Supreme Court Errs in Giving Agencies Power to Define Their Own Power

Although it did good by taxpayers today, the Supreme Court also issued a divided ruling that unfortunately expands the power of administrative agencies generally.  In City of Arlington v. FCC, six justices gave agencies discretion to decide when they have the power to regulate in a given area – which expands on the broad discretion they already have to regulate within the areas in which Congress granted them authority.

But why should courts defer to agency determinations regarding their own authority?  Courts review congressional action, so why should theoretically subservient bureaucrats – appointed by the executive branch and empowered by Congress – escape such checks and balances?  

Underneath the legal jargon and competing precedent regarding the line between actions that are “jurisdictional” (assertion of authority) versus “nonjurisdictional” (use of authority) is a very basic question: whether a government body uses its power wisely or not, it cannot possibly be the judge of whether it has that power to begin with.  Yet Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, essentially says that there’s no such thing as a dispute over whether an agency has power to regulate in a given area, just clear congressional lines of authority and ambiguous ones, with agencies having free rein in the latter circumstance unless their actions are “arbitrary and capricious” (what lawyers call Chevron deference, after a foundational 1984 case involving the oil company).

That makes no sense.  As Cato explained in our brief, since the theory of deference is based on Congress’s affirmative grant of power to an agency over a defined jurisdiction, it’s incoherent to say that the failure to provide such power is an equal justification for deference. Furthermore, granting an agency deference over its own jurisdiction is an open invitation for agencies to aggrandize power that Congress never intended them to have. One doesn’t need a doctorate in public choice economics to recognize that we need checks on those who wield power because it’s in their nature to husband and grow that power.

More broadly, this case should make us question the whole doctrine of Chevron deference: Yes, decisions about the scope of agency power should be made by elected officials, not by bureaucrats insulated from political accountability, but courts should also review with a more skeptical eye agency decisions about the use of power even within the proper scope.