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King v. Burwell: Limits on the Scope of the Major Questions Doctrine

Professor Kristin Hickman uses the case of King versus Burwell to explain the Major Questions Doctrine. Some administrative agency rulemaking involves matters of such importance that the Supreme Court evaluates the merits of a particular rule rather than automatically deferring to the authority of the agency. The difficulty is - how does the Court decide what issues are important enough to warrant using the Major Questions exception? https://youtube.com/watch?v=tlYVxup75gg


King versus Burwell involved an interpretation of the Internal Revenue Code, a particular provision in the Internal Revenue Code adopted by the Affordable Care Act. It had to do with tax credits associated with the provision of insurance subsidies, or subsidies for the purchase of insurance by particular individuals who qualified for those credits. King v. Burwell concerned whether the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department through regulations interpreted that provision of the Internal Revenue Code correctly. Or alternatively, whether the language of that provision of the Internal Revenue Code was ambiguous, such that the Chevron Standard would call upon the Supreme Court to give deference to the agency's interpretation so long as the interpretation was reasonable. The Supreme Court in adjudicating King versus Burwell reached the conclusion that Chevron as a standard should not apply at all to judicial review of the IRS and Treasury Department's interpretation of that particular provision of the Internal Revenue Code. The Supreme Court in King versus Burwell articulated a few reasons for declining to apply the Chevron Standard in that case. Some people have referred to their list of reasons as the Major Questions Doctrine. Loosely speaking, the Major Questions Doctrine holds that there are some cases where the issues at stake are simply too important to be eligible for Chevron review and Chevron Deference exactly. Exactly what makes an interpretive question sufficiently important as to fall within the Major Questions Doctrine is not clear. In King versus Burwell, Chief Justice Roberts talked about the interpretive question at stake in that case as being both politically and economically significant. The Supreme Court ended up reaching a decision in King versus Burwell that upheld the agency's regulation, but it did so by finding that the IRS's interpretation of the statute was correct, not by finding that the IRS's interpretation of the statute was worthy of deference. . Some scholars have advocated a fairly robust major questions limitation on Chevron scope. Other scholars have suggested that the Major Questions exception that seems to have been articulated by the Supreme Court in King versus Burwell ought to be limited perhaps only to Supreme Court decisions themselves, that Circuit Courts shouldn't decide that certain agency interpretations are outside of Chevron scope by virtue of the Major Questions exception. Or perhaps, we should just interpret the Major Question exception so narrowly as only to apply in truly extreme cases like King versus Burwell itself. Although that approach then begs the question of where do you draw the line?

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