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Aspen Ideas Festival: Supreme Court Rulings, Impact on Agency Power and Public Trust

Aspen Ideas Festival: Supreme Court Rulings, Impact on Agency Power and Public Trust

The Aspen Ideas Festival brought together some of the nation’s top legal minds to dissect recent Supreme Court decisions, which have profound implications for the power of federal agencies, the rule of law, and the Court’s institutional legitimacy. During “The Court Decides” panel, speakers Neal Katyal, Melissa Murray, and George Conway shared their insights on the Court’s expanding role in American politics and the potential consequences of its latest rulings.


Overturning the Chevron doctrine

A significant portion of the discussion centered around the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to overturn the Chevron doctrine, a 40-year-old legal precedent that has long been a cornerstone of federal regulatory power. The ruling, which split the justices 6 to 3 along ideological lines, represents a seismic shift in the balance of power between federal agencies and the courts.

The Chevron doctrine has historically allowed federal agencies to interpret ambiguous statutes and implement regulations based on their expertise. This deference to agencies has been crucial in enabling the government to address complex issues such as environmental protection, public health, and consumer safety.

Katyal, a professor of law at Georgetown University, described the ruling as a “massive deregulation” move. 

“This decision will change government as we know it,” he said. “Most government rules on you aren’t done by Congress. Congress is incapable of legislating. They can’t agree on whether the sky is blue. It’s all agencies.”

Murray, a professor of law at New York University (NYU), echoed Katyal’s concerns. She explained that the decision shifts power from specialized agencies to generalist courts, many of which have been staffed with judges skeptical of regulatory oversight. 

“This is a broad attack on the administrative state,” she said, emphasizing that the decision could lead to a deregulatory wave benefitting corporate interests at the expense of public protections.

Critics of the ruling, including Justice Elena Kagan, have called it a major power grab by corporate interests. In her dissent, Kagan wrote, “In every sphere of current or future federal regulation, expect courts from now on to play a commanding role. It is not a role Congress has given them. … It is a role this court has now claimed for itself, as well as other judges.”


Judicial interpretation and power

Conway offered a dissenting perspective, arguing that the Chevron doctrine represented an unjustified expansion of judicial deference to administrative agencies. He asserted that courts should have the final say in interpreting statutes — not agencies. 

“It is just fundamental,” Conway said. “We learned it in law school that ever since Marbury v. Madison, it is the duty in the province of the courts to say what the law is.”

Katyal, however, countered that the decision effectively hands power to deregulators, fundamentally altering the fabric of regulatory governance. 

“This is massive deregulation,” he emphasized. “This is as important as any decision in our lifetimes. It’s a total switch to the way our government operates.”


Declining trust in the Supreme Court

The panel also addressed the broader issue of declining public trust in the Supreme Court. 

A recent poll from the Associated Press (AP)-NORC Center for Public Affairs shows that seven in 10 Americans believe the justices put ideology over impartiality. This erosion of trust is a significant concern for the legitimacy of the Court.

Murray highlighted the danger of the public perceiving the Court as politically biased. 

“The Court has no way to make us obey its decisions other than the fact that we believe what it’s doing is legitimate,” she explained. “When the Court seems illegitimate, whether it’s because of ethical lapses or because we view their decisions as unduly political, that’s a real problem.”

Conway agreed, noting that the Court has become too powerful and important in American life, a trend exacerbated by both Congress and the executive branch deferring critical questions to the judiciary. He pointed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade as an example of the Court overstepping its bounds, further politicizing its role and damaging its credibility.


Ethical concerns and need for reform

The discussion also touched on ethical issues within the Court, particularly those involving Justice Clarence Thomas. Recent revelations about undisclosed gifts and financial ties have raised questions about judicial ethics and the integrity of the Court. 

Conway, while expressing personal disappointment, emphasized the importance of maintaining ethical standards to preserve public trust.

Murray highlighted that the Court’s ethical lapses are particularly damaging in the current polarized climate. 

“The Court’s legitimacy is fragile, and ethical missteps further erode the public’s faith in its decisions,” she argued. 

The panelists agreed that stronger ethical guidelines and greater transparency are essential to restoring trust in the judicial system.


Recent decision on presidential immunity

Adding to the contentious nature of the Court’s recent term, the justices made a significant ruling on Monday regarding presidential immunity in criminal cases. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to limit the scope of presidential immunity, rejecting arguments that a sitting president should be immune from criminal prosecution. The decision has major implications for the separation of powers and the accountability of executive actions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, emphasized that “no one is above the law” and that the president’s responsibilities do not grant blanket immunity from criminal proceedings. 

In a strong dissent, however, Justice Samuel Alito argued that the decision undermines the unique position of the presidency and could disrupt the functioning of the executive branch.

The panelists briefly touched on this topic during their discussion, with Katyal noting that this ruling further demonstrates the Court’s willingness to intervene in politically charged issues. 

“The Court’s decision on presidential immunity underscores its critical role in maintaining the balance of power among the branches of government,” he said.

Murray added that while the decision marks a significant step in holding the executive branch accountable, it also raises questions about the Court’s involvement in political matters. 

“The implications of this ruling will be far-reaching,” she said. “Not just for the current administration but for the future of presidential power and accountability.”


By: Arn Menconi I The Aspen Times I July 2, 2024

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