On Monday, the Solicitor General filed an extraordinary brief in Kisor v. Wilkie, a case in which the Supreme Court is reconsidering “Auer deference,” or binding judicial respect for an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation. The brief is remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented, because it reflects the evident desire of the president to cede significant power to another branch of government.
Under Auer’s canonical formulation, an agency’s regulatory interpretation is “controlling unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” The problem is that, in practice, Auer allows agencies to bind the public with putatively nonbinding advisories, and thereby evade procedural safeguards.
Astonishingly, the government’s brief recognizes the harms engendered by Auer. In a forthright section titled “Overly broad deference to agency interpretations can have harmful practical consequences,” the Solicitor General concedes that “[Auer] deference can discourage agencies from engaging in notice-and-comment rulemaking.” More importantly, the government proposes to mitigate these concerns by narrowing the doctrine.
To this end, the brief argues that Auer deference is appropriate only if the regulatory text involves a “genuine ambiguity.” While this may seem obvious, reasonable minds often disagree about “how clear is clear?” The Solicitor General intimates that courts have been too quick to defer–that is, they’ve been too easily satisfied the regulatory text is ambiguous–when the brief claims that “[a] rigorous application of the tools of construction would obviate any need for [Auer] deference in many cases.” Here, the government borrowed from the late Justice Scalia, who made the same point about judicial deference to an agency’s statutory interpretations.
Even if the regulatory text is genuinely ambiguous, the government argues that “the agency’s interpretation should be given [Auer] deference only if certain threshold requirements are satisfied.”
First, the Solicitor General argues that controlling deference should be “limited to interpretations that are not inconsistent with the agency’s prior views.” This is already a tremendous concession, but the government goes further. “Even when there is no express inconsistency,” the brief continues, “[Auer] deference should not apply when the agency adopts a novel interpretation that disrupts settled expectations.” By arguing that binding deference is inappropriate where it offends “settled interests,” the Solicitor General goes a long way towards reviving the defunct “Alaska Hunters doctrine,” which required agencies to undertake notice-and-comment rulemakings whenever they changed a regulatory interpretation in a manner that affected the reliance interests of regulated parties. In Perez v. MBA, the Supreme Court rejected the Alaska Hunters doctrine, but the government appears to be trying to revive it in Kisor.
Second, the brief argues that “a reviewing court  should not apply [Auer] deference if a particular interpretive dispute does not implicate the agency’s expertise.”
Finally, the Solicitor General advises that “[Auer] deference is unwarranted [if] a proffered interpretation was given by field officials or other low-level employees who cannot be said to speak for the agency.”
Together, these three conditions—but particularly the requirement for interpretive consistency—would go far to cure the ills of Auer. The government, however, stopped short of calling for an outright repeal of the doctrine. Nor did the brief call for the Court to account for the administrative procedure behind the agency’s interpretation. For administrative law nerds, this means that the government seeks an Auer framework with robust “steps” one and two, but no step zero.
Of course, I’d prefer if the Court rejected Auer deference wholesale, and the Cato Institute has filed a brief in Kisor supporting the overruling of Auer. Notwithstanding my preference to jettison the doctrine, I’m favorably impressed by the government’s brief. To my eyes, it represents a wise abnegation of presidential power.
Theoretically, the Solicitor General is supposed to represent the interests of the United States, not the executive branch, per se. And, in practice, it retains a healthy degree of independence from political meddling. At the same time, the office is aware of the institutional interests of its political bosses, and, historically, the Solicitor General rarely has adopted legal positions out of line with those that protect or advance presidential authority. The upshot is that it’s virtually certain that the Trump administration was the impetus for the anti-executive reasoning in the government’s Kisor brief.
For this, the administration deserves credit. To riff off a famous biblical passage, it is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for the president to give up power. Yet that’s precisely what the Solicitor General proposes to do in its Kisor brief. By arguing for a limited Auer doctrine, the government argues for limits on its own power. Specifically, the executive branch seeks to transfer interpretive policymaking authority from itself to the judicial branch.
For some, the Solicitor General’s brief demonstrates dangerous “anti-administrativism” at the highest levels of government. I’ve a more positive take (though, admittedly, I’m an “anti-administrativist”). Thanks to overbroad congressional delegations and judicial deference doctrines, the president has accumulated unhealthy domination over domestic policymaking, via his control of the administrative state. We live in a time of “presidential administration,” as put by then-professor Elena Kagan. In this current political environment, where the legislature and judiciary aren’t competing to the extent they should, one of the primary limitations on presidential power is internal—that is, the duty to “take care that he laws be faithfully executed.” In this spirit, the Solicitor General’s brief recognizes that Auer deference undermines procedural safeguards set forth in the Administrative Procedure Act, and, therefore, recommends limiting the doctrine’s domain.
Obviously, the Trump administration rarely abides this internal check; the wall funding imbroglio represents a powerful example to the contrary. But when this presidency does the right thing, as with the Kisor brief, then kudos are in order.