Author Topic: Opinion analysis: Justices leave agency deference doctrine in place  (Read 561 times)

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Offline Elderberry

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Amy 2/26/2019

A divided Supreme Court issued a major opinion on administrative law today. The justices declined to overrule a longstanding line of cases instructing courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation – a doctrine sometimes known as “Auer deference.” But in an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, the court made clear that the doctrine has limits, and it will not apply in every scenario in which an agency is interpreting its own rules. That was not enough, however, for Justice Neil Gorsuch, who complained that today’s ruling had left the doctrine a “paper tiger” and warned that the court would almost certainly have to address the issue again soon.

The Auer deference doctrine – named after the 1997 case Auer v. Robbins – is also sometimes called Seminole Rock deference, after the 1945 case Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co. It rests on the idea that agencies have more expertise in the subject covered by a law than courts do and are therefore better suited to interpret both gaps in a federal law and their own regulations. Supporters of the doctrine also believe that the doctrine provides predictability and consistency: Courts are more likely to uphold regulations, they say, because judges only have to determine whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable, not whether it is the best interpretation. But opposition to the doctrine has grown in recent years, particularly among conservatives and business groups, who believe that it gave federal agencies too much power.

This high-stakes legal issue came to the Supreme Court in the fairly unremarkable case of James Kisor, a Vietnam veteran who applied for benefits for his post-traumatic-stress disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs agreed with Kisor that he suffers from PTSD but rejected his request for benefits dating back to 1983. When Kisor appealed the VA’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the court of appeals deferred to the VA’s interpretation of its own regulation and sided with the agency.