The U.S. Supreme Court reverses precedent that empowered federal agencies

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a precedent Friday that for decades had constrained the judicial authority to strike executive branch regulations, a decision immediately criticized for potentially undermining decisions by agency scientists and experts.

6-3 and 6-2 decisions two cases brought by fishery operators in New Jersey and Rhode Island challenged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations and invalidated a rule known as the Chevron compliance rule.

This precedent gave federal agencies broad discretion to apply their judgment to resolve any ambiguities left by Congress in federal statute.

The Court’s six conservatives argued that the courts “routinely face statutory ambiguities” that have nothing to do with the powers of regulatory agencies, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

“Of course, where there is statutory ambiguity in such a case, that ambiguity is not delegated to anyone, and the court is in no way relieved of its duty to interpret the statute independently,” Roberts wrote.

Under 40 years of precedent, courts abdicated their interpretive role and deferred to agencies, Roberts wrote.

But they shouldn’t, he added. To make a sound decision, judges should apply their own legal reasoning.

“Instead, courts understand that such statutes, no matter how impenetrable, have — in fact, must — have one best meaning.”

Overturning the 1984 judgment

That decision overturned Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that said courts must rely on the expertise of federal agencies when considering legal challenges to regulations. The 1984 ruling significantly raised the bar for overturning agency regulations.

The precedent has strengthened executive power under bipartisan presidential administrations, but experts fear its reversal would strip agencies of the power to set regulatory protections on a wide range of issues, including tidy air and public health.

In a dissenting opinion, three liberals on the Court — not including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in one of the cases after she withdrew because she had heard the case as an appellate court judge before joining the Supreme Court — said the majority erred by misunderstanding the roles of the three branches government.

Congress knows it cannot “write perfectly complete regulatory statutes,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion. The interpretation of these statutes is obvious, and Congress typically prefers a “responsible agency” over a court.

Agencies have more political responsibility and have more technical expertise in a given case than courts, she wrote.

“When it all comes together, deference to the agency seems almost the obvious choice,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan subsequently criticized the decision as a power grab by the judiciary at the expense of agency experts.

“The principle of judicial humility is giving way to the principle of judicial hubris,” she wrote. “In one fell swoop, the majority today arrogates to itself exclusive authority over every open question—no matter how expert-based or politically charged—involving the meaning of regulatory law.”

Liberals see security weakening

Liberal groups and elected Democrats worried that the change in decision would strip agencies of the power to establish robust regulatory protections across a wide range of issues, especially climate and environmental regulations.

“It weakens our government’s ability to protect us from the climate crisis, threats to worker safety, public health, clean air and water, safe medicines and food, a healthy financial system, and more,” Manish Bapna, president of the environmental group NRDC Action Fund, said in a statement.

“Today’s reckless but unsurprising decision by this far-right court is a triumph for corporate polluters who seek to dismantle commonsense regulations that protect clean air, clean water, and a future livable atmosphere,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch ” – said the statement.

Rachel Weintraub, executive director of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, a group that advocates for robust federal regulation, said in an interview before the decision was announced that Chevron’s compliance had led to a raft of regulations on consumer safety, labor, environmental protection and other issues.

“The important role government plays in ensuring the health and safety of our families and the integrity of our markets could be undermined in this case,” she said.

The ruling strips the authority of experts who deal with a specific subject of a federal regulation — such as traffic engineers at the Department of Transportation, disease experts at the Food and Drug Administration or scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency — and gives it to a federal criminal justice authority, Weintraub said.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who is the ranking member of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, called the ruling a gift to polluters and the fossil fuel industry.

“For 40 years, Congress has passed laws with the understanding that interpretation of those laws is in the hands of the courts, but their implementation is in the hands of career academics and policy experts in our federal agencies,” Grijalva said in a statement.

“But now, thanks to this extremist power grab, our most basic protections will be available to individual judges – many of whom are far-right ideologues – regardless of their lack of expertise or political agenda.”

Conservatives hail return to politics

Congressional Republicans and conservative activists praised the decision for weakening state administration, saying it would restore power to the legislature.

“The Constitution grants Congress the exclusive authority to make laws,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. “After four decades of deferring to Chevron, the Supreme Court made clear today that our system of government leaves no room for an unelected bureaucracy to seize that power for itself.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said Friday’s ruling should prompt Congress to write more prescriptive legislation.

“Congress has avoided our legal responsibilities for too long, and today’s ruling restores our rulemaking and regulatory authority,” Westerman said in a written statement. “We will no longer allow federal agencies to fill in the details when it comes to the policies we enact.”

Roman Martinez, a lawyer representing Rhode Island fishing operators, called the ruling “a victory for individual liberty and the Constitution.”

“The court took an important step to stop the unlawful capture of power by federal agencies and preserve the separation of powers,” Martinez said in a statement released by the conservative public relations firm CRC Advisors. “In the future, judges will have to interpret the law faithfully, impartially and independently, regardless of government.”

There are no plans to reopen elderly cases

In the majority opinion, Roberts said the court had no plans to reopen the Chevron cases “despite our change in interpretive methodology.”

Even before Friday’s decision, the court used the Chevron mark less often. While oral argumentRoberts cited a study showing that the court has rarely invoked that precedent over the past 14 years.

The court’s conservative majority has shown a willingness to move away from deference to agency decisions and toward clearer instructions from Congress.

For example, in the 2022 case West Virginia v. EPA, the court ruled that the EPA lacks authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Daniel Wolff, an administrative lawyer at Crowell & Moring, downplayed the impact the ruling would have on the administrative state.

Congress sometimes explicitly directs agencies to craft regulations, and those rules will still be held to the same standards in which they were reasonably written, Wolff said in an interview before the decision.

In his opinion, principles based on sound legal and statutory foundations will survive both standards.

“Putting out Chevron will simply mean that agencies won’t get the benefit of the doubt in the event of a tie,” Wolff said. “They have to come to the court and convince the court that they understand the statute better.”

Fishing operators

The cases that were settled Friday were brought by New Jersey and Rhode Island herring operators who challenged a NOAA rule requiring operators to pay for federal observers who regularly join fishing boats to ensure compliance with federal regulations.

Fishing industry representatives say the rule forces them to hand over up to 20% of their profits.

After the lower court relied on Chevron’s deference to rule in NOAA’s favor, oral arguments In January, the Supreme Court focused almost exclusively on Chevron.

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