Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955)

The Facts

An Oklahoma statute imposed tight restrictions on the activities of opticians, including barring people who were not licensed optometrists or opthamologists from replacing broken lenses and preventing out-of-state eyeglass retailers from advertising. Theodore Shaunbaum, founder of Lee Optical, a subsidiary of a Texas company that owned a national chain of eyeglass retailers, brought suit. Oklahoma argued that the legislation furthered the state’s interest in public health and welfare.

The Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. Despite acknowledging that “in many cases, the optician can easily supply the new frames or new lenses without reference to the old written prescription,” the Court deferred to the Legislature’s judgment about how to promote public health and safety. As Justice Douglas explained, “It is enough that there is an evil at hand for correction, and that it might be thought that the particular legislative measure was a rational way to correct it” (emphasis added). The Court found that the law was not “in every respect logically consistent with its aims,” but, ignoring its rent-seeking effect, it went on to rubber-stamp the law on the basis of hypothetical justifications.

The Consequences

The Court explicitly disavowed the truth-seeking enterprise in rational basis cases. Whereas under Nebbia v. New York, it was in theory possible to demonstrate that an economic regulation violated due process because it was arbitrary or discriminatory, now the Court held that this would not be permitted. It expressly embraced hypothetical justifications for legislation, in this case, in the teeth of the facts. There was no evidence in Lee Optical that there was even an “evil at hand” to be corrected or that the Legislature was seeking to correct it. The Court’s abdication of its responsibility to protect economic liberty was complete. Today, the default setting in economic liberty cases is reflexive deference to government.