WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to take up a case that could make it easier to curtail the power of administrative agencies, a long-running goal of the conservative legal movement that could have far-reaching implications for how American society imposes rules on businesses.
In a terse order, the court said it would hear a case that seeks to limit or overturn a unanimous 1984 precedent, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. According to the decision, if part of the law Congress wrote empowering a regulatory agency is ambiguous but the agency’s interpretation is reasonable, judges should defer to it.
At issue in the case, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, is a rule that requires fishing vessels to pay for monitors who ensure that they comply with regulations meant to prevent overfishing. The National Marine Fisheries Service established the rule, and a group of companies has challenged whether the agency had the authority to do so.
When the Supreme Court decides on the case, most likely in its next term, the outcome could have implications that go beyond fisheries.
If the court overturns or sharply limits the Chevron precedent, it would become easier for business owners to challenge regulations across the economy. Those include rules aimed at ensuring that the air and water are clean; that food, drugs, cars and consumer products are safe; and that financial firms do not take on too much risk.
In the fishing dispute, a divided three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had upheld the rule. Citing the Chevron precedent, Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote, “When Congress has not ‘directly spoken to the precise question at issue,’ the agency may fill this gap with a reasonable interpretation of the statutory text.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, apparently because she had participated in the arguments while still on the appeals court.
Libertarian-minded conservatives have long sought to overturn the Chevron precedent as part of a broader campaign to curtail the administrative state. Regulatory agencies have been a target since the New Deal, when Congress created many specialized regulatory agencies and charged them with studying complex problems and issuing technical rules to address them.
In an opinion in November related to a separate case, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the judiciary had overread Chevron’s deference and abdicated its responsibility to independently determine the best interpretation of laws.
“Rather than provide individuals with the best understanding of their rights and duties under law a neutral magistrate can muster, we outsource our interpretive responsibilities,” he wrote. “Rather than say what the law is, we tell those who come before us to go ask a bureaucrat.”
Advisers to President Donald J. Trump prioritized skepticism toward the administrative state in picking judges and justices, and the court’s Republican-appointed majority has in recent years chipped away at the ability of the administrative state to impose regulations on business interests.
In a 2020 ruling, the five Republican appointees on the court at the time struck down a provision of the law Congress enacted to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that had protected its chief from being fired by a president without good cause, like misconduct.
Two years later, the six-justice conservative majority struck down a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon emissions from power plants. The ruling strengthened a doctrine that courts should overturn regulations that raise “major questions” if Congress was not explicit enough in authorizing such actions.