Legal News: DC Court Rejects FCC Net Neutrality Rule, Congress Considers Voting Rights Amendment Act

DC lawmakers and judges are back at work with vigor in the early part of 2014, and this week saw two developments in hot button issues that could have significant effect on the American public this year.  In the courtroom, a federal panel of judges made an important decision on the FCC’s net neutrality regulations, while on Capitol Hill, Congress has proposed legislation that seeks to reinstitute federal authority under the Voting Rights Act.

DC Federal Court Rejects FCC’s Net Neutrality Regulation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit handed down its ruling in Verizon v FCC, and in doing so the Court rejected the FCC’s “Open Internet Order” – commonly known as the net neutrality rule.  The net neutrality rule effectively prevented broadband internet providers from preventing access to certain sites or charging extra for internet users to visit particular websites like Netflix or Hulu that require significant bandwidth.  With the DC Court’s decision, proponents of net neutrality have expressed concern that internet providers have been given carte blanche to regulate broadband media usage, which could lead to significantly higher cable internet bills or blocked access to websites many have come to rely on.

Although the ruling seems like a blow to the Obama administration, which has loudly championed the net neutrality cause, and the FCC, it is interesting to note that within the decision the DC Court also granted the agency significant authority over broadband providers.  In fact, the decision rejected the provisions of the FCC’s net neutrality rule that forbid broadband regulation because the agency improperly classified internet providers – not because the net neutrality provisions themselves were improper.

The DC Court’s ruling actually provides a path towards net neutrality established on stronger footing by allowing the FCC authority to regulate the economic relationships with website content providers to the extent to which those relationships dictate how broadband providers charge for their services – providing the FCC classifies the broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  While broadband providers would fight being reclassified as common carriers under Title II, this ruling suggests that the FCC would have a strong argument to not only classify them as such, but to subsequently have authority to pass net neutrality regulations that would pass judicial review.  The immediate aftermath of the Verizon case will allow internet providers to block website access or upcharge for high broadband usage, but the FCC is not without course of action – even if it decides not to appeal the recent decision to the Supreme Court.

Congressional Lawmakers Introduce Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014

Last summer, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v Holder struck sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enabled the federal government to closely monitor voting laws passed by states with a history of voter discrimination.  Saying that the VRA used outdated methodology to identify which states required federal scrutiny, the High Court removed what many felt was a critical authority to ensure states with suspect histories did not repeat discriminatory behavior.

This week, a bipartisan collaboration of Congressmen has advanced the first attempt to regain federal authority to monitor state voting laws by proposing The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.  The VRAA first attempts to create a new coverage formula to identify what states the federal government can closely monitor by establishing the rule that any state with five violations of federal voting law over the past fifteen years will have to submit future voting legislation for federal review.  Although the amendment operates in fifteen year increments, the VRAA also proposes a section that allows any state in violation of the VRA to be included in certain circumstances.  Finally, the VRAA requires notification procedures designed to ensure citizens are aware of pending voting legislation, and the law makes it easier for citizens to oppose voting law in court.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 has a long road ahead of it with likely opponents on both sides of the aisle.  Democrats and voting rights activists have expressed concern that the new coverage formula does not extend to enough states (only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would earn federal scrutiny).  Small government conservatives who celebrated the Shelby decision typically oppose any measure that increases federal authority to review state law, and will likely stand against the VRAA on those principals.  Regardless of its future, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 sends a clear message that the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby was not the end of the issue, and the proposal exists as a sign that Congress will continue to focus on voting legislation through 2014 and beyond.

Update on Brain-Dead Mother Case

Last week we blogged about the tragic case of Marlise Munoz, the 33-year-old mother who is brain-dead and being kept on life support due to being 14 weeks pregnant when she suffered a pulmonary embolism.  This week, her husband, Erick Munoz, filed a lawsuit against the John Peter Smith Hospital that has cited Texas law in its decision to keep Ms. Munoz alive against her and her family’s end-of-life wishes.  The hospital has responded that it is legally required to continue life support, and the case will be heard sometime in the near future.

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