Is Neil Gorsuch Poised To Obliterate Deference – or only Chevron/Auer Deference?

Posted on March 13, 2017 by Christopher R. Schraff

Recently, our ACOEL colleague Bob Percival penned an article in which he notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch is a leading critic of Chevron (and Auer) deference , and suggests that Judge Gorsuch’s separation of powers concerns (and those of other opponents of Chevron/Auer deference) “…are really attacks on the constitutionality of the larger administrative state.”  But if Judge Gorsuch is confirmed and his views command a majority of the Court, is his skepticism about the viability of deference to agency interpretations likely to lead to a collapse of the modern administrative state?  Is Judge Gorsuch really little more than a judicial extension of Steve Bannon’s and the Alt-Right’s campaign to deconstruct the administrative state and roll back the federal government to a size more appropriate to 19th Century America?  I suspect not—and here’s why.

A reading of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions reveals a jurist who is not only an engaging writer, but who digs deep into the facts and details of each case before  applying the law in an appeal before him.  In one of the few environmental cases which Judge Gorsuch has authored, United States v. Magnesium Corp. of America, Judge Gorsuch duly applied Auer deference to uphold EPA’s interpretation of a RCRA regulation, observing that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation was entitled to deference. 

But in other contexts, Judge Gorsuch denied Chevron deference to agency decisions that directly implicate (some might say trample upon) individual liberties and rights.  Here’s an example:  In 2014, the 10th Circuit took up the case of Andrew Yellowbear, who had bludgeoned to death his 22-month-old-daughter, and was serving a life term in a Wyoming prison.  Mr. Yellowbear brought suit against the prison for refusing to allow him access to a sweat lodge to practice his Arapahoe religion, which he claimed violated his rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.  Now one might think that Judge Gorsuch, conservative fellow that he appears to be on criminal matters, would give short shrift to Mr. Yellowbear’s claims.  But that is not what happened.  

In Yellowbear v. Lampert, Judge Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous court, struck down the prison’s efforts (and arguments) to deny Mr. Yellowbear his religious practice.  In rejecting the prison’s poorly documented claims of a “compelling governmental interest,” Judge Gorsuch wrote:  “the deference this court must extend the experience and expertise of prison administrators does not extend so far that prison officials may declare a compelling governmental interest by fiat.”

Now that decision hardly seems to presage the dismantling of the administrative state, but does suggest the administrative state had better show it deserves deference. 

Judge Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in Guitierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch offers a window into his views on the limits and shortcomings of Chevron deference.  Among other things, Judge Gorsuch suggests that the Chevron/Auer doctrines already may have no applicability with respect to agency interpretations of criminal statutes—of which we have many in the environmental law field.  Even more to the point, Judge Gorsuch questions how Chevron/Auer deference  squares with the judicial review provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. (“…the reviewing court shall decide all questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions and determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action.”).  Judge Gorsuch questions whether Chevron, in effect, overrides the APA.

But don’t simply focus on Judge Gorsuch’s concurring opinion:  look to the facts of the case, and to an earlier Gorsuch opinion. Guitierrez-Brizuela involved an attempt by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to retroactively apply a decision of the 10th Circuit deferring to BIA’s reconciliation of two statutory provisions of immigration law.  In Padilla-Caldera v. Holder, the 10th Circuit had upheld BIA’s interpretation of the immigration law on Chevron deference grounds, notwithstanding that BIA’s interpretation effectively overruled an earlier 10th Circuit decision interpreting those same laws.   

But in Guitierrez-Brizuela, BIA sought to accord retroactive application of the Padilla-Caldera decision in order to deport an illegal alien.  Judge Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous 10th Circuit panel, concluded that the BIA cannot use Chevron deference principles to retroactively impose their interpretation of immigration law upon an illegal alien to deport him—not the kind of result which would endear Judge Gorsuch to the Alt-Right.

What resonates in Judge Gorsuch’s opinions is a reluctance to unconditionally embrace Chevron/Auer deference in order to allow administrative agencies to trample on individual liberties and rights.  Is that such a bad thing?  And Judge Gorsuch is not calling for an end to deference.  He acknowledges that some form of deference should be given to administrative agencies, as he notes in Guitierrez-Brizuela:  “Of course, courts could and would consult agency views and apply the agency’s interpretation when it accords with the best reading of a statute.” 

But more fundamentally, will a reconsideration—and even a repudiation—of Chevron/Auer deference signal the end of the modern administrative state?  The administrative state survived and grew comfortably for more than fifty years before Chevron was decided. 

My guess is that, if the Supreme Court revisits the question of Chevron/Auer deference when (and if) Justice Gorsuch joins the Court, and if his views carry the day, we are likely to return to Skidmore deference, or to a flexible rule of deference of the kind outlined in United States v. Mead Corp, here the degree of deference varies according to an agency’s care, consistency, formality, expertness and the persuasiveness of the agency’s position.

That hardly signals the end of the administrative state as we know it.