The Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up an appeal from an Air Force veteran who had challenged the authority of the Department of Veterans Affairs to deny him certain disability benefits.
The court’s decision to stay out of the dispute sidesteps a fresh challenge to the so-called administrative state, a move that will frustrate conservatives who are seeking to cut back on the power of federal agencies.
Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented from the court’s decision to deny, writing that the VA’s “misguided rules harm a wide swath of disabled veterans” who he said “served this nation well.”
Air Force veteran Thomas Buffington was diagnosed with a disability and became eligible to receive disability benefits in 2000. In 2003, he was recalled to active-duty status in the Air National Guard. Following the law, he discontinued receiving the benefits for that period of time so he wouldn’t be paid double.
When he finally discontinued active-duty service in 2005, he waited a couple of years and then asked for his disability benefits to be paid retroactively for the periods of time he had not received active-duty pay. But the Department of Veteran Affairs said that it had enacted a regulation with the requirement that such a request has to be made within a year and that he had waited too long.
Buffington challenged the department, calling the actions “arbitrary” and not grounded in the statutory text that governs disability payments.
But he lost when a federal court cited a Supreme Court case from 1984 decision called Chevron v. NRDC. The “Chevron doctrine” sets forward factors to determine when courts should defer to a government agency’s interpretation of a statute.
Under the case, when courts are reviewing an agency action, they must first consider whether the law is ambiguous. If it is not, the analysis ends. If, however, the language is not clear, a court considers whether the agency action is a reasonable interpretation of the law. Some conservatives have expressed criticism of the doctrine, arguing that courts should not defer to the agencies.
Lawyers for Buffington asked the Supreme Court to overturn Chevron.
“After 37 years, experience has shown that Chevron’s deference regime is wrong, unworkable in practice, leads to arbitrary and subjective decisions and affirmatively undermines the stable development of the law,” Roman Martinez, a lawyer for Buffington, told the court in legal papers.
He said the court should have taken note of a separate legal doctrine that defers to the rights of veterans.