What the Supreme Court Fisheries case could mean for the power of federal agencies

What the Supreme Court Fisheries case could mean for the power of federal agencies

The Supreme Court heard arguments in several cases on Wednesday that could pave the way for its conservative supermajority to gut the way American society imposes regulations on businesses, furthering a key goal of the conservative legal movement. Is.

Such a decision would make it easier to challenge regulations on a range of issues, such as keeping air and water clean, ensuring that food, medicines, cars and consumer products are safe and much more.

The court is expected to deliver its verdict by the end of its term, possibly in June. But it’s unclear how sweeping any decision – and its consequences – will be. Here’s a closer look:

The plaintiffs in the case are asking the Supreme Court to overturn a key precedent from 1984. Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, The decision lays out a framework that federal judges — particularly at the district and appeals court levels — have been using for decades to resolve myriad legal challenges to the rules.

Those who don’t like particular rules can file a lawsuit arguing that an agency has overstepped the bounds of authority given to it by Congress. According to the precedent established in Chevron, if part of a statute written by Congress to empower a regulatory agency is ambiguous, but the agency’s interpretation is reasonable, judges must defer to the agency.

In the cases argued Wednesday, owners of commercial fishing vessels are challenging a regulation issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It requires commercial fishermen to pay the cost of monitors that prevent overfishing. An appeals court upheld the rule based on the Chevron method, and the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to overturn it and overturn Chevron.

Even though the question of who pays for fisheries monitors primarily affects only a handful of commercial fishermen, the principle this case establishes could profoundly affect how governments regulate various businesses. Applies.

Chevron’s critics argue that this approach places too much power in the hands of executive branch agencies, and that courts are abdicating their authority to interpret the law. Its proponents argue that without such filters, courts would micromanage a number of highly technical issues that judges have no expertise to resolve.

“If Chevron disappears,” said Jody Freeman, a Harvard University law professor who specializes in administrative and environmental law, it could become “a challenge for judges to delve into the nitty-gritty of everything the agencies are doing” and “An invitation for interest-group lawyers to attempt to tie agencies into legal limbo.”

Notably, the lawyers representing the commercial fishing business plaintiffs in Wednesday’s case are backed by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch. He and his brother, David Koch, who died in 2019, have funded liberal-minded conservative causes for decades.

The conservative faction controlling the Supreme Court is widely believed to have taken up the case with the intention of undermining Chevron. But it’s not clear how far the court will go, what the consequences will be or what rules might be changed because judges could take multiple paths.

At the milder end of the spectrum, the court could simply limit Chevron’s reach. For example, it could say that an agency is not free to interpret ambiguous statutes unless Congress has indicated that it specifically gave that agency such discretion – for example, if a statute Says the agency will take a “reasonable” approach to carrying out its work. Objective.

At the aggressive end of the spectrum, the court could overturn Chevron entirely and bar judges from deferring to an agency’s interpretation of the statute under any circumstances.

The debate Wednesday turned to what a decision to rein in or even overturn Chevron would mean for past cases that were decided using the doctrine.

While the Supreme Court has rarely enforced Chevron, lower courts have relied thousands of times on Chevron’s methodology to uphold regulations and have ruled that the agencies’ views about vague statutes were reasonable.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Roman Martinez, told the judges on Wednesday that he did not believe dismissing Chevron would be particularly disruptive because of the judicial principle of not reopening already decided legal issues. But the Solicitor General, Elizabeth B. Preloger warned the judges that “endless litigation” would continue.

He predicted, “Litigants will come out of the woodwork trying to unpack those decisions and argue that they didn’t really address what they now say is the relevant question.”

The conservative supermajority of the Supreme Court is reducing the authority of the administrative state, which took its shape as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This is the primary way modern American society imposes regulations on businesses: Congress creates agencies staffed by technical experts to study a variety of problems and gives them the authority to issue legally binding regulations.

Such regulations are intended to help society broadly, but they can cut into the profits of individual business owners.

Following the consumer safety and environmental movements in the 1960s, a backlash emerged from businesses, where critics argued that government officials who were not accountable to voters were issuing regulations whose costs outweighed their benefits. (Elected lawmakers who control agency budgets have a process to overturn specific rules, and agencies are run by presidential appointees.)

Rolling back the regulatory state became a central ideological goal of the ensuing conservative legal movement. And since President Donald J. Trump has been moving toward doing so since he solidified a conservative supermajority by appointing judges drawn from that movement.

In For example, June 2020, The five Republican appointees to the court then rejected legislation that Congress had sought to protect the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from being fired by the president without good cause, such as misconduct. Since Mr. Trump’s third appointee joined the court, the majority has moved further.

especially, in June 2022The court expanded and strengthened what conservatives call the “major question doctrine”, under which judges can strike down rules that have a significant impact if they feel Congress did enough to authorize agencies to take such action. Was not clearly clear.

Against that backdrop, turning over or destroying Chevron appears to be their next step.

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