WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a dispute involving an Air Force veteran’s bid to reinstate certain disability benefits denied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, prompting a sharp dissent by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
In declining to take up Thomas Buffington’s appeal of a lower court’s decision upholding the VA’s actions denying him several years of benefits, the justices passed up a chance to restrict the power of federal agencies.
Buffington’s appeal had asked the high court to reconsider a landmark 1984 ruling that gave federal agencies wide latitude in interpreting laws, a form of deference that conservatives have long criticized as handing too much authority to regulatory bodies.
In a dissent from the decision to deny the case, Gorsuch wrote that courts that apply such deference fail people who are entitled to have “independent judges, not politically motivated actors, resolve their rights and duties under law.”
He added, “We place a finger on the scales of justice in favor of the most powerful litigants, the federal government, and against everyone else.”
Buffington served in the Air Force from 1992 to 2000, and in 2002 was granted benefits for tinnitus – a condition involving ringing in the ears that had been deemed related to his military service – which the department rated at 10% disabling. Federal law permits veterans to receive compensation if disabled in the line of duty.
He was twice recalled to serve in the Air National Guard between 2003 and 2005, during which the VA discontinued his benefits while he received active duty pay. He applied to resume the disability payments in 2009, but the VA limited retroactive compensation to Feb. 1, 2008, based on a decades-old rule restricting compensation to one year before a veteran’s request to reinstate benefits if it is not made within a year of release from active duty.
Buffington said in a court filing that the decision denied him nearly three years of disability benefits to which he is entitled.
The Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the VA’s decision, finding that the department’s regulation was entitled to deference under the 1984 Supreme Court ruling, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, that directed judges to defer to federal agencies’ interpretation of U.S. laws that may be ambiguous. This doctrine is called “Chevron deference.”
The Federal Circuit said federal law “is silent regarding the effective date for recommencing benefits when a disabled veteran leaves active service,” and that the VA’s rule was “a reasonable gap-filling regulation.”
Buffington’s attorneys at the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a conservative legal group, urged the Supreme Court to overrule the Chevron decision, calling it an “abdication of the independent judiciary’s responsibility to say what the law is.”
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)
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