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What statutory methods does an appellate court use in reviewing decisions of an administrative agency? Further, in doing this review, are appellate judges more likely to use certain statutory methods when they expressly cite the Chevron two-step framework than if they do not? This Article explores the answers to these questions using an original database of over 200 statutory interpretation cases culled from more than 2,500 cases decided in appellate courts reviewing National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the Board) adjudications from 1994 through 2020. In particular, the study examined the use of text, language canons, substantive canons, legislative history, precedent, policy, and practical considerations. It then compared how use of those methods varied depending on whether or not the appeals court expressly cited or applied Chevron.

Most notable was how appellate courts used precedent and policy in contrasting ways when ruling on Board statutory interpretation cases. While precedent was used more when courts reversed the Board’s pro-employee interpretation to reach an anti-employee outcome, courts referenced policy more to uphold Board rulings that were pro-employee in orientation. Both Democrat- and Republican-majority courts exhibited different tendencies in their choice of methods as well. When ruling on anti-employee interpretations, Democrat-majority courts often cited and relied on text more than Republican-majority courts. In addition, Republican-majority courts disproportionately used substantive canons to uphold anti-employee interpretations while Democrat-majority courts favored language canons when reversing such appeals.

The study also yielded interesting observations about Chevron deference. Courts citing and applying Chevron had much higher agency-win rates than when Chevron was not used. Courts overwhelmingly cited Chevron or employed a Chevron-like “reasonableness” standard more when they upheld the agency’s statutory interpretation than when they reversed the agency, thus suggesting that courts may use Chevron to cabin judges’ ideological proclivities. The study also revealed a divergence in statutory methods depending on how a court employed Chevron. Courts expressly citing the Chevron two-step framework cited and relied on the statutory text and employed language canons more in the writing of the opinion than when they did not specifically cite Chevron. In addition, Republican-majority courts upholding Board interpretations often employed substantive canons more when citing Chevron than when not. Chevron-citing courts also disproportionately invoked policy considerations compared to non-Chevron-citing courts when upholding the Board’s interpretation. Courts declining to cite or apply Chevron at all had different tendencies. Those that declined to cite Chevron, or employ even a similar Chevron-like “reasonableness” standard, were more likely to cite precedent. Substantive canons were also employed to reverse the Board’s interpretation more by courts that declined to apply Chevron than courts that applied Chevron or a Chevron-like reasonableness standard.

Although the study is limited to one area of law and to the workings of a single agency—and one of the most politically charged agencies at that—it offers fresh insight into how empirical analysis can be used to look beyond the black box of federal court statutory interpretation and Chevron deference to see what shapes judicial opinions in their review of agency statutory interpretations.

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UC Irvine Law Review

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