Antitrust Regulation and the Federal-State Balance: Restoring the Original Design


The U.S. Constitution divides authority over commerce between states and the national government. Passed in 1890, the Sherman Act (“the Act”) reflects this allocation of power, reaching only those harmful agreements that are “in restraint of… commerce among the several States.” This Article contends that the Supreme Court erred when it radically altered the balance between state and national power over trade restraints in 1948, abruptly abandoning decades of Sherman Act precedent that had recognized exclusive state authority over most intrastate restraints. This revised construction of the Act contravened the statute’s apparent meaning, unduly expanded the reach of federal antitrust regulation, and undermined the regime of competitive federalism that had governed most intrastate restraints for more than five decades.

Drawing from its Commerce Clause jurisprudence of dual federalism, the Court initially employed the direct/indirect standard to allocate regulatory authority over intrastate restraints. Effects were direct if a restraint exercised market power to injure out-of-state consumers. The Sherman Act exerted Congress’s exclusive authority over such restraints, because state regulation might produce self-interested results contrary to the anti-favoritism principle that animated Commerce Clause jurisprudence. States retained exclusive authority over agreements producing indirect impacts on interstate commerce, and a regime of competitive federalism generated the rules governing such restraints. Because states internalized the full impact of such restraints, interjurisdictional competition likely tended to produce optimal legal rules.

Echoing Wickard v. Filburn, the Court jettisoned the direct/indirect standard in 1948, holding that the Act reaches restraints producing a “substantial effect” — even if harmless and indirect — on interstate commerce. This vast expansion of the Act undermined the regime of competitive federalism that had governed most intrastate restraints. This change also enabled application of the statute to local, state-approved restraints, empowering antitrust courts to supervise state regulatory processes, further undermining competitive federalism.

The Court has offered three rationales for rejecting the direct/indirect standard. First, the Court has claimed that Congress meant to reach restraints beyond the authority implied by pre-1890 dual federalism jurisprudence. Second, the Court has contended that the Act properly expands whenever the commerce power expands in other contexts. Third, the Court has treated the substantial effects test as a translation of the Act justified by a changed national economy. The Court has invoked the Act’s legislative history to bolster the first two contentions.

None of these rationales survives scrutiny. First, the phrase “restraint of… commerce among the several States” was apparently a term of art drawn from pre-1890 Commerce Clause jurisprudence. That case law employed “restraint” of interstate commerce as a synonym for state “regulation” of commerce deemed invalid because it directly burdened interstate commerce. Given the prior construction canon, Congress’s invocation of “restraint of… commerce” suggests that the Act should condemn only those private agreements that “directly burden” interstate commerce. The Court read the Act exactly this way in the1890s, repeatedly holding that intrastate or interstate agreements only restrained interstate commerce if they imposed direct burdens by producing supracompetitive prices for interstate transactions. These near-contemporaneous readings, themselves probative of original meaning, avoided constitutional difficulties that would have resulted from application of the Act to restraints causing no interstate harm.

Second, assertions that Congress chose to exercise whatever power future Courts might grant are speculation. Congress has declined to exercise its entire commerce power when enacting three different post-1890 antitrust statutes. Moreover, engrafting the substantial effects test onto the Sherman Act contravened the federal-state balance canon by supplanting traditional state prerogatives over intrastate restraints threatening no interstate harm.

Third, the substantial effects test is not a faithful translation of the Sherman Act in light of new facts. No court or scholar has identified changed circumstances that justify such a translation. Neither integration of the national economy nor increased scale of enterprises suggests that intrastate restraints generally produce interstate harm or that states are incapable of regulating them.

The legislative history bolsters this textual analysis. Several Senators endorsed pre-1890 dual federalism jurisprudence. The Senate Judiciary Committee rewrote Sherman’s bill, employing the term “restraint of commerce” to narrow its reach. The House passed the Senate bill verbatim, after its Judiciary Committee also embraced dual federalism. No member of Congress suggested that the Act would expand if the Court subsequently enlarged the scope of the commerce power.

The conclusion that the Court erred in 1948 does not itself justify return to the pre-1948 allocation of authority over antitrust matters. While stare decisis is weaker in the antitrust context, mere legal error does not suffice to upset longstanding precedent. If, however, the Court attributes the 1948 revision and continued expansion of the Act to changed economic circumstances — such as increased integration of the national economy — stare decisis should yield to post-1948 developments in the theory of competitive federalism. These developments confirmed that states possess appropriate incentives to generate impartial rules with respect to restraints that produce no interstate harm.

Reviving the direct/indirect standard would reboot competitive federalism in antitrust. The resulting competition between state “laboratories of democracy” would generate various substantive and institutional solutions to antitrust problems, as states vie for producers and consumers by offering rival packages of antitrust doctrine and enforcement institutions. Restoring the pre-1948 regime would also radically shrink the category of state-approved restraints potentially subject to the Act. Cases involving such restraints that did reach the Court would look quite different from those that have informed the Court’s treatment of these restraints. Instead of state regulation of local billboards and the like, such cases would involve restraints imposing substantial harm on out-of-state consumers. This new framing could force the current Court, which has less faith in regulation than its predecessors, to reconsider its approach to state-approved restraints.