Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Author: Jarod Bona

Lawyers, judges, economists, law professors, policy-makers, business leaders, trade-association officials, students, juries, and the readers of this blog combined spend incredible resources—time, money, or both—analyzing whether certain actions or agreements are anticompetitive or violate the antitrust laws.

While superficially surprising, upon deeper reflection it makes sense because less competition in a market dramatically affects the prices, quantity, and quality of what companies supply in that market. In the aggregate, the economic effect is huge, thus justifying the resources we spend “trying to get it right.” Of course, in trying to get it right, we often muck it up even more by discouraging procompetitive agreements by over-applying the antitrust laws.

So perhaps we should focus our resources on the actions that are most likely to harm competition (and by extension, all of us)?

Well, one place we can start is by concentrating on conduct that is almost always anticompetitive—price-fixing and market allocation among competitors, as well as bid-rigging. We have the per se rule for that. Check.

There is another significant source of anticompetitive conduct, however, that is often ignored by the antitrust laws. Indeed, a doctrine has developed surrounding these actions that expressly protect them from antitrust scrutiny, no matter how harmful to competition and thus our economy.

As a defender and believer in the virtues of competition, I am personally outraged that most of this conduct has a free pass from antitrust and competition laws that regulate the rest of the economy, and that there aren’t protests in the street about it.

What has me so upset?

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Engineers and Bridge

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney, over time you see the same major cases cited again and again. It is only natural that you develop favorites. Here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we will, from time-to-time, highlight some of the “Classic Antitrust Cases” that we love, that we hate, or that we merely find interesting.

The Supreme Court decided National Society of Professional Engineers in the late 1970s—when I was two-years old—and before the Reagan Revolution. But the views that the author, Justice John Paul Stevens, expressed on behalf of the Supreme Court perhaps ushered in the faith in competition often associated with the 1980s.

The National Society of Professional Engineers thought that its members were above price competition. Indeed, it strictly forbid them from competing on price.

The reason was simple: “it would be cheaper and easier for an engineer ‘to design and specify inefficient and unnecessarily expensive structures and methods of construction.’ Accordingly, competitive pressure to offer engineering services at the lowest possible price would adversely affect the quality of engineering. Moreover, the practice of awarding engineering contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of quality, would be dangerous to the public health, safety, and welfare.” (684-85).

So price competition will cause bridges to collapse? I suppose the same argument could be made for any market where greater expense can improve the health or safety of a product or service. We better not let the car manufacturers compete to provide us with cars because they will skimp on the brakes. It is often the professionals–including and especially lawyers–that find competition distasteful or damaging for their particular profession and believe that they are above it. Well, according to the US Supreme Court, they are not.

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American Needle (Football)

Author: Jarod Bona

When you think about Sherman Act Section 1 antitrust cases (the ones involving conspiracies), you usually consider the question—often framed at the motion to dismiss stage as a Twombly inquiry—whether the defendants actually engaged in an antitrust conspiracy.

But, sometimes, the question is whether the defendants are actually capable of conspiring together.

That isn’t a commentary on the intelligence or skills of any particular defendants, but a serious antitrust issue that can—in some instances—create complexity.

So far I’ve been somewhat opaque, so let me illustrate. Let’s say you want to sue a corporation under the antitrust laws, but can’t find another entity they’ve conspired with so you can invoke Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which requires a conspiracy or agreement). How about this: You allege that the corporation conspired with its President, Vice-President, and Treasurer to violate the antitrust laws. Can you do that?

Probably not. In the typical case, a corporation is not legally capable of conspiring with its own officers. The group is considered, for purposes of the antitrust laws, as a “single economic entity,” which is incapable of conspiring with itself. Of course, the situation is complicated if we aren’t talking about the typical corporate officers, but instead analyzing a case with a corporation and corporate agents (or perhaps in a rare case, even employees) that are acting for their own self-interest and not as a true agent of the corporation. The question, often a complex one, will usually come down to whether there is sufficient separation of economic interests that the law can justify treating them as separate actors.

