The Loss of Chevron Could Also Be a Major Loss for Animals

A new Supreme Court ruling effectively guts the regulatory power of federal agencies.

Mallard duckling with plastic ring around neck
Credit: Savan-Chandni Gandecha / Flickr

Analysis Law & Policy Policy

On Friday, the Supreme Court handed down their long-awaited opinion in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, overruling decades of settled precedent and effectively gutting the power of federal agencies to regulate on behalf of consumers, workers, animals and the environment. Loper Bright threatens a wide range of federal regulations, including policies that govern food safety and water pollution. The decision could undercut the authority of the federal agencies that regulate the meat and dairy industries and protect endangered species, meaning the loss of Chevron could also be a major loss for animals.

The Loper Bright case centered on a 40-year-old administrative law doctrine known as Chevron deference, which requires courts to defer to executive agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutes. Under Chevron, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration had considerable leeway to interpret federal laws and issue regulations based on their specific knowledge and expertise. The Supreme Court’s momentous decision on Friday dramatically shifts power away from these federal agencies and towards the increasingly conservative federal courts.

What is Chevron Deference?

Chevron deference has been law since 1984, when the Supreme Court decided the landmark case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council. In the decades after the case was decided, Chevron became shorthand for the idea that courts should defer to federal agencies when they are interpreting and applying ambiguous parts of federal statutes. As long as an agency’s interpretation of a statute was reasonable, a court could not substitute its own interpretation of a law for that of an agency.

As a result, Chevron deference gave executive agencies wide latitude to fill in the gaps Congress left in sprawling, complex pieces of federal legislation. Federal agencies were able to issue regulations based on their specific expertise and respond to developing situations and needs, including climate change and the Covid pandemic.

Loper Bright and its companion case, Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, take that power away from expert agencies and give judges the massive authority to make complicated, often highly technical or scientific policy decisions about everything from dangerous pollutants to life-saving medications, as well as the meat and dairy industries.

The twin cases were brought by Atlantic herring fisherman who challenged a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) policy that required them to pay out-of-pocket for federal monitors onboard their ships to enforce limits designed to prevent overfishing. But the fishermen’s victory at the Supreme Court was also a win for major corporations, conservative politicians and even several members of the current Supreme Court who have long been hostile to Chevron deference and the power it granted federal agencies.

In January, The New York Times reported that the two cases were bankrolled by the conservative Koch Network, founded by the petrochemical giants Charles and David Koch. Overruling Chevron culminates a decades-long conservative project to roll back federal regulations and eviscerate what some call “the administrative state.”

A Closer Look At the Opinion

In the 35-page opinion issued on June 28, just days before the belated end of the Supreme Court’s latest controversial term, Chief Justice John Roberts outlined the Court’s reasoning for overturning Chevron. The Court described the Chevron decision as a misguided and inconsistently applied “fiction” riddled with a “byzantine set of preconditions and exceptions” that have led some lower courts to ignore the doctrine altogether.

Relying on a novel interpretation of the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as timeworn constitutional arguments about the separation of powers, the Court asserted that it is the job of the neutral judicial system, not the executive branch, to decide complicated legal and statutory questions. While it appears that courts may still consult agency expertise for guidance, under Loper Bright, they are no longer required to give agencies deference as required by Chevron. The Court also seemed to suggest that Congress can, under certain circumstances, confer discretionary authority to an agency, but such authority will no longer be presumed.

In a forceful dissent joined by the court’s three liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan criticizes the majority for ignoring precedent, dismissing the value of agency expertise and dismantling what has become a cornerstone of modern law and governance.

“In one fell swoop, the majority today gives itself exclusive power over every open issue — no matter how expertise-driven or policy-laden — involving the meaning of regulatory law,” wrote Justice Kagan. “As if it did not have enough on its plate, the majority turns itself into the country’s administrative czar.”

What Overruling Chevron Means for Animals and the Environment

Since the Court handed down its ruling on Friday, many groups have voiced their opposition to the decision, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Environmental groups worry that the decision could have profound consequences for the agencies tasked with keeping our land, water and air healthy and clean. Without Chevron, it may be easier for polluting industries or other actors to challenge the actions of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of the Interior, in turn imperling regulations meant to curb pollution, protect the environment and slow the progress of climate change.

Earlier this year, Sentient reported on how overruling Chevron could impact farmed animals and wildlife. Many federal agencies — including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — play crucial roles in regulating animal industries and protecting wildlife. Animal advocates worry that losing Chevron will make it easier for courts to overturn regulations that directly or indirectly benefit animals.

For example, the end of Chevron may threaten pending emissions limitations for slaughterhouses and rendering plants and potentially undo new animal welfare standards rolled out by the USDA.

Overruling Chevron may also undermine the power of the Endangered Species Act, which is administered by two federal agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Courts have often deferred to these agencies’ interpretations of the Endangered Species Act in litigation involving endangered wildlife, but the ruling in Loper Bright could make endangered animals even more vulnerable by making courts less deferential to the agencies tasked with protecting them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued finalized rules designed to revise habitat and species classifications and help the ESA to respond more readily to the effects of climate change on wildlife. Without Chevron deference, any challenge to these new rules is more likely to prevail.

However, some animal lawyers and advocates think overturning Chevron will ultimately have little impact on farmed animals, and may even benefit them. Without Chevron, judges might have room to look more critically at actions by agencies like the USDA or the EPA that have negative impacts on animals and rule in favor of advocates seeking more protections.

An Uncertain Future

Future litigation will likely be necessary before we understand the true contours of the new legal landscape the Supreme Court created last week. But it is clear that Loper Bright and Relentless signal a definitive turn towards deregulation, one that will make it even harder for agencies to regulate on the behalf of people, animals and the environment.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »