City of Arlington, TX v. FCC

PETITIONER: City of Arlington, TX; City of San Antonio, TX
RESPONDENT: Federal Communications Commission
LOCATION: Federal Communications Commission

DOCKET NO.: 11-1545
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 569 US (2013)
GRANTED: Oct 05, 2012
ARGUED: Jan 16, 2013
DECIDED: May 20, 2013

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondents
Thomas C. Goldstein - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Generally, wireless phone service providers must obtain zoning approvals from state and local governments before building wireless towers or attaching wireless equipment to buildings. To speed up the process, Congress amended the 1934 Communications Act and required local governments to respond to zoning requests within a reasonable period of time. Despite this law, the zoning approval process still dragged on and severely delayed construction. In 2008, the Wireless Association petitioned the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") to bring an end to these unreasonable delays. The Association recommended placing time limits on how long these zoning requests could take. The FCC agreed and in November 2009 set the following "reasonable time" limits for zoning requests: 90 days for attachments to current buildings and a 150 days for new structures.

The local governments claimed that the FCC cannot set these limits because the FCC cannot determine its own power under the Communications Act. When Congress passed the Act, it granted a certain amount of power to the FCC to enforce and define the rules under the Act. Under the long-standing Chevron doctrine of interpretation, courts should always defer to an agency's interpretation of a particular act. However, the Supreme Court had never determined whether this applies to situations where the agency defines its own power under a particular law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit nevertheless deferred to the FCC and affirmed the declaratory ruling. The local governments appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari exclusively to answer whether the Chevron doctrine applies in this situation.


Should a court apply the Chevron doctrine and defer to an agency's interpretation of its jurisdiction under a particular law when that interpretation is called into question?

Media for City of Arlington, TX v. FCC

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 16, 2013 in City of Arlington, TX v. FCC

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 20, 2013 in City of Arlington, TX v. FCC

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 11-1545, City of Arlington, Texas versus the Federal Communications Commission and the consolidated case.

Antonin Scalia:

These -- these cases are here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A landmark administrative law case, Chevron USA versus Natural Resources Defense Council established a proposition that when statutory text is ambiguous, courts will differ to reasonable resolution of that ambiguity by the agency charged with administering the statute.

Fifth Circuit precedent holds that this deference principle applies even to an agency's resolution of an ambiguity pertaining to its own statutory jurisdiction.

In this case, that precedent led the Court of Appeals to apply Chevron in a Court deference to a dispute over the scope of the Federal Communications Commissions' authority to administer the Communications Act.

We need not dwell on the details of that dispute which are set forth in the opinion because we granted certiorari only to answer a discreet question of law, namely, whether a court should apply Chevron to an agency's determination of its own jurisdiction.

We hold that Chevron applies equally whether or not an agency's interpretation of statute it administers can be termed jurisdictional.

We, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Fifth Circuit.

There is no distinction between an agency's jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional interpretations.

The jurisdictional, non-jurisdictional line is meaningful in the judicial context because Congress has the power to tell The Courts what classes of cases they have the power to decide that is to define their jurisdiction, but has no power 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.

When they act improperly, no less than when they act beyond their jurisdiction, what they do is ultra vires.

When a Court reviews an agency's interpretation of a statute it administers, the question is simply whether the agency has stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority.

There is no principle basis for carving out an arbitrary subset of jurisdictional questions from the Chevron framework.

That is why, as we explain in our opinion, we have consistently afforded Chevron deference to agency's constructions of the scope of their own jurisdiction.

A false dichotomy between jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional agency interpretations would produce chaos squared in the federal courts.

Some judges would be confused, others tempted by the prospect of making public policy by fixing the meaning of ambiguous statutory commands.

The effect would be to transfer from the agencies that administer statutes to judges any number of interpretive decisions arched at typical Chevron questions about how best to -- to construe an ambiguous term in light of competing policy interests.

We have caution that “judges ought to refrain from substituting their own interstitial lawmaking” for that of an agency.

That is precisely what Chevron prevents and what a jurisdictional exception to Chevron would allow.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Kennedy and Alito joined.