City of New York v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 87-339

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWHITE
Citation100 L.Ed.2d 48,486 U.S. 57,108 S.Ct. 1637
Docket NumberNo. 87-339
Decision Date16 May 1988
PartiesCITY OF NEW YORK, City of Miami, City of Wheaton and National League of Cities, Petitioners v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION et al

486 U.S. 57
108 S.Ct. 1637
100 L.Ed.2d 48
CITY OF NEW YORK, City of Miami, City of Wheaton and National League of Cities, Petitioners

v.

FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION et al.

No. 87-339.
Argued March 29, 1988.
Decided May 16, 1988.
Syllabus

In 1974, after two years of unsatisfactory experience with conflicting federal and local technical standards governing the transmission of cable television broadcast signals, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) promulgated regulations pre-empting the field of signal-quality regulation. In 1984, this Court broadly approved the pre-emptive authority that the FCC had asserted over cable system regulation. Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp, 467 U.S. 691, 104 S.Ct. 2694, 81 L.Ed.2d 580. A few months later, Congress enacted the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Cable Act or Act), which empowers state or local authorities to enfranchise cable systems and to specify the facilities and equipment that franchisees could use, but which also authorizes the FCC to establish technical standards for such facilities and equipment. Pursuant to the latter provision, the FCC adopted regulations establishing technical standards governing the quality of cable signals and forbidding local authorities to impose more stringent technical standards. Petitioners sought review of the regulations in the Court of Appeals, contesting the scope of the FCC's claimed pre-emptive authority and asserting that franchising authorities could impose stricter technical standards than the Commission's. The court upheld the regulations.

Held: The FCC did not exceed its statutory authority by forbidding local authorities to impose technical cable signal quality standards more stringent than those set forth in the Commission's regulations. Pp. 63-70.

(a) Whether a federal agency has properly determined that its authority in a given area is exclusive and pre-empts any state regulatory efforts does not depend on the existence of express congressional authorization to displace state law. Rather, the correct focus is on the agency itself and on the proper bounds of its lawful authority to undertake such action. If the agency's decision to pre-empt represents a reasonable accommodation of conflicting policies committed to the agency's care by statute, the accommodation should not be disturbed unless it appears from the statute or its legislative history that the accommodation "is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." United States v. Shimer, 367 U.S. 374, 383, 81 S.Ct. 1554, 1560, 6 L.Ed.2d 908. Pp. 63-64.

Page 58

(b) In adopting the regulations at issue, the FCC explicitly stated its intent to continue its prior policy of exercising exclusive authority and of pre-empting state and local regulation, in order to address the potentially serious adaptability and cost problems created for cable system operators and consumers by technical standards that vary from community to community. Thus, this case does not turn on whether there is an actual conflict between federal and state law, or whether compliance with both federal and state standards would be physically impossible. Pp. 65-66.

(c) The FCC acted within its authority under the Cable Act when it pre-empted state and local regulation. In adopting the statute, Congress acted against a 10-year background of federal pre-emption on this particular issue and at a time shortly after Crisp approved FCC pre-emption in very similar respects. Nevertheless, Congress sanctioned in relevant respects the regulatory scheme that the Commission had already been following, without indicating explicit disapproval of the Commission's pre-emption of local technical standards. Given the difficulties the FCC had experienced with inconsistent local standards, it is doubtful that Congress would have meant to overturn pre-emption without discussion or even any suggestion that it was doing so. To the contrary, the legislative history makes clear that the Cable Act was not intended to work any significant change. Thus, nothing in the Act compels the conclusion that the decision to pre-empt "is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." Pp. 66-70.

259 U.S.App.D.C. 191, 814 F.2d 720 (1987), affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Stephen J. McGrath, New York City, for petitioners.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for federal respondent, F.C.C.

H. Bartow Farr, III, Washington, D.C., for respondent, National Cable Television.

Page 59

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted regulations that establish technical standards to govern the quality of cable television signals and that prohibit local authorities from imposing more stringent technical standards. The issue is whether in doing so the Commission has exceeded its statutory authority.

