La. Pub. Svc. Comm'n v. FCC
476 U.S. 355 (1986)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

La. Pub. Svc. Comm'n v. FCC, 476 U.S. 355 (1986)

Louisiana Public Service Commission v.

Federal Communications Commission

No. 84-871.

Argued January 13, 1986

Decided May 27, 1986*

476 U.S. 355




The Communications Act of 1934 (Act) grants to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broad authority to develop and regulate "interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication," 47 U.S.C. § 151, but also provides that "nothing in this chapter shall be construed to apply or to give the Commission jurisdiction with respect to (1) charges, classifications, practices, services, facilities, or regulations for or in connection with intrastate communication service," § 152(b). In 1980 and 1981, the FCC issued orders changing its prior rules concerning practices for depreciating telephone plant and equipment. Subsequently, upon the petition of private telephone companies, the FCC ruled that § 220 of the Act, which expressly directs the FCC to prescribe depreciation practices, operated to preempt inconsistent state depreciation regulations for intrastate ratemaking purposes, and that, as an alternative ground, federal displacement of state regulation was justified as being necessary to avoid frustration of validly adopted federal policies. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 152(b) bars federal preemption of state regulation over depreciation of dual jurisdiction property for intrastate ratemaking purposes. Pp. 476 U. S. 368-379.

(a) Sections 151 and 152(b) are naturally reconciled to define a national goal of the creation of a rapid and efficient telephone service, and to enact a dual regulatory system to achieve that goal. P. 476 U. S. 370.

(b) Neither the legislative history of § 152(b) nor the Act's structure supports the view that the words "charges," "classifications," and "practices," as used in § 152(b), were intended to refer only to "customer charges" for specific services, and not to depreciation charges. Those words are terms of art that are to be interpreted by reference to the

Page 476 U. S. 356

trade to which they apply, and thus they embrace depreciation. Pp. 476 U. S. 371-373.

(c) There is no merit to the argument that § 152(b) does not control, because the plant involved is used interchangeably to provide both interstate and intrastate service, and that § 152(b)'s reservation of authority to state commissions should be confined to intrastate matters that do not substantially affect interstate communication. Although state regulation will generally be displaced to the extent that it stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives of Congress, a federal agency may preempt state law only when and if it is acting within the scope of its congressionally delegated authority. Here, § 152(b) constitutes a congressional denial of power to the FCC to require state commissions to follow FCC depreciation practices for intrastate ratemaking purposes, and the FCC may not take "preemptive" action merely because it thinks such action will best effectuate federal policy. Moreover, the Act itself establishes a process designed to resolve "jurisdictional separations" matters, by which process it may be determined what portion of an asset is employed to produce or deliver interstate, as opposed to intrastate, service, 47 U.S.C. § 410(c). Thus it is possible to apply different rates and methods of depreciation to plant once the correct allocation between interstate and intrastate use has been made. Pp. 476 U. S. 373-376.

(d) Nor is there merit to the argument that § 220, which directs the FCC to prescribe the classes of property for which depreciation charges may be included under operating expenses in fixing rates, and which prohibits carriers from departing from FCC-set regulations respecting depreciation, requires automatic preemption of all state regulation respecting depreciation. The meaning of § 220 is not so unambiguous or straightforward as to override § 152(b)'s command that "nothing in this chapter shall be construed to apply or to give the Commission jurisdiction" over intrastate service. Pp. 476 U. S. 376-378.

737 F.2d 388, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., dissented. POWELL and O'CONNOR, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Page 476 U. S. 358

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these consolidated cases, we are asked by 26 private telephone companies and the United States to sustain the holding of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that orders of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) respecting the depreciation of telephone plant and equipment preempt inconsistent state regulation. They are opposed by the Public Service Commissions of 23 States, backed by 30 amici curiae, who argue that the Communications Act of 1934 (Act), 48 Stat. 1064, as amended, 47 U.S.C. § 161 et seq., expressly denied the FCC authority to establish depreciation practices and charges insofar as they relate to the setting of rates for intrastate telephone service.

