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SCOTUS’s 2023 Term Was a Triumph for Reining in Executive Branch Overreach

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By Shelby Baird Smith

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 Term has been a triumph for reining in executive overreach. It is no secret that the Biden administration has used its executive agencies—and for our industry Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in particular—to circumvent the will of Congress to enact its radical antigun agenda. But recent Supreme Court decisions curtailing the power of the “administrative state” are important steps in righting the ship and restoring the constitutional separation of powers to those envisioned by the Founders.

First, the Supreme Court held in Garland v. Cargill that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority by classifying semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks as “machineguns” under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). In doing so, the Court made clear that ATF could not ignore the statutory text of the law. Rather, the agency must follow Congress’s clear statutory mandate and cannot read in its own policy preferences.

More recently, the Court put a stop to the practice of deferring to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the law, also known as the Chevron doctrine. That doctrine stemmed from a 1984 case called Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, in which the Supreme Court created a two-part test for determining if an executive agency has acted within its statutory authority in interpreting the law it administers. Under that test, courts first considered whether the statute gave a clear answer to the question in the case. If the court found that the statute was silent or ambiguous as to the issue at hand, then it would defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute if it was “reasonable,” even if the court did not think it the best reading of the statute. In practicality, courts would routinely defer to the agency’s interpretations, which gave administrative agencies a wide latitude to regulate untold aspects of American enterprise and everyday life by interpreting the law to fit their policy preferences even when it was contrary to the will of Congress.

While the Supreme Court declined to apply Chevron deference for nearly a decade, it officially overruled the precedent in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce. Those cases challenged a National Marine Fisheries Service rule that required commercial fishing boats to pay for government monitors that keep watch over crews for overfishing violations. The challengers argued that the relevant statute did not authorize the agency to mandate that fishing boats pay for the government monitors. Two federal appellate courts applied the Chevron doctrine and upheld the rule, deferring to the agency’s interpretation.

Chevron Overruled

In a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court held that Chevron deference to an agency’s interpretation of the law is inconsistent with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which requires that courts – not agencies – exercise their own independent judgment in determining what the law means and deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority. The Court rejected the notion that agency interpretations are entitled to deference based on technical expertise. Rather, it is the courts that have special competence in interpreting ambiguous statutes and, if Congress and the Executive Branch disagree with how courts have interpreted the law, they can act by amending the statute. Finally, the Court rebuffed the argument that leaving the interpretation of ambiguous statutes to courts – rather than agencies – amounts to “policymaking suited for political actors.” That view misunderstands the judicial role, as the APA has always required that courts determine what powers Congress has delegated to agencies and to police those boundaries to ensure that agencies do not go beyond their statutory authority.

Rebalancing the Scales

The Loper Bright decision will send shock waves in administrative law, as Chevron deference tipped the scales in the favor of agency interpretations for decades. Courts faced with textual ambiguities or silence can no longer reflexively rule in favor of an agency by declaring that its interpretation of a statute is reasonable. By overruling Chevron, the Supreme Court rebalances the scales by restoring the proper roles of the judicial, executive, and legislative branches. Congress makes the law; the executive enforces the law; and the courts interpret the law.

Limitations on the encroachment on each branch’s power are critical to the separation of powers in our constitutional system. The Loper Bright decision makes a large leap in the right direction for curtailing administrative overreach. Like many agencies as of late, the ATF has brazenly exceeded its authority through several actions, including its aforementioned reclassification of bump stocks as machineguns, its Final Rule banning stabilizing braces for AR-15 pistols, its Final Rule redefining when something is a “frame or receiver“ and its Final Rule redefining what it means to be “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms.

While overruling Chevron does not provide a silver bullet for stopping the agency’s abuses, it takes away an important tool in its arsenal, as the ATF is no longer entitled to deference on its whipsawing, ever-changing statutory interpretations crafted to bypass Congress. Rather, both Cargill and Loper Bright send a clear message: the age of administrative excess is over, and agencies should leave legislating to Congress and interpreting the law to the courts.

 

Shelby Baird Smith is NSSF’s Chief Litigation Counsel. She previously clerked for Judge Thomas M. Hardiman on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and clerked for Justice Samuel A. Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States.

2 Responses

  1. “The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 Term has been a triumph for reining in executive overreach.”

    Seriously? I assure you, in no way are they ‘shaking in their shoes’ saying to themselves “Boy, we better not pass any more gun control, because we’re gonna really get it!”.

    What we got from the high Court was good, and necessary, but anyone deluding themselves that we are really “Free at last! Free at last! Lord, have mercy, Free at last!” is smoking some seriously strong shit… 🙁

    1. They weren’t after Bruen, McDonald, or any of the others either. We are still in the early stages of fighting back after over a century of rolling over and taking it.

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