MCI v. ATT 512 U.S. 218; 114 S. Ct. 2223; 129 L. Ed. 2d 182 (1994)
47 U.S.C. §203(a) says that all "common carriers" must
file tariffs with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). §203(b)(2) gives the FCC the authority to
"modify" any requirement of §203.
Basically §203(a) says that phone companies have to submit
public documents related to how they calculate their charges, and they
can't change their charges without public notice.
The FCC decided, that pursuant
to §203(b)(2) they were going to
by making it optional for nondominant long-distance carriers. A number of
phone companies sued for various reasons.
The US Supreme Court found
that the FCC did not have the authority to make §203(a) optional.
The US Supreme Court looked
at the definition of the word "modify" and found that it
generally meant to "change in an incremental or limited
Most dictionaries agreed
with the Court, but there was one that defined "modify" as
including making "basic or important changes."
The petitioners argued that the
courts must defer to the agency's choice among available dictionary
definitions, (see National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Boston and
Maine Corp., (503 U.S. 407)), but
the Court said that Boston and Maine was only appropriate when there was a genuine disagreement among
dictionaries and a number of accepted alternate meanings. In this case,
the vast majority of dictionaries supported the idea that
"modify" means a limited change.
In addition, the one
dictionary that said that "modify" included important changes
was not even in existence when 47 U.S.C. §203(a) was written.
The Court also looked to the
fact that §203(b) includes a
limitation that a nitpicky notice requirement could not be modified. The
Court reasoned that if the legislators could not have meant that §203(a) could be entirely eliminated but yet could
not be modified in a nitpicky way.
In a dissent it was argued
that dictionaries can be useful aides in statutory interpretation, but
they are no substitute for close analysis of what words mean as used in a
particular statutory context.
The dissent argued that the
basic intent of the Statute was to prevent monopolies in long distance
services. The dissent felt that FCCs proposal still left the general
purpose of the Statute intact, and therefore it was not as big of a
change as the majority suggested.
FCC's proposal "is
simply a relaxation of a costly regulatory requirement that recent
developments had rendered pointless and counterproductive in a certain
class of cases."
Since dictionaries are
privately published, is the judiciary abdicating their duty to interpret
the law in favor of a private company? Can dictionaries be counted on to
How should the courts
interpret a word whose meaning has changed over time? Is the meaning at
the time the legislation was written more important than the current