In the case of United States v. Western Pacific Railroad Co. (352 U.S. 59 (1956)), the military was
shipping napalm and there was a dispute over how much Western Pacific could
charge. Even though shipping rates were established by the Interstate Commerce
Committee (ICC), Western Pacific took their case directly to Federal District
Court, instead of asking for adjudication through the ICC. The military wanted
the case heard by the ICC.
The US Supreme Court found
that the Federal District Court theoretically had the jurisdiction to hear
the case because it involved interstate commerce.
However, the Court found that
the case was better handled in the ICC.
The ICC possessed
acknowledged expertise in this issue and understood common trade
practices, so they should be allowed to make a pronouncement on the
Does it make a difference
if the Agency only has experts in the technical issue, and no experts in
the legal issue? (See Western Pacific Far East Conference v. United
States (342 U.S. 570 (1952)).
The Court ordered the Federal
District Court to drop the case, and invited the parties to take their
dispute to the ICC.
The Court noted that if a
party was not satisfied with the ICC decision, they could always appeal
in Federal Appellate Court.
Basically, the doctrine of primary jurisdiction requires that a dispute that fits within the
jurisdiction of an Administrative Agency should be taken first to that Agency,
even if the case in theory could be taken into court.
This decision was based on the
idea that the Administrative Agency's have greater technical expertise on
the issue. See also Texas & Pacific Railway v. Abilene Cotton Oil
Co. (204 U.S. 426 (1907)), which came
to the same conclusion, but was decided on the fact that a Federal Agency
can provide more uniformity to the law than a single Federal District