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Williamson v. Lee Optical

A Vision Problem In Oklahoma

Although it would ultimately involve lofty constitutional ideas, Williamson v. Lee Optical arose from a simple and practical set of needs concerning the sale of eyeglasses. Foremost among these, from the perspective of consumers, was the desire to have the fastest, easiest, and cheapest service in fitting a pair of glasses. Such service would likely come from an optician, which the Court would later define as "an artisan qualified to grind lenses, fill prescription, and fit frames." The services of such a practitioner would undoubtedly be cheaper than those of an ophthalmologist, "a duly licensed physician who specializes in the care of eyes"; or of an optometrist, a doctor who "examines eyes for refractive error, recognizes (but does not treat) diseases of the eye, and fills prescriptions for eyeglasses." Whereas an optician would have only the training necessary to carry out his or her fairly limited tasks, the optometrist or ophthalmologist would have the education of a medical doctor, making him or her more than qualified to fit a pair of glasses for a patient--and he or she would most likely charge accordingly.

The question revolved around the right of the state of Oklahoma to prohibit the sale of lenses fitted by an optician. The answer lay in Title 59 of the Oklahoma state laws, Section 2 of which stated in part:

It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation, company, or partnership not licensed under the provisions of Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 of Title 59, Oklahoma Statutes 1951, to fit, adjust, adapt, or to in any manner apply lenses, frames, prisms, or any other optical appliances to the face of a person . . .

These were only the opening words, but the point was clearly established: since Chapter 11 provided for the licensing of ophthalmologists, and Chapter 13 of optometrists, opticians were effectively kept out of the lens-fitting business in Oklahoma. To opticians, this exclusion seemed particularly unfair, given the existence of retail establishments selling ready-to-wear glasses. Similarly questionable, from the view of the opticians, were provisions making it illegal for them to advertise, or for anyone to rent retail space to any person "purporting to do eye examination or visual care."

Lee Optical filed a suit in district court, charging that these laws were unconstitutional. The three judges of the district court agreed on most counts. Specifically, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, they declared unconstitutional the provision in the Oklahoma statute making it unlawful for anyone who was not a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist to fit lenses, or to duplicate or replace lenses, except under the written authority of an ophthalmologist or optometrist licensed in Oklahoma. While it was within the power of a state to regulate something as vital as eye examination, the district court held, the requirement in question was not "reasonably and rationally related to the health and welfare of the people." The district court similarly declared unconstitutional most other provisions in the Oklahoma statute, including the prohibition against advertising, with the exception of a portion of Section 3 which made it unlawful to "solicit the sale of spectacles, eye glasses, lenses, frames," etc.

The state of Oklahoma, in the person of Attorney General Mac Q. Williamson, appealed. By the time it came before the Supreme Court, the case had been split into two parts: Williamson v. Lee Optical, designated as No. 184 by the Court, in which Oklahoma challenged the lower court's ruling of its laws as unconstitutional; and the case of Lee Optical v. Williamson (No. 185), a subordinate legal action challenging the lower court's declaration that the prohibition against soliciting the sale of eyeglasses was indeed constitutional. Along the way to the Supreme Court, both sides attracted national attention from professional associations relating to eye care, and from states. While Dick H. Woods argued for Lee Optical in both 184 and 185, by special leave of the Court, Herbert A. Bergson argued for the Guild of Prescription Opticians as amici curiae in 184. Similarly, whereas Oklahoma's assistant attorney general, James C. Harkin, represented his state as appellant in 184 and appellee in 185, Philip Perlman argued for the American Optometric Association as amicus curiae. Joining Oklahoma and the Optometric Association in urging reversal in 184 and affirmation in 185 were the states of Arkansas, California, and Mississippi.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Williamson v. Lee Optical - Significance, A Vision Problem In Oklahoma, Substantive Due Process: From Slaughterhouse To Optician's Shop