On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the North Carolina dental board’s efforts to regulate the market for teeth-whitening services. Why, you may ask, is the nation’s highest court concerning itself with this kind of case? The answer, argues Noah Feldman, is states’ rights. The lawyers representing the dental board argue that this is a case about protecting the states from regulatory overreach by the Federal Trade Commission.
The basic issue before the Court is as follows: The North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners was created by the state, but the state does not oversee its operations. Most of the board members are selected by the state’s dentists. The board decided to prohibit anyone other than a dentist from performing teeth-whitening procedures—an obvious effort to a serve the financial interests of North Carolina dentists. The FTC sanctioned the dental board for anticompetitive practices, and a federal court upheld the FTC decision. But the dental board argues that it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the FTC because it is a state organization—and state organizations are generally exempt from federal antitrust regulation. The Supreme Court must now decide whether the board—which, while created by the state, is not under the direct supervision of the state—falls under the protective shield of “state action immunity” from FTC regulation. (For more details on the case, check out the SCOTUSblog preview here.)
At oral arguments on Tuesday, the lawyer representing the board hit his big theme right from the start. “[R]espect for federalism,” he told the justices, “requires deference to a State’s sovereign choices concerning how to structure and manage its own regulatory agencies.” And he kept returning to his federalism theme: “[F]undamentally, it is a question for the State to determine whether it wants to bear that risk”—i.e., of granting substantial autonomy to a regulatory board staffed by obviously self-interested actors. “The State has decided that the benefits of having market participants make decisions and not having their every—each and every decision actively second-guessed by a higher level of bureaucracy is worth it.”
We’ll have to wait and see whether these kinds of federalism arguments will win over the Court. Justices Alito and Scalia were particularly aggressive in questioning the federal government lawyer about how closely the FTC could delve into the workings of state organizations when determining whether “state action immunity” applied to that organization. The lawyer for the dental board appeared to be subject to more frequent and more skeptical questioning than the government lawyer—a possible indication that the Court is leaning toward upholding the FTC ruling.