In 1994, Professor Thomas Merrill observed the simultaneous rise of two phenomena dominating the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence: textualism and Chevron1 deference.2 Times have changed. Although most commentators reflexively characterize the Roberts Court as a textualist Court, it has recently betrayed a purposivist orientation in major statutory cases. And although Chevron remains good law, the Court has recently spurned the framework in major cases involving agency statutory interpretations.
Some scholars have noted either the move toward purposivism or away from Chevron,3 but this Note explores the connection between these two patterns. It argues that Chief Justice Roberts is the catalyst of both trends and proposes three explanations for their confluence: first, an inclination toward judicial empowerment; second, an effort to respect congressional will; and third, an impulse to afford major cases special treatment. These three explanations are equally plausible and in no way mutually exclusive, but the third carries the most problematic normative consequences.
This Note proceeds in three parts. Part I explores statutory interpretation in the Roberts Court and argues that the Court, led by the Chief Justice, has moved toward purposivism in major cases. Part II contends that this move has coincided with a shift away from Chevron deference in major cases, also led by the Chief Justice. Part III examines common threads between the rise of purposivism and fall of Chevron.
I. Statutory Interpretation in the Roberts Court
Scholars associate traditional purposivism with Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States.4 There, the Court held that a statute prohibiting the importation of a foreigner “to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States” did not apply to a church’s importation of a British pastor.5 In so holding, the Court conceded that the “letter” of the statute clearly encompassed the pastor but found that its “spirit” — evidenced through “the circumstances surrounding its enactment,” “the intention of its makers,” and the “results which follow from [a broad reading]”6 — suggested that Congress intended it to apply only to manual laborers.7 Because of the “familiar rule” that a statute’s “spirit” trumps its “letter,” the Court explained, the statute could not be read to cover the pastor.8 Holy Trinity purposivism, therefore, jettisons the text’s literal meaning and affords controlling weight to (1) public knowledge of the circumstances surrounding enactment (what this Note calls legislative backdrop); and (2) the policy consequences of possible interpretations.
Yet most purposivists have abandoned Holy Trinity. The Court has not cited the case positively in over two decades,9 and it has become a much-maligned symbol of judicial activism.10 Holy Trinity purposivism has given way to a new brand of purposivism that places greater weight on the text’s semantic meaning.11 This method is sometimes called legal process purposivism because of its close link to the legal process theory espoused by Professors Henry Hart and Albert Sacks, which posits that judges should view statutes as the products of reasonable legislators seeking to advance reasonable goals through reasonable means.12 Legal process purposivism still maintains that interpretation requires “attribution of purpose” but acknowledges that “semantic meaning of the text casts light — perhaps the most important light — on the purposes to be attributed.”13
Textualism has also evolved over time. Early textualism prioritized the literal meaning of a given provision and often failed to appreciate the importance of context.14 But modern textualism is a highly “sophisticated theory of interpretation which readily acknowledges that the meaning of words depends on the context in which they are used.”15 To understand context, textualists regularly consult unenacted interpretive tools, such as dictionaries, semantic canons, and evidence of specialized meaning — though not legislative history, which textualists still swear off.16 Textualists now even acknowledge that purpose can sometimes play an important role in interpretation: as Professor John Manning writes, “[b]ecause speakers use language purposively, textualists recognize that the relevant context for a statutory text includes the mischiefs the authors were addressing.”17
With purposivists coming to realize the importance of semantic meaning and textualists coming to realize the importance of purpose, some commentators have argued there is no longer a meaningful divide between the two methodologies.18 This view is mistaken. Among other things, although both theories appreciate the importance of context, they prioritize differing forms of context. Textualists primarily look to “semantic context” — that is, “evidence about the way a reasonable person conversant with relevant social and linguistic practices would have used the words,”19 which generally consists of “linguistic data, dictionary definitions, and canons.”20 In contrast, legal process purposivists give primacy to “policy context” — that is, evidence about “the way a reasonable person conversant with the circumstances underlying enactment would suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.”21 Such evidence can include “public knowledge of the mischief the lawmakers sought to address” and “the way competing interpretations of a discrete statutory provision fit with the policy reflected in the statute’s preamble, title, or overall structure.”22
To boil down (and perhaps oversimplify) the interpretive methods that are central to this Note: textualist and legal process purposivist opinions account for both semantic and policy context, but textual ist opinions prioritize semantic context, whereas legal process purposivist opinions prioritize policy context. Holy Trinity purposivist opinions, on the other hand, incorporate very little textual analysis and focus almost entirely on policy context.
