary misunderstanding of the mottled nature of the authority of local governments—that urban theorists need a better understanding of actual local legal identity—holds equally true for the comprehension by scholars in other fields of the legal landscape of the internal dimension of local governance.48 How does delegation of authority work within local governments? What limits do courts impose on the ability of local governments to promulgate regulations? What kinds of procedural norms are required for agency actions to survive judicial scrutiny? Again, this is the ordinary work of federal administrative law, but all too often ignored at the local-government level.

The case for focusing on local governments for scholars of administrative law is easier to articulate, but no less compelling. Mainstream administrative law, as noted,49 has attended somewhat to state-level agency action and judicial review, but has almost entirely ignored the sub-state level as an independent arena worthy of study. Most law school courses titled “Administrative Law” are, in fact, courses on “Federal Administrative Law,” with the general exception of segments on procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.50 Most scholarship in administrative law is federal in its focus as well.51

Including a local perspective in that scholarship would fulfill two imperatives, one unifying and one grounded in the value of understanding institutional pluralism. As to highlighting continuity in administrative law, adding localism to administrative scholarship would allow for the exploration of common themes in new institutional settings, shedding light on a set of long-standing debates to which we will be turning momentarily. At the same time, however, this additional layer would provide new grounds to complicate long-standing assumptions about the implications of federal structure and practice.52

ii. a federal baseline for a vertical comparative perspective

To understand what is distinctive about local administration, it is useful to lay down a comparative baseline with a brief overview of the federal paradigm. This Part accordingly starts with the structural predicates for mainstream administrative law’s federal focus and then turns to the jurisprudential themes that have emerged from those predicates.53

A. The Structural Predicates of Administrative Law’s Federal Focus

The reigning preoccupations of administrative law have settled into a rough stasis around certain core debates—however contentious they may remain—about the nature of agency decision making, the tenor of judicial review, executive oversight, and other aspects of administrative legitimacy. These concerns will be explored in depth below as they pertain to administrative jurisprudence.54 But before turning to doctrine, it bears noting that the essential institutional assumptions that undergird these mainstream administrative law debates derive from the federal-government context. These institutional assumptions may be obvious, and we need not tarry long to catalogue them in detail, but they all too often simply go unacknowledged as a baseline paradigm for our understanding of administrative law.

The first, most basic, structural assumption is the familiar three-branch structure of the federal government. Thus, administrative law is understood as the domain of agencies within the federal executive branch, operating under Article II authority. Scholars have long debated the extent to which certain agencies do or should operate independently of the President,55 and even in the context of central cabinet agencies, the legitimacy of direct presidential control over the regulatory state remains controversial.56 But from the perspective of democratic accountability and executive oversight, there is no question that mainstream administrative law assumes that there is a single, elected executive overseeing a recognizable executive branch.

Mainstream separation of powers principles also understand agencies to be operating under express or implied delegations from Congress.57 This is foundational to so much of the structure of agency authority and informs a variety of doctrines of judicial review, such as the calibration of levels of deference and the all-but-toothless federal nondelegation doctrine.58 Likewise, federal constitutional principles of limited and enumerated powers inform, at least at the margins, the scope of authority that can be granted from Congress to agencies. As a practical matter, however, the outer bounds of Congress’s authority have rarely been meaningfully tested since the New Deal.59

As with these formal predicates, functional perspectives on administrative law likewise often default to the basics of the federal agency paradigm as well. Thus, federal agencies such as the EPA, OSHA, or the SEC are assumed to have a certain technical expertise, grounded in the work of relatively well-resourced, sophisticated staff.60 Conversely, these agencies are seen as perennially at risk of capture by regulated industries operating within the scope of national politics.61 This is a fairly basic point, but one that too often goes without noting.62

From a procedural perspective, finally, federal agencies share a unified grounding for the variety of their actions, provided by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).63 Federal agencies have a range of policymaking options for undertaking administrative action—including formal and informal rulemaking, sub-regulatory guidance, formal and informal adjudication, and enforcement actions. All of these forms of administrative action are broadly constrained within a common and fairly clear statutory (and administrative common law) framework.64 There are variations, to be sure, but the basic procedural terms share a well-understood and routinized vocabulary.65

There is an intermediate governmental level to consider between the relative uniformity of federal administrative law and, as we shall see momentarily, the tremendous variety found at the local level.66 As scholars have noted, several of the structural constitutional features underlying federal administration doctrine can be different at the state level.67 Unlike Article III judges, for example, not all state judges are appointed and serve for life. Rather, many state judges are elected, face mandatory retirement, or are subject to other forms of political accountability.68 Many states, moreover, have multiple sources of executive authority beyond the governor. State officials, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and a variety of other state-level authorities, are independently elected in some states, rather than chosen by the chief executive.69 And state legislatures can play a different role than Congress, some meeting much less frequently, for much less time, and also subject to much greater turnover (for better or worse).70 There are, of course, other state-level structures—as well as aspects of state statutory law—that differ from the federal paradigm, although states at a sufficiently broad remove tend to resemble more closely the federal structure than local governments.71 Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that many “local” administrative structures are inextricably bound up in state law and institutions.72

Despite the relevance of the states to local administration, this Article is framed primarily around the federal-local contrast for several reasons. First, the parsimony of the contrast (and comparison) with the federal is more clarifying than attempting to map the range of local variations against fifty states—the comparative configurations are almost endless, although worthy of further exploration.73 Next, a federal-local juxtaposition helps to isolate and illustrate what is distinctive about the local, even if that tends to elide intermediate similarities at the state level for the sake of clarity. And, finally, notwithstanding the importance of state practice, federal predicates still generally set the terms of mainstream administrative law discourse about judicial review, agency process, mechanisms of accountability, concerns about capture, and similar core questions.74

B. (Federal) Themes in the Administrative Law Discourse

If a very familiar federal structure undergirds much of our understanding of administration, an equally familiar set of jurisprudential and theoretical concerns flows from that structure. Generally speaking, mainstream administrative law—particularly in the context of judicial review of agency action—revolves around a core set of formal and functional arguments. Common formal grounds for structuring judicial review derive from the basic implications of separation of powers principles, including explicit or implicit legislative delegation. Functional arguments for judicial deference are more varied, but the most prominent balance a tension between technical expertise and agency accountability against concerns about capture, myopia, and agency insulation.75

Within the federal sphere, administrative law for the bulk of the twentieth century could aptly be described as a quest for legitimacy. For a half-century or more after the New Deal, as the federal administrative state grew, the exercise of governmental power by bureaucratic actors—as opposed to those more directly accountable to the voters—stood in need of justification. This need was particularly salient with respect to agencies whose statutory mandates were written in broad and open-ended terms. The Supreme Court abandoned the nondelegation doctrine as a basis for invalidating statutes sometime after 193576 and instead embraced a string of increasingly lenient frameworks—most notably the “intelligible principle” test. These frameworks allow Congress, in essence, to confer quasi-legislative power on agencies within broad limits.77 It would be fair to describe much of administrative law—including, notably, the APA—as an elaborate substitute mechanism for enforcing the values that previously underlay the nondelegation doctrine.78

As delegation retreated into the background, other doctrines, primarily at the constitutional level, arose as proxies for legitimation.79 The Court, for example, imposed limits on the ability of Congress to vest itself with the power to appoint80 and remove81 certain agency officials as well as to override agency action through legislative resolutions that failed to conform to the requirements of bicameralism and presentment.82 Conversely, the Court affirmed Congress’s authority to insulate some agencies from direct presidential control by limiting the President’s power to remove inferior agency officers.83 The separation of powers landscape this constitutional settlement created eventually became clear: Congress was free to vest agencies with broad policymaking discretion and a mix of rulemaking, investigatory, prosecutorial, and adjudicative authority, and could shelter some agency heads from direct presidential control, so long as Congress did not unduly enlarge its own power at the expense of the other two branches in the process.

