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Photo by J. Scott Applewhite of The Associated Press / The Supreme Court is seen in Washington on Oct. 5, 2020.

Few things unite Americans like our shared hatred of robocalls, which have become a daily affliction for too many of us.

So the Supreme Court's recent ruling undermining the main federal law against robocalls was a slap to the face, on the side that's usually pressed against your smartphone.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Sonya Sotomayor declared that the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act applies only to robocalls made by equipment that manages to find your phone by happenstance, either by generating numbers automatically or dialing them randomly. Calls deliberately dialed from a stored number database are exempt.

In other words, the justices laid out a road map for telemarketers, scammers and the rest of the hellish robocall fraternity to ping your phone with impunity. Kinda sorta.

There is still the federal Do Not Call list, but that's notoriously ineffective. And there's a separate set of prohibitions on debt collectors, although that hasn't deterred collectors of fake debt.

The justices ignored dozens of consumer and privacy advocates, not to mention 21 members of Congress, who were involved in drafting and passing the 1991 law. They asserted to the court that Congress' intent was clear: to bar all forms of unsolicited, automatically dialed calls because they made phones themselves less useful.

"The TCPA has been consistently enforced to include both randomly dialed numbers and dialing from databases without consent," the members of Congress stated in their brief. "Even then, complaints about robocalls have increased. Simply put, robocalls are not only a nuisance to those that receive them, they are threatening the viability of the telephone as a useful means of communication."

Amen to that. But the Supreme Court's conservative majority includes textualists who care less about what lawmakers meant to say than what they actually said. And even its liberals pay heed to the meaning of the law as written.

The problem with the anti-robocall law boiled down to one ill-phrased sentence that describes the kind of "automatic telephone dialing system" that couldn't be used. According to the members of Congress, the intent was to cover robocalls whether they were made to numbers stored in a database or dialed at random.

But that's not what the law actually says, at least by the high court's reading. Sotomayor held that the stored numbers had to have been generated randomly or sequentially, rather than purchased or collected through some other means, to be covered by the law. In other words, dialing numbers that are plucked out of the air is illegal, but dialing a list of numbers known to be real and working is not.

Now would be the moment to open a window and scream.

The battle against robocalls is not utterly lost, however. Federal laws against the fraud that motivates so many robocalls remain in place, as do state laws against robocalls. Regulators are working with phone companies to implement technologies that recognize and block robocalls before they reach your phone.

The acting chairwoman of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, said in an email that the agency is "doubling down with a new Robocall Response Team and cease-and-desist letters" to get telecom companies to put a stop to nuisance robocalls. "However," she added, "when the court interprets the law in a way that opens the floodgates to more calls, we're going to have a problem. Congress may need to step in and update the law so that we can all avoid these nuisance calls."

In the meantime, here's what you can do when you're not sending robocalls straight to voicemail: Call your member of Congress and tell her or him to fix the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The Los Angeles Times

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