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The Time Has Come to Face the Behemoth: Clarifying Chevron

August 25, 2017
Among one of the most important concepts in modern administrative law is so-called Chevron deference.  The 1984 landmark opinion in Chevron U.S.A. Inc v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc. requires courts to apply a two-step test when deciding whether an administrative agency has properly interpreted a statute granting it policymaking authority on an issue. [1]

For step-one a court must ask “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue.” [2] If Congress has, then the court “must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress” regardless of the merits to the agency’s policy position. [3] However, if the “statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue” then a reviewing court must proceed to step-two and determine if an agency’s interpretation of a statute is reasonable. [4] This reasonability standard gives agencies wide-discretion and makes Chevron “a foundational case in terms of the existing structure of American government, because it grants policymaking flexibility to the agencies that line Constitution and Independence Avenues, and reduces the relative role of courts (and the congressional statutes they are interpreting) in providing fixed stars for our core federal regulatory regimes.”[5] The Chevron doctrine has been widely criticized since its inception and subsequent case law seeking to clarify its implications has only served to muddle the doctrine. We can expect the Supreme Court to clarify Chevron in the years to come which will affect the latitude agencies have to shape policy under ambiguous statutes.

Image:  Supreme Court of the United States. Should a case present itself, some Justices will be ...Image: Supreme Court of the United States. Should a case present itself, some Justices will be inclined to clarify the Chevron doctrine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court has reinvigorated the debate on Chevron and fueled speculation that it might be overturned. [6] In fact, even Congress is currently considering legislation to eliminate Chevron deference. [7] Gorsuch has been a vocal critic of the doctrine, describing it as “permit[ing] executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design.” [8] This argument has both a normative and legal component. Normatively, requiring courts to accept reasonable policy interpretations of ambiguous controlling statutes is seen by some as an abdication of the judicial branch’s responsibility to interpret the law. [9] Moreover, there’s concern that deference concentrates too much power in executive branch agencies. It erodes both checks and balances and democratic accountability by incentivizing Congress to draft ambiguous statutes to avoid the potential political repercussions of being clear in their intent because the interpretive resolution is left to technocrats who don’t have to win elections. [10] Legally, there’s a nondelegation question as to whether statutory ambiguity necessarily implies Congress meant to delegate resolution of an issue to the agency, particularly when it comes to major questions of national policy. [11]

But the typical response from Chevron advocates is that the doctrine leads to good outcomes by allowing agencies to use their technical expertise to determine the specific policy that will achieve the broad mandate of an ambiguous statue rather than hope Congress knows what it’s talking about. It also eliminates the burden on courts to frequently weigh in on these technical issues and leaves the resolution of such issues in the hands of democratically accountable executive branch agencies (which can have their top administrators replaced as presidential administrations come and go) rather than unelected judges. [12]

While the theoretical nuances in favor and against Chevron are voluminous, those interested in its future ought to pay attention to what it’s practically become after years of case law. Since 1984, it’s actual implementation has become significantly muddled. Cases like FDA v. Brown Williamson have been cited along many others as allowing judges to skirt around the edges of Chevron deference by using principles of statutory interpretation to permit courts to determine in the first place if Congress has clearly spoken to the issue at question. [13] Scholars argue that this essentially gives “judges the discretion to make policy decisions through the process of statutory construction” by asserting from the start that Congress was clear in their intent. [14] Moreover, cases like United States v Mead Corp and Barnhart v Walton have essentially limited Chevron’s application based on the procedure through which an agency reached its policy interpretation, all of which remain areas of confusion among courts. [15]

All of this development is to say that Chevron deference has become increasingly limited and the clarity of its step-by-step analysis has been complicated to such an extent that commenters wonder whether “the Court has reclaimed some of the interpretive power it ceded and returned some of the lawmaking power it transferred from the legislature.” [16] We should ask whether or the doctrine is actually accomplishing the values it purportedly promotes, especially when there are studies that suggest it is not frequently employed by the Court. [17] In an analysis of over 1,500 Supreme Court cases, one study “found that the justices fail to even apply Chevron in many cases where it should apply” and justices “may be more likely to apply Chevron when they are already inclined to agree with the agency on ideological grounds.” [18] However, another study found that across 1,500 circuit decisions Chevron deference was much more prevalent, but there were noticeable disparities between circuits – with its application more frequent in some more than others. [19]

The discrepancies likely have implications for the way agencies do policymaking under increasingly ambiguous statutes. When the doctrine is unclear, administrative agencies have less certainty that their polices will survive judicial review. In some ways, the lack of clarity is a disservice to both proponents and critics of the theory behind Chevron. For those who support it, uncertainty might mean agencies take a measured approach to interpreting a statute reviewed under the tenuous current standard – thus undercutting the aim to allow a full spectrum of an agency’s technical expertise to shape policy delegated by Congress. For those critical of the doctrine, the confusion leads to inconsistent judicial decisions across jurisdictions – the bane of a well-functioning judicial branch.

