U.S. Supreme Court Foregoes Opportunity To Examine Important Economic Liberty Question

Pennsylvania funeral directors asked the Court to consider whether the Constitution protects entrepreneurs from obsolete laws



Arlington, Va.—The U.S. Supreme Court will leave one of the most important questions in constitutional law unanswered—for now.

Today, the High Court declined to hear a case brought by the Institute for Justice and a group of Pennsylvania funeral directors that had implications for every American. The question presented to the Court in Heffner v. Murphy was simple: Can the government take away your liberty today based on a law passed long ago when the facts of the world were much different? In most contexts the Court has said the answer is “no,” but it has yet to address the question within the context of the right to economic liberty.

“The Supreme Court declined to hear this case, but it will eventually have to answer whether it is constitutional to continue enforcing entirely obsolete laws in the economic liberty context, particularly when the Court doesn’t tolerate such laws anywhere else,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, counsel of record on the petition.

In Heffner, a fed-up coalition of Pennsylvania funeral entrepreneurs sued the state to overturn obsolete laws dating to the early 1950s that prevent them from providing the best service and lowest prices to their customers. The federal trial court ruled that it was no longer constitutional for Pennsylvania to enforce these archaic laws due to indisputable advances in how the funeral industry now works. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that all that matters is whether the law was “rational” when passed in 1952.

“We set out to defend the freedom of business people to do what is best for their customers by providing innovative, relevant and contemporary services,” said Ernie Heffner, a Pennsylvania-licensed funeral director and lead plaintiff in the legal challenge. “I am proud of the plaintiffs who had the courage to join me and of all the professionals who provided support for this effort. While this lawsuit may be over, our dedication and commitment to serving our customers continues and in no way will be diminished by this decision.”

“Economic liberty is under siege across the country and across a variety of licensed occupations, including funeral directing, because courts routinely refuse to enforce constitutional limits on government power, which opens the door to irrational and obsolete laws that do nothing but protect entrenched interests from honest competition,” said William Mellor, president and general counsel of IJ. “The Supreme Court needs to begin the important work of establishing an engaged judiciary that defends all of our rights, including the right to earn an honest living.”

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the nation’s law firm for liberty. IJ has represented funeral entrepreneurs in various cases across the country in federal and state courts. Most recently, IJ vindicated the constitutional right of the Benedictine monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Covington, La., to sell their handmade caskets to the public without becoming state-licensed funeral directors.

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