Federal Communications Commission v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co

Citation309 U.S. 134,60 S.Ct. 437,84 L.Ed. 656
Decision Date29 January 1940
Docket NumberNo. 265,265
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Robert H. Jackson, Sol. Gen., for petitioner.

Messrs. Charles D. Drayton and Eliot C. Lovett, both of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from page 135 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The court below issued a writ of mandamus against the Federal Communications Commission, and, because important issues of administrative law are involved, we brought the case here. 308 U.S. 535, 60 S.Ct. 107, 84 L.Ed. —-. We are called upon to ascertain and enforce the spheres of authority which Congress has given to the Commission and the courts, respectively, through its scheme for the regula- tion of radio broadcasting in the Communications Act of 1934, c. 652, 48 Stat. 1064, as amended by the Act of May 20, 1937, c. 229, 50 Stat. 189, 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., 47 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.

Adequate appreciation of the facts presently to be summarized requires that they be set in their legislative framework. In its essentials the Communications Act of 1934 derives from the Federal Radio Act of 1927, c. 169, 44 Stat. 1162, as amended, 46 Stat. 844. By this Act Congress, in order to protect the national interest involved in the new and far-reaching science of broadcasting, formulated a unified and comprehensive regulatory system for the industry.1 The common factors in the administration of the various statutes by which Congress had supervised the different modes of communication led to the creation, in the Act of 1934, of the Communications Commission. But the objectives of the legislation have remained substantially unaltered since 1927.

Congress moved under the spur of a widespread fear that in the absence of governmental control the public interest might be subordinated to monopolistic domination in the broadcasting field. To avoid this Congress provided for a system of permits and licenses. Licenses were not to be granted for longer than three years. Communications Act of 1934, Title iii, § 307(d). No license was to be 'construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license.' Ibid. § 301. In granting or withholding permits for the construction of stations, and in granting, denying modifying or revoking licenses for the operation of stations, 'public convenience, interest, or necessity' was the touchstone for the exercise of the Commission's authority. While this criterion is as concrete as the complicated factors for judgment in such a field of delegated authority permit, it serves as a supple instrument for the exercise of discretion by the expert body which Congress has charged to carry out its legislative policy. Necessarily, therefore, the subordinate questions of procedure in ascertaining the public interest, when the Commission's licensing authority is invoked—the scope of the inquiry, whether applications should be heard contemporaneously or successively, whether parties should be allowed to intervene in one another's proceedings, and similar questions—were explicitly and by implication left to the Commission's own devising, so long, of course, as it observes the basic requirements designed for the protection of private as well as public interest. Ibid., Title I, § 4(j), 47 U.S.C.A. § 154(j). Underlying the whole law is recognition of the rapidly fluctuating factors characteristic of the evolution of broadcasting and of the corresponding requirement that the administrative process possess sufficient flexibility to adjust itself to these factors. Thus, it is highly significant that although investment in broadcasting stations may be large, a license may not be issued for more than three years; and in deciding whether to renew the license, just as in deciding whether to issue it in the first place, the Commission must judge by the standard of 'public convenience, interest, or necessity.' The Communications Act is not designed primarily as a new code for the adjustment of conflicting private rights through adjudication. Rather it expresses a desire on the part of Congress to maintain, through appropriate administrative control, a grip on the dynamic aspects of radio transmission. 2

Against this background the facts of the present case fall into proper perspective. In May, 1936, The Pottsville Broadcasting Company, respondent here, sought from the Commission a permit under § 319 Ibid., Title iii, for the construction of a broadcasting station at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The Commission denied this application on two grounds: (1) that the respondent was financially disqualified; and (2) that the applicant did not sufficiently represent local interests in the community which the proposed station was to serve. From this denial of its application respondent appealed to the court below. That tribunal withheld judgment on the second ground of the Commission's decision, for it did not deem this to have controlled the Commission's judgment. But, finding the Commission's conclusion regarding the respondent's lack of financial qualification to have been based on an erroneous understanding of Pennsylvania law, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ordered the 'cause * * * remanded to the * * * Communications Commission for reconsideration in accordance with the views expressed.' Pottsville Broadcasting Co. v Federal Communications Commission, 69 App.D.C. 7, 98 F.2d 288.

Following this remand, respondent petitioned the Commission to grant its original application. Instead of doing so, the Commission set for argument respondent's application along with two rival applications for the same facilities. The latter applications had been filed subsequently to that of respondent and hearings had been held on them by the Commission in a consolidated proceeding, but they were still undisposed of when the respondent's case returned to the Commission. With three applications for the same facilities thus before it, and the facts regarding each having theretofore been explored by appropriate procedure, the Commission directed that all three be set down for argument before it to determine which, 'on a comparative basis' 'in the judgment of the Commission will best serve public interest.' At this stage of the proceedings, respondents sought and obtained from the Court of Appeals the writ of mandamus now under review. That writ commanded the Commission to set aside its order designating respondent's application 'for hearing on a comparative basis' with the other two, and 'to hear and reconsider the application' of The Pottsville Broadcasting Company 'on the basis of the record as originally made and in accordance with the opinions' of the Court of Appeals in the original review (69 App.D.C. 7, 98 F.2d 288), and in the mandamus proceedings. Pottsville Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, 70 App.D.C. 157, 105 F.2d 36.

