“The Problem” occurs when a statute’s provisions become contradictory or unworkable in the context of new or unforeseen phenomena, yet the statute mandates agency action. The application of an unambiguous statutory provision may become problematic or unclear. Similarly, unambiguous provisions may become inconsistent given a particular application of the statute. During the same term, in Scialabba and UARG, the Supreme Court performed a Chevron review of agency interpretations of statutes facing three variations of the Problem, which this Note characterizes as direct conflict, internal inconsistency, and unworkability. In each case, the Court defined ambiguity in various, nontraditional ways and deferred to the agency’s reasonable interpretation of the statute.
The broadest definition of ambiguity provided by the Justices encompassed direct conflicts, internal inconsistencies, and unworkability. In contrast, the narrowest definition found ambiguity based only on internal inconsistency. Some Justices found no ambiguity, but allowed an agency more interpretive flexibility to resolve the Problem and accomplish the unambiguous mandate of the statute.
This Note contends that ambiguity in broken statutory frameworks may influence the traditional Chevron analysis; the Court may defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation or allow an agency greater interpretive flexibility where it would not otherwise. But an agency does not have unlimited interpretive authority each time the Problem arises. Agency interpretations that alter or ignore unambiguous statutory text or functionally change the statute may still be impermissible under Chevron review. This Note raises agencies’ awareness regarding these nontraditional definitions of Chevron ambiguity, and discusses agency interpretive authority and limitations in the context of the Problem.
Defining Ambiguity in Broken Statutory Frameworks and its Limits on Agency Action,
Mich. J. Envtl. & Admin. L.
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