Supreme Court Signals Overturn of Landmark Decisions

Late Justice John Paul Stevens left a far-reaching legal legacy in his 34 years on the Supreme Court, writing landmark decisions on presidential powers, property rights and the death penalty.

Yet the endurance of his legacy might be an open question. The Supreme Court signaled weeks before Stevens died Tuesday it might overturn one of his most significant opinions, a 1984 decision called Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council.

The Chevron case initially seemed like an arcane agency issue of little consequence. In the sweep of time, however, it became one of the most important precedents governing the power of federal agencies.

Chevron provides that the courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous law it administers, provided that interpretation is reasonable. For example, under Chevron, the courts should defer to the Environmental Protection Agency’s reading of an unclear provision in the Clear Air Act.

Supporters of Chevron say it ensures complex regulatory questions will be resolved by subject matter experts, instead of layman judges who are ill-equipped to parse complicated areas like pharmaceutical certification. They frame the approach as one of judicial humility and a recognition of the modest role courts should play in a society.

Its conservative critics counter that Chevron turns unelected bureaucrats into lawmakers and shields their decisions from judicial scrutiny.

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