The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) of a lower court decision that requires trucks entering the Port of Los Angeles to comply with certain environmental, safety and security requirements. 

Initiated by ATA against the City of Los Angeles, the 2008 lawsuit—filed the same year as the Port’s Clean Trucks Program was set up-- disputes the authority of the Port to set air certain quality, safety and security standards for trucking operations at the Port.

A ruling in September 2011 by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had affirmed a district court’s decision in August 2010 that the financial-capability, vehicle-maintenance, off-street parking and placard provisions (for permitted trucks) of the Clean Trucks plan for drayage operations are not preempted by federal law regarding interstate commerce. 

On the other hand, that ruling struck down the plan’s employee-driver provision, which would have required trucking companies operating at the Port to hire truck drivers as employees (as opposed to using independent contractors), by finding that requirement did preempt federal law. 

“The Supreme Court only takes a small portion of the cases that it is request to review, so [this development] is significant,” Richard Pianka, ATA vp & general counsel, told FleetOwner. “We expect our case will go on court’s calendar in the third week of April and it will most likely issue an opinion by the end of June.”

Pianka pointed out that “with the employee-driver provision having been thrown out and the City of Los Angeles having not challenged that, only the four other provisions [that ATA brought suit over] remain at issue.

“ATA has not challenged other aspects of the Port’s Clean Trucks Plan,” he added. Pianka said these included the phasing out of older trucks to reduce emissions at the Port, which he said has been effective and supported by ATA.

For any attempt at “gaming” what the Supreme Court may rule, it is instructive to consider that in the 2011 ruling, as noted in a news item posted by the Los Angeles Times, “the appellate judges said the rules at issue were not like ordinary laws governing motor carriers in Los Angeles, but rather special rules involving vehicles operating in the city's port facility.”

However, as LA Times reporter David G. Savagepointed out in that piece, a hole was “poked in that theory” by lawyers for the Obama administration: "A container port like the Port of Los Angeles is … akin to a publicly managed transportation infrastructure, like a highway or a bridge," U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. told the justices in a brief filed in November, according to Savage’s news story.

“He [Verilli] said it could pose a problem at ports and other facilities across the nation if cities were free to impose restrictions on truckers who operate in publicly owned facilities,” Savage reported. “Still, Verrilli advised the court to steer clear of the Los Angeles case because the regulations had little significance.”

“The Port's rules challenged by ATA, which range from a requirement that carriers display Port-mandated information on the sides of trucks entering and leaving the Port, to a requirement that trucks conform to the Port’s off-street parking rules even when not on Port property, have nothing to do with improving air quality,” ATA president & CEO Bill Graves said in a statement. “We are pleased the Supreme Court will review the erroneous decision of the appellate court.

“ATA has challenged these provisions because we believe they are incompatible with Congress’ command that state and local governments may not regulate motor carrier decisions relating to prices, routes and services,” he continued. “Our objections to the Port's program have always been business-related, and not, as certain reactionary groups have asserted, out of a desire to cling to polluting ways.”

Graves noted that under the Clean Truck Program, the trucking industry and the Port have “succeeded in working together” to replace older trucks to cut emissions at the Port.

“We are proud to have participated in a program that improved air quality,” he stated. “That success means there is no need to interfere with Congress’ intention that the motor carrier industry be shaped by the forces of competition, under a uniform federal regulatory environment, and not by state and local governments that have their own ideas about how the industry should be structured.

“ATA is confident that the Supreme Court – which has repeatedly instructed that Congress’s deregulatory and preemptive intent is to be construed broadly – will agree,” Graves added.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has intervened to defend the Port’s program on behalf of itself, the Sierra Club and the Coalition for Clean Air, has characterized the opposition to the Clean Trucks plan as “industry attacks seeking to significantly weaken a program that delivers environmental and public health benefits through diesel pollution reduction measures.”

“This continues to be a hard-fought battle against an industry clinging to its polluting practices,” Melissa Lin Perrella, NRDC senior attorney, remarked in a statement issued regarding the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the case.

“The clean truck program at the Port of LA has dramatically reduced harmful air pollution from port trucking,” Perrella added, “but it won’t stay that way unless trucking companies step up and shoulder the necessary costs of upkeep and care. The Port’s clean truck program requires just that.”