Law School Case Brief
United States v. Mead Corp. - 533 U.S. 218, 121 S. Ct. 2164 (2001)
Administrative implementation of a particular statutory provision qualifies for Chevron deference when it appears that Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority. Delegation of such authority may be shown in a variety of ways, as by an agency's power to engage in adjudication or notice-and-comment rulemaking, or by some other indication of a comparable congressional intent.
The Supreme Court in one case held that some administrative practices by federal agencies in implementing federal statutes were entitled to deference, on subsequent judicial review, as intended by Congress to have the force of law. The United States Customs Service issued numerous letter rulings concerning the proper classification, under the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS), of imported items. Such rulings (1) could be issued on behalf of the Customs Service by (a) its Headquarters Office, or (b) any of 46 port-of-entry offices; (2) were generally issued without the use of notice-and-comment procedures; and (3) varied in reasoning, from (a) little or none, to (b) a detailed rationale. A corporation imported day planners, which fell under an HTSUS heading for "[r]egisters, account books, notebooks, order books, receipt books, letter pads, memorandum pads, diaries and similar articles," with two possible subcategories or subheadings, for (1) "[d]iaries, notebooks and address books, bound; memorandum pads, letter pads and similar articles," which were subject to a tariff of 4 per cent at the time in controversy; or (2) "[o]ther" items, which were free of duty. The Headquarters Office issued two successive letter rulings, both of which concluded that the day planners fell under the first subcategory. The second such letter ruling set out a rationale in some detail, but was not published. After the Customs Service rejected the corporation's protest of the second letter ruling, the corporation filed suit in the United States Court of International Trade (CIT), which, in granting a motion by the Federal Government for summary judgment, adopted the reasoning of the Customs Service without saying anything about deference. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in reversing, (1) expressed the view that such Customs Service letter rulings were not entitled to Chevron deference, and (2) gave no deference at all to the letter-ruling classification of the day planners.
May the letter rulings be entitled to Chevron deference?
The Court held that administrative implementation of a particular statutory provision qualified for deference when it appeared Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority. The ruling at issue failed to qualify, although the possibility that it deserved some deference led the court to vacate and remand. The delegation gave no indication it delegated authority to issue classification rulings with the force of law. There was no notice-and-comment practice at the time, and the Custom Service had regarded a classification as conclusive only as between itself and the particular importer only until advance notice of an intended change was given. Such a ruling could at least seek a respect proportional to its power to persuade under prior case law. Because the prior case law assessment called for was to be made by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit or the Court of International Trade, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings.
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