Commentators have generally deemed the Roberts Court a textualist court.23 Until recent Terms, this characterization would have held true, and it remains so in the Court’s run-of-the-mill statutory cases.24 Examples of the Roberts Court’s textualist approach abound.25
But the Court, led by the Chief Justice, has taken a different interpretive tack in its major statutory cases over the past three Terms. By “major” statutory cases, this Note refers to cases in which the federal government has exerted power — through a statute, administrative action, or criminal prosecution — in a novel and bold fashion, thereby raising a perceived threat to states’ rights, individual liberty, or both. Such cases inevitably implicate constitutional principles, especially federalism, nondelegation, and the scope of federal power.
In four of these cases, the Court abandoned its textualist tendencies and championed a purposivist approach. Two of the cases, Bond v. United States26 and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA27 (UARG), resemble Holy Trinity purposivism because of their meager textual analysis and focus on legislative backdrop and policy consequences. The other two cases, Yates v. United States28 and King v. Burwell,29 more closely resemble legal process purposivism because they seriously engage with semantic context but ultimately prioritize policy context.
Despite the common trope that the Roberts Court is a textualist court, some scholars have recognized a recent shift in the Court’s methodology. Manning has argued that some Justices adhere to a “new purposivist” philosophy, under which background purpose “plays a decisive role if and only if Congress has framed the text at a high enough level of generality to accommodate it.”30 But this Note argues that Bond, UARG, Yates, and King prioritize purpose (and policy context) over text (and semantic context) even when the relevant language encompasses “[a] precise and specific command.”31 Additionally, Professor Richard Re has pointed to a “New Holy Trinity” philosophy exhibited by the Roberts Court, under which the Court “aims to adhere to clear text when it’s the product of deliberate compromise, but not when it springs from an inattentive mistake.”32 This Note, by contrast, differentiates between the Court’s Holy Trinity purposivism and legal process purposivism and resists the notion that the Court has employed a version of the absurdity canon to mitigate statutory “mistakes” in its recent cases.
1. Bond v. United States. — Carol Anne Bond, a chemist, discovered that her best friend, Myrlinda Haynes, was pregnant with her husband’s child. Seeking revenge, Bond spread an arsenic-based compound and potassium dichromate — potentially lethal chemicals — on Haynes’s car, mailbox, and doorknob.33 For that deed, she was charged with and convicted of “possess[ing]” and “us[ing]” a “chemical weapon” in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998.34 That Act defines “chemical weapon” to mean “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to humans.”35 Because both substances Bond used were “chemicals” that could “cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to humans,” the Act’s literal meaning covered them.
Nonetheless, the Court overturned Bond’s conviction.36 Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts37 began by invoking the “background principle”38 that an ambiguous statute should be read to avoid disrupting the “usual constitutional balance of federal and state powers.”39 Because permitting a federal prosecution of Bond’s purely local crime might encroach on state police powers, the case implicated that principle.40 The question was whether the statutory definition of “chemical weapon” is ambiguous despite its clear literal meaning.
Relying heavily on the Act’s legislative backdrop and the “deeply serious consequences of adopting” the Government’s “boundless reading,”41 the Court found ambiguity. As to legislative backdrop: Congress passed the statute to implement the International Convention on Chemical Weapons,42 a treaty that “arose in response to war crimes and acts of terrorism” and whose drafters were not “interested in anything like Bond’s common law assault.”43 And as to consequences: the Government’s interpretation was too implausible to accept, given that “[a]ny parent would be guilty of a serious federal offense . . . when, exasperated by the children’s repeated failure to clean the goldfish tank, he considers poisoning the fish with a few drops of vinegar.”44 This “exceptional convergence of factors”45 led the Court to hold that the statute did not cover Bond’s conduct, despite the “extremely broad” definition of “chemical weapon.”46
Bond embodies Holy Trinity purposivism more than legal process purposivism. With scarce textual analysis, the opinion affords nearly controlling weight to the Act’s roots in an international effort to prevent war crimes and to the consequence of licensing U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide to make federal cases out of purely local crimes. The case presents the Roberts Court’s first foray into purposivism in a major case.
2. Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA. — In UARG, industry groups challenged an EPA regulation that swept certain stationary sources into the Clean Air Act’s47 (CAA) coverage solely by virtue of their greenhouse-gas emissions.48 The Act requires permits for construction or modification of “major emitting facilit[ies]” in any area where the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program applies and mandates that such sources meet stringent emissions standards.49 Under the Act, “major emitting facility” means “any stationary source with the potential to emit 250 tons per year of ‘any air pollutant.’”50
The EPA rule in UARG interpreted the phrase “any air pollu tant” to include greenhouse gases.51 Indeed, the agency believed the Act-wide definition of “air pollutant” compelled this interpre tation.52 Under that definition, an “air pollutant” is “any air pollu tion agent . . . , including any physical, chemical, biological, [or] radioactive . . . substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.”53 As the Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA,54 this definition’s plain language embraces “all airborne compounds of whatever stripe” — including, in the Massachusetts Court’s view, greenhouse gases.55 Because EPA thought it a foregone conclusion that greenhouse gases are “chemical . . . substance[s] . . . emitted into . . . the ambient air,” it deemed greenhouse gases regulable under the PSD program.56
Yet the Court disagreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia57 held that despite the plain meaning of the Act’s definition of “any air pollutant,” that definition cannot include greenhouse gases for purposes of the PSD program.58 As an initial matter, the Court observed that the canon of consistent usage was not controlling, reasoning that the Act-wide definition of “air pollutant” need not apply each time Congress used that phrase.59 Rather, the phrase’s meaning depends on its location within the Act, and in the PSD program, “calamitous consequences” would flow from reading the term to include greenhouse gases.60 Specifically, since even small sources, such as “retail stores, offices, apartment buildings, shopping centers, schools, and churches,”61 emit over 250 tons per year of greenhouse gases, millions of these small emitters would be subject to the Act’s “numerous and costly requirements,” yielding a massive administrative burden.62 The “plainly excessive demands on limited governmental resources” that would arise under EPA’s interpretation compelled the Court to reject it.63
The Court in UARG (both the majority and the dissent, which also followed a purposivist route, just to a different conclusion64), like the majority in Bond, eschewed the best semantic reading to avoid results it believed Congress could not have intended. And as in Bond, the UARG Court hardly parsed the text at all. It found ambiguity in the phrase “any air pollutant,” not because of textual anomalies that would arise under the alternative interpretation (as in King, infra), but because EPA had given the phrase a narrower interpretation in past rules and policies.65 It likewise deemed the Government’s greenhouse-gas–inclusive interpretation foreclosed, not because that interpretation would undermine interlocking reforms in other provisions (again, as in King, infra), but because the Court determined that the policy consequences of that interpretation would be “calamitous.”66 By concluding that policy consequences trump clear text, UARG more closely tracks Holy Trinity purposivism than legal process purposivism.
3. Yates v. United States. — Yates, like Bond, involved a criminal prosecution and a memorable set of facts. In Yates, the federal government prosecuted an individual under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 200267 for intentionally impeding a federal investigation by concealing a “tangible object.”68 In this case, the tangible objects that the defendant concealed were fish: seventy-two undersized red grouper that he instructed a crewmember to toss overboard during an investigation into violations of conservation regulations.69 The interpretive issue in Yates centered on whether a red grouper constitutes a “tangible object” for purposes of the Act.70
A four-Justice plurality held it does not. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the plurality,71 conceded at the outset that the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” indisputably includes a fish: “A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled . . . .”72 Similarly, the dictionary definition of “tangible object” — a “discrete . . . thing” — also supported the Government’s interpretation.73 But despite this compelling evidence of semantic meaning, the plurality refused to extend its interpretation “beyond the principal evil motivating [the law’s] passage,”74 which was “corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups” similar to those perpetrated in the Enron scandal.75 Given this legislative backdrop, the plurality doubted Congress meant to enact a general evidence-spoliation ban in passing the relevant provision.76 In accordance with the provision’s “financial-fraud mooring,” the plurality held, a “tangible object” under the Act “must be one used to record or preserve information.”77 Because a fish is not such an object, the plurality invalidated Yates’s conviction.78
To be sure, the Yates plurality spilled much ink exploring semantic context, invoking the semantic canons of noscitur a sociis, ejusdem generis, and the rule against superfluity.79 But the opinion is purposivist at its core — albeit legal process purposivist rather than Holy Trinity purposivist — because it is driven primarily by policy context.