With this approach by the Court, the task of vindicating the accountability and rule-of-law values associated with the nondelegation doctrine largely fell to procedural legislation and executive oversight. The major landmark in this regard was the enactment of the APA. This framework statute was a lawyerly reaction to the explosion of regulatory activity during the New Deal.84 The APA was designed to impose procedural regularity on federal agencies while subjecting their final actions to a presumption of judicial review under standards largely borrowed from earlier judicial practice. Presidents have likewise sought to introduce uniformity and centralization to the administrative process through executive orders, most notably Executive Order 12,866 and its successors, which channel major proposed rules to the White House for “regulatory impact analysis,” including cost-benefit review.85

Below the constitutional level, courts have policed bureaucratic legitimacy, although courts and commentators debate the appropriate standard (or, in APA terms, “scope”86) of judicial review. The APA, offering only a laundry list of standards of review in § 706(2), was of little help.87 In 1984, the Supreme Court in Chevron announced the now-routine two-step method for reviewing agency interpretations of statutes: the clear meaning of the statute controls, but agencies get wide deference for reasonable interpretations in the absence of statutory clarity.88 Alongside Chevron, courts from the 1960s onward attempted to promote transparency and rationality of the administrative process by strengthening the APA’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard, often in the form of “hard-look” review of discretionary agency judgments.89

There are, of course, many other important themes in the jurisprudence of federal administrative law, including the procedural due process “revolution” of the 1970s,90 the tightening of reviewability doctrines such as standing in the 1980s and 1990s,91 and the inquiry into “preemption by regulation” in the twenty-first century.92 However, at the federal level, it is safe to say that the basic dynamic of challenging and then reinforcing administrative legitimacy, as well as tensions over attempts to control administrative processes and results through presidential oversight and judicial review, have yielded a rough settlement across a number of doctrinal areas. These themes recur, but often in quite unfamiliar ways, in the local context.

iii. local administration: domain, context, and practice

The arena of local-government administration displays some of the same characteristics as the federal paradigm, but there are also crucial differences between the two contexts.93 Local administration involves a vast infrastructure of agency action that exists within local governments of all types, from the largest cities to the smallest towns. As one scholar has argued, it is in the “uncharted continent of administrative practice we might loosely call ‘the individual versus the metropolitan bureaucrat’ . . . that the average citizen makes his most frequent contacts with the administrative process.”94 Providing a clear picture of this uncharted continent presents an empirical challenge. Multiply the vast number of local governments—nearly 90,000 such entities, depending on the method of counting95—by the variety of local agencies, and it is unsurprising that there has been so little systematic empirical engagement with local administration. What Max Pock lamented fifty years ago sadly remains true today: “Information upon actual local practices is largely based upon secondary sources, since primary data will obviously have to await some future Kinsey report on the behavior of local bureaucracies.”96

Even without that report, however, it is possible to describe in broad-brush terms the basic terrain of local agencies. This Part thus begins with a discussion of the regulatory domains of local administration and the institutional forms through which that administration occurs. It then turns to the varied governmental-structural contexts in which local agencies operate. Finally, it outlines aspects of the fine-grained texture of local agency practice. As will become clear, the world looks very different when one shifts from the Federal EPA to, say, the Dayton Board of Zoning Appeals.

A. The Regulatory Domains and Forms of Local Administration

1. The Breadth of Local Agency Action

One significant reason for the invisibility of local administration may be a long-standing tendency to discount the actual breadth of local regulatory authority and activity.97 This view is decidedly mistaken.98 While local governments may not have the full range of power enjoyed by the states and federal government, there are a number of policy areas where local governments have long exercised significant regulatory authority through the auspices of local agencies.99 A prime example is land use control and the regulation of the built environment. Rules in nearly every local jurisdiction set the acceptable terms not only of use—residential, commercial, industrial, and the like—but also of building height, setbacks, materials, fire protection, energy use, waste treatment, and myriad other minutiae.100 Even Houston, which famously lacks a zoning code, still regulates development through parking and lot size requirements, as well as a long-standing subdivision code.101

While much of the basic substance of land use and building law is governed directly by local legislation, in many instances, the details of regulatory choices are delegated to administrative bodies with interchangeable names such as the “Board of Zoning Appeals” or “Board of Adjustment” or the “Planning and Zoning Commission” and the like.102 These boards can have the authority to draft and revise comprehensive plans and, in some jurisdictions, even determine substantive zoning rules.103 In many instances, zoning boards approve subdivisions, evaluate what are known as “special permits” or special exceptions, and grant variances from the application of the zoning code. This may not involve formal rulemaking, but generally does reflect the exercise of delegated legislative authority with a great deal of discretion in individual instances.104

Public health is another arena of significant local regulation that is often carried out through agencies.105 As with land use and the built environment, the regulation of public health has been a core municipal function in the United States since the earliest cities had to grapple with challenges like cholera, typhus, typhoid, and tuberculosis that spread through densely settled communities.106 Contemporary local governments have developed significant regulatory infrastructures to address issues such as infectious disease, food-borne illnesses, health-related environmental conditions, local medical services, and emergency responses.107 Structurally, local health departments can be independent or operate as part of a state health department, and boards of health oversee the overwhelming majority of local health departments.108 Most of these local agencies serve specific jurisdictions, although more than a quarter of these local agencies operate on a regional basis.109

There are many other areas of local regulation that similarly operate through an administrative infrastructure. Local governments have long been involved in regulating aspects of the local economy, although they have faced significant constraints in that exercise given the mobile nature of capital.110 Local governments—often controversially—set standards for taxis, restaurants, contractors, and a variety of other small businesses; again, they do so through licensing commissions and other bodies.111 The movement to increase the minimum wage highlights local regulation of employment conditions, with Seattle, for example, recently opting for a phased-in $15 per hour standard.112 Local environmental law is a rapidly expanding and important field, as much as we tend to think of environmental regulation through the lens of the EPA.113 Consumer welfare has also been a significant focus of municipal regulations, even drawing targeted preemption efforts at the national level.114 And many local governments have developed their own civil rights law, at times more protective than states and the federal government, covering additional protected classes or expanding available remedies.115 These sketches barely begin to exhaust the list of the robust direct regulatory apparatus of local governments.

The provision of public benefits is another important area of local administration.116 Local agencies are deeply involved as the interface between recipients and the government, whether the actual public benefits are funded locally or at the state or federal level. As with the federal Social Security Administration, a perennial mainstay of administrative law scholarship,117 local departments handle a wide variety of benefits, including welfare, job training, and housing.118 In all of these areas, there is a body of local administrative practice, complete with standards of evidence for benefits, rules on denial, and the rest of the panoply of procedural and substantive rules that inevitably govern such transfers.

As increasingly significant as local regulation may be, the provision of public services has historically been central to local-government identity, more so than at other levels of government.119 Education garners nearly forty percent of local budgets nationwide, while police and fire protection, utilities, and health and hospitals are also significant local services.120 As with direct regulation and public benefits, the infrastructure of local-government service provision often operates through agencies and oversight boards.121 These include not only the boards of education that are the locus of so much controversy within local governments,122 but also police and fire commissions, boards of water, library committees, and countless others.123 We may rarely pause to wonder why—and what it means—that police officials can be called “Commissioners” (Gotham City’s Commissioner Gordon is perhaps the most famous fictional example),124 but, of course, a commissioner implies a commission, which is administrative.125

2. The Ubiquity and Variety of Local Agencies

If the domains of local administration are broad, so too are the institutional forms through which that administration occurs. As with local government writ large, there is great variety to local agencies’ form and function.126 At the federal level, although there is some variation across agency types, there are a few primary models. Agencies headed by a secretary or similar unitary head (think the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, or the Small Business Administration) and commissions (such as the SEC, the FTC, the FCC, the FEC, etc.) describe the majority of federal agencies. It is true that there are relatively large federal bureaucracies and some quite small ones,127 and much other variation in institutional details, but certain basic agency forms cover most of the administrative law ground at that level.

