A Thought on Chevron Deference

Chevron Deference is a Supreme Court-created doctrine flowing from an appeal by Chevron Corporation to NRDC v Gorsuch, in which the Natural Resources Defense Council, during the Reagan administration, sued the EPA over a then-newly enacted regulation that allowed manufacturing plants to get pollution emission permits for new equipment that didn’t meet EPA emission requirements so long as the plant’s total emissions didn’t increase following the new equipment’s installation.

The Supreme Court found for the NRDC in Chevron’s appeal (Chevron USA v NRDC) and in the process created their Chevron Deference doctrine.  The heart of the doctrine, as articulated by Justice John Paul Stevens in writing for the majority, is this two-part test [citation and footnotes omitted]:

When a court reviews an agency’s construction of the statute which it administers, it is confronted with two questions.  First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.

“The power of an administrative agency to administer a congressionally created…program necessarily requires the formulation of policy and the making of rules to fill any gap left, implicitly or explicitly, by Congress.”

Eliding the specifics of the case and appeal, what Chevron Deference says in essence is that the Court owes Executive Branch offices considerable deference in those offices’ interpretations of statutes and the regulations those offices implement to enact those statutes: the Courts’ opening position should be that those offices are correct in their interpretations and implementations.  The problem, though, is in Stevens’ last sentence and in the sentence he quotes:

…whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute[,]

and

The power of an administrative agency to administer a congressionally created…program necessarily requires the formulation…of rules to fill any gap left, implicitly or explicitly, by Congress.

Here is what the Constitution has to say on…gaps:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Legislative powers—every single one of them—are the sole province of our United States Congress, and not any other body.  That Congress, too, consists solely of a Senate and House of Representatives; it does not include Executive Branch offices or Cabinets…or Agencies, administrative or otherwise.

What about those gaps in legislation?  All legislation, of necessity, fills gaps, whether those gaps exist de nihilo or they exist, or develop, as the law is seen in operation and/or as society evolves—else there’d be no legislation.  That includes, naturally, gaps in legislation.

When an (administrative) agency creates a rule to fill a gap in legislation that agency is authorized to administer, it is doing far more than formulating policy, or setting out rules for carrying into effect aspects of the legislation.  It’s legislating into that gap, which only Congress can (not may) do.

There’s also a problem with the concept of deference.  Regulating agencies are subordinate entities of the Executive Branch, and as such they cannot have any status but a subordinate one to each of the three branches of our Federal government.  From the other side of this relationship, the judiciary is a coequal branch of our Federal government, equal in status, hierarchy, and power and authority to each of the other two.  As such, Courts owe no deference at all to either of the other two branches, much less to agencies subordinate to either of those branches.  The mindset that the Courts do owe deference is a dangerous one.

The Chevron Deference doctrine is wrong.  The right answer for a Court in adjudicating a regulation has a different second step:

First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is nearly the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress—so long as that intent is implemented in a constitutionally permitted manner, for if it has not then regardless of intent, the statute cannot stand.  If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, or allow an administrative interpretation to stand. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the answer for the court is to return the matter to the legislative (political) branch of the government so it can address what is strictly a legislative and a political question.

1 thought on “A Thought on Chevron Deference

  1. I believe you are quite right on this. I teach Administrative Law and I always say that it grates on me that appellate courts give no deference to an Article III judges’ reading of a statute but will to that of agencies. Moreover the Supreme Court has made a mess of this area. We have Auer deference that invents agencies to write ambiguous regs and the mysterious Skidmore deference. Moreover the complication of notice and comment rule making has encouraged agencies to create essentially secret laws by hiding what are well and truly rules in staff manuals, guidance documents and the rest. The notorious bathroom directive was in a so called “Dear Colleagues” letter. Those who support a limited government should favor a relatively streamlined rule making process (because it requires a rule to revoke or make less onerous) and de novo review of legal issues to hold agencies to their mandate

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