A lot of tricky issues can arise when dealing with companies and their subsidiaries as well. In Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corporation, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that the coordinated activities of a parent and its wholly-owned subsidiary are a single enterprise (incapable of conspiring) for purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

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Aspen Mountains

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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Author: Robert Everett Johnson, The Institute for Justice

Robert Everett Johnson litigates cases protecting private property, economic liberty, and freedom of speech. He is also a nationally-recognized expert on civil forfeiture. Bona Law has a strong relationship with The Institute for Justice, going back to Jarod Bona’s clerkship with the group after his first year of law school. We highly recommend that you check out the wonderful work they do for freedom and liberty.

You may have heard: The First Amendment has been weaponized.

Justice Kagan said so in Janus v. State, County and Municipal Employees, where her dissent accused the majority of “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.” Justice Breyer agreed, dissenting in NIFLA v. Becerra and complaining that (contrary to the majority opinion) “professionals” should not “have a right to use the Constitution as a weapon.” And the New York Times took up the cry, publishing a front-page Sunday article titled “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.”

All of this sounds frightening, but the truth is more reassuring. Courts are doing what they are supposed to do: As the amount of economic regulation has increased, it has inevitably restricted freedom of speech, and now courts are restoring the balance. Lawyers should embrace this newly vibrant First Amendment, and should ask themselves how it can serve the interests of their clients.

Rights Are—And Should Be—Weapons

The truth is, the First Amendment has always been a weapon. After all, that’s exactly what constitutional rights are—weapons to be used against the government. When critics say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” all they really mean is it is being enforced.

The First Amendment has been used, time and time again, as a weapon to resist government power. When the NAACP invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to solicit clients for civil rights litigation, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. When unions invoked the First Amendment to protect the right to picket their employers, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. And when students invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to protest the Vietnam War, they also used the First Amendment as a weapon.

What is the alternative to a “weaponized” First Amendment? We could retire the First Amendment from active service and hang it on the wall like a soldier’s antique gun. We could continue to protect speech with little real-world impact—protests at funerals and animal crush videos come to mind—while exempting speech that threatens the status quo. That kind of neutered First Amendment would be a shiny object to admire, but it would not secure freedom of speech in any meaningful sense. Fortunately, the First Amendment is more than a shiny object on the wall.

Economically-Motivated Speech Is Still Speech

While the First Amendment has always been a weapon, something has changed in recent years. When people say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” they really mean it has been applied to uphold free speech rights in the context of economic regulation. But that is as it should be: Speech does not become any less valuable because it is associated with economic activity.

There is no question that the Supreme Court is increasingly willing to uphold First Amendment claims that arise in the economic context. This Term, Janus upheld the right of employees not to contribute money to a public union, and NIFLA rejected the argument that speech receives less protection because it is uttered by a “professional.” Other recent cases have applied the First Amendment to regulations of credit card pricing schemes, as well as restrictions on the sale of drug prescription information. There is no reason to think any of that will change with the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, as he has previously applied the First Amendment to regulations of internet service providers.

This is a good thing. As Justice Kennedy put it, writing in 1993 in Edenfield v. Fane: “The commercial marketplace, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish.” Indeed, speech in the commercial marketplace often touches on some of the most important facets of human life: Doctors speak to patients about matters of life and death; financial professionals speak to clients about their financial security; and even your local grocer can convey information critical to your health. The importance of these subjects only makes the free flow of information all the more vital to a free society.

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Author: Jarod Bona

In an antitrust case deciding a non-antitrust-specific issue, the US Supreme Court held in Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. (the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation) that to determine foreign law in federal courts, judges are not strictly bound by that foreign government’s statements.

The judge should “accord respectful consideration to a foreign government’s submission,” but it is his or her call in making the ultimate decision.

The Supreme Court in this case is interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1, which states that when deciding foreign law—sometimes that is necessary in federal court—a judge may “consider any relevant material or source . . . whether or not submitted by a party.”