4. King v. Burwell. — King involved a challenge that threatened to unravel the Affordable Care Act80 (ACA). The assault centered on § 36B of the Internal Revenue Code, which makes ACA tax credits available on “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U.S.C. § 18031].”81 An IRS rule made tax credits available on not only state-established exchanges, but also federally established exchanges, and the challengers argued that this rule flouted § 36B’s text.82
Despite this compelling textual argument, the Court upheld the rule in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts.83 In so doing, it acknowledged that the “most natural sense” of the words “Exchange established by the State” does not include exchanges established by the federal government,84 especially because the Act defines “State” to mean “each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia.”85 And it conceded that the literal meaning of the phrase “under [42 U.S.C. § 18031]” would also preclude subsidies on federal exchanges because it is another provision that directs the federal government to “establish and operate such Exchange” when a state declines to do so.86
Nonetheless, the Court explained, “when read in context,”87 the phrase “established by the State under [42 U.S.C. § 18031]” is ambiguous88 because construing it to preclude tax credits on federally created exchanges would spawn surprising statutory anomalies. Among other things, there would be no “qualified individuals” on federally created exchanges,89 and “literally none of the Act’s requirements would apply to” those exchanges.90
After finding § 36B ambiguous, the Court “turn[ed] to the broader structure of the Act,”91 which showed that the provision must allow tax credits on federal exchanges. Otherwise, in states with those exchanges, the tax credits designed to make insurance affordable and the “individual mandate” requiring all taxpayers to purchase health insurance — two of the Act’s key reforms — would be practically nullified.92 As the Court confidently declared, “[i]t is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.”93 Thus, the Court held, “the context and structure of the Act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.”94
King stands as a premier example of legal process purposivism, as policy context swayed the Court more than semantic context. As an initial matter, the Court analyzed the way in which the ACA’s three major reforms work together to form a coherent program that addresses a distinct mischief.95 The Chief Justice also emphasized the Court’s duty not to undo the “legislative plan” embodied by the ACA,96 aligning himself with the legal process principle of respecting the reasonable purposes of an objectively reasonable legislature. Of course, the Court did focus intently on the text — especially the textual anomalies that would have flowed from the challengers’ interpretation — thereby making the opinion more legal process than Holy Trinity. Yet it did so as a means to arrive at “a fair understanding of the legislative plan,”97 rather than as a dispositive end to interpretation.
Bond, UARG, Yates, and King were four of the Court’s most significant statutory cases in recent Terms, as each involved bold assertions of federal power and perceived threats to states’ rights and individual liberties. In Bond and Yates, federal prosecutors invoked federal statutes in surprising ways to target seemingly local activity, threatening state predominance in criminal law and implicating principles of fair notice. In UARG, EPA’s construction of the CAA would have empowered the agency to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from millions of small sources. And in King, Congress passed a law to overhaul the country’s sprawling healthcare system, which the IRS interpreted in a manner that expanded the program’s effect.
In each of these major cases, the Court deployed purposivism to reach atextual results. This emerging purposivist trend runs counter to the common trope that the Roberts Court is reliably textualist.
What accounts for the Court’s emerging purposivism in major statutory cases? Looking at the decision lineups in these four cases is telling. Chief Justice Roberts is the only Justice in the majority (or in Yates, the plurality) in all four cases. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor were each consistently purposivist in all four cases,98 but none prevailed across the board. Justices Kennedy and Kagan joined purposivist opinions in Bond, UARG,99 and King, but they both dissented in Yates on textualist grounds. And Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito each either wrote or joined textualist dissents or concurrences in the judgment in Bond, Yates, and King, while also joining the purposivist majority in UARG.
