Publication Title

U.C. Davis Law Review


Chevron doctrine, deference, Justice John Paul Stevens

Document Type



During the past three decades, one Supreme Court justice— John Paul Stevens—has authored two of the most significant administrative law decisions that speak to the judiciary’s role in checking agency interpretations of the statutes that they administer. In Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., Justice Stevens’s landmark 1984 decision unanimously upheld the EPA’s construction of a term found in the Clean Air Act. Subsequently, in Massachusetts v. EPA, Justice Stevens’s 2007 opinion for a five-justice majority handed a major win to global environmental security by ordering the EPA to reconsider its refusal to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Although both decisions were written by Justice Stevens and both involved the EPA and the Clean Air Act, the two decisions seem to send very different messages about the judiciary’s policing function. In Chevron, the Court embraced a highly deferential, hands-off view of the judiciary, whereas in Massachusetts, the Court embraced a more protective, active judicial role. In light of the seemingly divergent messages in these two decisions, this Article assesses Justice Stevens’s position on the judiciary’s policing role concerning agency actions that impact matters of public security, health, safety, and welfare.

This Article ultimately concludes that when Justice Stevens’s opinions are viewed as a whole, a fairly clear picture emerges: Justice Stevens cannot accurately be labeled as either the proponent of a highly deferential, hands-off judiciary (à la Chevron), or the proponent of an active judiciary (à la Massachusetts). Rather, as a strong adherent of purposivism, Justice Stevens seeks to effectuate Congress’s own animating goals, paying particularly close attention to Congress’s protective and remedial purposes. Thus, although he expressly eschews deciding cases based on his own policy preferences, his purposivist approach to statutory interpretation often enables him to give agencies the leeway they need to achieve Congress’s broad protective or remedial goals and conversely to check agencies when they act counter to Congress’s purposes.

Note: This article was published as part of a Symposium—The Honorable John Paul Stevens.



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