Supreme Court to address FCC “shot clock” for local governments on cell tower applications (sort of)

Last month the US Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases concerning the FCC’s “shot clock” (previous blogposts on the shot clock are found here) which set time limits on local governments for deciding on zoning requests for cell towers: 90 days for collocations (placing antennas on existing towers) and 150 for all other applications.  Actually the cases don’t directly address the shot clock question.  As you know, law is complicated!

The cases are similar so only one will be explained here.  In Arlington v. FCC the city of Arlington, Texas filed suit claiming that the FCC could not set the shot clock time limits because the FCC cannot determine its own power under the Federal 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, but the city of Arlington argued that setting these specific time limits went too far, because it ran contrary to the provision in the Telecommunications Act that leaves the zoning permitting process in the hands of the local government.

Here is the complicated part.  The case went before the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The FCC argued that under the long-standing Chevron doctrine (arising from the case of Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council) courts must always defer to an agency’s interpretation of a law so long as the interpretation is reasonable and “permissible.” The city of Arlington countered that the Supreme Court has never determined whether the Chevron doctrine applies to situations where the agency is venturing to define the reach of its own jurisdiction under a particular law. The Fifth Circuit sided with the FCC and deferred to the agency’s interpretation that the FCC had the authority to set time limits on local governments (having the effect of affirming the declaratory ruling creating the shot clock). Arlington appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case exclusively to answer whether the Chevron doctrine applies in this situation. In other words, the Supreme Court is not deciding on the legality of the shot clock itself. It is deciding whether a federal court must defer to the FCC’s interpretation that the FCC has the authority to institute the shot clock.  If the Court determines that courts must give deference to the agency’s interpretation of the Telecommunications Act on this issue it will, in effect, preclude this and future challenges.

Oral arguments are scheduled for January 16.

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