Agencies Courting Favor – or, Courts Favoring Agencies

The Chevron doctrine, named for a 1984 Supreme Court case, directs federal judges to defer to federal agencies’ “reasonable” interpretations of ambiguous statutes. Unless the statute clearly decides the issue in a case (as statutes rarely do), the courts will largely let the agency’s interpretation stand.

Wherever one stands on these issues, everyone can learn from a new study, “Chevron in the Circuit Courts,” by law professors Kent Barnett of the University of Georgia and Chris Walker of Ohio State. Barnett and Walker conduct an exhaustive review of how the federal appellate courts have applied Chevron. While other legal scholars have attempted quantitative studies on a smaller scale, Barnett and Walker went to unprecedented lengths to build a comprehensive data set.

Their findings (which Marcia Coyle summarized in the National Law Journal) are fascinating. Rejecting the argument that Chevron deference doesn’t make a big difference in agency cases, Barnett and Walker find that agencies are 25 percent more likely to win cases when the courts apply Chevron instead of de novo interpretation. The study also found significant disparities among the federal judiciary’s regional appellate courts. Federal agencies litigating in the First Circuit (New England) won 83.1 percent of their cases, while those litigating in the Ninth Circuit (the Western states) won just 65.5 percent of theirs. In the D.C. Circuit, the nation’s most powerful regulatory court, agencies won 72.6 percent of their cases.


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