SCOTUS Rejects USDA’s Raisin Cartel

A couple years ago I posted (here) about a lawsuit progressing through the courts concerning the USDA’s raisin marketing order. The Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC) basically sets a quota on the amount of raisins that can be marketed in a given year as a way of maintaining high-priced raisins. The RAC requires produ799184_1280x720cers to turn a portion of their crop over to the RAC, which then markets the “excess” raisins to other countries or uses.

Today, the US Supreme Court ruled in Horne v. Department of Agriculture that the USDA-sponsored Raisin Administrative Committee’s process amounts to an unconstitutional governmental “taking”. Apparently the decision is limited to the raisin program and it opens the doors to other ways for the USDA to control the raisin market, but the decision also raises questions about the constitutionality of other agricultural commodity programs.


Occupational Licensing & Antitrust: Legal Licensing or Occupational Cartel?

Occupational licensing is an interesting phenomenon. Governments (state and local) create certification boards (typically made up of industry participants) that set licensing standards and qualifications for persons wanting to work in those occupations. Ostensibly, these restrictions are intended to correct for the information asymmetry between consumers and professionals, where consumers may not be able to assess the quality (or ability) of the professional independently before hiring them. Think medical associations for doctors and bar associations for lawyers at the state level, or licensing for plumbers and electricians at the local level.

But occupational licensing also serves as a way of restricting competition in a profession by limiting the number of people who are able to provide the goods or services under the board’s purview. And as we know, reducing supply in the market increases the prices consumers pay (and the professionals receive). For instance, a medical board may limit the number of doctors who will be “board certified” in a given year. A private investigator licensing board may set standards to reduce the number of licensed (and legal) PIs. Or a state dental board might prohibit non-dentists from performing teeth-whitening services in competition with dentists.

That last one is the basis of a case coming before the US Supreme Court next week. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought antitrust charges against the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners for conspiring to restrain competition in the teeth whitening business. The Dental Examiners board asserts they are exempted from antitrust law under the “state action doctrine.” The Supreme Court is being asked to determine if–and under what circumstances–state occupational licensing boards are exempt from antitrust laws. Eric Fraser offers a nice preview of the arguments in the case over on SCOTUSblog.

This could be an important case for licensing boards across the country. It should be fun to watch and interesting to see how the Court delineates the lines of necessary government oversight and the degree to which an overwhelming public interest needs to be justified.

Incentives and the SCOTUS Surprise on Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) surprised even veteran court watchers this week by refusing to hear a set of cases involving state-level bans (and reversals of those bans) of same-sex marriage. One lawyer offers a pretty convincing argument on why the Court decided not to weigh in on an issue that has such important consequences for large groups of people (and employers). At its heart, it’s all about individual justices’ incentives and the cost-benefit calculation justices had to make in the face of an uncertain outcome:

So why is the Roberts Court, not normally shy in jumping into controversial issues such as affirmative action or campaign finance law, ducking this one?

The answer may lie in the incentives facing the individual Justices rather than the approach of the Court as a whole. When you look at the choices available from the three different perspectives on this issue – liberals, swing votes, and conservatives – it becomes much easier to see why there weren’t the four votes required (out of the nine Justices) to hear this issue now. With no camp assured of victory if the court decided to hear the cases, the uncertainty may hold the key to the Justices’ thinking.

You can read the full blog post with the details of the explanation here. Regardless your position on the issue, this analysis of the justices’ likely reasoning in passing on the opportunity to settle the issue (at least for a period of time) illustrates how understanding individuals’ incentives helps to explain the expected–and not-so-expected–outcomes that shape the laws and institutions that help structure society at-large.