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U.S. Supreme Court flips precedent that empowered federal agencies


The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a precedent Friday that had for decades limited judicial power to strike executive branch regulations, in a decision immediately criticized for potentially undermining decisions by scientists and agency experts.

The 6-3 and 6-2 decisions in two cases brought by fishing operators in New Jersey and Rhode Island challenged a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rule and overturned the principle known as Chevron deference.

That precedent gave federal agencies broad discretion to use their judgment to resolve any ambiguity Congress left in a federal statute.

The court’s six conservatives reasoned that courts “routinely confront statutory ambiguities” that have nothing to do with the authority of regulatory agencies.

“Of course, when faced with a statutory ambiguity in such a case, the ambiguity is not a delegation to anybody, and a court is not somehow relieved of its obligation to independently interpret the statute,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

Under the 40-year-old precedent, courts gave up their interpretive role and deferred to agencies, Roberts wrote.

But they shouldn’t, he added. Judges should apply their own legal reasoning to reach a sound decision.

“Courts instead understand that such statutes, no matter how impenetrable, do — in fact, must — have a single, best meaning.”

The decision overturned Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that said courts must defer to federal agencies’ expertise when considering legal challenges to a rule. The 1984 ruling significantly raised the bar for overturning an agency rule.

The precedent strengthened the executive branch under presidential administrations of both parties, but experts worry its reversal will strip agencies of the power to enact regulatory safeguards across a broad spectrum of issues including clean air and public health.

In a dissenting opinion, the court’s three liberals — not including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in one of the cases, after she recused herself because she’d heard the case as an appeals court judge before joining the Supreme Court — said the majority erred by misunderstanding the roles of three branches of government.

Congress knows it cannot “write perfectly complete regulatory statutes,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote. Interpretation of those statutes is a given, and Congress usually prefers a “responsible agency” instead of a court.

Agencies are more politically accountable and have greater technical expertise in a given issue than courts, she wrote.

“Put all that together and deference to the agency is the almost obvious choice,” Kagan wrote.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Michael Moline for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and X.


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