Rational Basis With Economic Bite
- Author(s): , Douglas Ginsburg
- Date Posted: 2014
- Law & Economics #: 14-65
- Availability: Full text (most recent) on SSRN
In The Classical Liberal Constitution, Richard Epstein argues that the normative theory of classical liberalism underlies the Constitution and gives life to its guarantees; many constitutional guarantees have been undermined, however, by unduly deferential judicial review that is satisfied if there is a “rational basis,” real or hypothetical, for a law. Yet even the rational basis standard asks whether a law serves a legitimate government purpose, which entails normative assumptions about the ends a government may permissibly pursue. Before the New Deal, the Supreme Court applied a form of rationality review that was deferential but not toothless because the Court had a stronger sense of the proper scope of the police power. The contemporary Court applies more searching “rational basis with bite” but only where it thinks impermissible purposes are at play, particularly where legislation appears to target a vulnerable group. Rational basis review, therefore, is variable depending upon the Court’s normative frame.
Recently, three circuit courts applying rational basis review have held licensing laws that restrict entry into a field of economic activity are unconstitutional. These circuits have concluded that a state’s purpose to protect an interest group from economic competition is illegitimate — and have struck down licensing regulations that served no other purpose. This application of “rational basis with bite” to protect economic rights suggests another normative shift, one involving public disapproval of rent-seeking and special-interest legislation. In the nearly 60 years since the Court adopted its stance of extreme deference to economic legislation in Lee Optical, a deregulation movement has focused attention on the costs of excessive regulation and public choice theory has undermined the confidence expressed by the Court in Carolene Products that democratic political processes will protect the public from undesirable legislation. The occupational licensing laws invalidated in the circuit cases are precisely the sort of special-interest legislation that the political process is unlikely to screen out. Thus, even the modern concern with “clearing the channels of political change” suggests that heightened judicial scrutiny is warranted. Epstein connects that concern with the Madisonian focus on the problem of faction. His discussion suggests other types of economic legislation should be subject to judicial review using the “rational basis with bite” standard.