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Conservative Legal Activists Get Their Biggest SCOTUS Win Yet: Chevron Overruled

A Supreme Court ruling is the culmination of a decade-long conservative push to rein in executive power dating back to the Obama administration.

John Roberts
Matt Rourke/AP

The Supreme Court just made it easier to challenge government regulations, potentially putting clean water, emission standards, drug approvals and countless other regulations on the chopping block.

The landmark decision overturns a 40-year-old precedent called Chevron deference. It was a 6-3 split, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinion. The court’s liberal justices dissented.

The ruling is a massive win for the conservative push to rein in the power of the so-called “administrative state” — and the culmination of former President Donald Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017. Gorsuch was pushed to the top of the list, in large part, because of his opposition to Chevron. He was part of the majority.

“Chevron’s presumption is misguided because agencies have no special competence in resolving statutory ambiguities,” the opinion reads. “Courts do.”

“Today, the Court places a tombstone on Chevron no one can miss,” Gorsuch wrote in his concurring opinion, arguing that courts should have a role in determining the true meaning of laws when Congress has left too much ambiguity.

“Chevron does not prevent judges from making policy. It prevents them from judging,” Gorsuch wrote. He added that the courts “understand that such statutes, no matter how impenetrable, do — in fact, must —have a single, best meaning. That is the whole point of having written statutes; ‘every statute’s meaning is fixed at the time of enactment.’”

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan sharply criticized the conservative majority, accusing them of a power grab.

“As if it did not have enough on its plate, the majority turns itself into the country’s administrative czar,” Kagan wrote. “The majority disdains restraint, and grasps for power. “

She also laid the stakes on what a massive dismantling it is to the established distribution of power between the three branches of government to pass government regulation.

Chevron “has been applied in thousands of judicial decisions. It has become part of the warp and woof of modern government, supporting regulatory efforts of all kinds — to name a few, keeping air and water clean, food and drugs safe, and financial markets honest.”

The case stemmed from petitions from fishing companies about whether they should have to pay for overfishing monitors on their boats. The court sided with the fishing companies but, in the process, overturned the court precedent of letting government agencies hash out the details of ambiguous federal laws.

Mark Chenoweth, president of the conservative New Civil Liberties Alliance, which was behind one of the cases, said in a statement Friday that this ruling is only the beginning of its long-term campaign to limit government agency power.“

The dismantling of the unlawful Administrative State has officially begun,” the statement said.

The Supreme Court is also considering another case on the administrative state in Corner Post v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, which could change the six-year statute of limitations clock’s starting point from when the regulation was passed to when a company or individual was first “injured” by it. As NOTUS previously reported, public interest groups said such a change would only magnify the end of Chevron and put long-established government regulations under legal threat.

There’s been waning reliance on Chevron in the Supreme Court in recent years to defend regulations. But legal experts say opposition to Chevron’s usage in the lower courts gained momentum on the right during the Obama administration in response to the sweeping environmental changes it pushed through government agencies.

Supporters of maintaining Chevron deference argued that green-lighting new challenges to government regulations could flood and jam the courts, moving regulatory authority to unelected judges rather than bureaucrats, overseen by elected officials. Proponents say the changes could jolt Congress into passing less ambiguous laws and prevent a wide swing in regulations under each new president.

The movement against Chevron was primarily fueled by conservative legal groups, and Trump allies have made the fight against the government agency power central to their pitch for giving him a second term.

Trump has proposed mass firings of government workers and to take two deregulatory actions for each new regulation. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 plan states that its “goal is to assemble an army of aligned, vetted, trained, and prepared conservatives to go to work on Day One to deconstruct the Administrative State.”

In anticipation of the court’s Chevron ruling the House’s conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, released a memo to its members that “each House Committee should scour Biden-era regulatory actions and highlight any that should be considered for judicial review post-Chevron.”

On Friday, RSC Chair Rep. Kevin Hern again called the ruling “an opportunity for us to be better legislators — and ensure that unelected bureaucrats aren’t doing that job for us.”

Overturning Chevron does make it harder for government agencies to defend their positions in court, conversely making it a “fair-weather friend” to the executive branch eager to push regulatory change through the agencies. The new ruling could make it harder for a potential future President Trump to implement his vision.

House Democrat Rep. Jared Huffman, who is leading a task force against Project 2025, has a more cynical view.

“I think they’ve got an answer to that. The answer is, we’re still going to give him sweeping power to do whatever he wants. He’s just going to do it under these crazy emergency authorities and using the military and things like that,” Huffman told NOTUS before the ruling. “So it’s much darker and more dystopic than a well-ordered administrative state. It’s just a different way of giving the executive actually even more power, but sort of like police power.”

Private law firms have already been circling clients in preparation for a legal environment in which it’s easier to beat back government regulation. Conservative groups, too, have had cases on hold while waiting for the ruling.

Public Citizen, which filed an amicus against overturning Chevron, called the ruling on X Friday, the Supreme Court’s “latest gift to big corporations.”

“This decision will make it easier for corporations to challenge rules that ensure clean air and water, safe workplace and products, and fair commercial and financial practices.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.