Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955): Rational basis scrutiny = No scrutiny


Alexandria, VA – January 11, 2015

In my post on Lochner v. New York and the subsequent cases that overruled it, we talked about how the Supreme Court allowed the legislature to restrict economic rights under the Constitution as long as the restriction was “reasonable.” In this post, we’ll talk more about the so-called rational basis test.

It was not until Nebbia v. New York (1934) that the Court began to formally apply rational basis review, when it stated that “a State is free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare, and to enforce that policy by legislation adapted to its purpose. After Nebbia came the Parrish case, which we talked about in my Lochner post.  To recap the Court’s test in Parrish, if a law restricting economic liberties has “a reasonable relation to a proper legislative purpose, and [is] neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, the requirements of due process are satisfied…” In determining this test, the Court further explained that the legislature presumably had the “wisdom” to enact such laws, and that the “courts are both incompetent and unauthorized to deal [with such questions].” In Parrish, the Court indicated that they would make “every possible presumption…in favor of [the] validity [of a law passed by the legislature].” Thus, the test involves the Court deferring to the legislative branch. In my mind, in doing so the Court abdicates its constitutional responsibility as a check on the legislative branch. This idea became clearer in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955).

To those of you who (like me) wear glasses or contact lenses: have you ever been utterly annoyed when trying to reorder contact lenses only to be told that, since it’s been one year since the date on your most recent lens prescription, you have to go back to the eye doctor for a checkup and a new prescription?

I have. You can thank the following case for that.

In Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955), it became painfully obvious that the rational basis test was really no test at all. The legislature only has to articulate a reason, any reason, in order to have the Court find a law restricting economic liberties to be valid. Wait; not even that. The legislature doesn’t have to articulate a reason, as long as the Court could speculate as to a reason. I’ll explain.

Here, the Oklahoma law at issue prohibited an optician from fitting or duplicating lenses without a prescription from an ophthalmologist or optometrist. An optician can fill prescriptions, but cannot write them. Practically, this meant that, under the law, an optician could not fit old glasses lenses into new frames or re-order lenses without a prescription from a licensed ophthalmologist or optometrist. An optician brought suit, arguing that the law violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (there was also an equal protection challenge, but for our purposes here we’re focusing on the due process challenge). The district court found this portion of the law to be unconstitutional.

Interestingly, the district court found that “it was in the competence of the police power of a State to regulate the examination of the eyes,” a point with which I could generally agree. But the district court disagreed with “the notion that a State could require a prescription from an optometrist or ophthalmologist ‘to take old lenses and place them in new frames and then fit the completed spectacles to the face of the eyeglass wearer.’” The district court held that such a requirement was not “reasonably and rationally related to the health of the people.” Thank you!

The district court noted that an optician could do this; it was not necessary to have a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist do this. Thus, the district court found that that provision of the law at issue violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by arbitrarily interfering with the optician’s right to do business.

I’m not focusing here on the merits of the law at issue. You could argue that, since the optician cannot write prescriptions, it would be beneficial, from a health perspective, to require an updated prescription to make sure that the wearer is wearing the correct one.

However, you could also argue that, by sending the wearer back to the eye doctor to obtain a new prescription, the government is forcing the wearer to spend money and is giving the doctor business. To me, this regulation reeks of an ulterior motive.

Why not handle it this way? When an individual seeks to order new lenses, why not inform the individual that it may be a good idea to renew his prescription since his vision may have changed? That way, the individual can make an informed decision about whether or not he wants to seek a new prescription. Why force him to obtain one and spend money for a doctor appointment? Why is this the government’s business? Why does the government assume that people are too stupid to make these decisions for themselves?

That would be logical, in my mind, but it ran counter to pressure from the industry. When we discussed this case in my Constitutional Law class, the Professor added that lobbyists had, in fact, lobbied the Oklahoma state legislature to pass a law that people must pass an eye exam in order to get a prescription for glasses. Incredible.

In articulating the rational basis test, the Court gives total deference to the legislature and, in doing so, abdicates its constitutional responsibility: “The Oklahoma law may exact a needless, wasteful requirement in many cases. But it is for the legislature, not the courts, to balance the advantages and disadvantages of the new requirement.” That is, regarding economic liberties, all the legislature has to do is articulate a reason, any reason, for a law restricting such liberties, and it will pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s rationale. The Court will not consider the merits of the law.

Interestingly, even shamelessly, the legislature provided no rationale at all for this law.

It could have articulated a reason. You can always come up with something, right?

Maddeningly, the Court here speculates as to the legislative intent behind the law, but does not pin it down. For example, “the legislature might have concluded that the frequency of occasions when a prescription is necessary was sufficient to justify this regulation…” Further, “…the legislature might have concluded that [a prescription] was needed often enough to require one in every case. Or the legislature may have concluded that eye examinations were so critical, not only for correction of vision but also for detection of latent ailments or diseases, that every change in frames and every duplication of a lens should be accompanied by a prescription from a medical expert.” Thus, the Court does not know, and does not care, about the legislature’s rationale for this law. Shouldn’t the burden be on the legislature to prove that a law restricting economic rights is “reasonable?

Further, if the Court finds it reasonable to require vision examinations, then what would stop it from upholding a law requiring everyone to have regular medical checkups? Wouldn’t such a law be overly intrusive?

The Court apparently doesn’t think so, instead stating, “For protection against abuses by legislatures the people must resort to the polls, not to the court.” What? What is the judicial branch for, then? Do we need a lesson here on Marbury v. Madison?

I guess we do.

Marbury, one of the earliest cases in U.S. common law, stands for the premise that the judicial branch is independent of the executive and legislative branches, not just a rubber stamp.

In making the determination, the Court stated that the powers of the legislature are defined, and limited; […] those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, …. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction, between a government with limited and unlimited powers, is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed…. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it….”

Now, the modern Court may argue that economic liberties are indeed protected under the Constitution, subject to reasonable regulation by the government (the rational basis test). However, if the Court fails to scrutinize such regulation, then there is no such protection.

Indeed, the Marbury Court had it right. The Supreme Court should exercise judicial restraint but not judicial abdication.

In the Williamson Court’s opinion, the Constitution provides economic liberties, including the right to contract, under the 14th Amendment, but hey, the legislature can limit these rights at any time, even when the government provides no reason for the law. As long as the Court could speculate as to any reason, the law stands. Remember, the Court’s holding here is still good law; but so is Marbury.


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