US Supreme Court validates FCC’s shot clock ruling for local decisions on cell tower permits

by Gary Taylor

City of Arlington, Texas v. Federal Communications Commission
(U.S. Supreme Court, May 20, 2013)

This case was previously discussed in this blog here.  On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion, which effectively validates the FCC’s shot clock declaratory ruling.  A summary of the Court’s opinion:

The Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA) requires state or local governments to act on siting applications for wireless facilities “within a reasonable period of time after the request is duly filed.” Relying on its broad authority to implement the FTA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Declaratory Ruling (the shot clock) concluding that the phrase “reasonable period of time” is presumptively (but rebuttably) 90 days to process an application to place a new antenna on an existing tower and 150 days to process all other applications. The cities of Arlington and San Antonio, Texas, argued that the Commission lacked authority to interpret the language “within a reasonable period of time” because doing so amounted to determining the jurisdictional limits of its own authority – a task exclusively within the province of Congeress. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals applied precedent from the case of Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, to that question. Finding the statute ambiguous, it upheld as a permissible construction of the statute the FCC’s view that the FTA’s broad grant of regulatory authority empowered it to adopt the Declaratory Ruling.

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit.  Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia found no distinction between an agency’s “jurisdictional” and “nonjurisdictional” interpretations. When a court reviews an agency’s interpretation of a statute it administers, the question is always, simply, whether the agency has stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority. The “jurisdictional-nonjurisdictional” line is meaningful in the judicial context because Congress has the power to tell the courts what classes of cases they may decide—that is, to define their jurisdiction—but not to prescribe how they decide those cases. For agencies charged with administering congressional statutes, however, both their power to act and how they are to act is authoritatively prescribed by Congress, so that when they act improperly, no less than when they act beyond their jurisdiction, what they do is beyond their authority and can be struck down by a court.  Under Chevron, a reviewing court must first ask whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue; if so, the court must give effect to Congress’ unambiguously expressed intent. If, however the statute is silent or ambiguous, the court must defer to the administering agency’s construction of the statute so long as it is permissible. Because the question is always whether the agency has gone beyond what Congress has permitted it to do, there is no principled basis for carving out an arbitrary subset of “jurisdictional” questions from the Chevron framework.

The Court rejected Arlington’s contention that Chevron deference is not appropriate here because the FCC asserted jurisdiction over matters of traditional state and local concern. The case does not implicate any notion of federalism: The statute explicitly supplants state authority, so the question is simply whether a federal agency or federal courts will draw the lines to which the States must hew.

A general conferral of rulemaking authority validates rules for all the matters the agency is charged with administering. In this case, the preconditions to deference under Chevron are satisfied because Congress has unambiguously vested the FCC with general authority to administer the Communications Act through rulemaking and adjudication, and the agency’s interpretation of “reasonable period of time” at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.

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