WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed to hear the trucking industry’s challenge to the Clean Truck Program at the Port of Los Angeles in a case testing whether cities and states have any authority to limit pollution from trucks that help move long-haul cargo.
The industry is fighting regulations that Los Angeles adopted five years ago to reduce air pollution for trucks that move in and out of the nation’s busiest port. Similar rules apply to the neighboring Port of Long Beach.
The justices said Friday that they would hear the case of American Trucking Assn. vs. City of Los Angeles in the spring and rule by July.
The L.A. rules required trucking firms to enter into agreements with the port authority that included provisions regarding the maintenance of trucks, off-street parking and posted placards that display identifying information.
Separately, the Port of Los Angeles included a controversial rule that would require all drivers eventually to become employees of trucking firms, rather than independent contractors.
The American Trucking Assn. sued over the L.A. rules, contending that the local regulations violated the federal law that deregulated motor carriers. One provision of the federal law blocks, or preempts, any state or local measure that is “related to the price, route or service of any motor carrier.”
The aim of the federal law was to speed the free flow of trucks, buses and other shippers and to prevent local or state rules that would add to their costs.
In the past, the Supreme Court has given this federal law a broad interpretation.
In 2008, the court unanimously threw out measures in Maine and several other states that warned shippers and delivery services, such as United Parcel Service Inc., against delivering packages that contained cigarettes to minors.
In that case, the states argued they had the authority to bar retailers from selling cigarettes to minors. But Justice Stephen Breyer, who as a Senate aide worked on the deregulation measures, said Congress meant to prohibit states from imposing any such regulations on shippers.
So far, the Los Angeles regulations have fared well. U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder in Los Angeles rejected the trucking industry’s preemption challenge in 2010.
And last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed her decision and upheld all the regulations, except the rule restricting independent contractors. 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.
But the Obama administration’s lawyers poked a hole in that theory.
“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.
He 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. Still, Verrilli advised the court to steer clear of the Los Angeles case because the regulations had little significance.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined the trucking industry in urging the court to hear the case and to hold the line against regulation of truckers by cities or states.
“This continues to be a hard-fought battle against an industry clinging to its polluting practices,” said Melissa Lin Perrella, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The Clean Truck Program at the Port of L.A. has dramatically reduced harmful air pollution,” she said, “but it won’t stay that way unless the trucking companies step up and shoulder the necessary costs of upkeep and care.”