Friday, May 20, 2011

Happy Birthday Standard Oil v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)

Probably a Better than Average Investment at the Time

Didn't Live to 100, But His Greatest Decision Did

Sunday May 15 was the 100th birthday of Standard Oil v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911). Authored by Chief Justice Edward D. White, pictured above, Standard Oil is the most important antitrust decision ever, having articulated certain fundamental principles that still animate antitrust law. Here are a few examples of Standard Oil's enduring principles, followed by some additional thoughts.

1. Standard Oil confirmed what was at least implicit in several prior decisions, namely, that the Sherman Act does not ban all contracts that "restrain trade" in the ordinary sense of that phrase. Instead, the Court said, the statute only bans agreements that restrain trade "unduly" by producing "monopoly or its consequences." To determine whether a contract produces such consequences, Standard Oil said, courts should employ "reason." Thus was born the Sherman Act's "Rule of Reason." Some, including Justice Harlan in dissent, argued that this Rule of Reason was a departure from prior case law which had purportedly banned all restraints of trade. However, as Chief Justice White explained for the Court, prior decisions had banned only "direct" restraints, leaving so-called "indirect" restraints entirely unscathed. See e.g. United States v. Joint Traffic Ass'n, 171 U.S. 505 (1898). Moreover, White continued, courts had employed "reason" to distinguish "direct" from "indirect" restraints, treating as "direct" only those restraints that produced monopoly or its consequences. Thus, he (properly) concluded, the "direct/indirect" test and the "Rule of Reason" would, if properly applied, would reach identical results. William Howard Taft, then President of the United States, agreed with the Court's assessment of precedent and expressed that agreement in a December 2011 message to Congress.

2. After examining both English and American sources bearing upon the meaning of the term "restraint of trade," the Court identified three possible "consequences of monopoly," the presence of which would require condemnation of a restraint because it restrained trade "unduly," namely output reduction, price increases, and reductions in quality. The mere fact that an agreement restricted the freedom of action of the parties to it did not suffice to render it a "restraint of trade" within the meaning of the statute. Courts still adhere to this principle today, requiring a showing or inference of tangible economic harm before condemning a restraint. For instance, in Continental T.V. v. G.T.E. Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36, 53 n. 21 (1977), the Court pointed out that all contracts restrain trade, and concluded that courts should only consider the objective economic effects of agreements when conducting Rule of Reason analysis. Thus, Standard Oil rejects assertions that courts should consider non-economic values, such as the autonomy of traders, when given content to the Sherman Act.

3. Any broader reading of the statute, e.g., one that applied "its prohibitions to any case within its literal language" would contravene the Constitution's protection for liberty of contract or, in the Court's words "be destructive of all right to contract or agree or combine in any respect whatever as to subjects embraced in interstate trade or commerce." Thus, instead of reading the statute broadly so as to ban each and every agreement that reduced competition in one way or another, the Court held that reasonable restraints of trade were protected by liberty of contract and thus beyond the reach of the statute, even if they otherwise restrained interstate commerce. Protection of such restraints, the Court said, was the best way to ensure a well-functioning competitive order.

"[T]he omission [from the Sherman Act] of any direct prohibition against monopoly in the concrete, indicates a consciousness that the freedom of the individual right to contract, when not unduly or improperly exercised, was the most efficient means for the prevention of monopoly, since the operation of the centrifugal and centripetal forces resulting from the right to freely contract was the means by which monopoly would be inevitably prevented if no extraneous or sovereign power imposed it and no right to make unlawful contracts having a monopolistic tendency were permitted. In other words, that freedom to contract was the essence of freedom from undue restraint on the right to contract."

The Supreme Court reiterated this insight, albeit without mentioning liberty of contract, nearly six decades later, citing Standard Oil for the proposition that Congress could not have meant to ban all private contract law because that body of law "establishes the enforceability of commercial agreements and enables competitive markets -- indeed, a competitive economy -- to function effectively." See National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679 (1978).

4. As a corollary to the ban on "undue" restraints, Standard Oil's Rule of Reason implied a safe harbor for "normal," "usual," or "ordinary" agreements. Indeed, the Court condemned the Standard Oil trust precisely because its growth, the Court said, was "not as a result of normal methods of industrial development[.]" Or, as the Court put it in the American Tobacco Co. v. United States, 221 U.S. 106 (1911), decided two weeks later: "[Standard Oil held] that the statute did not forbid or restrain the power to make normal and usual contracts to further trade by resorting to all normal methods, whether by agreement or otherwise, to accomplish such purpose." American Tobacco, it should be noted, reaffirmed Standard Oil's promulgation of the Rule of Reason and held that a similar analysis, including the distinction between undue and normal/usual/ordinary restraints, should control courts' determination whether a defendant has "monopolized" interstate commerce contrary to Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Subsequent decisions confirmed that a contract or other practice was "normal" or "ordinary" and thus beyond the scope of Congress's power to regulate under the Sherman Act or Clayton Act if it was the type of practice a firm would adopt without regard to the practice's propensity to obtain or maintain market power. See FTC v. Sinclair Oil, 261 U.S. 463 (1923) (holding that the Clayton Act did not empower the Commission “to interfere with ordinary business methods); FTC v. Gratz, 253 U.S. 421 (1920) (same). Courts still employ this approach under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, refusing to condemn conduct that reduces a firm's costs, even if such conduct should maintain or create a monopoly.

