On one of the last days for opinions in its current term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Kisor v Wilkie, a case involving the esoteric question of whether, and to what degree, courts must defer to agency interpretations of their own rules. “Agency deference” is the concept that an agency has more expertise than courts in the subject regulated by the agency, so courts should defer to the agency when there are gaps or uncertainties in laws and administrative regulations. The facts of the case are largely unimportant in the grand scheme, but the case was regarded as the potential vehicle through which the conservatives on the Court would overturn longstanding precedent supporting agency deference. Instead, Justice Kagan, joined by the liberals on the Court and Chief Justice Roberts, refined and narrowed the test. Essentially, if an agency’s rule is ambiguous and meets certain requirements, courts will defer to the agency’s interpretation if application of the rule is challenged.
While Kisor is not the most thrilling of opinions for anyone except legal scholars and bureaucrats, it does have an impact on laypeople. Specifically, it makes certain agency decisions more difficult to appeal. For example, agency rules are used to grant or deny various benefits, including those related to pensions. If a rule regarding a pension meets the test for agency deference, then an individual aggrieved by an agency decision is less likely to win through appeal than that person would have been had the Court decided no deference is due to the agency. Consequently, Kisor will have a meaningful, if understated, impact on administrative law.
Those interested in reading the opinion may access it here.