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Kisor v. Wilkie

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 2019

JAMES L. KISOR, PETITIONER
v.
ROBERT WILKIE, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

          Argued March 27, 2019

          ON WRITE OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT No. 18-15.

         Petitioner James Kisor, a Vietnam War veteran, first sought disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 1982, alleging that he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. The agency denied his initial request, but in 2006, Kisor moved to reopen his claim. The VA this time agreed he was eligible for benefits, but it granted those benefits only from the date of his motion to reopen, not (as Kisor had requested) from the date of his first application. The Board of Veterans' Appeals-a part of the VA-affirmed that retroactivity decision, based on its interpretation of an agency rule governing such claims. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims affirmed.

         The Federal Circuit also affirmed, but it did so by applying a doctrine called Auer (or sometimes, Seminole Rock) deference. See Auer v. Bobbins, 519 U.S. 452; Bowles v. Seminole Bock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410. Under that doctrine, this Court has long deferred to an agency's reasonable reading of its own genuinely ambiguous regulations. The Court of Appeals concluded that the VA regulation at issue was ambiguous, and it therefore deferred to the Board's interpretation of the rule. Kisor now asks the Court to overrule Auer, as well as its predecessor Seminole Bock, discarding the deference those decisions give to agencies.

         Held:

         The judgment is vacated and remanded.

         869 F.3d 1360, vacated and remanded.

          JUSTICE Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-B, III-B, and IV, holding that Auer and Seminole Bock are not overruled. Pp. 11-19, 25-29.

         (a) This Court's deference doctrine is rooted in a presumption that Congress intended for courts to defer to agencies when they interpret their own ambiguous rules. The Court adopts that presumption for a set of reasons related to the comparative attributes of courts and agencies in answering interpretive questions. But when the reasons for the presumption do not hold up, or when countervailing reasons outweigh them, courts should not give deference to an agency's reading. The Court has thus cabined Auer's scope in varied and critical ways.

         First and foremost, a court should not afford Auer deference unless, after exhausting all the "traditional tools" of construction, Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843, n. 9, the regulation is genuinely ambiguous. A court must carefully consider the text, structure, history, and purpose of a regulation before resorting to deference. If genuine ambiguity remains, the agency's reading must still fall "within the bounds of reasonable interpretation." Arlington v. FCC, 569 U.S. 290, 296.

         And even then, not every reasonable agency reading of a genuinely ambiguous rule should receive Auer deference. Rather, a court must also make an independent inquiry into whether the character and context of the agency interpretation entitles it to controlling weight. See, e.g., Christopher v. Smith Kline Beecham Corp., 567 U.S. 142, 155. The inquiry along this dimension does not reduce to an exhaustive test, but the Court has laid out some especially important markers for identifying when Auer deference is and is not appropriate. To begin with, the regulatory interpretation must be the agency's authoritative or official position, rather than any more ad hoc statement not reflecting the agency's views. Next, the agency's interpretation must in some way implicate its substantive expertise, as the basis for deference ebbs when the subject matter of a dispute is distant from the agency's ordinary duties. Finally, an agency's reading of a rule must reflect its "fair and considered judgment." Auer, 519 U.S., at 462. A court should decline to defer, for example, to a merely "'convenient litigating position, '" Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155., or to a new interpretation that creates "unfair surprise" to regulated parties, Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158, 170. Pp. 11-19.

         (b) Stare decisis cuts strongly against overruling Auer. Adherence to precedent is "a foundation stone of the rule of law," Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, 572 U.S. 782, 798, and any departure from the doctrine demands "special justification," Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 573 U.S. 258, 266. That is even more than usually so in the circumstances here. First, Kisor asks the Court to overrule a "long line of precedents"-each one reaffirming the rest and going back 75 years or more. Bay Mills, 572 U.S., at 798. Second, because Auer deference pervades the whole corpus of administrative law, abandoning it would cast doubt on many settled constructions of rules. And third, even if the Court is wrong about Auer, "Congress remains free to alter what [the Court has] done." Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 172-173. For approaching a century, Congress has let this deference regime work side-by-side with both the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the many statutes delegating rulemaking power to agencies. This Court would thus need a particularly "special justification" to now reverse Auer.

         Kisor offers nothing of that ilk. Nearly all of his arguments relate to whether the doctrine is wrong or poorly reasoned. He does not claim that Auer deference is "unworkable," a traditional basis for overruling a case, Patterson, 491 U.S., at 173, or point to changes in legal rules that make Auer a "doctrinal dinosaur," Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U.S.___, ___. Instead, his lone special justification is that the administrative state has evolved substantially since this Court decided Seminole Rock in 1945. It is true that agencies have far-reaching influence today; that is one reason the Court has taken care to reinforce the limits of Auer deference. But it is no answer to the growth of agencies for courts to take over their expertise-based, policymaking functions. Pp. 25-28.

         (c) Turning to Kisor's own case, a remand is necessary for two reasons. First, the Federal Circuit jumped the gun in declaring the VA's regulation ambiguous before bringing all its interpretive tools to bear on the question. Second, the Federal Circuit assumed too fast that Auer deference should apply in the event of genuine ambiguity, rather than assessing whether the interpretation is of the sort that Congress would want to receive deference. On remand, the Court of Appeals must reconsider whether Auer deference is warranted, bearing in mind the principles outlined in this opinion. Pp. 28-29.

          Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, concluded in Parts II-A and III-A:

(a) Auer deference is rooted in a presumption that Congress would generally want the agency to play the primary role in resolving regulatory ambiguities. See Martin v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Comm'n, 499 U.S. 144, 151-153. In part, the presumption arises because the agency that promulgated a rule is in the "better position [to] reconstruct" its original meaning. Id., at 152. In still greater measure, the presumption stems from an awareness that resolving genuine regulatory ambiguities often "'entail[s] the exercise of judgment grounded in policy concerns, '" an area where agencies have a comparative advantage over courts. Thomas Jefferson Univ. v. Shalala, 512 U.S. 504, 512. Finally, the presumption reflects the well-known benefits of uniformity in interpreting ambiguous rules. Auer deference promotes "resolving interpretive issues by uniform administrative decision, rather than piecemeal by litigation," Ford Motor Credit Co. v. Milhollin, 444 U.S. 555, 568. Pp. 4-11.
(b) None of Kisor's arguments provide good reason to reconsider Auer deference. First, he claims that Auer is inconsistent with the APA's judicial review provision, which instructs reviewing courts to "determine the meaning" of an agency action. 5 U.S.C. §706. Even when a court defers to a regulatory reading, however, it acts consistently with Section 706. That provision does not specify the standard of review a court should use in "determin[ing] the meaning" of an ambiguous rule. This Court thus presumes that Congress would want courts to do so by reviewing agency interpretations for reasonableness. That is especially so because Section 706, when enacted, was understood to restate the present law of judicial review-which would have included deference under Seminole Rock. Nor does Auer circumvent the APA's rulemaking requirements, which require regulations to go through notice and comment before they can bind third parties. Even though a court might defer to an agency's interpretation of a regulation, the agency's interpretation itself never forms the basis for an enforcement action. Rather, an agency bringing an enforcement action must always rely on a rule that went through notice and comment. And courts, in turn, always retain the final authority to approve-or not-an agency's reading of that notice-and-comment rule. See Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Assn., 575 U.S. 92, ___.
Kisor's policy and constitutional arguments fail just as roundly. As a policy matter, he contends that Auer encourages agencies to issue vague and open-ended regulations, confident that they can later impose whatever interpretation of those rules they prefer. But no real evidence backs up that assertion and strong incentives cut in the opposite direction. Finally, Kisor asserts that Auer deference violates "separation-of-powers principles" by vesting both legislative and judicial functions in one branch. If that objection is to agencies' usurping the interpretive role of courts, Auer-when properly understood and applied-does no such thing. And if the objection is instead to the supposed commingling of functions within an agency, this Court has explained that even when agency "activities take 'legislative' and 'judicial' forms," they continue to be "exercises of the 'executive Power, '" and thus raise no constitutional concerns. Arlington, 569 U.S.___, at 304-305, n. 4. Pp. 19-25.

          KAGAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-B, III-B, and IV, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-A and III-A, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ROBERTS, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in part. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined, in which KAVANAUGH, J., joined as to Parts I, II, III, IV, and V, and in which Alito, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III. KAVANAUGH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which ALITO, J., joined.

          OPINION

          KAGAN, JUSTICE

         This Court has often deferred to agencies' reasonable readings of genuinely ambiguous regulations. We call that practice Auer deference, or sometimes Seminole Rock deference, after two cases in which we employed it. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997); Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945). The only question presented here is whether we should overrule those decisions, discarding the deference they give to agencies. We answer that question no. Auer deference retains an important role in construing agency regulations. But even as we uphold it, we reinforce its limits. Auer deference is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. 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. On remand, the Court of Appeals should decide whether it applies to the agency interpretation at issue.

         I

         We begin by summarizing how petitioner James Kisor's case made its way to this Court. Truth be told, nothing recounted in this Part has much bearing on the rest of our decision. The question whether to overrule Auer does not turn on any single application, whether right or wrong, of that decision's deference doctrine. But a recitation of the facts and proceedings below at least shows how the question presented arose.

         Kisor is a Vietnam War veteran seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He first applied in 1982, alleging that he had developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his participation in a military action called Operation Harvest Moon. The report of the agency's evaluating psychiatrist noted Kisor's involvement in that battle, but found that he "d[id] not suffer from PTSD." App. 12, 14. The VA thus denied Kisor benefits. There matters stood until 2006, when Kisor moved to reopen his claim. Based on a new psychiatric report, the VA this time agreed that Kisor suffered from PTSD. But it granted him benefits only from the date of his motion to reopen, rather than (as he requested) from the date of his first application.

         The Board of Veterans' Appeals-a part of the VA, represented in Kisor's case by a single administrative judge-affirmed that timing decision, based on its interpretation of an agency rule. Under the VA's regulation, the agency could grant Kisor retroactive benefits if it found there were "relevant official service department records" that it had not considered in its initial denial. See 38 CFR §3.156(c)(1) (2013). The Board acknowledged that Kisor had come up with two new service records, both confirming his participation in Operation Harvest Moon. But according to the Board, those records were not "relevant" because they did not go to the reason for the denial-that Kisor did not have PTSD. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 43a ("[The] documents were not relevant to the decision in May 1983 because the basis of the denial was that a diagnosis of PTSD was not warranted, not a dispute as to whether or not the Veteran engaged in combat"). The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, an independent Article I court that initially reviews the Board's decisions, affirmed for the same reason.

         The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit also affirmed, but it did so based on deference to the Board's interpretation of the VA rule. See Kisor v. Shulkin, 869 F.3d 1360, 1368 (2017). Kisor had argued to the Federal Circuit that to count as "relevant," a service record need not (as the Board thought) "counter[] the basis of the prior denial"; instead, it could relate to some other criterion for obtaining disability benefits. Id., at 1366 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Federal Circuit found the regulation "ambiguous" as between the two readings. Id., at 1367. The rule, said the court, does not specifically address "whether 'relevant' records are those casting doubt on the agency's prior [rationale or] those relating to the veteran's claim more broadly." Ibid. So how to choose between the two views? The court continued: "Both parties insist that the plain regulatory language supports their case, and neither party's position strikes us as unreasonable." Id., at 1368. Because that was so, the court believed Auer deference appropriate: The agency's construction of its own regulation would govern unless "plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the VA's regulatory framework." Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying that standard, the court upheld the Board's reading-and so approved the denial of retroactive benefits.

         We then granted certiorari to decide whether to overrule Auer and (its predecessor) Seminole Rock. 586 U.S. (2018).

         II

         Before addressing that question directly, we spend some time describing what Auer deference is, and is not, for. You might view this Part as "just background" because we have made many of its points in prior decisions. But even if so, it is background that matters. For our account of why the doctrine emerged-and also how we have limited it-goes a long way toward explaining our view that it is worth preserving.

         A

         Begin with a familiar problem in administrative law: For various reasons, regulations may be genuinely ambiguous. They may not directly or clearly address every issue; when applied to some fact patterns, they may prove susceptible to more than one reasonable reading. Sometimes, this sort of ambiguity arises from careless drafting-the use of a dangling modifier, an awkward word, an opaque construction. But often, ambiguity reflects the well-known limits of expression or knowledge. The subject matter of a rule "may be so specialized and varying in nature as to be impossible"-or at any rate, impracticable-to capture in its every detail. SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 203 (1947). Or a "problem[] may arise" that the agency, when drafting the rule, "could not [have] reasonably foresee[n]." Id., at 202. Whichever the case, the result is to create real uncertainties about a regulation's meaning.

