While the FCC claimed the interpretation of its own statutory authority is subject to review under a previous court case, Chevron vs. National Resources Defense Council Inc., the Texas cities of Arlington and San Antonio claimed Congress meant to withhold from the FCC the authority to self-interpret its ability to set limitations.
"Under Chevron, a reviewing court must first ask whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "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 of the statute so long as it is permissible."
In the case, the FCC attempted to update development of new telecommunications technology by requiring state and local zoning authorities to respond to applications for new wireless communications facilities within specific deadlines; Arlington and San Antonio argued the FCC lacked authority to adopt those deadlines.
"The contention that Chevron deference is not appropriate here because the FCC asserted jurisdiction over matters of traditional state and local concern is meritless," the majority opinion said. "These cases have nothing to do with federalism: The statute explicitly supplants state authority, so the question is simply whether a federal agency or federal courts will draw the lines to which the States must hew."
Scalia said preconditions to deference under Chevron were satisfied because Congress "unambiguously vested the FCC with general authority to administer the Communications Act through rule-making and adjudication, and the agency interpretation at issue was promulgated in the exercise of that authority."
"Courts defer to an agency's interpretation of law when and because Congress has conferred on the agency interpretive authority over the question at issue," Roberts wrote in a dissenting opinion joined by Kennedy and Alito. "An agency cannot exercise interpretive authority until it has it; the question whether an agency enjoys that authority must be decided by a court, without deference to the agency."
In its opinion issued Monday, the Supreme Court consolidated the Texas case with one involving the Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee of the New Orleans City Council.
Emily Bremer, an attorney-adviser of the Administrative Conference of the United States, said she was satisfied with the court's ruling.
"I am pleased with today's Supreme Court decision reaffirming Chevron, the doctrine that has long governed how courts review an administrative agency's interpretation of a statute the agency is charged with implementing," Bremer said in a statement. "The court prudently refused to make that doctrine more complicated than it already is, likely preventing many years of legal instability and wasteful litigation for both agencies and regulated parties."