Arkansas Supreme Court limits judicial deference to state agencies

An April 9 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling limited how much deference agency interpretations of law would receive in the future. The court ruled in Meyers v. Yamato Kogyo Co. that the court should determine the meaning of state laws for itself and should not defer to state agency interpretations.

Justice Shawn Womack delivered the opinion of the court and cited “the risk of giving core judicial powers to executive agencies in violation of the constitutional separation of powers” if they did not clarify how courts were supposed to review agency decisions.

Womack wrote that the power and responsibility to interpret laws lies with the judicial branch while the executive branch enforces laws made and interpreted by the legislature and courts. He went on to say that by “giving deference to agencies’ interpretations of statutes, the court effectively transfers the job of interpreting the law from the judiciary to the executive. This we cannot do.”

Womack added that the court would review all future agency interpretations of statutes on a _de novo_ basis, which means without relying on the agencies’ conclusions. He wrote that the court would interpret unambiguous laws based on the clear meaning of their texts. In cases where the law in question is ambiguous, he wrote that agency interpretations of ambiguity would only be one of many tools the court would use to determine the meaning of the law.

Special Justice Scott Hilburn joined the opinion written by Justice Womack. Justice Karen R. Baker concurred with the decision but did not write a separate opinion. Chief Justice Dan Kemp did not participate in the case. Justice Josephine Hart wrote a dissenting opinion focusing on the facts of the case and not judicial deference in general.

Click here to learn more about judicial deference.

Click here to learn how other states have responded to judicial deference.

Additional reading:
Journey: Judicial review
Shawn Womack
Arkansas Supreme Court
The Administrative State Project

Click here to read the Arkansas Supreme Court decision.