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.

D.C. Circuit: Save Us Sinners Who Fail to Object When There Is Nothing to Object To!

Posted on June 7, 2016 by Richard G. Stoll

Clean Power Plan (CPP) groupies are beside themselves over the D.C. Circuit’s surprise “straight-to-en banc” move for CPP judicial review.  The buzz is mostly over the survivability of the CPP’s interpretations of Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) in light of the nine judges’ dispositions.

I won’t weigh in on that issue here.  My target is another issue, one that has been lurking in the background and has bugged me greatly for the last couple of years.  Now that the issue is before an en banc panel, I am fervently hoping the Court will do what only en banc panels can do:  declare that a few recent D.C. Circuit rulings are wrong.

The issue involves garden variety adlaw:  should the CPP be vacated because EPA failed to propose or adequately foreshadow key elements of the final rule?  Parties attacking the CPP have advanced this argument, and EPA has defended on numerous grounds that its notice was adequate. 

I won’t opine here on whether EPA’s notice was adequate.  My beef is with EPA’s fall-back defense:  EPA’s argument that even if there were wholly insufficient notice of the CPP’s final provisions, the Court has no authority to vacate the CPP on those grounds. 

EPA’s theory is that since CAA §307(d)(7)(B) provides that only an issue raised in public comments can be raised on judicial review, a final rule that was never proposed cannot be challenged on judicial review because there were no public comments on that provision.  Yep, read on.

EPA argues that parties claiming a final rule was never proposed must instead file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and wait (usually for a few years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions.  In the meantime, under EPA’s position, regulatory provisions that were never proposed or foreshadowed must go into full force and effect.

This means that EPA can get away with murder, at least in the adlaw context.  Just forget the bedrock principle that an agency can impose and enforce only those rules that have first been proposed.  Under EPA’s position, the bedrock is blown away by a Richter 8.8 otherwise known as CAA §307(d)(7)(B). 

In the last two years, EPA has managed to convince D.C. Circuit panels to accede to this unfair and baseless approach.  See my 2015 ACOEL post discussing these opinions.  In a piece I published in Bloomberg BNA in 2014, I showed how the D.C. Circuit had never previously interpreted CAA §307(d)(7)(B) in this fashion , and had on many occasions vacated final rule provisions that had never been proposed. 

As explained in the above-cited pieces, the absurdity of EPA’s position is that final rules will go into full force and effect against parties because they failed to object to something they could not object to.  This just can’t be right.  The en banc CPP panel should do the right thing and declare the three most recent decisions to be wrong.

[Mr. Stoll is not representing any party in the pending D.C. Circuit CPP judicial review proceedings.]

D.C. Circuit Slams the NRC, Grants a Rare Writ of Mandamus The Next Chapter of the Yucca Mountain Odyssey

Posted on August 19, 2013 by Donald Stever

For years the nuclear power industry, which could serve as a climate neutral bridge to a more carbon neutral energy policy, has been hampered by the high cost of electricity production and difficulty in securing new licenses and license renewals.  A not insignificant contributor to the cost of nuclear power, and one of the arguments raised against relicensing of older nuclear power plants, has been the necessity for the operators of nuclear power plants to store spent nuclear fuel onsite for an indefinite period of time. This was not supposed to be the case. Years ago Congress passed and the President signed into the law the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandated the Department of Energy to develop a permanent repository for spent reactor fuel.

On August 13, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in In Re Aiken County issued a rare order, a writ of mandamus, compelling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing proceeding on the Department of Energy’s application for a permit to construct  a permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That process was to have been completed in June of 2011 under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but the DOE, acting on the President’s direct order, tried to withdraw its license application in 2010 and, though the NRC Licensing Board rejected DOE’s efforts,  the Chairman  of the NRC, also acting at the President’s request, shut the process down anyway.   

The case was brought by two states, two counties, three individuals residing near current temporary nuclear waste storage sites, and the association of regulatory commissioners. The Yucca Mountain project has been controversial for years, having been opposed by environmentalists and local politicians in Nevada.  DOE’s failure to find a central long-term repository for nuclear waste has forced the nuclear power industry to continue to store spent nuclear fuel in on-site casks or water filled pools, creating what is perceived by critics as enhanced risk of release of radionuclides to the environment. The decision contains a detailed, lengthy and fascinating discussion of the Executive Branch’s authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion and how that discretion is far different than its discretion to ignore clear statutory mandates.

