Supreme Court Strips Federal Agencies of Interpretive Power

It’s going to interesting to see where this one goes. On June 28, commercial herring fishermen won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that upends the way federal agencies have regulated for 40 years.

The herring fishermen scored a victory over National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) regulations, and the effects of the court’s ruling will be profound across federal agencies and industry. Basically, the Supreme Court ruled that the administrative state no longer has nearly unlimited power to interpret the same laws they administer.

In 2020, in twin Rhode Island and New Jersey cases, herring fishermen argued that the U.S. Congress did not give the NMFS authority to require the fishermen themselves to pay for government-mandated observers on their vessels. The observers were intended to monitor fishermen’s catch and would have cost the fishermen more than $700 per day. Lower courts ruled in favor of the federal agency.

Those 2020 rulings relied on “Chevron doctrine,” which comes from a 1984 Supreme Court decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. For four decades since that ruling, “Chevron deference” has required courts to uphold a federal agency’s interpretation of statute, as long as it was “reasonable.”

Because of the lawsuit brought by herring fishermen, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision on June 28, overruled the 1984 Chevron case and rejected Chevron doctrine. Going forward it will be up to courts—rather than the administrative state—to interpret ambiguous laws. In his 35-page ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts called Chevron doctrine “fundamentally misguided.”

Only time will tell what this monumental ruling will mean for anglers. However, the courts will no longer be required to defer to regulative agencies that manage our fisheries when those agencies make rules based on their own interpretation of ambiguous law.

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