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U.S. Supreme Court Ends Chevron Deference, A Win for Agriculture

The U.S. Supreme Court made a major decision last week to end a decades long policy that consistently skirted our system of checks and balances. The decision is welcomed by ag industry groups across the U.S. who have been at the whim of federal rulemakings resulting from unclear language passed by Congress. Farmers in Oregon, too, are likely to benefit from restoring the courts authority to interpret laws and hold federal agencies accountable.

The U.S. Supreme Court

Chevron deference is a principle of administrative law which dictates that courts should defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. In other words, courts should defer to the expertise of the agency to interpret a law they are responsible for administering.  

This is equivalent to the fox guarding the henhouse where balance of power is concerned and, in many cases, has resulted in unchecked overreach by federal agencies.  

Chevron deference was first established in 1984 and has since established unwarranted agency power where it previously didn’t (and shouldn’t) exist. In case law, these are commonly favorable interpretations of statute according to the agency’s priorities.

For agriculture in Oregon, striking down Chevron deference is a step in the right direction. Farmers and ranchers are already overregulated and financially stressed. Producers in the Klamath Basin have been front and center on this issue for decades.  

Courts have used Chevron deference to essentially grant the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service the authority to insert themselves into water issues when the Bureau of Reclamation releases its operations plans related to water usage. Irrigation districts, who need to guarantee enough water for farmers in the Basin, then act in court to protect their interests. The court will then defer to the agency that caused the lawsuit in the first place – in this case, a federal agency whose priorities conflict with the Klamath Basin irrigators. It’s a poor and unbalanced way to handle complex issues that the courts should contemplate.  

Our governing system is built on a series of checks and balances; by allowing agencies to have the final say on ambiguous statutes, they encroach on the legislative and judicial branches’ roles. It also leads to agencies effectively interpreting laws rather than implementing them, which is what the Constitution intended.

In the past, some have argued that this was judicial abdication: where courts fail to fulfill their constitutional role of interpreting the law, that it undermined the judiciary’s duty to say what the law is. With the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Chevron deference, the judiciary’s responsibilities of interpreting the law will be restored. 

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