Federalism, Free Competition and Sherman Act Preemption of State Restraints


The Sherman Act establishes free competition as the rule governing interstate trade. Banning private restraints cannot ensure that competitive markets allocate the nation’s resources. State laws can pose identical threats to free markets, posing an obstacle to achieving Congress’s goal to protect free competition.

The Sherman Act would thus override anticompetitive state laws under ordinary preemption standards. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court rejected such preemption in Parker v. Brown, creating the “state action doctrine.” Parker and its progeny hold that state-imposed restraints are immune from Sherman Act preemption, even if they impose significant harm on out-of-state consumers. Parker’s progeny also immunizes “hybrid” restraints—private agreements that states encourage or supervise.

Both the Supreme Court and numerous scholars have invoked federalism and state sovereignty to justify Parker’s state action doctrine. Some suggest that preemption would violate the Constitution. Others contend that these values manifest themselves as canons of construction that illuminate the statute’s original meaning. According to these scholars, the Act should not intrude upon traditional state prerogatives unless Congress plainly intended this result.

This article demonstrates that federalism and state sovereignty do not rebut the strong case for Sherman Act preemption of state-created restraints. Such preemption would be a garden-variety exercise of Congress’s commerce power. Moreover, Sherman Act preemption would not interfere with any constitutionally recognized attribute of state sovereignty.

Turning to canons of construction, the article concludes that such preemption is so plainly constitutional that the avoidance canon is inapposite. The federal-state balance and anti-preemption canons do protect traditional state regulatory spheres from inadvertent national intrusion. Neither supports Parker itself, which sustained a regime that directly burdened interstate commerce and injured out-of-state consumers. Application of these canons instead reveals that the Court’s invocation of federalism is selective at best. Indeed, the Court’s rejection of the federal-state balance canon and resulting application of the Act to local private restraints that produce no interstate harm created the very conflict between the Sherman Act and local regulation that the state action doctrine purports to resolve.

Consistent application of federalism principles bolsters the case for preemption, albeit within a much smaller sphere than the Sherman Act currently operates. Such considerations counsel retraction of the scope of the Act and concomitant allocation to states of exclusive authority over restraints that produce only intrastate harm. The resulting allocation of authority over trade restraints would nearly eliminate conflicts between local regulation and the Sherman Act and restore the uniform rule of free competition that best replicates the regulatory framework the 1890 Congress anticipated. Proponents of Parker who see states as laboratories for economic experimentation should welcome such reform, which would ironically result in less preemption of state-created restraints and strengthen the institution of competitive federalism.