         Consider these examples:

• In a rule issued to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Department of Justice requires theaters and stadiums to provide people with disabilities "lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public." 28 CFR pt. 36, App. A, p. 563 (1996). Must the Washington Wizards construct wheelchair seating to offer lines of sight over spectators when they rise to their feet? Or is it enough that the facility offers comparable views so long as everyone remains seated? See Paralyzed Veterans of Am. v. D. C. Arena L. P., 117 F.3d 579, 581-582 (CADC 1997).
• The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires that liquids, gels, and aerosols in carry-on baggage be packed in containers smaller than 3.4 ounces and carried in a clear plastic bag. Does a traveler have to pack his jar of truffle pate in that way? See Laba v. Copeland, 2016 WL 5958241, *1 (WDNC, Oct. 13, 2016).
• The Mine Safety and Health Administration issues a rule requiring employers to report occupational diseases within two weeks after they are "diagnosed." 30 CFR §50.20(a) (1993). Do chest X-ray results that "scor[e]" above some level of opacity count as a "diagnosis"? What level, exactly? See American Min. Congress v. Mine Safety and Health Admin., 995 F.2d 1106, 1107-1108 (CADC 1993).
• An FDA regulation gives pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to drug products if they contain "no active moiety that has been approved by FDA in any other" new drug application. 21 CFR §314.108(a) (2010). Has a company created a new "active moiety" by joining a previously approved moiety to lysine through a non-ester covalent bond? See Actavis Elizabeth LLC v. FDA, 625 F.3d 760, 762-763 (CADC 2010); Tr. of Oral Arg. 12, 35.[1]
• Or take the facts of Auer itself. An agency must decide whether police captains are eligible for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to the agency's regulations, employees cannot receive overtime if they are paid on a "salary basis." 29 CFR §541.118(a) (1996). And in deciding whether an employee is salaried, one question is whether his pay is "subject to reduction" based on performance. Ibid. A police department's manual informs its officers that their pay might be docked if they commit a disciplinary infraction. Does that fact alone make them "subject to" pay deductions? Or must the department have a practice of docking officer pay, so that the possibility of that happening is more than theoretical? 519 U.S., at 459-462.

         In each case, interpreting the regulation involves a choice between (or among) more than one reasonable reading. To apply the rule to some unanticipated or unresolved situation, the court must make a judgment call. How should it do so?

         In answering that question, we have often thought that a court should defer to the agency's construction of its own regulation. For the last 20 or so years, we have referred to that doctrine as Auer deference, and applied it often.[2] But the name is something of a misnomer. Before the doctrine was called Auer deference, it was called Seminole Rock deference-for the 1945 decision in which we declared that when "the meaning of [a regulation] is in doubt," the agency's interpretation "becomes of controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation." 325 U.S., at 414.[3] And Seminole Rock itself was not built on sand. Deference to administrative agencies traces back to the late nineteenth century, and perhaps beyond. See United States v. Eaton, 169 U.S. 331, 343 (1898) ("The interpretation given to the regulations by the department charged with their execution ... is entitled to the greatest weight"); see Brief for Administrative Law Scholars as Amici Curiae 5, n. 3 (collecting early cases); Brief for AFL-CIO as Amicus Curiae 8 (same).

         We have explained Auer deference (as we now call it) as rooted in a presumption about congressional intent-a presumption that Congress would generally want the agency to play the primary role in resolving regulatory ambiguities. See Martin v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Comm'n, 499 U.S. 144, 151-153 (1991). Congress, we have pointed out, routinely delegates to agencies the power to implement statutes by issuing rules. See id., at 151. In doing so, Congress knows (how could it not?) that regulations will sometimes contain ambiguities. See supra, at 4. But Congress almost never explicitly assigns responsibility to deal with that problem, either to agencies or to courts. Hence the need to presume, one way or the other, what Congress would want. And as between those two choices, agencies have gotten the nod. We have adopted the presumption-though it is always rebuttable-that "the power authoritatively to interpret its own regulations is a component of the agency's delegated lawmaking powers." Martin, 499 U.S., at 151. Or otherwise said, we have thought that when granting rulemaking power to agencies, Congress usually intends to give them, too, considerable latitude to interpret the ambiguous rules they issue.

         In part, that is because the agency that promulgated a rule is in the "better position [to] reconstruct" its original meaning. Id., at 152. Consider that if you don't know what some text (say, a memo or an e-mail) means, you would probably want to ask the person who wrote it. And for the same reasons, we have thought, Congress would too (though the person is here a collective actor). The agency that "wrote the regulation" will often have direct insight into what that rule was intended to mean. Mullins Coal Co. of Va. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 484 U.S. 135, 159 (1987). The drafters will know what it was supposed to include or exclude or how it was supposed to apply to some problem. To be sure, this justification has its limits. It does not work so well, for example, when the agency failed to anticipate an issue in crafting a rule (e.g., if the agency never thought about whether and when chest X-rays would count as a "diagnosis"). See supra, at 5. Then, the agency will not be uncovering a specific intention; at most (though this is not nothing), it will be offering insight into the analogous issues the drafters considered and the purposes they designed the regulation to serve. And the defense works yet less well when lots of time has passed between the rule's issuance and its interpretation-especially if the interpretation differs from one that has come before. All that said, the point holds good for a significant category of "contemporaneous" readings. Lyng v. Payne, 476 U.S. 926, 939 (1986). Want to know what a rule means? Ask its author.

         In still greater measure, the presumption that Congress intended Auer deference stems from the awareness that resolving genuine regulatory ambiguities often "entail[s] the exercise of judgment grounded in policy concerns." Thomas Jefferson Univ. v. Shalala, 512 U.S. 504, 512 (1994) (internal quotation marks omitted). Return to our TSA example. See supra, at 5. In most of their applications, terms like "liquids" and "gels" are clear enough. (Traveler checklist: Pretzels OK; water not.) But resolving the uncertain issues-the truffle pates or olive tapenades of the world-requires getting in the weeds of the rule's policy: Why does TSA ban liquids and gels in the first instance? What makes them dangerous? Can a potential hijacker use pate jars in the same way as soda cans? Or take the less specialized-seeming ADA example. See supra, at 4-5. It is easy enough to know what "comparable lines of sight" means in a movie theater-but more complicated when, as in sports arenas, spectators sometimes stand up. How costly is it to insist that the stadium owner take that sporadic behavior into account, and is the viewing value received worth the added expense? That cost-benefit calculation, too, sounds more in policy than in law. Or finally, take the more technical "moiety" example. See supra, at 5-6. Or maybe, don't. If you are a judge, you probably have no idea of what the FDA's rule means, or whether its policy is implicated when a previously approved moiety is connected to lysine through a non-ester covalent bond.

         And Congress, we have thought, knows just that: It is attuned to the comparative advantages of agencies over courts in making such policy judgments. Agencies (unlike courts) have "unique expertise," often of a scientific or technical nature, relevant to applying a regulation "to complex or changing circumstances." Martin, 499 U.S., at 151; see Thomas Jefferson, 512 U.S., at 512. Agencies (unlike courts) can conduct factual investigations, can consult with affected parties, can consider how their experts have handled similar issues over the long course of administering a regulatory program. See Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158, 167-168 (2007). And agencies (again unlike courts) have political accountability, because they are subject to the supervision of the President, who in turn answers to the public. See Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477, 499 (2010); Pauley v. Beth Energy Mines, Inc., 501 U.S. 680, 696 (1991) (discussing as a matter of democratic accountability the "proper roles of the political and judicial branches" in filling regulatory gaps). It is because of those features that Congress, when first enacting a statute, assigns rulemaking power to an agency and thus authorizes it to fill out the statutory scheme. And so too, when new issues demanding new policy calls come up within that scheme, Congress presumably wants the same agency, rather than any court, to take the laboring oar.

