Vanderbilt Law Review

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In its 1984 opinion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.,' the Supreme Court attempted to resolve the long standing conflict concerning the proper scope of judicial review of agency interpretations of statutory provisions. Chevron concerned the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) interpretation of the Clean Air Act, which requires the EPA to limit emissions from all "stationary sources." The EPA interpreted the statutory term "stationary source"to mean an entire plant, rather than an individual piece of combustion equipment. That statutory interpretation was adopted as part of the EPA's "bubble concept," which is based on the EPA's belief that it can simultaneously further the inherently conflicting goals of the Clean Air Act-improved air quality and continued economic growth-most effectively by imposing emission limitations on an entire plant, and by conferring upon the owner of the plant both the obligation and discretion to determine the means by which to reduce plant emissions.

In defining the proper scope of judicial review of agency interpretations of statutory provisions, the Chevron Court established what one judge calls the "Chevron two-step."' The first step requires the court to determine "whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue," in which case "the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress." If the court concludes, however, that "Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue," the court must refrain from any statutory interpretation of its own and must simply determine "whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.' The Chevron test established a simple approach to a traditionally complicated issue in administrative law. The court first decides whether the statute resolves the specific issue or is silent or ambiguous with respect to the issue. If it determines that the statute is silent or ambiguous, the court then affirms the agency's interpretation of the statute if that interpretation is "reasonable."

In the three years since the Court decided Chevron, the case has transformed dramatically the approach taken by courts in reviewing agency interpretations of statutory provisions. The Supreme Court has continued to interpret and apply Chevron in the manner previously described,' or, in Professor Cass Sunstein's terminology, the "strong"reading of Chevron. While appellate courts use Chevron as the starting point in reviewing agency interpretations of statutory provisions, appellate judges seem to have interpreted Chevron differently. Some judges have adopted the "strong" reading of Chevron, while others have adopted a "weak" reading that requires a court to resolve many of the ambiguities in regulatory statutes.