5. Standard Oil and its Rule of Reason require a "common law," dynamic approach to the Sherman Act. By its nature, the decision's "Rule of Reason," with its focus on the consequences produced by a challenged restraint, precludes any reading of the statute that would freeze in place a list of restraints that are prohibited or, for that matter, list of restraints that are not prohibited. Instead, the Court held that the statute provides courts with the flexibility to treat particular restraints differently over time, depending upon judges' assessment of the economic consequences of such restraints. Such assessments can change as economic conditions change or as evolving economic theory sheds new light on the impact of particular restraints, leading courts to "translate" the principles animating the Rule of Reason in light of new information. (See pp. 89-92 of this article for additional articulation of this point.) Thus, the Standard Oil Court expressly noted that restraints or other practices that appear harmful at one point in time can, decades or century later appear beneficial or vice versa, thereby justifying different legal treatment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly endorsed this approach. In 1988, for instance, the Court cited Standard Oil for the proposition that "[t]he Sherman Act adopted the term "restraint of trade" along with its dynamic potential. It invokes the common law itself, and not merely the static content that the common law had assigned to the term in 1890." See Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics, 485 U.S. 717 (1988). This "dynamic potential," the Court said, included the ability to overrule previous decisions banning particular restraints when advances in economic theory undermined the economic premises of such earlier decisions. See also Continental T.V. v. G.T.E. Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36 (1977) (discarding per se rule against non-price vertical restraints based upon changed economic understanding of such agreements). This dynamic approach has served antitrust law well, as it has allowed courts the flexibility to adjust legal doctrine in response to changed conditions and insights, thereby minimizing the need for Congress to amend the Sherman Act in response to such changes.

Readers interested in further development of these themes may want to consult pp. 83-92 of this article.

Some additional observations:

First, the Standard Oil opinion was extremely controversial at the time as was the American Tobacco decision. Justice Harlan issued a lengthy and vehement dissent, in which he accused his brethren of judicial activism, ignoring precedent and reaching a result unduly favorable to trusts. Harlan even claimed that the Court's purported activism would undermine the public's faith in a neutral judiciary. Harlan's dissent helped fuel similar criticism by commentators and political partisans off the Court. Many criticized President Taft, who had appointed Chief Justice White, and these criticisms no doubt helped motivate Taft's lengthy message to Congress defending the decision mentioned above. Though highly controversial at the time, the Supreme Court unanimously invoked and applied the Rule of Reason just seven years later in Chicago Bd. of Trade v. United States, 246 U.S. 243 (1918), and the stands to this day.

Second, some criticism of Standard Oil reflected a fear that Chief Justice White's version of the Rule of Reason would empower courts to sustain price fixing agreements that set reasonable prices, contrary to what some saw as the holdings of prior decisions. Indeed, dissenting in United States v. Trans Missouri Freight Association, 166 U.S. 290 (1897) , then Associate Justice White, in an opinion joined by Justices Field, Gray and Shiras, argued that a ban on horizontal agreements setting reasonable prices would violate firms' liberty of contract, an argument the Court rejected, at least in the context of railroad corporations that had received special privileges from states where they operated, in both Trans-Missouri Freight and United States v. Joint Traffic Ass'n, 171 U.S. 505 (1898). (In Addyston Pipe and Steel Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 211 (1899), by contrast, the Court first sustained the lower court's finding that the cartel set unreasonable prices before (unanimously) holding that the price fixing in question was a direct restraint of interstate commerce in violation of the Sherman Act.) However, Standard Oil does not address one way or the other whether in fact horizontal agreements setting reasonable prices would survive scrutiny under the Rule of Reason. Thus, future decisions condemning such price fixing without regard to the reasonableness of the price set did not contravene Standard Oil. See e.g. United States v. Trenton Potteries, 273 U.S. 392 (1927) (condemning agreement between firms with 80 percent share of the relevant market without regard to reasonableness of the price set).

Third, principles announced in Standard Oil apply equally to Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act, as the Court confirmed in the American Tobacco mentioned earlier in this post. Section 1, of course, applies to "concerted action," that is, an agreement between two or more parties. Section 2, by contrast, applies only to conduct that is "unilateral." At the same time, the modern Rule of Reason applied under Section 1 differs from that applied under Section 2 in two ways. First, courts analyzing concerted action under Section 1 purportedly "balance" any harms that a restraint produces against any benefits, in an effort to determine which impact predominates. (See pp. 98-113 of this article for a general discussion of this analysis and some of the issues that arise; see also this comprehensive article about how modern courts conduct rule of reason analysis.). By contrast, courts analyzed challenged conduct under Section 2 conduct no such balancing. Thus, in the Section 2 context, proof that challenged conduct produces significant benefits that cannot be achieved in some other way ends the case, without regard to whether such conduct outweighs any purported harms. Second, when balancing harms versus benefits under Section 1, courts purport to ascertain whether the restraint increases or decreases prices paid by consumers, thus implementing a "purchaser welfare standard." Under Section 2, by contrast, courts treat the prices paid by purchasers as beside the point. Thus, if conduct is "normal" or "usual" because it produces benefits independent (See pp. 673-86 and 708-15 of this article for a demonstration that courts implementing Section 2 have never focused on the welfare of purchasers but have instead articulated doctrine that seeks to ban only that conduct that reduces overall economic welfare). At some point, it seems, courts will have to reconcile these contradictions.