Supreme Court Overturns Chevron Deference

Nossaman eAlert

Today, June 28, 2024, in a momentous 6-3 decision upending 40 years of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Chevron doctrine, which required courts to defer to an administrative agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. While the decision will undoubtedly have significant impacts going forward on executive rulemaking and guidance, the majority opinion expressly stated that it was not overturning any prior Supreme Court precedent that applied the Chevron doctrine. Following is a brief summary of the Chevron doctrine and the Court’s decision in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo.

The Chevron doctrine, also referred to as Chevron deference, was an administrative law principle established by the Supreme Court in Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 468 U.S. 837 (1984). Since its passage, the decision has transformed into a bedrock principle in administrative law for federal agencies carrying out Congressional mandates. Under Chevron deference, where Congress implements a particular statute that is silent or ambiguous on a specific issue, the administrative agency charged with carrying out that statute is afforded deference by courts when implementing a reasonable interpretation of the statute. While subsequent decisions have narrowed the scope of the Chevron doctrine, for 40 years it remained an integral part of administrative agencies exercising their authority.

Today, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in two consolidated cases—Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo (Loper Bright) and Relentless v. Chamber of Commerce (Relentless)—expressly overturned the Chevron doctrine, calling it “fundamentally misguided” and “unworkable.”

Loper Bright and Relentless both involve challenges to the National Marine Fisheries’ Service (NFMS) regulations under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Act), which authorizes the NMFS to regulate overfishing in marine waters. In carrying out that charge, the NMFS implemented regulations that required fishing vessels to include observers on board to ensure that overfishing does not occur. Where an NMFS-sponsored observer was not available, the regulations required the fishing vessel to contract with and pay for an NMFS-certified third party observer. Several fishing companies required to comply with these regulations filed suit, arguing that the Act does not authorize the NMFS to mandate that they pay for observers required by a fishery management plan. After both the D.C. Circuit and First Circuit, respectively, applied Chevron deference and held that the NMFS’s interpretation of the Act was permissible, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, but limited its review to deciding whether Chevron should be overruled or clarified.

Chief Justice Roberts begins the Loper Bright opinion by recounting the history of the judiciary’s role of interpreting what the law is, quoting the Court’s foundational 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, which declared that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, 603 U.S. ____ (2024) (quoting Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803)). He then advances to the “rapid expansion of the administrative process” ushered in by the New Deal era, in which courts remained the exclusive arbiter of the interpretation of the meaning of statutes. Next, he points to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which underpins administrative agency rulemaking and outlines the contours of judicial review of those rules. According to Chief Justice Roberts, “[t]he APA thus 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.” While courts may seek aid from those responsible for implementing particular statutes, they may not abdicate their duty of independently interpreting a statute to effectuate the will of Congress.

The majority opinion then explains that the Chevron doctrine cannot be reconciled with either the APA or the judiciary’s constitutional charge to interpret the law. “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.’” Loper Bright, 603 U.S. ____ (quoting the APA). Accordingly, while ambiguities in statutes may result from Congress’ inability to answer a question at hand or a failure to even consider a question, in either case ambiguities do not reflect congressional intent that an agency resolve the particular question.

Chief Justice Roberts notes that, despite overturning Chevron, the holding in Loper Bright does not call into question prior decisions that relied on the Chevron framework.

In summary, Loper Bright holds that courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and they need not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas emphasized further that Chevron violated the separation of powers by curbing judicial authority and expanding agencies’ executive power beyond constitutional limits. Justice Gorsuch also concurred and wrote separately to emphasize that stare decisis—the judicial principle that courts should rely on their previous decisions when interpreting the law—requires the overturning of Chevron, and that deference to administrative agencies is inconsistent with both the role of the judiciary and the mandate of the APA.

In dissent, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Jackson, lamented the majority opinion’s overturning of Chevron as a “rule of judicial humility giv[ing] way to a rule of judicial hubris.” Chevron deference, according to Justice Kagan, properly put authority to carry out Congressional intent in the hands of experts, who are appointed by the President and in turn face accountability for their policymaking decisions. Congress issues rules in many areas involving complex scientific and technical subject matter; “agencies have expertise in those areas; courts do not.” For 40 years, Congress, the judiciary, and administrative agencies relied on such expertise to effectuate the will of Congress and, in turn, the people. Today’s decision substitutes the expertise of administrative agencies for that of judges, giving the judiciary “exclusive power over every open issue—no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden—involving the meaning of regulatory law.” By doing so, “the majority turns itself into the country’s administrative czar,” despite having no accountability and no term limits, unlike those in the administrative realm.

The majority’s opinion in Loper Bright will have reverberating effects across all three branches of government. The decision blunts the power of executive agencies in developing regulations in numerous fields, including environmental protection, workplace safety, healthcare, consumer product safety, and many other arenas. Courts will have more say over such regulations, and may substitute their own judgment for that of an agency’s. In turn, Congress will be forced to either draft legislation to avoid ambiguity, or expressly delegate authority to the executive body to address areas of ambiguity.

Twitter/X Facebook LinkedIn PDF


Related Practices

Jump to Page

We use cookies on this website to improve functionality, enhance performance, analyze website traffic and to enable social media features. To learn more, please see our Privacy Policy and our Terms & Conditions for additional detail.