In a significant ruling that curtails the power of executive agencies to interpret ambiguous laws, last month the Supreme Court overturned the 1984 decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. This decision marks a substantial shift in how regulatory power is distributed between the legislative and executive branches, impacting the way laws are interpreted and enforced by federal agencies.

The 6-3 decision in the case of Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo challenges the precedent set by Chevron, which allowed federal agencies to interpret ambiguous statutes and impose regulations based on their interpretations. The ruling is seen as a move to restore legislative powers to Congress, limiting the regulatory overreach of unelected officials in executive agencies.

Background of the Chevron Decision

 The Chevron doctrine stemmed from a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that provided executive agencies significant leeway in interpreting ambiguous statutes. This doctrine has been instrumental in allowing agencies to enact and enforce regulations, often expanding their authority in areas where legislative directives were not explicit. Critics argued that this shifted too much power from Congress and the judiciary to the executive branch, leading to politically motivated regulatory decisions.

Focusing on the original Chevron decision, highlights that it facilitated a massive shift in power from Congress and the courts to the president. Agencies, openly led by presidential appointees, could make inherently political judgments under the guise of regulatory expertise, thus undermining the checks and balances envisioned by the Constitution.

The Case of Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo 

The recent ruling originated from a lawsuit filed by fishermen against Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. The plaintiffs, Loper Bright Enterprises, contested a mandate by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a sub-agency of the Commerce Department, requiring them to pay for federal inspectors aboard their boats. The fishermen argued that no statutory law explicitly authorized NMFS to impose such a requirement.

Initially, the NMFS justified its mandate by invoking the Chevron doctrine, arguing that the law's silence on this issue allowed the agency to interpret it as granting them the authority. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the NMFS, but the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, questioning whether Chevron should be overruled or at least clarified regarding statutory silence on controversial powers.

Supreme Court's Ruling

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Chevron deference was based on the principle that courts, not agencies, should resolve statutory ambiguities. The Court emphasized that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) requires judicial independence in determining whether agencies act within their statutory authority. The ruling stated that courts should not defer to agency interpretations simply because a statute is ambiguous.

The majority opinion underscored that agencies lack special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities compared to courts. It asserted that the traditional tools of statutory construction should be applied to resolve such ambiguities, regardless of whether they pertain to an agency's own power.

"The Administrative Procedure Act requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and courts may not defer to an agency interpretation on of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous; Chevron is overruled," the Court ruled.  

"Perhaps most fundamentally, Chevron’s presumption is misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities. Courts do. The Framers anticipated that courts would often confront statutory ambiguities and expected that courts would resolve them by exercising independent legal judgment. Chevron gravely erred in concluding that the inquiry is fundamentally different just because an administrative interpretation is in play. The very point of the traditional tools of statutory construction is to resolve statutory ambiguities. That is no less true when the ambiguity is about the scope of an agency’s own power—perhaps the occasion on which abdication in favor of the agency is least appropriate," the Court wrote.  


This landmark decision is expected to significantly impact how regulations are developed and enforced in the future. By reining in the interpretative powers of federal agencies, the ruling potentially shifts more responsibility back to Congress to clearly define statutory mandates, ensuring that regulatory decisions align more closely with legislative intent.

 In summary, the Supreme Court's decision to overrule Chevron deference represents a pivotal moment in U.S. regulatory law, reshaping the balance of power between Congress and executive agencies, and reinforcing the judiciary's role in interpreting laws, and congressional power in passing them.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Government Relations e-Newsletter, "While You Were Working."