The “Major Questions Doctrine”: Another Tool to Challenge Tax Regulations?

By and on July 1, 2022

Debates have raged in recent years over the future of Chevron deference, particularly given the change in the makeup and views of the Supreme Court of the United States. We have written extensively on Chevron deference in the past (see here, here and here, for example). Although the Court has not addressed the continuing viability of Chevron, it has recently found ways to avoid applying Chevron deference to questions involving the interpretation of agency regulations.

In West Virginia v. EPA, No. 20-1530 (June 30, 2022), the Supreme Court did not address Chevron deference directly. However, it reconfirmed and applied what is known as the “major questions doctrine.” Under this judicial doctrine, which originated in FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120 (2000), a federal agency must point to clear congressional authorization for the authority it claims. Meaning, when a statute confers authority upon an agency to promulgate rules, a court must determine whether US Congress wanted to give the agency the power to make decisions of vast economic and political significance. Accordingly, “[a]gencies have only those powers given to them by Congress and it must be presumed that major policy decisions are left with Congress, not agencies.”

The Supreme Court’s recent decision is not limited to a particular agency. Indeed, the major questions doctrine has been applied in a tax context before. In King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. 473 (2015), for example, the Court applied the major questions doctrine in declining to defer to tax regulations interpreting the Affordable Care Act (internal references omitted):

In extraordinary cases … there may be reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress has intended [] an implicit delegation [to the agency to fill in the statutory gaps]. … This is one of those cases. The tax credits are among the Act’s key reforms, involving billions of dollars in spending each year and affecting the price of health insurance for millions of people. Whether those credits are available on Federal Exchanges is thus a question of deep economic and political significant that is central to this statutory scheme; had Congress wished to assign that question to the agency, it surely would have done so expressly. It is especially unlikely that Congress would have delegated this decision to the IRS, which has no expertise in crafting health insurance policy of this sort.

Thus, it appears that the major questions doctrine is now firmly entrenched as another tool of statutory construction and should be considered in any analysis of whether tax regulations have been validly promulgated and are entitled to deference.

Practice Point: It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court’s recent decision will impact future challenges to tax regulations. In the not too distant past, Administrative Procedure Act challenges to tax regulations and other published guidance were rare, but the Court’s 2011 decision in Mayo Found. for Med. Educ. & Research v. United States, 562 U.S. 44 (2011) changed the landscape. Some tax regulations are invariably based on policy decisions, and in appropriate cases, taxpayers may seek to challenge such regulations under the major questions doctrine.

Andrew R. Roberson
Andrew (Andy) R. Roberson focuses his practice on tax controversy and litigation matters. He represents clients before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Examination Division and Appeals Office and has been involved in over 75 matters at all levels of the federal court system, including the US Tax Court and Federal District Courts, several US Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Andy has experience settling tax disputes through alternative dispute resolution procedures, including Fast Track Settlement and Post-Appeals Mediation, and in representing clients in Compliance Assurance Process (CAP) audits. In addition to representing corporations and partnerships in tax disputes, he also represents high net-worth individuals and assists taxpayers needing to make voluntary disclosures. Read Andy Roberson's full bio.


Kevin Spencer
Kevin Spencer focuses his practice on tax controversy issues. Kevin represents clients in complicated tax disputes in court and before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at the IRS Appeals and Examination divisions. In addition to his tax controversy practice, Kevin has broad experience advising clients on various tax issues, including tax accounting, employment and reasonable compensation, civil and criminal tax penalties, IRS procedures, reportable transactions and tax shelters, renewable energy, state and local tax, and private client matters. After earning his Master of Tax degree, Kevin had the privilege to clerk for the Honorable Robert P. Ruwe on the US Tax Court. Read Kevin Spencer's full bio.

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