Agency Power Backed as High Court Rules in Favor of FCC

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Although courts normally defer to the expertise of administrative agencies when they interpret ambiguous statutes, opponents of the Federal Communications Commission deadlines said that principle shouldn’t apply when an agency is determining its own jurisdiction. Close

Although courts normally defer to the expertise of administrative agencies when they... Read More

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Although courts normally defer to the expertise of administrative agencies when they interpret ambiguous statutes, opponents of the Federal Communications Commission deadlines said that principle shouldn’t apply when an agency is determining its own jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the authority of federal administrative agencies, upholding Federal Communications Commission deadlines for local zoning authorities considering applications for new wireless facilities.

The high court, voting 6-3, said today it would defer to the FCC’s interpretation of a federal law that sets the boundaries of the agency’s authority.

Although courts normally defer to the expertise of administrative agencies when they interpret ambiguous statutes, opponents of the FCC deadlines said that principle shouldn’t apply when an agency is determining its own jurisdiction. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said the issue was how to address the “fox-in-the-henhouse syndrome.”

That problem “is to be avoided not by establishing an arbitrary and undefinable category of agency decisionmaking that is accorded no deference,” Scalia wrote, “but by taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agencies’ authority.”

The ruling drew a dissent from three justices who are often Scalia’s allies on questions of federal power -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy.

Roberts called his disagreement “fundamental,” saying judges shouldn’t defer to regulators’ interpretation of a law until a court determines that the agency had jurisdiction in the first place.

‘Definition of Tyranny’

Roberts pointed to an excerpt from the Federalist Papers in which James Madison warned that the “accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

“It would be a bit much to describe the result as ‘the very definition of tyranny,’” Roberts wrote, “but the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Scalia in the majority.

The dispute centered on a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that gives the FCC power to “prescribe such rules and regulations as may be necessary in the public interest to carry out” the law.

The FCC was battling the Texas cities of Arlington and San Antonio, which objected to a 2009 agency ruling that said local zoning authorities had to act within a “reasonable period of time” on applications for new wireless towers and antennas.

The FCC said that period generally is either 90 days or 150 days depending on the type of application at issue.

The case of Arlington v. FCC, 11-1545.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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