City of Arlington v. Fed. Commc'ns Comm'n

Decision Date20 May 2013
Docket Number11–1547.,Nos. 11–1545,s. 11–1545
Citation569 U.S. 290,133 S.Ct. 1863,185 L.Ed.2d 941
Parties CITY OF ARLINGTON, TEXAS, et al., Petitioners v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION et al. Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee of the New Orleans City Council, Petitioner v. Federal Communications Commission et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Thomas C. Goldstein, for Petitioners.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, for Respondents.

Paul D. Clement, Michael H. McGinley, Bancroft PLLC, Washington, DC, for Respondents in support of Petitioners.

Thomas C. Goldstein, Kevin K. Russell, Kevin R. Amer, Tejinder Singh, Goldstein & Russell, P.C., Washington, DC, Thomas D. Bunton, Senior Deputy, County Counsel, San Diego, CA, for Petitioner County of San Diego, California.

Joseph Van Eaton, James R. Hobson, Matthew K. Schettenhelm, Best Best & Krieger, LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioners City of Arlington, Texas; City of Dallas, Texas; City of Los Angeles, California; County of Los Angeles, California; City of San Antonio, Texas; and Texas Coalition of Cities for Utility Issues.

William D. Aaron, Jr., DeWayne L. Williams, Aaron, PLC, New Orleans, LA, Basile J. Uddo, Jerry A. Beatmann, Jr., Uddo, Beatmann & Code, LLC, Metairie, LA, for Petitioner Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee of the New Orleans City Council.

Sean A. Lev, General Counsel, Peter Karanjia, Deputy General Counsel, Jacob M. Lewis, Associate General Counsel, James M. Carr, Matthew J. Dunne, Counsel, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, DC, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Malcolm L. Stewart, Deputy Solicitor General, Joseph R. Palmore, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Federal Respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

We consider whether an agency's interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of its regulatory authority (that is, its jurisdiction) is entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984).


Wireless telecommunications networks require towers and antennas; proposed sites for those towers and antennas must be approved by local zoning authorities. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress "impose[d] specific limitations on the traditional authority of state and local governments to regulate the location, construction, and modification of such facilities," Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 115, 125 S.Ct. 1453, 161 L.Ed.2d 316 (2005), and incorporated those limitations into the Communications Act of 1934, see 110 Stat. 56, 151. Section 201(b) of that Act empowers the Federal Communications Commission to "prescribe such rules and regulations as may be necessary in the public interest to carry out [its] provisions." Ch. 296, 52 Stat. 588, codified at 47 U.S.C. § 201(b). Of course, that rulemaking authority extends to the subsequently added portions of the Act. See AT & T Corp. v. Iowa Utilities Bd., 525 U.S. 366, 377–378, 119 S.Ct. 721, 142 L.Ed.2d 835 (1999).

The Act imposes five substantive limitations, which are codified in 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B) ; only one of them, § 332(c)(7)(B)(ii), is at issue here. That provision requires state or local governments to act on wireless siting applications "within a reasonable period of time after the request is duly filed." Two other features of § 332(c)(7) are relevant. First, subparagraph (A), known as the "saving clause," provides that nothing in the Act, except those limitations provided in § 332(c)(7)(B), "shall limit or affect the authority of a State or local government" over siting decisions. Second, § 332(c)(7)(B)(v) authorizes a person who believes a state or local government's wireless-siting decision to be inconsistent with any of the limitations in § 332(c)(7)(B) to "commence an action in any court of competent jurisdiction."

In theory, § 332(c)(7)(B)(ii) requires state and local zoning authorities to take prompt action on siting applications for wireless facilities. But in practice, wireless providers often faced long delays. In July 2008, CTIA—The Wireless Association,1 which represents wireless service providers, petitioned the FCC to clarify the meaning of § 332(c)(7)(B)(ii)'s requirement that zoning authorities act on siting requests "within a reasonable period of time." In November 2009, the Commission, relying on its broad statutory authority to implement the provisions of the Communications Act, issued a declaratory ruling responding to CTIA's petition. In re Petition for Declaratory Ruling, 24 FCC Rcd. 13994, 14001. The Commission found that the "record evidence demonstrates that unreasonable delays in the personal wireless service facility siting process have obstructed the provision of wireless services" and that such delays "impede the promotion of advanced services and competition that Congress deemed critical in the Telecommunications Act of 1996." Id., at 14006, 14008. A " reasonable period of time" under § 332(c)(7)(B)(ii), the Commission determined, is presumptively (but rebuttably) 90 days to process a collocation application (that is, an application to place a new antenna on an existing tower) and 150 days to process all other applications. Id., at 14005.

