Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to reconsider its approval of the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” regulations. These rules, unsuccessfully challenged by telecommunications and other Internet providers, marked a reversal of course by the commission, which had previously applied a light touch when it came to regulation of the Internet.
Arguments about the wisdom of net neutrality and the FCC’s jurisdiction to regulate in this area are complex and fascinating matters I leave to more expert commentators. Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s thoughtful dissent from the decision in United States Telecom Association v. Federal Communications Commission, however, raises an important question that cuts across administrative law as a whole: When, if it all, should a reviewing court defer to executive branch agencies’ legal interpretations that implicate “major” questions of social and economic policy?
Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is by virtually every account a stellar jurist. His writings are now being mined, by supporters and opponents alike, for evidence of his commitment to judicial restraint and the separation of powers.
That evidence is not hard to find. In an address delivered on April 27, 2016, Gorsuch spoke of “the great project of Justice Scalia’s career,” namely to expound “the differences between judges and legislators.”
A central principle of modern administrative law is that federal agencies—not the courts—are the primary interpreters of ambiguous federal statutes that Congress has charged the agencies to administer. The Supreme Court crystallized this deference doctrine in its 1984 Chevron decision, though some variation had existed since the 1940s (and maybe even longer, or perhaps not). In 2005, Justice Thomas framed Chevron’s practical significance:
If a statute is ambiguous, and if the implementing agency’s construction is reasonable, Chevron requires a federal court to accept the agency’s construction of the statute, even if the agency’s reading differs from what the court believes is the best statutory interpretation.
That opinion, National Cable and Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services, upheld and expanded the doctrine of Chevron deference. But in recent years Justice Thomas has led the way in expressing skepticism about it.
Judge Merrick Garland may be the best for which constitutionalists can reasonably hope with a President Clinton or President Trump in the offing, but there is no basis on the record presented thus far for the popular press’ breathless conclusion—see, for example, here and here—that he believes in judicial restraint rightly, which is to say politically, understood.
In two prior posts here and here, I have been exploring possible reforms that Congress could enact to constrain executive power – asking whether such reforms would be desirable and whether a Republican Congress and President might enact them.
Another set of reforms involves shifts of power from the executive to the judiciary. Here I will briefly discuss two such reforms: eliminating Chevron (and Auer) deference and subjecting guidance documents to increased judicial review.
Last week, the Supreme Court granted cert in another important administrative law case—yet again involving EPA; yet again arising over the agency’s riff on the Clean Air Act; yet again a Chevron case. After EME Homer City and Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG) (yet again a petitioner in this case), it’s the third such case to be heard, decided, or granted in a single calendar year. Maybe it’s just the ebb and flow of cases, but a casual survey of the D.C. Circuit’s environmental docket and the EPA’s ambitious plans to rid the galaxy of any chemical whatever strongly suggests that cases of this sort will continue to loom large.
A recent Supreme Court order portends interesting limits on the Securities Exchange Commission and on Chevron deference. Earlier this fall, I observed how the SEC evades jury rights and other rights of criminal defendants by proceeding against them in SEC hearings. Now, as noted by Ed Mannino, the Supreme Court is beginning to focus on a related danger.
The recent circuit court decision in Halbig v. Sebelius has exposed doubts about Chevron deference, but what exactly is wrong with such deference? The usual answer comes in terms of delegation, representative government, and other objections to agency interpretation. But there are more direct objections to judicial deference. First, it violates the constitutional duty of judges to exercise their own, independent judgment. Second, it is systematic judicial bias in violation of the Fifth Amendment.