News & Insights


On January 17, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) heard oral arguments in the case of Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce. The case involves a challenge by plaintiff Relentless to a rule issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) requiring the herring fishing industry to bear the cost of overcatch observers on fishing boats. In addition to a challenge of the rule, the plaintiff also challenged the Chevron doctrine, which the Court has applied to decide cases involving federal regulations since 1984. Under the Chevron doctrine, federal regulatory agency decisions are entitled to deference by the federal courts when they are a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 845 (1984).

In Relentless, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit applied the Chevron doctrine to uphold the NMFS rule, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of federal law. See Relentless Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Com., 561 F. Supp. 3d 226, 233 (D.R.I. 2021), aff’d sub nom. Relentless, Inc. v. United States Dep’t of Com., 62 F.4th 621 (1st Cir. 2023). SCOTUS declined to take up the plaintiff’s challenge to the fisheries rule, but did take up the plaintiff’s argument that the Chevron doctrine should be overruled. Attorneys for the plaintiff argue the Chevron doctrine undermines the duty of courts to interpret laws and violates federal law governing administrative agencies, which requires courts to review legal questions de novo. Counsel for the Biden administration urged SCOTUS to leave the Chevron doctrine in place, arguing that the Court’s prior jurisprudence should require a truly extraordinary justification to be overruled.

During oral arguments, Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Jackson expressed support for keeping the Chevron doctrine in place. They repeatedly suggested that federal agencies, who typically possess a greater degree of scientific and technical expertise, are better suited than courts to resolve ambiguities in a federal statute. Justices Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas expressed skepticism of the doctrine, suggesting that it could be replaced by a lower level of agency deference. Justice Barrett commented that the doctrine has been used to decide regulatory cases for decades and asked whether overruling Chevron would put those rulings into question. Chief Justice Roberts suggested this effect could be minimal, as the Supreme Court had not relied on the Chevron doctrine in several years.

Based on the oral arguments, it appears likely to Court commentators that the Court will, at minimum, limit the Chevron doctrine. Although SCOTUS no longer applies the Chevron doctrine in favor of federal agencies, such as the EPA, lower courts still frequently apply the doctrine when reviewing federal regulatory agency decisions. If the Chevron doctrine is overturned or limited, then the lower courts would have more power to interpret federal statutes and regulations. This could have far-reaching effects, possibly resulting in a flood of litigation seeking to overturn other federal regulatory agency decisions.