Administrative law geeks know that Auer deference has been in trouble. This doctrine, which used to go by the much better name of Seminole Rock deference, instructs courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own rule so long as the interpretation is not plainly erroneous. Its primary supporting intuition is that an agency should be better than anyone else at interpreting a rule that it drafted and implements. During the last five years of his life, Justice Scalia mounted a strong campaign to eliminate this doctrine, which he had come to regard as a terrible affront to separation of powers. Although Justice Scalia is now gone, his critique of Auer retains substantial support on the Court. Justice Thomas agrees with it; Justice Alito has expressed strong sympathy; and the Chief Justice might be on board, too.
But, before rushing off to dump Auer in the ashbin of administrative law history, those who prefer to take their separation of powers with a dash of functionalism might like to know: Just how are courts applying this deference doctrine these days, anyway? Fortunately, Cynthia Barmore has shed considerable light on this question in her article, Auer in Action: Deference after Talk America, which was just published in the Ohio State Law Journal. Her hard work reveals that affirmance rates under Auer have declined in recent years and are in line with the rates for other so-called “deference” doctrines. Courts do not, in short, seem to treat Auer as granting agencies free rein to abuse regulated parties with aggressive (mis)interpretations of their regulations. Continue reading "Counting Out Auer Deference"