Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe
401 U.S. 402 (1971)

  • The Department of Transportation wanted to build a highway through Overton Park.
    • Since the park was Federal land, they didn’t need to use eminent domain, or take private lands. However, Department of Transportation Act § 4(f) required that DOT show that there were no “feasible or prudent alternatives” to building through a Federal land.
  • Local citizens banded together to try to preserve the park. They participated in the DOT adjudication process.
    • See Administrative Procedure Act (APA) §555.
  • The Secretary of Transportation (Volpe) announced that the project had been approved.
    • Volpe provided no factual findings about how DOT came to its decision.
  • The Citizens sued for an injunction.
    • The Citizens argued that Volpe’s decision was not supportable, based on the no “feasible or prudent alternatives” standard.
    • The Citizens sought to take the deposition of some DOT officials who were involved in the decision.
  • The Trial Court found for DOT. The Citizens appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that formal factual findings were not required by the APA.
    • The Court found that Volpe had not exceeded his authority.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. The Citizens appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
    • The US Supreme Court found that Volpe’s actions were judicially reviewable based on APA §701.
      • The Court found that when conducting judicial reviews, courts must conduct a substantial inquiry and determine whether:
        • The Secretary acted within the scope of his authority.
        • His decision was within the small range of available choices.
        • He could have reasonably believed that there were no feasible alternatives.
        • The actual choice was not “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
        • He followed the necessary procedural requirements.
        • See APA §706 for guidance on what the courts can and cannot review.
        • This is known as the Hard Look Doctrine.
          • See Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Ass’n v. State Farm Ins. (463 U.S. 29 (1983)).
          • It’s not the Court that takes the hard look, it just makes sure that the Agency has taken a hard look at the issues.
      • Since there is a “substantive legal standard” set out in the Statute, the decision is judicially reviewable. If there were no standards, then the decision would be committed to Agency discretion, and therefore not judicially reviewable at all.
        • Basically, in order to be judicially reviewable, there must be a question of law, and not just questions of fact.
    • The Court found that the proper standard of review was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, as opposed to substantial evidence, or de novo review.
      • APA §706 says that de novo review is only available if the Agency’s fact-finding procedures are inadequate, and
      • Substantial evidence is only for formal rulemaking and individual trial-type proceedings (see APA §§556-557).
    • The Court remanded the case back to the Trial Court to determine if Volpe acted within his authority, and gave the Trial Court the authority to require depositions of DOT officials and a presentation of formal findings by DOT.
      • Basically, there was not enough in the record to make a determination as to whether the decision was arbitrary or capricious, so they told DOT to go back and add more information to the record.
        • That means not just data, but also an explanation of why they made their decision.
  • The basic point of this case is that decisions made by Administrative Agencies are judicially reviewable, but that review is limited to ensuring that the Agency was acting within the scope of their authority and that their decisions are not arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.
    • The courts will not reverse an Agency decision. If they find that the Agency cannot support their decision with the record, they simply tell the Agency to go back, do some research, and come to a more supportable position.
      • So even if you win a case like this, there is a good chance that the Agency will come back with the same final decision, with just a different reasoning.