The most striking feature of these decision lineups is that Chief Justice Roberts was the only Justice to be both consistently purposivist and consistently on the winning side. The Chief Justice’s methodological consistency suggests that he has adopted a more coherent interpretive theory than scholars have given him credit for — at least in major cases.100 And his repeated victories imply that Chief Justice Roberts is the swing Justice in politically charged statutory cases, much like Justice Kennedy has been recognized as the swing Justice in politically charged constitutional cases.101
II. Chevron Deference in the Roberts Court
Chevron deference compels courts to uphold agency statutory interpretations that reasonably construe ambiguous provisions.102 The framework proceeds in two steps: at step one, the court determines whether the provision is ambiguous; if so, the court moves on to step two and asks whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable.103 The Court decided Chevron in 1984, and thereafter, Chevron deference became a staple of modern administrative law. Indeed, the Court’s Chevron jurisprudence has moved primarily toward doctrinal entrenchment over the years,104 albeit with some exceptions.105 Until recently, Chevron seemed a firmly rooted doctrine.106
Yet, as with textualism, Chevron’s reign is now in jeopardy. Over the last two Terms, three decisions have signaled a shift away from Chevron deference in major cases.
1. King v. Burwell. — First, in King, before reaching the statutory interpretation question of whether § 36B makes tax credits available on federally established exchanges, the Court concluded that Chevron did not apply.107 It reached this conclusion by articulating an exception to Chevron: absent a clear statement from Congress, the framework plays no role in cases of “deep ‘economic and political significance.’”108 King was such a case, the Court reasoned, because it implicated “billions of dollars in spending each year and affect[ed] the price of health insurance for millions of people.”109 Before King, the Court had held only that an agency’s interpretation failed at either step one or two because it sought to regulate matters of deep economic and political significance without a clear grant of authority;110 it had never held that Chevron was altogether inapplicable in such a case. This distinction matters, symbolically and potentially practically, because King’s method indicates an inclination toward further discrete categorical incursions into Chevron’s scope.111
King’s expansion of the so-called “major question” exception threatens Chevron’s predominance. The exception’s trigger — “deep economic and political significance” — is vague and difficult to administer.112 As such, five Justices could invoke it in a significant proportion of agency statutory interpretation cases, which would allow the exception to swallow Chevron’s rule.
More basically, the exception also undermines Chevron’s theoretical underpinnings. Chevron’s fundamental premise is that ambiguous statutory language functions as an implicit delegation from Congress to an agency.113 Filling in ambiguous language, the theory goes, resembles policymaking more than interpretation, so Congress would prefer an expert, politically accountable agency for that task over a generalist, unelected court.114 But this fundamental premise cannot be squared with the major question exception: for the same expertise and accountability reasons, reasonable legislators would want agencies, not courts, to decide “major” policy questions just as much as nonmajor ones.115 In fact, they would likely see it as especially vital that the body with more expertise and accountability decide these pressing questions. Announcing an exception in major cases thus flouts Chevron’s core rationale. On this view, King is a harbinger of Chevron’s demise.116
2. FERC v. Electric Power Supply Ass’n. — In addition to announcing an express exception to Chevron in King, the Court chipped away at it sub silentio in another recent case. FERC v. Electric Power Supply Ass’n117 (EPSA) involved a FERC rule that creatively sought to regulate consumer behavior by compelling energy-market operators to pay consumers for their “commitments not to use power at certain times” in order to reduce energy demand.118 The question was whether the rule affected wholesale rates, or instead retail rates, under the Federal Power Act.119 If the rule affected wholesale rates, the federal government could impose it; if it affected retail rates, it would invade the province of the states and therefore violate the Act.120 The highly technical subject matter and broad statutory language of “affecting or pertaining to [wholesale] rates”121 made the case an obvious candidate for Chevron deference, and the Government argued in its brief that Chevron’s framework should govern.122 But the Court, in an opinion by Justice Kagan,123 instead eschewed Chevron altogether, citing it only to say that “[b]ecause we think FERC’s authority clear, we need not address the Government’s alternative contention that FERC’s interpretation of the statute is entitled to deference under Chevron.”124
Since Chevron’s early days, scholars and jurists have recognized that courts can sidestep deference by simply finding the relevant provision unambiguous. For example, Justice Scalia explained that Chevron rarely constrained him since he most frequently found “the meaning of a statute . . . apparent from its text and from its relationship with other laws.”125 But, as a general matter, it was the Court’s textualist Justices who employed this tactic.126 EPSA therefore signals a potential shift, as the majority consisted of the Court’s more purposivist Justices.
