Chevron Is Dead. Does It Still Live in Maine?

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court today overruled Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which held that courts should defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. In Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, the Court held that the Administrative Procedure Act requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency acted within its statutory authority even if a law is ambiguous.

Beginning with basic principles, Chief Justice Roberts—writing for the Court—noted that Article III of the Constitution assigns the judicial role, including the responsibility to interpret laws, to the courts as their “proper and peculiar province.” This assignment was purposeful; it vests the power of interpretation in a branch that is free from the influence of the political branches.

The Chief went on to observe that the APA “codifies for agency cases the unremarkable, yet elemental proposition  . . . that courts decide legal questions by applying their own judgment.” Section 706 of the APA provides that a “reviewing court shall decide all relevant questions of law” and “interpret constitutional and statutory provisions.” By contrast, that provision “mandate[s] that judicial review of agency policymaking and factfinding be deferential.”

Accordingly, the majority concluded, “[t]he APA . . . incorporates the traditional understanding of the judicial function, under which courts must exercise independent judgment in determining the meaning of statutory provisions.” In undertaking their responsibility, however, courts remain free to “seek aid from the interpretations of those responsible for implementing particular statutes.”

In a key passage, the Court held that Chevron “defies the command” of the APA “that the reviewing court—not the agency whose action it reviews—is to decide all relevant questions of law and interpret . . . statutory provisions.” The Court reasoned that Chevron’s presumption that statutory ambiguities are implicit delegations of authority by Congress to federal agencies “is misguided” —they may in fact simply be unintentional, and, in any event, “agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities. Courts do.”

There are a host of fascinating aspects to Loper Bright. The key takeaway is clear—administrative law has fundamentally changed. Although, as the Court noted, Chevron has been withering on the vine for some time, lower courts have frequently invoked Chevron to defer to agencies. That is no longer permissible. But it remains to be seen whether de jure deference to agencies will be replaced by de facto deference by courts to agency assertions of “expertise.”

The ramifications of Loper Bright for state-level administrative law in Maine remains to be determined. As previously noted on this blog (here and here), Chevron became a part of Maine law without any real discussion, much less consideration of the implications of either the Maine Constitution’s restrictive separation of powers provision or the Maine Administrative Procedure Act.  Although Loper Bright did not overrule Chevron based on a separation of powers analysis under the U.S. Constitution, background constitutional considerations clearly informed the Court’s opinion. The Court did not need to reach the constitutional question when federal statutory law—the APA—mandated the same result. But Section 11007 of Maine’s APA reads somewhat differently than Section 706 of the APA. Does Loper Bright’s reasoning apply under Maine’s APA? And if not, is Chevron-style deference consistent with the Maine Constitution and the fundamental principles articulated in Loper Bright?

These significant questions remain to be resolved. Along with the related debates occurring in the various concurring and dissenting opinions in Loper Bright, they will doubtless be the subject of further discussion both on this blog and in Maine courts.

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