Exposing the CT and OK Interior Design Cartel

December 1, 2008

IJ delivered a one-two litigation punch to the interior design cartel in September, filing new cases in Connecticut and Oklahoma. These cases join three others we have pursued to defeat a classic cartelization effort being waged nationally by the American Society of Interior Designers.

As documented by IJ’s Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter in his study Designing Cartels, the monopolists have adopted an incremental strategy whereby they first lobby for “title acts” that regulate who may use the term “interior designer,” and then follow up with full-blown occupational licensure—in the form of “practice acts” that regulate who may actually perform interior design work. IJ has countered that strategy by challenging title acts in court before they can mutate into practice acts, thus destroying the cartel’s carefully laid scheme for industry domination.

Susan Roberts is the lead plaintiff in our Connecticut challenge, and, like all IJ economic liberty clients, she is trying to pursue her version of the American Dream in the face of oppressive government regulations. After her first career as a bookkeeper, Susan began taking classes at the Connecticut Institute of Art and Design. It was supposed to be a two-year program, but Susan needed to make money to support her family, so she opened an antique store and interior design shop called the Idea Factory in 1982. The business thrived, which was great for Susan and her family, but it also put her on the radar screen of the interior design cartel, which dispatched bureaucrats to demand that she stop calling herself an “interior designer.” Susan duly complied—barely, and with tongue firmly in cheek—by changing her business cards to read: “Susan Roberts—designer of interiors.” Joining Susan in the Connecticut challenge are Lynne Hermmann and Cindy Lopez, both of whom have worked as interior designers in Connecticut for years but are now prevented from using that forbidden term because they refuse to jump through state-mandated hoops to obtain a license to accurately describe themselves and their businesses.

A few weeks later, IJ took the fight right to the cartel’s front doorstep by challenging its most recent legislative prize, a title act in Oklahoma. Just like the laws IJ successfully challenged in New Mexico and continues to battle in Texas and Connecticut, Oklahoma’s interior design law allows anyone to practice interior design, but requires a license to use the terms “interior design” and “interior designer.” Our lead plaintiff in Oklahoma, Kelly Rinehart, has her own interior design business, more than ten years of interior design experience and even a degree in interior design from Oklahoma State University. But because she refuses to take the government-mandated national licensing exam, she cannot refer to herself as an interior designer. Fellow plaintiffs Maria Gore and Jeffrey Evans are also experienced, highly talented interior designers, who, like Kelly, are forbidden by state law from speaking freely about the services they lawfully provide.

The Connecticut and Oklahoma case filings bracketed a month of intense effort on the Institute for Justice’s part to spotlight this issue and bring maximum pressure to bear on the interior design cartel. Dubbed “Interior Design Freedom Month,” this effort featured intense media coverage generated by IJ’s Assistant Director of Communications Bob Ewing and the release of a new study by Dick Carpenter entitled Designed to Mislead (see sidebar) that demolishes the cartel’s spurious justifications for titling laws like the ones in Connecticut and Oklahoma, as well as Texas, where IJ’s challenge is set for trial in December.

The attempted cartelization of the interior design industry by industry insiders represents one of the most flagrant affronts to economic liberty IJ has ever encountered, and we are making the most of it. Besides challenging the cartel’s handiwork in court, we have brought all of IJ’s other tools to bear—including media relations, grassroots outreach and strategic research—to beat back this anti-competitive attempt to snuff out free enterprise.

With these cases, IJ is protecting the ability of interior design entrepreneurs to follow their calling free from arbitrary and unreasonable government regulations. Moreover, IJ is using the interior design fight as an object lesson in economic liberty and particularly the critical role of courts in preventing interest groups from manipulating the political process to promote their own selfish agenda and destroy the system of free enterprise upon which this nation was founded and upon which our future prosperity depends.

Clark Neily is an IJ senior attorney.

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