Chevron deference

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One of the most important principles in administrative law, the “Chevron deference” was coined after a landmark case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 468 U.S. 837 (1984). The Chevron deference is referring to the doctrine of judicial deference given to administrative actions. In Chevron, the Supreme Court set forth a legal test as to when the court should defer to the agency’s answer or interpretation, holding that such judicial deference is appropriate where the agency’s answer was not unreasonable, so long as Congress had not spoken directly to the precise issue at question. 

The scope of the Chevron deference doctrine is that when a legislative delegation to an administrative agency on a particular issue or question is not explicit but rather implicit, a court may not substitute its own interpretation of the statute for a reasonable interpretation made by the administrative agency. Rather, as Justice Stevens wrote in Chevron, when the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s action was based on a permissible construction of the statute. 

First, the Chevron deference requires that the administrative interpretation in question was issued by the agency charged with administering that statute. Accordingly, interpretations by agencies not in charge of the statute in question are not owed any judicial deference. Also, the implicit delegation of authority to an administrative agency to interpret a statute does not extend to the agency’s interpretation of its own jurisdiction under that statute.

Generally, to be accorded Chevron deference, the agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute must be permissible, which the court has defined to mean “rational” or “reasonable.” In determining the reasonableness for the particular construction of a statute by the agency, the age of that administrative interpretation as well as the congressional action or inaction in response to that interpretation at issue can be a useful guide; if Congress was aware of the interpretation when it acted or refrained from action, and when the agency’s interpretation is not inconsistent with the clear statutory language. 

In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of Chevron deference, holding that only the agency interpretations reached through formal proceedings with the force of law, such as adjudications, or notice-and-comment rulemaking, qualify for Chevron deference, while those contained in opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, or other formats that do not carry the force of law are not warranted a Chevron deference. In such cases, the Court may give a slightly less deferential treatment to the agency’s interpretation, giving a persuasive value under the Court’s “Skidmore deference” analysis. 

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]