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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Justices Sideline Agency in Ruling for T-Mobile

WASHINGTON (CN) - The denial to T-Mobile South of a cellphone tower in Roswell, Ga., failed to comply with the law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Next month it will mark five years since T-Mobile filed its request to build a 108-foot tower on 2.8 acres of vacant property "in a well-established residential neighborhood" of Roswell.

As an alternative to building on Lake Charles Drive, T-Mobile proposed masking the tower as a man-made tree, or monopine, standing up to 25 feet higher than surrounding pine trees.

Public opposition also led the telecom to renew its request to lease public property near the fire station, but Roswell shot it down.

The city's planning and zoning division supported the Lake Charles Drive plan with three recommended conditions, but the city council rejected the application and T-Mobile file suit.

Though a federal judge had granted T-Mobile an injunction under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the 11th Circuit reversed in 2013 after considering whether the permit denial complied with the "in writing" requirement of the TCA.

Finding that it did not, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of T-Mobile on Wednesday.

The TCA requires simply that a locality makes its reasons clear and provides them to the applicant, either in the denial letter or notice itself, or in some other written record at the same time.

"In this case, the city provided its reasons in writing and did so in the acceptable form of detailed minutes of the City Council meeting," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. "The city, however, did not provide its written reasons essentially contemporaneously with its written denial. Instead, the city issued those detailed minutes 26 days after the date of the written denial and just 4 days before petitioner's time to seek judicial review would have expired. The city therefore did not comply with its statutory obligations. We do not consider questions regarding the applicability of principles of harmless error or questions of remedy, and leave those for the Eleventh Circuit to address on remand."

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor's majority opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Alito described some "traditional administrative law principles," other than the requirement that agencies give reasons, that apply to Congress' use of the term "substantial evidence."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined a dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts that says nowhere in the statute does it say that a municipality must provide its written record on roughly the same day as the denial.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented separately and joined as to Part I of the Roberts dissent.

His opinion blasts the court's apparent "eagerness" to reach beyond the statute.

"We have been unwilling to impose procedural requirements on federal agencies in the absence of statutory command, even while recognizing that an agency's failure to make its decisions known at the time it acts may burden regulated parties," the brief dissent states.

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