What is more, whereas Justice Scalia’s statement relates to finding a provision unambiguous at step one and therefore avoiding deference at step two, the EPSA Court invoked a lack of ambiguity as a reason not to apply Chevron at all.127 To be sure, in both cases, the result is the same: the provision’s unambiguous meaning prevails. But the EPSA approach poses a greater threat to Chevron writ large because it rejects the framework’s applicability altogether through a sort of “clear cases” exception similar to King’s major question exception. Put differently, under the old regime, Chevron’s framework always applied, and the question was how the Court would operate within its confines; it was akin to a doctrine, a steadfast rule.128 In the current regime, evidenced by King and EPSA, the Court may or may not invoke the framework in a given case; it is now more like a canon, an interpretive presumption that can be employed or discarded when convenient.129
3. Michigan v. EPA. — Another recent decision suggests that even when the Court applies Chevron in a major case, the deference it affords the agency’s interpretation is sometimes so watered down that it approximates de novo review. The CAA permits EPA to regulate power plants under the hazardous-air-pollutants program if such regulation is “appropriate and necessary.”130 In finding this standard satisfied prior to issuing a rule targeting power plants’ mercury emissions, EPA declined to consider the regulation’s economic cost.131 It did, however, diligently account for cost when determining the regulation’s stringency.132 The question in Michigan v. EPA133 was whether EPA exceeded its statutory authority when it declined to consider cost before deeming regulation “appropriate and necessary.”
In an opinion authored by Justice Scalia,134 the Court held that EPA’s refusal to consider cost was impermissible.135 The Court applied Chevron but made clear that, even under its deferential standard, “agencies must operate within the bounds of reasonable interpretation.”136 And, it concluded, “it is unreasonable to read an instruction to an administrative agency to determine whether ‘regulation is appropriate and necessary’ as an invitation to ignore cost.”137
Michigan jeopardizes Chevron’s supremacy because it suggests a refusal to take seriously the framework’s deferential standard of review. As Justice Kagan argued in dissent, Congress’s use of the capacious phrase “appropriate and necessary” evinces an intention to confer significant policymaking discretion to EPA in light of its “experience and expertise.”138 The Court ignored this obvious grant of discretion and instead substituted its own judgment for the agency’s.139 Michigan, moreover, departed from prior cases in which the Court concluded that ambiguous language permits agencies to choose whether or not to consider cost because either choice is reasonable under Chevron step two.140 Those cases respected Chevron’s core tenet that ambiguous language connotes a congressional preference for administrative, not judicial, decisionmaking; Michigan, by contrast, effectively imposed a de novo standard of review.
Importantly, the erosion of Chevron in King, EPSA, and Michigan occurred in the context of major cases, under this Note’s definition of that phrase. King qualifies as a major case for the reasons noted above.141 EPSA counts as such a case because the FERC rule at issue sought to change consumer behavior, as well as indirectly regulate retail energy rates,142 arguably an area of traditional state concern.143 And Michigan likewise falls into the major-case category because it touched on the proper role of cost in agency decisionmaking, an issue directly related to the scope of federal administrative power.144
In analyzing the driving force behind Chevron’s decline in major cases, considering the decision lineups is again revealing. As in the purposivist decisions above, Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority in all three anti-Chevron decisions, and he authored King. Justice Kennedy was also in the majority in all three decisions, but authored none. This alignment suggests that both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy tend to be swing Justices in cases that chip away at Chevron. Like Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito would have spurned deference in all three cases. But unlike the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy, they did not prevail in all three.
Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan were in the majority in King and EPSA, where the Government prevailed, but dissented in Michigan, where the Government lost. These results suggest that these four Justices may acquiesce to an erosion of Chevron in major cases, so long as the Government’s interpretation is still upheld under a de novo standard.
