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More Judicial Restraint

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I should say off the top that I don’t know enough about antitrust to know about the economic wisdom of the latest 5-4 pro-business decision by the Roberts Court. I’ll even say that some Chicago School doctrine might have had a salutary effect at the margins of antitrust law; it certainly seems bizarre to me, for example, that the government would break up a merger between the third and eighth biggest shoe companies in the country (although whether the Court should override such an executive decision is another question.) Intuitively, it doesn’t seem right that price floors could be good for the consumers, but who knows; I haven’t seen the data.

Still, this decision is obviously very problematic whether or not the economic theory underlying it is correct. Breyer explains it well, but there is a very strong presumption of stare decisis in statutory cases, and this case is an excellent illustration of why. The Court created a bright-line, easily applied rule in 1911. If Congress thought that the Court had distorted its intent it’s had roughly 100 years to modify the statute and correct the Court. Moreover, the affected interests here are not (to put it mildly) the kind of disempowered minorities who might lack fair access to the political process. It doesn’t make the rule clearer — which might justify a departure from stare decisis — but in fact makes it less clear and harder to apply.

So whether or not one agrees with the Court on the economics, it has no business imposing its theory in the face of a long-enduring statutory precedent.

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