D.C. Circuit Grants Partial Stay of FCC Prison Phone Order

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has stayed portions of the FCC's order setting maximum rates for prisoner phone calls.

The order was a centerpiece of the active and accomplished tenure of acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn. It passed 2-1 over the objections of Commissioner Ajit Pai.

Securus Technologies had challenged the order in court, saying that it would cut off money to prisons used for victims assistance and could weaken security in correctional institutions and potentially cost lives.

The court said Securus had met the "stringent" standards for granting a stay and gave the parties 30 days to brief the court.

Neither current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler nor Clyburn's office had a response at press time.

Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ, OC Inc., which backed the FCC order, was looking at the upside, saying the stay was a chance for the FCC to collect more data to back its decision.

"The D.C. Circuit left in place today that the interim rates established by the FCC, of 25 cents per minute for debit calling and 21 cents per minute in collect calling. The historic victory remains in place," she pointed out. "Once the FCC is able to collect the additional data it needs, these rates will surely come down.  The companies resorting to litigation to oppose these rates continue their unconscionable conduct."

The FCC's Democrats were accentuating the positive.

“We are pleased that millions of families will finally see relief from outrageous rates for inmate calling services when the interim rate caps of $0.25 for collect calls and $0.21 for debit calls go into effect in February 2014," said Wheeler, Clyburn and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "These families have been forced to pay exorbitant rates for far too long. Although we are disappointed that the court granted a partial stay on other aspects of the Inmate Calling Services Order, we look forward to a hearing on the merits soon, and to adopting further reforms quickly.”

Not surprisingly, Commissioner Pai saw it differently. “In his dissenting statement, Commissioner Pai warned of the legal risks of adopting de facto rate-of-return regulation," his office said in a statement. "Today, a bipartisan panel of the D.C. Circuit stayed such regulation.  This demonstrates that the Commission is better served by working together to achieve bipartisan consensus rather than going forward with divisive, party-line votes.  Commissioner Pai stands ready to work with his colleagues to remedy the legal flaws contained in the inmate calling order.” 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.