The local level, however, yields quite a menagerie of departments, boards, bureaus, commissions, and other institutions. Some of these local agencies are highly professional, with significant staff and recognizable, politically accountable administrators. Some, however, can resemble community meetings as much as they do public agencies, with the locus of gravity on locally appointed citizens or residents fulfilling a civic duty, but not otherwise formalized in any systematic, Weberian bureaucratic sense. To peruse the website of almost any local government, large or small, is to encounter this array of internal departments, partially independent bodies, and largely citizen-staffed commissions.128

To provide some concrete examples, beginning at one extreme, New York City has some fifty distinct departments with agency heads appointed by the Mayor.129 Beyond these mayoral departments, there are numerous commissions, committees, boards, and tribunals that exercise significant authority—such as the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which regulates tens of thousands of cabs, commuter vans, limousines, and other vehicles for hire;130 the Campaign Finance Board (CFB), an independent city agency that works on election issues;131 the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), a federally funded local agency that provides housing to hundreds of thousands of residents; the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), whose work is reflected in its name;132 and many, many others.133

There is always a tendency toward exceptionalism when it comes to New York City, but it turns out that the panoply of departments, agencies, and commissions that do the work of the Big Apple’s government are not that dissimilar from many smaller local governments.134 The City of Boulder, Colorado is a small community that might seem to occupy the opposite end of this spectrum. Even Boulder, with population of just under one hundred thousand,135 has an array of local agencies covering the entire range of the city’s activities.136 The city has numerous core departments and divisions, covering everything from human resources and planning to police to licensing, as well as boards, authorities, and commissions that cover housing, open space, land use, human rights, and other policy areas.137 A similar picture emerges of a broad swath of local governments, at least those of general jurisdiction.138 Miami-Dade County, a city-county government, has twenty-five separate departments and a number of independent authorities and “trusts” beyond that.139 And Parker, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, population 3,600, has fourteen departments and three boards and commissions.140 In short, most cities, suburbs, and even small towns turn to an internal apparatus of agencies to operate, no less so than do the states and the federal government.141

B. The Structural Context of Local Administration

If local administration covers a broad range of policy arenas and institutional forms, a second salient dimension to local administration is that these agencies operate within local-government structures that are distinct not only from their federal government counterpart but also from state government structures. Here as well, it is hard to generalize, as there is tremendous institutional diversity at the local level, and local structures can vary dramatically from each other. Indeed, government structure gets more complex and divergent the lower one goes on the putative federalist hierarchy. Local governments are not the smallest matryoshka doll nestled within increasingly larger state and federal counterparts, with the classic tripartite structure repeated in miniature. Instead, local governments tend to subdivide or combine functions in many ways.

Relevant local structural distinctions can be cataloged along three dimensions. The first two parallel the traditional domain of local-government scholarship: the vertical relationship of local governments and their parent states (and the federal government) and the horizontal dynamics of how local governments interact with each other. The third dimension is less explored in the literature, yet is arguably most important for local administrative law: how power and structure interact within the bounds of individual jurisdictions.

1. The Vertical Dimension: The State-Local Relationship

Local governments have traditionally been viewed as “creatures of the state,” with their creation, boundaries, powers, and termination subject to the will of the state.142 Students of local government know that the landscape of local autonomy and oversight is much more complicated.143 Most states grant some version of “home rule” to their local governments, although they do not treat all localities equally. Some states provide more power to larger localities, for example, than to the smaller ones. Moreover, the types of powers that states grant to local bodies varies among states and within states, as does the degree of independence granted to local bodies to be free from state interference.144 As Gerald Frug and David Barron have argued, local authority does not have a unitary valence, but rather is a complex mix of empowerment and disability flowing from the states.145 And courts further shape the degree of protection and autonomy offered to local legislative action.146

Turning from local government writ large to the administrative realm, local agencies can be relatively independent of state oversight, elected by local residents, or subject to direct state control. As Paul Diller has noted in the context of public health, some local agencies are responsible to multiple principals, primarily their local government of general jurisdiction and the state.147 Some “local” agencies, moreover, are actually state agencies that operate entirely within a particular local context, not answerable in any direct democratic way to the local government of general jurisdiction.148 And, across the range of local administration, some agencies have not only local and state principals, but also federal involvement, obtaining their authority, funding, andgoverning rules from multiple sources.

To give a concrete example, consider the nature of public housing authorities (PHAs), entities that provide public housing and administer other housing subsidies, such as housing vouchers.149 PHAs are typically created by the state or at least are established pursuant to state law, but are funded and closely regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite this federal and state involvement, PHAs are typically constituted within a specific local service area and have formal and informal (and, at times, quite fraught) relations with their local governments of general jurisdiction.150 PHAs, in short, are agencies operating at the local level that nonetheless have a legal identity reflecting a mix of federal, state, and local elements. Many other local agencies present similar vertical authority variations. Emerging from this, then, is an overall picture of authority informed by federalism and state oversight but with a certain amount of space for local autonomy and independence for particular agencies.

2. The Horizontal Dimension: Local Fragmentation

Turning to the horizontal plane, local governments are not only numerically vast,151 but also tremendously varied, divided broadly between local governments of general jurisdiction and specialized local governments.152 General jurisdiction local governments differ in name and powers—from cities and counties to towns, villages, and other forms.153 Specialized local jurisdictions include a wide array of education districts, transit authorities, utility districts, and many others.154 In the New York metropolitan area, for example, there are “31 counties, 783 municipalities and [over a thousand] school, housing, fire and other special service districts.”155

Not only are local governments horizontally and functionally fragmented, but these fragments can align themselves across formal local (general jurisdiction) boundaries as well. For example, a transit agency or a water district can encompass several cities.156 Or several fragments also can lie within a single local jurisdiction; for example, several school districts can lie within a single city.157 As a result, citizens can interact with multiple local governments in the course of a single day, covering where they work, send their children to school, shop, escape for recreation, sleep at night, and more.

Horizontal fragmentation tends to generate local intergovernmental competition as well as the opportunity for cooperation. Local governments paradigmatically compete on the interlocal level, for mobile residents in the classic Tieboutian sense,158 but also for mobile capital,159 and, in contemporary conflicts over economic development, for the amenities that will attract particular types of industries and workers, like the technology sector.160 Much of this competition is not only local, but increasingly international as well, particularly for global cities.161 On the other hand, some scholars have emphasized the obverse of this competition, highlighting incentives and structures for interlocal cooperation as a counterbalance to the Darwinian view of localism.162 Both interlocal competition and the mechanisms of interlocal cooperation are evident in—indeed, are often instantiated through—the work of local agencies. These dynamics of local fragmentation and mismatching governance scale can generate regulatory gaps as well as administrative overlap.163

3. The Internal Dimension: Structure Within Local Governments

A third dimension, most important to the project of understanding the nature of local administration, is the tremendous internal institutional variation within local governments. To begin, separation of powers among the executive and legislative branches can be lessened, different, or entirely absent in local governments.164 The prevailing view, at least as a formal matter, is that separation-of-powers principles simply do not apply at the local-government level.165 As the Rhode Island Supreme Court has stated, “[S]eparation of powers doctrine is a concept foreign to municipal governance.”166 Justifications range from the “mere”-ness of local governments, to the idea that checks and balances are unnecessary at the local level, to the empirical observation that states have the legal-structural latitude to choose not to separate out executive from judicial and legislative functions in local governments.167

At the local level, there is a wide variety of executive structures: there may be a mayor who is directly elected by residents or, instead, is selected by the city council; a mayor sitting on the city council or barred from it; a mayor who can or cannot veto legislation; or a city council elected at large or by districts or in a mixed manner. Although executive oversight and the “unitary executive” are prominent themes in current federal administrative law scholarship,168 many local governments simply have no elected chief executive officer. It is quite common for local governments, for example, to have a legislative branch like a city council and to have a “city manager” or another similar official appointed by the council as the executive—so-called “council-manager” governments.169 Indeed, one study indicated that versions of the “mayor-council” model with an elected executive are much less common than council-manager or similar forms that have no formal separation of powers.170 Thus for the majority of local governments, the executive branch is housed within the legislative branch. Even for local governments with a recognizable chief executive, whether mayoral or otherwise, many such chief executives have quite limited, or even no, formal appointment and removal power over the heads of administrative agencies.171

