Notice & Comment

Herz on Nou on Bureaucratic Resistance

Earlier this week over at JOTWELL, Michael Herz reviewed Jennifer Nou’s latest work on bureaucratic resistance — Civil Servant Disobedience — which was just published in the Chicago-Kent Law Review as part of a terrific symposium Peter Strauss organized on administrative law in the Trump Administration. You can check out the full symposium issue here.

Here’s a taste of Herz’s JOTWELL review:

Right now, in many or most federal agencies, it seems that the always present gap between political and career officials is extraordinarily, perhaps unprecedentedly, wide. We see calls for and examples of outright defiance. The historical moment raises the question: Can direct disobedience by agency rank and file ever be justified?

Here, in Civil Servant DisobedienceJennifer Nou offers an answer.

Given the constraints of the Jot form, I should just cut to the chase. For Nou, the prerequisites for legitimate civil servant disobedience are:

  • A breakdown of the system of “reciprocal hierarchy.” Under many different theoretical understandings of the administrative state, bureaucracies only function properly in conditions of “reciprocal hierarchy.” Yes, there is an organizational pyramid, with the boss at the top exercising control. At the same time, there must also be opportunities for information, expertise, and ideas to flow upward. Political appointees do not have to adopt the views of the civil servants, but they must give those views attention. If the hierarchy is not reciprocal—the upward flow of ideas and expertise is blocked—disobedience can be justified and “understood as a form of bureaucratic process-perfection.” (P. 366.)
  • Exhaustion of administrative remedies. Nou does not use this phrase, but it captures what she is asserting. Before turning to disobedience, the civil servant must first have explored all non-futile internal mechanisms of protest and dissent—speaking to colleagues and superiors, perhaps going to the Inspector General, perhaps the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and so on. Civil servant disobedience is a last resort.
  • Observance of professional norms; essentially, protestors should stay in their lane, limiting their disobedience to matters on which they have relevant expertise and complying with the norms of their profession even while violating the norms of their workplace.
  • A willingness to accept the legal consequences of one’s actions.
  • A clear violation by the powers that be of a relevant value. These values include legality, scientific integrity, or morality. Nou’s focus is on the first of these—the order that is clearly illegal—but she is alert to the possibility that a legal order may be so morally repugnant as to justify disobedience.

Definitely check out the full review here. If you’re left wanting more, earlier this year the University of Chicago Law Review produced a fun podcast on bureaucratic resistance, in which Nou and I attempted to grapple with what civil service disobedience entails and whether it is lawful:


Finally, definitely go give Nou’s full paper a read here. And here is the abstract:

Bureaucratic resistance has long been a feature of the administrative state. What is striking is the extent to which it has become publicly defiant under the Trump Administration. Civil servants are openly flouting executive directives in their official capacity, despite strong norms to the contrary. The social practice raises both parallels and contrasts to civil disobedience by private citizens—meriting an analogous need for sustained scholarly debate about the phenomenon. This symposium article seeks to isolate civil servant disobedience conceptually and begin an exploration into its normative implications. In particular, it considers the ideal of a reciprocal hierarchy, whereby political appointees consult the expertise and experience of career staff as required by statute. This ideal may help to inform evaluations of civil servant disobedience as a form of bureaucratic process-perfection alongside other legitimating criteria. These factors, however, may also suggest that disobedience is often difficult to justify in practice.


This post is part of the Administrative Law Bridge Series, which highlights terrific scholarship in administrative law and regulation to help bridge the gap between theory and practice in the regulatory state. The Series is further explained here, and all posts in the Series can be found here.

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