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Agencies’ Obligation to Interpret the Statute

Posted by on Monday, October 17, 2016 in Articles, Volume 69, Volume 69, Number 5.

Agencies’ Obligation to Interpret the Statute


Conventionally, when a statute delegates authority to an agency, courts defer to agency interpretations of that statute. Most agencies and scholars view such deference as a grant of permission to the agency to adopt any reasonable interpretation. That is wrong, jurisprudentially and ethically. An agency that commands deference bears a duty to adopt what it believes to be the best interpretation of the relevant statute. Deference assigns to the agency, rather than to a court, power authoritatively to declare what the law is. That power carries with it a duty to give the statute the best reading the agency can.

Notwithstanding substantial jurisprudential disagreement about what it means to give a statute its “best interpretation,” an agency does not abide its role when it seeks to achieve anything less. An agency is legally and ethically obligated to privilege what it views as optimal statutory interpretation over what it considers to be optimal policy. If the two conflict, as they sometimes will, the agency must act consistently with the former to the detriment of the latter. To behave otherwise is to fail to adhere to principles of legislative supremacy and fidelity to law.


Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law.