June 26 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court voted Wednesday to uphold a prior ruling that gives broad powers to government regulators for interpreting agency rules, but also placed new limits on that authority.
The high court voted to affirm the "Auer deference" -- named for a 1997 case that hinged on whether a public police agency could cite federal labor regulations in denying police officers in a pay dispute. The court upheld the precedent in the case of Marine Corps veteran James Kisor, who sought retroactive disability payments from the Department of Veteran Affairs. An appeals court had sided with the government, citing Auer.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan affirmed the Auer deference -- but said new limits should apply, and sent the case back to a lower court for reconsideration. Attorney Paul Hughes said the ruling was a victory for Kisor since it vacated the appellate decision.
Kagan said the case depended on a legal principle that sets a high bar on overturning past rulings.
"We rule today that this form of deference should continue," Kagan wrote. "The principle of stare decisis -- in English, letting decisions stand -- is an important one for stability and evenhandedness in the law. To overrule a case, we need a special justification -- and Kisor fails to offer one here.
"But even as we uphold it, we reinforce its limits. Auer deference is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not," she added. "Whether to apply it depends on a range of considerations that we have noted now and again, but compile and further develop today. The deference doctrine we describe is potent in its place, but cabined in its scope."
Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion -- joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito -- gave government agencies leeway under Auer, but strongly suggested they need to be more transparent in writing rules.
"When judges interpret a regulation, what we are trying to get at, as Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes explained long ago, is not the 'particular intent' of those who wrote it, but 'what [its] words would mean [to] a normal speaker of English ... in the circumstances in which they were used,'" Gorsuch wrote.
"If the best reading of the regulation turns out to be something other than what the agency claims to have intended, the agency is free to rewrite the regulation; but its secret intentions are not the law."
"Today's decision will significantly narrow agency authority," Hughes said.
Some said the decision might hint at how the Supreme Court might think when faced with a possible test of the 1973 abortion legalization precedent in Roe vs. Wade. Several recent state laws targeting abortion are aimed at reaching the high court for a re-examination of the landmark 1973 ruling.