U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS curbs agency power in ruling that ends Chevron deference; dissent dubs opinion 'Hubris Squared'

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Chevron oil refinery

A Chevron oil refinery at night in Salt Lake City in February 2015. Image from Shutterstock)

Courts may not defer to an agency’s interpretation of a statute simply because it is ambiguous, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that curbs agency power.

With six justices in the majority, the Supreme Court overruled a 1984 Supreme Court decision and ended a principle known as Chevron deference.

The overruled opinion was Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. It required federal courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous law if it “is based on a permissible construction of the statute.”

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said Chevron “defies the command” of the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires “the reviewing court” to decide all relevant questions of law and interpret statutory decisions.

“The text of the APA means what it says,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts softened the reach of the new decision, however, when he wrote that the holding does not disturb prior cases relying on the Chevron framework. Those decisions “are still subject to statutory stare decisis despite our change in interpretive methodology,” Roberts said.

The majority also said courts interpreting statutes may still “seek aid from the interpretations of those responsible for implementing particular statutes.”

And Congress can still “confer discretionary authority on agencies,” subject to constitutional limits, Roberts said.

Judges may “independently identify and respect such delegations of authority, police the outer statutory boundaries of those delegations, and ensure that agencies exercise their discretion consistent with the APA,” he wrote.

Roberts’ majority decision was joined by the high court’s conservative justices in two combined cases: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless Inc. v. Department of Commerce.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson in the Relentless case. Jackson recused herself in the other.

“In one fell swoop,” Kagan said, the majority “turns itself into the country’s administrative czar.”

Kagan said Chevron deference has been applied in thousands of judicial decisions, and it “has become part of the warp and woof of modern government.”

Some laws require a detailed understanding of complex regulatory programs, Kagan said. “Agencies know those programs inside out,” but courts do not.

“If opinions had titles,” Kagan wrote, “a good candidate for today’s would be Hubris Squared.”

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which had early coverage of the decision.

See also:

Supreme Court will consider overruling landmark Chevron deference decision in a fishy case

Supreme Court adds second case challenging agency power that will allow Justice Jackson to participate

Supreme Court could limit agency power after agreeing to reconsider Chevron deference

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