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  • Writer's pictureRobert Lusk

U.S. Supreme Court Limits “Administrative State” by Reversing Chevron Decision

In school we all learned about three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial.  But we didn’t learn much, if anything, about the alphabet-soup of federal agencies that increasingly touch every aspect of our lives, including education.  One of the factors contributing to the expansion of federal agency power was a 1984 Supreme Court decision known as ChevronChevron held that, when a statute didn’t directly address a subject or was ambiguous, courts should defer to administrative agency interpretations even in cases where the court thought the agency interpreted the statute incorrectly. This interpretative rule was known as Chevron deference.

Several problems became apparent over time. First, Chevron prevented courts from carrying out their constitutional duty to interpret the law.  Instead, courts were required to defer to agency determinations even though they might be incorrect.  A second problem was the fact that, over time, federal agencies began to make the law on controversial topics, excusing Congress from its constitutional duty to legislate on hot-button issues that might cost votes.  Third, federal agencies began to flip-flop on a variety of issues depending on which party held power.  The back and forth on Title IX and immigration are two of several examples.  Agencies interpreted the law one way if a Democrat held the presidency and another if it was a Republican.

Chevron was reversed in two combined cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, Case Nos. 22-451 and 22-1219.  Both cases were brought by east coast fishing enterprises that were required to permit a federal monitor on their ships and to pay for the monitor at their own expense; even though the statute lacked such a requirement.  In both cases, the federal appellate courts ruled in the government’s favor, invoking Chevron deference rather than interpreting the law themselves.  The Supreme Court reversed both decision and, in the process, overruled Chevron.

Going forward, the Supreme Court held the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) specifically requires courts to decide all relevant legal questions.  Lower courts may “consider” federal agency positions and interpretations but have no obligation to defer to those positions and interpretations.  Even when a statute delegates discretionary authority to an agency, the court must independently interpret the statute by recognizing constitutional delegations, fixing the boundaries of the delegated authority, and ensuring the agency engaged in reasoned decision making within those boundaries.


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