         Finally, the presumption we use reflects the well-known benefits of uniformity in interpreting genuinely ambiguous rules. We have noted Congress's frequent "preference for resolving interpretive issues by uniform administrative decision, rather than piecemeal by litigation." Ford Motor Credit Co. v. Milhollin, 444 U.S. 555, 568 (1980). That preference may be strongest when the interpretive issue arises in the context of a "complex and highly technical regulatory program." Thomas Jefferson, 512 U.S., at 512. After all, judges are most likely to come to divergent conclusions when they are least likely to know what they are doing. (Is there anything to be said for courts all over the country trying to figure out what makes for a new active moiety?) But the uniformity justification retains some weight even for more accessible rules, because their language too may give rise to more than one eminently reasonable reading. Consider Auer itself. See supra, at 6. There, four Circuits held that police captains were "subject to" pay deductions for disciplinary infractions if a police manual said they were, even if the department had never docked anyone. Two other Circuits held that captains were "subject to" pay deductions only if the department's actual practice made that punishment a realistic possibility. See Auer, 519 U.S., at 460. Had the agency issued an interpretation before all those rulings (rather than, as actually happened, in a brief in this Court), a deference rule would have averted most of that conflict and uncertainty. See Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 567 U.S. 142, 158, n. 17 (2012) (noting for this reason that Auer deference imparts "predictability to the administrative process" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Auer deference thus serves to ensure consistency in federal regulatory law, for everyone who needs to know what it requires.

         B

         But all that said, Auer deference is not the answer to every question of interpreting an agency's rules. Far from it. As we explain in this section, the possibility of deference can arise only if a regulation is genuinely ambiguous. And when we use that term, we mean it-genuinely ambiguous, even after a court has resorted to all the standard tools of interpretation. Still more, not all reasonable agency constructions of those truly ambiguous rules are entitled to deference. As just explained, we presume that Congress intended for courts to defer to agencies when they interpret their own ambiguous rules. See supra, at 7-11. But when the reasons for that presumption do not apply, or countervailing reasons outweigh them, courts should not give deference to an agency's reading, except to the extent it has the "power to persuade." Christopher, 567 U.S., at 159 (quoting Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140 (1944)). We have thus cautioned that Auer deference is just a "general rule"; it "does not apply in all cases." Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155. And although the limits of Auer deference are not susceptible to any rigid test, we have noted various circumstances in which such deference is "unwarranted." Ibid. In particular, that will be so when a court concludes that an interpretation does not reflect an agency's authoritative, expertise-based, "fair[, or] considered judgment." Ibid, (quoting Auer, 519 U.S., at 462); cf. United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 229-231 (2001) (adopting a similar approach to Chevron deference).

         We take the opportunity to restate, and somewhat expand on, those principles here to clear up some mixed messages we have sent. At times, this Court has applied Auer deference without significant analysis of the underlying regulation. See, e.g., United States v. Larionoff, 431 U.S. 864, 872 (1977) (stating that the Court "need not tarry" over the regulation's language given Seminole Rock). At other times, the Court has given Auer deference without careful attention to the nature and context of the interpretation. See, e.g., Thorpe v. Housing Authority of Durham, 393 U.S. 268, 276, and nn. 22-23 (1969) (deferring to an agency's view as expressed in letters to third parties). And in a vacuum, our most classic formulation of the test-whether an agency's construction is "plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation," Seminole Rock, 325 U.S., at 414-may suggest a caricature of the doctrine, in which deference is "reflexive." Pereira v. Sessions, 585 U.S.___, ___ (2018) (Kennedy, J., concurring) (slip op., at 2). So we cannot deny that Kisor has a bit of grist for his claim that Auer "bestows on agencies expansive, unreviewable" authority. Brief for Petitioner 25. But in fact Auer does no such thing: It gives agencies their due, while also allowing-indeed, obligating-courts to perform their reviewing and restraining functions. So before we turn to Kisor's specific grievances, we think it worth reinforcing some of the limits inherent in the Auer doctrine.[4]

         First and foremost, a court should not afford Auer deference unless the regulation is genuinely ambiguous. See Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576, 588 (2000); Seminole Rock, 325 U.S., at 414 (deferring only "if the meaning of the words used is in doubt"). If uncertainty does not exist, there is no plausible reason for deference. The regulation then just means what it means-and the court must give it effect, as the court would any law. Otherwise said, the core theory of Auer deference is that sometimes the law runs out, and policy-laden choice is what is left over. See supra, at 9-10. But if the law gives an answer-if there is only one reasonable construction of a regulation-then a court has no business deferring to any other reading, no matter how much the agency insists it would make more sense. Deference in that circumstance would "permit the agency, under the guise of interpreting a regulation, to create de facto a new regulation." See Christensen, 529 U.S., at 588. Auer does not, and indeed could not, go that far.

         And before concluding that a rule is genuinely ambiguous, a court must exhaust all the "traditional tools" of construction. Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843, n. 9 (1984) (adopting the same approach for ambiguous statutes). For again, only when that legal toolkit is empty and the interpretive question still has no single right answer can a judge conclude that it is "more [one] of policy than of law." Pauley, 501 U.S., at 696. That means a court cannot wave the ambiguity flag just because it found the regulation impenetrable on first read. Agency regulations can sometimes make the eyes glaze over. But hard interpretive conundrums, even relating to complex rules, can often be solved. See id., at 707 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (A regulation is not ambiguous merely because "discerning the only possible interpretation requires a taxing inquiry"). To make that effort, a court must "carefully consider[]" the text, structure, history, and purpose of a regulation, in all the ways it would if it had no agency to fall back on. Ibid. Doing so will resolve many seeming ambiguities out of the box, without resort to Auer deference.

         If genuine ambiguity remains, moreover, the agency's reading must still be "reasonable." Thomas Jefferson, 512 U.S., at 515. In other words, it must come within the zone of ambiguity the court has identified after employing all its interpretive tools. (Note that serious application of those tools therefore has use even when a regulation turns out to be truly ambiguous. The text, structure, history, and so forth at least establish the outer bounds of permissible interpretation.) Some courts have thought (perhaps because of Seminole Rock's "plainly erroneous" formulation) that at this stage of the analysis, agency constructions of rules receive greater deference than agency constructions of statutes. See, e.g., Ohio Dept. of Medicaid v. Price, 864 F.3d 469, 477 (CA6 2017). But that is not so. Under Auer, as under Chevron, the agency's reading must fall "within the bounds of reasonable interpretation." Arlington v. FCC, 569 U.S. 290, 296 (2013). And let there be no mistake: That is a requirement an agency can fail.

         Still, we are not done-for not every reasonable agency reading of a genuinely ambiguous rule should receive Auer deference. We have recognized in applying Auer that a court must make an independent inquiry into whether the character and context of the agency interpretation entitles it to controlling weight. See Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155; see also Mead, 533 U.S., at 229-231, 236-237 (requiring an analogous though not identical inquiry for Chevron deference). As explained above, we give Auer deference because we presume, for a set of reasons relating to the comparative attributes of courts and agencies, that Congress would have wanted us to. See supra, at 7-11. But the administrative realm is vast and varied, and we have understood that such a presumption cannot always hold. Cf. Mead, 533 U.S., at 236 ("tailoring] deference to [the] variety" of administrative action); Arlington, 569 U.S., at 309-310 (BREYER, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (noting that "context-specific[] factors" may show that "Congress would [not] have intended the agency to resolve [some] ambiguity"). The inquiry on this dimension does not reduce to any exhaustive test. But we have laid out some especially important markers for identifying when Auer deference is and is not appropriate.

         To begin with, the regulatory interpretation must be one actually made by the agency. In other words, it must be the agency's "authoritative" or "official position," rather than any more ad hoc statement not reflecting the agency's views. Mead, 533 U.S., at 257-259, and n. 6 (Scalia, J., dissenting). That constraint follows from the logic of Auer deference-because Congress has delegated rulemaking power, and all that typically goes with it, to the agency alone. Of course, the requirement of "authoritative" action must recognize a reality of bureaucratic life: Not everything the agency does comes from, or is even in the name of, the Secretary or his chief advisers. So, for example, we have deferred to "official staff memoranda" that were "published in the Federal Register," even though never approved by the agency head. Ford Motor Credit, 444 U.S., at 566, n. 9, 567, n. 10 (declining to "draw a radical distinction between" agency heads and staff for Auer deference). But there are limits. The interpretation must at the least emanate from those actors, using those vehicles, understood to make authoritative policy in the relevant context. See, e.g., Paralyzed Veterans, 117 F.3d, at 587 (refusing to consider a "speech of a mid-level official" as an "authoritative departmental position"); N.Y.State Dept. of Social Servs. v. Bowen, 835 F.2d 360, 365-366 (CADC 1987) (rejecting the idea that an "informal memorandum" recounting a telephone conversation between employees could count as an "authoritative pronouncement"); Exelon Generation Co. v. Local 15, Int'l Brotherhood of Elec. Workers, AFL-CIO, 676 F.3d 566, 576-578 (CA7 2012) (declining deference when the agency had itself "disclaimed the use of regulatory guides as authoritative"). If the interpretation does not do so, a court may not defer.

         Next, the agency's interpretation must in some way implicate its substantive expertise. Administrative knowledge and experience largely "account [for] the presumption that Congress delegates interpretive lawmaking power to the agency." Martin, 499 U.S., at 153. So the basis for deference ebbs when "[t]he subject matter of the [dispute is] distan[t] from the agency's ordinary" duties or "fall[s] within the scope of another agency's authority." Arlington, 569 U.S., at 309 (opinion of BREYER, J.). This Court indicated as much when it analyzed a "split enforcement" scheme, in which Congress divided regulatory power between two entities. Martin, 499 U.S., at 151. To decide "whose reasonable interpretation" of a rule controlled, we "presum[ed] Congress intended to invest interpretive power" in whichever actor was "best positioned] to develop" expertise about the given problem. Id., at 149, 153. The same idea holds good as between agencies and courts. "Generally, agencies have a nuanced understanding of the regulations they administer." Brief for Respondent 33. That point is most obvious when a rule is technical; think back to our "moiety" or "diagnosis" examples. See supra, at 5-6. But more prosaic-seeming questions also commonly implicate policy expertise; consider the TSA assessing the security risks of pate or a disabilities office weighing the costs and benefits of an accommodation. See ibid. Once again, though, there are limits. Some interpretive issues may fall more naturally into a judge's bailiwick. Take one requiring the elucidation of a simple common-law property term, see Jicarilla Apache Tribe v. FERC, 578 F.2d 289, 292-293 (CA10 1978), or one concerning the award of an attorney's fee, see West Va. Highlands Conservancy, Inc. v. Norton, 343 F.3d 239 (CA4 2003). Cf. Adams Fruit Co. v. Barrett, 494 U.S. 638, 649-650 (1990) (declining to award Chevron deference when an agency interprets a judicial-review provision). When the agency has no comparative expertise in resolving a regulatory ambiguity, Congress presumably would not grant it that authority.[5]

         Finally, an agency's reading of a rule must reflect "fair and considered judgment" to receive Auer deference. Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155 (quoting Auer, 519 U.S., at 462). That means, we have stated, that a court should decline to defer to a merely "convenient litigating position" or "post hoc rationalizatio[n] advanced" to "defend past agency action against attack." Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155 (quoting Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hospital, 488 U.S. 204, 213 (1988) and Auer, 519 U.S., at 462).[6] And a court may not defer to a new interpretation, whether or not introduced in litigation, that creates "unfair surprise" to regulated parties. Long Island Care, 551 U.S., at 170. That disruption of expectations may occur when an agency substitutes one view of a rule for another. We have therefore only rarely given Auer deference to an agency construction "conflict[ing] with a prior" one. Thomas Jefferson, 512 U.S., at 515. Or the upending of reliance may happen without such an explicit interpretive change. This Court, for example, recently refused to defer to an interpretation that would have imposed retroactive liability on parties for longstanding conduct that the agency had never before addressed. See Christopher, 567 U.S., at 155-156. Here too the lack of "fair warning" outweighed the reasons to apply Auer. Id., at 156 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         * * *

         The upshot of all this goes something as follows. When it applies, Auer deference gives an agency significant leeway to say what its own rules mean. In so doing, the doctrine enables the agency to fill out the regulatory scheme Congress has placed under its supervision. But that phrase "when it applies" is important-because it often doesn't. As described above, this Court has cabined Auer's scope in varied and critical ways-and in exactly that measure, has maintained a strong judicial role in interpreting rules. What emerges is a deference doctrine not quite so tame as some might hope, but not nearly so menacing as they might fear.

         III

         That brings us to the lone question presented here- whether we should abandon the longstanding doctrine just described. In contending that we should, Kisor raises statutory, policy, and constitutional claims (in that order). But he faces an uphill climb. He must first convince us that Auer deference is wrong. And even then, he must overcome stare decisis-the special care we take to preserve our precedents. In the event, Kisor fails at the first step: None of his arguments provide good reason to doubt Auer deference. And even if that were not so, Kisor does not offer the kind of special justification needed to overrule Auer, and Seminole Rock, and all our many other decisions deferring to reasonable agency constructions of ambiguous rules.

