Taxi Freedom: Milwaukee Taxi Cartel Threatens To Fight Latest Victory

By Anthony Sanders

Three years ago, Jatinder Cheema only dreamed of owning his own taxicab business. The city of Milwaukee, where Jatinder lives and drives a cab, was firmly behind its command-and-control system of capping the number of taxis and artificially raising the price of a taxi to $150,000—which is more than an average Milwaukee house.

Fast forward three years and Jatinder’s dream is a big step closer to reality. Almost everyone in Milwaukee now agrees Jatinder and his fellow taxi drivers have the right to own their own cabs without the government limiting the number of cabs. On July 22, the city’s common council unanimously lifted the 22-year-old taxicab cap. What caused so much to change in three years? Perseverance, the IJ way.

As we have detailed in past issues of Liberty & Law, IJ, Jatinder and two other cab drivers, Ghaleb Ibrahim and Amitpal Singh, sued Milwaukee in September 2011 for violating their right to earn a living under the Wisconsin Constitution. In April 2013, Milwaukee County Judge Jane Carroll agreed, ruling Milwaukee’s cap on the number of taxicabs favored a privileged few at the expense of everyone else and therefore violated the drivers’ constitutional rights.

In an effort to comply with the ruling, the city first increased the number of cabs by 100, but kept a cap in place. When there were over 1,700 applications for those 100 permits, the city decided to let freedom reign on Milwaukee’s streets, lifting the cap once and for all in July.

However, not everyone is happy with this new freedom, specifically not the established taxicab cartel, which benefited from 22 years of protectionism. In late August, the largest taxicab company owner in the city sued in federal court, arguing that lifting the cap violated the owner’s constitutional rights to hold an expensive taxicab permit whose inflated value only exists because of a government-imposed monopoly.

To protect our previous victory, IJ has again partnered with Jatinder and another driver, Saad Malik, to intervene in the owner’s lawsuit in an effort to get it dismissed. Our argument is simple: The cap was ruled unconstitutional. The city is simply complying with that ruling. Therefore, the city cannot be violating the owner’s constitutional rights by removing an unconstitutional system.

The best part about litigating taxi cases is the drivers. The day Milwaukee lifted its cap was no exception. Taxi drivers filled the city council chambers and erupted with applause the moment the unanimous vote was announced. One of the aldermen even thanked the drivers and IJ by name in his remarks. The drivers then held a victory rally at the park across the street attended by several television cameras. Notable were the signs the drivers held. When we organized the first rally in 2012, the signs said, “Let me own my own cab!” For the rally after the city council lifted the cap, they said, “Now I can own my own cab!” The times, and the signs, they are a-changing.

Anthony Sanders is an IJ attorney.

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