Thursday, May 31, 2012

Court Dismisses Challenge to Amtrak's Authority to Develop Standards

Judge James E. Boasberg (D.D.C.) rejected the plaintiff's claims that Congress improperly delegated authority to Amtrak to develop and enforce passanger railway standards in violation of due process and nondelegation principles and granted summary judgment to the government in Association of American Railroad v. Department of Transportation.  The ruling affirms Amtrak's role in standard-making under the Passenger Railroad Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 and upholds Section 207 of that Act.

Section 207 requires the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak to jointly develop standards to evaluate the performance of Amtrak's intercity passenger trains.  It says:

[T]he Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak shall jointly, in consultation with the Surface Transportation Board, rail carriers over whose rail lines Amtrak trains operate, States, Amtrak employees, nonprofit employee organizations representing Amtrak employees, and groups representing Amtrak passengers, as appropriate, develop new or improve existing metrics and minimum standards for measuring the performance and service quality of intercity passenger train operations, including . . . on-time performance and minutes of delay . . . .

Under the Act, if the STB determines that Amtrak's failure to meet the standards is attributable to a rail carrier's failure to provide preference to Amtrak over freight transportation--that is, if a freight train makes an Amtrak train late--the STB may award damages against the host rail carrier.  (Amtrak leases the rail lines that it uses from freight rail carriers.)

The AAR, representing its member freight rail carriers, sued the DOT, arguing that Section 207 violated due process, because it allowed a private, interested party, Amtrak, to regulate other industry participants.  The AAR also argued that Section 207 effected an unconstitutional delegation of regulatory authority to a private entity.

The claims assumed that Amtrak was a private corporation--and the case thus turned on that assumption in the first instance.  But Judge Boasberg, drawing on Lebron v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation (1995), concluded that Amtrak was a governmental entity, at least as to the due process claim.  Here's what he wrote:

The two hallmarks of government control that the Lebron Court found decisive--namely, that Amtrak was created by special law for the furtherance of governmental objectives and that the government retained the authority to appoint a majority of directors--moreover, has not changed.  Indeed, when Lebron was decided, the President appointed only six of Amtrak's nine directors; he now appoints eight of the nine.   The government, moreover, retains more than 90% of Amtrak's stock, appropriates for Amtrak more than a billion dollars annually, and sets salary limits for Amtrak's employees.  In addition, Amtrak is required to submit annual reports to Congress and the President.

Op. at 11-12.  Because Amtrak is a government entity, Judge Boasberg concluded, Congress did not delegate rulemaking authority to a private entity in violation of due process.

As to the delegation claim, Judge Boasberg concluded that Amtrak's status as a private corporation or government entity didn't matter, because the government retained ultimate control over the standards (even if Amtrak was involved in the process).  

While the AAR is correct that [Section 207] in a sense makes Amtrak the FRA's equal--as opposed to its subordinate--Amtrak cannot promulgate the Metrics and Standards without the agency's approval. . . .

Conditioning regulation on a private party's assent . . . is not constitutionally problematic.  Indeed, the Supreme Court has reasoned that through such schemes the government "merely place[s] a restriction upon its own" ability to regulate.

Op. at 18-19.

SDS

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