         A

         Kisor first attacks Auer as inconsistent with the judicial review provision of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). See 5 U.S.C. §706. As Kisor notes, Congress enacted the APA in 1946-the year after Seminole Rock- to serve as "the fundamental charter of the administrative state." Brief for Petitioner 26 (internal quotation marks omitted). Section 706 of the Act, governing judicial review of agency action, states (among other things) that reviewing courts shall "determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action" (including a regulation). According to Kisor, Auer violates that edict by thwarting "meaningful judicial review" of agency rules. Brief for Petitioner 29. Courts under Auer, he asserts (now in the language of Section 706), "abdicate their office of determining the meaning" of a regulation. Id., at 27 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         To begin with, that argument ignores the many ways, discussed above, that courts exercise independent review over the meaning of agency rules. See supra, at 13-18. As we have explained, a court must apply all traditional methods of interpretation to any rule, and must enforce the plain meaning those methods uncover. There can be no thought of deference unless, after performing that thoroughgoing review, the regulation remains genuinely susceptible to multiple reasonable meanings and the agency's interpretation lines up with one of them. And even if that is the case, courts must on their own determine whether the nature or context of the agency's construction reverses the usual presumption of deference. Most notably, a court must consider whether the interpretation is authoritative, expertise-based, considered, and fair to regulated parties. All of that figures as "meaningful judicial review." Brief for Petitioner 29.

         And even when a court defers to a regulatory reading, it acts consistently with Section 706. That provision does not specify the standard of review a court should use in "determining] the meaning" of an ambiguous rule. 5 U.S.C. §706. One possibility, as Kisor says, is to review the issue de novo. But another is to review the agency's reading for reasonableness. To see the point, assume that a regulatory (say, an employment) statute expressly instructed courts to apply Auer deference when reviewing an agency's interpretations of its ambiguous rules. Nothing in that statute would conflict with Section 706. Instead, the employment law would simply make clear how a court is to "determine the meaning" of such a rule-by deferring to an agency's reasonable reading. Ibid. Of course, that is not the world we know: Most substantive statutes do not say anything about Auer deference, one way or the other. But for all the reasons spelled out above, we have long presumed (subject always to rebuttal) that the Congress delegating regulatory authority to an agency intends as well to give that agency considerable latitude to construe its ambiguous rules. See supra, at 7-11. And that presumption operates just like the hypothesized statute above. Because of it, once again, courts do not violate Section 706 by applying Auer. To the contrary, they fulfill their duty to "determine the meaning" of a rule precisely by deferring to the agency's reasonable reading. See Sunstein & Vermeule, The Unbearable Rightness of Auer, 84 U. Chi. L. Rev. 297, 306 (2017) (If Congress intends "that the meaning of a regulation turns on the agency's interpretation of its meaning," then courts comply with Section 706's command to "'determine the meaning' [of the regulation] by deferring to that view"); cf. Arlington, 569 U.S., at 317 (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting) (similarly addressing why Chevron deference comports with Section 706). Section 706 and Auer thus go hand in hand.

         That is especially so given the practice of judicial review at the time of the APA's enactment. Section 706 was understood when enacted to "restate[] the present law as to the scope of judicial review." See Dept. of Justice, Attorney General's Manual on the Administrative Procedure Act 108 (1947); see also Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 546 (1978) (noting that this Court gives some deference to the Manual "because of the role played by the Department of Justice in drafting the legislation"). We have thus interpreted the APA not to "significantly alter the common law of judicial review of agency action." Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821, 832 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted). That pre-APA common law included Seminole Rock itself (decided the year before) along with prior decisions foretelling that ruling. See supra, at 7. Even assume that the deference regime laid out in those cases had not yet fully taken hold. At a minimum, nothing in the law of that era required all judicial review of agency interpretations to be de novo. Cf. Manning, Constitutional Structure and Judicial Deference to Agency Interpretations of Agency Rules, 96 Colum. L. Rev. 612, 635-636 (1996) (arguing that courts before the APA used "flexible, common law methods to review administrative action"). And so nothing suggests that Section 706 imposes that requirement. Or otherwise said: If Section 706 did not change the law of judicial review (as we have long recognized), then it did not proscribe a deferential standard then known and in use.

         Kisor next claims that Auer circumvents the APA's rulemaking requirements. Section 553, as Kisor notes, mandates that an agency use notice-and-comment procedures before issuing legislative rules. See 5 U.S.C. §§553(b), (c). But the section allows agencies to issue "interpret[ive]" rules without notice and comment. See §553(b)(A). A key feature of those rules is that (unlike legislative rules) they are not supposed to "have the force and effect of law"-or, otherwise said, to bind private parties. Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Assn., 575 U.S. 92, ___(2015) (slip op., at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, interpretive rules are meant only to "advise the public" of how the agency understands, and is likely to apply, its binding statutes and legislative rules. Ibid. But consider, Kisor argues, what happens when a court gives Auer deference to an interpretive rule. The result, he asserts, is to make a rule that has never gone through notice and comment binding on the public. See Brief for Petitioner 21, 29. Or put another way, the interpretive rule ends up having the "force and effect of law" without ever paying the procedural cost. Mortgage Bankers, 575 U.S., at___(slip op., at 3).

         But this Court rejected the identical argument just a few years ago, and for good reason. In Mortgage Bankers, we held that interpretive rules, even when given Auer deference, do not have the force of law. See 575 U.S., at____, and n. 4 (slip op., at 10, and n. 4). An interpretive rule itself never forms "the basis for an enforcement action"-because, as just noted, such a rule does not impose any "legally binding requirements" on private parties. National Min. Assn. v. McCarthy, 758 F.3d 243, 251 (CADC 2014). An enforcement action must instead rely on a legislative rule, which (to be valid) must go through notice and comment. And in all the ways discussed above, the meaning of a legislative rule remains in the hands of courts, even if they sometimes divine that meaning by looking to the agency's interpretation. See supra, at 13-18. Courts first decide whether the rule is clear; if it is not, whether the agency's reading falls within its zone of ambiguity; and even if the reading does so, whether it should receive deference. In short, courts retain the final authority to approve-or not-the agency's reading of a notice-and-comment rule. See Mortgage Bankers, 575 U.S.___, at, n. 4 (slip op., at 10, n. 4) ("[I]t is the court that ultimately decides whether a given regulation means what the agency says"). No binding of anyone occurs merely by the agency's say-so.

         And indeed, a court deciding whether to give Auer deference must heed the same procedural values as Section 553 reflects. Remember that a court may defer to only an agency's authoritative and considered judgments. See supra, at 15-18. No ad hoc statements or post hoc rationalizations need apply. And recall too that deference turns on whether an agency's interpretation creates unfair surprise or upsets reliance interests. See supra, at 18. So an agency has a strong incentive to circulate its interpretations early and widely. In such ways, the doctrine of Auer deference reinforces, rather than undermines, the ideas of fairness and informed decisionmaking at the core of the APA.