This decision arose out of the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, which is an antitrust class-action lawsuit against four Chinese corporations that manufacturer and export, you guessed it, Vitamin C. Purchasers of the vitamin sued Chinese vitamin C sellers, alleging that they agreed to fix the price and quantity of Vitamin C exported to the United States from China. Price fixing, of course, is a per se antitrust violation.

(Read here if you want to learn more about defending an antitrust class action case.)

The Chinese vitamin C sellers argued that they are shielded from US antitrust law liability by the act-of-state doctrine.

But what is the act-of-state doctrine?

Good question.

US courts under the act-of-state doctrine should not judge the validity of an official act of a foreign government committed within that foreign government’s borders. This is a doctrine that extends beyond antitrust law.

In Animal Science Products, the defendants argued that China law required them to fix prices as part of a “regulatory pricing regime.”

The parties, however, disputed whether China law actually mandated the fixed prices. To help resolve that question, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the Chinese vitamin C sellers’ argument that China law required defendants to fix prices.

(You can read our article here on the many reasons to file amicus briefs).

So the trial court had to figure out whether China law mandated price fixing. And to assist it, China’s Ministry of Commerce weighed in via amicus brief.

What would you do?

Would you just agree with whatever China says about its own law? Or would you do an independent examination and decide?

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SolarCity-Picture-300x174

Author: Aaron Gott

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to decide a circuit split on an important procedural question concerning the state-action immunity to the federal antitrust laws: whether a decision denying the state-action immunity is immediately appealable or must await a final decision just like most issues raised on a motion to dismiss.

The case, SolarCity Corporation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, is about a power company that changed its rate structure to make it less appealing for consumers to switch to solar power. Power companies are typically quasi-natural monopolies because of the way power is delivered—through a massive infrastructure of physical lines.

Update: The parties reached a settlement and filed a stipulated dismissal dated March 20, 2018. So the US Supreme Court will not hear this case.

But new technology is changing that: people can generate electricity straight from the sun by installing panels on their roofs, and soon it will be more cost effective to install batteries to hold that power for when it is needed than to continue paying the power company. In places like Southern California, where the price of peak electricity is more than four times the national average, solar power is a no-brainer.

It comes as no surprise that some power companies are using their incumbency to slow the disruption of this innovative technology. SolarCity (now Tesla, Inc.) sued an Arizona power district for attempting to maintain its monopoly over the supply of electrical power in its territory, alleging that the power district created new fees that penalize solar customers, which ultimately had its intended effect: solar retailers received 96% fewer applications for new solar systems among customers in the power district after the new rates took effect.

The power district moved to dismiss, arguing that it is immune from the federal antitrust laws under the state-action immunity. The district court denied the motion because the power district had not met its burden of showing that it acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition. The power district sought an order certifying the denial for interlocutory appeal, which was also denied. Nevertheless, the power district immediately appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that a denial of the state-action immunity should be immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine.

Before we dive into the Ninth Circuit decision, let’s discuss some of these terms.

The Collateral Order Doctrine

The collateral order doctrine is an exception to the general rule that the federal courts of appeal have jurisdiction to hear only appeals of “final orders” from the district courts.  The exception is narrow and must be strictly applied.

A collateral order is appealable immediately if it meets three requirements: first, the order being appealed must be conclusive. Second, it must address a question that is separate from the merits of the case. Third, it must raise “some particular value of a high order” and evade effective review if not considered immediately.

With these requirements, there are only a few categories of decisions that meet the collateral order doctrine, and they are all “immunities”: Eleventh Amendment immunity, absolute immunity, qualified immunity, foreign and tribal sovereign immunity. Given this, it might seem that the state-action “immunity” also fits. But it isn’t quite that simple because the state-action immunity isn’t actually an immunity, but a judicially recognized exemption.

What Is An Immunity?

Read broadly, an immunity could mean many different things. It could mean immunity from suit, immunity from liability, or even just immunity from money damages.

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For the third time in recent years, the US Supreme Court decided to review an antitrust case involving state-action immunity.

