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ALERT – ALERT – SUPREME COURT DECISION

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Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, 2024 U.S. LEXIS 2882(S.Ct. June 28, 2024)

No. 22-451 Argued January 17, 2024—Decided June 28, 2024 Justice Roberts

 

The Court granted certiorari in these cases limited to the question whether Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, should be overruled or clarified. Under the Chevron doctrine, courts have sometimes been required to defer to “permissible” agency interpretations of the statutes those agencies administer—even when a reviewing court reads the statute differently.  Id., at 843. In each case below, the reviewing courts applied Chevron’s framework to resolve in favor of the Government challenges by petitioners to a rule promulgated by the National Marine Fisheries Service pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, 16 USC 1801 et seq., which incorporates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 USC 551 et seq.

 

HELD: The Administrative Procedure Act requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous; Chevron is overruled.  Pp. 7–35.

 

(a) Article III of the Constitution assigns to the Federal Judiciary the responsibility and power to adjudicate “Cases” and “Controversies”—concrete disputes with consequences for the parties involved. The Framers appreciated that the laws judges would necessarily apply in resolving those disputes would not always be clear, but envisioned that the final “interpretation of the laws” would be “the proper and peculiar province of the courts.”  The Federalist No. 78, p. 525 (A. Hamilton). As Chief Justice Marshall declared in the foundational decision of Marbury v. Madison, “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” 1 Cranch 137, 177. In the decades following Marbury, when the meaning of a statute was at issue, the judicial role was to “interpret the act of Congress, in order to ascertain the rights of the parties.” Decatur v. Paulding, 14 Pet. 497, 515.

 

The Court recognized from the outset, though, that exercising independent judgment often included according due respect to Executive Branch interpretations of federal statutes. Such respect was thought especially warranted when an Executive Branch interpretation was issued roughly contemporaneously with enactment of the statute and remained consistent over time. The Court also gave “the most respectful consideration” to Executive Branch interpretations simply because “[t]he officers concerned [were] usually able men, and masters of the subject,” who may well have drafted the laws at issue. United States v. Moore, 95 U.S. 760, 763. “Respect,” though, was just that. The views of the Executive Branch could inform the judgment of the Judiciary, but did not supersede it. “[I]n cases where [a court’s] own judgment . . . differ[ed] from that of other high functionaries,” the court was “not at liberty to surrender, or to waive it.” United States v. Dickson, 15 Pet. 141, 162.

 

During the “rapid expansion of the administrative process” that took place during the New Deal era, United States v. Morton Salt Co., 338 U.S. 632, 644, the Court often treated agency determinations of fact as binding on the courts, provided that there was “evidence to support the findings,” St. Joseph Stock Yards Co. v. United States, 298 U.S. 38, 51. But the Court did not extend similar deference to agency resolutions of questions of law. “The interpretation of the meaning of statutes, as applied to justiciable controversies,” remained “exclusively a judicial function.” United States v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 310 U.S. 534, 544. The Court also continued to note that the informed judgment of the Executive Branch could be entitled to “great weight.” Id. at 549. “The weight of such a judgment in a particular case,” the Court observed, would “depend upon the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control.” Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140.

 

Occasionally during this period, the Court applied deferential review after concluding that a particular statute empowered an agency to decide how a broad statutory term applied to specific facts found by the agency. See Gray v. Powell, 314 U.S. 402; NLRB v. Hearst Publications, Inc., 322 U.S. 111. But such deferential review, which the Court was far from consistent in applying, was cabined to fact bound determinations. And the Court did not purport to refashion the longstanding judicial approach to questions of law. It instead proclaimed that “[u]ndoubtedly questions of statutory interpretation . . . are for the courts to resolve, giving appropriate weight to the judgment of those whose special duty is to administer the questioned statute.” Id., at 130–131. Nothing in the New Deal era or before it thus resembled the deference rule the Court would begin applying decades later to all varieties of agency interpretations of statutes under Chevron. Pp. 7–13.

 

(b) Congress in 1946 enacted the APA “as a check upon administrators whose zeal might otherwise have carried them to excesses not contemplated in legislation creating their offices.”  Morton Salt, 338 U.S. at 644. The APA prescribes procedures for agency action and delineates the basic contours of judicial review of such action.  And it codifies for agency cases the unremarkable, yet elemental proposition reflected by judicial practice dating back to Marbury: that courts decide legal questions by applying their own judgment. As relevant here, the APA specifies that courts, not agencies, will decide “all relevant questions of law” arising on review of agency action, 5 USC 706 (emphasis added)—even those involving ambiguous laws.  It prescribes no deferential standard for courts to employ in answering those legal questions, despite mandating deferential judicial review of agency policymaking and factfinding. See 706(2)(A), (E).  And by directing courts to “interpret constitutional and statutory provisions” without differentiating between the two, §706, it makes clear that agency interpretations of statutes—like agency interpretations of the Constitution—are not entitled to deference.  The APA’s history and the contemporaneous views of various respected commentators underscore the plain meaning of its text.

