Judges limit the power of federal agencies and endanger a range of regulations

Friday the Supreme Court reduced the power of executive agencies by overturning long-standing legal precedent, jeopardizing countless regulations, and transferring executive power to Congress and the courts.

The precedent, Chevron vs. Natural Resources Defense Councilone of the most cited statutes in U.S. law, requires courts to defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutes. There have been 70 Supreme Court decisions relying on Chevron, along with 17,000 lower court decisions.

The decision is almost certain to draw criticism of the actions of a wide range of federal agencies, including those responsible for the environment, health care and consumer safety.

The vote was 6 to 3, divided along ideological lines.

“Chevron is overruled,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Courts must use their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the ruling amounted to a grab for judicial power. “A rule of judicial humility,” she wrote, “gives way to a rule of judicial hubris.”

Justice Kagan summarized her dissent from the bench, a rare move and a sign of deep disagreement. “Courts, especially this court, will now play a dominant role” in setting national policy, she said.

The court has overturned important precedents in each of the last three terms: on abortion in 2022, on affirmative action in 2023, and now on the power of administrative agencies.

Chief Justice Roberts said Chevron should be overruled because it has “proven to be fundamentally misleading” and unworkable. “All that remains of Chevron,” he wrote, “is a rotting shell with bold pretensions.”

Judge Kagan responded that Chevron was vibrant and valuable until Friday. “It has become part of the woof and warp of modern government,” she wrote, “supporting regulatory efforts of all kinds — to name a few, to keep air and water clean, food and medicine safe, and keep financial markets fair.”

The decision was the latest in a continuing series of legal attacks on what critics call the administrative state. For example, the court on Thursday rejected the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of administrative tribunals to combat securities fraud.

That decision jeopardized the ability of other regulators to initiate enforcement actions in such tribunals. It was, Justice Kagan wrote Friday, “yet another example of the court’s determination to roll back the agency’s authority despite congressional instructions to the contrary.”

The chief justice wrote that the retroactive effect of Friday’s decision will be limited, saying that the rules upheld by the courts under Chevron are not immediately challengeable for that reason alone.

Justice Kagan, citing an earlier opinion, dissented. “The majority’s decision today will cause a tremendous shock to the legal system, ‘cast doubt on many established interpretations’ of statutes and threaten the interests of many parties who have relied on them for years.”

For starters, she wrote, “some agency interpretations that were never in question under Chevron will now be.”

Second, she ignored the chief justice’s assurance that past decisions generally will not be challenged. “The majority are optimistic; me not so much,” she wrote. “Courts motivated to reverse an old Chevron-based decision can always come up with something to call a ‘special justification’” to overcome the generally required respect for precedent.

In general, she wrote, “it is impossible to pretend that today’s decision is a one-off, either in its treatment of agencies or in its treatment of precedents.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined Justice Kagan’s dissent.

The conservative legal movement and business groups have long objected to Chevron’s ruling, based partly on a general hostility to government regulation and partly on a belief, rooted in the separation of powers, that agencies should have only the power that Congress has explicitly given them.

Proponents of this doctrine say it allows specialized agencies to fill in the gaps in ambiguous laws and create uniform rules for their areas of expertise. According to them, this is a practice that was considered by Congress.

Judge Kagan echoed that view. “Some interpretive issues that arise in the regulatory context relate to scientific or technical topics,” she wrote. “Agencies have expertise in those areas; courts do not. Some require a detailed understanding of complex and interdependent regulatory programs. Agencies know these programs inside and out; Again, courts do not.”

Opponents counter that it is the role of the courts, not the executive branch, to determine the meaning of statutes. They also say agencies’ interpretations may change with new administrations and court cases favor the government, even if it is a party to the case.

Chief Justice Roberts said the basic point was that “agencies have no special authority to resolve statutory ambiguities.”

“Courts do,” he wrote. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joined the majority opinion.

By overruling Chevron, the court returned the nation to the world that existed before it was decided in 1984. But the two sides disagreed deeply about what that world looked like and how the courts had handled the work of the many administrative agencies created during World War II. New Deal.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Supreme Court had had the final say.

“As new agencies with new powers emerged,” he wrote, “the court continued to adhere to the traditional understanding that legal questions should be decided by the courts, exercising independent judgment.”

Judge Kagan took the opposite position. As the New Deal programs took hold, she wrote, “courts became increasingly subservient to agencies.”

The court decided two nearly identical cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, No. 22-451, and Relentless v. Department of Commerce, No. 22-1219. Judge Jackson was removed from the first case because she had participated as a judge on a federal appeals court.

In both cases, a 1976 federal law requiring herring boats to carry federal observers to collect data used to prevent overfishing was at issue. Under a 2020 regulation interpreting the law, boat owners would not only have to carry the observers but also pay $700 a day for their monitoring.

Fishermen in New Jersey and Rhode Island sued, arguing that the 1976 law did not give the agency responsible, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the authority to impose the fee.

Two appeals courts — one in Washington, the other in Boston — ruled that the deference demanded by the Chevron ruling required a government ruling. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in Washington, ruled that the interpretation of the 1976 law “to allow industry-funded monitoring” was reasonable. The first circuit, in Boston, said that “at a minimum” the agency’s interpretation of the 1976 law was “certainly reasonable.”

The fishermen were represented by Cause of Action Institutewhich says its mission is “to limit the power of the administrative state,” and the New Alliance for Civil Rightswhich says it aims to “protect constitutional freedoms from administrative state abuses.” Both groups have financial ties to the network of foundations and advocacy organizations funded by Charles Koch, a billionaire who has long supported conservative and libertarian causes.

Forty years ago, when Chevron was decided by a unanimous but limited six-member Supreme Court, with three justices retiring, it was widely seen as a victory for conservatives. Responding to a challenge from environmental groups, the justices upheld a Reagan-era interpretation of the Clean Air Act that loosened regulations on emissions, saying the Environmental Protection Agency’s reading of the law was “a reasonable construction” that was “entitled to deference.”

Chief Justice Roberts noted that the Chevron doctrine has been refined over the years. It has also, he said, been supplemented by the “big questions” doctrine, which says that Congress must be particularly clear when authorizing agencies to interpret laws on important economic and political issues.

Justice Kagan wrote that there was a theme in the court’s work in this area.

“The majority despises restraint,” she wrote, “and seizes power.”

Linda Qiu contributed report.

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