On June 28, the Supreme Court overturned a precedent it set in the 1984 case Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council.

On June 28, the Supreme Court overturned a precedent it set in the 1984 case Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council. YayaErnst/Getty Images

Supreme Court ends judicial deference to federal agency expertise

The high court deals yet another blow to federal agencies' administrative powers.

Updated at 11:48 a.m. ET

The Supreme Court on Friday ended the practice of deferring to federal agencies when interpreting and implementing federal statute, ending a decades-old precedent that the judicial branch should provide discretion to the executive when provisions of law are unclear. 

The court overturned a precedent it set in the 1984 case Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, which says broadly that courts must defer to agencies when interpreting ambiguous statutory language. Under the “Chevron deference,” courts have previously held they and Congress do not possess the same expertise as federal agencies and therefore executive branch experts should have latitude in interpreting laws. If the law is ambiguous, courts must defer to agencies so long as their interpretations are reasonable.

The conservative majority on the high court in their decision derided the original wisdom of Chevron, with justices stating it created confusion and afforded too much power to agency staff. The three liberal members (Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself in one of the two cases being considered) of the bench defended the precedent in a dissenting opinion, saying judges did not possess the expertise to interpret technicalities that run the gamut of the U.S. code.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the 1946 Administrative Procedures Act dictates that the judiciary, not federal agencies, resolve questions of law according to their own judgment. He said courts can still consider agency interpretations, particularly if Congress specifically writes into statute that an agency must determine how to define particular terms, but judges are not required to defer to them. 

"Perhaps most fundamentally, Chevron’s presumption is misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities," Roberts wrote. "Courts do."

He added that because agency interpretations can change from one administration to the next, Chevron "fosters unwarranted instability in the law, leaving those attempting to plan around agency action in an eternal fog of uncertainty." 

Chevron has long been considered one of the most significant precedents in administrative law and its reversal could cause major disruptions in how agencies operate. The Supreme Court has leaned on Chevron deference in more than 70 cases, though in recent years lower courts have done so with much more frequency. The Biden administration had defended Chevron as a “bedrock principle” that promotes predictability, political accountability and respect for "the expertise agencies can bring to bear in administering complex statutory schemes."

The cases on which the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday were brought by Relentless, Inc. and Loper Bright against the Commerce Department to challenge the federal government’s ability to force fishermen to pay monitoring fees, arguing Congress must directly approve such a fee. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had argued Chevron encourages “agency overreach,” strips Congress of its lawmaking duties and incentivizes nebulous law writing.  

The Supreme Court has chipped away at Chevron for many years and more recently has dealt significant blows to agencies’ administrative powers. In 2022, the court established a legal theory known as the "major questions doctrine," setting the precedent that agencies have little leeway in creating new regulations with major economic impact or political salience that rely on powers not clearly laid out in statutory text. On Thursday, it ruled that agencies issuing civil penalties should defend those decisions in federal court rather than solely in in-house tribunals. 

Proponents of Chevron, including the dissenters on the court, have warned its overturning would open the floodgates on agencies as litigants look to strike down every rule and regulation they issue. Agencies possess expertise on complicated issues, they said, and the new system will force judges without such knowledge to instead make policy decisions. Legal scholars predicted Congress will not suddenly write laws with more specificity and it will take years for a post-Chevron construct to set in. 

In her dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Elena Kagan said the wisdom of Chevron was recognizing that Congress will inevitably write laws that contain ambiguities that some other actor will have to resolve, and that it would prefer for experts to do so. 

“Agencies have expertise in those areas; courts do not,” Kagan said. “Some demand a detailed understanding of complex and interdependent regulatory programs. Agencies know those programs inside-out; again, courts do not.” 

Kagan cited several examples of laws that require interpretation of arcane provisions of federal statute, asking rhetorically whether judges or agency expertise should be charged with carrying out that task. The justice said she does not know many judges who would feel confident defining what is an alpha amino acid polymer but the Food and Drug Administration "has scores of scientists on staff who can think intelligently about it…and arrive at a sensible answer."

She added that interpretation of ambiguous law should be left to those accountable to the president, not an unaccountable judiciary. 

“In one fell swoop, the majority today gives itself exclusive power over every open issue—no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden—involving the meaning of regulatory law,” Kagan wrote. “As if it did not have enough on its plate, the majority turns itself into the country’s administrative czar.”

Agencies themselves have also sounded the alarm over the complications that would arise if Chevron were rejected. Jonathan Meyer, general counsel for the Homeland Security Department, told the American Bar Association last month that 535 members of Congress cannot possibly get into the weeds of “every small issue.” 

“So then you have a real vacuum in terms of what agencies can do, and I think that is the problem,” Meyer said. “Then you have the courts having to weigh in every time and look at it without deference. It becomes more chaotic. There is less legal certainty for anyone who is affected by the regulation.” 

Consumer watchdog and left-leaning groups blasted the decision, while saying agencies must continue seeking to issue regulations that protect Americans.

“This decision is a gift to big corporations, making it easier for them to challenge rules to ensure clean air and water, safe workplace and products, and fair commercial and financial practices,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and co-chair of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards. “But the decision is no excuse for regulators to stop doing their jobs. They must continue to follow the law and uphold their missions to protect consumers, workers, and our environment.”

Congressional Republicans and conservative groups praised the decision, saying it would bring more accountability to federal agency actions. 

"Today’s decision is a huge step forward for self-government: it dethrones federal agencies and underscores both that Congress must be the ultimate authority on policy and that courts must be the ultimate authority on interpretation of the law," said Dan Greenberg, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.