Docket Watch: King v. Mississippi Military Department
Mississippi Supreme Court Rejects Deference to Agency Interpretations of Statutes
|Topics:||State Courts • State Governments|
In an 8-0 decision on June 7, 2018, the Mississippi Supreme Court announced that it will no longer give any deference to state agencies’ interpretations of their gov¬erning statutes. King v. Miss. Military Dep’t, 245 So. 3d 404 (Miss. 2018). This holding marks a sharp departure from the traditional deference the Mississippi state courts had shown to state agencies, although as the decision correctly states, that deference had been eroding in recent years.
Background and Proceedings
Cindy King worked as a supervisor in the Environmental Office at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and her employer was the Mississippi Military Department. The Department suspected her of misconduct, and after an investigation, terminated her employment pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. § 33 3 11(a) (Adjutant General “may remove any of [the Department’s employees] at his discretion”).
King appealed to the state Employee Appeals Board. The Department moved to dismiss her appeal because she was an at-will employee, rather than a state-service employee entitled to the Board’s procedural protections. The Board’s hearing officer interpreted § 33 3 11 as giving the Department’s head the authority to fire King at his sole discretion, and when King appealed to the full Board, it affirmed that decision. King’s appeal to Mississippi circuit court was likewise ineffective, and she appealed finally to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The decision in King v. Mississippi Military Department ultimately affirmed the ruling for the agency, but made it clear that the Court sees the judicial branch as the sole authority under the Mississippi Constitution when it comes to interpreting statu-tory law.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Josiah Coleman  took note of the Court’s precedents providing for de novo review of an administrative agency’s interpretation of rules or statutes governing its operation, which however also required the courts to give “great deference to the agency’s interpretation,” based on the agency’s presumed experience with everyday activities pursuant to those statutes. Nonetheless, the Court also noted, its recent decisions have tended to back away from “the contradic¬tion inherent in de novo but deferential review” (¶ 9).
Furthermore, the Court held, Mississippi’s constitution provides for “strict consti-tutional separation of powers” in the first section of its first article: while it is for the Legislature to enact statutes, it is for the judicial branch to interpret statutes once en-acted. Article 1, Section 2 of the state constitution further forbids anyone in one branch of government to exercise any powers belonging to another branch. The Court held that, while executive-branch agencies must decide for themselves what statutes mean when the judicial branch has not spoken, it violates Article 1, Section 2 for the courts to give any deference to an agency’s interpretation of a statute when that statute comes before the courts for interpretation.
The Court thus went on to hold (at ¶ 12):
Pursuant to the foregoing reasoning, we announce today that we abandon the old standard of review giving deference to agency interpretations of statutes. Our pronouncements describing the level of deference were vague and contradictory, such that the deference could be anywhere on a spectrum from “great” to illusory. Moreover, in deciding no longer to give def-erence to agency interpretations, we step fully into the role the Constitution of 1890 provides for the courts[,] and the courts alone, to interpret statutes.
In so holding, the Court stated that it found “persuasive” the reasoning in a con-curring opinion to Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142 (10th Cir. 2016) (Gorsuch, J.). Concurring with his own decision for the court, then-Judge Gorsuch observed that, in the absence of judicial deference to the statutory interpretations of administrative agencies, “courts would then fulfill their duty to exercise their inde-pendent judgment about what the law is.” Gutierrez-Brizuela, 834 F.3d at 1158 (Gorsuch, J., concurring) (quoted in King at ¶ 12).
Moving on to the merits of the case before it, the Court held that § 33 3 11 is in apparent conflict with § 25 9 131 and related statutes pertaining to the Employee Appeals Board. Applying the canon of statutory interpretation that a specific statute will control over a general one, the Court held that § 33 3 11 is the more specific statute as regards the termination of Department employees. Rejecting as fruitless King’s argument for reading the statutes in pari materia, because even if the Board found for King it could not compel the Department to rehire her, the Court thus affirmed the Department’s decision, but on the basis of its own de novo reading of the relevant statutes.
The King decision places Mississippi in the minority of state jurisdictions that squarely reject anything resembling Chevron deference, along with Delaware and Michigan, whose courts likewise cited their constitutional separation of powers in rejecting deference to agencies’ statutory interpretations. Pub. Water Supply v. DiPasquale, 735 A.2d 378, 382 (Del. 1999); In re Complaint of Rovas v. SBC Michigan, 754 N.W.2d 259, 271–72 (Mich. 2008). Whether Mississippi will apply its new rule to agencies’ interpretations of their own regulations, however, is not addressed by King, and thus remains a question for another day.
 Chief Justice William L. Waller, Jr., who attained the rank of brigadier general in the Mississippi Army National Guard, did not participate in the decision of the case.
Andy Lowry is a partner in the Jackson, Mississippi office of Balch & Bingham, LLP.