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Legislation Could Overturn Court Ruling on Deference to Regulatory Agencies

A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing courts to defer to regulatory agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous federal laws would be overturned under a bill approved 8 June by the House Judiciary Committee. In Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council the Supreme Court held that if a law passed by the U.S. Congress is silent or ambiguous with respect to a particular issue, the courts should defer to a reasonable interpretation (i.e., one that is not arbitrary, capricious or manifestly contrary to the statute) by the agency responsible for enforcement. This principle has been extensively utilised since that time, including in customs and trade litigation.

Current U.S. law on judicial review of administrative actions requires a reviewing court to decide all relevant questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions, and determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action. The legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee would amend this provision by requiring the reviewing court to also decide de novo all relevant questions of law, including the interpretation of constitutional and statutory provisions and rules made by agencies. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, this provision would apply in any action for judicial review of an agency action authorised under any provision of law.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Republican-Virginia) said that under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council federal courts “have rarely questioned federal regulatory agencies’ interpretations of the statutes passed by Congress,” which “has emboldened federal bureaucrats to overreach” and turned the United States “into a runaway regulatory state.” In response, said bill sponsor Rep. John Ratcliffe (Republican-Texas), the Separation of Powers Restoration Act (H.R. 4768) would require federal courts to conduct a “de novo” (new) review of all relevant questions of law “rather than leaving such interpretation up to federal bureaucrats.”

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