Notice & Comment

Judge Stephen F. Williams, 1936-2020

by Peter Conti-Brown, Kristina Daugirdas, Daniel E. Ho, Anne Joseph O’Connell, and Nicholas R. Parrillo

The field of administrative law has lost one its most important and beloved figures, Judge Stephen F. Williams of the D.C. Circuit, who died on Friday at 83.

Since his appointment by President Reagan in 1986, Williams held a reputation as one of the nation’s most formidable judicial minds in the realm of regulation. An early member of the law-and-economics movement during his years as a professor at the University of Colorado Law School (1969-1986), Williams became known, on the bench, for the economic sophistication of his opinions and for being the D.C. Circuit’s foremost expert in that most complex and consequential area, energy law. In the words of his colleague David Tatel in 2006: “This former law professor converts each case into an intellectually challenging seminar on economics, regulation and administrative law. If we [the judges of the D.C. Circuit] received graduate credit for sitting with Professor Williams, we’d all have our LLM’s by now.”

Besides the substance of regulation, Williams was also an influential thinker on administrative procedure and institutions, both during his judicial tenure and before it. One of his many publications on administrative law was a classic 1975 critique of the D.C. Circuit’s demands for trial-like rulemaking procedure—demands that met their demise in the landmark Vermont Yankee case before the Supreme Court three years later. As Clark Byse wrote: “Although the Supreme Court did not cite Professor Williams’ article, its holding in Vermont Yankee precisely conforms to his recommendation.” Williams continued to produce scholarly publications at a remarkable pace during his decades on the bench. While deciding cases about legal constraints on government as his day job, he undertook a years-long academic inquiry into the political and historical preconditions for any society to subject its government to law, writing two books on late tsarist Russia and its tragic failure to undertake liberal reform before it was too late. (To write these books, Williams embarked on learning Russian in his sixties.)

On the court, Williams penned decisions that became part the administrative law canon—required reading for law students across the country. In one major case, he attempted to revive the non-delegation doctrine by requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to limit its discretion under the Clean Air Act. (The Supreme Court refused to go along with any such revival at the time, though that may now be changing.) He also developed a much-cited test distinguishing legislative and non-legislative rules. In concurring opinions, he would float fascinating ideas, including that issue exhaustion at an agency should not preclude under-resourced parties from seeking the court’s help. Although best known for his decisions in a field dominated by big bureaucracies, he was committed to human dignity and never lost sight of the stakes for individuals across all areas of law, as in the D.C. Circuit’s criminal docket.

In keeping with Williams’s devotion to multi-disciplinary legal scholarship—not just economics but also history, comparative politics, political science, and more—a clerkship in his chambers became a magnet for recent law school graduates seeking careers in the academy. A recent study found Williams to be one of the three lower-court judges (living or dead) for whom more current law professors had clerked than any others. This magnet was not by explicit design; Williams delighted in his clerks’ accomplishments and endeavors wherever those endeavors took them.

No one who worked for Williams can forget his total and un-self-conscious devotion to the substance of the chambers’ joint intellectual work. As the members of his large extended family of former clerks can attest, he was oblivious to formalities and hierarchy, often roaming the office in his socks while lost in thought reading a clerk’s memorandum or draft law review article, ever noticing the ironic or silly aspects of otherwise weighty regulatory problems and sharing a laugh over them with his clerks. And after he ceased to be your boss, he remained your friend, mentor, and scholarly interlocutor for life. By mentoring and shaping a generation of scholars and lawyers, he did so much to build the field of administrative law through his twin intelligences—the intellectual and the interpersonal.

Administrative law will continue to reflect his influence, but now that he is gone, something very special about the field has been lost forever.

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Below are some online materials about Williams’s work and his career:

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Peter Conti-Brown is Assistant Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Kristina Daugirdas is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. Daniel E. Ho is Scott Professor of Law at Stanford. Anne Joseph O’Connell is Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford. Nicholas R. Parrillo is Professor of Law at Yale.

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