On June 28, 2024, the United States Supreme Court sent a long, cold shiver through the ranks of Federal agencies in its landmark decision in the case of Loper Bright v. Raimundo, No. 22-451. In that decision, the Court defied the long-accepted principal of “Judicial Deference” to the challenged decisions of Federal agencies to which Congress had granted the responsibility of enacting regulations within their areas of technical expertise.

Specifically, the Court in a searing opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that (1) the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. 706 et. seq., (“APA”) requires courts to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous; (2) The courts fulfill that role by recognizing Constitutional delegations, fixing the boundaries of the delegated authority, and ensuring the agency has engaged in “reasoned decision making” within those boundaries; (3) The deference that Chevron USA, Inc. v. NRDC granted to Federal agencies in 1984 cannot be squared with the mandates of the APA, nor does Chevron or any subsequent decision attempt to reconcile its framework with the APA; (4) Chevron defies the commands of the APA that the “reviewing court” –not the agency whose action it reviews – is to “decide all relevant questions of law” and “interpret…statutory provisions”. 5 U.S.C. 706; and, perhaps most important (5) The APA, Section 706, makes clear that agency interpretation of statutes, like agency interpretations of the Constitution, are NOT entitled to deference. [emphasis in original]. Deference may still be granted to the agency’s determination of factual issues within its area of expertise for the purpose of giving guidance to the Court, but it is no longer a foregone conclusion.

The obvious remaining question is “what is the significance of this decision for communities impacted by the growth and operation of airports?” The answer is that the decision is fundamental for the grant of justice to those communities. This is because, up to now, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies with some jurisdiction over airports have used that power as a justification for their own interpretation of the meaning of statutes, thus allowing them to avoid the mandates of such statutes as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and others that are typically affected by the growth and operation of airports. The Courts, on their part, have deferred to the Agencies, allowing them to basically adjudicate their own compliance. Under the Supreme Court’s current regime, an agency may present its factual justification, but it will be up to the Court to determine if that rationale can be squared with the mandates of the relevant statute or statutes. In other words, there will now be a disinterested referee between the agency and the community in their battles over the impacts of airport growth and operations. Will that new-found power help to relieve communities of their burdens? That, of course remains to be seen, or will the arena operate on “business as usual”. Stay tuned.