Respondents suggest that the heart of the cases is whether the revolution in telecommunications occasioned by the federal policy of increasing competition in the industry will be thwarted by state regulators who have yet to recognize or

Page 476 U. S. 359

accept this national policy, and who thus refuse to permit telephone companies to employ accurate accounting methods designed to reflect, in part, the effects of competition. We are told that, already, there may be as much as $26 billion worth of "reserve deficiencies" on the books of the Nation's local telephone companies, a reserve which, it is insisted, represents inadequate depreciation of a magnitude that threatens the financial ability of the industry to achieve the technological progress and provide the quality of service that the Act was passed to promote. Petitioners answer that the Act clearly establishes a system of dual state and federal authority over telephone service. They contend that the Act vests in the States exclusive power over intrastate ratemaking, which power, petitioners argue, includes final authority over how depreciation shall be calculated for the purpose of setting those intrastate rates. Petitioners note also that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment necessarily represents a check on the power of the States to set depreciation rates at what would amount to confiscatory levels, and that respondents therefore overstate the danger of the States crippling the financial vitality of phone companies.

In deciding these cases, it goes without saying that we do not assess the wisdom of the asserted federal policy of encouraging competition within the telecommunications industry. Nor do we consider whether the FCC should have the authority to enforce, as it sees fit, practices which it believes would best effectuate this purpose. Important as these issues may be, our task is simply to determine where Congress has placed the responsibility for prescribing depreciation methods to be used by state commissions in setting rates for intrastate telephone service. In our view, the language, structure, and legislative history of the Act best support petitioners' position that the Act denies the FCC the power to dictate to the States as it has in these cases, and accordingly, we reverse.

Page 476 U. S. 360


The Act establishes, among other things, a system of dual state and federal regulation over telephone service, and it is the nature of that division of authority that these cases are about. In broad terms, the Act grants to the FCC the authority to regulate "interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication," 47 U.S.C. § 151, while expressly denying that agency "jurisdiction with respect to . . . intrastate communication service. . . ." 47 U.S.C. § 152(b). However, while the Act would seem to divide the world of domestic telephone service neatly into two hemispheres -- one comprised of interstate service, over which the FCC would have plenary authority, and the other made up of intrastate service, over which the States would retain exclusive jurisdiction -- in practice, the realities of technology and economics belie such a clean parceling of responsibility. This is so because virtually all telephone plant that is used to provide intrastate service is also used to provide interstate service, and is thus conceivably within the jurisdiction of both state and federal authorities. Moreover, because the same carriers provide both interstate and intrastate service, actions taken by federal and state regulators within their respective domains necessarily affect the general financial health of those carriers, and hence their ability to provide service, in the other "hemisphere. "

In 1980 and 1981, the FCC issued two orders that ultimately sparked this litigation. In the 1980 order, the FCC changed two depreciation practices affecting telephone plant. Property Depreciation, 83 F.C.C.2d 267, reconsideration denied, 87 F.C.C.2d 916 (1981). First, the order altered how carriers could group property subject to depreciation. Because carriers employ so many individual items of equipment in providing service, it would be impossible to depreciate each item individually, and property is therefore classified and depreciated in groups. The order permitted companies the option of grouping plant for depreciation purposes

Page 476 U. S. 361

based on its estimated service life (the "equal life" approach). This replaced the FCC's prior practice of requiring companies to classify and depreciate property according to its year of installation (the "vintage year" method). This change was made to allow depreciation to be based on smaller and more homogeneous groupings, which, the FCC concluded, would result in more accurate matching of capital recovery with capital consumption.

The 1980 order further sought to promote improved accounting accuracy by replacing "whole life" depreciation with the "remaining life" method. Under remaining life, and unlike the treatment under a whole life regime, if estimates upon which depreciation schedules are premised prove erroneous, they may be corrected in mid-course in a way that assures that the full cost of the asset will ultimately be recovered.

