Supreme Court Rejects Telecom Industry Calls To Hear Net Neutrality Case… For Now
from the round and round we go dept
Before Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and friends convinced the Trump FCC to ignore the public and kill net neutrality, they attempted to dismantle the rules legally. That effort didn’t go very well, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upholding the FCC’s Open Internet Order in June of 2016, and ISPs losing a subsequent en banc appeal. More specifically, the courts found that the former Wheeler-run FCC was well within its legal right to reclassify ISPs as common carriers under the Telecom Act.
But, last August, lawyers for the FCC and Department of Justice (at direct telecom industry behest) filed a brief (pdf) with the Supreme Court, urging it to vacate the 2016 court ruling that upheld the Wheeler-era net neutrality rules. The move was necessary, FCC lawyers claimed, because the FCC’s comically-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal had somehow “repudiated those factual and legal judgments.” If you watched as the FCC repealed net neutrality using little more than lobbyist fluff and nonsense, it should be fairly obvious to you that wasn’t true.
So what was the telecom industry and its BFFs in the Trump administration trying to do? They know their repeal of net neutrality was so filled with procedural missteps and outright fraud that they’re worried it will be overturned by next year’s net neutrality lawsuits, opening arguments for which begin in February. As such, they were hoping to undermine the established legal precedent supporting the 2015 rules in a bid to ensure they couldn’t and wouldn’t be restored.
That gambit hasn’t worked. The Supreme Court this week stated it wouldn’t be hearing the case (pdf). While the announcement states that Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch would have taken up the case, the Washington Post notes that John Roberts and newly-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh were required to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest, leaving the telecom industry without enough court backing to move forward:
Three of the Court’s justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil M. Gorsuch — would have voted to take up the case, according to the Court’s announcement, and overturn a lower court’s decision backing the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, which were originally passed in 2015. But there were not enough justices for a majority, after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh recused themselves. (Roberts’ financial disclosures show that he owns stock in Time Warner, which is now owned by AT&T under the name WarnerMedia, while Kavanaugh took part in the case as a judge in the lower court.)
As we’ve noted in the past, Kavanaugh was more than eager to support the telecom industry argument that net neutrality violated their First Amendment rights, despite the fact that’s obviously not true. While Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T lawyers claimed that blocking content and services amounts to an “editorial decision,” in reality, ISPs aren’t editors; they’re simply connecting people to services. Still, “net neutrality violated ISPs’ First Amendment rights” was an argument ISP lawyers basically threw at a wall to see if it would stick, and Kavanaugh was more than happy to agree.
Of course while the Supreme Court has refused to hear this case, they could be hearing future cases depending on how next year’s net neutrality lawsuits (filed by 23 State AGs and Mozilla) go. ISP lawyers have routinely claimed at this point that any state or federal attempt to hold them accountable for poor service or fraud is a violation of their First Amendment rights, and Kavanaugh’s sure to play an un-recused, starring role in many of these cases, one way or another.