482 U. S. 270
June 8, 1987
In 1982, the ICC approved a complex railroad merger deal. In the deal, three railroads combined into one, and two other railroads would be given track rights for long stretches of the new mega-railway. When these two other railroads used the track, their own employees would drive the engines. Employees of the newly formed mega-railroad objected, but they objected several months after the fact. The ICC declined to grant their petition for clarification, and then refused to reconsider that decision. The railroaders then tried to appeal these ICC’s refusals in federal court. The dispute was whether these refusals were even reviewable.
In a 5-4 decision, Scalia wrote that the refusals were not reviewable. The critical fact was that the ICC did not formally address the merits of the railroaders, but twice refused to formally re-open the case. Although the ICC did provide some written reasons in support of this refusal, the formal action was the relevant fact for review-ability. Scalia asserted that, in the absence of new evidence, or change in circumstances, it was not wise to allow courts to second guess administrative decisions to leave cases closed, since it would make finality very difficult. He also showed that the railroaders were not really interested in “clarification” when they filed the petition for one, but only wanted to re-open the case.
Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, concurred in the final judgment that the railroaders lost. He showed that the ICC’s refusals were not arbitrary, or clearly erroneous, because the railroaders had failed to raise their claims and arguments at the proper time. Close legal analysis proved that all the rules were followed by the ICC in crafting the original 1982 order. Nonetheless, Stevens did not join the majority because he thought that federal courts were free to review the ICC’s judgments just as he did. He cited a long list of cases where courts had found jurisdiction to consider an administrative agency’s refusal to re-open a case, and found it irrelevant that all of these cases involved new evidence or change of circumstances. Refusal to allow for judicial review in the absence of those factors struck him as a rule of pure judicial invention. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (this is another one of those eyes-glaze-over cases for me), but even if it is, I have to say it’s a darn good one – finality is indeed a too much neglected value in law.