While there appears to have been a consensus among Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito when it came to diminishing Chevron’s stature, Chief Justice Roberts stands out as perhaps the staunchest advocate of the move. First of all, he authored King, the boldest of the three opinions because it created an express exception to Chevron. Further, the Chief Justice dissented in City of Arlington v. FCC,145 where he would have held that Chevron never applies to the antecedent question of “whether Congress has delegated to the agency the authority to interpret the statutory ambiguity at issue.”146 As the majority (written by Justice Scalia) noted, the Chief Justice’s rule would “transfer any number of interpretive decisions — archetypal Chevron questions . . . — from the agencies that administer the statutes to federal courts.”147 Consequently, it was clear that his “ultimate target [was] Chevron itself.”148
III. Common Threads Between the Rise of Purposivism and Fall of Chevron
In addition to both being spearheaded by Chief Justice Roberts, the rise of purposivism and fall of Chevron connect in at least three other ways: they both promote judicial empowerment, respect Congress, and afford special treatment to major cases.
A common bond between the rise of purposivism and fall of Chevron is their inclination toward judicial empowerment. It is easy to see why cutting back Chevron promotes judicial power. In Chevron cases, the agency is the primary interpreter, while the Court plays a supervisory role to ensure the agency does not stray from the bounds of reasonableness.149 Undercutting Chevron flips this allocation of interpretive power.150 Courts decide more statutory questions de novo without putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the agency’s interpretation. This is exactly what the Court did in King: refusing to apply Chevron allowed it to rule that § 36B is best read to make tax credits available on federally created exchanges,151 as opposed to concluding only that the IRS reasonably read the provision that way.
The rise of purposivism likewise enhances judicial power. To see why, recall Bond, UARG, Yates, and King. In each, the Court could have written a short, restrained opinion in which it found the relevant phrase clear on its face. In Yates, for instance, it could have reasoned: in the English language, a fish is a “tangible object”; Congress wrote “tangible object”; ergo the statute permits Yates’s prosecution. Such an opinion would, as textualists say, “enforce a clearly worded statutory text,”152 and in turn, recognize a circumscribed judicial role when the statute has a clear literal meaning.153
But the Court instead chose a different course in these four cases. Refusing to stop its analysis even upon recognizing textual clarity, the Court pressed on and probed sources of policy context to derive the best interpretation. The result is an opinion that seems to say: we recognize what Congress said, but we know that Congress meant something else because we are confident that a reasonable legislator, in crafting this particular statute, would never have intended this consequence.154 This type of opinion entails a more robust judicial role than an opinion in which the Court merely enforces the text’s literal meaning.
This judicial-empowerment thesis fits reasonably well with Chief Justice Roberts’s apparent preferences in other areas of law. The Roberts Court, often led by the Chief Justice, has struck down a substantial number of laws on constitutional grounds, thereby exhibiting a maximalist role in the constitutional arena.155 It has also augmented judicial power through its novel use of the constitutional avoidance canon.156 Finally, although not always in the majority, Chief Justice Roberts has written notable opinions emphasizing the need to protect the judiciary from congressional attempts to delegate power away from Article III courts.157
On the flip side, however, Chief Justice Roberts has shown a preference for high standing158 and mootness159 hurdles — a stance that limits the Court’s role. And he has consistently joined majorities that have rigorously enforced contractual arbitration clauses, which, by definition, prevent courts from resolving disputes.160
Combining these lines of cases, Chief Justice Roberts seems to advocate a robust judicial role when Justices operate within their Article III lanes, while at the same time enforcing formalist lines regarding the Court’s jurisdiction. Given this orientation, his tendency to wield significant power in statutory interpretation cases is unsurprising: jurisdiction is a nonissue, and oftentimes the judiciary faces a perceived threat from an agency deploying interpretive power.
Another explanation for the simultaneous rise of purposivism and fall of Chevron in major cases is that both trends are fueled by the Court’s respect for Congress. Curtailing Chevron is arguably a way of paying Congress respect because deferring to an agency interpretation that pushes the limits of its statutory authority may risk aggrandizing that agency at Congress’s expense.161 Of course, if one firmly believes in Chevron’s implied-delegation rationale, then refusing to defer to an agency interpretation of ambiguous language may actually thwart congressional intent.162 But the Court’s recent decisions suggest that it believes it best effectuates congressional will by rejecting deference in major cases.163
Similarly, the Court’s four major purposivist cases reject litigants’ efforts to pull a fast one on Congress by enlisting the literal meaning of an isolated provision to subvert Congress’s plan. Most prominently, the King challengers sought to exploit four little words to destroy a landmark piece of legislation.164 Instead of punishing Congress by enforcing the literal meaning of those words, the Court respected the overall scheme Congress enacted. That Congress may have executed its plan imperfectly was immaterial: the Court could divine Congress’s broader will, which it felt duty-bound to protect.
