CITY OF ARLINGTON, TX v. FCC

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
11-1545
Petitioner 
City of Arlington, TX; City of San Antonio, TX
Respondent 
Federal Communications Commission
Consolidation 
11-1547, Cable Telecommunications and Technology v. FCC
Decided By 
Advocates
(for the petitioners)
(Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondents)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

Generally, wireless phone service providers must obtain zoning approvals from state and local governments before building wireless towers or attaching wireless equipment to buildings. To speed up the process, Congress amended the 1934 Communications Act and required local governments to respond to zoning requests within a reasonable period of time. Despite this law, the zoning approval process still dragged on and severely delayed construction. In 2008, the Wireless Association petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to bring an end to these unreasonable delays. The Association recommended placing time limits on how long these zoning requests could take. The FCC agreed and in November 2009 set the following “reasonable time” limits for zoning requests: 90 days for attachments to current buildings and a 150 days for new structures.

The local governments claimed that the FCC cannot set these limits because the FCC cannot determine its own power under the Communications Act. When Congress passed the Act, it granted a certain amount of power to the FCC to enforce and define the rules under the Act. Under the long-standing Chevron doctrine of interpretation, courts should always defer to an agency’s interpretation of a particular act. However, the Supreme Court had never determined whether this applies to situations where the agency defines its own power under a particular law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit nevertheless deferred to the FCC and affirmed the declaratory ruling. The local governments appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari exclusively to answer whether the Chevron doctrine applies in this situation.

Question 

Should a court apply the Chevron doctrine and defer to an agency’s interpretation of its jurisdiction under a particular law when that interpretation is called into question?

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for FCC, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Communications Act of 1934

Yes. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 5-4 majority, held that courts must apply the Chevron doctrine and defer to an agency’s interpretation of its jurisdiction when that jurisdiction is called into question. The Chevron doctrine is supported Congressional intent that an agency should determine its jurisdiction when there is ambiguity in a statute. The Court held that there was no significant difference between “run-of-the-mill” ambiguity and important, “jurisdictional” ambiguity. Instead, every new application of an ambiguous statutory term could be reframed as a jurisdictional issue concerning the who, what, where, or when questions of an agency’s regulatory power. The test should look at whether the statute’s language prevents the agency’s assertion of authority. If the agency’s assertion is based on a permissible interpretation of the statute, then the courts must defer to the agency.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer concurred in the opinion. Although he agreed that courts should not get involved where Congress has deferred to an agency’s judgment, he argued that the mere existence of ambiguity should not be considered conclusive evidence of Congress’ intent to defer to that agency. Where Congressional intent is not clear, the courts should be permitted to interpret the statute accordingly.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented and argued that a court should not defer to an agency until that court decides, on its own, that the agency is entitled to deference. However, once a court has made such a determination, Chevron deference may be warranted. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined in the dissent.

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CITY OF ARLINGTON, TX v. FCC. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 23 April 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_1545>.
CITY OF ARLINGTON, TX v. FCC, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_1545 (last visited April 23, 2014).
"CITY OF ARLINGTON, TX v. FCC," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_1545.