Legislatively, there is relatively little partisan competition at the local-government level compared to federal and state bodies,172 and legislative responsiveness to administrative agency action can be swift.173 The lack of local partisanship is often touted as a decided advantage of local government pragmatism.174 As a result, local agencies often operate in environments in which the political economy of oversight is less about partisan proxy battles, as so often occurs at the federal level,175 and instead is more focused on perennial questions of bureaucratic responsiveness and efficiency. Likewise, when agencies act contrary to their delegated authority, the machinery of local legislation can react much more quickly than that at the federal level could.176

And, peculiarly, the functional distinction between legislative and administrative entities can blend, particularly in smaller local governments.177 Although this approach has not been widely adopted across the states as a doctrinal matter, at least some courts review individualized determinations by local legislative bodies as though the relevant action was actually “quasi-judicial.”178 Functionally, this converts a legislative body into an administrative agency for purposes of judicial review.179

Acknowledging all of this rich empirical variety, it is possible to tie a general typology of local-government forms to patterns of administrative structure. Niels Ejersbo and James Svara have usefully mapped the relationship between local administrators and local political structures,180 connecting the main forms of local government—such as strong mayor and council-manager—to different types of local bureaucracies.181 In general, local governments with stronger chief executives tend to use agencies less for policy innovation and more for traditional functions of administrative implementation, but council-manager cities tend to place much more extensive independent authority in agency policymaking.182

Shifting, finally, to the structure of accountability, local agencies, unlike federal agencies, can have dual oversight by their local governments of general jurisdiction as well as by the state. This state-level oversight can come indirectly through the state’s oversight of the local government in which a local agency operates or, in some cases, directly from the state in the case of agencies that have a local ambit but are not embedded within local governments of general jurisdiction.183 Not all agencies operating at the local level, however, are accountable to the local governments with which they may share a geographic jurisdiction. Some types of “local” governments—notably special-purpose districts—have no direct electoral accountability mechanism at the local level.184 The boards or other governing bodies of many special-purpose authorities are often state-appointed, even when their formal jurisdiction is a given locality.185 And some special-purpose entities have no recognizable electoral accountability mechanism whatsoever.186

In sum, local governance presents a kaleidoscopic quilt of structural features—vertical, horizontal, and internal—many of which have valence for the authority and operations of local agencies and deep relevance for a jurisprudence of localist administrative law.

C. The Granular Texture of Local Agency Action

Finally, moving from the regulatory arena and structural context to operational details of administration, what might be particularly distinctive about how local agencies act on a day-to-day basis, compared to the federal paradigm? Two elements seem particularly salient in distinguishing local administration: the relative informality of agency process evident at the local level and the permeability of the line between public and private within local agencies.187

1. Formality and Informality in Local Agency Action

In terms of how local agencies operate, it is clear that there is a tremendous range of formality and informality. As a legal matter, the latitude granted to local agencies to design and institute their own procedures varies widely. Scholars have long explored the variance between the federal APA—the statute that sets the basic parameters of federal administrative action, however broadly188—and the myriad state APAs.189 But at least state APAs provide a modicum of uniformity at the state level, with the state APA applying directly to the work of local-government agencies in some states, at least in some circumstances.190

Many local agencies, however, operate without any similar mandatory overarching legislative procedural guidance. In nearly half the states, local agencies do not fall within the ambit of the relevant state APA.191 Some states and local governments have specific statutes that similarly create general procedural obligations specifically for local governments.192 That leaves a tremendous range of procedural discretion at the local level as a baseline matter.193

Another aspect of informality in local administration is the reality that much of the work of local agencies is carried out by front-line officials who exercise significant discretion in daily contact with local residents.194 Michael Lipsky famously described this as “street-level bureaucracy,”195 with police officers, teachers, social workers, and other local service providers exercising significant delegated authority to implement policy.196 Much more so than at the federal level, then, the daily work of local administration is embodied in a distributed web of officials interacting directly with the public.

Given the frequent lack of clear structural requirements akin to an overarching APA framework—at least for some local agencies—and the significant discretion possessed by so many front-line agents, procedural due process has been a particular legal concern in local administration. This has been especially (but by no means only) true in the context of administrative adjudication, but is an issue in individualized determinations more broadly.197 One of the most iconic cases in the so-called due process revolution, Goldberg v. Kelly,198 involved the procedures for distributing welfare promulgated by the New York City Department of Social Services.199 This constitutional response was, at least in part, a reaction to the lack of clear statutory or administrative common-law procedures at the local level. This lack of clarity is not unique to local administration by any means, but resonant at that level nonetheless.

2. The Local Permeability of Public and Private

A second distinction for local administration is the relative permeability of the line between public and private in the work of many agencies. This permeability echoes, at a micro-institutional level, tension over the question whether local government as a whole should be considered purely public or should continue to reflect aspects of the private corporation that was the predecessor of many types of local governments.200This conceptual divide was evident, for example, in early attempts by the Supreme Court to define a realm of traditional governmental functions for purposes of Tenth Amendment immunity from federal regulation for local governments, an endeavor the Court eventually abandoned as too difficult.201 But it has also emerged in a variety of other, more prosaic contexts in which municipal actions are contested and the scope of local sovereignty is at issue.202 This is hardly surprising, given that one strain of the historical origins of local-government identity in the United States was corporate.203

For local agencies, this public/private divide plays out over two dimensions: the privatization of local functions as well as the infusion of private actors in the work of public agencies. To begin, the contracting out of services has long been a controversial but common feature of local-government operation.204 Privatization generally involves services more than agencies focused on regulatory or licensing activities,205 but there are some local functions that shade into more traditional administration. These can include, for example, enforcement in areas such as tax arrears and child support, as well as the development of regulations, as is common in some areas of land use, even if those regulations are subsequently publicly adopted.206

Even where functions have not been entirely privatized, many local agencies have structural and functional involvement with both private parties and with the public at large, more so than most federal agencies. For example, many local commissioners or board members are local residents who act as part-time appointees.207 Zoning board members might serve a few nights a month at the same time that they are also maintaining a real estate business; school board members might have children in the school district, but otherwise have no professional involvement in education; police review commissions are often staffed by prominent civilians from the community; other examples abound.208

While many local administrative entities, like community boards, involve the participation of ordinary people, many local agencies that do not have that formal involvement are still quite close to day-to-day life and often involve resident input in direct ways.209 Local citizens testify actively at (or have formally recognized authority in) school boards, zoning reviews, police commissions, and the like. And administrative processes at the local level at times formally require consultation with or involvement by neighborhood-level committees or boards.210 All of this brings community perspectives directly into administration. This is not to argue that local bureaucracies are inherently responsive to local concerns.211 As anyone who has ever applied for a building permit knows, local agencies can be distant, bureaucratic, and insulated. But, as a structural matter, the interface between public and private in local administration can be decidedly porous.


Taking a step back, then, this empirical overview highlights some distinctive aspects of local administration, recognizing the often-unheralded breadth of local regulatory, adjudicatory, and enforcement activity. Local agencies exist in a variety of governmental-structural contexts that can vary significantly from the federal paradigm. Likewise, the relative informality of many local agencies can be troubling by creating space for inequity without a baseline or firm standard, as well as by risking divergence in the exercise of discretion. However, this informality can also hold benefits for local residents by fostering more direct input into administration. And the perennial ambiguity about the public/private divide in local governance opens channels for responsiveness while creating concerns about expertise, corruption, and parochialism. All of this must be accounted for both in administrative jurisprudence and in the scholarly discourse, to which we turn in the next two parts.

iv. localist administrative law

Administrative law broadly covers a variety of legal questions, including agency authority and structure, procedural requirements for administration, the basic validity of agency decisions, and judicial review.212 Even as administrative law scholarship has fruitfully begun to focus on agency activity outside the litigation context,213 judicial review of a variety of agency actions, from statutory interpretation to substantive policymaking to procedural regularity, remains a focal point of the literature. Accordingly, this Part homes in on a jurisprudential framework for judicial review of local agency action, although the insights are relevant to the more general corpus of administrative law.214

A localist jurisprudence of judicial review would elevate and render more transparent four themes, even as it continued to address more generic questions endemic across administrative law.215 First, it would grapple substantively with the distinctive nature of the local governmental structure at issue. It would likewise seek to bolster procedural regularity where appropriate, but recognize that informality may have a place to play in local administration. It would also be transparent about anxieties that private involvement raises in local administration, where relevant. And it would take a nuanced approach to administrative expertise in this context. This Part works through these factors to limn a broad formalist and functionalist framework for courts to craft a transsubstantive local administrative law.