The third FCC-mandated change in plant depreciation was announced in a 1981 order, and involved the cost of labor and material associated with the installation of wire inside the premises of a business or residence. The new rule provided that this so-called "inside wiring" no longer be treated as a capital investment to be depreciated over time, but rather as a cost to be "expensed" in the year incurred. Uniform System of Accounts, 85 F.C.C.2d 818.

Later in 1981, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) petitioned the FCC for a "clarification" of its order respecting inside wiring. Specifically, NARUC sought a declaration that the FCC's order did not restrict the discretion of state commissions to follow different depreciation practices in computing revenue requirements and rates for intrastate services.

On April 27, 1982, the FCC issued a memorandum opinion and order in which it agreed with NARUC that its order respecting the depreciation of inside wiring did not preclude state regulators "from using their own accounting and depreciation procedures for intrastate ratemaking purpose[s]

Page 476 U. S. 362

. . . ." Uniform System of Accounts, 89 F.C.C.2d 1094, 1095. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC declared that it had not intended the 1981 order to "have any preemptive effect that does not arise by operation of law," and added that

"[n]o policy of this Commission would be furthered by requiring state commissions to adhere to the rules we have adopted for the purposes of computing the interstate revenue requirement."

Id. at 1097. The FCC then examined the language and legislative history of sections of the Act dealing with jurisdiction and depreciation, and found that they did not support the position that unwilling state commissions either were required by operation of law, or could be required in the discretion of the FCC, to follow all accounting and depreciation methods prescribed by the Commission. Two commissioners issued a written dissent in which they argued that the FCC had, in its 1981 order, intended to preempt inconsistent state depreciation practices, and that deference to the States was especially inappropriate where an important federal policy -- that of nurturing a "brave new world" of competition in the industry -- was at stake.

Respondents petitioned for reconsideration of the order, and the FCC reversed itself and held that § 220 of the Act, which deals expressly with depreciation, does operate automatically to preempt inconsistent state action where the Commission has acted to prescribe depreciation rates for a carrier. Amendment of Part 51, 92 F.C.C.2d 864 (1983). As an alternative ground in support of preemption, the FCC asserted that federal displacement of state regulation is justifiable under the Act when necessary "to avoid frustration of validly adopted federal policies." Id. at 875. Applying this standard to the facts before it, the FCC then found preemption appropriate. It noted that

"adequate capital recovery is important to"

"make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nationwide, world-wide wire and radio communication service with "

Page 476 U. S. 363

"adequate facilities at reasonable charges. . . ."

"47 U.S.C. 151,"

and that

"[s]tate depreciation rate prescriptions that do not adequately provide for capital recovery in the competitive environment, which constitutes this Commission's policy in those markets found capable of supporting competition, would frustrate the accomplishment of that policy and are preemptable by this Commission."

92 F.C.C.2d at 876.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Virginia State Corporation Comm'n v. FCC, 737 F.2d 388 (1984). [Footnote 1] It acknowledged that the Act "does reserve to the states the authority to prescribe rates for intrastate telephone service," but determined that

"reservation [of authority] is not to be read as preserving the states' sphere of intrastate jurisdiction at the expense of an efficient, viable interstate telecommunications network."

Id. at 392. The court then noted that the FCC had intended to preempt state practices, held that the authority to do so was statutorily entrusted to the FCC, and found that the regulations at issue were reasonably designed to ensure that federal objectives would not be frustrated. The Court of Appeals did not reach the Commission's holding that § 220 of the Act automatically operates to preempt state-prescribed depreciation at odds with depreciation ordered by the FCC. We granted certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. 472 U.S. 1025 (1985). [Footnote 2]

Page 476 U. S. 364


Both petitioners and respondents characterize this litigation as one in which two different persons seek to drive one car, a condition the parties agree is unsatisfactory. [Footnote 3] Where the parties disagree is with respect to who ought to be displaced from the controls. In order to address the contentions, it is appropriate to consider not only the structure of the Act and how it divides authority, but also the nature and function of depreciation as a component of utility regulation.

