Sometimes the law is clear. Sometimes it isn’t.
While that seems obvious, we often miss it in policy debates. But it is rather important to keep in mind when reading Tennessee v. FCC. In a case released August 10, the Sixth Circuit reversed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2015 Order preempting restrictions the state of Tennessee and the state of North Carolina imposed on their municipalities with regard to providing broadband service. While Commissioners Pai and O’Reilly are certainly entitled to their victory laps, it is equally important to applaud Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn for doing what they believed was both the right policy and the right call under the law. The petitions from the City of Wilson, NC and from the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, TN raised novel questions of law. The FCC’s Order was a test case. On a very narrow and murky legal question, the FCC majority bet wrong — at least according to the 6th Circuit.
For myself, not surprisingly, I thought the FCC majority had the better argument. But I can’t say the Sixth Circuit was utterly wrong in holding the contrary. The limits of the Tenth Amendment and preemption power are generally unclear. The interpretation of Section 706 (47 U.S.C. 1302) as providing authority to the FCC remains relatively undefined. Based on the language in the dissent in Verizon v. FCC, which inspired munibroadband proponents to bring the petition and support the case, it looked like a good shot. Similarly, the facts of the case — already existing munibroadband providers, clear demand for them to expand their services, a willingness to expand service but for the relevant state laws restricting service — made this a favorable fact pattern.
Unfortunately, sometimes the best bet in the world doesn’t pay off. But that is why people bring test cases — to try to resolve questions in the law that move policy in the direction those bringing the case favor. It is neither an overreach nor illegal for Petitioners to bring test cases, to have an agency resolve them, and for the agency and those who brought the petition to the agency to defend them in court. To the contrary, this is how the rule of law works under the principles of the common law.
I stress this point because whether you bring conservative test cases to challenge laws and test limits or progressive cases to challenge laws and test limits — or cases that don’t easily fit in the conservative/progressive paradigm — we want agencies to actually address these cases in a timely fashion. As I remarked many years ago, when the FCC’s efforts to encourage competition in the 700 MHz auction resulted in a mixed result, we need agencies to be willing to actually address novel circumstances and try new things because otherwise the law will ossify and we lose one of the most important elements of administrative law, the ability of an agency to respond to changing circumstances and provide a suitable record for Congressional action where necessary.
Bellow, I give a brief recap of the case and a forecast on what comes next for the muni broadband movement . . .