 

Courts exercising independent judgment in determining the meaning of statutory provisions, consistent with the APA, may—as they have from the start—seek aid from the interpretations of those responsible for implementing particular statutes. See Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140.  And when the best reading of a statute is that it delegates discretionary authority to an agency, the role of the reviewing court under the APA is, as always, to independently interpret the statute and effectuate the will of Congress subject to constitutional limits.  The court fulfills that role by recognizing constitutional delegations, fixing the boundaries of the delegated authority, and ensuring the agency has engaged in “ ‘reasoned decision making’ ” within those boundaries. Michigan v. EPA, 576 U.S. 743, 750 (quoting Allentown Mack Sales & Service, Inc. v. NLRB, 522 U.S. 359, 374).  By doing so, a court upholds the traditional conception of the judicial function that the APA adopts. Pp. 13–18.

 

(c) The deference that Chevron requires of courts reviewing agency action cannot be squared with the APA.  Pp. 18–29.

 

(1) Chevron, decided in 1984 by a bare quorum of six Justices, triggered a marked departure from the traditional judicial approach of independently examining each statute to determine its meaning. The question in the case was whether an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation was consistent with the term “stationary source” as used in the Clean Air Act.  467 U.S. at 840. To answer that question, the Court articulated and employed a now familiar two-step approach broadly applicable to review of agency action.  The first step was to discern “whether Congress ha[d] directly spoken to the precise question at issue.” Id. at 842. The Court explained that “[i]f the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter,” ibid., and courts were therefore to “reject administrative constructions which are contrary to clear congressional intent,” id. at 843 n.9. But in a case in which “the statute [was] silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue” at hand, a reviewing court could not “simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation.”  Id. at 843 (footnote omitted). Instead, at Chevron’s second step, a court had to defer to the agency if it had offered “a permissible construction of the statute,” ibid., even if not “the reading the court would have reached if the question initially had arisen in a judicial proceeding,” ibid. n.11. Employing this new test, the Court concluded that Congress had not addressed the question at issue with the necessary “level of specificity” and that EPA’s interpretation was “entitled to deference.” Id. at 865.

 

Although the Court did not at first treat Chevron as the watershed decision it was fated to become, the Court and the courts of appeals were soon routinely invoking its framework as the governing standard in cases involving statutory questions of agency authority.  The Court eventually decided that Chevron rested on “a presumption that Congress, when it left ambiguity in a statute meant for implementation by an agency, understood that the ambiguity would be resolved, first and foremost, by the agency, and desired the agency (rather than the courts) to possess whatever degree of discretion the ambiguity allows.” Smiley v. Citibank (South Dakota), N. A., 517 U.S. 735, 740–741.  Pp. 18–20.

 

(2) Neither Chevron nor any subsequent decision of the 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.”  706 (emphasis added).  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. Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843 n.11. Chevron insists on more than the “respect” historically given to Executive Branch interpretations; it demands that courts mechanically afford binding deference to agency interpretations, including those that have been inconsistent over time, see id. at 863, and even when a pre-existing judicial precedent holds that an ambiguous statute means something else, National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967, 982. That regime is the antithesis of the time honored approach the APA prescribes.

 

Chevron cannot be reconciled with the APA by presuming that statutory ambiguities are implicit delegations to agencies. That presumption does not approximate reality. A statutory ambiguity does not necessarily reflect a congressional intent that an agency, as opposed to a court, resolve the resulting interpretive question. Many or perhaps most statutory ambiguities may be unintentional. And when courts confront statutory ambiguities in cases that do not involve agency interpretations or delegations of authority, they are not somehow relieved of their obligation to independently interpret the statutes.  Instead of declaring a particular party’s reading “permissible” in such a case, courts use every tool at their disposal to determine the best reading of the statute and resolve the ambiguity.  But in an agency case as in any other, there is a best reading all the same—“the reading the court would have reached” if no agency were involved. Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843 n.11. It therefore makes no sense to speak of a “permissible” interpretation that is not the one the court, after applying all relevant interpretive tools, concludes is best.Perhaps most fundamentally, Chevron’s presumption is misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities.  Courts do. The Framers anticipated that courts would often confront statutory ambiguities and expected that courts would resolve them by exercising independent legal judgment. Chevron gravely erred in concluding that the inquiry is fundamentally different just because an administrative interpretation is in play.  The very point of the traditional tools of statutory construction is to resolve statutory ambiguities. That is no less true when the ambiguity is about the scope of an agency’s own power—perhaps the occasion on which abdication in favor of the agency is least appropriate.  Pp. 21–23.

 

(3) The Government responds that Congress must generally intend for agencies to resolve statutory ambiguities because agencies have subject matter expertise regarding the statutes they administer; because deferring to agencies purportedly promotes the uniform construction of federal law; and because resolving statutory ambiguities can involve policymaking best left to political actors, rather than courts.  See Brief for Respondents in No. 22–1219, pp. 16–19.  But none of these considerations justifies Chevron’s sweeping presumption of congressional intent.

