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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Politicizing fishing

A legal precedent that’s at stake in two current Supreme Court cases is at risk of being overturned, which would politicize our legal system even further.


A fishing boat in Boston is pictured.

The Supreme Court’s popularity has reached an all-time low following a series of tumultuous decisions. In June 2022, the long-standing legal precedent of Roe v. Wade was overturned in the high-profile Dobbs v. Jackson case. Since then, the six conservative justices who hold the majority on the bench, have weakened the Environmental Protection Agency and gutted affirmative action in college admissions. As eyes turn to the Court’s 2024 docket, cases involving Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 riots stand out. However, the cases where the most may be at stake involve two groups of fishermen and a fee dispute. These unsuspecting cases serve as an opportunity for conservative groups to strike the biggest blow yet to federal regulatory power, and we should all be paying close attention. 

In 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to adopt a new interpretation of a 1976 law that requires fishermen to carry federal observers to track overfishing. However, under the new interpretation, fishermen also have to pay the observers, a cost that amounts to about $700 a day. As a result, a group of fishermen decided to sue the agency. This same interpretation was also challenged by fishermen in Rhode Island, and both cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless Inc. v. Department of Commerce, made it all the way to the Supreme Court where oral arguments were heard last month. 

The legal precedent in question is known as the Chevron deference, which originated from the 1984 case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council and states that federal agencies, not courts, should reasonably interpret laws passed by Congress when they are vague. The Chevron deference has become one of the most cited precedents in our entire legal system: The decisions of over 17,000 lower court cases and 70 Supreme Court cases have relied on it. 

Despite the historical significance of this precedent, many conservative justices seemed open to overturning it during the questioning period. This leaves the liberal justices who have strongly voiced their support for the doctrine dependent on the opinions of moderate-conservative Justices Amy Coney Barrett and John Roberts. While both have a history of breaking from their colleagues, the heavily politicized nature of this case makes it unlikely that there will be any ideological defections. Opposition to the precedent has become a tool that wealthy conservatives are using to fight back against federal business regulations. 

The lawyers who represent the fishermen belong to Cause for Action, an organization funded by billionaire Charles Koch, a Republican mega-donor who was named one of America’s top “climate villains.” Through their promotional video, Cause of Action has portrayed the case as a fight for struggling small businesses that has nothing to do with the Chevron doctrine; however, the arguments made by their lawyers during the questioning period imply that their true motivations reside in the business interests of their donors. 

The main argument against the Chevron deference is the considerable power it gives to the federal bureaucracy. While this is somewhat true, there are some nuances to laws that judges cannot possibly be expected to understand, which is where specialized federal agencies like the EPA or the Food and Drug Administration serve an important role. For example, the FDA has the industry expertise to determine whether to classify substances as either “drugs” or “dietary.” Leaving this up to judges would result in a back-and-forth in the legal system based on their individual beliefs. There’s also a common misconception that the federal bureaucracy is disconnected from public opinion, but agencies are still accountable to both the president who nominates their senior leadership and representatives in Congress who control their funding. The alternative would be leaving interpretations up to unelected judges who could jeopardize the non-partisan intent of the legal system by making their own policy decisions whenever necessary.

This doesn’t mean we should forget about the fishermen whose plight over the exorbitant fees started this whole battle. The Supreme Court should rule in a way that classifies the National Marine Fisheries Service’s interpretation as unreasonable without overturning the Chevron deference. Breaking away from this precedent would open up a can of worms that would make the court system yet another partisan legislator, which is the opposite of what our country needs. Right now we need stability and trust in our institutions, and keeping the longstanding legal precedents we have in place would be a great first step to achieving these goals.