Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo overruling the Chevron doctrine. This decision marks a watershed moment in administrative law, fundamentally altering the landscape for judicial review of agency actions under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the APA requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority. The Court explicitly rejected the Chevron doctrine, which had required courts to defer to administrative agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, emphasized that the judicial role is to “say what the law is,” reaffirming the principle established in Marbury v. Madison.

The Chevron doctrine, established in 1984, mandated that courts defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. This deference often gave agencies broad leeway to define the limits of their statutory authority, making it challenging for businesses, organizations, and individuals to successfully challenge agency actions in court. The doctrine came under intense scrutiny in recent years, with critics arguing that it undermined the separation of powers by allowing agencies to effectively legislate.

In Loper, several New Jersey herring fishers challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the Act) to require fishers to pay the salaries of federal observers on their vessels. The Act itself is silent on the relevant point, but applying Chevron deference, the D.C. Circuit (over a dissent) ruled in favor of the NMFS, deferring to the agency’s interpretation of the Act. The Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Chevron means that courts will no longer be forced to defer to agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes, instead exercising their own judgment to determine the best reading of the law.

The Court’s opinion traces the history of judicial deference to agency interpretations, noting that respect for executive branch interpretations was historically based on the thoroughness and consistency of the agency’s reasoning. However, Chevron‘s broad rule of deference, the Court found, was a departure from this tradition and incompatible with the APA’s mandate that courts decide all relevant questions of law.

Justice Gorsuch penned a concurring opinion emphasizing the historical role of federal courts in independently interpreting federal laws, without deference to executive agencies. He critiqued the Chevron deference doctrine as a departure from traditional judicial responsibilities and supported the Court’s decision to overrule, asserting that it restores the judiciary’s role in law interpretation as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. In Justice Gorsuch’s opinion, “[p]roper respect for precedent helps ‘keep the scale of justice even and steady,’ by reinforcing decisional rules consistent with the law upon which all can rely … But that respect does not require, nor does it readily tolerate, a steadfast refusal to correct mistakes.”

Justice Thomas also concurred with the Court’s decision, emphasizing that Chevron deference violates the Constitution’s separation of powers. He argued that Chevron compelled judges to abdicate their Article III judicial power by requiring them to defer to agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes, even if they believed another interpretation was correct. Justice Thomas underscored that Chevron deference not only compromised judicial independence but also expanded executive power beyond constitutional limits, disrupting the balance envisioned by the framers to safeguard individual liberty.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Sotomayor, wrote for the dissent defending Chevron deference as a cornerstone of administrative law that has functioned effectively for 40 years. She argued that Chevron appropriately allocates interpretive responsibility between courts and agencies, allowing agencies with expertise and accountability to resolve statutory ambiguities. Justice Kagan criticized the majority for judicial overreach and highlighted the disruption and uncertainty that overturning Chevron will cause, given its deep entrenchment in administrative law.

Justice Jackson recused herself because of her involvement in Loper as a judge at the D.C. Circuit, but joined the dissent as it applied to related case Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce.

The decision has significant implications for administrative law. By overruling Chevron, the Court has shifted the balance of power away from federal agencies, creating an even playing field in administrative rulemaking and judicial review of agency rules. This change is expected to increase the likelihood of successful challenges to agency actions under the APA, as courts will now independently interpret statutes without necessarily deferring to agencies’ interpretations. It may also make agencies more cautious in issuing far-reaching rules, especially ones changing interpretations issued by agencies in prior administrations.