Chevron and the Politicization of Law (or, Chevron Step Three)

Gus Hurwitz —  4 June 2018

A recent exchange between Chris Walker and Philip Hamburger about Walker’s ongoing empirical work on the Chevron doctrine (the idea that judges must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes) gives me a long-sought opportunity to discuss what I view as the greatest practical problem with the Chevron doctrine: it increases both politicization and polarization of law and policy. In the interest of being provocative, I will frame the discussion below by saying that both Walker & Hamburger are wrong (though actually I believe both are quite correct in their respective critiques). In particular, I argue that Walker is wrong that Chevron decreases politicization (it actually increases it, vice his empirics); and I argue Hamburger is wrong that judicial independence is, on its own, a virtue that demands preservation. Rather, I argue, Chevron increases overall politicization across the government; and judicial independence can and should play an important role in checking legislative abdication of its role as a politically-accountable legislature in a way that would moderate that overall politicization.

Walker, along with co-authors Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd, has done some of the most important and interesting work on Chevron in recent years, empirically studying how the Chevron doctrine has affected judicial behavior (see here and here) as well as that of agencies (and, I would argue, through them the Executive) (see here). But the more important question, in my mind, is how it affects the behavior of Congress. (Walker has explored this somewhat in his own work, albeit focusing less on Chevron than on how the role agencies play in the legislative process implicitly transfers Congress’s legislative functions to the Executive).

My intuition is that Chevron dramatically exacerbates Congress’s worst tendencies, encouraging Congress to push its legislative functions to the executive and to do so in a way that increases the politicization and polarization of American law and policy. I fear that Chevron effectively allows, and indeed encourages, Congress to abdicate its role as the most politically-accountable branch by deferring politically difficult questions to agencies in ambiguous terms.

One of, and possibly the, best ways to remedy this situation is to reestablish the role of judge as independent decisionmaker, as Hamburger argues. But the virtue of judicial independence is not endogenous to the judiciary. Rather, judicial independence has an instrumental virtue, at least in the context of Chevron. Where Congress has problematically abdicated its role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker by deferring important political decisions to the executive, judicial refusal to defer to executive and agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes can force Congress to remedy problematic ambiguities. This, in turn, can return the responsibility for making politically-important decisions to the most politically-accountable branch, as envisioned by the Constitution’s framers.

A refresher on the Chevron debate

Chevron is one of the defining doctrines of administrative law, both as a central concept and focal debate. It stands generally for the proposition that when Congress gives agencies ambiguous statutory instructions, it falls to the agencies, not the courts, to resolve those ambiguities. Thus, if a statute is ambiguous (the question at “step one” of the standard Chevron analysis) and the agency offers a reasonable interpretation of that ambiguity (“step two”), courts are to defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute instead of supplying their own.

This judicially-crafted doctrine of deference is typically justified on several grounds. For instance, agencies generally have greater subject-matter expertise than courts so are more likely to offer substantively better constructions of ambiguous statutes. They have more resources that they can dedicate to evaluating alternative constructions. They generally have a longer history of implementing relevant Congressional instructions so are more likely attuned to Congressional intent – both of the statute’s enacting and present Congresses. And they are subject to more direct Congressional oversight in their day-to-day operations and exercise of statutory authority than the courts so are more likely concerned with and responsive to Congressional direction.

Chief among the justifications for Chevron deference is, as Walker says, “the need to reserve political (or policy) judgments for the more politically accountable agencies.” This is at core a separation-of-powers justification: the legislative process is fundamentally a political process, so the Constitution assigns responsibility for it to the most politically-accountable branch (the legislature) instead of the least politically-accountable branch (the judiciary). In turn, the act of interpreting statutory ambiguity is an inherently legislative process – the underlying theory being that Congress intended to leave such ambiguity in the statute in order to empower the agency to interpret it in a quasi-legislative manner. Thus, under this view, courts should defer both to this Congressional intent that the agency be empowered to interpret its statute (and, should this prove problematic, it is up to Congress to change the statute or to face political ramifications), and the courts should defer to the agency interpretation of that statute because agencies, like Congress, are more politically accountable than the courts.

Chevron has always been an intensively studied and debated doctrine. This debate has grown more heated in recent years, to the point that there is regularly scholarly discussion about whether Chevron should be repealed or narrowed and what would replace it if it were somehow curtailed – and discussion of the ongoing vitality of Chevron has entered into Supreme Court opinions and the appointments process with increasing frequency. These debates generally focus on a few issues. A first issue is that Chevron amounts to a transfer of the legislature’s Constitutional powers and responsibilities over creating the law to the executive, where the law ordinarily is only meant to be carried out. This has, the underlying concern is, contributed to the increase in the power of the executive compared to the legislature. A second, related, issue is that Chevron contributes to the (over)empowerment of independent agencies – agencies that are already out of favor with many of Chevron’s critics as Constitutionally-infirm entities whose already-specious power is dramatically increased when Chevron limits the judiciary’s ability to check their use of already-broad Congressionally-delegated authority.

