Court Opinions: US Supreme Court Overrules Chevron

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in these cases limited to whether its 1984 landmark ruling in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council should be overruled or clarified. Under the Chevron doctrine, courts have sometimes been required to defer to permissible agency interpretations of the statutes those agencies administer — even when a reviewing court reads the statute differently. 

In these cases, the reviewing courts applied Chevron’s framework to resolve in favor of the government challenges by petitioners to a rule promulgated by the National Marine Fisheries Service pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which incorporates the Administrative Procedure Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the APA requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law because a statute is ambiguous. Chevron was overruled. 

In the June 28 opinion, the Supreme Court quoted Marbury v. Madison, stating it’s “emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

The high court opined that courts exercising independent judgment in determining the meaning of statutory provisions, consistent with the APA, may seek aid from the interpretations of those responsible for implementing particular statutes.

Chevron, the Supreme Court reasoned, triggered a marked departure from the traditional judicial approach of independently examining each statute to determine its meaning. 

The court determined that neither Chevron nor any subsequent decision of the Supreme Court attempted to reconcile its framework with the APA. The majority of the justices found Chevron defies the command of the APA that the reviewing court and not the agency whose action it reviews is to “decide all relevant questions of law” and interpret statutory provisions.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court vacated the judgments and remanded the cases.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. delivered the opinion of the court, in which Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Thomas and Gorsuch filed concurring opinions. Justice Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined, and in which Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined as it applies to case No. 22–1219. Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision in case No. 22–451.

In the dissenting opinion, Kagan wrote, “For 40 years, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 (1984), has served as a cornerstone of administrative law, allocating responsibility for statutory construction between courts and agencies.” 

The dissenting justices asserted Chevron is correct. Kagan explained Chevron allows the agencies who are charged with administering statutes to interpret those statutes if Congress is ambiguous. The dissent noted Congress would usually prefer acting agencies to resolve ambiguities and not a court. 

Fischer v. United States

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 imposes criminal liability on anyone who corruptly “alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.”

The next subsection extends that prohibition to anyone who “otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” 

Joseph Fischer was charged with violating Section 1512(c)(2) for his conduct on Jan. 6, 2021. On that day, Congress convened in a joint session to certify the votes in the 2020 presidential election. While they did so, a crowd of supporters of then-President Donald Trump gathered outside the Capitol, and some eventually forced their way into the building, breaking windows and assaulting police. 

This breach of the Capitol delayed the certification of the vote. The criminal complaint alleges that Fischer was among those who invaded the building. Fischer was charged with various crimes, including obstructing an official proceeding in violation of Section 1512(c)(2).

He moved to dismiss that charge, arguing that the provision criminalizes only attempts to impair the availability or integrity of evidence.

The District Court granted his motion in relevant part. A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that to prove a violation of Section 1512(c)(2), the government must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects or other things used in an official proceeding, or attempted to do so.

It vacated the judgment and remanded the case.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. delivered the opinion of the court, in which Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined. Jackson filed a concurring opinion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

In the dissenting opinion, Barrett wrote, “The Court does not dispute that Congress’s joint session qualifies as an ‘official proceeding;’ that rioters delayed the proceeding; or even that Fischer’s alleged conduct (which includes trespassing and a physical confrontation with law enforcement) was part of a successful effort to forcibly halt the certification of the election results.” 

Barrett admitted Section 1512(c)(2) is broad and events like this weren’t the provision’s target, but she noted, “Who could blame Congress for that failure of imagination?” 

“The Court, abandoning that approach, does textual backflips to find some way — any way — to narrow the reach of subsection (c)(2),” Barrett wrote. “I respectfully dissent.”

City of Grants Pass v. Johnson

Grants Pass, Oregon, is home to roughly 38,000 people, about 600 of whom are estimated to experience homelessness on a given day. Like many local governments across the Nation, Grants Pass has public camping laws that restrict encampments on public property. 

The Grants Pass Municipal Code prohibits activities such as camping on public property or parking overnight in the city’s parks. Initial violations can trigger a fine, while multiple violations can result in imprisonment. 

In a prior decision, Martin v. Boise, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause bars cities from enforcing public camping ordinances like these against homeless individuals whenever the number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction exceeds the number of practically available shelter beds. 

After Martin, suits against Western cities like Grants Pass proliferated.

Plaintiffs (respondents here) filed a putative class action on behalf of homeless people living in Grants Pass, claiming that the city’s ordinances against public camping violated the Eighth Amendment. The district court certified the class and entered a Martin injunction prohibiting Grants Pass from enforcing its laws against homeless individuals in the city. 

Applying Martin’s reasoning, the district court found everyone without shelter in Grants Pass was involuntarily homeless because the city’s total homeless population outnumbered its practically available shelter beds. 

The beds at Grants Pass’s charity-run shelter didn’t qualify as available in part because that shelter has rules requiring residents to abstain from smoking and to attend religious services. A divided panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s Martin injunction in relevant part. Grants Pass filed a petition for certiorari. Many states, cities and counties from across the 9th Circuit urged the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review to assess Martin.

The high court held that the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property doesn’t constitute cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

It reversed the judgment and remanded the case.

Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion. “For some people, sleeping outside is their only option.” 

Citing the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Robinson v. California, Sotomayor asserted that punishing people for their status is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. 

“It is possible to acknowledge and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles,” Sotomayor wrote. “Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.” 

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