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D.C. Circuit Tosses Case Challenging Digital Billboards

Date: September 07, 2016

Summary:
The D.C. Circuit today dismissed a case challenging Federal Highway Administration guidance allowing digital billboards. 

Body:
The D.C. Circuit today dismissed a case challenging Federal Highway Administration guidance allowing digital billboards. The ruling says that Scenic America, a non-profit that "seeks to preserve and improve the visual character of America's communities and countryside," lacked standing to challenge the guidance as violating notice-and-comment rulemaking and that it lost on the merits of its claim that the guidance was promulgated "contrary to law" in violation of the APA.

The ruling means that FHWA guidance that allows digital billboards stays on the books.

Under the federal Highway Beautification Act, the FHWA enters into agreements with states that detail things like size, lighting, and spacing standards for billboards along the interstate highways. Every state has one of these federal-state agreements ("FSA"); most were written in the '60s and '70s. FHWA regs say that states have to implement standards in their FSAs and submit their laws to the FHWA's regional offices for approval.

Nearly all of the FSAs contain a prohibition against "flashing," "intermittent," and "moving" lights.

In 2007, the national FHWA office issued a memo that said that this prohibition did not apply to digital billboards--those billboards lit by LED lights that change pictures every ten seconds or so. The effect of the guidance was to permit digital billboards under the FSAs. (Many states already permitted digital billboards, but at least two (Texas and Kentucky) did not. After the guidance came down, those two states also permitted digital billboards.)

Scenic America sued the FHWA, arguing that the 2007 guidance violated the APA's notice-and-comment requirement and that it violated the HBA.

As to the notice-and-comment claim, the D.C. Circuit ruled that Scenic America lacked standing (both organizational and representational). In particular, the court said that Scenic America's requested relief (vacating the guidance) wouldn't redress its injury (having to work harder to fight digital billboards), because other factors may have driven states to permit digital billboards, and vacating the guidance wouldn't necessarily mean that states would stop permitting digital billboards. In short: "Scenic asserts injuries that stem not directly from the FHWA's issuance of the 2007 Guidance, but from third parties not directly before the court--the Division Offices and the states."

As to the substantive HBA claim, the court ruled that Scenic America had standing, but lost on the merits. The court said that Scenic America had representational standing, because it had a member who was harmed by a digital billboard, and because

"[i]f we were to find for Scenic on the merits of its claim, a point we must assume for standing purposes, we could only do so by effectively repudiating the FHWA's interpretation of the FSAs. Repudiation would provide much more robust relief than vacatur [the relief requested in the notice-and-comment claim]. Not only would it prohibit the agency from relying on that interpretation in any future rulemakings, it would also require the agency to subject extant billboards to either removal or an order requiring those billboards to operate in a manner that does not violate the FSAs, for instance by keeping the image displayed by the billboard constant and unchanging. Scenic's injury, clearly caused by the Guidance, is therefore redressable."


The court went on to reject the HBA claim on the merits, however, dealing Scenic America a complete loss in the case.

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