Agency Deference Tips the Scales in Government’s Favor

Iowa’s legislature has signaled their desire for a level playing field and a fair, impartial judicial system.

The concept of agency deference has shaped the legal landscape of the United States since the Supreme Court issued a decision known as “Chevron”. The Chevron deference, named after the energy company, was a legal principle where the courts would defer to an agency decision if there existed ambiguity in an enabling statute. Its aim was to allow agencies to interpret vague language in the statutes that govern their operation. However, it carries implications about the role of the courts and their interpretation of laws.

In practice, this deference to agencies results in a shift where the courts are not interpreting the law as they traditionally have; instead, they are deferring to the agency’s interpretation of it. In most states that have deference, it exists in large part due to that state’s judicial system adopting federal interpretations of constitutional law. It’s a concept known as coterminous constitutionality.  Iowa is somewhat unique though, due to the fact that agency deference has actually been codified.

While it may seem like a minor matter of legal procedure, agency deference can have significant ramifications for those interacting with the law. It doesn’t provide the same chances to everyone before a court and tends to favor the government due to its presiding power. This power imbalance takes the scale of justice out of balance, favoring not the side with the most compelling case but the government agency in question.

Why Eliminating Agency Deference is Crucial

Agency deference not only deprives citizens of a fair chance before a court but also encourages agencies to create ambiguities in their regulations. Knowing that any ensuing litigation will likely fall in their favor due to the deference they receive, they have little incentive to maintain clarity in their legislation. The law should be transparent and accessible, providing fair notice to everyone about what is required or prohibited. This favoring of government agencies disturbs the balance of justice by tipping it in favor of the government.

Nowhere is the consequence of this legal doctrine more visually depicted than in the Iowa courthouses, where the iconic figure of Lady Justice graces the establishment. Clad with a blindfold and holding the scales of justice, she represents an ideal that is being compromised by deference doctrines. These doctrines essentially instruct Lady Justice to peek from underneath her blindfold, see which party is the government, and skew the scale in its favor.

Case in Point: TWISM and Repercussions of Agency Deference

The consequential effects of agency deference are not isolated theories, but actual instances that have unfolded. An Ohio case titled “TWISM” provided what may have been a tipping point against agency deference, weakening the doctrine’s future. The case revolved around an engineering certification related to whether an engineering firm had to hire an engineer or if contracting was sufficient. The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately ruled that they would no longer defer to the government in cases of ambiguous legislation, setting a significant precedent that diffuses government advantage in ambiguous statutes.

In a response to concerns about the issue, Arizona repealed its agency deference in 2018, the first state to do so through legislation. This move has proven to be successful as evidenced by the Goldwater Institute’s research that concludes the Arizona law is working as intended and the courts in that state are no longer deferring to agencies during legal disputes.

Our Justice System Must be Impartial

The principle of agency deference stands in stark contrast to other areas of law and seems to undermine the core principle of fairness. For instance, in criminal law, ambiguous criminal statutes are interpreted in favor of the accused, a principle known as the rule of lenity. Similarly in contract law, ambiguous provisions are interpreted against the drafter to prompt precise drafting. Adopting a similar approach to agency law, where the burden is on the government to prove their interpretation correct, could mitigate the issues stemming from agency deference.

The Iowa Legislature took several steps toward leveling the playing field for all during the 2023 legislative session.  HF 645 passed the Iowa House unanimously and then advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee, signaling the legislature’s desire for legal clarity and a fair, impartial judicial system. Anything less represents a deviation from the true spirit of American justice.

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