Some state and local governments opposed adoption of the Declaratory Ruling on the ground that the Commission lacked "authority to interpret ambiguous provisions of Section 332(c)(7)." Id., at 14000. Specifically, they argued that the saving clause, § 332(c)(7)(A), and the judicial review provision, § 337(c)(7)(B)(v), together display a congressional intent to withhold from the Commission authority to interpret the limitations in § 332(c)(7)(B). Asserting that ground of objection, the cities of Arlington and San Antonio, Texas, petitioned for review of the Declaratory Ruling in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Relying on Circuit precedent, the Court of Appeals held that the Chevron framework applied to the threshold question whether the FCC possessed statutory authority to adopt the 90– and 150–day timeframes. 668 F.3d 229, 248 (C.A.5 2012) (citing Texas v. United States, 497 F.3d 491, 501 (C.A.5 2007) ). Applying Chevron, the Court of Appeals found " § 332(c)(7)(A)'s effect on the FCC's authority to administer § 332(c)(7)(B)'s limitations ambiguous," 668 F.3d, at 250, and held that "the FCC's interpretation of its statutory authority" was a permissible construction of the statute. Id., at 254. On the merits, the court upheld the presumptive 90– and 150–day deadlines as a "permissible construction of § 332(c)(7)(B)(ii) and (v)... entitled to Chevron deference." Id., at 256.

We granted certiorari, 568 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 524, 184 L.Ed.2d 252 (2012), limited to the first question presented: "Whether ... a court should apply Chevron to ... an agency's determination of its own jurisdiction." Pet. for Cert. in No. 11–1545, p. i.


As this case turns on the scope of the doctrine enshrined in Chevron, we begin with a description of that case's now-canonical formulation. "When a court reviews an agency's construction of the statute which it administers, it is confronted with two questions." 467 U.S., at 842, 104 S.Ct. 2778. First, applying the ordinary tools of statutory construction, the court must determine "whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress." Id., at 842–843, 104 S.Ct. 2778. But "if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Id., at 843, 104 S.Ct. 2778.

Chevron is rooted in a background presumption of congressional intent: namely, "that Congress, when it left ambiguity in a statute" administered by an agency, "understood that the ambiguity would be resolved, first and foremost, by the agency, and desired the agency (rather than the courts) to possess whatever degree of discretion the ambiguity allows." Smiley v. Citibank (South Dakota), N. A., 517 U.S. 735, 740–741, 116 S.Ct. 1730, 135 L.Ed.2d 25 (1996). Chevron thus provides a stable background rule against which Congress can legislate: Statutory ambiguities will be resolved, within the bounds of reasonable interpretation, not by the courts but by the administering agency. See Iowa Utilities Bd., 525 U.S., at 397, 119 S.Ct. 721. Congress knows to speak in plain terms when it wishes to circumscribe, and in capacious terms when it wishes to enlarge, agency discretion.


The question here is whether a court must defer under Chevron to an agency's interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of the agency's statutory authority (that is, its jurisdiction). The argument against deference rests on the premise that there exist two distinct classes of agency interpretations: Some interpretations—the big, important ones, presumably—define the agency's "jurisdiction." Others—humdrum, run-of-the-mill stuff—are simply applications of jurisdiction the agency plainly has. That premise is false, because the distinction between "jurisdictional" and "nonjurisdictional" interpretations is a mirage. No matter how it is framed, the question a court faces when confronted with an agency's interpretation of a statute it administers is always, simply, whether the agency has stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority .

The misconception that there are, for Chevron purposes, separate "jurisdictional" questions on which no deference is due derives, perhaps, from a reflexive extension to agencies of the very real division between the jurisdictional and nonjurisdictional that is applicable to courts. In the judicial context, there is a meaningful line: Whether...

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