You might not expect North Carolina’s primary business lobbying group to pay much attention to a public university firing a professor of justice studies. The dismissal seems even less likely to spark interest from an organization representing 35,000 farm families.

Yet the NC Chamber Legal Institute and NC Farm Bureau Federation have responded to Winston-Salem State’s actions against professor Alvin Mitchell. The two groups filed a joint brief recently with North Carolina’s highest court. The brief supports Mitchell’s legal case against his former employer.

The Chamber and Farm Bureau focused on Mitchell’s legal battle for the same reasons as my John Locke Foundation colleagues. Each group considers the case an excellent vehicle for the state Supreme Court to address “administrative deference.”

When a government agency is involved in a legal dispute, courts often have deferred to the agency’s interpretation of the relevant law. That deference often extends to agencies’ legal interpretation of their own rules.

Deference can have significant consequences.

In Mitchell’s case, the professor claims WSSU and the University of North Carolina System violated their own rules when firing him. Yet UNC officials offered a different interpretation of the rules Mitchell cited in his lawsuit. Lower courts have sided with the university. Judges cited deference to UNC among the reasons for ruling against the professor.

The state’s highest court agreed in March to take Mitchell’s case. While the professor also cited free-speech concerns, Supreme Court justices signaled that they intend to address a single question: “Under North Carolina law, when, if ever, should a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the rules and regulations that the agency has promulgated?”

The Chamber and Farm Bureau’s May 29 amicus, or friend-of-the-court brief, outlined the groups’ mutual interest in answering that question.

“Amici’s members are heavily regulated by numerous state agencies, including, for example, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Department of Revenue,” according to the brief. “While in many instances Amici’s members work well with these and other agencies, there is always a risk that an agency will interpret a statute or a rule in a way that imposes unlawful regulatory burdens on their members.”

“In the event that an Amici member challenges an agency action in court, the application of agency deference unfairly tilts the scales of justice in favor of the agency,” Chamber and Farm Bureau lawyers argued.

The business and farm lobbying groups emphasized “the judicial branch’s fundamental role as the interpreter of statutes and regulations in our constitutional framework.” The brief urged Supreme Court justices “to make clear that North Carolina’s courts must not defer to agencies when interpreting statutes and regulations because our courts ultimately decide the meaning of our laws.”

“Doing so will restore the balance of power between our three branches of state government, clear up our confusing deference case law, and foster the administration of good and fair government,” the Chamber and Farm Bureau argued.

John Locke Foundation legal expert Jon Guze wrote in a separate brief that a “movement to reform administrative deference doctrine is currently sweeping the country.” The highest courts in nine states have restricted or even eliminated administrative deference. Ohio’s top court took action in 2022.

“The movement to restrict or eliminate all forms of administrative deference is clearly gaining momentum, and it is not too late for North Carolina to become a leader rather than a follower in that movement,” Guze wrote.

Deference developed during the 20th century, Guze argued, when progressive scholars, jurists and politicians pushed for a “unified regulatory state in which all governmental power was assigned to wise and beneficent technocrats in the executive branch.”

“The result of this ‘administrative deference’ was that all three functions of government became concentrated in the executive branch,” Guze wrote. “That clearly violates the separation of powers guaranteed by the relevant constitutional provisions. Ironically, it also violates the ancient principle … It is unfair for someone to be a judge in his own affairs.”

“Locke has always opposed all forms of judicial deference, not just because they are unfair and unconstitutional, but also because they undermine the judiciary’s role in upholding the rule of law and create perverse incentives for legislatures and executive officers and agencies,” Guze added.

The state Supreme Court will determine in the months ahead whether North Carolina’s public university system followed proper procedures when dismissing one professor of justice studies.

If the court uses the Mitchell dispute to clarify North Carolina’s deference rules, the case could have a much broader and more consequential impact.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.