To illustrate how these factors would influence doctrine, the Part then gives two specific examples. First, on the question of the appropriate level of deference when courts review local statutory interpretation or substantive policymaking, the recent New York City soda portion case illustrates where local-government structure and local agency expertise should have taken a more prominent role. Likewise, the nondelegation doctrine at the local level takes on a new hue in light of local administration—with an example drawn from among the many in agency interpretation of land-use statutory standards—highlighting the idiosyncrasy of the surprisingly robust application of the doctrine at the local level.

A. A Jurisprudence for Judicial Review of Local Agency Action

As challenging as it is to generalize about the practice and context of local agency work,216 it is equally difficult to coalesce the current jurisprudence of local administrative law across the many domains in which it arises—regulatory, adjudicatory, enforcement, licensing, and otherwise. By contrast, whatever variations are evident in the body of law that has emerged from the judicial review of federal administration, that jurisprudence at least begins with common constitutional, statutory, and institutional underpinnings.217

That said, as with the empirics of local administration, it is possible to discern some themes in the case law as a point of departure, to the extent that courts even treat local agencies as distinctive.218As courts review local agency action, for example, it would be fair to note an undertone of skepticism in some of the case law,219 as much as courts do at times evince respect for the work of agencies.220 This could reflect concerns about bureaucracy undermining democracy, skepticism about the capacity and expertise of local agencies, the fraught nature of local parochialism, and the perils of overly strong private involvement in local governance, or even the risk of corruption (as an extreme version of administrative capture). In some contexts, skepticism may well be warranted, and in others, it will be more appropriate for courts to accord respect to the work of local agencies. Regardless, courts should be explicit when that skepticism influences doctrine and when instead deference is due. In doing so, they should be transparent about what is distinctive about the nature of the specific local agency at issue.221

This Section provides some guideposts for that more explicit judicial engagement with structure, process, democratic legitimacy, and local expertise. To be clear, this framework for a transsubstantive local administrative jurisprudence is not meant to be an argument for a uniform body of law. The point is to surface and clarify what is distinctive about local administration, rather than to simplify the judicial task. This Section accordingly outlines four particularly salient factors that courts should consider.

1. Recognizing the Implications of Local Structure

If the overriding reality of local administration is one of institutional pluralism,222 some aspects of local structure can have a direct bearing on how courts should approach local administrative law. For example, assumptions about executive oversight inform a number of aspects of the judicial review of agency action. If courts use that oversight as a ground for deference, they should interrogate the actual structure of any given local government. Where there is a clear line of authority from a recognizable local chief executive, processes of democratic accountability can serve as a reasonable, if imperfect, undergirding for authority delegated to local agencies.223 But the absence of direct electoral feedback if there is no mayor or similar executive with accountability for agency action may suggest that some agencies deserve greater judicial scrutiny.

To complicate matters further, the fact that some local agencies have a dual structure of oversight—from the local government of general jurisdiction and from the state224—might mitigate judicial concerns about faithless agency. Such dual delegation can mean that the work of local agencies is scrutinized and held accountable by multiple principals. In this way, perhaps ironically, the very limitations of local power inherent in state oversight can be an institutional reason for judicial minimalism.

Similarly, the functional combination of executive and legislative branches in a single body in many local governments—the absence of formal separation of powers—can change how courts evaluate delegation. If an executive agency is really just a part of a unified local-governmental structure, then concerns about the clarity of legislative direction may take on a different cast, with ambiguous delegations subject to more immediate legislative oversight. Indeed, local legislative bodies (city councils, county boards, and the like) can be directly engaged with the work of the agencies that are part of their hierarchies. And local legislative bodies may exercise both legislative and administrative functions, which can inform how courts approach the administrative side of that functional equation.225

There are potentially as many variations to these kinds of structural complications as there are local governments.226 The point here is relatively simple: courts should resist false parallels to higher levels of government, where structural realities may be very different.227 Instead, courts should be clear where norms of administrative legitimacy require formal or functional predicates and then test those assumptions against the actual structures in place. As they do, litigants will begin to craft their arguments accordingly, and a more sophisticated and clearer jurisprudence of local internal structure will emerge.

2. Calibrating Procedural Regularity

A second foundation for a localist administrative law would involve calibrating deference around the procedural realities of local agencies. As discussed above, the level of formality that attaches to local-government agency action can vary significantly, and the institutional constraints that define that process are likewise quite diverse.228 Local agencies have been criticized both for being so informal as to lack “law” altogether,229 and, conversely, as being too rigid and formalistic, applying a set of standards and rules without deviation.230 At both ends of the normative spectrum, local agencies are seen to lack the capacity for nuance or, worse, to be unable to make reasoned and considered judgments in the first place.

These critiques may have real purchase in some local contexts, and clearly procedural due process has an important role to play as a floor in administrative adjudicatory contexts and similar individualized determinations.231 But the critique and the variability suggest, perhaps obviously, that reviewing courts should pay particular attention to the care and procedural depth with which an agency has approached the work at issue. This reflects the suggestion from the Supreme Court, in United States v. Mead Corp.,232 that one potentially important tool to calibrate the level of deference due to a federal agency is the level of formality with which an agency chooses to act.233

Mead involved a challenge to a letter issued by the United States Customs Service that changed the classification of import duties on the company’s famous day planners.234 In finding that the Customs Service’s letter rulings were not entitled to Chevron deference,235 the Court emphasized that an agency stands a better chance of getting either binding deference, or even the less binding respect accorded under Skidmore deference,236 the more the agency action at issue followed procedural formality.237 Thus formality would echo Congress’s conferral of delegated authority and the agency’s choice to exercise that authority.238 The more casual an agency pronouncement, the less likely the agency is to be taking action carrying the force of law and, thus, less deserving of deference.239

Technical formality in the Mead sense is not a perfect proxy for thorough process, thoughtfulness, or any other indicia of legitimacy in administrative work. And predicates for strong deference at the federal level, such as an explicit or implicit legislative choice to rest lawmaking authority in an agency, or greater relevant technical knowledge, may be lacking in many local-government contexts. However, abstracting away from the specific federal context in which Mead arose, there is much to the proposition that the more seriously an agency at any level of government signals that it has undertaken its administrative task, the more a court should give credence to the result. This is a matter of logic, on one level; but there is a formal aspect to this criterion for deference bounded in the legitimation that can derive from notice, comment, and other indicia of traditional administrative formalism.240

That said, there may be some situations in which the work of local administration may be consistent with norms of considered judgment despite the absence of the kind of formality typically accorded at the federal level when agencies seek deference.241 Where local agencies are functioning more to aggregate and channel local input, rather than solely to reach internal, independent policy conclusions, that information-aggregation process may involve informal consultation or community engagement. This can arise, for example, with some land-use planning, as well as in education and other contexts that break down more familiar conceptions of agency process as notice, input, and reflection at a distance.242 That is not to excuse resource or similar institutional constraints, but rather to scale what can be expected of local agencies in terms of formality.

