The Origins of Judicial Deference to Executive Interpretation
95 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2015 Last revised: 31 Oct 2017
Date Written: August 22, 2015
Judicial deference to executive statutory interpretation - a doctrine now commonly associated with the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council - is one of the central principles in modern American public law. Despite its significance, however, the doctrine’s origins and development are poorly understood. The Court in Chevron claimed that the roots of judicial deference stem from statutory interpretation cases dating to the early nineteenth century. Others, by contrast, have sought to locate Chevron’s doctrinal roots in judicial review’s origins in the writ of mandamus. According to the standard narrative, courts in the pre-Chevron era followed a multifactor and ad hoc approach to issues of judicial deference; there was little theory that explained the body of cases; and the holdings and reasoning of the cases were often contradictory and difficult to rationalize.
This Article challenges the standard account. It argues that the Supreme Court in Chevron, and scholarly commentators since, have misidentified nineteenth-century statutory interpretation cases applying canons of construction “respecting” contemporaneous and customary interpretation as cases deferring to executive interpretation as such. It further argues that, although the standard for obtaining a writ of mandamus was central to judicial review in the early Republic, statutory developments in the latter half of the nineteenth century (significantly, the enactment of general federal-question jurisdiction in 1875) ultimately mooted the relevance of that standard. Finally, it discusses the intellectual challenges to the traditional interpretive framework beginning in the early twentieth century; the Supreme Court’s embrace of these intellectual challenges in the early 1940s; and Congress’s attempt in the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) standard-of-review provision to reject the Court’s interpretive experimentation and corresponding deviation from the traditional canons. The Article thus seeks to establish - contrary to the suggestion in Chevron and recent cases - that there was no rule of statutory construction requiring judicial deference to executive interpretation qua executive interpretation in the early American Republic. And it contends that the governing statute of administrative law - the APA - was intended to codify the traditional interpretive approach and to reject the experimentation of the 1940s Court. Taken together, these conclusions cast doubt on much of the received wisdom on the doctrinal basis for the rule announced in Chevron.
Keywords: Administrative law, interpretation, remedies, jurisdiction, federal courts, constitutional law
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