Supreme Court could imperil Biden's agenda with commercial fishing case

 January 16, 2024

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to deal a major blow to Joe Biden's regulatory overreach.

The court will hear two disputes on commercial fishing Wednesday that implicate the Chevron doctrine, a major legal precedent that empowers federal agencies to interpret the scope of their own authority.

Major Supreme Court case

The Chevron doctrine has long been attacked by the conservative legal movement as an unconstitutional hydra.

It has been just as vigorously defended by progressives, including Biden, who rely in large part on administrative experts to enforce their agenda.

“Given its central importance, overruling Chevron would threaten substantial disruption in federal programs such as Social Security and would upset settled expectations in virtually every area of federal law,” the Biden administration warned in its court brief.

The court will hear two similar cases Wednesday from fishermen based in New England and New Jersey.

The fishermen are challenging government regulations that require them to pay the salaries of federal monitors on their vessels. Those monitors have been authorized by law for decades but in 2020, the government issued a new regulation requiring commercial fishers to pay up to $700 a day to host them.

In both cases in front of the court, the fishermen have lost because of Chevron, which directs courts to defer to federal agencies' experts when the law is unclear.

“If you’re deferring to the agency’s interpretation of the law, you’re allowing the agency to be a judge in its own case,” said Mark Chenoweth, president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing fishermen based in Rhode Island.

The administrative state

Chevron has been criticized by some of the Supreme Court's sitting conservatives, including Clarence Thomas, who wrote in 2015 that it "wrests from courts the ultimate interpretative authority to 'say what the law is' and hands it over to the Executive."

Lawyers for the fishermen called Chevron a "disaster in practice" that has led to "overregulation by unaccountable agencies."

"Lower courts see ambiguity everywhere and have abdicated the core judicial responsibility of statutory construction to executive-branch agencies," they wrote.

The Supreme Court has previously thrown roadblocks in Biden's path on issues like student loan relief and climate regulation.

And it has shown a willingness to upset major precedents like Roe v. Wade, so a ruling overturning Chevron is not outside the question.

If the court takes that dramatic step, it will significantly limit President Biden's policymaking tools - and those of future presidents as well.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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