The due process revolution has been an important part of the individual adjudicatory aspect of local administration,243 but the argument here is for a broader calibration of procedural regularity and judicial deference throughout the work of local administration. As with governmental-structural arguments,244 increased transparency from courts explicitly calibrating deference to procedural normality will generate more litigation arguments, and could therefore improve agencies’ procedural practices in the first place.245

3. Accommodating Public/Private Ambiguities

The jurisprudence of local-government law reflects historical tensions over the nature of local governments as partially public and partially private entities.246 As discussed above, there are two aspects of the public/private ambiguity in local governance that are particularly relevant to the judicial review of local agency action. The first is privatization: many local-government services are provided by private parties. The second is the reality that for many recognizably public agencies, the line is more permeable in many contexts than is evident in the world of federal administration.247

As courts review local agency action, there is a decided undercurrent of concern evident about private involvement in local public administration.248 This is reflected in questions about the legitimacy of, and ethical dilemmas posed by, citizen involvement with local agencies. It also likely informs the relative absence of deference for many of the more localist administrative structures in areas such as zoning and public education. This skepticism may be appropriate or it may be overdrawn, but it is rarely acknowledged explicitly.249

Any assumptions that courts make about the legitimacy of citizen involvement, or even about the relative risk of local corruption compared to other levels of government, should not be implicit. Courts policing the somewhat more porous lines between local government and public involvement in the work of that level of government should, at a minimum, acknowledge that public involvement carries benefits as well as causes for concern, with appropriate procedural and ethical safeguards. The argument here, then, is again primarily one for intentionality in accommodating, where appropriate, the reality of the involvement of the public as private individuals in so much agency work.

4. Reconceptualizing Local Expertise

All of this leads, finally, to the functionalist question of the nature of local agency expertise. Again recognizing the difficulty of generalizing, it is fair to say that some courts tend to denigrate—or outright dismiss—the expertise of local administrative bodies, in contrast to the prevailing norms evident in the judicial review of federal agencies.250 This judicial skepticism is bound up with an overly narrow view of what that expertise entails.

Local administrative expertise should be understood, more so than at other levels of government, in dual terms. Certainly, for some local agencies, expertise involves the traditional, technical knowledge that federal agencies are thought to have.251 This is not always the case, of course, as many local agencies have limited resources and lack the independent ability to develop sophisticated technical knowledge. But expert knowledge can be found at the local-government level.

Courts should also understand, however, that local agencies may play a very different role than their federal counterparts—a more explicitly mediating and information-collecting function. As Carol Rose has argued in the context of land-use regulation, one way to understand the role of local governance is as channeling and mediating individual disputes.252 In this mode, local institutions serve to aggregate local information—about local conditions and the local implications of policy—and ensure that intensely personal preferences are considered in the process.253

To be sure, the infusion of public involvement and the diffusion of local authority in agency functioning may make local agencies seem more haphazard in their work. It also exposes local agencies to the critique that they are too close to the people they serve, undermining their impartiality in ways that may be absent in the federal agency context. But their role as information aggregators may also give these agencies access to locally grounded information and a kind of on-the-street accountability that is hard to replicate in federal administrative law.254

This function reflects what may be most attractive about the expertise of local government in an experimentalist mode. It is also potentially democracy enhancing to the extent that local agencies take seriously the role they can play in engaging residents and citizens in issues of local governance.255 And it brings to bear a localist legitimacy that is distinct from the technical knowledge generally associated with administrative agencies. Zoning panels and school boards may be staffed by realtors and parents, but that can be an important—and valid—perspective on the kinds of local policy questions with which the administrative city-state often grapples.256

B. Two Doctrinal Examples

To prove valuable, the framework just laid out should have doctrinal purchase. To illustrate, this Section traces the framework through two of the most common doctrinal touchstones in administrative jurisprudence. First, the level of deference accorded to substantive review of an agency’s policy choices is a perennial question that can illustrate, for example, the implications of local-government structure and the distinctive nature of local expertise. Second, the nondelegation doctrine as it applies to local agencies is an area of doctrine that can highlight concerns over the private role in local governance and relative informality. It would be difficult to link cleanly individual features of the framework with a precise jurisprudential taxonomy—given the sheer diversity of local agencies and institutional contexts in which they operate, the lack of a tight hermetic link is hardly surprising. Applying the framework to elevate what is distinctive about local administration is intended rather to start a process of identifying where the core themes can illuminate a path for courts to follow.

1. Deference and Substantive Review—Localist Chevron and Skidmore

Judicial review often turns on the reasonableness or rationality of agency action (or the substantiality of the evidence supporting it), whether in interpreting ambiguous statutes or making substantive policy. The threshold question is generally what level of deference courts owe to the relevant agency.257 As scholars have explored, the landscape of deference in state administrative law is much more varied than the relatively uniform paradigm that the Supreme Court has crafted at the federal level.258 Local administrative law evinces a pattern that appears similarly varied, although part of the challenge in mapping standards for the review of local agencies is the relative absence of any self-conscious acknowledgement of the necessity of articulating localist-sensitive deference norms.259

The framework laid out above, however, can guide courts as they calibrate the appropriate level of deference in reviewing statutory interpretation and substantive policy choices by local agencies. Take, for example, the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in the soda-portion-cap case that opened this Article.260 The Court of Appeals took an essentially disdainful approach to deference, raising a number of problems. To begin, the court’s majority opinion barely considered what distinguishes New York City’s governmental structure and complex local apparatus of separation of powers from state legislative oversight. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was overseen by a mayor who was deeply immersed in the details of what he viewed as one of his signature policy concerns. The Department also exercised delegated authority not only from the city, but also directly from the State of New York. One argument the city made in defending the Department of Health’s proposed regulation was that the legislation establishing the agency provided a source of legislative authority that was independent from, and in addition to, whatever delegation had been made under the city’s Charter.261 The court rejected the argument with relatively little discussion, as though this structural proposition was somehow unfathomable.262 It may have been an overreach by the agency, but it was not an entirely unreasonable position, and the court did not give it the consideration it deserved.

The Court of Appeals likewise denigrated the Department of Health’s clear technical expertise and unique understanding of patterns of urban health.263 Here, one need not even reach the question of how locally grounded the Department is to recognize that even the federal government at times follows the lead of local public-health agencies like the Department.264 But that expertise is all the more salient, given that public-health agencies have unique insights into how health issues like obesity actually unfold on the ground. None of that expertise—technical or experiential—gained recognition by the Court of Appeals.

Ultimately, then, the court delegitimated what should have been a relatively banal exercise of regulatory discretion. A body of administrative law jurisprudence even minimally sensitive to local context would suggest that some level of deference was warranted in this case—if not some local equivalent to Chevron, then at least the respect reflected in Skidmore deference. Local authority exercised through the Department of Health—no less than the EPA or OSHA or any federal agency—should have stood.

This is but one example of how a framework of judicial deference sensitive to local context on grounds such as structure and expertise might play out differently. In this case, that structure should have yielded greater deference, but that will not always be the case. It might seem ironic that, after spilling so much ink about the distinctive nature of local administration, this example supports the adoption of a model of deference that resembles federal approaches. However, the outcome does not turn on the aptness of the analogy to federal agency action, but rather on a clear engagement with the distinctive nature of this particular local agency.265

2.Nondelegation in the Shadow of Local Practice

This Article’s doctrinal framework also illuminates an intriguing puzzle that emerges from the current jurisprudence of local administrative law. At the federal level, it is black-letter law that the nondelegation doctrine has essentially no strength as a meaningful ground of judicial oversight.266 In the mid-1930s, the Supreme Court decided a pair of nondelegation cases, one involving public delegation,267 and one involving delegation to private parties.268 After those cases, the Court essentially got out of the business of policing nondelegation at the federal level.269

At the local level, however, nondelegation is still a vibrant doctrine, with significant application.270 Nondelegation was one issue in the New York City soda-portion-cap case,271 but state courts generally use nondelegation principles to rein in zoning boards, health departments, and similar entities. Land use is a particularly fertile context. For example, in Kosalka v. Town of Georgetown,272 the Maine Supreme Court heard a challenge to the denial of a conditional use permit by the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals, an administrative body. The Board’s duties included ensuring that conditional uses must “conserve natural beauty,”273 a standard that most likely would have passed muster at the federal level.274 To the Maine court, however, this standard provided insufficient guidance, and it was struck down as an unconstitutional delegation from the town to the board.275 Such decisions are fairly common.276

What accounts for this particular disconnect between local and federal administrative law? It is hard to say for certain, but the relative informality of local boards seems to play a role.277 An even more trenchant explanation may be the permeability of public and private at the local level. Delegating to a zoning board—ostensibly a public agency but often governed, if not entirely staffed, by part-time volunteers278—seems to raise judicial anxiety about authority being given to local residents.279 Legislative standards that might be acceptable when given to a deeply resourced, professionally staffed traditional agency may become more troubling when community members are tasked with the decision making.The strength of the nondelegation doctrine at the local level likewise may be understood to filter concerns about capture through the experience of local corruption.

