New Supreme Court Case Threatens Legal Protections for Animals

Ending the Chevron doctrine could be devastating for farm animals and wildlife.

Closeup of a cow

Reported Law & Policy Policy

At the beginning of January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that could dramatically impact the regulatory power of federal government agencies. The twin cases center on a seemingly innocuous administrative law doctrine known as “Chevron deference.” For the past 40 years, Chevron deference has required courts to defer to federal agencies in their reasonable interpretations of ambiguous federal statutes — it’s why the Environmental Protection Agency has some freedom to interpret the Clean Water Act, for instance. Overturning Chevron could undermine the ability of government agencies to regulate on behalf of workers, consumers and the environment, legal observers say. But the Supreme Court’s decision could also change the power of federal agencies to regulate the meat and dairy industries, and protect endangered species. The Court will likely issue its decision in the late spring or early summer. Here’s what’s at stake.

Two Cases Before the Court Could Change Chevron

The two cases before the Court — Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce were brought by Atlantic herring fishermen who oppose a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) policy requiring them to pay $700 per day for federal agency monitors to inspect operations on their vessels and enforce limits designed to prevent overfishing.

The fishermen argue that the courts should not follow Chevron — that the agency does not have the authority to require them to pay out-of-pocket for these monitors, and that the cost has negatively impacted their income in an already precarious industry. But a victory for the fishermen here could do much more than simply repeal a narrow fishing regulation.

As The New York Times recently reported, these cases are backed by two conservative legal organizations, the Cause of Action Institute and the New Civil Liberties Alliance — two groups that have received millions of dollars in funding from the Koch Network, founded by the petrochemical giants Charles and David Koch.

Overturning Chevron would be a win, not only for the relatively small number of struggling fishermen who oppose this particular regulation, but for the major corporations like Koch Industries that oppose any type of regulation at all, including the meat and dairy industries.

What Is Chevron Deference and Why Does it Matter?

Chevron deference gets its name from a 1984 Supreme Court case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council Inc., which held that courts should defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of ambiguous statutes.

The longstanding doctrine gives government agencies wide latitude to fill in the gaps Congress has left in statutes, and to issue regulations that respond to developing circumstances and needs, such as climate change.

Chevron deference also allows both lawmakers and the courts to defer to the knowledge and expertise of federal agencies, sparing judges and lawmakers from making complex, technical and often scientific policy decisions. Without it, lawmakers drafting legislation would have to anticipate and spell out every potential regulation with a daunting and arguably unrealistic level of specificity and foresight.

There have been 70 Supreme Court decisions and roughly 17,000 lower court decisions relying on Chevron. In a brief, the Department of Justice told the Court that overturning Chevron would be a “convulsive shock to the legal system” that could “threaten settled expectations in virtually every area of conduct regulated by federal law.

Critics of Chevron argue that it is an unworkable doctrine that violates the separation of powers and tips the scales in favor of unelected government bureaucracies.

How Could the Case Impact Animals?

Many different federal agencies play crucial roles in regulating animal industries and protecting vulnerable species, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act (ESA) along with the NMFS, which is part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Animal law is really a quilt of many different laws,” says Larissa Liebmann, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Losing Chevron could make it more likely that regulations that are good for animals — directly or tangentially — will be overturned.” Several recently or soon-to-be-finalized federal regulations that directly or indirectly benefit farmed animals and endangered species could now be vulnerable to stricter judicial review.

For example, the Council on Environmental Quality is in the process of finalizing National Environmental Policy Act regulations intended to reverse a Trump-era change that exempted new and expanding CAFOs from environmental review. The EPA also recently announced new emissions guidelines for slaughterhouses and rendering plants that, while insufficient in many respects, still signal a significant improvement in a sector where regulations have been historically lax. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of finalizing welfare standards under their organic certifications.

Endangered species could also be at a greater risk if Chevron is overturned. The Fish & Wildlife Service and NMFS are currently in the process of finalizing amendments that will help the ESA respond to climate change and other developing problems.

In a world without Chevron, judges may err on the side of caution and simply say that the agencies are not allowed under the statute to take these actions.

An End to Chevron Could Make Room for More Oversight

There is some reason to believe that the impact of overturning Chevron may be slight when it comes to farm and laboratory animals.

Even with Chevron in place, agencies like the USDA, the FDA and the EPA are already doing comparably little to reign in animal industries and issue strong animal welfare standards. The trend in this area has long been towards deregulation, and Chevron has not been a tool animal lawyers and advocates feel is particularly useful for them.

Overturning Chevron could even give judges a bit more latitude to look at and question agency decisions that negatively impact animals.

“Animal law relies so much on other areas of law, but it also pushes the boundaries of existing law,” says Liebmann. “There is a chance that less deference to agencies could allow us a little more freedom, with the caveat that our system tends to favor deregulation, which is usually the opposite of what we are fighting for.”

For example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is currently challenging the FDA’s approval of the animal drug Experior, which claims to reduce ammonia gas emissions from animals and their waste. While drugs like Experior are touted as sustainable solutions to factory farming’s high environmental toll, the Animal Legal Defense Fund argues that there is no evidence that Experior works in real-world conditions, and its approval could actually lead to a higher concentration of cows being confined in feedlots. The group is also arguing that beta-agonists like Experior are harmful to the health of animals, and residues of these drugs have been linked to heart and respiratory issues in consumers and farm workers. Liebmann says that decreased agency deference in this case could potentially give the judge freedom to look at the FDA’s approval decision and its possible consequences a bit more carefully.

Similarly, decreased agency deference could lead a judge to more closely review whether the Biden administration’s goal of increasing meat processing capacity could be properly factored into the Clean Water Act.

What Happens Next

Limiting the federal government’s power to regulate businesses has been a longstanding crusade for corporations, conservative legal commentators and even some members of the Supreme Court. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 2022 dissent that Chevron “deserves a tombstone,” and Justice Clarence Thomas has also voiced his hostility towards the doctrine.

Though the Court has the option of overturning Chevron completely, it is also possible that a majority of the justices could simply clarify and articulate the limits of Chevron deference without taking the drastic step of upending decades of precedent.

Still, there is cause for concern. Though the fate of Chevron remains unclear, overturning the doctrine would probably mean fewer and less robust government regulations and more corporate profits. Consumers, workers, animals and the environment could pay the price.

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