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We break down the overturning of the Chevron doctrine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In a momentous decision that will affect vast swaths of American life, the U.S. Supreme Court undid decades of regulatory law today, making it far more difficult for federal agencies to issue rules and regulations that carry out broad mandates enacted by Congress. The vote, along ideological lines, was 6-3. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Writing for the court's conservative supermajority, Chief Justice John Roberts explicitly overturned a 40-year-old precedent that instructed lower court judges to defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous federal statutes. Acknowledging that some of the court's most conservative members had initially proposed or embraced that idea, Roberts said that time and experience had proved the approach unwise, misguided and unworkable. The 1984 decision, he said, is contrary to the framers' understanding of our form of government. As he observed, in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall famously said, it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is. That said, Roberts means, that courts, not agencies, decide what the law is. And if Congress wants to do something different, it should say so explicitly.

Justice Elena Kagan took the rare step of announcing her dissent from the bench on behalf of the court's three liberals. Agencies report to the president, who in turn answers to the public for his policy calls, she said. Courts, in contrast, have no such accountability, nor do they have the kind of expertise that agencies have to carry out broad mandates from Congress. Today, she said, a four-decades-old rule of judicial humility gives way to judicial hubris.

As if the court does not have enough on its plate, she added, the majority turns itself into the country's administrative czar, giving itself the power to determine what rules will govern AI or what the nation's healthcare or transportation system or environment should look like. That is not a role that Congress gave to the court, she said, but it is a role that this court has now claimed for itself, as well as other judges.

Case Western law professor Jonathan Adler generally agreed with today's ruling, but he notes it may make it harder for the executive branch to react to major crises like the COVID pandemic or sudden disasters in the financial world.

JONATHAN ADLER: This decision will make it more difficult for future administrations to change policy without going to Congress. If there is a second Trump administration, they will find out what it's like to get what they wished for, because in a lot of contexts, it will be hard to dramatically change the way various federal statutes are implemented.

TOTENBERG: The consistent message of today's decision, he said, is that agencies cannot interpret old statutes to fix new problems. They have to go back to Congress when a new problem arises.

ADLER: Agencies don't get to pour new wine out of old bottles.

TOTENBERG: Does that mean that the agency regulations of the last 40 years can now be challenged? Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to say that the answer to that question is no. What's done is done. But Georgetown law professor Stephen Vladeck says it's not that easy because there are many regulations that nobody thought to challenge.

STEPHEN VLADECK: I think there's no way of looking at today's ruling as anything other than a jobs program for lawyers and for judges because what it really is is a massive transfer of the critical decision-making authority from these agencies who, even if they're not elected, are directly subservient to a president, to unelected federal judges.

TOTENBERG: David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council has been involved in these questions for 40 years, and worries that judges of all political stripes will substitute their policy judgments for agency judgments.

DAVID DONIGER: You may have a random judge in Amarillo deciding on the safety of heart medicines or clean air for our kids or rules to keep doors from blowing off of airplanes. Judges will now be able to effectively rewrite our laws.

TOTENBERG: Ironically, 40 years ago, Doniger actually argued the case the Supreme Court reversed today. He was on one side, and on the other side was the Reagan administration's Environmental Protection Agency, headed by Anne Gorsuch, mother of now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Back then, she wanted and got more power to change the rules. Today, Justice Gorsuch was a strong supporter of overturning the decision his mother's EPA won.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.