On June 8, 2016, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation by a vote of 12-8 that would overturn a widely cited legal doctrine and end the practice of courts deferring to federal agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous federal laws. That doctrine, known as “Chevron deference,” arose out of the 1984 Supreme Court decision in Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that if a law passed by Congress is silent or ambiguous with respect to a particular issue, the courts must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of the law unless it is unreasonable (i.e., arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute). Under the Chevron doctrine, even if a court finds that another interpretation of statutory language is reasonable, or even better than the agency’s own interpretation, it must defer to the agency’s reasonable interpretation. This principle has beena cornerstone of judicial review of statutory interpretation by administrative agencies for over 30 years, including those involving customs and trade litigation.
The House bill titled “Separation of Powers Restoration Act (SOPRA) of 2016” (H.R. 4768) would legislatively repeal the Chevron doctrine and amend the Administrative Procedure Act to require courts to instead conduct a “de novo” (or new) review of “all relevant questions of law, including the interpretation of constitutional and statutory provisions and rules” when evaluating federal rules and regulations, rather than giving deference to the federal agencies’ interpretation.
In a press release issued on June 8th during the mark-up of the bill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) stated that the Chevron doctrine has been a “catalyst” for the “imbalance” in “our system of checks and balances,” which is “tipping away from the legislative and judicial branches, and toward a vast, overreaching executive branch.” Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), however, disagreed. In a separate press release issued on the same day, Rep. John Conyers called the legislation “harmful,” stating that the bill “would empower a judge to override the determinations of agency experts and to substitute his or her judgment, regardless of . . . the judge’s technical knowledge and understanding of the underlying subject matter.”
The bill may now proceed to the floor for consideration by the full House. The Senate is also currently considering its own version of the bill. The Obama Administration has not expressed its view on this legislation. If the bill is enacted, the new standard of review could make it more difficult for agencies to secure decisions affirming their interpretations of ambiguous statutory language on appeal.