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 "modify" 203(a) 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 fashion."
      • 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 be neutral?
    • 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 meaning?