2018 Supreme Court Cases Suggest Narrow View of Agency Deference Under Chevron

January 14, 2019
Shelby L. Hancock, Esq.
MGKF Special Alert - Federal Forecast 2019

In 2018 the Supreme Court issued multiple opinions that narrow the Chevron doctrine of agency deference and suggest the Court could expressly limit the doctrine in future cases.  In the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the Supreme Court held that courts should defer to a federal agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statutory provision.  467 U.S. 837, 104 S. Ct. 2778 (1984).  That holding is best understood in two parts. First, the court determines whether the statute under which the agency acted is ambiguous. If the text is clear, the court asks only whether the agency complied with the statute and does not defer to the agency. But if the text is open to multiple interpretations, the court moves on to the second step in the analysis and determines whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. If it is, the court defers to the agency’s interpretation, even if it is not the one that the court would have adopted in the first instance.

Many have criticized Chevron deference since its inception, including Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, arguing that it places judicial power in the hands of executive agencies. And a week before his retirement, Justice Kennedy suggested in a concurring opinion that the Court revisit the doctrine and clarify its application. Despite that call, the Court did not take a case in 2018 that directly addresses the continued validity of Chevron. It did, however, decide five cases under Chevron that imply a narrower view of the doctrine.  In each case, the Court concentrated on step one of the analysis and concluded that the statutory text was unambiguous. By deciding the cases at step one, the Court never reached the question of agency deference.

Whether the Court will take a more explicit stance on Chevron anytime soon remains uncertain. But regardless of whether the Supreme Court accepts a case on the issue, the trend in 2018 demonstrates that the Court is interested in moving away from the broad deference that has characterized the Chevron doctrine in the past. And that move suggests that even if Chevron remains on the books, federal agencies could face a more probing eye from the judiciary in the future.