US Supreme Court to review federal agency authority in fishing dispute

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By Carina

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear a pivotal case this week, where commercial fishermen are contesting costs related to a government fish conservation program. 

This dispute offers the Court’s conservative majority a potential opportunity to limit the regulatory authority of federal agencies. 

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Broader implications: Questioning ‘Chevron deference’

At the core of the arguments, scheduled for Wednesday, is the challenge by fishing companies against the National Marine Fisheries Service’s industry-funded program to prevent overfishing of herring off the New England coast.

The fishing companies’ challenge extends beyond the immediate conservation program. 

They are urging the Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, to reassess or overturn the 1984-established “Chevron deference.” This legal doctrine advises judges to defer to federal agency interpretations of U.S. laws. 

The case represents a broader conservative movement, often termed the “war on the administrative state,” aimed at weakening federal agency bureaucracy.

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Supreme Court’s recent trend and political implications

The Supreme Court has recently shown skepticism towards extensive regulatory power.

This tendency has led to decisions by its conservative justices curbing perceived governmental overreach by agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Legal scholars Gregory Elinson and Jonathan Gould noted, “Chevron can help either party, but overall, Democrats have more to lose than Republicans from its demise.” 

This reflects the Democratic reliance on federal rules to push regulatory agendas that Congress may not pass.

Background of dispute and administration’s stance

The plaintiffs, led by Loper Bright Enterprises and Relentless Inc., are appealing against lower court decisions favoring the government. 

The monitoring program, initiated under former President Donald Trump and defended by President Joe Biden’s administration, requires fishermen to host government contractors aboard their vessels for catch monitoring. 

The program, which began in 2020, aims to monitor 50% of declared herring fishing trips in the area, with costs shared between the government and the fishing industry.

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Economic impact and legal proceedings

The monitoring program, costing an estimated $710 per day for 19 days annually, could reduce a vessel’s income by up to 20%, according to government figures. 

The Biden administration has suspended the program for the 2023 fishing year due to insufficient funding. 

The fishing companies sued in 2020, claiming the program exceeded the agency’s authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. 

However, the Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government, citing Chevron deference.

Future of Chevron deference in the balance

The administration advocates for preserving Chevron deference, arguing that it acknowledges agencies’ expertise and promotes national uniformity in federal law administration. 

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Conversely, an attorney for the commercial fishermen criticized Chevron deference, claiming it leads to a dynamic where “Congress does far less than the Framers anticipated, and the executive branch is left to do far more by deciding controversial issues via regulatory fiat.”

Consequences for federal regulatory powers

This case is not just about the costs associated with a fish conservation program but has far-reaching implications for the power dynamics between the legislative and executive branches. 

The outcome of this Supreme Court hearing could redefine the role of federal agencies in interpreting and implementing laws, potentially reshaping the administrative state and its regulatory capacity.

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