The Politics of Invoking Chevron Deference


In this paper, we examine an important threshold question in judicial behavior and administrative law: when do federal circuit courts decide to use the Chevron deference framework and when do they apply a framework that is less deferential to the administrative agency’s statutory interpretation? The question is important because the purpose of Chevron deference is to give agencies — not judges — policymaking space within statutory interpretation. We expect, nonetheless, that whether to apply the Chevron framework is largely driven by political dynamics, with judges adopting a less deferential standard when their political preferences do not align with the agency’s decision. To provide insight, we analyze circuit-court decisions from 2003 until 2013 that review agency statutory interpretations. Our results — from the largest and most comprehensive database of its kind — provide partial confirmation of our expectations. When courts reviewed liberal agency interpretations, all panels — liberal, moderate, and conservative — were equally likely to apply Chevron. But when reviewing conservative agency interpretations, liberal panels applied Chevron significantly less frequently than conservative panels. Contrary to limited prior studies, we find no evidence of “whistleblower” or disciplining effects when judges of different judicial ideologies comprised the panel. Viewed together, our results provide important implications for the current debate on whether to eliminate, narrow, or clarify Chevron’s domain.