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City of Arlington, Texas v. Federal Communications Comm'n

ELR Citation: 43 ELR 20112
Nos. 11-1545, (U.S., 05/20/2013)

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a FCC declaratory ruling that state and local zoning authorities have 150 days to process siting applications for new wireless towers and antennas. Section 332(c)(7)B) of 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." Relying on its broad authority to implement the Act under §201(b), FCC concluded 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 FCC's ruling, arguing that FCC lacked authority to interpret §332(c)(7)(B)'s limitations. Applying Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 14 ELR 20507 (U.S. 1984), the Fifth Circuit found the statute ambiguous and upheld FCC's view that §201(b)’s broad grant of regulatory authority empowered it to administer §332(c)(7)(B). The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court to determine whether an agency's interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of its regulatory authority (that is, its jurisdiction) is entitled to deference under Chevron. The Court held that it was. When a court reviews an agency's interpretation of a statute the agency 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. Where Congress has established a clear line, the agency cannot go beyond it; and where Congress has established an ambiguous line, the agency can go no further than the ambiguity will fairly allow. Here, because Congress has unambiguously vested FCC with general authority to administer the Communications Act through rulemaking and adjudication, and because the agency interpretation at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority, the preconditions to deference under Chevron were satisfied. 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.