The Supreme Court on Friday disrupted the balance of power in Washington, D.C., by overturning a 40-year-old precedent protecting federal agencies’ work.

The precedent, called the Chevron doctrine, instructed judges across the country to defer to federal agencies’ interpretation of the laws passed by Congress even when the agencies’ rules had no clear basis in the written text.

Friday’s ruling puts the onus on Congress to pass clearer, more specific policies, and gives individual Americans, as well as companies or religious organizations, more power to challenge the federal rules they take issue with.

But it also gives more power to judges to interpret challenged policies on everything from health care to natural resources to religious freedom, judges who typically won’t know nearly as much about these topics as federal officials.

The Supreme Court decision that could rock Utah

Supreme Court overturns Chevron doctrine

The Supreme Court’s six more conservative justices formed the majority in the court’s two Chevron cases, while the three more liberal justices worked together on a dissent.

Justices in the majority said that, as it’s been applied over time, the Chevron doctrine has led the legal system further and further away from the true meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the work of federal agencies.

“The deference that Chevron requires of courts reviewing agency action cannot be squared with the APA,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

The dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, which was joined in full by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and in part by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (who had to recuse herself from one of the two cases because she heard it while serving on the D.C. Circuit), argued that Friday’s ruling will make the federal government less effective.

“Congress knows that it does not — in fact cannot — write perfectly complete regulatory statutes. It knows that those statutes will inevitably contain ambiguities that some other actor will have to resolve, and gaps that some other actor will have to fill. And it would usually prefer that actor to be the responsible agency, not a court,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan added that Friday’s ruling will disrupt four decades of legal work, potentially throwing all sorts of past rulings related to Chevron deference into question.

“Shifting views about the worth of regulatory actors and their work do not justify overhauling a cornerstone of administrative law,” she wrote.

Roberts attempted to address this concern in the majority opinion, arguing that the court’s new “interpretive methodology” does not justify reopening old debates.

“We do not call into question prior cases that relied on the Chevron framework. 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 majority opinion said.

Roberts also reflected on the concern that Friday’s ruling will take power away from policy experts and give it to judges who may know a lot about the law but little about the ins and outs of the fishing industry or the Food and Drug Administration’s approach to vetting new drugs.

He said that, moving forward, judges’ role will not be to create new laws but to decide whether federal agencies have stayed within their lane.


“When a particular statute delegates authority to an agency consistent with constitutional limits, courts must respect the delegation, while ensuring that the agency acts within it. But courts need not and under the APA may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous,” the majority opinion said.

Fishermen lawsuit

Friday’s ruling resolved two cases brought by commercial fishermen. The fishermen had challenged the Chevron doctrine as they fought against a rule requiring them to transport and pay researchers who were tasked by the government to research overfishing, as the Deseret News previously reported.

The fishermen lost at the appellate level because of the 1984 Chevron ruling. Judges cited it while deferring to federal officials’ interpretation of a fishing-related law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The fishermen appealed to the Supreme Court, asking them to overturn the Chevron doctrine and rule in their favor. On Friday, that’s exactly what the court did.

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