Stare Decisis, Chevron, and Skidmore: Do Administrative Agencies Have the Power to Overrule Courts?

Article excerpt

[B]ecause there is no Judge Subordinate, nor Soveraign, but may erre in a Judgement of Equity; if afterward in another like case he find it more consonant to Equity to give a contrary Sentence, he is obliged to doe it. No mans error becomes his own Law; nor obliges him to persist in it. Neither (for the same reason) becomes it Law to other Judges, though sworn to follow it.

--Thomas Hobbes (1)

Stare decisis provides some moorings so that men may trade and arrange their affairs with confidence.

--Justice Willism O. Douglas (2)

INTRODUCTION

Contrary to the hopes of Thomas Hobbes, expressed in the above quote from his landmark work Leviathan, stare Decisis (3) has fulfilled the role sketched by Justice Douglas and remained a bulwark of the Anglo-American legal system for centuries. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a new area of law has begun to take form alongside the time-tested pillars of our legal system, arising to deal with the development of the modern administrative state. The Supreme Court has responded by creating a muddled and byzantine administrative law jurisprudence that leaves many seminal questions unanswered. One of the foremost of these questions is how the venerable doctrine of stare decisis interacts with the practice of giving deference to administrative agency interpretations of the statutes Congress charges them to administer.

The uncertainty in this area of the law is strikingly illustrated by two quotes. The first is by one of the leading lights of the current Supreme Court and a renowned expert on administrative law, Justice Antonin Scalia. Dissenting in a recent case, Justice Scalia asserted:

 
   I know of no case, in the entire history of the federal courts, in which we 
   have allowed a judicial interpretation of a statute to be set aside by an 
   agency--or have allowed a lower court to render an interpretation of a 
   statute subject to correction by an agency. (4) 

In stark contrast is the holding of the Eleventh Circuit in Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Ass'n of America v. Oman. (5) Confronted with regulations promulgated by the Copyright Office that directly conflicted with prior circuit precedent, a three judge panel unanimously concluded:

 
   Although the new regulations conflict with our interpretation of the term 
   "cable system" in [NBC v. Satellite Broadcasting Networks], they are 
   neither arbitrary, capricious, nor in conflict with the clear meaning of 
   the statute. They are therefore valid exercises of the Copyright Office's 
   statutory authority to interpret the provisions of the compulsory licensing 
   scheme, and are binding on this circuit. (6) 

This Note examines Supreme Court decisions addressing stare decisis and administrative agencies, the statutes governing such agencies, and the policy considerations underlying the actions of both the Court and Congress in order to analyze whether administrative agencies are able to "overrule" courts in limited settings. More specifically, this Note will consider the effect of post-Chevron precedents created by application of the recently reutilized doctrine of "Skidmore deference" in administrative law. This analysis leads directly to the conclusion that the Eleventh Circuit's holding in Satellite Broadcasting properly recognized the existence of an ability, albeit sharply limited, of administrative agencies to "overrule" judicial precedent, which is particularly applicable in the case of precedents granting deference under Skidmore. Specifically, it will be argued that the "overruling" procedure recognized by both the Eleventh Circuit and Justice Scalia (in a hypothetical in his Mead dissent) does not pose a significant threat to the values served by stare decisis and that any negative effect in this area is far outweighed by the benefits such a procedure will confer in terms of flexibility in administrative law. …