Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter Challenges State’s Veterinary Licensing Scheme

John Kramer
John Kramer · August 16, 2006

Minneapolis, Minn,—You wouldn’t think that a guy from Minnesota who files a horse’s teeth for a living has much in common with a New York City taxicab driver. But if you understand how businesses of every stripe—from veterinarians to taxicab companies, from movers to bakers—run to the government to protect themselves from competition, you’ll see that so-called horse teeth floaters and cabbies have more in common than you think—especially those who want to enter those fields but find their way blocked by government-imposed anti-competitive licensing laws.

Chris Johnson files down horse teeth for a living, a pain-free but important procedure for horses whose teeth can grow uncomfortably long. But now the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine—acting on behalf of veterinarians who charge up to three times what Johnson does and who seek to monopolize even the most trivial areas of animal care—is cracking down on entrepreneurs like Johnson. The Board has put him out of business by demanding that he either become a licensed veterinarian (a costly and needless exercise for Johnson to pursue his craft) or pass an exam that has never been offered in Minnesota.

But Johnson is fighting back. And if he wins, it could help entrepreneurs in other industries.

Today [August 16, 2006], represented by the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter, he filed suit in Minnesota’s First Judicial District in Glencoe, Minn. (located 55 miles west of Minneapolis), to defend his right to economic liberty. Johnson’s suit challenges Minnesota’s unconstitutional licensing scheme that blocks entry into his occupation of floating horse teeth for the economic benefit of politically connected veterinarians. The Board lobbied in 2005 against legislation that would have opened the market to competition from niche providers like Johnson.

“The occupation of a horse teeth floater offers a lifetime of opportunity for rural Minnesotans who, like Chris Johnson, love horses,” said Lee McGrath, executive director of the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter, a public interest law firm that has already scored major successes in the state by striking down government-imposed barriers to entrepreneurship. “But Minnesota’s laws irrationally classify horse teeth floating as the practice of veterinary medicine—even though veterinary schools don’t teach floating—and subject Chris to fines and even jail time for peacefully practicing his craft.”

McGrath said, “What is happening to Johnson is the inevitable result when those who are supposed to be regulated by a government board take over that power and use it for their own ends.”

Johnson, a third-generation horse teeth floater from Hutchinson, Minn., can offer a more cost-effective service because, unlike veterinarians who use expensive but unnecessary sedatives and power tools, Johnson calms the horse naturally and floats his teeth manually using a simple file. Veterinarians who could not compete with Johnson looked to the Board to protect, through politics, the economic booty that they could not earn in the market.

The lawsuit, Johnson v. Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, is the fourth case in the IJ Minnesota Chapter’s campaign to restore economic liberty as a basic civil right under both the Minnesota State and U.S. constitutions. In Anderson v. Minnesota Board of Barber and Cosmetologist Examiners, the organization freed hairbraiders from the State of Minnesota’s onerous cosmetology licensing regime. In Crockett v. Minnesota Department of Public Safety, it successfully stopped the government from enforcing a blanket ban on advertising, soliciting or using the Internet to conduct lawful, direct sales of wine. In Dahlen v. Minneapolis, the state chapter is currently challenging the city’s arbitrary licensing of sign hangers. The Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter seeks to restore constitutional protection for the right to economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living in the occupation of one’s choice free from excessive government regulation.

“Almost all students graduate from veterinary school without ever looking inside of a horse’s mouth,” said Johnson. “Floating a horse’s teeth requires some hands-on training and common sense around large animals, but not a $100,000 education over four years that never even teaches this trade. Today, I’m working a 12-hour night shift to make ends meet. If I could get back to floating, I could set my own schedule and spend more time with my wife and children. And I’d be doing the horses a favor.”

Like many occupational licensing boards, Minnesota’s Board of Veterinary Medicine is comprised almost entirely of practitioners—providing ample opportunity for capturing governmental power to advance their members’ economic interests. Responding to its constituency, the Board issued a cease-and-desist order to the Johnson family in 2004 instructing them to stop floating teeth or face up to $3,000 in fines and one year in prison for practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Since November 2004, Johnson has worked in a job unrelated to horses.

The Johnsons and their customers then mounted a legislative effort to exempt horse teeth floaters from veterinary licensing laws—similar to the exemption enjoyed by those who make a living dehorning cattle and castrating bulls. The Board opposed this legislation, and as a result, Minnesota’s new law restricts horse teeth floating to (1) licensed veterinarians, (2) those with more than 10 years of experience, and (3) those with a certificate for passing an exam given by the International Association of Equine Dentistry (IAED) based near Dallas. Complicating matters for individuals like Johnson, to qualify to take the IAED’s test, you must float the teeth of 250 horses under the supervision of an existing IAED member. Not only are there no IAED members in Minnesota, it is illegal to float without a license. So, to abide by the law in Minnesota, you must break it—a Catch-22 for people like Johnson.

In April, Nick Dranias, an Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter staff attorney, authored a study showing that Minnesota’s government-imposed regulations block the path to the American Dream and how these barriers can be removed. These regulations hurt consumers who suffer higher prices, lower quality and fewer choices. The 21-page paper, titled The Land Of 10,000 Lakes Drowns Entrepreneurs In Regulations, analyzes 11 occupations including manicurists, taxicab businesses, furniture movers, cosmetologists, and flower vendors. These occupations do not require huge amounts of financial capital or a great deal of formal education to enter. In the absence of unreasonable regulation, they would attract large numbers of entrepreneurs who would like to work for themselves. (Legislators and journalists may obtain the report here.)

“This case about horse teeth floaters may seem quaint, but there is a bigger picture,” said McGrath. “Our goal with this case is certainly to win for our client, but also to stop government run amok for the benefit of private interests. If we can roll back the unconstitutional use of government power here, then hopefully the public and lawmakers will better appreciate how these same concerns apply to other occupations, like driving a taxicab, moving household goods or cutting hair. Our country was established with limits on government power. We’re determined not to lose sight of that.”