         To supplement his two APA arguments, Kisor turns to policy, leaning on a familiar claim about the incentives Auer creates. According to Kisor, Auer encourages agencies to issue vague and open-ended regulations, confident that they can later impose whatever interpretation of those rules they prefer. See Brief for Petitioner 37-41. That argument received its fullest elaboration in a widely respected law review article pre-dating Auer. See Manning, 96 Colum. L. Rev., at 654-669. More recently, the concern about such self-delegation has appeared in opinions from this Court, starting with several from Justice Scalia calling for Auer's reconsideration. See, e.g., Christopher, 567 U.S., at 158 (citing Manning, supra, at 655-668); Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, 568 U.S. 597, 620-621 (2013) (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (citing Manning, supra); Talk America, Inc. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., 564 U.S. 50, 69 (2011) (Scalia, J., concurring) (principally relying on Manning, supra).

         But the claim has notable weaknesses, empirical and theoretical alike. First, it does not survive an encounter with experience. No real evidence-indeed, scarcely an anecdote-backs up the assertion. As two noted scholars (one of whom reviewed thousands of rules during four years of government service) have written: "[W]e are unaware of, and no one has pointed to, any regulation in American history that, because of Auer, was designed vaguely." Sunstein & Vermeule, 84 U. Chi. L. Rev., at 308. And even the argument's theoretical allure dissipates upon reflection. For strong (almost surely stronger) incentives and pressures cut in the opposite direction. "[R]egulators want their regulations to be effective, and clarity promotes compliance." Brief for Administrative Law Scholars as Amici Curiae 18-19. Too, regulated parties often push for precision from an agency, so that they know what they can and cannot do. And ambiguities in rules pose risks to the long-run survival of agency policy. Vagueness increases the chance of adverse judicial rulings. And it enables future administrations, with different views, to reinterpret the rules to their own liking. Add all of that up and Kisor's ungrounded theory of incentives contributes nothing to the case against Auer.

         Finally, Kisor goes big, asserting (though fleetingly) that Auer deference violates "separation-of-powers principles." See Brief for Petitioner 43. In his view, those principles prohibit "vest[ing] in a single branch the law-making and law-interpreting functions." Id., at 45. If that objection is to agencies' usurping the interpretive role of courts, this opinion has already met it head-on. Properly understood and applied, Auer does no such thing. In all the ways we have described, courts retain a firm grip on the interpretive function. See supra, at 13-18; Mortgage Bankers, 575 U.S.___, at, n. 4 (slip op., at 10, n. 4). If Kisor's objection is instead to the supposed commingling of functions (that is, the legislative and judicial) within an agency, this Court has answered it often before. See, e.g., Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 54 (1975) (permitting such a combination of functions); FTC v. Cement Institute, 333 U.S. 683, 702 (1948) (same). That sort of mixing is endemic in agencies, and has been "since the beginning of the Republic." Arlington, 569 U.S., at 304-305, n. 4. It does not violate the separation of powers, we have explained, because even when agency "activities take 'legislative' and 'judicial' forms," they continue to be "exercises of[] the 'executive Power'"-or otherwise said, ways of executing a statutory plan. Ibid, (quoting U.S. Const., Art. II, §1, cl. 1). So Kisor's last argument to dispatch Auer deference fails as roundly as the rest.

         B

         If all that were not enough, stare decisis cuts strongly against Kisor's position. "Overruling precedent is never a small matter." Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U.S.____, ____ (2015) (slip op., at 7). Adherence to precedent is "a foundation stone of the rule of law." Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, 572 U.S. 782, 798 (2014). "[I]t promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process." Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991). To be sure, stare decisis is "not an inexorable command." Id., at 828. But any departure from the doctrine demands "special justification"- something more than "an argument that the precedent was wrongly decided." Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 573 U.S. 258, 266 (2014).

         And that is even more than usually so in the circumstances here. First, Kisor asks us to overrule not a single case, but a "long line of precedents"-each one reaffirming the rest and going back 75 years or more. Bay Mills, 572 U.S., at 798; see nn. 2, 3, supra. This Court alone has applied Auer or Seminole Rock in dozens of cases, and lower courts have done so thousands of times. Deference to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous rules pervades the whole corpus of administrative law. Second, because that is so, abandoning Auer deference would cast doubt on many settled constructions of rules. As Kisor acknowledged at oral argument, a decision in his favor would allow relitigation of any decision based on Auer, forcing courts to "wrestle [with] whether or not Auer" had actually made a difference. Tr. of Oral Arg. 30; see id., at 47 (Solicitor General agreeing that "every single regulation that's currently on the books whose interpretation has been established under Seminole Rock now [would have] to be relitigated anew"). It is the rare overruling that introduces so much instability into so many areas of law, all in one blow.

         And third, even if we are wrong about Auer, "Congress remains free to alter what we have done." Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 172-173 (1989) (stating that when that is so, "[c]onsiderations of stare decisis have special force"). In a constitutional case, only we can correct our error. But that is not so here. Our deference decisions are "balls tossed into Congress's court, for acceptance or not as that branch elects." Kimble, 576 U.S., at___ (slip op., at 8). And so far, at least, Congress has chosen acceptance. It could amend the APA or any specific statute to require the sort of de novo review of regulatory interpretations that Kisor favors. Instead, for approaching a century, it has let our deference regime work side-by-side with both the APA and the many statutes delegating rulemaking power to agencies. It has done so even after we made clear that our deference decisions reflect a presumption about congressional intent. See Martin, 499 U.S., at 151; supra, at 7-8. And it has done so even after Members of this Court began to raise questions about the doctrine. See, e.g., Talk America, 564 U.S., at 67-69 (Scalia, J., concurring). Given that history-and Congress's continuing ability to take up Kisor's arguments-we would need a particularly "special justification" to now reverse Auer.

         Kisor offers nothing of that ilk. Nearly all his arguments about abandoning precedent are variants of his merits claims. We hear again, if in different parts of his briefs, that Auer deference frustrates "the policies embodied in the APA" and violates the separation of powers. Reply Brief 13, and n. 5; Brief for Petitioner 47-48. More generally, we learn that Seminole Rock was "wrong on its own terms" and "badly reasoned." Id., at 47 (internal quotation marks omitted). Of course, it is good-and important-for our opinions to be right and well-reasoned. But that is not the test for overturning precedent. Kisor does not claim that Auer deference is "unworkable," a traditional basis for overruling a case. Patterson, 491 U.S., at 173. Nor does he point to changes in legal rules that make Auer a "doctrinal dinosaur." Kimble, 576 U.S., at___(slip op., at 11). All he can muster is that "[t]he administrative state has evolved substantially since 1945." Brief for Petitioner 53. We do not doubt the point (although we note that Auer and other key deference decisions came along after most of that evolution took place). Still more, we agree with Kisor that administrative law doctrines must take account of the far-reaching influence of agencies and the opportunities such power carries for abuse. That is one reason we have taken care today to reinforce the limits of Auer deference, and to emphasize the critical role courts retain in interpreting rules. But it is no answer to the growth of agencies for courts to take over their expertise-based, policymaking functions. Who knows? Maybe in 1945, the FDA was not thinking about "active moieties." See supra, at 5-6. But still, today-just as Seminole Rock and Auer held-it should have leeway to say what that term means.