The Court of Appeals invoked against the Commission the familiar doctrine that a lower court is bound to respect the mandate of an appellate tribunal and cannot reconsider questions which the mandate has laid at rest. See In re Sanford Fork & Tool Co., Petitioner, 160 U.S. 247, 255, 256, 16 S.Ct. 291, 293, 40 L.Ed. 414. That proposition is indisputable, but it does not tell us what issues were laid at rest. Compare Sprague v. Ticonic Bank, 307 U.S. 161, 59 S.Ct. 777, 83 L.Ed. 1184. Nor is a court's interpretation of the scope of its own mandate necessarily conclusive. To be sure the court that issues a mandate is normally the best judge of its content, on the general theory that the author of a document is ordinarily the authoritative interpreter of its purposes. But it is not even true that a lower court's interpretation of its mandate is controlling here. Compare United States v. Morgan, 307 U.S. 183, 59 S.Ct. 795, 83 L.Ed. 1211. Therefore, we would not be foreclosed by the interpretation which the Court of Appeals gave to its mandate, even if it had been directed to a lower court.

A much deeper issue, however, is here involved. This was not a mandate from court to court but from a court to an administrative agency. What is in issue is not the relationship of federal courts inter se—a relationship defined largely by the courts themselves—but the due observance by courts of the distribution of authority made by Congress as between its power to regulate commerce and the reviewing power which it has conferred upon the courts under Article III of the Constitution, U.S.C.A. A review by a federal court of the action of a lower court is only one phase of a single unified process. But to the extent that a federal court is authorized to review an administrative act, there is superimposed upon the enforcement of legislative policy through administrative control a different process from that out of which the administrative action under review ensued. The technical rules derived from the interrelationship of judicial tribunals forming a hierarchical system are taken out of their environment when mechanically applied to determine the extent to which Congressional power, exercised through a delegated agency, can be controlled within the limited scope of 'judicial power' conferred by Congress under the Constitution.

Courts, like other organisms, represent an interplay of form and function. The history of Anglo-American courts and the more or less narrowly defined range of their staple business have determined the basic characteristics of trial procedure, the rules of evidence, and the general principles of appellate review. Modern administrative tribunals are the outgrowth of conditions for different from those.3 To a large degree they have been a response to the felt need of governmental supervision over economic enterprise—a supervision which could effectively be exercised neither directly through self-executing legislation nor by the judicial...

To continue reading

Request your trial
541 cases
  • Pasco Terminals, Inc. v. United States
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (CCPA)
    • September 26, 1979
    ...96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976); Hannah v. Larche, supra, 363 U.S. at 443-444, 80 S.Ct. 1502; FCC v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, 143, 60 S.Ct. 437, 84 L.Ed. 656 (1940). Therefore, as previously indicated, when administrative agencies conduct nonadjudicative fact-finding in......
  • In re Schlesinger
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • July 18, 1961
    ... ... Schlesinger was a member of the ... Legal Commission of the Communist Party, he would be a ... Communist Party ... First Amendment of the Federal Constitution and the cognate ... section of the ... [172 ... by requisite findings of fact. Federal Communications ... Comm. v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, ... ...
  • Comtronics, Inc. v. Puerto Rico Tel. Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico
    • June 17, 1975
    .... . . and licenses . . . are limited to three years . . ." In short, as stated in Federal Communications Commission v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, 60 S.Ct. 437, 84 L.Ed. 656 (1940): "The Communications Act is not designed primarily as a new code for the adjustment of conflict......
  • Caswell v. Califano, No. 77-1514
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • August 16, 1978
    ...bear the ultimate responsibility for remedying problems in the administration of federal programs, See FCC v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, 60 S.Ct. 437, 84 L.Ed. 656 (1940); Cf. Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 98 S.C......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
  • Now You See It, Now You Don't: Free Air Time For Political Candidates?
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • July 13, 2001
    ...FCC regulatory activities for a variety of clients. Footnotes 1. The Chairman's statement cited as support FCC v. Pottsville Broad. Co., 309 U.S. 134, 138 (1940) (public interest standard of the Act a "supple instrument for the exercise of discretion by the expert body which Congress has ch......
9 books & journal articles
  • Administering the National Environmental Policy Act
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter No. 45-4, April 2015
    • April 1, 2015
    ...U.S. 340 (1984); FTC v. Standard Oil of Cal., 449 U.S. 232 (1980); Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99 (1977); FCC v. Pottsville Broad. Co., 309 U.S. 134 (1940); United States v. Los Angeles & S.L.R. Co., 373 U.S. 299, 308-13 (1927). On the gradual transition from jurisdictional and interpreti......
  • Agency Deference After Kisor v. Wilkie
    • United States
    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy No. 18-1, January 2020
    • January 1, 2020
    ...of the Administrator.”), but they did not hand the interpretive process over to an agency. 38. In FCC v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134 (1940), the Court wrote in a footnote that the FCC’s interpretation of an internal agency rule governing the timing of hearings was “binding upo......
  • The path of E-law: liberty, property, and democracy from the colonies to the Republic of Cyberia.
    • United States
    • Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal Vol. 24 No. 1, March 1998
    • March 22, 1998
    ...as amended at 47 U.S.C. [subsections] 151-613 (1994)). (163.) See id. (164.) Federal Communications Comm'n v. Pottsville Broad. Co., 309 U.S. 134, 137 (165.) See Gotts & Rutenberg, supra note 157, at 280. (166.) See id. (quoting 47 U.S.C. [sections] 201 (1994)). (167.) See Communication......
  • The battle for Portland, Maine.
    • United States
    • Federal Communications Law Journal Vol. 52 No. 1, December 1999
    • December 1, 1999
    ...1998) (No. 91-1248). (151.) Pottsville Brdcst. Co. v. FCC, 105 F.2d 36, 40-41 (D.C. Cir. 1939). (152.) See FCC v. Pottsville Brdcst. Co., 309 U.S. 134 (153.) Radio Act of 1927, ch. 169, 44 Stat. 1162 (1927) (repealed 1934 & 1966). (154.) Id. at 144. (155.) 47 U.S.C. [sections] 402 (1994......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT