Three-Minute Legal Talks: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

Signed into law in 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires fisheries operating within 200 nautical miles off the U.S. coast to allow federal observers onboard its vessels to collect data for preventing overfishing. In a potentially landmark Supreme Court case known as Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, a group of fisheries from New England are challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, asserting they are not required to pay the salaries of the observers.

At issue in Loper is the Chevron doctrine, which gives federal agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, the power to interpret any statute’s ambiguity that falls under its purview. As one of the most cited cases since it was issued four decades ago, Chevron’s fate is in limbo as the Supreme Court hears Loper during the 2023-24 session.

In three minutes, Sanne Knudsen, the Stimson Bullitt Endowed Professor of Environmental Law at UW Law, covers Loper and its potential impact on the Chevron doctrine.

Read the Transcript

Sanne Knudsen: I'm Sanne Knudsen and I am the Stimson Bullitt Endowed Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Washington School of Law.

Three-Minute Legal Talks: Can you provide a brief overview of the pending Supreme Court case Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimando?

SK: So, the petitioners in this case are a group of fishing companies. And they're bringing a claim under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is the federal statute that governs fisheries management. The Act allows NMFS, the National Marine Fisheries Service to require commercial fishing boats to let federal agents, also called monitors or observers, come along on fishing expeditions for the purposes of collecting data and preventing overfishing.

The problem is that here NMFS has also construed the statute to allow it to require some of these domestic fishing vessels to pay or partially subsidize the salary of some of these federal observers. And the petitioners here are arguing that the statute doesn't allow NMFS to do what it did in that regard.

TMLT: What is the Chevron doctrine? And how does it factor into this case?

SK: The real heart of this case is whether the Supreme Court should overrule the Chevron doctrine, which is the legal framework that courts have followed since 1984. In particular, the Chevron doctrine says that where there is an issue of statutory interpretation, and Congress's intent is clear from the text structure and purpose of the act, naturally, courts should do what Congress says. But it also says that if Congress's intent is unclear, if the statute is ambiguous, courts should defer to agency interpretations, so long as that interpretation is reasonable.

TMLT: Why is the court considering overruling this now?

SK: Over the years, there have been a number of critics and supporters of the Chevron doctrine, and in recent years, a number of those critics are also Supreme Court justices. For example, Justice Gorsuch has questioned the constitutionality of Chevron ever since he was a judge on the 10th circuit. He argues that it is fundamentally the province of courts to say what the law is, and that Chevron makes it too easy for courts to simply find ambiguity in text and then defer to government agencies. He and others argue that it systematically tilts the power in a case in favor of the government and allows judges to abdicate their responsibility to engage in vigorous statutory review.

TMLT: Why are the petitioners arguing that Chevron needs to be overruled or limited?

SK: Petitioners are arguing that the Magnuson-Stevens Act doesn't specifically give NMFS the power to pass on costs of these federal observers. And they actually say that this is a good case for illustrating exactly the problem with Chevron, namely, that Chevron, they say, gives agencies too long of a leash when there is no affirmative power to act. They say that it allows lower courts to see ambiguity everywhere, and therefore abdicate their core judicial responsibility.

TMLT: What is the government arguing in response?

SK: First, they say that Chevron gives appropriate weight to agency expertise. Second, they say that Chevron promotes national uniformity in the administration of federal laws. Third, they say that Chevron keeps the courts out of policymaking. And then finally, they argue that Chevron has been a stable background rule for a good long time against which Congress can legislate.