Wednesday, June 26, 2019
In a closely watched administrative law and separation-of-powers case, Kisor v. Wilkie, the Court today declined to overrule Auer v. Robbins, which says that courts should defer to agencies' interpretations of their own ambiguous regulations. At the same time, however, the Court sharply limited its application. As a result, Auer deference hangs on, but in a more (perhaps much more) limited form.
And although the case didn't raise Chevron deference (which says that courts defer to agencies' interpretation of applicable federal law), signs suggest that it's next on the chopping block.
The Court split sharply over whether to overrule Auer. Justice Kagan, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor on this point, wrote to keep it in place, but limit it. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, wrote to overrule it.
Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan wrote that Auer deference depends on a preceding two-step, thus limiting it in future applications. "First and foremost, a court should not afford Auer deference unless the regulation is genuinely ambiguous. If uncertain does not exist, there is no plausible reason for deference." Next, "[i]f genuine ambiguity remains, moreover, the agency's reading must still be 'reasonable.' In other words, it must come within the zone of ambiguity the court has identified after employing all its interpretive tools. . . ." Even then,
[s]till, we are not done--for not every reasonable agency reading of a genuinely ambiguous rule should receive Auer deference. We have recognized in applying Auer that a court must make an independent inquiry into whether the character and context of the agency interpretation entitles it to controlling weight. . . .
To begin with, the regulatory interpretation must be one actually made by the agency. . . .
Next, the agency's interpretation must in some way implicate its substantive expertise. . . .
Finally, an agency's reading of a rule must reflect "fair and considered judgment" to receive Auer deference. . . .
The Court also held that under stare decisis principles, Auer should stay in place.
Chief Justice Roberts joined much, but not all, of the Court's opinion (the portions specifying the limits of Auer deference and upholding Auer under stare decisis) and wrote separately "to suggest that the distance between the majority and JUSTICE GORSUCH is not as great as it may initially appear." Importantly, he also wrote that nothing in today's ruling says anything about the continued validity of Chevron deference: "Issues surrounding judicial deference to agency interpretations of their own regulations are distinct from those raised in connection with judicial deference to agency interpretations of statutes enacted by Congress. [Chevron.]"
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, would have overruled Auer. (Indeed, Justice Gorssuch read the majority's ruling to more-or-less do that.)
The four conventional progressives differed sharply from four conventional conservatives (minus Chief Justice Roberts) over the history and reasons for Auer deference, whether Auer deference violates the Administrative Procedure Act, and whether it violates the separation of powers. (On this last point, four conservatives (again, minus Chief Justice Roberts) argued that Auer deference meant that executive agencies were exercising the judicial power, in violation of the separation of powers. The four progressives disagreed.) This means that there's 4-4 split on the Court over these questions, with Chief Justice Roberts declining to join either side (but nevertheless voting to uphold Auer under stare decisis).
Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Alito, wrote separately to agree with Chief Justice Roberts that "the distance between the majority and JUSTICE GORSUCH is not as great as it may initially appear," and that this case doesn't touch on Chevron deference.