Friday 28 June 2024

Supreme Court Deals Biggest Blow in 80 Years to Administrative State

 Federal agencies suffered a massive blow to their regulatory power on Friday, when the Supreme Court overruled Chevron, a case under which federal courts have deferred for decades to agency interpretations of the laws they enforce.

As Chief Justice John Roberts began in his majority opinion, if a court determines that a federal law “is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue at hand, the court must, at Chevron’s second step, defer to the agency’s interpretation if it is based on a permissible construction of the statute.”

“Cognizant of the limits of human language and foresight, [those who wrote the Constitution] anticipated that all new laws,” Roberts explained, “though penned with the greatest technical skill, and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, would be more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning was settled by a series of particular discussions and adjudications.”

“The Framers also envisioned that the final interpretation of the laws would be the proper and peculiar province of the courts,” the 6-3 opinion continued. “In the foundational decision of Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice Marshall famously declared that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

“The views of the Executive Branch could inform the judgment of the Judiciary, but did not supersede it,” Roberts observed. “Otherwise, judicial judgment would not be independent at all.”

“Congress in 1946 enacted the APA [Administrative Procedure Act] as a check upon administrators whose zeal might otherwise have carried them to excesses not contemplated in legislation creating their offices,” the opinion recounted. “It was the culmination of a comprehensive rethinking of the place of administrative agencies in a regime of separate and divided powers.”

The APA “specifies that courts, not agencies, will decide all relevant questions of law arising on review of agency action—even those involving ambiguous laws—and set aside any such action inconsistent with the law as they interpret it.” Roberts continued. “And it prescribes no deferential standard for courts to employ in answering those legal questions.”

“The deference that Chevron requires of courts reviewing agency action cannot be squared with the APA,” the justices said. “In the decades between the enactment of the APA and this Court’s decision in Chevron, courts generally continued to review agency interpretations of the statutes they administer by independently examining each statute to determine its meaning.”

Chevron, decided in 1984 by a bare quorum of six Justices, triggered a marked departure from the traditional approach,” the majority determined. “Neither Chevron nor any subsequent decision of this Court attempted to reconcile its framework with the APA.”

Chevron defies the command of the APA that the reviewing court—not the agency whose action it reviews—is to decide all relevant questions of law and interpret statutory provisions,” Roberts found. “It requires a court to ignore, not follow, the reading the court would have reached had it exercised its independent judgment as required by the APA.”

“Courts interpret statutes, no matter the context, based on the traditional tools of statutory construction, not individual policy preferences,” the majority declared. “Indeed, the Framers crafted the Constitution to ensure that federal judges could exercise judgment free from the influence of the political branches.”

“The only question left is whether stare decisis, the doctrine governing judicial adherence to precedent, requires us to persist in the Chevron project. It does not,” the majority declared.

Roberts wrote:

Stare decisis is not an inexorable command, and the stare decisis considerations most relevant here—the quality of the precedent’s reasoning, the workability of the rule it established, and reliance on the decision—all weigh in favor of letting Chevron go.

Because Chevron in its original, two-step form was so indeterminate and sweeping, we have instead been forced to clarify the doctrine again and again. Our attempts to do so have only added to Chevron’s unworkability, transforming the original two-step into a dizzying breakdance.

Chevron is overruled. Courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, as the APA requires,” the Supreme Court concluded. “Careful attention to the judgment of the Executive Branch may help inform that inquiry… But courts need not and under the APA may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch also wrote concurring opinions, with Gorsuch’s going on for 34 pages. Justice Elena Kagan dissented, joined by the other two liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The cases are Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, No. 22-451, and Relentless v. Department of Commerce, No. 22-1219, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

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