December 10, 2014
WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court wrestled Monday with a task that may be beyond its control: making the trains run on time.
standards that Amtrak, the nation's passenger railway, helped to create
in 2010 certainly moved in that direction. But when a federal appeals
court negated them last year, performance dropped. The federal
government wants them reinstated.
At least half the justices
appeared to agree with the lower court, rather than the government, on
the case's crucial point: Amtrak, they said, was a quasi-private
corporation that shouldn't be allowed to write the rules of the
An equal number of justices appeared to disagree,
arguing that the government created Amtrak, funds it and appoints most
of its board members. As such, they said, the government can delegate
power without violating the Constitution's "non-delegation principle" or
due process clause.
How the court decides the issue could have a
major impact on the quality of passenger and freight rail service. If
Amtrak can set standards, it can establish priority over the private
freight railroads on the other side of the legal dispute. If it lacks
such authority, freight service would have greater influence.
court's more conservative justices seemed to side with the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which ruled last year that Congress
cannot delegate such broad power to Amtrak.
"That's a significant
regulatory impact, to tell railroads I, a private party, get to start a
governmental proceeding, and you have to show up to defend it.," Chief
Justice John Roberts said.
"Suppose that the government, together
with auto manufacturer 'A,' made standards, but then auto manufacturers
'B' and 'C' had to follow them," Justice Anthony Kennedy said. "That
seems wrong. Why is this different?"
The more liberal justices
appeared to side with the government. Justice Stephen Breyer said it's
not unusual for private entities with expertise to be granted power to
set standards for their industries, such as those that oversee the
Internet. Several of his colleagues virtually equated Amtrak with the
"It's entirely funded by Congress. All the members of
the board are appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of
the Senate, save one," Justice Elena Kagan said. "Other than this
label, what suggests that this is not the government?"