Judicial deference to inconsistent agency statutory interpretations

Yehonatan Givati*, Matthew C. Stephenson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Although administrative law doctrine requires courts to defer to an agency's reasonable statutory interpretation, the doctrine is unclear as to whether an agency gets less deference when it changes its own prior interpretation. We formally analyze how judicial deference to revised agency interpretations affects the ideological content of agencies' interpretations. We find a nonmonotonic relationship between judicial deference to inconsistent agency interpretations and interpretive extremism. This relationship arises because as courts become less deferential to revised interpretations, the initial agency finds it more attractive to promulgate a moderate interpretation that will not be revised. However, the less deferential the courts, the more extreme this moderate interpretation becomes. Normatively, our results suggest that an interest in responsiveness of interpretive policy to the preferences of the incumbent leadership favors deference to revised interpretations, whereas an interest in ideological moderation favors a somewhat less deferential posture to interpretive revisions.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)85-113
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Legal Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes


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