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)

Author: John Roberts

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)

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

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)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

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)

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

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

Salinas v. Railroad Retirement Board (2021)

Author: Sonia Sotomayor

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

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

Author: John Roberts

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)

Author: John Roberts

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

Kisor v. Wilkie (2019)

Author: Elena Kagan

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)

Author: Sonia Sotomayor

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)

Author: Stephen Breyer

The Recess Appointments Clause empowers the President to fill any existing vacancy 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)

Author: Elena Kagan

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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)

Author: John Roberts

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

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. Also, even if a drug falls within the Controlled Substances Act, a doctor can prescribe it for a patient if it is allowed in the context of assisted suicide for terminally ill individuals under state law.

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

Author: Clarence Thomas

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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)

Author: Stephen Breyer

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)

Author: David Souter

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

Section 109(b) of the Clean Air Act does not permit the EPA Administrator to consider implementation costs in setting NAAQS (national ambient air quality standards). Also, 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)

Author: Clarence Thomas

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)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

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)

Author: Stephen Breyer

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)

Author: Clarence Thomas

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

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)

Author: Harry Blackmun

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)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

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

McCarthy v. Madigan (1992)

Author: Harry Blackmun

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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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)

Author: William Brennan

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)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

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)

Author: Harry Blackmun

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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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)

Author: Warren Burger

Under the constitutional principle of separation of powers, 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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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)

Author: John Paul Stevens

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)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

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)

Author: Byron White

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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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

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

Author: William Rehnquist

The concept of alternatives in environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act must be bounded by some notion of feasibility. Common sense also teaches that the statement of alternatives cannot be found wanting simply because the agency failed to include every alternative device and thought conceivable by the mind of man. In addition, 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)

Author: Lewis Powell

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)

Author: Per Curiam

Restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment. However, restrictions on independent expenditures in campaigns, limits on expenditures by candidates from their personal or family resources, and limits on total campaign expenditures violated the First Amendment. Also, 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)

Author: Lewis Powell

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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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)

Author: William Rehnquist

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)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

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)

Author: William Brennan

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)

Author: John Marshall Harlan II

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)

Author: Byron White

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)

Author: John Marshall Harlan II

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)

Author: Stanley Reed

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)

Author: Felix Frankfurter

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)

Author: Fred M. Vinson

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)

Author: Frank Murphy

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)

Author: Frank Murphy

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)

Author: Robert H. Jackson

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. Also, no principle of law precludes a determination that waiting time is working time under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

NLRB v. Hearst Publications, Inc. (1944)

Author: Wiley Blount Rutledge

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)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

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)

Author: Felix Frankfurter

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)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

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)

Author: George Sutherland

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)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Congress is not permitted by the Constitution to abdicate, or to transfer to others, the essential legislative functions with which it is vested. Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits, and the determination of facts to which the policy declared by Congress applies, but it must lay down the policies and establish standards. 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)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

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. An attempted delegation is plainly void when the power sought to be delegated is legislative power, yet nowhere in the statute has Congress declared or indicated any policy or standard to guide or limit the President when acting under such delegation.

Crowell v. Benson (1932)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

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)

Author: William Howard Taft

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)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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)

Author: William Henry Moody

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.

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