Trucks line up the Port of Los Angeles. The Supreme Court struck down part… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
The U.S. Supreme Court dismantled part of the Port of Los Angeles' anti-smog program Thursday, ruling that trucking companies don't have to affix "How am I driving?" placards to their vehicles or have off-site parking plans to haul goods in and out of the seaport.
The ruling is part of a years-long battle between the American Trucking Assn. and the city of Los Angeles, which operates the port. The high court struck down the placard and parking provisions of the program but sent part of the case back to a lower appellate court for further review.
Enacted in 2008 to curb pollution at the largest port in the country, the Clean Truck Program sought to restrict the types of trucks that carried goods to and from the port. Among the goals of the program was to phase out old trucks.
Trucking companies also had to abide by rules such as placing placards on trucks that listed a phone number to report environmental or safety concerns. If companies violated these rules, they were subject to criminal penalties.
The trucking association sued to overturn the program, arguing that the city overstepped its authority by imposing criminal penalties if trucking companies violated the program's provisions.
In a 9-0 decision, the court struck down the placard provision, as well as another rule that required trucking companies to have off-street parking locations when trucks were not in service.
"We are gratified that, at the conclusion of many years of litigation, the highest court in the land unanimously agreed with ATA on these rules," said Bill Graves, president of the American Trucking Assn. "Our position has always been that the port's attempt to regulate drayage operators — in ways that had nothing to do with its efforts to improve air quality at the port — was inconsistent with Congress' command that the trucking industry be shaped by market forces, rather than an incompatible patchwork of state and local regulations."
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion for the court, which rejected the Port of L.A.'s argument that it acted like a private party in requiring trucking companies to abide by the so-called concession contracts.
"The port here has not acted as a private party, contracting in a way that the owner of an ordinary commercial enterprise could mimic," Kagan wrote. "Rather, it has forced terminal operators — and through them, trucking companies — to alter their conduct by implementing a criminal prohibition punishable by time in prison."
The port tried to defend the criminal penalties by arguing that the fines would be levied against terminal operators, not trucking companies.
But the court rejected that argument: "Slice it or dice it any which way, the port thus acted with the force of law," Kagan wrote.
In a brief statement, port and city officials said attorneys were reviewing the ruling to determine how it would affect operations. They declined to comment further.
The Harbor Trucking Assn., a group that represents trucking firms that operate at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, welcomed the ruling.
"We're obviously happy," said Alex Cherin, the group's executive director. "I think it provides some good guidance on the role that port authorities should play."
Cherin said port officials overreached by mandating, among other things, that trucking companies directly hire drivers as employees. Presently, most truck drivers operate as independent contractors. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 struck down that provision of the program. Port officials did not choose to appeal that provision to the Supreme Court.
As port officials reviewed the ruling, local trucking companies said the ruling provided much-needed resolution to continue operating their businesses.
Howard Wallace, president of Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, a trucking company that primarily transports grain and animal feed, said he supported the Clean Truck Program's aims to curb pollution. But, Wallace said, the city went too far in imposing fines for violations and mandating that truck drivers be direct employees.
"As a non law-enforcement agency, I thought that was a reach," he said.
The Supreme Court did not rule on another issue regarding whether the port may revoke a trucking company's access to the port if they do not comply with the program. The court sent that part of the case back to the lower court for further consideration.