Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Res. Def. Council

Argued February 29, 1984
Decided June 25, 1984
Full case name Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., et al.
Docket nos. 82-1005

467 U.S. 837 (more)

104 S. Ct. 2778; 81 L. Ed. 2d 694; 21 ERC (BNA) 1049; 14 Envtl. L. Rep. 20,507; 52 U.S.L.W. 4845; 1984 U.S. LEXIS 118
Argument Oral argument
Prior history Natural Resources Defense Council v. Gorsuch, 685 F.2d 718 (D.C. Cir. 1982), cert. granted sub nom. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 461 U.S. 956 (1983)
Subsequent history Rehearing denied, 468 U.S. 1227 (1984)
Courts must defer to administrative agency interpretations of the authority granted to them by Congress (1) where the intent of Congress was ambiguous and (2) where the interpretation was reasonable or permissible.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Stevens, joined by Burger, White, Brennan, Powell, Blackmun
Marshall, Rehnquist, O'Connor took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 (Pub. L. No. 95-95, 91 Stat. 685); 40 C.F.R. 51.18(j)(1)(i)-(ii) (1983)

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), was a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court set forth the legal test for determining whether to grant deference to a government agency's interpretation of a statute which it administers. Chevron is the Court's clearest articulation of the doctrine of "administrative deference," to the point that the Court itself has used the phrase "Chevron deference" in more recent cases.[1]


Under the Supreme Court's ruling in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803), United States federal courts have the authority to judicially review the statutes enacted by Congress, and declare a statute invalid if it violates the Constitution. But the Constitution sets no express limits on how much federal authority can be delegated to a government agency. Rather, limits on the authority granted to a federal agency occur within the statutes enacted by Congress.


Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1977 to address states that had failed to attain the air quality standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Defendant). "The amended Clean Air Act required these 'non-attainment' States to establish a permit program regulating 'new or modified major stationary sources' of air pollution."[2] During the Carter administration, the EPA defined a source as any device in a manufacturing plant that produced pollution. In 1981, after Ronald Reagan's election, the EPA adopted a new definition that allowed an existing plant to get permits for new equipment that did not meet standards as long as the total emissions from the plant itself did not increase. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental protection group, challenged the EPA regulation in federal court, which ruled in the NRDC's favor.[3] Chevron, an affected party, appealed the lower court's decision.


The issue facing the Court was what standard of review should be applied by a court to a government agency's own reading of a statute that it is charged with administering.


The Court, in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, upheld the EPA's interpretation. A two-part analysis was born from the Chevron decision (called the "Chevron two-step test"), where a reviewing court determines:

First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute . . . Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.
Chevron U.S.A. v. NRDC, 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984).


Chevron is probably the most frequently cited case in American administrative law,[4] but some scholars suggest that the decision has had little impact on the Supreme Court's jurisprudence and merely clarified the Court's existing approach.[5]

Chevron, 18 years later, was able to invoke Chevron deference to win another case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Echazabal, 536 U.S. 73 (2002), before the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court applied Chevron deference and upheld as reasonable an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation, which allowed an employer to refuse to hire an applicant when the applicant's disability on the job would pose a "direct threat" to the applicant's own health.

Three 21st-century decisions of the Supreme Court may limit the scope of administrative agency actions that receive Chevron deference to agency decisions that have the "force of law."[6] This new doctrine is sometimes referred to as "Chevron step zero."[7] Thus, for example, a regulation promulgated under the "notice and comment" provisions of § 553 of the Administrative Procedure Act would be likely to receive Chevron deference, but a letter sent by an agency, such as a US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) "no-action" letter, would not.[8] However, an agency action that does not receive Chevron deference may still receive some degree of deference under the old standard of Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944).[9] The majority in Christensen v. Harris County (2000) suggested that Chevron deference should apply to formal agency documents which have the force of law while Skidmore should apply to less formal agency documents in an attempt to draw a bright line for the question of "force of law" under Chevron step zero. In King v. Burwell (2015), the Supreme Court has suggested that Chevron deference may be inappropriate in regulatory actions of "profound economic and political significance,"[10] hinting at the possibility of substantially limiting, or even eliminating, the doctrine.[11]

See also


  1. United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 226 (2001).
  2. 467 U.S. at 840.
  3. NRDC v. Gorsuch, 685 F.2d 718.
  4. Barnes, Robert (March 5, 2015). "When the subject is Obamacare, never forget about Chief Justice Roberts". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-03-06. Roberts’s question was referring to “Chevron deference,” a doctrine mostly unknown beyond the halls of the Capitol and the corridors of the Supreme Court. It refers to a 1984 decision, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., and it is one of the most widely cited cases in law....A decision based on Chevron deference could say to Congress: Fix the law to make it unambiguous. It says to the executive branch: Implementation of the law is up to you.
  5. Thomas W. Merrill, Judicial Deference to Executive Precedent, 101 Yale L.J. 969, 982-985 (1992)
  6. See Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002); United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218 (2001); Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000).
  7. See, for example, Cass R. Sunstein, "Chevron Step Zero," 92 Va. L. Rev. 187 (2006).
  8. See Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (1999) (no Chevron deference to opinion letter sent by NLRB about interpretation of overtime laws)
  9. See Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002) (stating explicitly that Skidmore still applies to agency actions that do not receive Chevron deference)
  10. King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 8) (internal quotation marks deleted)
  11. See Michigan v. EPA, 576 U.S. ___, ___ (2015) (Thomas, J., concurring) (slip op., at 1).
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