Write an ambiguous rule — then pounce

Government agencies can get an unfair edge in disputes with the regulated public if they can write ambiguity into their rules, develop interpretations that open up further ambiguities to suit their needs, and then when a dispute arises gain deference from courts on these doubtful interpretations-piled-upon-interpretations. In Foster v. Vilsack, the issue was whether a “prairie pothole” depression on a South Dakota farm should be deemed a federally protected wetland, denying the Fosters productive use of the land; the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted what seemed a strained interpretation enabling it to so designate the land, and the Eighth Circuit deferred to it.

The decision actually afforded the agency “second-level” Auer deference, deferring to an interpretation of a vaguely written agency circular that interprets a vague regulation that in turn interprets a vague statute–all to get to a definition of “local area” that is nothing close to a natural and reasonable interpretation of that term.

Cato has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the farm family’s request for certiorari, urging the Supreme Court to revisit the Auer doctrine in administrative law at least to prevent its irrational extension:

Second-level Auer deference also undermines the rule of lenity — a traditional rule of interpretation stating that ambiguity in criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of the defendant — even more than first-level Auer deference already does. It effectively allows agencies to create new crimes (again without notice to the public) by doing as little as reinterpreting a footnote in a memo. Cato urges the Supreme Court take the case so that it may rein in the expansion of Auer deference and make it clear to administrative agencies that they cannot avoid judicial review by refusing to promulgate clear, unambiguous regulations.

[Trevor Burrus and David McDonald; more on Auer deference]

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