Government Agencies Supreme Court Cases

Although government agencies are part of the executive branch, they also perform legislative and judicial functions. Agencies often must interpret the laws that they have been tasked with administering, or the regulations that they have implemented pursuant to these laws. The Supreme Court has outlined three forms of deference that courts owe to agencies. Each form of deference takes its name from the decision in which it was defined:

  • Chevron deference for formal interpretations of statutes: a court should defer to the agency if the agency’s construction of the statute is permissible
  • Skidmore deference for informal interpretations of statutes: a court should defer to the agency to the extent that the agency’s interpretation is persuasive
  • Seminole Rock/Auer deference for interpretations of agency regulations: a court should defer to the agency unless the agency’s interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation

Agencies must comply with the Administrative Procedure Act when conducting formal or informal rulemaking or holding formal adjudications. Due process applies to informal adjudications. A party generally may seek judicial review when they have been harmed by an agency action, including a rulemaking, an adjudication, or a failure to take action. The standard of review depends on whether a rulemaking or adjudication was formal or informal. Sometimes a party must exhaust their administrative remedies before pursuing judicial review.

Crowell v. Benson (1932)

The use of the administrative method for determining facts (assuming due notice and opportunity to be heard and that findings are based on evidence) is consistent with due process. In other words, it is constitutional for findings of fact to be made through agency adjudication rather than courts.

Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB (1938)

Substantial evidence (the standard of review for formal rulemaking or adjudication) means relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.

SEC v. Chenery Corp. (Chenery I) (1943)

An administrative order cannot be upheld unless the grounds on which the agency acted in exercising its powers were those on which its action can be sustained.

NLRB v. Hearst Publications, Inc. (1944)

When a question involves the specific application of a broad statutory term in a proceeding in which the agency administering the statute must determine it initially, the agency determination must be accepted if it has warrant in the record and a reasonable basis in law.

Skidmore v. Swift & Co. (1944)

Rulings, interpretations, and opinions of agency administrators are not controlling on courts but provide a body of experience and informed judgment that courts can use for guidance. The weight of such a judgment depends on the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors that give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control.

Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co. (1945)

In interpreting an administrative regulation, a court must look to the administrative construction of the regulation if the meaning of the words used is in doubt. The administrative interpretation holds controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation. (The Court reaffirmed this rule in Auer v. Robbins.)

SEC v. Chenery Corp. (Chenery II) (1947)

The choice between proceeding by general rule or by ad hoc decisions lies primarily in the informed discretion of the administrative agency. The fact that an ad hoc decision might have a retroactive effect does not necessarily render it invalid.

Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB (1951)

A reviewing court is not barred from setting aside an agency decision when it cannot conscientiously find that the evidence supporting that decision is substantial, when viewed in the light that the record in its entirety furnishes, including the body of evidence opposed to the agency view.

U.S. v. Storer Broadcasting Co. (1956)

A hearing requirement should not be read as withdrawing from the power of an agency the rulemaking authority necessary for the orderly conduct of its business.

Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner (1967)

Courts should restrict access to judicial review of an agency regulation only upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence of a contrary legislative intent. Also, ripeness requires a court to evaluate both the fitness of the issues for judicial decision and the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration. When the legal issue presented is fit for judicial resolution, and when a regulation requires an immediate and significant change in the plaintiff’s conduct of their affairs with serious penalties attached to non-compliance, access to the courts generally must be permitted.

Goldberg v. Kelly (1970)

A pre-termination evidentiary hearing is necessary to provide a recipient of welfare benefits with procedural due process. The interest of an eligible recipient in the uninterrupted receipt of public assistance, coupled with the state’s interest in not erroneously terminating their payments, clearly outweighs the state’s competing concern to prevent any increase in its fiscal and administrative burdens.

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe (1971)

Arbitrary and capricious review (used for informal rulemaking or adjudication) requires the reviewing court to engage in a substantial inquiry, or a thorough, probing, in-depth review. A court must decide whether the agency acted within the scope of its authority, whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors, whether there has been a clear error of judgment, and whether the action followed the necessary procedural requirements.

U.S. v. Allegheny-Ludlum Steel Corp. (1972)

Sections 556 and 557 of the APA need be applied only when the agency statute, in addition to providing a hearing, prescribes explicitly that it be on the record.

U.S. v. Florida East Coast Railway Co. (1973)

Language in the Interstate Commerce Act providing that an agency may establish reasonable rules “after hearing” did not trigger Sections 556 and 557 of the APA, requiring a trial-type hearing and the presentation of oral arguments by affected parties.

Mathews v. Eldridge (1976)

Identifying the specific dictates of due process generally requires considering three factors: the private interest that will be affected by the official action; the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used, and the probable value of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and the government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. (An evidentiary hearing is not required prior to the termination of Social Security disability payments.)