In judicial review of local agency action, these concerns about the ambiguity of the public/private line may be entirely warranted, but there are also reasons to consider whether they are overstated. This is not to say that police oversight commissions staffed by local citizens or community review boards led by neighborhood activists should raise no concerns about legitimacy. Rather it is that nondelegation should reflect the advantages as well as the risks that public involvement, knowledge, and accountability bring to local agencies. Local administrative nondelegation should not be the same empty doctrine it is at the federal level, by any means. But courts should be more explicit about why they are skeptical and whether that skepticism is necessarily warranted.


In practice, there are going to be norms of judicial oversight that are common across all levels of government, including basic notice and the opportunity to be heard, the building of a record, and the obligation for rational explanation, among other core values at the heart of any legitimate administrative process. But important differences in the details can emerge at the local level. What Thomas Merrill has described as the “appellate review model”280 of judicial oversight serves an important legitimating function that will have parallels for federal, state, and local agencies. If there is, then, a spectrum of uniformity and particularity across these levels of government, the framework above somewhat artificially highlights distinctive aspects of local administrative context and practice, so that, over time, courts can develop a jurisprudence that is sensitive to that distinctiveness where appropriate.

v. the lacunae revisited

In the end, framing a distinctly localist administrative jurisprudence leads back to the value that an exploration of local institutions offers more broadly for legal scholars and the interdisciplinary discourse of local governance.281 For local-government scholars, foregrounding administration can add a rich dimension to the literature on local authority and identity, complicating questions of local democratic accountability, the valence of local community, and the institutions of local experimentalism. Similarly, for administrative law scholarship, giving local agencies their rightful place can provide new institutional contexts that denaturalize the overly federal focus of extant literature. This holds promise for an administrative law that reflects all levels of government in our federal system. This Part reviews these implications and then sets out a scholarly agenda moving forward.

A. Administration in the Discourse of Localism

The traditional discourse on localism pivots on a central tension between the benefits and costs of devolution and decentralization. In only slightly reductionist terms, proponents of local legal authority and autonomy emphasize the potential of local governments to reinforce democratic participation and elevate community.282 Localism, proponents further argue, also tends to lead to more efficient public services, both because local officials can better respond to local preferences,283 and because governance is disciplined through local residents exercising their right to “exit” through mobility.284 And a third general benefit associated with empowering local governments is the ability of devolution and decentralization to advance experimentalism.285 If the fifty laboratories of democracy are beneficial in federalism, the argument goes, surely ninety thousand must provide even more fertile ground for variation, tinkering, and policy diffusion.

The familiar obverse of these arguments focuses instead on the dark side of local authority and autonomy. Thus, local governments, scholars frequently note, tend to be exclusionary and parochial, undermining the representational interests of those not immediately participating within the boundaries of local democracy.286 Moreover, smaller jurisdictions tend to generate spillover effects not internalized at the local level.287 And experimentalism can undermine uniformity.288 These are very well-rehearsed arguments, to say the least, but we can look at them afresh through the lens of local administration.

1. New Variables for Democracy, Community, and Parochialism

The basic discourse on localism tends to treat “local government” as a unified entity with recourse to electoral politics as the primary mechanism of democratic accountability. Refracted through the practice of local administration, however, basic questions of community, participation, and exclusion provide both new sources of concern—grounded in the ubiquity of local bureaucracy—as well as potential new grounds for optimism.

As to bureaucracy undermining accountability, the concern is clear that the more robust the “administrative state” within any local government, the more Kafkaesque the potential experience of the ordinary citizen. As proverbially hard as it is to “fight city hall,”289 it is that much more challenging to contend with dozens of local agencies. On the other hand, the fact that the public can be so involved in local agency process can provide new avenues of participation and accountability.290 Depending on the details of local political participation and the salience of any given agency’s domain,291 it may be difficult to hold mayors, city council members, and other local elected officials directly accountable for administrative actions. But the centrality of electoral accountability may be tempered by the very blurring of governmental action and public participation in local governance that has traditionally troubled courts, with a variety of alternative means to give voice down to the neighborhood level to citizen concerns.292

Another important lesson that administrative practice may hold for the discourse on localism is the possibility for political participation by outsiders to local government. If the accountability grounding for concerns about parochialism is predicated on the reality that non-citizens are disabled from participating in local democracy, administrative process may supply at least a partial remedy. The fact that administrative agencies have broader mechanisms than simply voting may actually temper concerns about lack of representation (“voice” in the classic triad of exit, voice, and loyalty293). No outsider to the polity is necessarily entitled to any kind of political representation and generally does not have the right vote in local elections, with only limited exceptions.294 However, if a regulated entity can build a case before an administrative agency, that entity may get a different hearing than if it tried to navigate the shoals of local politics unfiltered through norms and relatively transparent processes of administration. Given perennial concerns about bureaucracy undermining democracy, it may be an ironic consequence of the breadth of local administration that it can create a space for policy engagement beyond the boundaries of any local government.

2. Experimentalism Refracted Through Administration

As to experimentalism, the limited geographic scope of local agency action—as with localism more generally—might suggest more latitude for innovation. When OSHA or the EPA sets a national rule for an industry, that rule binds the nation, but when a city or county tries (and perhaps fails) to innovate in the regulatory arena, the consequences by definition are, well, localized. Moreover, when the federal government regulates, there is no functional ability to exit for a regulated entity—short of international migration, of course—or other similar check on the scope of federal administrative reach. But with local agencies, there is the additional discipline of exit. This may factor more or less heavily in some regulatory arenas, depending on the relative mobility of any individual or entity, but it is a potentially significant difference in terms of the latitude that states and courts might give local agencies to innovate in areas of policy uncertainty.

The limited geographic scope of local agencies also cabins the experimental exercise. This is partially just a question of scale, and the same can be said for other sub-local institutions, like business improvement districts and neighborhood advisory councils.295 But scale here is more complex, given that some local agencies have authority that is coterminous in its geographic scope with the relevant local government of general jurisdiction, but others have a narrower or even a broader (at times regional) field of operations.296

Functionally, adding administrative agencies to accounts of local experimentalism adds important texture to our understanding of how policy variation and diffusion actually occurs. Joseph Landau has argued that lower-level agency actors play an unappreciated role in fostering policy innovation at the federal level, having the latitude within the bounds of administrative discretion to offer higher-level officials new ideas and policy options.297 At the local level, particularly in areas such as public health,298 a similar dynamic plays out, with a robust infrastructure of local interagency dialogue. Indeed, interlocal cooperation more generally is often facilitated by agency-level interaction, which may be a way to overcome parochial resistance to the loss of policy autonomy that can occur at the level of general jurisdictional leadership.299 All of this multiplies the promise of local experimentalism while cabining the practical consequences of policy failure.

B. The Place of the Local in Administrative Law

If administrative agency practice and norms provide a new lens to consider debates about localism, local practice can have equal relevance to scholars who focus primarily on federal administrative law. Adding the local to the discourse enables a kind of institutional complexity that can usefully throw core concerns of administrative law into relief. On the other hand, continuity as well as difference—especially continuity that pushes, in Heather Gerken’s phrase, “all the way down”300—can be instructive for administrative law scholars. Baseline norms in administrative law can be understood not only to transcend particular substantive domains, but likewise to pertain to all levels of government.301

1. Embracing Institutional Variety

As we have seen, familiar tropes of legitimacy and legality that define administrative law at the federal level can look decidedly different in the context of local administration.302 The absence of separation of powers, the lack of a unitary executive, the reality of actual independence from the relevant local government for some agencies, and other institutional variations explored above—structural and legislative—suggest that there may be alternative ways to achieve the goals associated with administrative law beyond the conceptual toolkit now present at the federal level. So, too, do the mechanisms of accountability that have developed at the local-government level that emphasize public participation and the immediacy of citizen input, to cite another variation.

