Judicial Deference, Agency Commitment, and Force of Law

54 Pages Posted: 12 May 2005

See all articles by Richard W. Murphy

Richard W. Murphy

Texas Tech University School of Law


The law governing judicial deference to agency statutory constructions is a complex brew of improbable fictions and proceduralism. One reason this state of affairs persists is that courts have failed to resolve a contradiction between two competing, sensible impulses in deference doctrine. Oceans of precedent over the last 150 years have stressed that courts should defer to longstanding, reasonable constructions by agencies of statutes they administer. Then along came Chevron, which extolled agency flexibility and instructed courts to extend strong deference even to interpretive flip-flops. Competition between the virtues of interpretive consistency and flexibility has bubbled through and confused judicial deference analysis ever since. The Supreme Court's recent efforts to limit the scope of Chevron's strong deference to agency constructions that carry the force of law has worsened such confusion, in part because the Court's discussion and application of this concept were incoherent.

This Article proposes a commitment approach to this force-of-law limitation that has deep roots in the concept of the rule of law and considerable power to clarify deference doctrine by resolving the clash between the competing values of interpretive consistency and flexibility. For the rule of law to be genuine, the default position must be that laws have general applicability - i.e., the law for X should be the law for Y as well. This truism suggests that an agency's statutory construction properly can enjoy the force of law only where the agency has committed to applying its construction consistently across time and parties. Where an agency's construction is longstanding, the agency's commitment to consistent application is self-evident. The puzzle, of course, is to reconcile this commitment approach with Chevron's praise of interpretive flexibility. One solution is to recognize that an agency can genuinely commit to a new interpretation by adopting it in a manner that makes it costly to change course later. Where agencies commit to consistency in this way, there is less need for courts to engage in independent statutory construction to protect rule-of-law values, which should leave courts freer to accept the premise of strong deference that the best way to determine the meaning of an agency's statute is to trust the agency's own (rational) construction.

Keywords: Chevron, Mead, judicial deference, rule-of-law, force-of-law, longstanding statutory constructions

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Richard Wyman, Judicial Deference, Agency Commitment, and Force of Law. Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 66, 2005; William Mitchell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=722222 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.722222

Richard Wyman Murphy (Contact Author)

Texas Tech University School of Law ( email )

1802 Hartford
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States
806-742-3990 ex.320 (Phone)

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