A third concern about Chevron, following on these first two, is that it strips the judiciary of its role as independent arbiter of judicial questions. That is, it has historically been the purview of judges to answer statutory ambiguities and fill in legislative interstices.

Chevron is also a focal point for more generalized concerns about the power of the modern administrative state. In this context, Chevron stands as a representative of a broader class of cases – State Farm, Auer, Seminole Rock, Fox v. FCC, and the like – that have been criticized as centralizing legislative, executive, and judicial powers in agencies, allowing Congress to abdicate its role as politically-accountable legislator, abdicating the judiciary’s role in interpreting the law, as well as raising due process concerns for those subject to rules promulgated by federal agencies..

Walker and his co-authors have empirically explored the effects of Chevron in recent years, using robust surveys of federal agencies and judicial decisions to understand how the doctrine has affected the work of agencies and the courts. His most recent work (with Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd) has explored how Chevron affects judicial decisionmaking. Framing the question by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking,” they ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?” They find that, empirically speaking, “the Chevron Court’s objective to reduce partisan judicial decision-making has been quite effective.” By instructing judges to defer to the political judgments (or just statutory interpretations) of agencies, judges are less political in their own decisionmaking.

Hamburger responds to this finding somewhat dismissively – and, indeed, the finding is almost tautological: “of course, judges disagree less when the Supreme Court bars them from exercising their independent judgment about what the law is.” (While a fair critique, I would temper it by arguing that it is nonetheless an important empirical finding – empirics that confirm important theory are as important as empirics that refute it, and are too often dismissed.)

Rather than focus on concerns about politicized decisionmaking by judges, Hamburger focuses instead on the importance of judicial independence – on it being “emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is” (quoting Marbury v. Madison). He reframes Walker’s results, arguing that “deference” to agencies is really “bias” in favor of the executive. “Rather than reveal diminished politicization, Walker’s numbers provide strong evidence of diminished judicial independence and even of institutionalized judicial bias.”

So which is it? Does Chevron reduce bias by de-politicizing judicial decisionmaking? Or does it introduce new bias in favor of the (inherently political) executive? The answer is probably that it does both. The more important answer, however, is that neither is the right question to ask.

What’s the correct measure of politicization? (or, You get what you measure)

Walker frames his study of the effects of Chevron on judicial decisionmaking by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking. Such deference to the political branches has long been a bedrock principle for at least some judicial conservatives.” Based on this understanding, his project is to ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?”

This framing, that one of Chevron’s goals is to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking, is not wrong. But this goal may be more accurately stated as being to prevent the judiciary from encroaching upon the political purposes assigned to the executive and legislative branches. This restatement offers an important change in focus. It emphasizes the concern about politicizing judicial decisionmaking as a separation of powers issue. This is in apposition to concern that, on consequentialist grounds, judges should not make politicized decisions – that is, judges should avoid political decisions because it leads to substantively worse outcomes.

It is of course true that, as unelected officials with lifetime appointments, judges are the least politically accountable to the polity of any government officials. Judges’ decisions, therefore, can reasonably be expected to be less representative of, or responsive to, the concerns of the voting public than decisions of other government officials. But not all political decisions need to be directly politically accountable in order to be effectively politically accountable. A judicial interpretation of an ambiguous law, for instance, can be interpreted as a request, or even a demand, that Congress be held to political account. And where Congress is failing to perform its constitutionally-defined role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker, it may do less harm to the separation of powers for the judiciary to make political decisions that force politically-accountable responses by Congress than for the judiciary to respect its constitutional role while the Congress ignores its role.

Before going too far down this road, I should pause to label the reframing of the debate that I have impliedly proposed. To my mind, the question isn’t whether Chevron reduces political decisionmaking by judges; the question is how Chevron affects the politicization of, and ultimately accountability to the people for, the law. Critically, there is no “conservation of politicization” principle. Institutional design matters. One could imagine a model of government where Congress exercises very direct oversight over what the law is and how it is implemented, with frequent elections and a Constitutional prohibition on all but the most express and limited forms of delegation. One can also imagine a more complicated form of government in which responsibilities for making law, executing law, and interpreting law, are spread across multiple branches (possibly including myriad agencies governed by rules that even many members of those agencies do not understand). And one can reasonably expect greater politicization of decisions in the latter compared to the former – because there are more opportunities for saying that the responsibility for any decision lies with someone else (and therefore for politicization) in the latter than in the “the buck stops here” model of the former.