The majority of the panel held that the Executive Branch, including the President (and by extension executive and independent agencies like the NRC), has no authority to disregard congressional mandates based on policy disagreements with the law in question. The panel concluded that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Congressional funding of the NRC’s permit review process created a clear mandate to the NRC to make a decision on the permit application pending since 2011.  Finding that the NRC is “simply flouting the law, ” and has “no current intention of complying with the law,” the majority opinion by Judge Kavenaugh (joined by Judge Randolph),  flatly rejected the defenses offered by the NRC. The court rejected the argument that Congress had appropriated insufficient funds to complete the project, finding that annual congressional appropriations never provide enough money to finish a multi year project, and that over $11 million exists to continue it.  The court also rejected the argument that the NRC’s decision to ignore the law was justified because Congress might not provide funding in the future, concluding that allowing an agency to ignore a clear mandate would “gravely upset the balance of powers between the Branches and represent a major unwarranted expansion of the Executive’s power at the expense of Congress.”

The court also rejected the argument that the failure of Congress to provide future appropriations for the Yucca project demonstrates congressional intent to shut down the process. The Court opined that  the measure of congressional intent is in the laws it passes, not what it debates, and that repeal by implication is inappropriate where previously appropriated funds are not taken back and remain available to advance the project. The court accordingly concluded that there is “no justification” for ignoring the clear statutory mandate. Finally, the court rejected the suggestion that an agency’s policy dispute with Congress’s decision is “not a lawful ground” for the NRC or the President to decline to follow the law.
           
In a dissent, Chief Judge Garland argued that all the NRC did was suspend the proceeding because there were not “sufficient funds to finish the licensing process and that the court should defer to the agency on this judgment, and therefore mandamus should be denied.  The majority rejected this, noting that the NRC’s continued repeated and unjustified disregard for the law despite the repeated warnings given by the court rendered mandamus appropriate.

The D.C. Circuit mandamus order will in all likelihood be appealed, and it is certain that the Yucca Mountain project will remain the subject of intense controversy. The stakes for the nuclear energy industry in having the spent fuel storage problem resolved are large.  Stay tuned.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Considers Agency’s Endangered Species Authority

Posted on July 29, 2013 by Stephen Leonard

Bill and Marlene Pepin own 36 acres of land in Hampden, Massachusetts on which they hope to build a retirement home.  Their plans have thus far been frustrated by the designation of their property as Priority Habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle, a Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, Mass. Gen. Laws C. 131A. The designation was made by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, pursuant to its Priority Habitat regulations, 321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.01 et seq., which were promulgated under to the “no take” provision of the Act.

Pursuant to the regulations, the Pepins’ plans must be reviewed by the Division and will be approved only on a showing that they will not result in the “take” of a Species of Special Concern, a showing that may require modifying the project or otherwise taking steps to protect the species.  This is a burden that, in the Division’s view, is not especially onerous and is one that has been met many times by many projects during the two decades that the regulations have been in effect.  This view appears to have the support of at least a portion of the development community in Massachusetts, support that is based on a concern about what the likely alternative would be to regulation under the Priority Habitat regulations.

The Pepins, though, have taken the view that their project in not subject to the Division’s authority.  They have challenged the designation of their property as Priority Habitat; and they have challenged the Division’s authority to adopt the Priority Habitat regulations in the first place.  They lost on both grounds in an administrative proceeding and appealed the result to the Superior Court, where they lost again.

The Pepins appealed the judgment to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the Commonwealth’s intermediate level appellate court.  And then the case got considerably more interesting.  In the space of a few months, it was transformed from a relatively straightforward (if very important to the Pepins) challenge to an agency determination into one of the most important administrative law and environmental cases in Massachusetts in a number of years.

The case was docketed in the Appeals Court last year; the Pepins, and then the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, filed their briefs.  Also filing, in support of the Division, were amici curiae Massachusetts Audubon Society, Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions and the Conservation Law Foundation.  Among the amici’s arguments in support the of the Division’s authority to promulgate the challenged Priority Habitat regulations was the assertion that it is better for the development community to be regulated under those regulations than pursuant to a different provision of the Act, one that the Pepins assert is the only provision available to the Division to regulate development on private property.  In support of the assertion, amici appended to their brief an October 2011 letter from NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association Massachusetts, an extremely active participant in discussions and lobbying concerning environmental regulation in Massachusetts (NAIOP was formerly the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks.)  NAIOP’s letter opposed legislation that would have codified the position that the Pepins were taking in court (including in Superior Court, at the time the letter was written) – that the Division does not have authority to regulate private activities in lands designated Priority Habitat and can regulate development only pursuant to the much more restrictive Significant Habitat provisions of the Act, which sharply limit development but which require substantial procedural steps before they can be effective with respect to any particular parcel.  “NAIOP strongly believes that this bill would be bad for real estate development. . . .  [T]he Division has developed a more flexible regulatory mechanism through Priority Habitat. . . .  [T]he bill would result in more unpredictability and uncertainty for developers . . ..”  The bill did not pass.

