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Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Fishermen Win Major High Court Case

U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington
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Three Cape May fishermen won a precedent-overturning victory in U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, June. 28.

By Herald Staff

Trio From Cape May County Get Longtime Precedent Overturned

Three Cape May herring fishermen, upset that a federal agency ordered them to pay for monitors to be aboard their boats, have won a precedent-smashing decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that takes away some of the authority of regulatory agencies.

Their case, known as Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, and another case involving Rhode Island fishermen questioned the authority of the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine what was necessary and reasonable in the conduct of oversight.

The three, Stefan Axelsson, Bill Bright and Wayne Reichle, argued that the federal monitors, who were onboard to enforce regulations, gather data and prevent overfishing, cost approximately $700 per day and ate away around 20% of their profits.

But they lost in lower courts, where judges relied on a 40-year-old case, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which went on to become one of the most cited precedents in the law, cited 70 times in U.S. Supreme Court decisions and 17,000 times in the lower courts.

The Chevron decision essentially required courts to defer to a reasonable agency interpretation of laws passed by Congress when there is ambiguity in the way the law is written.

But on Friday, June 28, the high court overturned that precedent in a 6-3 decision.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the courts are required “to exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, and courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.”

Roberts, quoting Alexander Hamilton, said the framers of the Constitution understood that the laws judges would apply in resolving issues would not always be clear, but envisioned “that the final ‘interpretation of the laws’ would be ‘the proper and peculiar province of the courts.’”

Bright, one of the Cape May-based fishermen, said June 28: “We are grateful the court has overruled Chevron. Today’s restoration of the separation of powers is a victory for small, family-run businesses like ours, whether they’re involved in fishing, farming or retail.”

Bright said Congress never authorized industry-funded monitoring in the herring fishery, and agency efforts to impose the fees for monitors on the industry only hurt fishermen’s ability to make a living.

“Nothing is more important than protecting the livelihoods of our families and crews,” he said.

A first-generation fisherman who has fished out of Cape May for 40 years, Bright has a commercial fishing business that supplies, among others, a no-frills dockside Wildwood restaurant, Hooked Up Seafood, which is run by his wife and two daughters.

Reichle, the owner and president of Lund’s Fisheries, headquartered in Cape May, said in a statement earlier this year he was not opposed to the monitors riding along, but had a problem with being asked to foot the bill for them.

“We’ve carried monitors aboard our vessels for decades, and we’re happy to do so to ensure every catch is responsibly harvested,” he said. “No one has more at stake than we do in the long-term health of these waters, but we don’t believe we should be responsible for covering the monitors’ salaries.”

Jeff Kaelin, director of sustainability and government relations with Lund’s Fisheries, said in a statement June 28 that the ruling “restores a vital judicial check on executive overreach and will protect individual liberties.”

“Today, attorneys for a group of New Jersey herring fishermen landed a significant victory at the Supreme Court. With its ruling in Loper Bright v. Raimondo, the court has overruled the Chevron doctrine and restored the balance of power between Congress and the administration.”

Axelsson, the third plaintiff, was born and raised in Cape May. He said in a statement earlier this year that paying the monitors could make his business unsustainable.

“Nobody in a family business wants to be the last one to do it, everyone wants to pass it along, and my fear is I may not be able to,” he said.

In its arguments against overturning Chevron, the Biden administration, represented by Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, pointed out that a 2020 rule requiring fishermen to pay for the monitors has had no real-world financial impact on them, since the program was suspended and regulated vessels were reimbursed for the costs they incurred as a result of it.

During oral arguments, Prelogar said that disrupting Chevron could impact uniformity in the law, with different rulings coming out of different courts around the country. She said that over the last 40 years, the precedent has become ingrained in lawmaking, and Congress has relied on agencies to fill in the gaps in legislation.

Paul D. Clement, a lawyer representing the Cape May fishermen, said during oral arguments, “This case well illustrates the real-world costs of Chevron, which do not fall exclusively on the Chevrons of the world but injure small businesses and individuals as well.”

During a press conference outside the Supreme Court building following the arguments, he said: “None of us would be here if it weren’t for our clients, who had the gumption to stand up to agency overreach.

“When you’re in the business of representing people in the Supreme Court, the clients are really the heroes, because they take this very seriously.”

Call Christopher South at 609-886-8600 x-128 or email

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