June 01, 2019

No More Deference to State Environmental Agencies?

Douglas A. Henderson and J. Houston Shaner

Just how much should courts defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations? For several decades now, the answer in federal court has been “quite a lot.” The agency deference doctrine is commonly traced back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1945 decision, Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., where the Court remarked that an “administrative interpretation[,]” in that case the Office of Price Administration’s view of a maximum price rule, “becomes of controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” 325 U.S. 410, 414 (1945). How much this remark about deference dictated the ultimate outcome in Seminole Rock is up for debate. On its own reading, the Court found the rule to be perfectly clear (which would make deference unnecessary), and it gave neither authority nor policy argument for why agency views receive “controlling weight.”

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