         IV

         With that, we can finally return to Kisor's own case. You may remember that his retroactive benefits depend on the meaning of the term "relevant" records in a VA regulation. See supra, at 2-3. The Board of Veterans' Appeals, through a single judge's opinion, understood records to be relevant only if they relate to the basis of the VA's initial denial of benefits. By contrast, Kisor argued that records are relevant if they go to any benefits criterion, even one that was uncontested. The Federal Circuit upheld the Board's interpretation based on Auer deference.

         Applying the principles outlined in this opinion, we hold that a redo is necessary for two reasons. First, the Federal Circuit jumped the gun in declaring the regulation ambiguous. We have insisted that a court bring all its interpretive tools to bear before finding that to be so. See supra, at 13-14. It is not enough to casually remark, as the court did here, that "[b]oth parties insist that the plain regulatory language supports their case, and neither party's position strikes us as unreasonable." 869 F.3d, at 1368; see supra, at 13-14. Rather, the court must make a conscientious effort to determine, based on indicia like text, structure, history, and purpose, whether the regulation really has more than one reasonable meaning. The Solicitor General argued in this Court that the Board's reading is the only reasonable one. See Brief for Respondent 49-50. Perhaps Kisor will make the converse claim below. Before even considering deference, the court must seriously think through those positions.

         And second, the Federal Circuit assumed too fast that Auer deference should apply in the event of genuine ambiguity. As we have explained, that is not always true. A court must assess whether the interpretation is of the sort that Congress would want to receive deference. See supra, at 15-18. The Solicitor General suggested at oral argument that the answer in this case might be no. He explained that all 100 or so members of the VA Board act individually (rather than in panels) and that their roughly 80, 000 annual decisions have no "precedential value." Tr. of Oral Arg. 64. He thus questioned whether a Board member's ruling "reflects the considered judgment of the agency as a whole." Ibid.; cf. Mead, 533 U.S., at 233 (declining to give Chevron deference to rulings "being churned out at a rate of 10, 000 a year at an agency's 46 scattered offices"). We do not know what position the Government will take on that issue below. But the questions the Solicitor General raised are exactly the kind the court must consider in deciding whether to award Auer deference to the Board's interpretation.

         We accordingly vacate the judgment below and remand the case for further proceedings.

         It is so ordered.

          ROBERTS, C. J., concurring in part

          Chief Justice Roberts, concurring in part.

         I join Parts I, II-B, III-B, and IV of the Court's opinion. We took this case to consider whether to overrule Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945). For the reasons the Court discusses in Part III-B, I agree that overruling those precedents is not warranted. I also agree with the Court's treatment in Part II-B of the bounds of Auer deference.

         I write separately to suggest that the distance between the majority and JUSTICE GORSUCH is not as great as it may initially appear. The majority catalogs the prerequisites for, and limitations on, Auer deference: The underlying regulation must be genuinely ambiguous; the agency's interpretation must be reasonable and must reflect its authoritative, expertise-based, and fair and considered judgment; and the agency must take account of reliance interests and avoid unfair surprise. JUSTICE GORSUCH, meanwhile, lists the reasons that a court might be persuaded to adopt an agency's interpretation of its own regulation: The agency thoroughly considered the problem, offered a valid rationale, brought its expertise to bear, and interpreted the regulation in a manner consistent with earlier and later pronouncements. Accounting for variations in verbal formulation, those lists have much in common.

         That is not to say that Auer deference is just the same as the power of persuasion discussed in Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944); there is a difference between holding that a court ought to be persuaded by an agency's interpretation and holding that it should defer to that interpretation under certain conditions. But it is to say that the cases in which Auer deference is warranted largely overlap with the cases in which it would be unreasonable for a court not to be persuaded by an agency's interpretation of its own regulation.

         One further point: Issues surrounding judicial deference to agency interpretations of their own regulations are distinct from those raised in connection with judicial deference to agency interpretations of statutes enacted by Congress. See Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). I do not regard the Court's decision today to touch upon the latter question.

          Justice Gorsuch, with whom Justice Thomas joins, with whom JUSTICE KAVANAUGH joins as to Parts I, II, III, IV, and V, and with whom JUSTICE ALITO joins as to Parts I, II, and III, concurring in the judgment.

         It should have been easy for the Court to say goodbye to Auer v. Robbins.[1] In disputes involving the relationship between the government and the people, Auer requires judges to accept an executive agency's interpretation of its own regulations even when that interpretation doesn't represent the best and fairest reading. This rule creates a "systematic judicial bias in favor of the federal government, the most powerful of parties, and against everyone else."[2] Nor is Auer's biased rule the product of some congressional mandate we are powerless to correct: This Court invented it, almost by accident and without any meaningful effort to reconcile it with the Administrative Procedure Act or the Constitution. A legion of academics, lower court judges, and Members of this Court-even Auer's author-has called on us to abandon Auer. Yet today a bare majority flinches, and Auer lives on.

         Still, today's decision is more a stay of execution than a pardon. The Court cannot muster even five votes to say that Auer is lawful or wise. Instead, a majority retains Auer only because of stare decisis. And yet, far from standing by that precedent, the majority proceeds to impose so many new and nebulous qualifications and limitations on Auer that THE CHIEF JUSTICE claims to see little practical difference between keeping it on life support in this way and overruling it entirely. So the doctrine emerges maimed and enfeebled-in truth, zombified.

         Respectfully, we owe our colleagues on the lower courts more candid and useful guidance than this. And judges owe the people who come before them nothing less than a fair contest, where every party has an equal chance to persuade the court of its interpretation of the law's demands. One can hope that THE CHIEF JUSTICE is right, and that whether we formally overrule Auer or merely neuter it, the results in most cases will prove the same. But means, not just ends, matter, and retaining even this debilitated version of Auer threatens to force litigants and lower courts to jump through needless and perplexing new hoops and in the process deny the people the independent judicial decisions they deserve. All to what end? So that we may pretend to abide stare decisis?

         Consider this case. Mr. Kisor is a Marine who lost out on benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder when the court of appeals deferred to a regulatory interpretation advanced by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The court of appeals was guilty of nothing more than faithfully following Auer. But the majority today invokes stare decisis, of all things, to vacate that judgment and tell the court of appeals to try again using its newly retooled, multi-factored, and far less determinate version of Auer. Respectfully, I would stop this business of making up excuses for judges to abdicate their job of interpreting the law, and simply allow the court of appeals to afford Mr. Kisor its best independent judgment of the law's meaning.

          The Court's failure to be done with Auer, and its decision to adorn Auer with so many new and ambiguous limitations, all but guarantees we will have to pass this way again. When that day comes, I hope this Court will find the nerve it lacks today and inter Auer at last. Until then, I hope that our judicial colleagues on other courts will ...


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