The Chevron Doctrine Overruled: So What?


Cindi Branham
A demonstrator at the Supreme Court on Friday. Chevron deference is the latitude federal judges give agencies over how to interpret the statutes they administer when a dispute arises. (Eric Lee/The New York Times)

The conservative Supreme Court just ruled that plaintiffs can challenge the actions of federal agencies long after those actions have been finalized.

This was the goal of several conservative groups — including the Koch network and the Chamber of Commerce — to further upend the administrative state.

Why? We’ll get to that below and further in coming columns.

“At the end of a momentous Term, this much is clear: The tsunami of lawsuits against agencies that the Court’s holdings in this case and Loper Bright have authorized has the potential to devastate the functioning of the Federal Government,”stated Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her dissent.

This is a kitchen table issue, one that can and will affect you and your family.

The Chevron doctrine has been around since 1984, and it held that a court may not substitute its own interpretation of a statute for a reasonable interpretation made by the relevant administrative agency.

For forty years, this doctrine gave executive agencies substantial power to interpret law and declare regulatory authority. We depend on government agencies to regulate the things that would hurt us and hurt the nation.

Subject matter experts within the government agencies know a lot about their areas of governing, and while their opinions should be the most highly considered in a challenge of their expertise, corporations with self-serving motivations were required to defer to the government. To the people.

No more.

And what happens now?

For one, the ability of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to set rules and enforce those protections shrink greatly. How much may depend on how many cases rise up through the courts. 

In 2020, if the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had been challenged when they said wearing masks seemed to reduce the chances of contracting COVID, they could have been squelched if a case had been brought against them. Likely, some were, but the Chevron deference would have protected them, protected us, and helped to bring about the return to mostly normal life. We now know it also saved lives.

Agencies didn’t have free reign over the courts. There’s a test, and if the government’s case passed the test, then, and only then, did their statues hold.

Birmingham residents living in a toxic waste dump thanks to Industrial plants in North Birmingham that have polluted the air and land in its historic Black communities for over a century, leaving the residents with disease and premature death. 

Think of the perpetual Birmingham waste dump fire emitting toxic fumes, polluting the air local residents breathed.

Closer to home: The Vulcan quarry that creates damaging dust particles that can damage lungs and pollute local waters. I said “can,” but will Vulcan maintain their current agreements to keep dust levels low? They’re located near an elementary school in northwest Huntsville. Will those children and local residents develop early-onset COPD?

There’s also the PFAS & PFOS (the forever chemicals) pollution of poor communities in the Decatur area. 3M knew what they were putting into the water supplies of these communities. It wasn’t until the damage was done that anything was done to stop the pollution and bring aid for the residents.

I don’t have to tell you the demographics of these communities. 

Some hypothetical – but altogether possible – situations could be driven by powerful corporations. What if the nation’s largest egg producers decide to go after fewer disease inspections, or lower the standards by which eggs or produce pass to get to us? The same for the meat industry would allow untold diseases into our food chain and onto our tables.

The loosening of airline safety standards could lead to a most disastrous vacation or business trip.

Drugs are another area of threat. Easing drug safety requirements could result in debilitating or life-threatening (as opposed to lifesaving) drugs coming to market.

The list goes further and deeper, and it’s hard to imagine all the areas that essentially removing government agency intervention will have, and to know that it will affect all of us. 

We know that corporations have been amassing huge profit levels adding to their strength to go after government agency protections. 

Settled law is no longer settled law in this era of robber barons, kings, and dictators. Look at women’s reproductive rights. I shudder to think of other rights we’re sure to lose if we’re not actively resisting these efforts.

We’re slipping further into a separation of the haves and have nots, and if we don’t slow it in the only way we can – by showing up to vote for people who will stop this slide – we will ensure that not only our children and grandchildren will suffer, but all the rest of us as well. And soon.

The Chevron Doctrine Overruled: So What?