Supreme Court Hears Case Regarding Federal Agency Decision-Making

Supreme Court Hears Case Regarding Federal Agency Decision-Making

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments for overturning the so-called Chevron doctrine, one of the most important principles guiding federal regulation for the past 40 years. The doctrine, named for a 1984 court case involving Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules, holds that when the meaning of a law is disputed, the federal agency’s interpretation should be given deference as long as it is reasonable. The current Supreme Court case is about a group of commercial fishermen who oppose a government fee they consider unreasonable. The fee deals with payment of observers from the National Marine Fisheries Service that travel with fishermen during their outings, which under the Service's rules, must be paid by the fishermen.

Commercial fishermen in Chesapeake Bay

The cases Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, take on rules put into place in 2020 in the northern Atlantic fishing for herring. The small school fish are key to the northern Atlantic’s food web and fishing economy. The federal rules to monitor and prevent overfishing of Atlantic herring have been bolstered in recent years, in part to address the strain on the fishery due to warming waters.

Chevron is considered to be one of the most important decisions in U.S. administrative law. It has been cited in thousands of cases since its issuance in 1984. Chevron established that courts ordinarily should defer to policymaking decisions made by federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Labor, for two reasons: Agencies typically have far greater expertise in the areas they regulate than judges, and thus are more likely to make wise policy decisions.

Implementing health, safety, environmental, financial, and consumer-protection laws requires a great deal of day-to-day legal interpretation which depends significantly on subject-matter expertise — questions such as what makes a drug “safe and effective,” what constitutes “critical habitat,” what qualifies as an “unfair or deceptive” trade practice, and countless other questions big and small. Chevron says, if Congress has been clear about the statute’s meaning, that’s the end of the matter. But if Congress has been ambiguous or silent, the expert agency’s reasonable reading should govern.

The case is one of the most consequential to come before the justices in years. A victory for the fishermen would do far more than push aside the monitoring fee, part of a system meant to prevent overfishing, that they objected to. It would very likely sharply limit the power of many federal agencies to regulate not only fisheries and the environment, but also health care, finance, telecommunications, and other activities, legal experts say.

A decision is expected in the first half of 2024.

Photo Credit
Chesapeake Bay Program, Flickr
February 15, 2024