U.S. Supreme Court holds courts must defer to FCC’s, determination of its own jurisdiction.

City of Arlington, Texas v. Federal Communications Commission No. 11-1545 and 11-1547, slip op. (U.S. Supreme Court, May 20, 2013).

This is a U.S. Supreme Court opinion which holds that federal agencies such as the FCC have the authority to determine their own jurisdictional limits and courts should defer to agency determinations.

CTIA—The Wireless Association, which represents wireless service providers, petitioned the FCC to clarify the meaning of 47 U.S.C. §332(c)(7)(B)(ii)’s  timing requirement that zoning authorities act on sitting requests for antennas “within a reasonable period of time after the request is duly filed.”  The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, (which places limitations on the traditional authority of state and local governments to regulate the location, construction, and modification of antennas) requires state or local governments to act within this undefined period.   The FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling concluding that long delays have impeded the promotion of services deemed critical and held 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, which upheld the agency determination. The cities filed for a writ of certiorari which was granted.

The Court rejected the argument that a different analysis applies depending on whether the agency decision makes a jurisdictional or non-jurisdictional determination.  It held 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. 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. However, if “the statute is silent or ambiguous,” the court must defer to the administering agency’s construction.  In this case, the language was ambiguous to the specific intent of Congress and therefore the FCC’s determination of what constitutes a “reasonable period of time” stands.

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