20 May 2013

Law in Plain English: City of Arlington v. FCC

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

City of Arlington v. FCC (consolidated with Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee v. FCC)

Under the Court's previous decision in Chevron, courts will grant deference ("Chevron deference") to a government agency's interpretation of a statute which it administers when the intent of Congress is not clear. The City of Arlington, Texas, challenged a provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in which the FCC concluded that it had authority to interpret the provision based on its general authority to administer the Communications Act. The statutory provision required local governments to respond to zoning requests within a reasonable period of time--but the important factor here was not the FCC's interpretation of the reasonable time period itself, but rather that the FCC claimed it had the authority to interpret its own jurisdiction.  The question before the Court was whether a court should apply Chevron deference to review an agency’s determination of its own jurisdiction. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that 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). As a result, the FCC's claim of authority to interpret its own jurisdiction should be given the same deference as it would to an agency's interpretation of a statute which it administers.The practical impact of this decision is to broaden the extent to which the courts defer to executive agencies and how they interpret the statutes they administer.
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