The New Deal Supreme Court revised a well-known set of constitutional doctrines. Legal scholarship has principally focused on the changes that occurred in three areas — federalism, delegation, and economic liberty. This Article identifies a new and important fourth element of New Deal constitutionalism: a change in the constitutional doctrine of due process notice, the doctrine that specifies the minimum standards for constitutionally adequate notice of the law. The law of due process notice — which includes the doctrines of vagueness, retroactivity, and the rule of lenity — evolved dramatically over the course of the New Deal to permit lesser clarity and to tolerate more retroactivity. The upshot has been the near-total elimination of successful notice-based challenges other than in the limited context of First Amendment vagueness attacks.
Unlike the more famous doctrinal changes of this period, changes to due process notice doctrine were not obviously necessary to accommodate the New Deal legislative agenda, either as a matter of jurisprudence or as a matter of politics. Due process notice doctrine nonetheless underwent a radical transformation in this era, as the Court came to regard its broader shift toward deferring to legislative and executive policy decisions as requiring the relaxation of due process notice doctrine. The link forged between deference and notice had significant functional effects on the most important audience for the Court’s notice jurisprudence — Congress. By loosening the strictures of due process notice doctrine, the Court lowered sharply the enactment costs of federal legislation and thereby facilitated its proliferation. This is a distinct, and hitherto unacknowledged, mechanism by which the Court in this period enhanced national power and encouraged the flourishing of the emerging administrative state.
Like much of the New Deal “settlement,” the New Deal reformulation of due process notice doctrine is today the subject of ferment in the courts. Recognizing the New Deal roots of due process notice doctrine is critical for understanding these ongoing judicial debates — and for beginning the conceptual work of mapping the future shape of this vital cluster of doctrines.