Supreme Court Lets Mexican Trucks Roll

In its recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court established that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) must grant operating authority to domestic and foreign carriers who meet the fit, willing, and able criteria established by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. FMCSA is not able to enforce environmental rules except as they apply to safety. Writing the unanimous court opinion in Department of Transportation vs. Public Citizen, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said that the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) imposes only procedural requirements on federal agencies to undertake analysis of the environmental impact of their proposals and actions. FMCSA did not violate the NEPA or the Council of Environmental Quality regulations when it issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) stating it found no significant impact would result from permitting cross-border operations of Mexican motor carriers. The ruling stated that FMCSA has no ability to countermand the President's decision to lift the moratorium that had blocked Mexican carriers from applying for and receiving operating authority nor to act categorically to prevent Mexican carriers from registering and Mexican trucks from entering the country.

"FMCSA simply lacks the power to act on whatever information might be contained in the Environmental Impact Statement," wrote Justice Thomas. He noted FMCSA must certify any motor carrier that can show that it is willing and able to comply with the various substantive requirements for safety and financial responsibility contained in Department of Transportation regulations. Only the moratorium established in 1982 when the U.S. Congress prohibited Mexican motor carriers from obtaining operating authority within the U.S. had stood in the way of FMCSA issuing operating authority to Mexican carriers. "Importantly, FMCSA has only limited discretion regarding motor vehicle carrier registration: It must grant registration to all domestic or foreign motor carriers that are 'willing and able to comply with' the applicable safety, fitness, and financial-responsibility requirements," said the Court opinion. "FMCSA has no statutory authority to impose or enforce emissions controls or to establish environmental requirements unrelated to motor carrier safety."

In 1982, the U.S. Congress imposed a moratorium on motor carriers domiciled in Canada and Mexico blocking their ability to obtain operating authority in the U.S. in response to what it perceived as discriminatory treatment of U.S. motor carriers. Congress authorized the President to extend the two-year moratorium if Canada or Mexico continued to interfere with U.S. carriers, and it authorized the President to lift or modify the moratorium in the national interest. The moratorium on Canadian motor carriers was quickly removed, but the Mexican ban remained.

In 1992, all three nations signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the United States agreed to phase out the moratorium and permit Mexican motor carriers to obtain operating authority by January 2000. When this did not occur, Mexico challenged the United States under NAFTA's dispute-resolution provisions. An international arbitration panel determined in February 2001 that the U.S. blanket refusal of Mexican motor carrier applications breached U.S. obligations under NAFTA. President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that he intended to lift the moratorium once new regulations were prepared to grant operating authority to Mexican motor carriers. As required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, FMCSA issued an Environmental Assessment saying no Environmental Impact Statement was required because the increased presence of Mexican trucks in the U.S. would have no significant impact on the environment. This was challenged, and a lower court ruled in favor of FMCSA. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this ruling, setting the stage for the appeal to the Supreme Court.

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