In the common-law tradition, judges exercised an important degree of independence because their job was, necessarily and largely, to “say what the law is.” For better or worse, we no longer live in a world where judges are expected to routinely exercise that level of discretion, and therefore to have that level of independence. Nor do I believe that “independence” is necessarily or inherently a criteria for the judiciary, at least in principle. I therefore somewhat disagree with Hamburger’s assertion that Chevron necessarily amounts to a problematic diminution in judicial independence.

Again, I return to a consequentialist understanding of the purposes of judicial independence. In my mind, we should consider the need for judicial independence in terms of whether “independent” judicial decisionmaking tends to lead to better or worse social outcomes. And here I do find myself sympathetic to Hamburger’s concerns about judicial independence. The judiciary is intended to serve as a check on the other branches. Hamburger’s concern about judicial independence is, in my mind, driven by an overwhelmingly correct intuition that the structure envisioned by the Constitution is one in which the independence of judges is an important check on the other branches. With respect to the Congress, this means, in part, ensuring that Congress is held to political account when it does legislative tasks poorly or fails to do them at all.

The courts abdicate this role when they allow agencies to save poorly drafted statutes through interpretation of ambiguity.

Judicial independence moderates politicization

Hamburger tells us that “Judges (and academics) need to wrestle with the realities of how Chevron bias and other administrative power is rapidly delegitimizing our government and creating a profound alienation.” Huzzah. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Preach! Hear-hear!

Allow me to present my personal theory of how Chevron affects our political discourse. In the vernacular, I call this Chevron Step Three. At Step Three, Congress corrects any mistakes made by the executive or independent agencies in implementing the law or made by the courts in interpreting it. The subtle thing about Step Three is that it doesn’t exist – and, knowing this, Congress never bothers with the politically costly and practically difficult process of clarifying legislation.

To the contrary, Chevron encourages the legislature expressly not to legislate. The more expedient approach for a legislator who disagrees with a Chevron-backed agency action is to campaign on the disagreement – that is, to politicize it. If the EPA interprets the Clean Air Act too broadly, we need to retake the White House to get a new administrator in there to straighten out the EPA’s interpretation of the law. If the FCC interprets the Communications Act too narrowly, we need to retake the White House to change the chair so that we can straighten out that mess! And on the other side, we need to keep the White House so that we can protect these right-thinking agency interpretations from reversal by the loons on the other side that want to throw out all of our accomplishments. The campaign slogans write themselves.

So long as most agencies’ governing statutes are broad enough that those agencies can keep the ship of state afloat, even if drifting rudderless, legislators have little incentive to turn inward to engage in the business of government with their legislative peers. Rather, they are freed to turn outward towards their next campaign, vilifying or deifying the administrative decisions of the current government as best suits their electoral prospects.

The sharp-eyed observer will note that I’ve added a piece to the Chevron puzzle: the process described above assumes that a new administration can come in after an election and simply rewrite all of the rules adopted by the previous administration. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this is exactly what administrative law allows (see Fox v. FCC and State Farm). The underlying logic, which is really nothing more than an expansion of Chevron, is that statutory ambiguity delegates to agencies a “policy space” within which they are free to operate. So long as agency action stays within that space – which often allows for diametrically-opposed substantive interpretations – the courts say that it is up to Congress, not the Judiciary, to provide course corrections. Anything else would amount to politically unaccountable judges substituting their policy judgments (this is, acting independently) for those of politically-accountable legislators and administrators.

In other words, the politicization of law seen in our current political moment is largely a function of deference and a lack of stare decisis combined. A virtue of stare decisis is that it forces Congress to act to directly address politically undesirable opinions. Because agencies are not bound by stare decisis, an alternative, and politically preferable, way for Congress to remedy problematic agency decisions is to politicize the issue – instead of addressing the substantive policy issue through legislation, individual members of Congress can campaign on it. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with one contemporary example of this: the recent net neutrality CRA vote, which is widely recognized as having very little chance of ultimate success but is being championed by its proponents as a way to influence the 2018 elections.) This is more directly aligned with the individual member of Congress’s own incentives, because, by keeping and placing more members of her party in Congress, her party will be able to control the leadership of the agency which will thus control the shape of that agency’s policy. In other words, instead of channeling the attention of individual Congressional actors inwards to work together to develop law and policy, it channels it outwards towards campaigning on the ills and evils of the opposing administration and party vice the virtues of their own party.

The virtue of judicial independence, of judges saying what they think the law is – or even what they think the law should be – is that it forces a politically-accountable decision. Congress can either agree, or disagree; but Congress must do something. Merely waiting for the next administration to come along will not be sufficient to alter the course set by the judicial interpretation of the law. Where Congress has abdicated its responsibility to make politically-accountable decisions by deferring those decisions to the executive or agencies, the political-accountability justification for Chevron deference fails. In such cases, the better course for the courts may well be to enforce Congress’s role under the separation of powers by refusing deference and returning the question to Congress.