Award Winning Blog

Monday, January 11, 2010

Agency Deference or Strict Statutory Construction—Conflicting Case Precedent

Many observers expect the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the FCC’s attempt at fashioning federal Internet policy when it reprimanded Comcast for the company’s violation of the 4 Internet Freedoms. The Commission did not use a notice and comment rulemaking confident that it has both direct and ancillary jurisdiction to impose a policy statement that it subsequently construes as establishing enforceable rules.

In many reviews of bold and creative interpretations of the Commission’s statutory authority, courts seem to go out of their way to defer to agency expertise. But in other cases reviewing courts are sticklers for explicit statutory authority. How can one predict which model applies?

A good example of the deference model is Justice Thomas’ majority opinion in National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005) where the Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s classification of cable modem broadband access as an information service. A good example of the strict construction model are the several cases where the FCC sought to allow long distance carriers to withdraw tariffs even in the absence of legislative repeal of the explicit requirement that carriers file tariffs; see MCI Telecommunications Corp. v. FCC, 765 F.2d 1186 (D.C. Cir. 1985); American Tel. & Tel. Co. v. FCC, 978 F.2d 727 (D.C. Cir. 1992); MCI Telecommunications Corp. v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 512 U.S. 218 (1994).

It’s easy for an uncertain court to defer to agency expertise: what better way to avoid claims that the court has legislated from the bench. But it’s also easy and enticing for a court to rebuke an agency’s bold attempt to expand its regulatory wingspan. The FCC will claim that the Communications Act requires flexibility in light of technological innovation. But it’s predictable that a regulator can perceive the need to protect the public by interpreting a public interest mandate and broad authority to regulate wire and radio services to include the Internet, which we know is an amalgam of networks, but also content, applications and software.

How can a court hold a line or draw one between regulated Internet subjects and unregulated ones? The Commission, with approval by Justice Thomas, creates a sometimes metaphysical difference between carrier offering of telecommunications capabilities as a subordinate aspect of an information service and providing telecommunications services. Justice Thomas got into a war of competing analogies with his usual soul mate Justice Scalia who offered this skeptical assessment of the FCC’s jurisdictional claim: an “experienced agency can (with some assistance from credulous courts) turn statutory constraints into bureaucratic discretions,” reserving, for example, the option of regulating Internet content based on statutes offering absolutely no basis for anything beyond promoting Internet access.

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