Focus Areas:    FCC | FCC Reform | federal communications commission

Amicus Brief, DANIEL BERNINGER v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION, SCOTUS

INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

This case raises significant questions about the thoroughness with which a court must review agency decisionmaking—or the extent to which a court may instead defer to that decisionmaking—when the agency has reversed a prior policy determination in the absence of a change in applicable law.

The Open Internet Order (“OIO”) issued by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) presents such a policy reversal. The FCC ostensibly rooted the OIO in sufficient factual and legal analysis, but closer examination reveals that the OIO is based upon implausible factual assertions, questionable factual reinterpretations, and the strategic disavowal of long-defended statutory interpretation, all in support of a radical change in federal telecommunications policy that raises questions of vast economic and political significance.

Nevertheless, as discussed in Part I, the D.C. Circuit opinion affirming the OIO reflexively afforded substantial deference to the FCC, declining to consider serious questions about the reasonableness or permissibility of the FCC’s decisionmaking process. That decision is both in tension with this Court’s precedents and, more, raises exceptionally important and previously unaddressed questions about this Court’s precedents on judicial review of agency changes of policy.

As discussed in Part II, recent empirical work suggests that there are systematic problems with judicial review of agency changes in policy. These problems—respecting the substantive quality of agency and judicial decisions as well as judicial understanding of, or compliance with, this Court’s precedents governing such review—have led to consistently inconsistent review of agency policy changes in the circuit courts. Judicial review of agency policy changes thus presents a certiorari doublewhammy: there is a need for this Court to clarify existing precedent regarding judicial review of such policy changes and to address inconsistent application of that precedent, as well as for this Court to consider whether evidence of systematically problematic decisionmaking when agencies change policies militates in favor of a more searching standard of review.

Part III discusses how the D.C. Circuit and the Commission’s OIO implicate these concerns.

A new article by Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule highlights the exceptional significance of this issue. See Cass R. Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, The Morality of Administrative Law, HARV. L. REV. (forthcoming 2018). In discussing empirical evidence collected by Professors Kent Barnett and Christopher Walker (discussed in Part II), Sunstein and Vermeule note that there is a “discrepancy between the law on the books and the law in action” when it comes to how courts review changes in agency policy. Id. (manuscript at 24) (https://papers.srn.com/abstract_id=3050722).

In National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), this Court held that an agency’s alteration of policy is not grounds for heightened scrutiny. Id. at 981 (“Agency inconsistency is not a basis for declining to analyze the agency’s interpretation under the Chevron framework. Unexplained inconsistency is, at most, a reason for holding an interpretation to be an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice under the Administrative Procedure Act.”). But, as Sunstein and Vermeule observe, “Brand X notwithstanding, the Court just isn’t particularly clear or consistent about the role of consistency under Chevron.” Sunstein & Vermeule, supra (manuscript at 23-24 n.159).

Indeed, “[a]t the level of individual cases, although no subsequent case has denied the rule expressly laid out in Brand X, opinions have occasionally adverted to consistency as a Chevron factor—including opinions for the Court.” Id. (ms. at 23). Moreover, contrary to the rule laid out in Brand X, “[a]t the level of large-N research, recent work by Chris Walker and Kent Barnett shows that judges in fact tend to defer more heavily to consistent agency interpretations.” Id. (ms. at 23-24).

In this instance, it seems likely that the policy under review will reverse course yet again, with the agency returning to the pre-OIO interpretation of the
law and issuing new rules consistent with that interpretation. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the FCC could reverse the OIO as soon as December of this year. Under ordinary circumstances this would appear to moot, or at least substantially lessen, the concerns raised by petitioners here.

But the foreseeability of significant administrative policy changes—in this case and elsewhere—abetted by the precedent of substantial deference established in this case, militates in favor of the Court granting
certiorari. Should the FCC reverse the OIO, it is a foregone conclusion that supporters of the current order will challenge that reversal in a proceeding that will raise many of the same legal concerns currently at issue. The issuance of a new rule will thus not moot the issues in this case, but simply raise the precise issues yet again. Indeed, without clear guidance from this Court, there is every reason to believe the process will become an endless feedback loop—in the case of this regulation and others—at great cost not only to regulated entities and their consumers, but also to the integrity of the regulatory process.

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