No Chevron Deference for Agency Interpretation of Court’s Jurisdiction

In Shweika v. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit confronted an interesting question: Should courts give Chevron deference to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statutory provision that determines the scope of a federal court’s jurisdiction to review the agency’s action.  In this case, Mazen Shwieka sought to challenge the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ denial of his application for naturalization, but the district court concluded it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because Shweika had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Although the relevant administrative exhaustion requirements are not clear in the relevant statute, USCIS had interpreted the statute to preclude judicial review.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed.

Here’s a portion of Judge Moore’s opinion in which she discusses the Chevron issue.

We are persuaded by the reasoning employed by our sister circuits in concluding that Chevron deference does not apply to an agency’s interpretation of a federal court’s jurisdiction. First, the conditions that license Chevron’s application are not present in this case. “A principal reason why courts pay agencies no deference on jurisdiction conferring statutes is that such statutes do not grant powers to agencies.” . . .  Section 1421(c) does not delegate authority to the Executive Branch; rather, it confers power directly on federal courts. . . . Second, a key rationale motivating Chevron deference is missing from this case. Courts defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute in part because the agency has expertise that the court does not. Chevron, 467 U.S. at 865. Yet federal courts are experts when it comes to determining the scope of federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction. . . . Third, countervailing jurisdictional norms counsel against deference. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed “the strong presumption that Congress intends judicial review of administrative action.” . . . In this case, deference to 8 C.F.R. § 336.9(d) would have the effect of limiting judicial review in contravention of that strong presumption; such deference is especially problematic where, as explained above, Congress has not offered any indication that it intended to overcome this strong presumption. Additionally, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that federal courts have an independent obligation to determine their own subject-matter jurisdiction. . . . Requiring that a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the court’s own subject-matter jurisdiction would interfere with this independent obligation. . . . Thus, we conclude that deference is not owed to 8 C.F.R. § 336.9(d) to the extent that the regulation interprets 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c)’s administrative-hearing requirement to impose a jurisdictional limitation on judicial review.

In summary, we conclude that Congress has not clearly stated that 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c)’s administrative-hearing requirement is jurisdictional. Although 8 C.F.R. § 336.9(d) interprets 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c) to contain a jurisdictional limitation, we do not defer to this interpretation because it implicates the scope of a federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction, nor do we find 8 C.F.R. § 336.9(d)’s interpretation persuasive in light of recent Supreme Court precedent. Thus, in the absence of a clear statement from Congress that it intended 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c)’s administrative-hearing requirement to be jurisdictional, we must conclude that the requirement is nonjurisdictional.

I believe this is correct. In a footnote, Judge Moore is careful to distinguish the “jurisdictional” question in this case from that which the Supreme Court decided in City of Arlington v. FCC. She notes that the Supreme Court’s Arlington opinion noted the distinction between questions of agency jurisdiction and those of federal-court jurisdiction. According to the Arlington majority, there is no meaningful line distinguishing jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional in the agency context, whereas “[i]n the judicial context there is a meaningful line.”