City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc.

PETITIONER: City of Columbus
RESPONDENT: Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc.
LOCATION: Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 01-419
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 536 US 424 (2002)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2002

Jeffrey S. Sutton - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Malcolm L. Stewart - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Richard A. Cordray - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Pursuant to 49 USC section 14501(c)(2)(A), federal preemption prescriptions relating to motor carriers "shall not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a State with respect to motor vehicles." Columbus, Ohio, extensively regulates the operation of tow trucks seeking to pick up vehicles within city limits. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc., a tow-truck operator and a trade association of such operators, sought to enjoin enforcement of the City's tow-truck regulations on the ground that they were preempted. The District Court granted Ours Garage summary judgment. In affirming, the Court of Appeals relied on precedent that section 14501(c)(1)'s preemption rule explicitly applies to "a State [or] political subdivision of a State," while the exception for safety regulations, section 14501(c)(2)(A), refers only to the "authority of a State." The appellate court also noted that precedent determined that the contrast in statutory language indicated that Congress meant to limit the safety exception to States alone.


May the state power reserved in 49 USC section 14501(c)(2)(A) be delegated to municipalities, permitting them to exercise safety regulatory authority over local tow-truck operations?

Media for City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 2002 in City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2002 in City of Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 01-419 The City of Columbus versus Ours Garage will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The Interstate Commerce Act preempts that it forbids a State or political subdivision of a State from enacting of enforcing laws or regulation affecting motor carriers of property, but the Act also provides that the preemption rule shall not restrict the safety regulatory authority of the State.

Does this exception to preemption cover safety regulations enacted or enforced by localities?

That is the question this case presents.

The Sixth Circuit held that local regulations are preempted.

We hold that safety regulations of localities as well as those of State are safe from preemptio, accordingly, we reverse the Sixth Circuit’s judgment.

The City of Columbus, Ohio regulates the operation of tow trucks within city limits by local ordinance.

A local tow truck operator called Ours Garage joined by a trade association of tow truck operators commenced this litigation seeking to establish that Columbus’ rules were preempted under the Federal Act.

On cross-motion for summary judgment, the Federal District Court ruled in the favor of the tow truck complainants, now respondents, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The City had argued that its regulations was saved by the exception for State regulatory authority over safety matters, but the Sixth Circuit held that the safety exception covered only State not local regulations.

State authority generally includes the choice to regulate centrally or to delegate rule making and enforcement authority to localities.

The Sixth Circuit so acknowledged but it declined to apply that general rule in this case because the federal preemption provision prefers discretely to States and the political subdivisions while the safety exception prefers only to State authority and does not mention political subdivisions.

Explaining why we disagree with the Court of Appeal’s judgment, we note first the differences in the phrasing of the various exceptions to preemption.

The preemption rule itself along with two of the exceptions use the words authority of State and their political subdivisions to enact or enforce regulations.

In contrast, the safety exception and another exception on covering shipping of household goods use quite different more concise formulations.

The argument that the present of words in one provision and their absence in another reveals Congress’ design grows weaker with each difference in the formulation of the provisions under inspection.

Further, if the safety exception is read unyieldingly to cover State regulation exclusively, then the preemption rule will prevent localities not only from enacting but also from enforcing coverage safety rules, the keywords are enact or enforce, even if such rules were passed by the State Legislature, but that would make scant sense for State Law is commonly enforced by local governments.

Most important to our decision, construing the words safety authority to a State to exclude localities would yield the determination at odds without federal system's traditional comprehension of the State’s historic police power.

Safety regulations of yield in which customarily, the States have allowed localities to address local concerns.

Under this Court’s decisions in point, it takes a purpose made clear and manifest by Congress to warrant a judicial determination that the National Legislator cut off a State’s power to delegate rule making authority to the State’s component parts.

Finding no such clear purpose in the Federal Act, we resist attributing to Congress a design to disturb a State’s decision on the division of authority between its central and local units over safety on municipal streets and roads.

Respondent’s reading becomes all the more curious, we finally note, given their affirmation that Ohio could without affront to the Federal Act simply adapt Columbus’ regulations to govern in that city, to lead those regulations to govern there and so on down the list of the State’s municipalities.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice O’Connor has joined.