Restoring the Balance: Supreme Court and Iowa Legislature to Decide on Future of Regulatory Oversight

The outcomes at both the federal and state levels could help reset the balance of power between the government and the governed.

For those who follow the United States Supreme Court, the Chevron doctrine is a prime focus in the news.  This issue is before the Court right now and will presumably get a ruling very soon.  In a similar fashion the Iowa legislature is currently considering an agency deference bill, which will also have important ramifications on the future of regulatory powers in Iowa. Agency deference may seem like a complicated and distant issue, but regulations impact all Iowans. This issue is about fairness and how the rule of law can best be applied.

At the national level, litigation is asking the Supreme Court to overturn a case from the 1980s called Chevron vs. EPA.  In this case, the Court said it would defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own statutes. If the agency interprets the statute as giving it authority to enact a certain kind of regulation, the courts will show deference to what the agency said the law meant. Normally, judges are the ones who ultimately decide a lawsuit, deciding how the law is to be applied to a given dispute and not deferring to one of the parties.

Think about it this way: In an ordinary lawsuit, a court will not simply defer to the defendant as to what that defendant thinks the law means. Instead, the judge independently decides what the law means and how it should be applied. The courts don’t cede that judgment to one of the parties in a lawsuit in any other context.

Now, in Iowa, we have administrative agencies at the state level who are enacting regulations.  What the Iowa Legislature has done is something a little bit different than what the Supreme Court established with the Chevron precedent.  Iowa’s legislature has directed the courts to show deference to an agency’s interpretation of a statute, even as the agency interprets its own regulations.

The bill that is currently under consideration by the legislature would change that dynamic.  By moving the courts away from having to defer to agencies, courts would simply decide what the statute means on their own, independently.   That change might seem to be merely a technical one to the average Iowan, but it is actually an important way to restore the separation of powers and re-establish the balance between judicial, executive and legislative branches.   While this is slightly different than the Chevron case, the end result should be the same.

Without these changes, we will be left with a system where government agencies have the upper hand over individuals and businesses. The status quo would continue to empower the very people who create the rules and regulations.  This important reform would mean the agency, or the regulator, will no longer get a free pass on their interpretation of a given statute; they will have to to show the court that their interpretation of the law is correct, just like any other person or entity that went to court would have to do.

As both the U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa lawmakers consider, to varying degrees, the principles of judicial independence, a question of fairness hangs in the balance. These discussions signal a new era for regulators, potentially reshaping how statutes are interpreted and enforced. The outcomes at both the federal and state levels could help reset the balance of power between the government and the governed and restore the timeless constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances.

 Print a PDF