 

As the Court recently noted, interpretive issues arising in connection with a regulatory scheme “may fall more naturally into a judge’s bailiwick” than an agency’s. Kisor v. Wilkie, 588 U S. 558, 578.  Under Chevron’s broad rule of deference, though, ambiguities of all stripes trigger deference, even in cases having little to do with an agency’s technical subject matter expertise. And even when an ambiguity happens to implicate a technical matter, it does not follow that Congress has taken the power to authoritatively interpret the statute from the courts and given it to the agency. Congress expects courts to handle technical statutory questions, and courts did so without issue in agency cases before Chevron. After all, in an agency case in particular, the reviewing court will go about its task with the agency’s “body of experience and informed judgment,” among other information, at its disposal. Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140.  An agency’s interpretation of a statute “cannot bind a court,” but may be especially informative “to the extent it rests on factual premises within [the agency’s] expertise.” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms v. FLRA, 464 U.S. 89, 98 n.8. Delegating ultimate interpretive authority to agencies is simply not necessary to ensure that the resolution of statutory ambiguities is well informed by subject matter expertise.

 

Nor does a desire for the uniform construction of federal law justify Chevron. It is unclear how much the Chevron doctrine as a whole actually promotes such uniformity, and in any event, we see no reason to presume that Congress prefers uniformity for uniformity’s sake over the correct interpretation of the laws it enacts.

 

Finally, the view that interpretation of ambiguous statutory provisions amounts to policymaking suited for political actors rather than courts is especially mistaken because it rests on a profound misconception of the judicial role.  Resolution of statutory ambiguities involves legal interpretation, and that task does not suddenly become policymaking just because a court has an “agency to fall back on.”  Kisor, 588 U.S. at 575. Courts interpret statutes, no matter the context, based on the traditional tools of statutory construction, not individual policy preferences. To stay out of discretionary policymaking left to the political branches, judges need only fulfill their obligations under the APA to 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. By forcing courts to instead pretend that ambiguities are necessarily delegations, Chevron prevents judges from judging.  Pp. 23–26.

 

(4) Because Chevron’s justifying presumption is, as Members of the Court have often recognized, a fiction, the Court has spent the better part of four decades imposing one limitation on Chevron after another.  Confronted with the byzantine set of preconditions and exceptions that has resulted, some courts have simply bypassed Chevron or failed to heed its various steps and nuances.  The Court, for its part, has not deferred to an agency interpretation under Chevron since 2016.  But because Chevron remains on the books, litigants must continue to wrestle with it, and lower courts—bound by even the Court’s crumbling precedents—understandably continue to apply it. At best, Chevron has been a distraction from the question that matters: Does the statute authorize the challenged agency action?  And at worst, it has required courts to violate the APA by yielding to an agency the express responsibility, vested in “the reviewing court,” to “decide all relevant questions of law” and “interpret . . . statutory provisions.” 706 (emphasis added).  Pp. 26–29.

 

(d) Stare decisis, the doctrine governing judicial adherence to precedent, does not require the Court to persist in the Chevron project. 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,” Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 U.S. 180, 203 (quoting Janus v. State, County, and Municipal Employees, 585 U.S. 878, 917)—all weigh in favor of letting Chevron go.

 

Chevron has proved to be fundamentally misguided.  It reshaped judicial review of agency action without grappling with the APA, the statute that lays out how such review works. And its flaws were apparent from the start, prompting the Court to revise its foundations and continually limit its application.Experience has also shown that Chevron is unworkable. The defining feature of its framework is the identification of statutory ambiguity, but the concept of ambiguity has always evaded meaningful definition. Such an impressionistic and malleable concept “cannot stand as an every-day test for allocating” interpretive authority between courts and agencies.  Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, 125. The Court has also been forced to clarify the doctrine again and again, only adding to Chevron’s unworkability, and the doctrine continues to spawn difficult threshold questions that promise to further complicate the inquiry should Chevron be retained. And its continuing import is far from clear, as courts have often declined to engage with the doctrine, saying it makes no difference.

 

Nor has Chevron fostered meaningful reliance.  Given the Court’s constant tinkering with and eventual turn away from Chevron, it is hard to see how anyone could reasonably expect a court to rely on Chevron in any particular case or expect it to produce readily foreseeable outcomes. And rather than safeguarding reliance interests, Chevron affirmatively destroys them by allowing agencies to change course even when Congress has given them no power to do so.

 

The only way to “ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion,” Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 265, is for the Court to leave Chevron behind. By overruling Chevron, though, the Court does not call into question prior cases that relied on the Chevron 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 the Court’s change in interpretive methodology. See CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, 553 U.S. 442, 457.  Mere reliance on Chevron cannot constitute a “ ‘special justification’ ” for overruling such a holding. Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 573 U.S. 258, 266 (quoting Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 443).  Pp. 29–35.

 

No. 22–451, 45 F. 4th 359 & No. 22–1219, 62 F. 4th 621, vacated and remanded.

 

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which THOMAS, ALITO, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH, and BARRETT, JJ., joined.  THOMAS, J., and GORSUCH, J., filed concurring opinions. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joined, and in which JACKSON, J., joined as it applies to No. 22–1219.  JACKSON, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case in No. 22–451.

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