City of New York v. FCC
486 U.S. 57 (1988)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

City of New York v. FCC, 486 U.S. 57 (1988)

City of New York v. Federal Communications Commission

No. 87-339

Argued March 29, 1988

Decided May 16, 1988

486 U.S. 57

Syllabus

In 1974, after two years of unsatisfactory experience with conflicting federal and local technical standards governing the transmission of cable television broadcast signals, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) promulgated regulations preempting the field of signal quality regulation. In 1984, this Court broadly approved the preemptive authority that the FCC had asserted over cable system regulation. Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp,467 U. S. 691. A few months later, Congress enacted the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Cable Act or Act), which empowers state or local authorities to enfranchise cable systems and to specify the facilities and equipment that franchisees could use, but which also authorizes the FCC to establish technical standards for such facilities and equipment. Pursuant to the latter provision, the FCC adopted regulations establishing technical standards governing the quality of cable signals and forbidding local authorities to impose more stringent technical standards. Petitioners sought review of the regulations in the Court of Appeals, contesting the scope of the FCC's claimed preemptive authority and asserting that franchising authorities could impose stricter technical standards than the Commission's. The court upheld the regulations.

Held: The FCC did not exceed its statutory authority by forbidding local authorities to impose technical cable signal quality standards more stringent than those set forth in the Commission's regulations.

(a) Whether a federal agency has properly determined that its authority in a given area is exclusive and preempts any state regulatory efforts does not depend on the existence of express congressional authorization to displace state law. Rather, the correct focus is on the agency itself and on the proper bounds of its lawful authority to undertake such action. If the agency's decision to preempt represents a reasonable accommodation of conflicting policies committed to the agency's care by statute, the accommodation should not be disturbed unless it appears from the statute or its legislative history that the accommodation "is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." United States v. Shimer,367 U. S. 374, 367 U. S. 383. Pp. 486 U. S. 63-64.

Page 486 U. S. 58

(b) In adopting the regulations at issue, the FCC explicitly stated its intent to continue its prior policy of exercising exclusive authority and of preempting state and local regulation, in order to address the potentially serious adaptability and cost problems created for cable system operators and consumers by technical standards that vary from community to community. Thus, this case does not turn on whether there is an actual conflict between federal and state law, or whether compliance with both federal and state standards would be physically impossible. Pp. 486 U. S. 65-66.

(c) The FCC acted within its authority under the Cable Act when it preempted state and local regulation. In adopting the statute, Congress acted against a 10-year background of federal preemption on this particular issue, and at a time shortly after Crisp approved FCC preemption in very similar respects. Nevertheless, Congress sanctioned in relevant respects the regulatory scheme that the Commission had already been following, without indicating explicit disapproval of the Commission's preemption of local technical standards. Given the difficulties the FCC had experienced with inconsistent local standards, it is doubtful that Congress would have meant to overturn preemption without discussion, or even any suggestion that it was doing so. To the contrary, the legislative history makes clear that the Cable Act was not intended to work any significant change. Thus, nothing in the Act compels the conclusion that the decision to preempt "is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." Pp. 486 U. S. 66-70.

259 U.S.App.D.C.191, 814 F.2d 720, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 486 U. S. 59

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