As noted earlier, the Chief Justice has often led the charge in invalidating congressional legislation on constitutional grounds. Why, then, does he appear more deferential to Congress on pure statutory interpretation questions? Similar to his philosophy of judicial power, he seems to see a difference in kind between strictly enforcing constitutional limits on congressional power on the one hand and interpreting statutes that Congress passes pursuant to its valid authority on the other.165 In the former case, the risk is a constitutional transgression, so the Court must be tough on Congress to guard against its aggrandizement of power. In the latter case, the lone risk is that Congress gets away with inartful drafting — a far lesser threat to the separation of powers.
As reiterated throughout, this Note defines major cases as those implicating bold and novel applications of federal power that pose perceived threats to federalism and liberty interests. It also posits that each of the seven cases highlighted fits into that category. Notably, then, the Roberts Court’s emerging purposivism and its incursions into Chevron both reserve special treatment for major cases.
The Court’s recent statutory interpretation jurisprudence therefore splits into two categories: mundane cases and major cases. In mundane cases — those that involve deployment of federal power in a manner that fits with past practice and presents no perceived threat to states or individual liberty — the normal rules of textualism and Chevron still apply.166 In major cases, however, the Court has adopted a special set of rules: purposivism and de novo review of agency action.
This two-track system of statutory interpretation breeds a host of normative implications. On the one hand, it comes with significant costs. For example, it obscures the landscape upon which Congress must legislate. Many have defended both textualism and Chevron as stable background rules that assist congressional drafting.167 By fostering uncertainty about when courts will actually invoke those rules, the Court has made Congress’s job harder. Additionally, the current regime opens the door to judicial activism. A purported virtue of both textualism and Chevron is their ability to constrain judicial decisionmaking.168 With these doctrines uprooted, Justices may choose their methodology based on how important a given case is to them and which method suits their preferred outcome.
On the other hand, this two-track regime could make pragmatic sense. Purposivism may have more merit in major cases if one thinks congressional intent is easier to discern in those cases.169 For instance, legislators might more closely consider the scope of federal power a statute embodies (for example, does it allow prosecution of all evidence spoliation, or just destruction of documents?), as compared to the intricacies of particular provisions, given that the former issues carry greater political saliency. If so, the textualist critique focused on the impossibility of divining legislative “intent”170 may apply less forcefully in major cases. And in the Chevron context, spurning deference in major cases may serve nondelegation principles by assuming Congress did not intend to delegate politically significant decisions to less accountable agencies.171
Ultimately though, these pragmatic justifications for a two-track system are vulnerable to criticism. Although legislators may more thoroughly deliberate on major questions, this argument seems entirely speculative. The textualist rejoinders grounded in the incoherence of legislative intent and the “risk [of] upsetting a complex bargain”172 thus apply with full force in major cases. As to Chevron, the nondelegation rationale for disavowing deference in major cases crumbles when one realizes that such a maneuver effectively delegates major questions to courts — bodies even less accountable than agencies.173
Regardless of which combination of principles one might prefer (for example, Chevron and textualism, Chevron and purposivism, and so forth), it should be common ground that the current sub silentio two-track system is problematic. To improve the status quo, the Court should either (1) select some stable combination of principles to apply to all cases, or (2) retain the major-case distinction but articulate a coherent rationale to justify it, as well as a metric to distinguish major cases from mundane ones.
It remains to be seen how Justice Scalia’s passing will affect the Court’s statutory interpretation jurisprudence. The addition of a new Justice, moreover, may alter Chief Justice Roberts’s role on the Court, especially in statutory cases. For the time being, though, the Court, led by the Chief Justice, has moved toward purposivism and away from Chevron in major cases, with scarce explanation. With important cases implicating these trends on the horizon,174 the Court should either right its course or provide transparency by acknowledging and justifying its new two-track system.