by Amy Howe at scotusblog.com
It has been nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court indicated in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council that courts should defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. After more than three-and-a-half hours of oral argument on Wednesday, it seemed unlikely that the rule outlined in that case, known as the Chevron doctrine, will survive in its current form. A majority of the justices seemed ready to jettison the doctrine or at the very least significantly limit it.
The court’s ruling could have ripple effects across the federal government, where agencies frequently use highly trained experts to interpret and implement federal laws. Although the doctrine was relatively noncontroversial when it was first introduced in 1984, in recent years conservatives – including some members of the Supreme Court – have called for it to be overruled.
The plea to overturn the Chevron doctrine came to the court in two cases challenging a rule, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, that requires the herring industry to bear the costs of observers on fishing boats. Applying Chevron, both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld the rule, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of federal law.
The fishing companies came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to weigh in on the rule itself but also to overrule Chevron. Roman Martinez, representing one group of fishing vessels, told the justices that the Chevron doctrine undermines the duty of courts to say what the law is and violates the federal law governing administrative agencies, which similarly requires courts to undertake a fresh review of legal questions. Under the Chevron doctrine, he observed, even if all nine Supreme Court justices agree that the fishing vessels’ interpretation of federal fishing law is better than the NMFS’s interpretation, they would still be required to defer to the agency’s interpretation as long as it was reasonable. Such a result, Martinez concluded, is “not consistent with the rule of law.”