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Williamson v. Lee Optical

"the Day Is Gone . . . "

Fourteen years later, in Williamson v. Lee Optical, Douglas delivered the opinion for a once again unanimous Court of eight judges. (Justice John Marshall Harlan II, recently sworn in, took no part in the proceedings.) The Court reversed in part and affirmed in part, but none of its rulings favored Lee Optical or the Guild of Prescription Opticians: rather, the Court's ruling reversed those parts of the district court judgment which overturned Oklahoma law, and affirmed the lower court's ruling that the law prohibiting solicitation of the sale of lenses was constitutional. As he had earlier done in Olsen, Douglas made it clear that the Court was not interested in evaluating the state law from the standpoint of logic, reason, or common sense: "The Oklahoma law," he wrote, "may exact a needless, wasteful requirement in many cases." Regardless of this distinct possibility, however, "it is for the legislature, not the courts, to balance the advantages and disadvantages of the new requirement." Furthermore, "the present law does not require a new examination of the eyes every time the frames are changed or the lenses duplicated. For if the old prescription is on file with the opticians, he can go ahead and make the new fitting or duplicate the lenses." But again, "the law need not be in every respect logically consistent with its aims to be constitutional. It is enough that there is an evil at hand for correction, and that it might be thought that the particular legislative measure was a rational way to correct it."

What was at question, instead, was due process, and here too Justice Douglas made quick work of the opticians' case: in perhaps the most famous sentence of his ruling in this case, Douglas announced that

The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business or industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.

As for the specific due process questions at issue in Williamson, Douglas wrote that these were "answered in principle" by Roschen v. Ward (1929), in which the Court upheld a New York law preventing the sale of eyeglasses at a retail outlet without the supervision of a licensed physician or optometrist. The Court at that time had placed its confidence in professionals to uphold the intent of the law: " . . . wherever the requirements of the Act stop, there can be no doubt that the presence and superintendence of the specialist tend to diminish an evil."

Thus the Court dealt with the first portion of the Oklahoma law in question, the part of Section 2 that prevented persons other than licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists from fitting, duplicating, or replacing lenses. Douglas then proceeded to examine the various other claims at issue. With regard to the apparent inequity in the state's exempting retailers of ready-to-wear glasses from its regulations, the Court left that decision up to the state: "The legislature may select one phase of one field and apply a remedy there, neglecting the others . . . " Besides, "The prohibition of the Equal Protection Clause goes no further than the invidious discrimination. We cannot say that that point has been reached here. For all this record shows, the ready-to-wear branch of this business may not loom large in Oklahoma . . . "

As for the prohibition against renting retail space for the purposes of doing eye examination, this was "on the same constitutional footing as the denial to corporations of the right to practice general dentistry." In both situations, the aim was "an attempt to free the profession . . . from all taints of commercialism." The Oklahoma law prohibiting business from soliciting the sale of frames, mountings, and "other optical appliances," the Court held, was likewise constitutional: "An eyeglass frame, considered in isolation, is only a piece of merchandise. But an eyeglass frame is not used in isolation . . . it is used with lenses, and lenses, pertaining as they do to the human eye, enter the field of health." Therefore "we see no constitutional reason why a State may not treat all who deal with the human eye as members of a profession who should use no merchandising methods for obtaining customers." Given this statement, the ruling in 185, regarding the prohibition of soliciting sale of lenses, etc., was obvious. Affirming in part and reversing in part, the Court upheld the constitutionality of all aspects of the Oklahoma law.

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