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Bill to curb agency deference in court cases passes House

The U.S.House of Representatives voted along party lines to pass a bill that would limit courts' deference to agency interpretationsof statutory provisions and agency rules, a proposal that could affect legal precedentsand regulatory interpretations for the energy sector.

The Houseon July 11 passed H.R. 4768, or the Separation of Powers Restoration Act of 2016,by a vote of 240-171. Rather than defer to agency interpretations of congressionalstatues or rules, the GOP-backed bill would require courts to conduct "de novo,"or new reviews of the meaning of contested federal laws. Those new reviews wouldapply to "all relevant questions of law, including the interpretation of constitutionaland statutory provisions, and rules made by agencies," the bill stated.

The legislation,if signed into law, would undo two key legal doctrines: the Auer defense, in which courts defer to agencies'interpretations of their own rules, and the Chevrondeference, in which courts frequently defer to agencies on the meaning of ambiguousstatutes. Republican lawmakers applauded House passage of H.R. 4768, a measure theysaid would ease executive overreach.

"[This bill] gives power back to the courts — ratherthan the bureaucrats — to be the ultimate deciders of the meaning of laws passedby the people's elected representatives — exactly what is required to rein in therunaway administrative state," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte,R-Va., and other committee members said. In a July 11 statement on the House floor, Goodlatte said the Auer andChevron doctrines work "hand-in-hand to expand the power of federal bureaucratsto impose whatever decision they want as often as they can, escaping whenever possiblemeaningful checks and balances from the courts."

The proposedreforms, if they become law, could affect long-standing legal precedents and regulatoryinterpretations for the energy sector. The legislation also comes as many statesand industry groups are fighting court battles against new regulations, includingthe U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon emissions from existing powerplants. Among other criticism, GOP lawmakers have said the agency its authority in crafting the ruleand is unlawfully regulating emissions from the same source under two differentsections of the Clean Air Act, an action the EPA said it is allowed to take. Lawsuitsare also pending against other federal rules affecting the energy sector, includingthe EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Clean Water Rule.

But H.R.4768 stands little chance of enactment during the Obama administration. The WhiteHouse said it strongly opposed the bill and would recommend a veto if the legislationreached the president's desk.

The bill"would unnecessarily overrule decades of Supreme Court precedent, it is notin the public interest, and it would add needless complexity and delay to judicialreview of regulatory actions," the administration said.