Late last year, before the case could be argued in the Appeals Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), acting sua sponte, moved the case to its own docket.  In February of this year, the SJC announced that it was “soliciting amicus briefs.  This matter . . . raises the question of what procedural protections are required when the division [] designates ‘priority habitat.’”  The Pacific Legal Foundation, of Sacramento, California, then moved for leave to file an amicus brief in support of the Pepins.  (There is a New England Legal Foundation, based in Boston; it has not played a role in the case.)

The Pacific Legal Foundation brief does not address what had been the original issue between the Pepins and the Division – whether their property was correctly designated as Priority Habitat.  Its entire focus is instead on the asserted unlawfulness under Massachusetts law – statutory law, decisional law and constitutional law – of the Priority Habitat regulations. 

Section 4 of MESA creates three categories of protected species:  Endangered; Threatened (at risk of becoming Endangered); and Species of Special Concern (at risk of becoming Threatened).  The statute directs the Division to establish lists of these species and to designate Significant Habitats for Endangered and Threatened Species (but not for Species of Special Concern).  The designation of Significant Habitat involves substantial scientific and administrative work by the Division; and designation results in substantial limits on land use in the areas designated – but the statue also provides significant opportunities for affected landowners to challenge the designation or otherwise to seek to lessen or eliminate its impact on them – including by petitioning the Division Director to purchase their property.

Separately, Section 2 of MESA makes it unlawful to “take” any listed species (i.e., Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern).  And in Section 4 the statue empowers the Division to “adopt any regulations necessary to implement [its] provisions [].”

The Division has established a “List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species;” 321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.90; but the Division has not designated any geographical areas as Significant Habitat. The Division has, however, established by regulation the category of Priority Habitat, to be “used for screening Projects and Activities that may result in the Take of State-listed Species [in all three categories] and to provide guidance to Record Owners regarding a Project or Activity . . ..”  321 Code Mass. Regs. 10.12(1).  The regulations permit an owner whose land is in delineated Priority Habitat to request reconsideration of the delineation; they place the burden on the owner to show that the delineation was improper.

Designation of the Pepins’ land as Priority Habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle was pursuant to these regulations.  Their administrative challenge was summarily dismissed because they produced no evidence that the designation was incorrect, and, as is noted above, the Superior Court upheld the dismissal.  The Pepins’ appellate brief addresses this issue, but its importance has diminished considerably.  The SJC took the case, and the Pacific Legal Foundation moved to become involved, because the case presents a vehicle for challenging the Division’s authority to create a species protection program that is not specifically created by the statute.

The Division’s defense on appeal is a familiar one in administrative law: The statute creates a comprehensive scheme to protect species in varying degrees of peril; it vests “all powers hereunder” in the Director of the Division; it prohibits the “take” of any protected species; and it empowers the Division to “adopt any regulations necessary to implement [its] provisions.”  Given the statutory structure and the deference that is accorded administrative determinations, the Division’s decision to adopt the Priority Habitat Regulations in order to administer the no take provision is reasonable and must be sustained.

There is an appealing counterargument:  The Legislature created a mechanism for regulating the use of private property in the interest of species protection.  That mechanism contains significant protections for landowners.  The Division’s creation of a different mechanism, not mentioned anywhere in the statute and having less robust landowner protections, undermines the balance the Legislature struck between protecting species and respecting property rights.

That argument is briefly made explicit in the Pacific Legal Foundation brief, but the bulk of the brief is a thoroughgoing attack on the authority of the Division – and of administrative agencies generally – to adopt regulations that are not expressly contemplated and specifically described in legislation.  To mount this attack, the brief must delve deeply into Massachusetts administrative and constitutional law.  And it does, advancing a narrow reading of what it means for a regulation to be “necessary” to effect the purposes of a statute; questioning the appropriateness of deferring to the Division’s interpretation of the statute in this case; and seeking to distinguish a line of Massachusetts cases that holds that statutory authority to act in a specific manner does not foreclose an agency’s pursuing parallel action under a general grant of authority.  Moreover, the brief argues, the SJC should decide the case in a way that avoids potential constitutional issues – the brief suggests that upholding the regulations could lead to regulatory takings and that the legislative delegation the Division relies on would constitute a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution’s separation of powers requirement – by striking down the regulations.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has long been sensitive to environmental concerns, and it has upheld the broad authority of state and local administrative bodies to act to protect the environment.  The court has also been careful to ensure that the rights of Massachusetts citizens are protected, including by insisting on strict adherence to procedural requirements established by the Legislature.  Bill and Marlene Pepin’s case presents an important test of how those interests will be harmonized.  Argument is now set for October 2013 – stay tuned.