From Chevron to Massachusetts: Justice Stevens's Approach to Securing the Public Interest

48 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2009 Last revised: 1 Aug 2011

See all articles by Kathryn A. Watts

Kathryn A. Watts

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: September 23, 2009


During the past three decades, one Supreme Court justice - Justice John Paul Stevens - has authored two of the most significant administrative law decisions that speak to the judiciary’s role in checking agency interpretations of the statutes that they administer: Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., a landmark 1984 decision in which the Court unanimously upheld the EPA’s construction of a term found in the Clean Air Act, and Massachusetts v. EPA, a 2007 decision in which a five-justice majority handed a major win to global environmental security by ordering the EPA to reconsider its refusal to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Although both decisions were written by Justice Stevens and both involved the EPA and the Clean Air Act, the two decisions seem to send very different messages about the judiciary’s policing function. In Chevron, the Court embraced a highly deferential, hands-off view of the judiciary, whereas in Massachusetts, the Court embraced a more protective, active judicial role. In light of the seemingly divergent messages sent by Justice Stevens in Massachusetts and Chevron, this Article seeks to assess where Justice Stevens stands when it comes to the judiciary’s policing role with respect to agency action that impacts matters of public security, health, safety and welfare. This Article ultimately concludes that when Justice Stevens’s opinions are viewed as a whole, a fairly clear picture emerges: Justice Stevens cannot accurately be labeled as either the proponent of a hands-off judiciary (à la Chevron), or the proponent of an active judiciary (à la Massachusetts) when it comes to securing the public interest. Rather, as a strong adherent of purposivism, Justice Stevens seeks to effectuate Congress’s own animating goals - paying particularly close attention to Congress’s protective and remedial purposes, such as the protection of the integrity of our animal species, our air, and our waters. Thus, although he expressly eschews deciding cases based on his own policy preferences, his purposivist approach to statutory interpretation seems to enable him to give agencies the leeway they need to facilitate broad protective goals set by Congress and conversely to check agencies when they act counter to Congress’s protective or remedial purposes.

Keywords: Justice Stevens, deference, judicial review, purposivism, statutory interpretation, Chevron, remedial canon

JEL Classification: K00, K32

Suggested Citation

Watts, Kathryn A., From Chevron to Massachusetts: Justice Stevens's Approach to Securing the Public Interest (September 23, 2009). UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 43, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Kathryn A. Watts (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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