The history of American freedom is, in no small measure, the history of procedure. --Justice Felix Frankfurter (1) INTRODUCTION
Procedural due process is, by its nature, a conditional protection. It does not guarantee that government will be unable to deprive an individual of her liberty, her property, or even her life. Instead, it does nothing more than impose the condition that government may deprive an individual of any or all of these valuable interests only if certain procedural requirements have first been satisfied. But it would not be an overstatement to assert that this constitutional protection serves as an important element of the foundation of a democratic system. As a matter of political theory, the implicit social contract between government and citizen in a liberal democratic state demands that the government treat its citizens with dignity and respect. If government seeks to take away a citizen's liberty or property for violation of law, the social contract therefore demands that government provide the citizen with a full and fair opportunity to challenge the allegations of legal wrongdoing; anything less would be inconsistent with its contractual obligations toward its citizens. Of all the procedural requirements dictated by the demands of fair procedure, far and away the most important is the requirement of an independent, neutral adjudicator. Absent a truly neutral adjudicator, provision of any and all other procedural protections will be all but meaningless, since a biased or unduly influenced adjudicator is capable of ignoring all procedural protections in reaching a decision.
As important as procedural due process is in any case in which an individual's life, liberty, or property is at stake, special procedural considerations come into play when the liberty in danger of revocation is the individual's First Amendment right to speak. The First Amendment right of free expression is simultaneously foundational to the continued viability of American democracy and among the most fragile of all constitutional protections. Even when the right to communicate is vigorously protected, it takes courage to express one's views, and that courage is often easily lost at the first sign of even the slightest governmental intimidation or threat. It is therefore not surprising that both jurists and commentators have recognized a special category of procedural protection, known as "First Amendment 'due process.'" (2) This refers to the requirement that a would-be speaker be provided with procedures that satisfy the constitutional requirements of procedural due process before a claim of First Amendment protection for his expression may be rejected. The best way to view First Amendment due process is as a necessary but not sufficient condition. In other words, rejection of a claim of First Amendment protection absent the provision of the requisite procedures (3) will automatically be deemed unconstitutional. However, the mere fact that such procedural protections have been provided will not automatically be deemed to satisfy the requirements of First Amendment protection. In addition, the determination of whether the expression in question is constitutionally protected must satisfy the substantive requirements of First Amendment jurisprudence.
Due process in general, and First Amendment due process in particular, face perhaps their most serious threat in the context of the modern administrative state. When viewed through the lens of procedural due process, the fundamental structure of the adjudicatory process takes on a very different--and much more ominous--tenor in the administrative context than in the traditional judicial setting. In the traditional judicial setting, adjudication is presided over by mosdy independent judges who have no particular interest who wins or loses the case. In sharp contrast, in the administrative setting adjudication is conducted and resolved by employees--often high-ranking employees--of the very agency whose existence is justified by the need for regulation and which has decided to institute the particular regulatory proceeding in the first place. Such potential sources of threat to adjudicatory neutrality and independence would never be tolerated in the judicial system. Indeed, given applicable precedent, it seems quite clear that such aberrations from adjudicatory neutrality would be deemed unconstitutional as violations of the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of procedural due process. Yet to say these aberrations are commonplace in the administrative process would be an understatement. Indeed, they represent the fundamental characteristics of the modern administrative process. On the basis of a poorly reasoned Supreme Court decision feebly attempting to distinguish between the due process limits imposed on judicial and administrative adjudication, however, at least for the present time, the highly dubious constitutionality of the modern administrative process is largely ignored. (4)
Some would no doubt argue that it is too late in the day to bring about so dramatic a constitutional upheaval within the administrative state, and as a practical and descriptive matter, at least, this is likely true. Some would also likely respond that whatever threats to due process values that occur regularly in the administrative state are more than justified by the regulatory benefits to society that flow from its existence. This view we vehemently reject. There is no reason the administrative state cannot operate both effectively and fairly. Indeed, to the extent the goal of procedural due process is thought to be the utilitarian value of accurate decisionmaking, (5) fair adjudication by a truly neutral adjudicator would seem essential to both effectiveness and fairness. Overregulation is no better for society than underregulation, and the danger of overregulation increases dramatically when the adjudicator begins the process with a built-in preference for the position taken by the very agency of which she is a part. We could avoid many of the due process dangers of self-interested adjudication simply by substantially increasing both the independence and decision-making power of administrative law judges.
One need not bring about so dramatic an upheaval in the administrative process in order to substantially rectify many of the serious due process problems that plague the modern administrative state. It is possible to view the due process pathologies of the administrative state on different levels of constitutional harm. Of course, if one were to accept our due process attack on the fundamental operation of the administrative process, this multileveled analysis would be unnecessary; the process, as currently constituted, would be invalidated. But, assuming for the moment that our foundational due process attack will be viewed as a bridge too far, it is important to recognize that there are especially harmful constitutional pathologies that are confined to much narrower forms of the administrative process.
Instead of invalidating all administrative adjudication on due process grounds, one could conceivably seek out legal contexts in which the threat to administrative adjudicatory neutrality is greatest. For example, when a constitutional challenge is presented to the agency's regulatory authority, either facially or as applied to the particular regulatory context, the constitutional stakes are raised significantly. From one perspective, the neutrality of an interested adjudicator is placed under even greater stress than when the issue for adjudication is simply whether a regulated party has or has not violated a regulation. When issues of constitutionality are raised, the challenge gives rise to a threat to the future scope of the agency's authority--one that would likely make any individual whose professional existence is intimately intertwined with the agency's power feel protective of that power. From another perspective, the most foundational considerations involve constitutional challenges to agency action. It is therefore especially in such cases that the neutrality and independence of the adjudicator are most important.
Will an adjudicator tied to a specific agency be incapable of deciding neutrally in all cases? Likely not. But the foundation of adjudicatory independence is the assumption that we choose to overprotect independence by establishing ex ante categorical rules, rather than risk underprotecting it through use of a case-by-case inquiry into neutrality. In many instances, the adjudicator herself will fail to recognize her implicit biases. It is for these reasons that due process is appropriately deemed to require use of categorical prohibitions on identification between the adjudicator and the enforcing entity. And, for reasons already mentioned, the need for such prophylactically insulated neutrality is at its most intense in the case of a constitutional challenge to agency action or authority.
As important as adjudicatory neutrality is in the case of any constitutional challenge to agency authority, for reasons already noted the need for such independence is arguably at its height when the constitutional challenge is grounded in the First Amendment right of free expression. It is for this very reason that the concept of "First Amendment due process" has been developed. First Amendment due process, then, must add an element above and beyond the level of constitutional protection afforded by procedural due process alone. What the content of that element actually is, however, is not immediately clear. This Article seeks to answer this question by examining First Amendment due process in the specific context of the federal government's administrative state. In this sense, it involves a synthesis of First Amendment doctrine and theory with an analysis of procedural due process in the administrative context.
Claims of First Amendment protection may well...