Pleased today to welcome a contribution from Kent Barnett (near right), J. Alton Hosch Associate Professor of Law here at the University of Georgia School of Law. He reprises his recent Yale Journal on Regulation blog post; it summarizes the forthcoming article, Chevron Abroad, which he co-authored with Georgia Law 3L Lindsey Vinson (above right). An expert on administrative law and related areas—at times using comparative approaches—Professor Barnett’s previous Exchange of Notes contribution is here.
The Kids Will Be Alright—How comparative study can inform U.S. judicial review of agency statutory interpretation
Chevron deference—the U.S. doctrine that calls for courts to defer to reasonable agency statutory interpretations—is under siege. A majority of current U.S. Supreme Court Justices have, at one time or another, expressed concern over its domain, operation, or very existence. Two state courts in the U.S. have overruled their state-law equivalents. Some welcome Chevron’s demise as an antidote to an ever-encroaching administrative state that chafes at statutory limits to authority. Others view Chevron’s internment as nothing but a judicial power grab in the face of ideological hostility to an effective administrative state. For my part, my past research co-authored with Dr. Christy Boyd and Professor Chris Walker suggests that—whatever its downsides—Chevron deference has the benefit of muting ideological judicial behavior. This muting can further national uniformity in lower court decisions concerning agency statutory interpretation.
But is the angst surrounding Chevron worth it? Do we really need to worry that administrative agencies will eventually consume all our liberty if Chevron continues or that the American bureaucracy will become an ineffective wasteland if Chevron ends? Moreover, even those not taken to hyperbolic worry have argued, to varying degrees, that Chevron deference is inevitable—whatever its drawbacks.
To evaluate whether Chevron or something like it exists or is absent in other stable democracies, my co-author, Lindsey Vinson, and I considered judicial review of agency statutory interpretation in five other countries in Chevron Abroad, our forthcoming article in the Notre Dame Law Review. Although we would have liked to see how countries with a presidential system like that of the United States behave, that system is rare, especially among mature legal systems. Instead, we looked at 5 parliamentary systems. These included countries with separation of powers guaranteed in written constitutions, with civil-law legal systems, and with federal systems. Among the countries studied were Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
Based on our study, we cannot say that Chevron or something like it is inevitable. Only one of the countries that we studied had a doctrine similar, if not more expansive than, Chevron. One has rejected deference altogether, and one has rejected Chevron specifically in dicta. The others, at best, had some small space for deferring to agency interpretations. This variation among these major legal systems also suggests that the existence or absence of something like Chevron does not mean the end of either democracy or an effective bureaucracy. After all, citizens in both Canada—with a strong form of deference—and Germany—without one—have strong confidence in their governments. Of course, we cannot say that any of these systems are operating optimally, but we can say that Chevron existence or absence alone does not appear as significant as the U.S. administrative law cognoscenti often suggests.
In brief, here’s the variation that we found in our study:
Germany. Influenced by its conscious concern over the relationship between judicial abdication and its Nazi past, Germany has its own 2-step deference doctrine that has a much more limited domain than Chevron. Deference in Germany is significantly limited to certain technical, scientific, or economic matters that the legislature has delegated to the agency.
Italy. Italy has had tumultuous doctrinal shifts in the past few decades. As it stands, it has rejected judicial deference altogether when reviewing agency statutory interpretations. But it sends contradictory signals occasionally.
United Kingdom. For decades, the UK has rejected judicial deference to agency statutory interpretation, after having a doctrine similar to Chevron. Although it defers in some instances for “special” matters decided by entities that U.S. law would characterize as agencies, its limited deference arises under its law on charities.
Canada. Canadian judicial review comes the closest to Chevron, with a highly functional, contextual inquiry into whether deference is appropriate for statutory provisions that can support more than one reasonable interpretation. Canada has applied deference even to questions that implicated constitutional or common-law matters.
Australia. Finally, Australia’s High Court expressly rejected Chevron in dicta. Nonetheless, Australia continues to have a very limited, rarely applied doctrine somewhat similar to Chevron when statutes expressly give agencies exclusive jurisdiction and limit judicial review.
Our study also provides insight on how U.S. courts—whether or not they prefer Chevron—could go about improving Chevron in a way that is more consistent with its theoretical grounding.
For instance, Chevron, like other countries’ deference doctrines, is grounded primarily on notions of legislative delegation and expertise. Chevron relies primarily upon ambiguity in a statute that the agency administers to signal legislative delegation. But the presence of statutory ambiguity somewhere in a statute is not the most direct way of assessing either actual delegation or agency expertise on the matter at issue. Germany focus on expertise. German courts permit deference only in limited circumstances—for certain scientific, economic, or technical matters—as a way of ensuring that deference adheres only to matters in which the agency has likely epistemological advantage over courts. Australia has its limited Hickman deference doctrine that requires that the legislature signal its intent with two statutory clauses that it wants agencies (or inferior courts) to have interpretive primacy over the matter at issue. By doing so, Hickman requires a more direct, although not express, signal of legislative delegation than Chevron. These approaches in other countries suggest how Chevron could better ground itself on its theoretical foundations.
We hope that our article will lead more American scholars to consider how other countries approach administrative law matters. Doing so not only provides examples of possible improvements to the American administrative state, but it also helps lower the temperature of academics and judges who worry over the current or future state of Chevron deference.