Stirk Holdings v. FCC — agency / telecom — vacate and remand — Ambro
Here is the remarkable introduction to Judge Ambro’s remarkable opinion today scolding the FCC:
Twelve years have passed since we first took up challenges to the broadcast ownership rules and diversity initiatives of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”). In some respects the Commission has made progress in the intervening years. In key areas, however, it has fallen short. These shortcomings are at the center of this dispute—the third (and likely not the last) round in a protracted battle over the future of the nation’s broadcast industry. Specifically, the parties present challenges to the Commission’s “eligible entity” definition, its Quadrennial Review process, and its rule on television joint sales agreements.
Although courts owe deference to agencies, we also recognize that, “[a]t some point, we must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough.” Public Citizen Health Research Group v. Chao, 314 F.3d 143, 158 (3d Cir. 2002) (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted). For the Commission’s stalled efforts to promote diversity in the broadcast industry, that time has come. We conclude that the FCC has unreasonably delayed action on its definition of an “eligible entity”—a term it has attempted to use as a lynchpin for initiatives to promote minority and female broadcast ownership—and we remand with an order for it to act promptly.
Equally troubling is that nearly a decade has passed since the Commission last completed a review of its broadcast ownership rules. These rules lay the groundwork for how the broadcast industry operates and have major implications for television, radio, and newspaper organizations. Although federal law commands the Commission to conduct a review of its rules every four years, the 2006 cycle is the last one it has finished; the 2010 and 2014 reviews remain open. Several broadcast owners have petitioned us to wipe all the rules off the books in response to this delay—creating, in effect, complete deregulation in the industry. This is the administrative law equivalent of burning down the house to roast the pig, and we decline to order it. However, we note that this remedy, while extreme, might be justified in the future if the Commission does not act quickly to carry out its legislative mandate.
Whereas the first two issues before us involve agency delay, the third is a challenge to agency action. The Commission regulates the number of television stations a company can own. In 2014, it determined that parties were evading its ownership limits through the influence exerted by advertising contracts known as joint sales agreements. As a result, it created a rule designed to address this perceived problem. However, we conclude that the Commission improperly enacted the rule; hence we vacate it and remand the matter to the Commission.
Ambro was joined by Fuentes; Scirica dissented in part because he would have gone further and ordered the FCC to issue its 2010 quadrennial review within 6 months. Arguing counsel were David Gossett for the FCC, and Helgi Walker of Gibson Dunn, Patrick Philbin of Kirkland & Ellis, and Georgetown Law professor Angela Campbell for various petitioners/intervenors.
United States v. Nerius — criminal sentencing — affirmance — Shwartz
Jean Nerius was convicted of two crimes. He was classified as a career offender at sentencing, resulting in a sentencing guidelines range of 37 to 46 months. Although his pre-sentencing prison-discipline record was bad, the judge sentenced him at the bottom of that range, 37 months. But the career-offender designation was error, so Nerius was resentenced. This time his guideline range was 30 to 37 months. And since his original sentencing his disciplinary record had been spotless. But this time the sentencing judge sentenced him to 36 months, near to top end of the guideline range and just one month less he’d gotten than when he was deemed a career offender.
On appeal, Nerius argued that his new sentence was presumptively vindictive — that the sentencing judge should be presumed to have punished him for winning his first appeal by going from a bottom-of-the-old-range sentence to an-almost-top-of-the-new-range sentence, when the only thing that had apparently changed since the first sentencing (besides the fact that he was no longer deemed a career offender) was that he’d been a model prisoner for the past two years.
Today, the Third Circuit rejected Nerius’s argument and affirmed his sentence. The panel said that no presumption of vindictiveness applies because the new sentence was shorter than the old one, period. The fact that the sentence went from the bottom of the guideline range to near the top, with no intervening bad acts, did not trigger the presumption.
If you believe that sentencing judges put much stock in guidelines ranges and career-offender designations, you’re more likely to think this ruling is unjust. If you don’t, well, you probably don’t. In that vein, it’s interesting that the panel consisted of two former district judges and one former magistrate judge.
Joining Shwartz was Smith and Hardiman. The case was decided without oral argument.