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April 22, 2013 8:00 AM, EDT

Editorial: Preserving Preemption

This Editorial appears in the April 22 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Now all we have to do is wait. American Trucking Associations made its best argument before the U.S. Supreme Court last week about why the Port of Los Angeles is violating a federal preemption law by trying to regulate motor carriers that serve the port.

Now the nine justices will mull the arguments from ATA, the port and other interested parties before rendering a decision that could affect the relationship between motor carriers and governmental agencies nationwide.

As the attorney representing ATA told the court, Los Angeles’ port is using its “full coercive power” to impose conditions on motor carriers that want to move freight through the facility despite what Congress decreed when it passed the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994.

That law prohibits state and local governments from creating or enforcing any “law, regulation or provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route or service of any motor carrier.”

Rather, the FAAAA reserves the right to regulate motor carriers for the federal government.

Congress did so, according to ATA’s counsel, because it wanted to “prevent state actions that impede the free flow of trade or that would result in a patchwork of requirements from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”

The Port of Los Angeles originally attempted to ban owner-operators from picking up or delivering freight. ATA sued to prevent that, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed and overturned the ban.

But the port also sought to impose other restrictions on carriers, such as forcing them to comply with requirements such as off-street parking bans and over the posting of placards on vehicles, and said it had the right to ban fleets that failed to comply.

ATA asked the court to set aside those rules as well, citing the FAAAA. The appeals court, however, ruled that the port was exempt from the law because in these instances it was acting as a business and not as a governmental agency.

The Supreme Court agreed to make two determinations in this appeal: whether the port is indeed a business and therefore not subject to federal preemption, and whether the port has the right to bar fleets that refuse to agree to the so-called concession agreement it requires of all motor carriers that operate there.

The lawyers have made their best arguments. Now we get to wait — probably until sometime this summer — to see how this case will end.