U.S. Supreme Court decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund signals uncertain future for Chevron deference

A recent U.S. Supreme Court case suggests that the court will not rely on Chevron deference as much as it had in the past. On April 23, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that did not rely on the deference doctrine in a case involving ambiguous legal language.

Chevron deference is an administrative law principle that compels federal courts to accept agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes that Congress empowered the agency to administer.

The court ruled in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund that an ambiguous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permit requirement applied to facilities discharging pollutants that end up in navigable waters. The court’s decision did not rest on Chevron deference, but both the majority and dissenting opinions discussed the doctrine in a way that may shed light on how the court will approach judicial deference in future cases.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer claimed that neither party in the case asked the court to give Chevron deference to the EPA’s interpretation of the permit requirement. He wrote, “Even so, we often pay particular attention to an agency’s views in light of the agency’s expertise in a given area, its knowledge gained through practical experience, and its familiarity with the interpretive demands of administrative need.”

Breyer concluded that the EPA’s interpretation in this case was “neither persuasive nor reasonable” and cited Skidmore v. Swift (1944), which imposes a less stringent deference requirement than Chevron. He also wrote that following the agency’s reading of the law would open a loophole that would allow people to evade the basic purposes of the statute. This suggests that the court may weigh the consequences of deference more when deciding whether deferring to an agency interpretation of a law is appropriate.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas gave two reasons why he believed the EPA interpretation of the statute was not entitled to deference. First, no party in the case requested that the court defer to the EPA interpretation. Second, Thomas said the EPA’s reading of the law was not the best one. He argued that Chevron deference might violate the Vesting Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, which give legislative powers to Congress, give the executive power to the president, and give the judicial power to the courts.

Click here to learn more about judicial deference. Click here to read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

Additional reading:
Learning Journey: Judicial Deference
Chevron deference (doctrine)
Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council
Skidmore deference
The Administrative State Project