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Supreme Court overturns 40-year-old Chevron case decision impacting regulatory authority

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned a 40-year-old decision that had made it easier for the federal government to regulate the environment, public health, workplace safety, and consumer protections. This ruling marks a significant victory for business interests.

The court’s six conservative justices overturned the 1984 decision known as Chevron, a long-standing target of conservatives aiming to reduce regulatory power. The liberal justices dissented.

The case represents the court’s most definitive rejection of what critics of regulation call the administrative state. Billions of dollars could be affected by challenges resulting from this ruling. The Biden administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer had warned that such a decision would cause an “unwarranted shock to the legal system.”

The Chevron decision allowed federal agencies to interpret unclear laws, a power critics argued should reside with judges. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated that “courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority.”

Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, argued that the decision undermines agency authority and ignores congressional intent. She described the decision as a further effort by the court to limit agency power, following a ruling just a day earlier that restricted the Securities and Exchange Commission’s anti-fraud capabilities.

The case originated from a challenge by Atlantic herring fishermen against a fee requirement upheld by lower courts using the Chevron decision. Business and conservative groups supported the fishermen, seeing an opportunity to further limit regulatory power.

The Supreme Court had not invoked Chevron since 2016, though lower courts continued to apply it. The original 1984 ruling had argued for judicial deference to agency expertise, a stance the current conservative majority has increasingly questioned.

In his opinion, Roberts challenged the idea that legal interpretation should defer to agency expertise, emphasizing the judicial department’s role. Kagan, however, argued that removing Chevron shifts control to courts over areas they are less knowledgeable about.

Fisherman Bill Bright praised the ruling, stating it would help protect the livelihoods of fishing families. The White House, meanwhile, criticized the decision as a backward step influenced by special interests.

Federal agencies and the Justice Department had already begun to rely less on Chevron in developing new regulations. Various advocacy groups and Democrats had urged the court to maintain the decision.

Environmental lawyer Sambhav Sankar warned that the ruling undermines the regulatory framework, giving corporations more power to challenge regulations and threatening the legitimacy of existing protections.

Business groups, including those from the gun, e-cigarette, farm, timber, and home-building sectors, supported the fishermen’s case. The fishermen argued that Congress never authorized regulators to impose the contested fee, a position the lower courts rejected using Chevron. The Supreme Court heard two cases on the issue, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused from one due to her involvement in an earlier stage.

The ruling represents a significant shift in the balance of regulatory power, with far-reaching implications for federal agencies and their authority.