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What does Supreme Court Chevron doctrine ruling mean?

Policy Report: The farm bill could be the first test of how the recent Supreme Court ruling plays out in reality.

Bradley D. Lubben

July 5, 2024

4 Min Read
Supreme Court building in Washington
IMPORTANT RULING: The Chevron doctrine ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could have immediate implications during the farm bill debate. Douglas Rissing/getty images

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that overturns the long-established Chevron doctrine and sets the stage for more contentious policy development and review. And the new farm bill could be a first test of how the ruling plays out in reality as legislation move forward.

The Chevron doctrine was named for a Supreme Court case dating to 1984, establishing the principle that federal courts would defer to federal agencies for reasonable interpretation of ambiguous statutory provisions.

While Congress is responsible for developing and passing legislation that establishes statutes, the executive branch agencies are responsible for interpreting those statutes and implementing regulations and program provisions.

The federal courts are often called upon to pass judgment on both the legislative language and the agency interpretation and rules, but the Chevron doctrine gave deference to the agencies in their interpretation of the sometimes-ambiguous statutes.

Impact on ag

Not surprisingly, the Chevron doctrine has been unpopular with some interest groups and people who perceive that federal agencies are going too far in interpreting statutes and claiming authority as they develop regulations across a wide range of issues.

Ironically, the original Chevron case from 1984 held that agency deference was appropriate in a case ultimately addressing whether the federal government was not going far enough with environmental regulations.

Related:Farm bill just making it across starting line

Of course, the political sentiment for or against the court ruling tends to mimic the sentiment for or against the underlying federal agency action, and the question of who is in control of the executive branch, and who is in control of the Congress that writes the legislation in the first place.

With the recent ruling to overturn the Chevron doctrine, there are numerous legal and policy questions ahead. There is an old adage I’ve heard and followed — lawyers should not pretend to be economists, and economists should not pretend to be lawyers. I am definitely of the economics persuasion and can’t speak to the legal insight on the road ahead, but I do follow policy development closely and see some interesting issues to address.

Curt Arens - William Jefferson Clinton building

The ruling and the media coverage since suggest that federal agencies will no longer have the benefit of the doubt in interpreting statutes, but it doesn’t explicitly establish who will. Federal agencies will still need to interpret legislation from Congress for reasonable intent as they develop proposed regulations.

Courts are expected to take on a larger role as they are called on to judge both agency actions and the interpretation of statutes on which those actions are based. Ultimately, Congress may need to be clearer in the legislation it passes, and the intent it communicates to the executive branch, to reduce the ambiguity in the first place.

More clearly defined

That last point may be one of the more challenging and perhaps overlooked outcomes from this ruling. When Congress considers legislation, it generally has broad goals and objectives in mind that may have been clearly defined through debate or development.

Those elements of a bill typically contain detailed legal definitions and delineations of what and how programs and rules should be written. Sometimes, there is still ambiguity in how to interpret the legislative language.

Sometimes, the legislative language can be ambiguous on purpose. When legislation such as some emergency programs or appropriations are quickly advanced through Congress, the language might simply charge the federal agency with the authority to implement a program as appropriate, recognizing that the agency is capable of putting the details in place consistent with what Congress intended. Sometimes, ambiguity helps achieve political consensus in passing legislation that can otherwise get bogged down on details.

While the deference to federal agency interpretation of statutes may be gone as a result of the recent ruling, the challenges for policy development and interpretation may be growing across all branches of government.

In particular, the need for Congress to be more precise and complete in legislative language and intent may only add to the complexity and the time necessary to get major bills across the finish line. The pending farm bill could be an initial test of that new framework, and yet another reason why it may take more time to get done.

Lubben is the Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Farm Bill

About the Author(s)

Bradley D. Lubben

Lubben is a Nebraska Extension associate professor, policy specialist, and director of the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center in the Department of Ag Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has more than 25 years of experience in teaching, research and Extension, focusing on ag policy and economics. Lubben grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Burr, Neb., and holds degrees from UNL and Kansas State University.

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