Judge Rules Milwaukee’s Taxi Cap Violates Right to Earn an Honest Living

June 3, 2013

Many of us have worked for a business owner and thought, “You know, I could do that.” And, many IJ supporters at one point or another in their lives have not only thought that, but have gone on to start their own businesses. It’s the American Dream.

But, if you were a taxi driver in Milwaukee, that was basically outlawed.

Until now.

In April, a Wisconsin state judge ruled that Milwaukee’s government-imposed cap on the number of taxicabs, which favored a privileged few at the expense of everyone else, was unconstitutional.

Imposed in 1991, Milwaukee’s cap on taxis mandates that if you want to own a taxicab you must purchase one of the few government-limited permits from an existing owner. As happened in New York and other big cities, this predictably drove the cost of a permit to ridiculous heights, with the going rate now at about $150,000—more than the cost of an average home in that area. Not only does this fence out all but the most well-heeled from owning taxis, it also allows the cartel of owners to treat their drivers like urban sharecroppers. They pay drivers less than they would have to in a free-market system and subject drivers to arbitrary working conditions because they have nowhere else to go. For example, many drivers, including our client Ghaleb Ibrahim, were recently fired by their cab owners simply for speaking out at a city council meeting in favor of the city lifting the permit cap.

IJ demonstrated to the judge what this law really is all about: using government power to protect established businesses from competition. The judge noted that when the city passed the cap, an owner said the law would increase the value of his business and allow him to “move south.” In response, the judge ruled that enabling someone to retire to Florida is not a legitimate government interest.

IJ’s victory on behalf of three cab drivers came in dramatic fashion. The courtroom was filled with anxious cab drivers. With them at our back, I made our argument to the judge, and the city’s attorney did the same. At the close of the arguments we expected the judge to say she would get back to us on her decision another day, because typically judges rule weeks, months or even years after a hearing. But after we finished, the judge said she would be back in a few minutes with a ruling.


We nervously waited with the drivers and other friends watching in the courtroom until the judge returned. Then she issued a stirring ruling in our favor. After it was over, my co-counsel, IJ-MN Attorney Katelynn McBride, and I turned to face the crowd and were besieged with a flurry of hugs from the drivers that then spilled out into the hall. It was a wonderful scene and an IJ moment that will remain with us forever.

The fight is not over, as the city may appeal or may change the law and claim a “new” cap is constitutional. But whatever happens, we will fight on until the right to be your own boss and earn an honest living gets the respect it deserves.

Anthony Sanders is an IJ attorney.

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