Depreciation is defined as the loss in service value of a capital asset over time. In the context of public utility accounting and regulation, it is a process of charging the cost of depreciable property, adjusted for net salvage, to operating expense accounts over the useful life of the asset. Thus, accounting practices significantly affect, among other things, the rates that customers pay for service. This is so because a regulated carrier is entitled to recover its reasonable expenses and a fair return on its investment through the rates

Page 476 U. S. 365

it charges its customers, and because depreciation practices contribute importantly to the calculation of both the carrier's investment and its expenses. See Knoxville v. Knoxville Water Co.,212 U. S. 1, 212 U. S. 13-14 (1909). See generally 1 A. Priest, Principles of Public Utility Regulation (1969); P. Garfield & W. Lovejoy, Public Utility Economics (1964); 1 A. Kahn, Economics of Regulation (1970).

The total amount that a carrier is entitled to charge for services, its "revenue requirement," is the sum of its current operating expenses, including taxes and depreciation expenses, and a return on its investment "ratebase." The original cost of a given item of equipment enters the ratebase when that item enters service. As it depreciates over time -- as a function of wear and tear or technological obsolescence -- the ratebase is reduced according to a depreciation schedule that is based on an estimate of the item's expected useful life. Each year, the amount that is removed from the ratebase is included as an operating expense. In the telephone industry, which is extremely capital-intensive, depreciation charges constitute a significant portion of the annual revenue requirement recovered in rates; the parties agree that depreciation charges amount to somewhere between 10% to 15% of the intrastate revenue requirement.

In essence, petitioners' argument is that the plain and unambiguous language of § 152(b) denies the FCC power to compel the States to employ FCC-set depreciation practices and schedules in connection with the setting of intrastate rates. In part, that section provides:

"[N]othing in this chapter shall be construed to apply or to give the Commission jurisdiction with respect to (1) charges, classifications, practices, services, facilities, or regulations for or in connection with intrastate communication service by wire or radio of any carrier. . . ."

Petitioners maintain that "charges," "classifications," and "practices" are "terms of art" which denote depreciation and accounting, and thus that the question presented by these

Page 476 U. S. 366

cases is expressly answered by the statute. They argue also that the legislative history shows on a more general level that § 152(b) was intended to reserve to the States exclusive regulatory jurisdiction over intrastate service, especially intrastate ratemaking, and that, given the importance of depreciation to ratemaking, to require state regulators to follow FCC depreciation practices would frustrate the statutory design of preserving the States' ratemaking authority over intrastate service. Petitioners maintain that to confer this power on the FCC would be, in effect, to write the jurisdictional limitation of § 152(b) out of the Act.

Where petitioners focus on § 152(b), respondents' principal argument is that this litigation turns on § 220 of the Act, which they insist constitutes an unambiguous grant of power to the FCC exclusively to regulate depreciation. Their argument is that, once the FCC has acted pursuant to that section, States are automatically precluded from prescribing different depreciation practices or rates. Section 220(b) states:

"The Commission shall, as soon as practicable, prescribe for such carriers the classes of property for which depreciation charges may be properly included under operating expenses, and the percentages of depreciation which shall be charged with respect to each of such classes of property, classifying the carriers as it may deem proper for this purpose. The Commission may, when it deems necessary, modify the classes and percentages so prescribed. Such carriers shall not, after the Commission has prescribed the [classes] of property for which depreciation charges may be included, charge to operating expenses any depreciation charges on classes of property other than those prescribed by the Commission, or after the Commission has prescribed percentages of depreciation, charge with respect to any class of property a percentage of depreciation other than that prescribed therefor by the Commission. No such carrier shall in any case include in any form under its

Page 476 U. S. 367

operating or other expenses any depreciation or other charge or expenditure included elsewhere as a depreciation charge or otherwise under its operating or other expenses."

Respondents assert that their understanding of § 220(b) is bolstered by other substantive provisions of § 220. They note, for example, that, under § 220(g), once the FCC has prescribed the "forms and manner of keeping accounts," it is

"unlawful . . . to keep any other accounts . . . than those so prescribed . . . or to keep the accounts in any other manner than that prescribed or approved by the Commission,"

and that subsections (d) and (e) of § 220 provide for civil and criminal penalties for failing to keep accounts as determined by the Commission. Moreover, § 220(h) permits the FCC in its discretion, if it finds such action to be "consistent with the public interest," to "except the carriers of any particular class or classes in any State from any of the requirements" under the section "in cases where such carriers are subject to State commission regulation with respect to matters to which this section relates." Respondents argue that this provision strongly suggests that, unless the FCC affirmatively acts to waive or delegate its authority, i.e., to "except" carriers from its regulation, then, under § 220(h), the States impliedly cannot adopt inconsistent regulations. Respondents also assert that § 220(i) makes clear that the role of the States in depreciation is essentially advisory only. That section provides that the FCC, before exercising its authority, "shall notify" the state commissions and provide an opportunity to the States to "present [their] views" and also instructs the FCC to "consider such views and recommendations." According to respondents,

"Congress gave the states an opportunity to present their views because it expected them to be bound by the resulting prescriptions."

Joint Brief for Listed Private Respondents 14 (Joint Brief). In sum, the position of respondents is that

"Congress clearly intended that there be one regime -- rather than multiple regimes -- of depreciation

Page 476 U. S. 368

for each subject carrier. The FCC was given responsibility for establishing such a regime, and its depreciation decisions have to be respected unless and until it relinquishes authority to the states in individual instances. The states' interest is recognized, but their role is confined to providing their 'views and recommendations.'"


Although respondents rely primarily on § 220 to support preemption, they also urge, as an alternative and independent ground, the reasoning relied on by the Court of Appeals, namely, that the FCC is entitled to preempt inconsistent state regulation which frustrates federal policy. It is in the context of this argument that respondents most forcefully contend that state regulators must not be permitted to jeopardize the continued viability of the telecommunications industry by refusing to permit carriers to depreciate plant in a way that allows for accurate and timely recapturing of capital. This argument, which is pressed especially by the Solicitor General, relies largely on § 151, which, in broad terms, directs the FCC to develop a rapid and efficient national telephone network.


The Supremacy Clause of Art. VI of the Constitution provides Congress with the power to preempt state law. Preemption occurs when Congress, in enacting a federal statute, expresses a clear intent to preempt state law, Jones v. Rath Packing Co.,430 U. S. 519 (1977), when there is outright or actual conflict between federal and state law, e.g., Free v. Bland,369 U. S. 663 (1962), where compliance with both federal and state law is in effect physically impossible, Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul,373 U. S. 132 (1963), where there is implicit in federal law a barrier to state regulation, Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.,463 U. S. 85 (1983), where Congress has legislated comprehensively, thus occupying an entire field of regulation and leaving no room for the States to supplement federal law, Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp.,331 U. S. 218 (1947), or where the state law stands as

Page 476 U. S. 369

an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full objectives of Congress. Hines v. Davidowitz,312 U. S. 52 (1941). Preemption may result not only from action taken by Congress itself; a federal agency acting within the scope of its congressionally delegated authority may preempt state regulation. Fidelity Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. De la Cuesta,458 U. S. 141 (1982); Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp,467 U. S. 691 (1984).

In the present cases, two of these "varieties" of preemption are alleged. As noted above, respondents argue that § 220, by its terms, confers exclusive regulatory power over depreciation on the FCC, thus raising a claim that Congress has expressly manifested a clear intent to displace state law. In addition, respondents maintain that the refusal of the States to accept the FCC-set depreciation schedules and rules will frustrate the federal policy of increasing competition in the industry, and thus that state regulation "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress." In our view, the jurisdictional limitations placed on the FCC by § 152(b), coupled with the fact that the Act provides for a "separations" proceeding to determine the portions of a single asset that are used for interstate and intrastate service, 47 U.S.C. § 410(c), answer both preemption theories.

The critical question in any preemption analysis is always whether Congress intended that federal regulation supersede state law. Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., supra. The Act itself declares that its purpose is

"regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges. . . ."

47 U.S.C. § 151. In order to accomplish this goal, Congress created the FCC to centralize and consolidate the regulatory responsibility that had previously been the province of the Interstate Commerce Commission

Page 476 U. S. 370

and the Federal Radio Commission under predecessor statutes. See generally McKenna, Pre-Emption Under the Communications Act, 37 Fed.Comm.L.J. 1, 12-18 (1985). To this degree, § 151 may be read as lending some support to respondents' position that state regulation which frustrates the ability of the FCC to perform its statutory function of ensuring efficient, nationwide phone service may be impliedly barred by the Act.

We might be inclined to accept this broad reading of § 151 were it not for the express jurisdictional limitations on FCC power contained in § 152(b). Again, that section asserts that

"nothing in this chapter shall be construed to apply or to give the Commission jurisdiction with respect to (1) charges, classifications, practices, services, facilities, or regulations for or in connection with intrastate communication service. . . ."

By its terms, this provision fences off from FCC reach or regulation intrastate matters -- indeed, including matters "in connection with" intrastate service. Moreover, the language with which it does so is certainly as sweeping as the wording of the provision declaring the purpose of the Act and the role of the FCC.

In interpreting §§ 151 and 152(b), we are guided by the familiar rule of construction that, where possible, provisions of a statute should be read so as not to create a conflict. Washington Market Co. v. Hoffman,101 U. S. 112 (1879). We agree with petitioners that the sections are naturally reconciled to define a national goal of the creation of a rapid and efficient phone service, and to enact a dual regulatory system to achieve that goal. Moreover, were we to find the sections to be in conflict, we would be disinclined to favor the provision declaring a general statutory purpose, as opposed to the provision which defines the jurisdictional reach of the agency formed to implement that purpose.

Respondents advance a number of arguments to counter the view that § 152(b) forbids the FCC to prescribe depreciation

Page 476 U. S. 371

practices and charges in the context of ratemaking for intrastate service. We address each in turn.


Respondents assert that the legislative history of § 152(b), as well as the structure of the Act, shows that "charges" and "classifications" refer only to "customer charges," not depreciation charges, and thus that § 152(b) does not purport to limit the FCC power to regulate depreciation. They seek to support this narrow reading of § 152(b) by noting that the words "charges," "classifications," "practices," and "regulations" appear throughout the Act in contexts where it is clear that what is meant is charges which relate directly to carriers' rate and service relationships with their customers, rather than depreciation or accounting charges. See §§ 201-205. Reading the sections in pari materia, we are told, makes it apparent that Congress was concerned in § 152(b) with preserving state autonomy over the rates charged by carriers for specific services, not over depreciation. According to respondents, this reading is bolstered by the legislative history of the section, which reveals that the provision was proposed by state regulators in reaction to this Court's decision in the so-called Shreveport Rate Case, Houston, E. & W. T. R. Co. v. United States,234 U. S. 342 (1914), which held, among other things, that the Interstate Commerce Commission had the power to order an increase in specific intrastate railroad rates charged to customers in order to avoid discrimination against interstate commerce.

"In other words, Section 2(b)(1) was from the outset concerned with protection against federal preemption of the states' setting of individual customer charges for specific intrastate services."

Joint Brief 34.

We reject this narrow reading of § 152(b). "Charges," "classifications," and "practices" are terms often used by accountants, regulators, courts, and commentators to denote depreciation treatment, see, e.g., 280 U. S. S. 372

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