Notice & Comment

SCOTUS Faces a Chevron Decision Tree in American Hospital Association v. Becerra, by Eli Nachmany

The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in American Hospital Association v. Becerra, a case that presents a question relating to so-called Chevron deference. Chevron USA v. NRDC was a 1984 case in which the Court held that an administrative agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute was entitled to judicial deference. But this controversial precedent has come under attack in recent years, with some Justices suggesting that the Court scrap Chevron.

Plenty of good arguments exist for overturning Chevron, but to do so in American Hospital Association, the Court will need to clear a few hurdles. American Hospital Association concerns the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) interpretation of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. The law sets forth certain formulas for drug reimbursement rates; in 2018, HHS cut reimbursement rates to hospitals that participate in the 340B program based on an interpretation of the statute. The American Hospital Association has challenged the interpretation, while HHS claims that its interpretation is entitled to judicial deference under Chevron.

Chevron has become the target of intense criticism over the years. Some argue that deferring to an agency’s interpretation of a statute that it is charged with administering scrambles the separation of powers. Others point out that Chevron runs counter to the Administrative Procedure Act, which instructs courts to “decide all relevant questions of law” and “interpret constitutional and statutory provisions.” And still others urge that Chevron offends due process, given the systemic advantage it confers upon the government in regulatory litigation.

But is American Hospital Association the proper vehicle for overturning Chevron? Three main obstacles block the way toward the overturning of Chevron in the case. The first is the Court’s resolution of an additional question that it asked the parties to brief, concerning the reviewability of HHS’s interpretation. The second is the Court’s potential interest in a sort of Chevron exceptionalism for interpretations about appropriations provisions. And the third is the possibility that the Court itself is just not ready to overturn Chevron, instead preferring an alternate path even if it reaches the question.

For starters, the Court could stop short of the Chevron question altogether if it finds that the agency action at issue in the case is unreviewable. The Court has long held that administrative action embodies a presumption of reviewability. Essentially, the Court assumes that a given agency action is reviewable unless a statute precludes judicial review or the court has “no law to apply” in evaluating the agency’s action. The presumption of reviewability may also be a check against broad agency discretion; some judges find such discretion—as the recent revival of interest in the nondelegation doctrine evinces—constitutionally dubious.

But Professor Nicholas Bagley has called the presumption of reviewability itself into question. In a recent Harvard Law Review article, Professor Bagley argued that the presumption has no basis in history, positive law, the Constitution, or sound policy considerations. Professor Chris Walker has made the point that because of the longstanding nature of the presumption, the Court is unlikely to shift gears in American Hospital Association. Still, the Court has asked the parties for briefing on the question whether HHS’s action is reviewable. This presents the Court with the opportunity to (1) find that the statute at issue in this case falls into one of the clearly established exceptions to the presumption of reviewability, (2) cabin the presumption somewhat, or (3) draw on Professor Bagley’s work to eschew the presumption altogether. Any of these three options would allow the Court to resolve the case on non-Chevron grounds.

Next, the Court might decline to apply Chevron deference for a reason that is particular to the facts of this case. While jurists and commentators often speak of Chevron in general terms, some have posited that certain areas of public administration should obtain a sort of Chevron exceptionalism. As it pertains to American Hospital Association, Professor Matthew Lawrence has written that “[c]ourts should adopt a bifurcated approach to the application of Chevron for appropriations that disfavors deference for permanent appropriations provisions, but not for annual appropriations provisions.” Because Medicare payment flows from a permanent appropriation of federal money, the argument goes, Chevron deference would be especially inappropriate for HHS’s interpretation of a Medicare appropriations provision. This is because, according to Professor Lawrence, deferring to agency interpretations of permanent appropriations provisions may do significant violence to the separation of powers and seriously encroach on Congress’s domain. The Court could resolve the case on these grounds, or even take a slightly broader view and find that Chevron is inapplicable in the appropriations realm as a general matter. Either way, such a result would likely produce a narrow holding applicable only to a subset of administrative action.

Finally, the Court could squarely answer the Chevron question and still refuse to overrule its precedent. The Court might (1) declare that the statute is clear and, therefore, Chevron deference does not apply; (2) issue a Kisor-esque decision that cabins Chevron’s general applicability but keeps the precedent on life support; or (3) simply reaffirm Chevron on stare decisis grounds and apply it to the present case. There is some overlap among these three doctrinal paths.

Beginning with the first option, Chevron itself set forth a two-step approach. At the first step, if Congress’s intent is clear, the Court must give effect to the clear statutory text. This part of Chevron is uncontroversial—if, for example, a statute commands that an agency “shall” do something, that agency’s interpretation that it “may” (and, by corollary, may not) do the thing would not be entitled to deference, because it conflicts with the clear language of the law. As such, if the Court finds the provision at issue unambiguous, it could answer the question presented in the negative without wading into the deference debate.

The second option laid out above uses the term “Kisor-esque” to refer to the Court’s recent decision in Kisor v. Wilkie. There, the Court was faced with the question whether to overturn Auer v. Robbins, which stands for the principle that courts must defer to agencies’ interpretations of their own ambiguous regulations. In Kisor, the Court upheld Auer, but significantly cabined its application. Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan explained that Auer deference is only proper when a regulation is “genuinely ambiguous,” determined after rigorous deployment of the full set of the canons of statutory interpretation. Moreover, the Court delineated a set of situations in which Auer deference would not come into play, even if the regulation was genuinely ambiguous—these include interpretations that create unfair surprise to regulated parties, interpretations that do not implicate the agency’s substantive expertise, and interpretations that do not reflect fair and considered agency judgment.

In a concurrence, Chief Justice Roberts supplied the key fifth vote for the Kisor majority. To be sure, he wrote that “[i]ssues surrounding judicial deference to agency interpretations of their own regulations are distinct from those raised in connection with judicial deference to agency interpretations of statutes enacted by Congress,” citing Chevron. But in recent years, the Court has narrowed the set of situations in which Chevron applies, establishing what Professor Cass Sunstein once termed a “Chevron step zero.” Given what the Court did in Kisor, it would not be unheard of for the Court to come out a similar way in American Hospital Association, summarizing the step zero doctrine and declining to apply Chevron deference for any one of a host of reasons (perhaps because of the permanent appropriations issue, as described above), while leaving Chevron on the books.

Proceeding to the third option, it is entirely possible (if implausible) that the Court simply upholds Chevron on stare decisis grounds. Whatever its faults, Chevron is a landmark precedent that has been on the books for nearly 40 years. Still, Justice Thomas has raised the possibility that Chevron is not entitled to stare decisis effect because it is merely a canon of statutory interpretation. Moreover, it is unclear whether five Justices on the current Court would join an opinion that simply upholds Chevron in its current form.

A reckoning with Chevron may be forthcoming at the Court, and not a moment too soon for those who would like to see Chevron banished to the anti-canon of administrative law. In fact, such a reckoning may come as soon as this term. But to overturn Chevron in American Hospital Association, the Court would need to clear a few hurdles. First, the Court would have to find that the statute at issue in the case is reviewable. Second, the Court would need to resist the temptation to merely carve out interpretations relating to permanent appropriations (or appropriations generally) from Chevron, without doing more. Third, the Court would be required to pass on a number of other possible Chevron outcomes, including a Kisor-esque restatement of Court-imposed limitations on Chevron that keeps the precedent intact.

If five or more Justices avoid these various off-ramps, Chevron may be on the chopping block.

Eli Nachmany is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Prior to law school, Nachmany worked in the White House Office of American Innovation as a domestic policy aide and as the Speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

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