The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in two cases involving a requirement for herring fisheries to pay for the observers the government used to monitor overfishing. At the heart of the two cases was a debate over the court’s current deference to executive branch agencies in interpreting ambiguous language in federal laws.
The two cases brought to the court were Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. US Department of Commerce. Both cases involved a regulation from the National Marine Fisheries Service, an executive agency of the federal government located under the US Department of Commerce. The agency required vessels to pay a third-party observer to guarantee the fisheries complied with conservation methods and did not overfish the waters.
The plaintiffs argued that the US Congress did not clearly specify that the companies had to cover the costs, which could be upward of $700 a day. Although the industry-funded model ended two years after its inception and the agency offered 100 percent reimbursement to the companies, the importance of this debate is centers around how the branches of government balance the interpretation of ambiguities in agency statutes. The case centers around a legal concept known as the “Chevron Doctrine,” established in the Supreme Court’s 1984 opinion in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The doctrine requires courts to defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of ambiguities in laws as long as the interpretation is reasonable.
The challengers argued that the current deferential standard is unconstitutional because the doctrine defers decisions to agencies and circumvents the court’s power to do so by Article III of the Constitution. Justice Samuel Alito spoke to a concern that the “deference forces courts to favor the federal government at citizens’ expense.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh referred to possible “unchecked executive power” as agencies were governed by the will of the current presidential administration. For the plaintiffs, attorney Roman Martinez argued that Chevron was no longer relevant and that matters of law are to be decided by the courts and not by the executive branch by way of federal agencies.
For the government, Solicitor General Elizabeth Preloger conteded that overturning the existing doctrine would be a “convulsive shock to the legal system.” She supported Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s points that executive agencies use highly trained experts to interpret and carry out federal laws in areas such as health care, finance and environmental pollutants. Sotomayor gave concrete examples of challenging cases where expert knowledge was integral in deciding on ambiguity.
As an example, the court debated a hypothetical AI interpretation in the future. “Does the Congress want this Court to decide those questions, policy-laden questions, of artificial intelligence,” the court asked. Martinez answered, “I don’t think Congress wants the Court to do policy. I think Congress wants the Court to do its ordinary function, which is interpret – and apply the best understanding of the law.” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said that resolving legislative ambiguity must be given to experts in the field rather than to lower court judges who do not have the specialized knowledge.
The government claimed that Chevron limits “judicial activism” and creates greater stability in federal agency policies. The concern is that if the lower courts can each interpret agency rules, there may be regional inconsistencies and bias. The New York Times reported that, in this case, the plaintiffs have been funded by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation, which supports deregulation of areas like the ones at issue in these two cases overseen by executive agencies.