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How a Fishery Management Dispute Curtailed the Power of Federal Agencies

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced several major rulings this week, one of which will have serious implications for ocean and environmental policy.

Image: Herring (NOAA Fisheries)

In a 6-3 decision, the justices overturned SCOTUS’ 1984 landmark Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council decision, which has informed how courts view agency decisions for the last 40 years. The Chevron decision gave rise to what is commonly called the Chevron doctrine or Chevron deference, which prompts federal courts to defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous law as long as the agency interpretation is deemed reasonable. Under the Chevron doctrine, federal courts apply a two step “test” to agency decisions, considering (1) if Congressional intent is clear and, if not, (2) whether an agency's rule was reasonably construed and not arbitrary or capricious. (We’d be remiss if we didn’t share this video inspired by the Chevron two step.)

Conservatives have tried for decades to overturn the Chevron decision, arguing that it gives too much power to the executive branch by forcing the courts to defer to agencies. Some arguments also point out that the Chevron doctrine lets Congress purposely pass ambiguous laws and kick the details to the agencies. Supporters of the Chevron doctrine typically argue that agencies have more expertise than judges or Congressional staff and should be the ones to fill in the details of lawmaking. The issue cuts to the core of the question of balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.

The court’s decision, announced on Friday, June 28, came from their review of two fishery-related cases: Relentless v. Department of Commerce and Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. Both cases challenged a NOAA Fisheries rule that requires the herring industry to pay for the costs, estimated at $710 per day, associated with carrying observers on board their vessels to collect data about their catches and monitor for overfishing. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which called the Chevron doctrine “misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities. Courts do." The dissenting opinion, written by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson argues that “agencies are more likely to have the technical and scientific expertise to make such decisions.”

This decision represents a major shift in power. Moving forward, individual judges will be able to more easily overturn agency rules if they disagree with the agency’s interpretation of a given law. We can expect this decision to change rule making at the agency level and lawmaking at the Congressional level. We’ll keep you posted as the implications of this decision unfold.

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