Supreme Court Roundup: Decisions Involving Tow Truck Regulation, Canvassing Permits, Privacy

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Tow Trucks/Preemption: City Columbus v. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, (01-419.)

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that local governments can regulate tow truck operators for safety reasons, as long as the authority to do so is delegated by the state. City and county governments can now enact safety rules for the tow-truck business, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a decision that bolsters laws in dozens of cities. The ruling came in a fight over Columbus, Ohio, ordinances that require tow-truck operators to get a license and submit to an annual inspection for each truck.

A lower court had concluded that the 1995 U.S. Interstate Commerce Act bars states from delegating their power to enact safety regulations to local governments. The nation's highest court disagreed, saying the Columbus rules are permissible as long they cover safety issues. The Columbus rules also bar trucks from engaging in "chasing"--racing to the scone of an accident without being summoned in the hope of elbowing out competitors for the business.

The Interstate Commerce Act puts much of the trucking industry under exclusive federal jurisdiction. It makes an exception for the "safety regulatory authority of a state." The central question in the case was whether that phrase means a state must exercise its safety authority itself or instead can delegate it to local authorities. Ours Garage argued that local governments can set the rules only when they are purchasing services--for example, when they contract with a company to tow vehicles that were abandoned or in an accident. Most states give local governments broad authority to enact safety regulations on topics not already covered by statewide rules.

The justices handed Columbus city officials a major victory by ruling that federal law does not prevent them from regulating tow trucks. The justices overturned two decisions by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had invalidated safety regulations for tow trucks in Columbus and Toledo. The justices rejected an argument by Ours Garage and Wrecker Service of Licking County that federal law deregulating the trucking industry had freed them from being licensed by cities and villages. Ours Garage argued that only states, not cities, could regulate them for safety.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concluded that because Congress did not explicitly exempt tow trucks from local safety regulations, local communities could still require them to be licensed, obtain insurance and follow safety standards. Joining Ginsburg in the majority were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia dissented.

By deregulating intrastate trucking in 1994, Congress sought to eliminate the possibility that commercial trucks could face different regulatory schemes on mutes and prices from one municipality to another. But Congress was less clear on whether local governments could still issue safety regulations for trucks, including tow trucks.

The 1994 law asserted that deregulation would "not restrict the safety regulatory authority of a state." Even though the law explicitly mentioned state involvement in safety regulations, it didn't mention local governments. Ginsburg relied on the reasoning of the late Justice Byron White in a 1991 case, Wisconsin Public Intervenor vs. Mortier. White wrote, "We start with the assumption that the historic police powers of the states were not to be superseded by federal law "unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress."

Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia are among the cities that have similar tow-truck rules. Lower courts around the country had split on the validity of those ordinances.

Public Safely/First Amendment: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society vs. Village of Stratton (00-1737).

In an 8-to-1 decision, the high court said a municipal ordinance enforced by the Village of Stratton, Ohio, was unconstitutional because it infringed on the right to free speech and religion by requiring door-to-door "canvassers" to first go to the mayor's office and fill out an application for a free permit. …