The Birth of a Logical System: Thurman Arnold and the Making of Modern Administrative Law


Much of what we recognize as contemporary administrative law emerged during the 1920s and 1930s, a period when a group of legal academics attempted to aid Progressive Era and New Deal regulatory efforts by crafting a legitimating system for the federal administrative state. Their system assigned competent, expert institutions—most notably administrative agencies and the judiciary—well-defined roles: Agencies would utilize their vast, specialized knowledge and abilities to correct market failures, while courts would provide a limited but crucial oversight of agency operations. This Article focuses both on this first generation of administrative law scholarship, which included most prominently Felix Frankfurter and James Landis, and on the contemporaneous challenge to their work raised by the legal realist Thurman Arnold. Arnold characterized early modern administrative law as a quasi-formalist effort to impose a logical system of procedure and judicial review on what he saw as pragmatic, functional regulatory agencies that were attempting to address the crisis of the Depression. Although he conceded the persuasive power of this logical system, Arnold predicted that its requirements, especially for adversarial litigation and judicial review, would ultimately impede the optimal operations of a modern administrative state. Although Arnold’s eclectic alternative proposals had no influence, his predictions and critique remain incisive and relevant to an academic field and body of doctrine that regularly face regular bouts of intellectual and political crisis.

The Article carries the historical disagreement between Arnold and his contemporaries into the present by connecting their debates first to the development of legal process theory as an approach to federal courts and constitutional law in the 1950s and then to similar debates in administrative law today. Arnold’s challenge to early modern administrative law, the Article argues, remains relevant because American law still demands a systemic, legalistic conception of the administrative state. A logical system of administrative and legal process has enormous symbolic power even though, as its current detractors note, it often produces suboptimal regulatory practices. The recurring conflict between an enormously durable system and its critique, a conflict that continues to drive administrative law scholarship, began in the 1920s and 1930s; any efforts to reform the field should understand the terms and implications of the conflict’s foundations.


Administrative Law | Constitutional Law | Jurisprudence | Legal History

Date of this Version

August 2004