Mendelson: Private Control Over Access to Public Law: Federal Regulatory Use of Private Standards

Professor Nina A. Mendelson of University of Michigan Law School has posted Private Control Over Access to Public Law: The Puzzling Federal Regulatory Use of Private Standards, forthcoming in Michigan Law Review.

Here is the abstract:

To save resources and build on private expertise, federal agencies have incorporated private standards into thousands of federal regulations – but only by “reference.” An individual who wishes to read this binding federal regulatory law cannot access it for free online or in a government depository library, as she can the U.S. Code or Code of Federal Regulations. Instead, the individual is referred to the private organization that prepared the standard, which typically asserts a copyright and charges a significant access fee. Or else she must travel to Washington, D.C. Thus, this category of law has come under largely private control.

In assessing the arguments why law needs to be public, previous analyses have focused almost wholly on whether regulated entities have notice of their obligations. This article evaluates several other considerations, including notice to those who expect to benefit from the way government regulates others, such as consumers of dangerous products, neighbors of natural gas pipelines, and Medicare beneficiaries. Ready public access also is critical to ensure that federal agencies are accountable to the courts, Congress, and the electorate for the regulatory power they exercise. As shown by an assessment of the institutional dynamics surrounding public and private interaction to define the scope of federal regulation, the need for ready public access is at least as strong in this collaborative governance setting as when agencies act alone. Finally, expressive harm is likely to flow from government adopting regulatory law that is, in contrast to American law in general, more costly to access and harder to find. Full consideration of the importance of public access both strengthens the case for reform and limits the range of acceptable reform measures.

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