This raises a challenge, then, for scholars of administrative law: to what extent are the specific mechanisms of legitimacy that set most of the boundaries of the discourse at the federal level necessary or even sufficient? If there are alternatives, do they suggest more flexibility at the federal level? At a minimum, scholars of administrative law should pay more attention to municipal and other local bureaucracies. They tend to be the part of the overall administrative state that most people encounter most often in their day-to-day lives. But more importantly, core theoretical concerns can take on a very different cast with the menagerie of local agencies.

To give one example, take concerns over administrative capture.303 Agencies are thought to be vulnerable to an overly close relationship with the entities they regulate, and, at the extreme, this can lead to outright corruption. Localism can cut in multiple ways in outlining a more complex picture of this dynamic. At the local level, exit or even the desire for entrance (local attempts to attract industries, for example) can give greater leverage to many regulated industries in conflicts with local regulators, which might lead to greater risk of capture. And there is also a perennial problem of some regulated entities (although by no means all) possessing greater relative power than local regulators. On the other hand, the particular types of accountability mechanisms that can be a distinctive feature of local administration, such as public participation and the political economy of relatively intense local preferences,304 may bolster the ability of local regulators to resist capture by outside regulated entities.

Local accountability can give rise more generally to parochialism, another obvious concern for local administration. Given the limited geographical scope of local governments and local political economy, local agencies might treat outsiders in a less favorable manner than insiders. On the other hand, the communitarian strain of localism suggests one ground on which capture might be resisted, with local involvement potentially insulating agencies from developing too close a relationship with regulated entities. This pattern may be evident, for example, in recent controversies over “broadband localism.”305 In a number of communities around the country, private providers have been unable or unwilling to supply high-speed internet. In response, some local governments have created their own network providers—not quite agencies in the traditional regulatory sense, to be sure, but public (or public/private) entities controlled by the local government. In response, private providers have been lobbying states to preempt or remove local authority to invest in this kind of infrastructure.306 While not a perfect narrative of resistance to capture, this conflict does underscore the ability of local governments to resist the influence of entities that would otherwise have prevented local innovation.

This is just one example of how a standard, long-standing debate in the discourse on administrative law refracts differently when situated in an institutional context far removed from the standard federal paradigm. Many other core debates—about judicial review, the balance of powers, procedural legislation and executive oversight, among others—will similarly yield new insights from institutional variety.

2. Unifying Administrative Law “All the Way Down”

Although this Article has emphasized contrasts with the federal administrative paradigm in order to highlight what is distinctly local, there is also clearly a fair amount of conceptual (and doctrinal) continuity across vertical levels of administration on certain irreducible features of the nature of the judicial-agency relationship. Certain principles of rationality and justification as well as procedural norms of notice and the opportunity to participate are inherent in the legal nature of administration. The fine-grained details may look different at the federal, state, and local level, but these principles remain defining features of agency action. Which neighbors get notice of a hearing for a special exception before a board of zoning appeal may be very different than the audience for a notice of proposed rulemaking by the EPA to set national air quality standards. But the idea that a party impacted by an agency action ought to have the chance to weigh in on that action in some form emerges from the same kernel.

There is value in drawing on the variety of structures in localities to think anew about how a variety of institutions—agencies, legislatures, and courts—might do things differently at the federal and state levels, constitutional constraints permitting. Unifying administrative law all the way down to the local level can thus redound to the benefit of legal scholarship on commonalities as well as variations in administrative contexts. As noted at the outset, scholars have done—and continue to do—valuable work that explores administrative law at the state level.307 That scholarship is instructive as a mid-point between the federal and the local, highlighting some features of state structure and practice that can fruitfully suggest avenues of inquiry at the much more complex sub-state level.308 That work has been done well, but has not had as much influence as it should on the broader discourse of administrative law. Adding the layer of local administration will hopefully lead back up to the state level to foster a more vigorous dialogue for administrative law scholars who want to confront long-standing jurisprudential and theoretical questions that have settled into too much of a stasis at the federal level.

C. Toward an Agenda Moving Forward

This Article’s exploration of local agencies only skims the surface of a significant and largely unexplored body of administrative practice and jurisprudence reviewing that practice. The Article sets a clear agenda for further work in local administrative law, but there are some particular questions of local agency context and practice that bear particular further examination.

As a threshold matter, if administrative law addresses realms beyond judicial review,309 it is well worth exploring in more detail whether individual, specific features of local-governmental structure have discernible consequences for agency authority, process, and policymaking that do not lead to litigation.310 Empirically, for example, do local governments with limited or no separation of powers generate different agency practices, regardless of the reviewing court, than local governments with strong mayors? Does the extent of privatization in any local government have an impact on those administrative structures that remain public? Do local legislatures behave differently in delegating authority to local agencies that are more or less engaged with the community? As noted above, there is an emerging scholarship on distinctly “local” courts within state court systems.311 Do such courts identifiably vary in their approach to reviewing “their” local agencies? There are many questions about the intersection between particular aspects of local-governmental structure, the work of local agencies, and patterns in the jurisprudence that this Article’s framework can help bring to the surface, and these questions bear further examination.312

Another vein of future research will be detailing the jurisprudence of particular administrative regimes by specific jurisdiction or by substantive area. An assumption of this Article has been that, as with federal administrative law, a localist administrative jurisprudence should begin on a transsubstantive basis. Additionally, the Article has assumed that an appropriate starting point is also transjurisdictional— factors that might be theoretically relevant to understanding local administrative praxis are not unique to California, or Missouri, or Maine (let alone to larger or smaller local governments, as a conceptual matter).313

Those assumptions, however, are only starting points. One question, then, is whether particular domains of local agency action validly yield meaningful procedural differences that are substantively grounded. Do the dictates, for example, of educational equity demand certain norms of participation that may not be as salient in the arena of, say, land-use regulation? Does the greater degree of federal funding in certain areas of social welfare policy change the terms of procedural fairness that prevail in those areas compared to relatively locally funded services, such as infrastructure? Does the scale of certain regulatory arenas, such as the regionalism evident in clean air policy, militate in favor of certain administrative structures and procedures? Similarly, state-level variation surely matters in practice, and individual states and localities are worthy of in-depth examination across administrative contexts. These, and any number of similar questions, are best answered from a baseline that recognizes certain overarching features of local administrative law, so as to understand whether and why particular idiosyncratic administrative norms make sense.

Finally, this Article’s working hypothesis about what is significant about local administrative law can serve as an invitation for engagement with those strands of positive political theory and economics that examine the consequences of specific institutional structures.314 Some of the work of translation to those discourses is inherent in this Article’s proposed jurisprudential framework, of course, but scholars of local government in cognate fields can build on its structural-doctrinal insights to inform work on government form, political process, local democracy, and legitimacy.


If, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “the end of all our exploring / [w]ill be to arrive where we started / [a]nd know the place for the first time,”315 we can now see local governance through a new lens. The jurisprudence of the administrative city-state rightly shares many foundational concerns with its more familiar counterpart in federal (and state) administrative law, most notably a deep focus on bureaucratic legitimacy, primarily through procedural protections and the calibration of the appropriate standard of judicial review. But courts and scholars must begin a more careful examination of what distinguishes administration as practiced by cities, suburbs, counties, towns, and other local governments. In that domain, we see a wide array of governmental structures, agencies that often operate with relatively little procedural formality, a blending of public and private, and agency expertise that can be grounded less in technical knowledge and more in local experience. These are by no means the only salient factors that might shape local administrative law, but they can frame a discourse that can be refined as courts take a more self-conscious approach to the endeavor of reviewing local administration and scholars consider the broader implications of adding the local to the discourse of the administrative state. That evolving exercise will shed new light on administrative law while opening a fundamentally new window into the work of the level of government closest to our daily lives.