Chevron on 2

The illogic of the Supreme Court of Canada’s approach to deference to administrative interpretations of law

Readers with some salsa experience will probably know that, while most of the world dances it “on 1”, in New York it is danced “on 2”. The steps and moves are more or less the same, but the sequence is different. Another dance that can be varied in this way, as we learn from the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, is the notorious Chevron two-step. As with salsa, one can prefer one style or the other. But, for what it’s worth, I find Vavilov’s “on 2” version of Chevron to be rather offbeat.


In Chevron USA Inc v Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, 467 US 837 (1984), the US Supeme Court explained how courts were to review administrative decision-makers’ interpretations of what in Canada are sometimes called their “home statutes”:

When a court reviews an agency’s construction of the statute which it administers, it is confronted with two questions. First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. (842-43; footnotes omitted)

The first step, in other words, is to determine whether the statute is so vague or ambiguous as to require an exercise of interpretive discretion by the administrative decision-maker. The second step, taken if―and only if―the statute does call for such an exercise of discretion, is to review the administrative interpretation for reasonableness, and defer to it if it is not unreasonable.

There are some exceptions to this two-step analysis. For one thing, under United States v Mead Corp, 533 US 218 (2001), courts ask whether the administrative agency was meant to conclusively determine questions of law in the first place. This is sometimes known as “Chevron step zero”. For another, following FDA v Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp, 529 US 120 (2000), certain questions are seen as too important for their determination to have been delegated to administrative agencies implicitly; nothing short of explicit Congressional command will trigger deference. But, at least where the administrative decision-maker is seen as authorized to make legal determinations, Chevron dictates ― for now anyway ― the normal approach.

Or, if you prefer seeing and hearing instead of reading, here’s how NYU students explained it a few years ago:


Now, compare this to the Vavilov framework. It begins with a fairly close equivalent to “Chevron step zero”. In cases where the legislature wanted the courts, and not administrative tribunals, to decide legal questions, whether by explicitly providing for correctness review or by creating an appeal from from the tribunal to a court, the courts must not defer. Nor will there be deference on (some) constitutional questions and “general questions of law that are ‘of central importance to the legal system as a whole'” [58, quoting Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 [62]]. This is somewhat analogous to the “important questions” exception in the United States, although Canadian “questions of central importance” may well be different from the American “important questions”. (I don’t think, for instance, that under Vavilov it is enough for a question to be “of deep economic and political significance [and] central to [a] statutory scheme”: King v Burwell (2015) (internal quotation omitted).)

But then, Chevron‘s two main steps are reversed. Subject to the legislative assignment and central questions exceptions applying, Vavilov says courts are to defer to administrative interpretations of law:

Where a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

This is, more or less, Chevron‘s step two. At this stage, no factor other than the existence of the administrative decision-maker, the absence of a legislative indication that courts must nevertheless be involved, and the non-centrality of the question at issue are relevant.

But then, Vavilov seems to suggest that, once it embarks on reasonableness review, the court needs to examine the statute at issue more closely ― to engage what co-blogger Mark Mancini has described as a “legal ‘hard look’ review”, including to determine whether there is actually the sort of ambiguity that, under Chevron, justifies deference to the administrative interpretation. Vavilov stresses that “while an administrative body may have considerable discretion in making a particular decision, that decision must ultimately comply ‘with the rationale and purview of the statutory scheme under which it is adopted'” [108, quoting Catalyst Paper Corp v North Cowichan (District), 2012 SCC 2, [2012] 1 SCR 5, [15]] and, further, “with any more specific constraints imposed by the governing legislative scheme”. [108] Crucially, Vavilov insists that

If a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision. Conversely, where the legislature chooses to use broad, open-ended or highly qualitative language … it clearly contemplates that the decision maker is to have greater flexibility in interpreting the meaning of such language. … [C]ertain questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation, while other questions may support only one, depending upon the text by which the statutory grant of authority is made. [110]

This, by my lights, is Chevron‘s step one. In some cases, the Supreme Court says, the legislature leaves the administrative decision-maker with the latitude to choose among competing possible interpretations. But not always. To quote Chevron again, “[i]f the intent of [the legislature] is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of [the legislature]”.

I should note that this might not be the only way to read Vavilov. Paul Daly, for example, is quite skeptical of “intrusive reasonableness review” that would occur if courts take too seriously the admonition about there being, sometimes, only one interpretation of administrative decision-maker’s grant of authority. But, as Mark shows, this is certainly a plausible, and at least arguably the better reading of Vavilov. I may return to the debate between these readings in a future post. For now, I will assume that the one outlined above is at least a real possibility.


As already mentioned, this reversal of the “Chevron two-step” makes no sense to me. I find it odd to say that reviewing courts must start from the position that “respect for [the] institutional design choices made by the legislature” in setting up administrative tribunals “requires a reviewing court to adopt a posture of restraint on review”, [24] but then insist that respect for legislative choices also requires the courts to be vigilant in case these choices leave only one permissible interpretation. The view, endorsed in Dunsmuir, that deferential judicial review reflects the inherent vagueness of legal language, was empirically wrong (and indeed implausible, as I argued here), but coherent. The recognition in Vavilov that statutory language is sometimes precise and can have a definitive meaning is welcome, but it is logically incompatible with an insistence on deference and judicial restraint.

If the Vavilov court had wanted to limit deference to cases of genuine interpretive uncertainty, it ought to have followed Chevron in clearly asking courts, first, to identify such cases, and then, and only then, to defer. That, of course, runs the risk of deference being relatively rare ― a risk highlighted by Justice Scalia in a lecture on “Judicial Deference to Administrative Interpretations of Law“:

One who finds more often (as I do) that the meaning of a statute is apparent from its text and from its relationship with other laws, thereby finds less often that the triggering requirement for Chevron deference exists. It is thus relatively rare that Chevron will require me to accept an interpretation which, though reasonable, I would not personally adopt. (521; emphasis in the original)

Conversely, if the Vavilov court was serious about deference-across-the-board being required as a matter of respect for legislative choice, it should have doubled down on the earlier view that statutory language inherently fails to determine legal disputes. This, in my view, would have been madness, but there would have been method in’t.

The trouble is that, as I said in my original comment on Vavilov, the majority opinion is a fudge. Collectively, the seven judges who signed it probably could not agree on what it was that they wanted, other than a compromise, and so did not want anything in particular. And so we get a judgment that, in a space of three short sentences, requires judicial review to embody “the principle of judicial restraint” while being “robust”, [13] and insists on deference while stressing that there may well be only one reasonable opinion to defer to.


Different people, and different legal cultures, will find their own ways to dance to the same tune of judicial resignation before the administrative state. Perhaps we should regard their different solutions as mere curiosities, objects of wonder but not judgment. But I don’t find this new Canadian hit, Chevron on 2, especially elegant or exciting. Not that I am a devotee of the on 1 original; but its steps at least come in a logical sequence. The on 2 version demands, as it were, that judges step forward and backward at the same time, and, with all due respect to the Canadian judiciary, I am not sure that it ― or, anyone else, for that matter ― is quite capable of such intricate footwork. Toes will be crushed, and partners disappointed if not injured, before someone realizes that the music needs, at long last, to stop.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Chevron on 2”

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