Civil Rights Regulations in the Crosshairs: A Primer on the Supreme Court Hearing in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo

What is this lawsuit about?

On January 17, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce. These cases could have drastic implications for the government’s ability to deliver on civil rights for the American people and for our democracy as a whole. 

On the surface, both cases are a challenge to fees imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service on fishing boats to help monitor the health of fisheries. But at their core, the cases are a challenge to one of the most important principles of administrative law — known as the “Chevron Doctrine.”

What is the Chevron Doctrine, and why is it important?

The Chevron Doctrine is named after a landmark 1984 Supreme Court ruling in Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council. The Court created a test for when courts should defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of a law. In short, when the wording of a law is unclear or vague on some issue, and an agency has to issue regulations to fill in the details, the agency should use what a court finds to be a “reasonable” reading of the law. If it does so, the courts should defer to the agency’s judgment.

The Chevron Doctrine affects how every federal agency carries out laws. Because members of Congress don’t have the expertise to spell out every single detail in the bills they pass, and because they can’t foresee changing circumstances, they have to rely on experts in federal agencies. These experts consult with stakeholders — like affected companies and interest groups — and issue regulations that clarify how the laws will be implemented.

How does the Chevron Doctrine affect civil rights?

Civil rights laws are no different here: Congress gives federal agencies broad authority to work out the details and to make sure people know how to avoid engaging in discrimination. This leeway is important because discrimination can take many forms, and it can evolve too rapidly for legislators to keep up. For example, Congress gave the Department of Housing and Urban Development broad authority to write regulations that carry out the Fair Housing Act because it’s in an ideal position to monitor the housing industry and identify when discrimination is happening. The same is true of agencies overseeing the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Act, and all other major civil rights laws.

Federal agencies issue regulations and guidance so that everyone knows how the law will be interpreted, what to do about violations, and what the law means in different circumstances. Without this clarity, it’s much more likely that people’s rights would be violated, and it would be much harder for people to seek changes when that happens.

Why is the Chevron Doctrine being challenged in court?

Many regulations are controversial. For example, some stakeholders, like small businesses, lack the resources to keep up with complex rules, and it’s important for agencies to try to reduce undue burdens so the process is accessible to everyone. Sometimes we think proposed regulations are misguided and will undermine civil rights laws. In some cases, disputes over rules have to be resolved in court. 

But some industry players, simply put, just don’t like to be regulated. And some try to wrap up their opposition in lofty, inflammatory framing by railing against “unelected bureaucrats” or “big government.” And over the past few decades, a lot of money has gone into building a conservative anti-regulatory movement that wants to make it harder for the federal government to fight problems like discrimination, pollution, gun violence, and unsafe working conditions. Overturning the Chevron Doctrine is just one step in that effort.

What have the courts said so far?

In both of these cases, the lower courts upheld the fees. Some decisions relied on the Chevron Doctrine, while other decisions didn’t even find it necessary to apply this test. But other courts have ruled against the National Marine Fisheries Service in somewhat similar cases.

What will happen in the Supreme Court?

A few Supreme Court justices have been openly critical of the Chevron Doctrine, but the position of other justices isn’t clear. It’s possible that the Court will limit its ruling to the fees that are at issue in the case. Or it could put limits on the Chevron Doctrine so that courts don’t have to defer to agencies as much. Or it could overturn the doctrine altogether and upend how our government is able to deliver on the promises of federal laws. The oral argument on January 17 may give us a somewhat better sense of what individual justices are thinking, but we won’t know for sure until the Court hands down its ruling.

What happens if the Supreme Court overturns the Chevron Doctrine? 

If the Court either restricts or overturns the Chevron Doctrine, it will upend nearly 40 years of administrative law. It could throw into question thousands of regulations affecting civil rights, the environment, food safety, airline safety, consumer protection, health care, education, and many other aspects of life. And disputes over these regulations will spend a lot more time in courts, gumming up the process and forcing judges to play the role of policy experts. Overturning Chevron wouldn’t take away any rights, but it would sow doubt and confusion and make it much harder to fight discrimination.

What is The Leadership Conference’s take on the case?

We joined with a number of groups, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in the filing of an amicus brief that emphasized the importance of the Chevron Doctrine to the enforcement of civil rights laws.

Interestingly, our coalition member National Resources Defense Council was the original plaintiff in the Chevron case, and ultimately lost, but also filed an amicus brief defending the Chevron Doctrine.