Government Agencies Supreme Court Cases

Although government agencies are generally 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 most formal interpretations of statutes: a court should defer to the agency if the agency’s construction of the statute is permissible
  • Skidmore deference for most 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. Often, a party must exhaust their administrative remedies before pursuing judicial review.

Sometimes separation of powers issues also arise in this area of law. For example, the Supreme Court has reviewed several cases involving the process of appointing and removing agency officials.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving government agencies, arranged from newest to oldest

Biden v. Nebraska (2023)

The authority to modify statutes and regulations allows the Secretary of an agency to make modest adjustments and additions to existing provisions, but not to transform them.

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.

Collins v. Yellen (2021)

The Constitution prohibits even modest restrictions on the President’s power to remove the head of an agency with a single top officer.

FCC v. Prometheus Radio Project (2021)

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

Salinas v. Railroad Retirement Board (2021)

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

Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2020)

The precedents of Humphrey’s Executor and Morrison should not be extended to an independent agency that wields significant executive power and is run by a single individual who cannot be removed by the President unless certain statutory criteria are met. Such an agency lacks a foundation in historical practice and clashes with constitutional structure by concentrating power in a unilateral actor insulated from presidential control.

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.

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.

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.

NLRB v. Canning (2014)

The Recess Appointments Clause empowers the President to fill any existing vacancy in an agency during any Senate recess of sufficient length. The Senate is in session when it says that it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business.

Scialabba v. de Osorio (2014)

When two halves of a statute do not correspond to each other, this gives rise to an ambiguity that calls for Chevron deference.

City of Arlington v. FCC (2013)

Courts must apply the Chevron framework to an agency’s interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of the agency’s statutory authority.

Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (2010)

The President may not be restricted in their ability to remove a principal officer, who is in turn restricted in their ability to remove an inferior officer, when that inferior officer determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States. Multilevel protection from removal is contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President.

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.

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.

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.

Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (2004)

A “failure to act” under Section 551(13) of the APA is properly understood as a failure to take one of the agency actions (including their equivalents) earlier defined in that section.

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.

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.

Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (2001)

When conferring decision-making authority upon agencies, Congress must lay down an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to act is directed to conform.

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.

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.

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

An agency decision was not ripe for judicial review 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.

National Credit Union Admin. v. First Nat. Bank & Trust Co. (1998)

In applying the zone of interests test for standing to sue under the APA, a court does not ask whether Congress specifically intended the statute at issue to benefit the plaintiff. Instead, it discerns the interests arguably to be protected by the statutory provision and inquires whether the plaintiff’s interests affected by the agency action in question are among them.

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.

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.

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.

Franklin v. Massachusetts (1992)

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

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.

Air Courier Conference v. American Postal Workers Union (1991)

Once they have shown that they are adversely affected, a plaintiff seeking to establish standing to sue under Section 702 of the APA must show that they are within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis of their complaint.

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.

Public Citizen v. Dept. of Justice (1989)

It is unlikely that Congress intended the Federal Advisory Committee Act to cover every formal and informal consultation between the President or an executive agency and a group rendering advice.

Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Ass’n (1989)

Drug and alcohol tests mandated or authorized by Federal Railroad Administration regulations were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, even though there was no requirement of a warrant or a reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired, since the compelling government interests served by the regulations outweighed employees’ privacy concerns.

Mistretta v. U.S. (1989)

Congress did not violate the separation of powers principle by placing the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the judicial branch, requiring federal judges to serve on the Commission and to share their authority with non-judges, or empowering the President to appoint Commission members and to remove them for cause.

Morrison v. Olson (1988)

Congress may place the power to appoint inferior executive officers outside the executive branch. Also, Congress may impose a good cause-type restriction on the President’s power to remove an official if this does not interfere with the President’s exercise of the executive power and their constitutionally appointed duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

Bowsher v. Synar (1986)

Congress cannot reserve for itself the power of removal of an officer charged with the execution of the laws except by impeachment.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Chrysler Corp. v. Brown (1979)

Congress did not design the Freedom of Information Act exemptions to be mandatory bars to disclosure.

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.

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.)

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)

Any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an “Officer of the United States” and must be appointed in the manner prescribed by the Appointments Clause.

NLRB v. Bell Aerospace Co. (1974)

The NLRB is not precluded from announcing new principles in an adjudicative proceeding, and the choice between rulemaking and adjudication lies in the first instance within the NLRB’s discretion.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Marchetti v. U.S. (1968)

The required records doctrine under Shapiro does not apply when a party was not obliged to keep and preserve records of the same kind as they have customarily kept, there are no public aspects to the information, and the requirements are directed to a selective group inherently suspect of criminal activities.

Camara v. Municipal Court (1967)

The Fourth Amendment bars prosecution of a person who has refused to permit a warrantless code enforcement inspection of their personal residence. Warrantless administrative searches cannot be justified on the grounds that they make minimal demands on occupants, that warrants in these cases are not feasible, or that area inspection programs could not function under reasonable search warrant requirements.

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.

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.

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.

Shapiro v. U.S. (1948)

The privilege against compelled self-incrimination that exists as to private papers cannot be maintained in relation to records required by law to be kept in order that there may be suitable information of transactions that are the appropriate subjects of governmental regulation, and the enforcement of restrictions validly established.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

Yakus v. U.S. (1944)

The essentials of the legislative function are preserved when Congress has specified the basic conditions of fact upon whose existence or occurrence, ascertained from relevant data by a designated administrative agency, it directs that its statutory command shall be effective. It is no objection that the determination of facts and the inferences to be drawn from them in the light of the statutory standards and declaration of policy call for the exercise of judgment, and for the formulation of subsidiary administrative policy within the prescribed statutory framework.

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.

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.

Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S. (1935)

The authority of Congress in creating quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial agencies to require their officers to act independently of executive control includes the power to fix the period during which they shall continue in office, and to forbid their removal except for cause in the meantime. (However, purely executive officers are inherently subject to the exclusive and illimitable power of removal by the President.)

A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. (1935)

A law was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power when it did not undertake to prescribe rules of conduct to be applied to particular states of fact determined by appropriate administrative procedure but instead authorized the making of codes to prescribe them and set up no standards for that legislative undertaking.

Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan (1935)

Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits and the determination of facts to which the policy as declared by the legislature is to apply. However, this should not obscure the limitations of the authority to delegate if the constitutional system is to be maintained.

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 and is not an unconstitutional invasion of the judicial power.

Myers v. U.S. (1926)

The President has the exclusive power of removing executive officers of the United States whom he has appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Bi-Metallic Investment Co. v. State Board of Equalization of Colorado (1915)

When a rule of conduct applies to more than a few people, it is impracticable that everyone should have a direct voice in its adoption. Thus, an order of the state board of equalization increasing the valuation of taxable property in a city did not violate due process just because no opportunity was given to the taxpayers of the city to be heard before the order was made.

Londoner v. Denver (1908)

When the legislature commits the determination of the tax to a subordinate body, due process requires that a taxpayer be afforded a hearing, of which they must have notice. When the taxpayer has no right to object to an assessment in court, they must have the opportunity to support their objections by argument and proof at some time and place.

Related Legal Guides: