Supreme Court Hears Case Brought by Fishermen That Challenges a Big Government Mandate

( – The Supreme Court has heard a case from a group of fishermen who are challenging a controversial legal doctrine that gives the federal government huge regulatory powers. The skippers are complaining about a requirement to carry expensive regulators whenever they put to sea, but if they win their case, it could have huge implications for government agencies. Right now, federal regulators have the power to interpret ambiguous laws. That might be about to change.

In a 1984 case, Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that where Congress hasn’t set limits on a federal agency’s regulatory powers, courts should go with the agency’s interpretation of the law, so as long as it’s reasonable. This became known as “Chevron deference” or, more commonly, “the Chevron doctrine,” and it’s one of the most frequently cited cases in administrative law — more than 80,000 times. Federal agencies have used it to hugely expand their powers.

In 2020, the National Maritime Fisheries Service (NMFS) ruled that boats fishing for herring off the northeast coast of the US must pay the costs of carrying federally mandated monitors on board. This isn’t trivial — boats are charged $700 per day for carrying a monitor. On top of that, fishermen don’t get paid a wage. They share whatever value is left from the catch after deductions for fuel, food, fishing gear, and the boat owner’s profit, so the amount they earn can vary wildly depending on how successful the trip is. Having to pay a monitor $700 a day takes a big bite out of what’s left for the crew.

After the NMFS started forcing boats to pay the monitors, family-owned New Jersey fishing company Loper Bright Enterprises filed a lawsuit in a Washington, DC, federal court stating that the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act said the NMFS could order boats to carry monitors, but it couldn’t make them pay for them. The court found in favor of the NMFS, but Loper Bright has taken it all the way to the Supreme Court — and some of the justices, particularly Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, seem skeptical that letting agencies set the limits of their powers is a good idea.

If the Court rules in favor of the fishermen, the federal government’s power to interfere in our lives could be seriously reduced.

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