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. NRDC (1978)

Section 553 of the APA establishes the maximum procedural requirements that courts can impose on federal agencies in conducting rulemaking proceedings. While agencies are free to grant additional procedural rights at their discretion, reviewing courts are generally not free to impose them.

Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. (1983)

An agency rule would be arbitrary and capricious if the agency has relied on factors that Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.

Block v. Community Nutrition Institute (1984)

The presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action may be overcome by inferences of intent drawn from the statutory scheme as a whole. When a statute provides a detailed mechanism for judicial consideration of particular issues at the behest of particular persons, judicial review of those issues at the behest of other persons may be found to be impliedly precluded.

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. NRDC (1984)

If a statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to a specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. If Congress has explicitly left a gap for the agency to fill, the regulation is given controlling weight unless it is arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute. If the legislative delegation to an agency is implicit, a court may not substitute its own construction of a statutory provision for a reasonable interpretation by the administrator of an agency.

Heckler v. Chaney (1985)

An agency’s decision not to take enforcement action is presumed immune from judicial review under Section 701(a)(2) of the APA.

Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation (1990)

A party must direct its attack against a particular agency action that causes it harm, rather than seeking wholesale improvement of an agency program by court decree.

McCarthy v. Madigan (1992)

In determining whether exhaustion of administrative remedies is required, a court must balance the interest of the individual in retaining prompt access to a federal judicial forum against countervailing institutional interests favoring exhaustion. The interests of the individual weigh heavily against requiring administrative exhaustion when requiring resort to the administrative remedy would occasion undue prejudice to the subsequent assertion of a court action, there is doubt as to whether the agency is empowered to grant effective relief, or the administrative body is shown to be biased or has otherwise predetermined the issue.

Franklin v. Massachusetts (1992)

The President is not an agency and is not subject to the APA.

Darby v. Cisneros (1993)

Federal courts do not have the authority to require a plaintiff to exhaust available administrative remedies before seeking judicial review under the APA when neither the relevant statute nor agency rules specifically mandate exhaustion as a prerequisite to judicial review.

Stone v. INS (1995)

The timely filing of a motion to reconsider an administrative order renders the underlying order non-final for the purposes of judicial review.

Bennett v. Spear (1997)

Two conditions must be satisfied for agency action to be final. The action must mark the consummation of the agency’s decision-making process, and it must be an action by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.

Ohio Forestry Ass’n, Inc. v. Sierra Club (1998)

Lack of ripeness forecloses court review of an agency action when withholding review would not cause significant hardship to the plaintiff, immediate review could hinder agency efforts to refine its policies, and courts would benefit from further factual development of the issues.

FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (2000)

In determining whether Congress has specifically addressed the question at issue in a Chevron analysis, a court should not confine itself to examining a particular statutory provision in isolation. Instead, it must place the provision in context, interpreting the statute to create a symmetrical and coherent regulatory scheme.

Christensen v. Harris County (2000)

Agency interpretations in opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines are entitled to respect from courts, but only to the extent that they are persuasive.

U.S. v. Mead Corp. (2001)

Administrative implementation of a statutory provision qualifies for Chevron deference when it appears that Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of such authority.

Barnhart v. Walton (2002)

An agency’s long-standing interpretation is not automatically deprived of the judicial deference that it is otherwise due because it was previously reached through means less formal than notice-and-comment rulemaking.

National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services (2005)

A court’s prior construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.

Gonzales v. Oregon (2006)

Chevron deference is not accorded merely because a statute is ambiguous, and an administrative official is involved. A rule must be promulgated pursuant to authority that Congress has delegated to the official.

FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (2009)

An agency need not demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that the reasons for a new policy are better than the reasons for the old policy. It suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, there are good reasons for it, and the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change adequately indicates.

Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass'n (2015)

Since an agency is not required to use notice-and-comment procedures to issue an initial interpretive rule, it is also not required to use those procedures to amend or repeal that rule.

Kisor v. Wilkie (2019)

A court should not afford Seminole Rock/Auer deference unless the regulation is genuinely ambiguous after exhausting all the traditional tools of construction. If genuine ambiguity remains, the agency’s reading must still fall within the bounds of reasonable interpretation. A court also must make an independent inquiry into whether the character and context of the agency interpretation entitle it to controlling weight.

Dept. of Commerce v. New York (2019)

Agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decisionmaking under the APA calls for an explanation for agency action.

Salinas v. Railroad Retirement Board (2021)

An agency refusal to reopen a prior benefits determination was subject to judicial review.

FCC v. Prometheus Radio Project (2021)

The APA imposes no general obligation on agencies to conduct or commission their own empirical or statistical studies.

American Hospital Ass'n v. Becerra (2022)

There is a strong presumption in favor of judicial review of final agency action. This is traditionally available unless a statute’s language or structure precludes judicial review.

Related Legal Guides: