Conservative Supreme Court Favors Reducing Federal Agency Authority

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority closely examined a decades-old precedent that critics believe grants excessive authority to federal agencies.

During two separate hearings on Wednesday, the focus was on appeals made by two fishing companies. These appeals challenged lower court decisions that permitted the National Marine Fisheries Service to compel commercial fishermen to contribute to the funding of “at-sea” human monitors who would be present on their vessels to monitor herring fish catch numbers.

The companies contend that Congress never granted authorization to the agency, which falls under the Commerce Department, to institute this program.

The majority of the nine justices, with six of them appointed by Republican presidents, displayed skepticism toward the 40-year-old precedent known as the 1984 Chevron doctrine. This doctrine asserts that when a federal rule is contested in court, the court should give deference to the agency and its “reasonable” interpretation of the congressional statute that purportedly authorizes the rule’s creation.

At least one conservative justice seemed hesitant to completely overturn the doctrine. On the other hand, all three justices appointed by Democrats expressed a strong commitment to upholding the doctrine’s deference to agency expertise when a statute is ambiguously written.

Alternatively, the Supreme Court might opt for an approach that imposes additional restrictions on when lower court judges can defer to agencies without necessarily discarding the Chevron doctrine altogether.

As some of the justices noted during the initial hearing, the Supreme Court has been gradually moving away from Chevron over the past eight years. Instead of relying on Chevron, the court has shifted its focus toward the major questions doctrine. This doctrine stipulates that Congress must clearly authorize actions with widespread consequences for politics and the economy.

This doctrine originates from a 1984 ruling in the case of Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. At that time, it was seen as a victory for the deregulation initiatives of the Reagan administration. This decision has been cited tens of thousands of times in subsequent court cases.

On Tuesday, both cases were filed on behalf of fishermen, one group from New Jersey and the other from Rhode Island.

Following the oral arguments, Thomas Berry, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, remarked that it seems probable the court has identified a path to completely overturning Chevron.

The destiny of Chevron will be determined before June concludes, even though the Supreme Court frequently reserves some of its most intricate judgments for the final moments.