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Leveling the Playing Field against Federal Agency Regulatory Interpretation: The Supreme Court’s Kisor Decision and the U.S. Attorney General’s 2018 Memorandum

Energy and Environmental Trends Watch

Last month, the Supreme Court in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S.Ct. 2400 (2019) upheld what is known in administrative law as Auer deference: the age-old principle that a court should defer to an agency when the agency is interpreting its own ambiguous language in a regulation. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997); see also Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945). Deference to an agency’s regulatory interpretation has long been a challenge to industry and the broader regulated community. In any situation where an agency is on the other side of an issue—whether negotiations or a lawsuit—the agencies always had the upper hand when regulatory language was ambiguous. And this interpretation could often be the deciding factor between a party being in compliance with or in violation of a regulation.

But, with the Kisor decision the Court attempted to respect decades of precedent in this area yet rein in the frequency of Auer deference’s use and assuage naysayers by establishing clear standards for when a court should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations.

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