Supreme Court to Scrutinize Federal Agency Deference

The issue the Supreme Court will decide in City of Arlington & Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee v. FCC is whether courts should defer to a federal agency’s determination that it has authority to interpret a statute.   If this issue seems a bit esoteric, the facts of the case help illustrate what is at stake for state government. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires state and local governments to respond to requests to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities within a “reasonable period of time.”  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreted a “reasonable period of time” as being 90 or 150 days.  The City of Arlington argued that the FCC lacked statutory authority to interpret this language.  The FCC disagreed and claimed that its interpretation of its jurisdiction is subject to deferential review under Chevron v. NRDC.  The Fifth Circuit, relying on past circuit court precedent, applied Chevron deference to the FCC’s interpretation of its own statutory authority under the Telecommunications Act and concluded (not surprisingly) that the FCC had jurisdiction to interpret a “reasonable period of time.”

The SLLC’s amicus curiae brief argues, among other things, that state and local governments are often regulated by federal agencies and often regulate the same subject matter as federal agencies. As a result, allowing federal agencies to determine the scope of their own jurisdiction, with only deferential review by courts, would allow federal agencies to encroach upon the authority of state and local governments, as illustrated by this case.  CSG signed onto the SLLC’s brief

Oral argument will be heard in this case on January 16, 2013.  The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2013.