Monday, November 10, 2014
Irony alert: Justices miffed by rulings without reasons
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices who recently handed down several important rulings without reasons issued a warning Monday to local governments dealing with cell tower siting decisions: Do as we say, not as we do.
During oral arguments in a case that could affect zoning decisions for cell towers nationwide, a majority of justices clearly felt it was unjust for local governments to deny applications from wireless companies without explanations.
"What's the big deal of having a city council say, 'We deny this request for the following reasons: one, two, three?' " Justice Antonin Scalia asked.
Ironically, the justices also appeared miffed during their second case of the day when presented with a collective bargaining agreement that did not state clearly whether retiree health benefits should vest for life or be contingent on each new contract.
"Whoever loses deserves to lose for casting this upon us, when it could have been said very clearly in the contract" Scalia said of the ambiguous labor agreement.
The back-to-back arguments, though not raising huge issues, were notable to court-watchers for the same reason. They showed how a lack of clarity in communications or contracts can lead to lengthy legal disputes, even landing at the Supreme Court.
But the court may be the last body that should be demanding clarity. In the past few weeks, it has decided or refused to hear cases on voting rights, abortion clinics and same-sex marriage without explaining why.
In the first case Monday, the wireless company T-Mobile South challenged a lower court's ruling that the city of Roswell, Ga., met the requirements of the Federal Telecommunications Act by denying the cell tower application without offering reasons. Instead, it referred the company to the minutes and transcript of its meeting.
Jeffrey Fisher, the Stanford University law professor representing the company, said many potential reasons could be gleaned from those documents, but the letter of denial didn't specify which was paramount.
"All we want to know is why the application was denied," he said.
At first, most of the justices appeared to contend that the reasons could come in almost any form, as long as the company was given time to appeal the city's decision. But as the argument wore on, it became clear that most of the alternatives would result in complex requirements too difficult for small municipalities to follow.
"Everyone loves cellphones, apparently. Nobody likes towers, apparently," Justice Stephen Breyer said. "If we don't have simplicity, we'll have 2 million different ways of going about this between different cities and counties."
The contract dispute over retiree health benefits proved even more problematic for the justices. Both M&G Polymers USA, a chemical company, and its former employees agreed the language in their collective bargaining agreement was ambiguous. That led several justices to suggest the case be sent back to the federal appeals court.
"Both sides want to argue the same thing," Breyer said.