Law evolves to accommodate change—this is axiomatic in most academic legal traditions. But in the era of the administrative state, with congressional gridlock and a judiciary hesitant to address policy questions, evolution of statutory law has become much more difficult. This leads to pent up demand for change in legal regimes. If the legislature and the courts cannot provide an outlet for this pressure, where does it go? How does the law continue to change? Although other scholars have looked to agencies as engines of legal change, we lack a theoretical framework to understand how that change happens. I argue that an evolutionary framework provides an informative framework for understanding administrative legal change.

I provide three case studies that demonstrate the administrative evolution of the Endangered Species Act. In spite of tremendous advances in conservation, fundamental changes in scientists’ understanding of human impacts on the natural world, and increasingly strident clashes over private property rights and endangered species, the Act has remained largely unchanged for the last thirty-five years. In a functioning legislative system, the Act would have been amended to accommodate many of these changes. Instead, the case studies show a mechanism of legal change through agency action analogous to the mechanisms underlying biological evolution.

Other commentators have argued the administrative state stymies evolution of the law, but this research contradicts that view. Applying an evolutionary framework to administrative actions creates a new theory of administrative evolution of the law, placing administrative analysis within the long tradition of evolutionary approaches to legal change used by commentators from Aristotle to Holmes. In contrast to traditional normative theories of administrative law, an evolutionary approach focuses on how change progresses over time. This theory of administrative evolution of the law also casts new light on a host of normative questions, from the role of judicial review to improvements in agency decision-making. Considering administrative actions within the broader context of the legal evolution promises a fruitful new approach to analyzing administrative law.