Landmark Supreme Court Case: Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955)
Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955) is the 103rd landmark Supreme Court case, 36th in the Economics module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955)
The optician plaintiff brought suit to have a 1953 Oklahoma law declared unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from enforcing it. The law at issue (59 Okla. Stat. Ann. §§ 941–947, Okla. Laws 1953, c. 13, §§ 2–8) contained provisions making it unlawful for any person not a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist to fit lenses to a face or to duplicate or replace into frames lenses or other optical appliances, except upon written prescriptive authority of an Oklahoma licensed ophthalmologist or optometrist. The law required every individual seeking to have eyeglasses made, repaired, or refitted to obtain a prescription.
The law had a practical negative effect on unlicensed opticians, but it exempted sellers of ready-to-wear eyeglasses. It was thus challenged on equal protection grounds as well as on due process grounds for arbitrary interference with an optician’s right to do business.The District Court ruled that portions of §§ 2, 3, and 4 of the Act violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and that portions of § 3 of the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Williamson Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the Oklahoma law violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: No. The Oklahoma law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.
8-0 holding state laws regulating business are subject to only rational basis review, and the Court need not contemplate all possible reasons for legislation. While the law may have been “needless” and “wasteful,” it was the duty of the legislature, not the courts, “to balance the advantages and disadvantages of the new requirement.” That is, Courts should not be able to invalidate state economic regulations on the grounds that they disagree with the theories supporting them.
Even if the state law imposes burdens or waste, the legislature has the sole authority over weighing its benefits against its costs. In sum, the opticians could not prove that the law had no rational relationship to legitimate state objectives.
Next Economics Case: Ferguson v. Skrupa (1963)
Previous Economics Case: Berman v. Parker (1954)
Next Case: Yates v. United States (1957)