Unlike the first two cases, however, the primary issue in this case is procedural: The petition requesting review fairly described the issue as “Whether orders denying state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”

The case at issue is a Ninth Circuit case called SolarCity Corporation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District. SolarCity, of course, is now a unit of Elon Musk’s Tesla.

You can read our more complete analysis of the upcoming SolarCity case here.

Update: The parties reached a settlement and jointly dismissed the case from the US Supreme Court.

The substantive case underneath the procedural issue involves a monopolization lawsuit by SolarCity against a public entity power company in Arizona, which is the only supplier in that area of traditional electrical power.

Here is what they did: SolarCity, like other solar-energy-panel companies, was having success in selling and leasing rooftop solar panels to customers, especially in sunshine places like Arizona (and Southern California, of course). Instead of viewing the move toward solar power as good for the environment and peoples’ pocketbooks, the power company—a public entity—viewed it as a threat. And, like many government entities that view private enterprise as a threat to their budgets and influence, the power district changed the rules.

That is, the power company changed the pricing structure so customers that acquire power from their own system—a solar-panel system, for example—must pay a prohibitively large penalty. The government entity’s rule change had its intended effect: SolarCity received ninety-six percent fewer applications for new solar-panel systems in that territory.

This is, of course, one of the grossest forms of government abuse and a disgrace to competition. It is also one of the reasons why Luke Wake of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center and I argued both as an amicus in Phoebe Putney and in a law review article that the Supreme Court should adopt a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. If a government entity is a commercial participant in a market, it shouldn’t be immunized from cheating in that market.

Bona Law currently has another case pending in the Ninth Circuit in which government entities that compete in the market violated antitrust laws and are using the shield of state-action immunity to try to get away with it.

The Collateral Order Doctrine

In the SolarCity case, the trial court rejected state-action immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Typically, a defendant that loses a motion to dismiss cannot appeal the issues until later in the case, sometimes after trial. The plaintiff gets to take a shot at proving its case.

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Update: As you may have heard, the Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read below for my thoughts on the confirmation process and Justice Gorsuch and antitrust.

We have entered a Supreme-Court-Justice-Nomination season. These are always interesting times for lawyers, politicians, and real people.

There are only nine Justices on the Supreme Court, so whenever there is an opening, it is a big deal. Appointments are for life, or until a Justice wants to leave, for whatever reason (or impeachment, but we haven’t had to worry about that lately). So the nomination seasons are whenever they are.

For lawyers, it is the rare time when the rest of the country cares about what they care about. Thus, news talk shows and articles are full of attorney quotes, ideas, and predictions about, first, who they think the nominee will be; and second, after the name is known, whether that person is qualified.

A Supreme Court Justice, as a job, is not an easy one. Sure, it comes with some perks like lifetime appointment, cool robes, and the right to interrupt attorneys whenever you want. But it is a lot of pressure because you are making decisions in a wide variety of legal subjects, covering constitutional, statutory, and even federal common law, each of which may create upheavals for huge groups of people.

As a Justice, you can’t afford the time to become and stay an expert in every area of law, but you (and your Justice colleagues) are making decisions that set the parameters for all legal fields, even over experts in those fields. Some may say that this is a feature not a bug. But, from the perspective of the individual Justice, it creates an enormous responsibility to think through everything you do. You can’t just take an opinion off.

Because of the impact and responsibility of a Supreme Court Justice, this isn’t a job for anyone. You have to love the law and want to contribute positively to it—in a way that might even seem a little obsessive.

So let’s talk about qualifications: At least since I’ve been following it, it is unusual to see a nominee for the US Supreme Court that isn’t qualified to work on the Court. That is, the qualifications of the men and women that Presidents of both parties have nominated over the last couple of decades have been impressive and adequate for the extremely high standards of the Court. That includes DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

But, unfortunately, the word “qualifications” has become a word that every side, at one time or another, has lifted to mean “I think will do what I want on the rare controversial case that could likely go either way on the law,” or some other interest-focused meaning.

That is because most people, especially people on television, don’t like to just say, honestly, that they support or oppose a particular nominee for pure reasons of self or philosophical interest. Instead, they filter out their own biases by using the word “qualified” or “not-qualified,” or “extremist” or some other mismatched word. The reasons for this probably range from cognitive dissonance to political marketing.

