Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice expresses misgivings about judicial deference

Banner with the words "The Administrative State Project"

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David N. Wecht on July 21 issued a concurring opinion in Crown Castle NG East LLC and Pennsylvania-CLE LLC v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission expressing what they called “deep and broad misgivings” about the court’s practice of deferring to state agency interpretations of statutes and regulations.

The case challenged the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) interpretation of a statute governing public utilities. The PUC argued that the court should defer to its statutory interpretation because of the subject matter’s highly technical nature. The court, however, refused to defer to the PUC’s interpretation because it found the statute in question to be clear and unambiguous.

“A court does not defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the plain meaning of an unambiguous statute because statutory interpretation is a question of law for the court,” wrote Justice Sallie Updike Mundy in the opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Wecht expressed uncertainty about the court’s deference practices. Wecht pointed to the lack of clarity surrounding the court’s approach to deference, arguing that the court’s deference doctrines aren’t clearly distinguishable and have been, in their words, “thrown together over time.”

Ballotpedia tracks state approaches to judicial deference as part of The Administrative State Project. Since 2008, Wisconsin, Florida, Mississippi, Arizona, and Michigan have taken executive, judicial, or legislative action to limit or prohibit judicial deference to state agencies.

Additional reading: