Arlington v. FCC
569 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary
The Communications Act of 1934 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.” 47 U.S.C. 332(c)(7)(B)(ii). The FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling 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 challenged the Ruling. The Fifth Circuit found the statute ambiguous and upheld the FCC’s determination that section 201(b)’s broad grant of regulatory authority empowered it to administer section 332(c)(7)(B). The Supreme Court affirmed. Courts must apply the Chevron framework to an agency’s interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of the agency’s statutory authority (i.e., its jurisdiction). The Court rejected a contention that Chevron deference was not appropriate because the FCC asserted jurisdiction over matters of traditional state and local concern. The statute explicitly supplants state authority. There is no case in which a general conferral of rule-making or adjudicative authority has been held insufficient to support Chevron deference for an exercise of that authority within the agency’s substantive field. A general conferral of rule-making authority validates rules for all the matters the agency is charged with administering. It is sufficient that the preconditions to deference under Chevron are satisfied because Congress has unambiguously vested the FCC with general authority to administer the Communications Act through rule-making and adjudication, and the interpretation at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

CITY OF ARLINGTON, TEXAS, et al. v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 11–1545. Argued January 16, 2013—Decided May 20, 2013 [ 1 ]

The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, 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.” 47 U. S. C. §332(c)(7)(B)(ii). Relying on its broad authority to implement the Communications Act, see 47 U. S. C. §201(b), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Declaratory Ruling 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, sought review of the Declaratory Ruling in the Fifth Circuit. They argued that the Commission lacked authority to interpret §332(c)(7)(B)’s limitations. The Court of Appeals, relying on Circuit precedent holding that Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 , applies to an agency’s interpretation of its own statutory jurisdiction, applied Chevron to that question. Finding the statute ambiguous, it upheld as a permissible construction of the statute the FCC’s view that §201(b)’s broad grant of regulatory authority empowered it to administer §332(c)(7)(B).

Held: Courts must apply the Chevron framework to an agency’s interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of the agency’s statutory authority (i.e., its jurisdiction). Pp. 4–17.

     (a) 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. 467 U. S., at 842–843. However, if “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. Id., at 843. Pp. 4–5.

     (b) 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. There is no distinction between an agency’s “jurisdictional” and “nonjurisdictional” interpretations. 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. But for agencies charged with administering congressional statutes, 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 ultra vires. 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. See, e.g., National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., Inc. v. Gulf Power Co., 534 U. S. 327 . Pp. 5–10.

     (c) This Court has consistently afforded Chevron deference to agencies’ constructions of the scope of their own jurisdiction. See, e.g., Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Schor, 478 U. S. 833 ; United States v. Eurodif S. A., 555 U. S. 305 . Chevron applies to statutes designed to curtail the scope of agency discretion, see Chemical Mfrs. Assn. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 470 U. S. 116 , and even where concerns about agency self-aggrandizement are at their apogee—i.e., where an agency’s expansive construction of the extent of its own power would have wrought a fundamental change in the regulatory scheme, see FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U. S. 120 . Pp. 10–14.

     (d) The contention that Chevron deference is not appropriate here because the FCC asserted jurisdiction over matters of traditional state and local concern is meritless. These cases have nothing to do with 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. P. 14.

     (e) United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U. S. 218 , requires that, for Chevron deference to apply, the agency must have received congressional authority to determine the particular matter at issue in the particular manner adopted. But Mead denied Chevron deference to action, by an agency with rulemaking authority, that was not rulemaking. There is no case in which a general conferral of rulemaking or adjudicative authority has been held insufficient to support Chevron deference for an exercise of that authority within the agency’s substantive field. A general conferral of rulemaking authority validates rules for all the matters the agency is charged with administering. It suffices to decide this case that 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 interpretation at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority. Pp. 14–16.

668 F. 3d 229, affirmed.

     Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kennedy and Alito, JJ., joined.

Notes

1  Together with No. 11–1547, Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee of New Orleans City Council v. Federal Communications Commission, also on certiorari to the same court.

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