Supreme Court Chevron ruling hamstrings the executive branch

By Pamela King | 06/28/2024 01:54 PM EDT

The decision shifts policymaking power from expert agencies to the courts.

Tourists visit the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Friday gave judges greater influence over rules from federal regulators at agencies like EPA. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Supreme Court on Friday upended one of the most frequently cited cases in regulatory law, hampering the ability of agencies like EPA to defend their rules against legal challenge and handing more decisionmaking power to the courts.

In a 6-3 ideologically divided ruling, the judges tossed out the Chevron doctrine, which says judges should yield to agencies’ reasonable readings of ambiguous laws when crafting rules to do things like constrain artificial intelligence, improve the health care system and protect against climate change.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who led the majority opinion, called Chevron “a judicial invention” that the Supreme Court has not used since 2016.


“At this point,” Roberts wrote, “all that remains of Chevron is a decaying husk with bold pretensions.”

Although Chevron had in the last eight years fallen out of favor with the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, lower courts were still using the doctrine to uphold agency rules, as they did in the two cases — Loper Bright v. Raimondo and Relentless v. Commerce — related to a NOAA Fisheries rule that the justices overturned Friday.

Doing away with Chevron removes a framework that required judges to defer to agency experts when there is disagreement on the meaning of a federal statute. The doctrine originated in the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which upheld Reagan-era EPA air rules.

“What this case does is it massively deregulates courts,” James Goodwin, policy director at the Center for Progressive Reform, said of Friday’s decision. “So now that the Supreme Court has given the lower courts all this extra leash to second-guess agency decisions, the question is what do they do with it?”

He noted that former President Donald Trump prioritized stocking the federal courts with conservative judges — including three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Chevron.

David Doniger, senior attorney at the NRDC and the lawyer who made the losing argument in the 1984 Chevron case, said Loper Bright will make it harder for the federal government to function.

“Whether they’re making food safer, air cleaner or safeguarding prescription drugs, agencies need to be able to respond to complex problems the modern world throws at us,” he said. “This decision is profoundly destabilizing and leaves policy — and public health — up to the individual preferences and political biases of unaccountable judges.”

Lawyers who had argued for the court to overrule Chevron celebrated.

“Going forward, judges will be charged with interpreting the law faithfully, impartially and independently, without deference to the government,” said Roman Martinez, a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins who argued for challengers in Relentless. “This is a win for individual liberty and the Constitution.”

Roberts wrote that the majority opinion in Loper Bright leaves intact prior cases over the last 40 years that were decided on Chevron grounds. The fate of settled cases was a big point of contention during oral arguments in January in Loper Bright and Relentless.

“The holdings of those cases that specific agency actions are lawful — including the Clean Air Act holding of Chevron itself — are still subject to statutory stare decisis despite our change in interpretive methodology,” the chief justice said.

‘Those were the days’

The court’s liberal minority chastised its conservative colleagues for their decision.

Justice Elena Kagan kicked off the final section of her dissent with a quote from the 1984 Chevron ruling: “Judges are not experts in the field, and are not part of their political branch of the Government.”

She continued: “Those were the days, when we knew what we are not.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the dissent in both Loper Bright and Relentless. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined only in the second case, as she had recused herself from Loper Bright.

Kagan wrote that the court’s conservative supermajority has offered “no special reasons” for its decision to overturn 40 years of legal precedent on Chevron. The court traditionally has a high bar for invalidating past rulings.

“And it is impossible to pretend that today’s decision is a one-off, in either its treatment of agencies or its treatment of precedent,” she wrote.

To illustrate her first point, Kagan pointed to the court’s Thursday ruling in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy, which upended the power of agencies’ in-house judges to handle legal matters internally.

“As to the second,” she continued, “just my own defenses of stare decisis — my own dissents to this Court’s reversals of settled law — by now fill a small volume.”

She pointed to, among other opinions, her departure from the 2022 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, reversing 50 years of settled law protecting the constitutional right to an abortion.

“Once again,” she wrote, “with respect, I dissent.”