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US Supreme Court Ends Deference to Regulators



July 7, 2024 - The US Supreme Court's conservative majority, in one of its most significant rulings in years, has thrown out a landmark, 40-year-old precedent under which courts have offered federal agencies significant leeway in deciding how to regulate the energy sector and other industries.

In a 6-3 ruling that marks a major blow to President Joe Biden's administration, the court's conservatives overturned its 1984 ruling Chevron v. NRDC that for decades has served as a cornerstone for how judges should review the legality of federal regulations when a statute is not clear. But chief justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said experience has shown the precedent is "unworkable" and became an "impediment, rather than an aid" for courts to analyze what a specific law requires.

"All that remains of Chevron is a decaying husk with bold pretensions," the opinion said.

For decades, under what is now known as Chevron deference, courts were first required to review if a law was clear and if not, to defer to an agency's interpretation so long as the government's reading was reasonable. But the court's majority said the landmark precedent has become a source of unpredictability, allowing any ambiguity in a law to be a "license authorizing an agency to change positions as much as it likes." Roberts wrote that the federal courts can no longer defer to an agency's interpretation "simply because" a law is ambiguous.

"Chevron is overruled," Roberts writes. "Courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority."

The court's ruling, named Loper Bright Enterprises v. Gina Raimando, focuses on lawsuits from herring fishers who opposed a rule that could require them to pay about $710 per day for an at-sea observer to verify compliance with regional catch limits. The US Commerce Department said it believes it interpreted the law correctly, but the fishers said the "best interpretation" of the statute was that it did not apply to herring fishers.

The court's three liberal justices dissented from the ruling, which they said will likely result in "large-scale disruptions" by putting federal judges in the position of having to rule on the merits of a variety of scientific and technical judgments, without the benefit of expertise that regulators have developed over the course of decades. Overturning Chevron will put courts "at the apex" of policy decisions on every conceivable topic, including climate change, health care, finance, transportation, artificial intelligence and other issues where courts lack specific expertise, judge Elena Kagan wrote.

"In every sphere of current or future federal regulations, expect courts from now on to play a commanding role," Kagan wrote.

The Supreme Court for years has been chipping away at the importance of Chevron deference, such as a 2022 ruling where it created the "major questions doctrine" to invalidate a greenhouse gas emission rule limits for power plants. That doctrine attempts to prohibit agencies from resolving issues that have "vast economic and political significance" without clear direction from the US Congress. That has led regulators to be hesitant in relying on Chevron to defend their regulations in court. The Supreme Court last cited the precedent in 2016.

The ruling comes a day after the Supreme Court's conservatives, in another 6-3 ruling, dramatically curtailed the ability of the US Securities and Exchange Commission — and likely many other federal agencies — to use in-house tribunals to impose civil penalties. The court ruled those enforcement cases instead need to be filed as jury trials. That change is expected to curtail enforcement of securities fraud, since court cases are more resource-intensive.