Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council
435 U.S. 519 (1978)

 

[In a proceeding growing out of the licensing two nuclear power plants, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) (predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), promulgated a “spent fuel cycle rule.”  Although AEC was authorized to follow informal rulemaking procedures, it received oral comments at a hearing.  But AEC did not allow discovery proceedings or cross-examination of the witnesses who appeared at the hearing.  On review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the rule, holding that the procedures followed by AEC were insufficient because they did not allow discovery of evidence or cross-examination of key witnesses. The U.S. Supreme Court granted review.]

Mr. Justice Rehnquist delivered the Opinion of the Court.
In 1946, Congress enacted the Administrative Procedure Act, which … was not only “a new and comprehensive regulation of procedures in many agencies,” … but was also a legislative enactment which settled “long continued and hard-fought contentions, and enacts a formula upon which opposing social and political forces have come to rest.” … Section 553 of the Act, dealing with rulemaking, requires that “… notice of proposed rulemaking shall be published in the Federal Register” … describes the contents of that notice, and goes on to require in subsection (c) that after the notice the agency “shall give interested persons an opportunity to participate in the rulemaking through submission of written data, views, or arguments with or without opportunity for oral presentation.”  After consideration of the relevant matter presented the agency shall incorporate in the rules adopted a general statement of their basis and purpose.” 5 U.S.C.A. § 553. …

 Interpreting this provision of the Act … we [have] held that generally speaking this section of the Act established the maximum procedural requirements which Congress was willing to have the courts impose upon agencies in conducting rulemaking procedures. Agencies are free to grant additional procedural rights in the exercise of their discretion, but reviewing courts are generally not free to impose them if the agencies have not chosen to grant them. This is not to say necessarily that there are no circumstances which would ever justify a court in overturning agency action because of a failure to employ procedures beyond those required by the statute. But such circumstances, if they exist, are extremely rare. ...

It is in the light of this background of statutory and decisional law that we granted certiorari to review two judgments of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit because of our concern that they had seriously misread or misapplied this statutory and decisional law cautioning reviewing courts against engrafting their own notions of proper procedures upon agencies entrusted with substantive functions of Congress. ...
           
... [B]efore determining whether the Court of Appeals reached a permissible result, we must determine exactly what result it did reach, and in this case that is no mean feat. Vermont Yankee argues that the court invalidated the rule because of the inadequacy of the procedures employed in the proceedings. Respondent NRDC, on the other hand, labeling petitioner’s view of the decision a “straw man,” argues to this Court that the court merely held that the record was inadequate to enable the reviewing court to determine whether the agency had fulfilled its statutory obligation....

After a thorough examination of the opinion itself, we conclude that while the matter is not entirely free from doubt, the majority of the Court of Appeals struck down the rule because of the perceived inadequacies of the procedures employed in the rulemaking proceedings. The court first determined the intervenors’ primary argument to be “that the decision to preclude ‘discovery or cross-examination’ denied them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the proceedings as guaranteed by due process.” … The court also refrained from actually ordering the agency to follow any specific procedures, but there is little doubt in our minds that the ineluctable mandate of the court’s decision is that the procedures afforded during the hearings were inadequate. This conclusion is particularly buttressed by the fact that after the court examined the record, ... and declared it insufficient, the court proceeded to discuss at some length the necessity for further procedural devices or a more “sensitive” application of those devices employed during the proceedings. ...

In prior opinions we have intimated that even in a rulemaking proceeding when an agency is making a “quasi-judicial” determination by which a very small number of persons are “exceptionally affected”…, in some circumstances additional procedures may be required in order to afford the aggrieved individuals due process. ... It might also be true, although we do not think the issue is presented in this case and accordingly do not decide it, that a totally unjustified departure from well settled agency procedures of long standing might require judicial correction.

But this much is absolutely clear. Absent constitutional constraints or extremely compelling circumstances, “the administrative agencies should be free to fashion their own rules of procedure and to pursue methods of inquiry capable of permitting them to discharge their multitudinous duties.” ...

... NRDC argues that Sec. 553 of the Administrative Procedure Act merely establishes lower procedural bounds and that a court may routinely require more than the minimum when an agency’s proposed rule addresses complex or technical factual issues or “issues of great public import.” ... We have, however, previously shown that our decisions reject this view.

We also think the legislative history, even the part which it cites, does not bear out its contention.... Congress intended that the discretion of the agencies and not that of the courts be exercised in determining when extra procedural devices should be employed.

There are compelling reasons for construing Sec. 553 in this manner. In the first place, if courts continually review agency proceedings to determine whether the agency employed procedures which were, in the court’s opinion, perfectly tailored to reach what the court perceives to be the “best” or “correct” result, judicial view would be totally unpredictable. And the agencies, operating under this vague injunction to employ the “best” procedures and facing the threat of reversal if they did not, would undoubtedly adopt full adjudicatory procedures in every instance. Not only would this totally disrupt the statutory scheme, through which Congress enacted “a formula upon which opposing social and political forces have come to rest,” ... but all the inherent advantages of informal rulemaking would be totally lost.

Secondly, it is obvious that the court in this case reviewed the agency’s choice of procedures on the basis of the record actually produced at the hearing, and not on the basis of the information available to the agency when it made the decision to structure the proceedings in a certain way. This sort of Monday morning quarterbacking not only encourages but almost compels the agency to conduct all rulemaking proceedings with the full panoply of procedural devices normally associated only with adjudicatory hearings.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, this sort of review fundamentally misconceives the nature of the standard for judicial review of an agency rule. The court below uncritically assumed that additional procedures will automatically result in a more adequate record because it will give interested parties more of an opportunity to participate and contribute to the proceedings. But informal rulemaking need not be based solely on the transcript of a hearing held before an agency. Indeed, the agency need not even hold a formal hearing. ... Thus, the adequacy of the “record” in this type of proceeding is not correlated directly to the type of procedural devices employed, but rather turns on whether the agency has followed the statutory mandate of the Administrative Procedure Act or other relevant statutes. If the agency is compelled to support the rule which it ultimately adopts with the type of record produced only after a full adjudicatory hearing, it simply will have no choice but to conduct a full adjudicatory hearing prior to promulgating every rule. In sum, this sort of unwarranted judicial examination of perceived procedural shortcomings of a rulemaking proceeding can do nothing but seriously interfere with that process prescribed by Congress. ...

 

Mr. Justice Blackmun and Mr. Justice Powell took no part in ... [this decision].