By Linda Jellum | 61 Am. U. L. Rev. 59 (2011)
In Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that agencies should determine the meaning of ambiguous statutes. But in the veterans law case Brown v. Gardner, the Supreme Court directed lower courts to resolve interpretive doubt in ambiguous statutes in favor of veterans. Which interpretation controls when a statute is ambiguous—the agency’s reasonable interpretation or the veteran’s interpretation? To date, none of the courts faced with this conflict have resolved this question clearly or definitively; indeed, the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims recently asked the Supreme Court for guidance. To date, none has been forthcoming.
This Article solves the conflict between Chevron’s deference and Gardner’s veteran-friendly presumption.
First, Gardner’s Presumption should revert to a liberal construction canon that requires courts to construe veterans’ statutes liberally to further their remedial purposes, rather than in the veteran-litigant’s favor. The Presumption was originally a liberal construction canon before morphing into its present super-strong formulation.
Second, courts should apply Gardner’s Presumption in limited situations. Specifically, courts should apply Gardner’s Presumption only when the statute at issue addresses veterans’ benefits and only when the VA has not already interpreted the statute in a way that entitles it to Chevron deference.
Third, alternatively and most promisingly, Gardner’s Presumption could be viewed as a duty belonging to the VA rather than as an
interpretive canon that courts apply. Regardless of which solution prevails, it is time to settle this conflict.