Consequently, public policy professionals ought to welcome Justice Gorsuch’s call to “face the behemoth” and clarify the current state of the law surrounding Chevron. Its implications will be far-reaching for how leniently executive agencies can craft policy on any given issue in light of Congress’s tendency to pass increasingly ambiguous statutes. [20]

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 [1] Chevron U.S.A. Inc v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc, 467 U.S. 837 (1984).

 [2] Id.

 [3] Id.

 [4] Id.

 [5] Eric Citron, “The Roots and Limits of Gorsuch’s Views on Chevron Deference,” SCOTUSblog, Mar. 17, 2017, http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/03/roots-limits-gorsuchs-views-chevron-deference/.

 [6] Steven Davidhoff Solomon, “Should Agencies Decide Law? Doctrine May Be Tested at Gorsuch Hearing,” New York Times, Mar. 14, 2017.

 [7] H.R.76 - Separation of Powers Restoration Act of 2017, 115th Congress (2017-2018), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/76?r=2.

 [8] Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142 (10th Cir. 2016).

 [9] See, Cass R. Sunstein, Law and Administration after Chevron, 90 Colum. L. Rev. 2071, 2075 (1990).

 [10] See, Cythnia R. Farina, Statutory Interpretation and the Balance of Power in the Administrative State, 89 Colum. L. Rev. 452 (1989); Kathleen Bawn, Choosing Strategies to Control the Bureaucracy: Statutory Constraints, Oversight and the Committee System, 12 J.L. Econ & Org. 101 (1997); J.R. DeShazo & Jody Freeman, The Congressional Competition Control Delegated Power, 81 Tex. L. Rev. 1443 (2003).

 [11] See, Abigail R. Moncrieff, Reincarnating the “Major Questions” Exception to Chevron Deference as a Doctrine of Noninterference (or Why Massachusetts v. EPA Got It Wrong), 60 Admin. L. Rev. 593 (2008); See also, King v Burwell, 135 S. Ct. 2480 (2015) (considering whether Chevron deference should be applied to agency interpretations of substantially important policy decisions under the presumption that Congress would not delegate such critical interpretative authority to agencies).

 [12] See e.g., E. Donald Elliot, Chevron Matters: How the Chevron Doctrine Redefined the Roles of Congress, Courts, and Agencies in Environmental Law, 16 Vill. Envtl. L.J. 1 (2005); see Peter L. Strauss, One Hundred Fifty Cases per Year: Some Implications of the Supreme Court’s Limited Resources for Judicial Review of Agency Action, 87 Colum. L. Rev 1093, 1121-1122 (1987).

 [13] Susan Rose-Akerman, “Judicial Review of Executive Policymaking in Advanced Democracies: Beyond Rights Review” (2014), p. 21. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 4943. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/4943?utm_source=digitalcommons.law.yale.edu%2Ffss_papers%2F4943&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.

 [14] Richard Pierce, Administrative Law Treatise 237 (5th ed., vol. 1, Aspen Publishers, 2010).

 [15] Linda D. Jellum, The Impact of the Rise and Fall of Chevron on the Executive’s Power to Make and Interpret Law, 44 Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 181 (2012).

 [16] Id. at 188.

 [17] Eskridge, William N. and Raso, Connor, Chevron as a Canon, not a Precedent: An Empirical Test of what Motivates Judges in Agency Deference Cases, 110 Colum. L. Rev, 1727 (2010).

 [18] Conor Raso, “Congress May Tell Courts to Ignore Regulatory Agencies’ Reasoning, But Will it Matter” Brookings Institute (Jan. 27, 2017) https://www.brookings.edu/research/congress-may-tell-courts-to-ignore-regulatory-agencies-reasoning-but-will-it-matter/#footref-1.

 [19] Kent H. Barnet & Christopher J. Walker, Chevron in the Circuit Courts, 115 Mich. L. Rev. (forthcoming) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2808848##.

 [20] Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142 (10th Cir. 2016).


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