I

This case deals with yet another development in the ongoing efforts of federal, state, and local authorities to regulate different aspects of cable television over the past three decades. See Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp, 467 U.S. 691, 700-705, 104 S.Ct. 2694, 2700-2703, 81 L.Ed.2d 580 (1984); United States v. Southwestern Cable Co., 392 U.S. 157, 161-178, 88 S.Ct. 1994, 1996-2005, 20 L.Ed.2d 1001 (1968). With the incipient development of cable television in the 1950's and 1960's from what had been more generally known as community antenna television systems, the Federal Communications Commission began to assert regulatory authority in this area. See CATV Second Report and Order, 2 F.C.C.2d 725 (1966). In 1972, the Commission first asserted authority over technical aspects of cable television and devised technical standards to govern the transmission of broadcast signals by cable, though without pre-empting regulation of similar matters by state or local franchising authorities. Cable Television Report and Order, 36 F.C.C.2d 143, on reconsideration, 36 F.C.C.2d 326 (1972), aff'd sub nom. American Civil Liberties Union v. FCC, 523 F.2d 1344 (CA9 1975).1 Within two years, however, the Commission became convinced from its experience

Page 60

with conflicting federal and local technical standards that there is "a compelling need for national uniformity in cable television technical standards" which would require it to pre-empt the field of signal-quality regulation in order to meet the "necessity to rationalize, interrelate, and bring into uniformity the myriad standards now being developed by numerous jurisdictions." Cable Television Report and Order, 49 F.C.C.2d 470, 477, 480 (1974). The Commission explained that a multiplicity of mandatory and nonuniform technical requirements undermined "the ultimate workability of the over-all system," could have "a deleterious effect on the development of new cable services," and could "seriously imped[e]" the "development and marketing of signal source, transmission, and terminal equipment." Id. at 478-479.2

In 1984, the Court approved the pre-emptive authority that the Commission had asserted over the regulation of cable television systems. We held that in the Communications Act of 1934, Congress authorized the Commission "to regulate all aspects of interstate communication by wire or radio," including the subsequently developed medium of cable television, and that the Commission's authority "extends to all regulatory actions 'necessary to ensure the achievement of the Commission's statutory responsibilities.' " Crisp, supra, 467 U.S. at 700, 104 S.Ct. at 2701, quoting FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., 440 U.S. 689, 706, 99 S.Ct. 1435, 1444, 59 L.Ed.2d 692 (1979). Although the state law that was invalidated in Crisp regulated commercial advertising on

Page 61

cable television, rather than the technical quality of cable television signals, the Court recognized that for 10 years the Commission had "retained exclusive jurisdiction over all operational aspects of cable communication, including signal carriage and technical standards." Crisp, supra, 467 U.S. at 702, 104 S.Ct. at 2702.

A few months after the Court's decision in Crisp, Congress enacted the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Cable Act or Act), 98 Stat. 2780, 47 U.S.C. §§ 521-559 (1982 ed., Supp. IV). Among its objectives in passing the Cable Act, Congress purported to "establish a national policy concerning cable communications" and to "minimize unnecessary regulation that would impose an undue economic burden on cable systems." 47 U.S.C. §§ 521(1), (6) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). The Act was also intended to "establish guidelines for the exercise of Federal, State, and local authority with respect to the regulation of cable systems" through procedures and standards that "encourage the growth and development of cable systems and which assure that cable systems are responsive to the needs and interests of the local community." §§ 521(3), (2) (1982 ed., Supp. IV).

The Cable Act left franchising to state or local authorities; those authorities were also empowered to specify the facilities and equipment that franchisees were to use, provided such requirements were "consistent with this title." Cable Act, §§ 624(a), (b), 47 U.S.C. §§ 544(a), (b) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). Section 624(e) of the Cable Act provided that "[t]he Commission may establish technical standards relating to the facilities and equipment of cable systems which a franchising authority may require in the franchise." 47 U.S.C. § 544(e) (1982 ed., Supp. IV).

In 1985, the Commission promulgated regulations that would establish technical standards governing signal quality for one of four different classes of cable television channels and that would forbid local cable franchising authorities to impose their own standards on any of the four classes of channels. 50 Fed.Reg. 7801, 7802 (1985), 47 CFR pt. 76 (1986).

Page 62

The Commission eventually adopted a modified version of these regulations, which reaffirmed the...

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