WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court denied the conservative legal movement something it has long sought Wednesday, refusing to strip federal agencies of the power to interpret ambiguous regulations.
The decision was unanimous because while upholding agencies' authority, the justices defined new parameters. Deference "is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not," Associate Justice Elena Kagan said in her opinion.
"Deference can apply only when a regulation is genuinely ambiguous," Kagan said, and "the agency's construction of its rule must still be reasonable." But when those and other conditions are met, she said, courts must accept agency interpret
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch went further in a 42-page concurrence, labeling the decision "more of a stay of execution than a pardon."
"The doctrine emerges maimed and enfeebled - in truth, zombified," he said.
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And Chief Justice John Roberts warned that the court's refusal to overrule its precedent in this case does not signal the same result for another target of conservatives: so-called "Chevron deference," in which courts are supposed to bend to agency interpretations of laws enacted by Congress.
The ruling is important because agencies run by unelected bureaucrats make decisions all the time about regulations on the environment, the workplace, food and drugs, and other matters affecting millions of Americans.
Challengers wanted that power left to federal trial judges when regulations get challenged in court. Under Supreme court precedents from 1945 and 1997, courts are encouraged to defer to administrative agencies with expertise the judges lack.
The specific case before the justices challenged the Department of Veterans Affairs' refusal to pay retroactive disability benefits to a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder. But it rose to the high court's attention only because it was a stalking horse for a much bigger issue.
The unanimous 1997 decision in Auer v. Robbins upholding agencies' clout was written by the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who over the next two decades grew to despise it. He once told his friend and colleague, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, that Auer was "one of the worst opinions in the history of this country."
"Nino," Thomas has said in recounting the story, "you wrote it."
Defending agency deference during oral argument in March, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer cited "hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of interpretive regulations" that bureaucrats are best able to define.
By way of example, Breyer noted a Food and Drug Administration regulation concerns "a single new active moiety, which consists of a previously approved moiety, joined by a non-ester covalent bond to a lysine group."
"Do you know how much I know about that?" Breyer quipped.
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The case was closely watched by both conservatives and liberals because eliminating agency deference over regulations is considered a stepping stone to a more controversial change: stripping agencies of the power to interpret ambiguous laws passed by Congress.
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court does not overrule itself often - about once a year and considerably less than in the past. But last year, it struck down both a 1977 decision that allowed public employee unions to collect fees from non-members and a 1992 ruling that allowed retailers to sell goods tax-free beyond state borders.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court won't strip federal agencies of power to interpret regulations, a top priority of conservatives