During oral arguments on Monday, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court debated the interpretation of a 1934 Communications Act provision that requires state and local governments to explain any decision that denies a request for wireless tower siting “in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in the written record.”
In the case, which pits T-Mobile US against the City of Roswell, Georgia, the high court is considering whether it should overturn a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the city’s decision to inform T-Mobile of the denial of the carrier’s request to build a 108-foot cellular transmission tower by providing T-Mobile with a general letter of rejection that was later followed with the minutes of the city council’s hearing. Asserting that parties are given a 30-day statutory deadline to appeal a tower siting denial, counsel for T-Mobile told the justices that if the city had released another document that “was contemporaneously available” and that clearly spelled out the reasons for the denial, “we think that would be enough” to satisfy Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) of the Communications Act.
While counsel for Roswell maintained that the city had satisfied statutory requirements by denying the application and referring T-Mobile to the minutes of the corresponding city council meeting, several justices raised questions about the lag time between the denial and the release of the minutes. In reply to a question by Justice Anthony Kennedy, counsel for Roswell suggested that the meeting minutes should represent the final act of denial that would trigger the start of the 30- day appeal period and that the initial letter of denial should serve only as a notification of that denial. A representative of the U.S. Solicitor General countered, however, that the reasons for a siting denial must be provided at the same time the request is denied, even if Congress does not require those reasons to be outlined in a letter notification. Despite agreeing that the 30-day clock should start when the meeting minutes are released, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cautioned that arguments in favor of providing a reason at the same time as denial may be “inserting something into the statute that is not there.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, meanwhile, stressed that “there’s no requirement of a notification letter” as “there’s just that provision that any decision shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence.” Pointing to “all of these examples,” however, Justice Elena Kagan observed: “don’t they only suggest that a state or a locality would be well advised to write up a little paragraph that clearly states its reasons?”