President Donald Trump Nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court

Thanks for sticking around through that long-winded introduction. I added the context I wanted to add, so I can now speak (well, write) more transparently.

Judge Gorsuch is a federal appellate judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from district courts in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). He has a BA from Columbia, graduated from Harvard Law in 1991 (exactly one decade before I did), and has a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Law from Oxford. He clerked on the DC Circuit with Judge David B. Sentelle, then clerked on the United States Supreme Court with both Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He later worked with the Department of Justice and for many years at a strong law firm.

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NC Dental DecisionIf you haven’t yet heard, the Supreme Court upheld the FTC’s antitrust action against North Carolina’s state dental board. And I think they did a good job with the opinion.

We wrote an amicus brief in this case and I have been studying these issues for years, so let me tell you some of my thoughts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Court’s majority opinion and Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissent, which Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined.

State Action Immunity Background

You can read a brief summary of the case here, but here is nutshell: The North Carolina dental board, consisting mostly of practicing dentists, took certain actions to keep non-dentists from offering teeth-whitening services in North Carolina. Noticing the blatant anticompetitive conduct, the FTC sued them under the federal antitrust laws.

The issue at the Supreme Court, however, wasn’t whether the conduct violated the antitrust laws or whether it was anticompetitive, which (in my view, the FTC’s view, and the Fourth Circuit’s view) it clearly was. The issue was whether the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners can use what is called the State-Action-Immunity doctrine as a shield from federal antitrust law.

To invoke state-action immunity (which is technically an exemption not an immunity), an entity must satisfy the Midcal test, which requires that it show (1) the state as a sovereign clearly articulated authority for the entity to engage in anticompetitive conduct; and (2) active supervision by the state as sovereign. Under prior case law, municipalities need only show the first requirement (we will discuss this point further below).

The issue in NC Dental v. FTC (link to the Court’s opinion) was whether state licensing boards must demonstrate active supervision as well as the first prong—clear articulation. NC Dental didn’t show active supervision, so if they must do so under law, their state-action-immunity defense fails. And that is what happened.

North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission

Significantly, the second line of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is “A majority of the board’s members are engaged in the active practice of the profession it regulates.” The opinion says a lot, but this core fact—competitors regulating competitors—is what ultimately matters.

After discussing the factual context of the case, the Supreme Court started its Section II—the legal background section—with the following line: “Federal antitrust law is a central safeguard for the Nation’s free market structure.” I expect that attorneys and judges will quote this line for years. You can compare it to the Court’s quote from National Society of Professional Engineers (which was originally from Standard Oil v. FTC): “The heart of our national economy long has been faith in the value of competition.”

Here is another good line from the same paragraph of NC Dental: “The antitrust laws declare a considered and decisive prohibition by the Federal Government of cartels, price fixing and other combinations or practices that undermine the free market.” So Justice Kennedy—the Court’s libertarian?—sets a positive free-market foundation.

There is, of course, a tension between the free-market policies of the federal antitrust laws and federalism. That, in fact, is what the state-action immunity doctrine is all about. Under federalism, “in some spheres [the States] impose restrictions on occupations, confer exclusive or shared rights to dominate a market, or otherwise limit competition to achieve public objectives.” So the Court’s task is to demarcate the line between the obligations of federal antitrust law and the states’ rights to depart from this free-market policy.

You can read more about this tension between federal antitrust law and federalism in an article I wrote with Luke Wake for Competition. In that article, we argue that the Court should apply a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. That is, if a state or local government engages in commercial competition rather than regulation, it should not be able to invoke the state-action immunity shield; it must play by the same rules as other competitors. As an aside, you might notice the Court’s language in NC Dental distinguishing between regulation and market-participants. I certainly noticed it.

In resolving the tension between federalism and federal antitrust law, the Court—as it did recently in Phoebe Putney—points out that state-action immunity, like other antitrust exemptions, is disfavored.

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