The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a series of cases that could pave the way for its large conservative majority to undermine the way American society imposes rules on businesses, advancing a key goal of the conservative legal movement.
Such a move would make it easier to challenge regulations on a range of issues, such as keeping air and water clean; ensure the safety of food, medicines, cars and consumer products; and much more.
The court is expected to issue its decision by the end of its term, likely in June. But we still don’t know how radical a decision would be – or its consequences –. Here’s a closer look:
What is the problem?
The plaintiffs in this case are asking the Supreme Court to overturn a major 1984 precedent, Chevron c. Natural Resources Defense Council. The ruling establishes a framework that federal judges – particularly at the district and appeals court level – have used for decades to resolve the myriad legal challenges to regulations.
People who don’t like certain rules can sue, arguing that an agency has overstepped the bounds of the authority Congress gave it. Under the precedent set in the Chevron case, if part of the law written by Congress authorizing a regulatory agency is ambiguous but the agency’s interpretation is reasonable, judges should defer to the agency .
In the cases argued Wednesday, commercial fishing vessel owners are challenging a regulation issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It requires commercial fishermen to pay the cost of controllers that prevent overfishing. An appeals court upheld the rule based on the Chevron methodology, and the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to overturn that decision and overturn Chevron.
Why is the case important?
Although the question of who pays fisheries observers primarily concerns only a handful of commercial fishermen, the principle established by the case could profoundly influence how the government imposes rules on a range of businesses.
Critics of Chevron argue that this approach gives too much power to executive branch agencies and that the courts abdicate their power to interpret the law. Its supporters argue that without such a filter, courts will be forced to micromanage a number of highly technical issues that judges have no expertise in resolving.
“If Chevron disappears,” said Jody Freeman, a law professor at Harvard University who specializes in administrative and environmental law, it could become “a mess for judges who might dig into the nitty-gritty of everything the companies are doing. agencies” and “an invitation to interest group lawyers to attempt to tie the agencies in legal knots.”
Notably, lawyers representing the commercial fishing industry plaintiffs in Wednesday’s case are backed by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch. He and his brother David Koch, who died in 2019, have funded conservative, libertarian-minded causes for decades.
What are the possible outcomes in this case?
It is widely believed that the conservative bloc controlling the Supreme Court took up the matter in an attempt to restrain Chevron. But it’s unclear how far the court would go, what the consequences would be or what regulations might be followed, because judges can take many paths.
In the most modest case, the court could simply narrow Chevron’s reach. He could say that an agency is not free to interpret ambiguous laws unless Congress has signaled that it is specifically granting it such discretion — for example, if a law says the agency must propose a “reasonable” approach to accomplish its mission.
At the aggressive end of the spectrum, the court could overturn Chevron entirely and prohibit judges from deferring to any agency’s interpretation of its status, regardless of the circumstances.
How could the case affect environmental protection?
Overturning the Chevron Doctrine could endanger dozens of existing environmental regulations on air, water and chemical pollution – and it could profoundly weaken the federal government’s power to impose new regulations to limit the climate change and banning the use of asbestos and other toxins, he said. » said environmental law experts.
It would be a major victory for fossil fuel industry groups and others who have strategically sought to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate pollution under laws that direct the agency, when it drafts new rules, to require industries to use the “best available technologies”. . » « to reduce pollution.
The EPA is drafting two major climate change rules affecting cars and power plants, expected to be released this spring. Because the federal agency, rather than the law, specifies which technologies to use, “these rules will now certainly be the target of lawsuits that could be strengthened by Chevron’s reversal,” said Michael B. Gerrard, director of Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Still, he said: “Nothing would be automatically canceled. But it is a very important new arrow in the quiver of lawyers who try to oppose environmental regulations.”
What about cases that have already been decided?
Wednesday’s arguments were about what a ruling restricting or even overturning Chevron would mean for past cases that have been decided using the doctrine.
While the Supreme Court has rarely invoked Chevron, lower courts have relied on Chevron’s methodology thousands of times to enforce regulations by ruling that agencies’ views on ambiguous laws were reasonable.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Roman Martinez told the justices Wednesday that he didn’t think Chevron’s reversal would be particularly disruptive because of the judicial principle of not reopening legal issues that have already been settled. But Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar warned the justices that it would be a dream of “endless litigation.”
“Litigants will come out of the woodwork seeking to vindicate these decisions and claiming that they did not actually answer what they now view as the relevant question,” she predicted.
What is the place of the conservative legal movement?
The Supreme Court’s vast conservative majority has eroded the authority of the administrative state, which took shape under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This is the primary way in which modern American society imposes rules on businesses: Congress creates agencies staffed by technical experts to study various types of problems and gives them the power to issue legally binding regulations.
Such regulations aim to help society as a whole, but can reduce the profits of individual business owners.
After the consumer and environmental protection movements of the 1960s, a backlash emerged from business, where critics argued that unaccountable officials Voters enacted regulations whose costs exceeded the benefits. (Elected lawmakers who control agency budgets have a procedure for overturning specific regulations, and the agencies are run by presidential appointees.)
Rolling back the regulatory state became a central ideological goal of the conservative legal movement that followed. And since President Donald J. Trump consolidated a conservative supermajority by appointing judges from this movement, he has taken steps in this direction.
In June 2020, for example, The five Republicans then named before the court struck down a law in which Congress had sought to protect the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from being fired by a president without cause, such as misconduct. Since Mr. Trump’s third appointee joined the Court, the majority has gone further.
Especially, in June 2022The court expanded and consolidated what conservatives call the “major issues doctrine,” under which judges can strike down regulations that have a significant impact if they believe Congress was not explicit enough in allowing agencies to take such measures.
In this context, reversing or dumping Chevron seems to be the most likely next step.
Coral Davenport reports contributed.