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CRS — Chevron Deference – Court Treatment of Agency Interpretations of Ambiguous Statutes

October 28, 2013

Chevron Deference – Court Treatment of Agency Interpretations of Ambiguous Statutes (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Merit Systems Protection Board Watch)

An administrative agency may generally only exercise that authority which is provided to it by Congress. Often, however, congressional delegations of authority are imprecise, and, as a result, agencies must construe ambiguous terms and make interpretive decisions in order to implement Congress’s delegation. The Supreme Court, in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, outlined a limited role for courts in reviewing these types of agency interpretations. The now famous “Chevron two-step” test has been arguably the most important pillar of administrative law since the decision was handed down in 1984.

When evaluating whether an agency’s interpretation of a statute is valid a court must first look to the language of the statute. If the statutory language is clear, the test stops—the agency must follow, and the court must enforce, the clear and unambiguous commands that Congress provides through statute. However, if a court determines that the statutory language is “silent or ambiguous,” then the court may proceed to step two of the Chevron test. Step two requires a reviewing court to determine whether the agency’s interpretation “is based on a permissible construction of the statute.” The Supreme Court noted that a reviewing court should not impose its own construction of a statute in place of a reasonable interpretation provided by the agency, but should grant the agency’s interpretation deference under step two of the Chevron test.

Recently the Supreme Court ruled on the scope of Chevron deference in City of Arlington v. FCC. The Court established that a court must provide an agency with Chevron deference even when the agency is determining the scope of its own jurisdiction to take regulatory action under a statute.

This report will discuss the Chevron decision; explain when Chevron deference applies; highlight common agency statutory interpretations that generally do not receive deference under Chevron; and review the recent Supreme Court opinion in City of Arlington v. FCC which clarified the applicability of Chevron deference to circumstances in which an agency is interpreting the scope of its own jurisdiction.

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