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Supreme Court overrules landmark 'Chevron' precedent on government authority
By Court House News @ 3:39 AM :: 713 Views :: Environment, Health Care, Labor, Land Use, Law Enforcement, Small Business

Supreme Court overrules landmark precedent on government authority   

The high court’s ruling shifts how judges weigh federal government deference when interpreting the country’s laws.

by Kelsey Reichmann, Courthouse News, June 28, 2024

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court overruled a key administrative law ruling Friday, tossing out four decades of precedent and limiting the government’s ability to interpret federal laws. 

“Chevron is overruled,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative supermajority. “Courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, as the APA requires.”

Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council gave deference to federal agencies’ interpretation of statutes. For 40 years, the precedent has been the backbone of administrative law, limiting judicial decision-making in favor of agency expertise. 

Justice Elena Kagan said her six conservative colleagues were throwing restraint out the door in a grasp for power. Joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, Kagan chastised the making as a laughing stock of stare decisis, quipping that a good title for the opinion should be “Hubris Squared.”

Both stare decisis and Chevron are doctrines of judicial modesty, Kagan said, telling judges that they do not know everything. “So today, the majority rejects what judicial humility counsels not just once but twice over,” the Obama appointee wrote.

Two years ago, the conservative supermajority created a carveout from Chevron, allowing judges to discard agency deference if the contested regulation concerns a major question. The justices already used the broad ruling to question the government’s authority to regulate air pollution and forgive student loans. 

The doubleheader before the Supreme Court involves the use of Chevron to uphold a regulation forcing fisheries to pay for mandatory third-party monitoring. A lower court found that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed the agency to require monitoring, but the statute did not specify if the agency could force fisheries to pay for the observers. 

Although the payment section of the regulation was not specified in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of the government by applying Chevron. The panel deferred to the agency’s interpretation instead of the fisheries challenging the rule. 

The high court now reverses the appeals court, finding that the court need not rely on the opinion of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Roberts said the framers intended the judiciary to be the final interpreter of laws because unlike the political branches, courts were designed to only exercise judgment. While the court has long recognized that executive branch interpretations of statutes, Roberts said such respect has always had its limits.

“The views of the executive branch could inform the judgment of the judiciary, but did not supersede it,” the George W. Bush appointee wrote. “Whatever respect an executive branch interpretation was due, a judge ‘certainly would not be bound to adopt the construction given by the head of a department.’”

The Administrative Procedure Act, Robert said, was meant to be a check on administrative authority, giving courts the role of independently interpreting statutes to reflect Congress’ intentions.

Roberts said the deference Chevron afforded to agencies can not be squared with the APA.

“In fretting over the prospect of ‘allow[ing]’ a judicial interpretation of a statute ‘to override an agency’s’ in a dispute before a court, Chevron turns the statutory scheme for judicial review of agency action upside down,” Roberts wrote.

The result of Chevron’s charge, Roberts said, did not only prevent judges from policymaking, it prevented them from judging. For decades, Roberts said the court has doubted Chevron’s congruence with the authority Congress delegated to executive authorities.

“In truth, Chevron’s justifying presumption is, as members of this court have often recognized, a fiction,” Roberts wrote.

At the Supreme Court in January, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar warned the justices of the potential fallout of overturning Chevron. Since the lower courts have relied on the precedent for so long, throwing out the ruling could lead to the consideration of other cases. Prelogar estimated that there are about 80 rulings that could be challenged without Chevron. 

Roberts disputed that claim. He said the court’s ruling does not question other cases structured on Chevron’s framework.

“The holdings of those cases that specific agency actions are lawful — including the Clean Air Act holding of Chevron itself — are still subject to statutory stare decisis despite our change in interpretive methodology,” Roberts said.

But administrative law experts were doubtful that Roberts’ contention would hold up. Daniel Walters, a law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, said the statement could have been added to assuage concerns about the practical implications of tossing Chevron but only time will tell the truth.

“I don't think I'd put much stock in the chief's statement that previous cases relying on Chevron will not be revisited,” Walters said. “I expect that to get walked back as soon as some hard cases arise where judges feel in their heart of hearts that the agency got it wrong and a prior court wrongfully deferred.”

Roberts’ opinion was joined by all six conservative justices but Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch also wrote separately. Thomas argued that Chevron also violated the separation of powers, permitting the executive branch to exercise powers not given to it.

Gorsuch said the court was placing “a tombstone on Chevron no one can miss.” The Donald Trump appointee stressed that the court was correct to go against stare decisis in this case because respect for precedent does not equate to a refusal to correct mistakes.

The three liberal justices vigorously disagreed. Kagan said the court’s ruling was one in a long line of decisions disregarding precedent. The Barack Obama appointee said her dissents to the court’s reversals of settled law “now fill a small volume.”

Instead of returning judges to their proper role, as Roberts claimed, Kagan said the court was substituting its own judgment over policy debates. Kagan said overruling Chevron is the culmination of the court’s interference in decisions around workplace health, climate change and student loan forgiveness.

“In one fell swoop, the majority today gives itself exclusive power over every open issue — no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden — involving the meaning of regulatory law,” Kagan wrote. “As if it did not have enough on its plate, the majority turns itself into the country’s administrative czar.”

Kagan had little faith that the ruling wouldn’t raise new doubts about agency statutes.

“The majority is sanguine; I am not so much,” Kagan wrote. “Courts motivated to overrule an old Chevron-based decision can always come up with something to label a ‘special justification.’”

The Biden administration said the ruling was deeply troubling, claiming that Republican-backed special interests had urged the Supreme Court to block commonsense rules that keep the nation safe.

“Once again, the Supreme Court has decided in the favor of special interests, just as it did when they sought to gut long-standing protections for clean water, thwart efforts to respond to a global pandemic, and block the cancelation of crippling student debt for tens of millions of Americans,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. 

Jean-Pierre said the president had directed his legal team to work with the Justice Department on a solution to safeguard the expertise of the federal workforce.  

Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the ruling would imperil efforts to protect the nation’s air and water, as well as tackle the climate crisis and enact commonsense safeguards of bedrock public-interest laws.

“This radical decision is yet another example of our nation’s highest court moving our country backwards, while Americans everywhere work for a better future,” Jealous said in a statement. “We will continue to aggressively pursue the urgent action needed to protect our health, the climate, and our future.”

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